TEFL and writers


One of the great unwritten English PhD theses would study the effects on writers of their time as teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Joyce in Trieste and Zurich, Isherwood and Auden in Berlin, Burgess in Malaysia, they are just a few but the list is long and continuing. Some years ago I walked in on one of Tim Parks' classes in Verona, I remember Colm Toibin as having had an EFL spell, and have taught EFL around the world myself.

It came to mind today as I erased a page of dialogue that was dead. The language was precise but the sentences were too long, strung together with subjunctives and subordinate clauses. EFL teaching is great for a writer in one way, in that it means building up real expertise in the structure of language. I found an initial downside was in the production of language that was impeccable grammatically but dull - those clauses and subjunctives being most at fault.

I can see Joyce's verbal stream for Molly Bloom as his taking flight from years of contriction as an EFL teacher. How great to get a character be so earthy, so eloquent, so grammatically wrong while getting to say so much (a tiring side of EFL teaching is a lack of such verbal stream and meaning, learners aiming for perfection above sense). Burgess got lost in the structure of language, though Clockwork Orange can be seen as his own rebellion against language having to be a certain way.

A TEFL time may yet return as I look to earn more money, to buy myself some writing time - but it's a hard thing to sustain for long. It means letting your own voice stultify and die a little.

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