Learning a new language in a classroom has its challenges and distractions: the buzzing of the neon lights above, uncomfortable desks, the foam that collects in the corner of the teacher’s mouth. Learning a language outside of the classroom isn’t so easy either. Here, Siôn Owen, one of our Diary of a language Learner and regular blog contributors, has made a study of those things that stand in the way of his lessons.
by Siôn Owen
Since I take my language lessons with a private tutor, we don’t have the luxury of a quiet, nurturing classroom environment in which to have our lessons. Also, library hours tend to be set around the limiting schedules of toddlers and senior citizens, and we already got kicked out of the local university’s student lounge for heckling the MBAs (long story). So what does that leave us? The beloved coffee shop.
A community favorite from Seattle to Singapore, the coffee shop has gradually morphed into the official gathering place for local artists, writers, businessmen, families, and morons. In addition to all the distractions coming from behind the counter – the grinding blenders, whistling espresso machines, and bellowing baristas – the quirky combination of caffeine-crazed patrons can make a coffee shop language lesson rather challenging indeed. Here I present to you some of the more irritating characters you may come across.
The Table Hog
This greedy little creature likes to build her nest in a space that’s entirely too large for just one person. Despite occupying only one of the four seats at what is arguably the best table in the entire place, she will insist that the other three seats are needed for her backpack, handbag, oversized art project, bulky jacket, golf umbrella, and collection of shopping bags. These items have apparently developed feelings and get upset when placed on the cold, hard floor. As if all of that wasn’t enough, she has transformed the table into what looks like a Best Buy demo station, featuring an overpriced smartphone, tablet, and laptop – all currently running Facebook. Space invasion aside, at least one can take solace in knowing that she’s being extremely productive.
The Giggle Gang
In one of nature’s greatest mysteries, this bubbly flock of teenagers has simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion – everything in life is absolutely hilarious. In between uncontrollable fits of laughter and Frappuccino slurps, The Giggle Gang can usually be heard doting over Justin Bieber or the latest line of designer sweatpants from Juicy Couture. To their credit, they are often respectful enough to congregate in a corner on the other side of the shop, yet somehow the screechy cackles and echoes of the word “like” sound as though they’re coming from the inner hollow of your ear canal. Never before has a textbook looked like such a perfect weapon.
This quiet, unassuming fellow is commonly found sitting at the table next to yours, tapping away diligently on his computer. However, as your lesson begins, you notice out of the corner of your eye that he is frequently glancing over in your direction. While you find it to be a bit odd, what you don’t yet realize is that he’s feverishly plotting the perfect moment to sabotage your lesson. And then, when you least expect it, he’ll insert himself into your conversation with a firm “hello” in your target language, and will flash a big, proud grin as he awaits his praise and acceptance into your cool club. When he doesn’t get it he isn’t discouraged one bit, and will proceed to share his story of the fabulous trip he took 10 years ago and the three words he learned in the local language. Not being the best at taking hints, you may need to request his address so you can pass along the bill for the lesson.
The Chat Rat
Upon first glance he is the coffee shop equivalent of the crazy guy on the subway. However, after further inspection he’s more on par with the solo guy yapping into a wireless headset, which is actually worse. He is always having a wildly entertaining conversation on Skype, consisting of frequent laughter along with a very animated tone of voice and exaggerated hand gestures. The fact that the person on the other end can’t even see his hands is apparently of little consequence. The behavior of this character begs the question – why is he here? It’s hard to imagine someone being able to afford a MacBook Pro but not home internet. Or who can’t at least steal a neighbor’s Wi-Fi.
The Language Butcher
Last but not least, there is perhaps the biggest offender of all – me. I take up valuable real estate for almost two hours at a time, and am usually not even a paying customer. I blabber away awkwardly like a bumbling fool in a language that those around me cannot understand, which is probably annoying as they’ll automatically assume I’m talking about them (I am). Even when I get to near fluency I’ll be perceived as a pretentious show-off who’s just trying to appear worldly. It’s a lose-lose situation.
As you can see, the trials and tribulations of a coffee shop language student are numerous. But, despite the frustrations, sometimes I can’t help but think – wouldn’t life be a little boring if we all just got along?
Siôn Owen is a Livemocha contributing author and earth’s biggest fan of curry and Caribbean food. He’s learning Portuguese, and also loves helping people learn English on his Facebook page, Smash English. Siôn lives in Chicago, Illinois USA.