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Peace helps me with my English lessons

Settembre 2017
La qualità di una conversazione non dipende tanto dal tipo di pronuncia, quanto dai contenuti e dal messaggio che riesce a trasmetterci: un insegnante sperimenta un nuovo approccio con i suoi studenti, invitando in classe un ospite inusuale...

di Geoffrey Howe

Peace and Geoffrey Howe. Photo by Edoardo Monza, taken in Erba where Peace now lives
Peace and Geoffrey Howe. Photo by Edoardo Monza, taken in Erba where Peace now lives

I am an English teacher and the owner of a small language school in the Milan area. Most of my students are small groups of B1 - B2 level doing in-company courses based on conversation. Good conversation, of course, is about having something worth talking about.

peace

One day, out of pure curiosity, I started talking to one of the many African beggars that now walk the streets of most Italian cities. I wanted to compare his English to my own. And yes, certainly, I had to concentrate at times to understand him. But then again, I sometimes have to concentrate just as hard to understand the Scots, the Irish, or the Welsh. I asked the beggar his name. “Peace,” he told me.  
Peace told me that English is the language of business, education and national communication in Nigeria. As each tribe has its own language, this is a necessity. It is also a legacy of the British colonisation of his country. “You are responsible!” he said, with one of those lovely African smiles. I reciprocated, gave him a few coins, and left.

CAP IN HAND

And I thought, why not take Peace to one of my conversation lessons? But could I do that?  A beggar? In a company environment with managers and accountants? All with shirts, ties and polished shoes on?  
Fantasy, I thought. Or was it? Over the following days the idea would not leave my mind. Perhaps this was because I knew that if I wanted to, I could.
But I’d have to get to know something about Peace first. Would he be willing and capable of doing such a thing? So, some days later  I went back to where I had found him. He was still there, cap in hand. We had another chat. He told me that he had come to Italy about eighteen months ago, across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, and that he generally earned five, ten, or fifteen euros a day from begging.

TEST THE GROUND

I thought about the company where I might take him. Did I dare? What if the boss were there that day? How would the students react? I decided to test the ground by taking Yoko, a Japanese colleague who speaks quite good English, to the company first. And I did, just as I had my brother and my sister before her. Yoko came to the next lesson and we talked about Buddhism, reincarnation and other things. She was a great success.

PREJUDICE

But I was still dubious about taking Peace. I spoke to Jolanda, one of the students in that company. “Should I inform Mr. Rossi,  the boss, that I want to bring a Nigerian beggar to the company English lesson?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, quite immediately. “That would be prejudice. You didn’t ask for permission to bring your brother, your sister, or Yoko, did you?”
I will always be very grateful to Jolanda for that. She had thrown down the gauntlet. Now I had no choice. I absolutely had to pick it up.   

PEOPLE TRAFFICKERS

I went back to the front of the baker’s shop where Peace always stands for those cents still in the hands of the customers as they come out. I told him about my idea. We went to a bar to discuss it. Talking to him, I became confident that my idea was feasible. He seemed a warm, together guy. And he certainly had a story to tell. 

tough experiences

So the following week I took him to the lesson. He told the students about the desperate situation in Nigeria, about his trip across the Sahara desert and into Libya, about how the people traffickers regularly raped the women. He spoke about the 500 dollars that he had paid to cross the Mediterranean and his experiences with the Italian coastguard. And he told us about the people who had died.

BEST LESSON

One thing you can’t help noticing about Peace is his necklace, with a large, wooden cross dangling from it. “Jesus is always with me,” he said.
And in the lesson he asked us if we were believers. “I don’t know. I am not sure,” stammered the not quite agnostic Monica. She paused, before adding: “But I think my mother is in heaven.”
“That was the best lesson we have ever had,” said Jolanda, at the end.
And since then, Peace has helped me with other lessons too. So the next time you see an African beggar, why not stop and have a chat? I’m sure you’ll learn something.


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Explains

Quite good; quite immediately; the not quite agnostic Monica.  La parola quite è molto inglese e molto problematica. Il senso può cambiare da ‘abbastanza’ a ‘completamente’, a seconda dell’aggettivo con cui è usata, o, nel parlato, a seconda dell’enfasi della pronuncia. Con good di solito - ed anche in questo caso - vuole dire ‘abbastanza’: il livello di Yoko, essendo quite good, è più o meno B2 ("abbastanza buono"). Usata invece con aggettivi che hanno un senso superlativo, come fantastic, wonderful, incredible, mad, crazy, e, in questo caso con immediately - vuole dire ‘assolutamente’: (‘quite immediately’ vuole dire letteralmente ‘assolutamente subito’). Usata in senso negativo significa sempre ‘non completamente’: the not quite agnostic Monica vuol dire ‘la non del tutto agnostica Monica’.