Beginner English | UCT English Language Centre

Every Monday morning I have the honour of greeting our new students after they have done their placement tests and taking them on a tour of our campus.

The groups of students I meet are generally a mix of levels and countries and they get the gist of what I am saying on the tour. Obviously, the lower levels ask fewer questions, if any at all, because they understand very little of what is happening. But, often we have two speakers of the same language, one at a slightly higher level who explains to the other one.

But, this week I had the unusual experience of being tasked with giving a tour to true beginners whose language was so far from my own. Unfortunately, no amount of German or Afrikaans was going to get us very far here either.

So, I found myself having to explain things like “Unfortunately, because they are laying down electrical cables at the entrance, you will need to come through the main entrance for the next 3 days”. GULP!

It turns out that with minimum language and maximum gesturing (hands and arms flailing), you can get a fair bit across!

Checking for understanding:

Did you understand that?

 “Ok?” (with a thumbs up sign, although it occurred to me that some gestures could be culturally offensive – I took the risk anyway)


Don’t’ use this gate for 3 days from today!

“Here (pointing at gate),

 No (using flailing hand gestures again)

3 days (count 3 on your fingers and try to explain ‘from today’ – this actually worked, I think!).”

In this part of the library you may whisper, but in this part you are not allowed to speak at all.

“Here (said in a whisper with arms sweeping across the room) ok (do shushing sound with finger in front of mouth);

The next bit is done in complete silence. Zip mouth closed and wag finger with earnest look on face. This was as clear as day as I watched the students eyes grow bigger and their heads nod quickly.

I have not been in the language classroom for a long time, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the challenge of having to get some important information across to the lower levels. I imagine that from an outsiders point of view and with no context, and to the students as well, it may have all looked very odd, but we got there in the end and I even managed to elicit some ‘questions’!

It was also a good reminder to appreciate teachers who are charged with helping beginner and elementary students get a grasp on this language we assume everyone speaks at least a little bit of. Nothing like a reality check on a Monday morning to get the week at an English school started.

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