Friday, October 29, 2004

Professorial conversation

On Thursdays after work a few of the teachers always meet at a local curry shop and have dinner together. We never stay long, just long enough to eat and walk to the station together. We use the time to let off steam a bit. We get sarcastic about our jobs.

Yesterday we were joined by a Japanese professor. He is a sweet and rather vague man in his fifties, who likes to join us occasionally. Usually he doesn't speak much. He just sits there eating and smiling and apparently enjoying our conversations. I sometimes feel a little annoyed when he joins us, because he inevitably makes me miss my train. He's a very slow eater, and it seems rude to suddenly leave him while he's still chewing. But I feel guilty about feeling annoyed, because so few of the Japanese professors actually want to socialize with us, and it's nice that he does. So I make an effort to relax and not start gritting my teeth when he takes twenty minutes to decide which curry to order.

Yesterday I tried to include him a little more. He teaches English, I thought, and maybe he was feeling a bit left out as the three others of us were sending insults and jokes and cynical comments flying around the table. There was a TV in the restaurant, and the news was on, showing a round-up of the day's tragedies. They showed the little boy being rescued (again - I think I've seen that bit of video several hundred times now). I looked at the professor and said,

"Wasn't that an amazing story, about the little boy?"

He looked at me. "Pardon?" he asked.

"That little boy," I said. "Wasn't it amazing how they got him out alive like that?"

He shook his head sadly. "I think they'll cut his head off," he said.

A quick mental scan located the story he thought I was talking about. I tossed up whether or not to correct him, decided it wasn't important, and nodded politely.

"They let the others go last time," he said, "But I don't think they will this time. It's terrible."

"Yes, terrible," I said. "There is a lot of bad news these days."

"Oh, yes!" he replied, and thought for a bit. "But did you see that little boy got rescued?"

"Yes, I did," I said.

He chewed slowly for a while, then looked up.

"Are you a teacher at the university?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"What do you teach?"


"Really? So do I!" he replied, amazed.

The American teacher asked him, "What kind of class do you teach?"

He looked confused. "Pardon?"

"Er... Do you teach reading? Speaking? Writing? Listening? Grammar?"

"Oh, I teach a TOEFL course."


"TOEFL. I don't think the TOEIC is so useful. I don't know why so many universities teach TOEIC. TOEFL is what the students need."

"What's the difference, anyway?" asked the teacher.

"Um... you need TOEFL to get into an American university."

"Do you think our students want to get into American universities?"


Silence for a while.

"So... what does it mean, anyway? TOEFL, I mean. What do the letters stand for?" asked the British teacher.

"Stand for?" asked the professor.

"Yes, you know, what do the letters mean?"

"Mean? It's the TOEFL."

He produced a pen and started to write on a napkin. "T O F E L."

"Isn't it T - O - E - F - L?" I asked.

"Really?" said the professor, staring at the napkin.

"Teaching... no, Testing Of English As a Foreign Language," said the American teacher.

"Really?" said the professor, and wrote it down. "Oh, yes, look!"

"Well, it's something like that, anyway," said the teacher. "Maybe it's Testing of English for Foreign Learners. I don't really know."

The professor went silent, chewing and smiling vaguely and occasionally staring at the napkin.

After a while I asked him,

"How long have you been teaching the TOEFL course?"

He smiled sweetly. "Oh yes, the grammar is very difficult," he replied, "but I think it's good for the students."

"I see," I lied, and after a little pause decided to change the subject.

"Is your curry good?" I asked.

"Yes, it's very spicy," he said. "I like Indian food. When I was visiting the Grand Canyon in America I met some Indian people. It was very interesting."

"Oh. Um... I think..." I said.

"American Indians?" interrupted the American teacher.

"Yes!" said the professor happily. "They are very interesting people! They like spicy food! And they have interesting costumes, with feathers!"

"No, no!" said the teacher. "This is not American Indian food! And they're not called Indians any more. They're Native Americans."

The professor looked puzzled, and called over the owner of the restaurant. "Where are you from?" he asked.

"Pakistan," said the owner.

The professor stared at his plate, frowning. "This is not Indian food?" he asked, and our Pakistani host launched into a long explanation of Indian and Pakistani history in strongly accented English that left the professor reeling with confusion.

I decided not to make an effort to include the professor in future conversations. By this stage I'd not only missed my usual train, I'd missed the one after that as well, and had also missed out on all the stress-relieving banter that usually accompanies dinner on Thursday evenings. It works much better when our friendly professor just sits there, eating dinner and smiling vaguely while the conversation flies around over his head. I think we're all happier that way.

But now you know why I was so tired last night. Keeping up your end of a conversation like that is hard work.


oscar said...

Is hard to believe that an English Professor doesn't know the meaning of TOEFL.Most of my Students know exactly the meaning of that. I'm 27 years old and I am studying really hard to become an English Professor.

I'd like to do my Master in USA. I am certain that if I do it there, I will improve my English and Knowledge of Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Oscar Garcia From Nayarit, Mexico.