This is a pen

Every year, thousands of fresh-faced, eager young things process from the universities of the English-speaking countries and decide to become — at least until they have scratched an itchy foot, paid off a college loan, started to miss Yorkshire pud, been murdered and dumped in a foreign ditch, or just got bored — international people. They will see the world, travel, meet the quaint little people who live in foreign countries with their endearing foreign ways, and in order to facilitate this great adventure, they will adopt the entirely noble and worthwhile occupation of blessing Johnny foreigner with the ability to speak the language of Shakespeare. 

Well, not the language of Shakespeare as such, which most of these eager young things would not understand, but certainly the language of Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.

They will become teachers of English as a foreign language. 

What an image this conjures, this title, ‘teacher of English as a foreign language’! 

Not English teacher, you dig, but teacher of English as a foreign language. No, a simple English teacher is very bland. An English teacher is rooted to home turf and to their childhood because they never really made it out of school. And they wear bad cardigans. And they teach English to a bunch of kids who already speak the language. How difficult is that? The most difficult part of that job is keeping yourself from slipping into catatonia.

Your actual teacher of English as a foreign language, however, confronts people who are yet unfamiliar with the arcana of the language. You are spreading enlightenment and civilisation, and, best of all, you are a teacher, a professional, without the inconvenience of actually having to learn any actual skill because you grew up speaking the bloody language. 

Pretty soon, the new teacher of English as a foreign language finds his or her way to the heart of the task: 

‘This is a pen.’

Getting the skills down may require whole minutes of determination and perseverance but eventually the teacher will be tossing ‘this is a pen’ at the students as if it were a four-word phrase.

‘This is a pen. Repeat after me: This is a pen.’

And what a career track EFL offers!

You start off teaching small kids at a language school in Osaka or Seoul or Ulan Bator, and you get to dress as Father Christmas one week a year and you say:

‘This is a pen.’

And you can progress to small groups of adults in the same sort of places where the language of Joyce and Shakespeare is sold like hamburgers at McDonald’s.

‘This is a pen,’ you tell them, and then coax the students to tell you the same. 

From there you might do a CELTA qualification in the hopes of teaching in a more serious environment, but it’s still all hamburgers and ‘this’ is still a pen.

‘This is a pen. Repeat after me: This is a pen.’

The next step is going back to university to get a masters degree in applied linguistics so that when you graduate you can work in a university where you say: 

‘This is a pen.’

From there, the sky’s the limit in terms of telling people that this is a pen. You can do a PhD, write books that will introduce people to pens in global master classes.

You can say in Japan, in Korea, in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Spain, in Peru — just about anywhere in the world — ‘This is a pen.’

You can say with pride in your professional expertise: ‘This is a pen.’

By this stage, by the time you have done your masters degree, you have joined the EFL Taliban, the EFL fundies. 

(You have no idea who you are, do you.)

These guys don’t talk to people who don’t have masters degrees in applied linguistics. They sneer at people who don’t have masters degrees in applied linguistics. They put up with, they tolerate, they suffer people who do not have degrees in applied linguistics.

You think MBAs are bad as a closed circle of mutual masturbators with a language all their own? Well, the EFL Taliban are a close second. They wank at least as much, they’re just as smug, but they don’t get paid nearly as much as MBAs and that last point demonstrates to them exactly how superior they are. 

And they do speak a language all of their own. By the time you have finished a degree in linguistics, you no longer have any idea what normal language is or how to speak to normal people.

You see the Taliban at parties in a huddle, out of contamination range of the hoi polloi. 

‘Meta-language,’ one will observe. They all smile sagely. 

‘Ah ha! Interlanguage or intralanguage?’ which brings the house down.

‘Oooh, look, it’s a preposition.’

‘I just spotted a participle.’

‘Oh, look everyone, it’s a pen!’

‘Repeat after me!’ they all cheer, ‘This is a pen! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!’

Yes, chaps, it is indeed a pen. It was a pen when you started on this career. It is still a pen now.

It is a pen today, it was a pen yesterday, it was a pen the day before that and last week and last month and last year, twenty years ago. For all the jargon, for all the studies in cognitive theories of language acquisition, after all the university courses, seminars, training sessions, and learned books dedicated to conveying the pen-ness of this, the pen is, at the end of the day, just a fucking pen. 

Suddenly it’s been a pen for thirty-odd years, and it’s no more or less a fucking pen than it was at the start; it’s no closer to being a penguin or an artichoke or a spaceship or a yeti or  a pterodactyl or a coelacanth or a human emotion or a sense of achievement or a laugh or a fucking life, it’s just a fucking fucking fucking fucking pen.

Yes, and those thirty-odd years have gone by — all your adult life — and you are stuck in the world’s dreariest, most banal, most facile career cul-de-sac, and you can’t get out because you’re too old, too stained with the ink of pens-that-are-this, and your boss is trying to get rid of you because he wants the school staffed by kids just out of their placentas because they are cheap and obedient and pre-cowed, or he wants to shift everything online with teachers from a call centre in the Philippines or Calcutta or fucking Pluto because they’ll work for less than the price of the tissues he wanks into when monitoring their classes.

It’s going to be a pen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year; it’s going to be a pen when it’s used to write your fucking death certificate. 

So fucking repeat and get it into your fucking head: ‘This is not a life.’

Any questions?

It was a pen

About chrispagefiction

Author of the novels Another Perfect Day in ****ing Paradise, Sanctioned, Weed, King of the Undies World, The Underpants Tree, and the story collection Un-Tall Tales. Editor, freelance writer, occasional cartoonist, graphic designer, and all that stuff. At heart he is a London person, but the rest of his body is in long-term exile in Osaka, Japan.
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