English Lesson #2: English English

At the time of this writing, English is the most widely-spoken language in history. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers than English’s 400-odd million, but no other language has as many L2 speakers, and it isn’t even close. According to Ethnologue, by way of Wikipedia, nearly 750 million people speak or study English as a second language. Wikipedia is unreliable, so let’s make a more conservative estimate and cut that number in half: at 375 million it would still rank as the largest L2 language in the world. There are reasons. Hollywood movies play all over the globe; books in English, or translated from English, are sold everywhere. There is the sheer usefulness of the language: in science, business, and diplomacy, English is the indisputable lingua franca (or lingua saxonica, if we want to annoy the French). These are booming times for TEFL, with teachers on every continent making a living from the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. And here I am, doing it for free like a sucker.

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History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia

I have a confession to make: I’m actually an Irishman. It’s true: I’m all Irish, all the time, all the way down, and abundantly so. I am super Irish, even excessively Irish: Bono on a blarney stone chanting Flann O’Brien into a fogbank isn’t as Irish as I am, no; I’m more Irish than a pooka in a pocket of Father Ted reading the Book of Kells in Kilkenny. How Irish am I? I’m so Irish, I’ve been living off of potatoes for months. I’m so Irish, I’ve haven’t set foot on the soil of Ireland in decades—you know, like Samuel Beckett, or James Joyce. Who were, you know, Irish.

In fact, I’ve never even set foot on Irish soil. I’m not a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. My passport isn’t from either of those places. I only know a handful of Gaelic words. I can’t name any provinces or subdivisions of the Emerald Isle. I haven’t had a Guinness in two years. I have tried peaty whisky spelled without an “e,” and enjoyed it greatly. I couldn’t name a single Irish footballer. I don’t know who the president of the Republic of Ireland is—if pressed, I would probably say Colum McCann or The Edge. And to the eternal disappointment of everybody, I don’t even have a bit of a brogue. A case might be made, however flimsy, that I am in fact not Irish at all. But here in my village, I’m Irish everywhere it counts: my bloodline. So in my village, at least, I am Clayton Davis, the Irishman from America. Continue reading “History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia”

Music Lesson #1: A Bluffer’s Guide to Armenian Pop Music

It happened while I was watching a New Year’s live comedy show. A pair of comedians were experimenting with a microphone, and they decided to test it out. “Do Sirusho,” the first one said, and his partner sang in a high-pitched wail. “Now do Armenchik,” he said, and the singer switched to a booming ululation. The audience laughed, and I did too, because the impressions were spot-on. Then I thought: did I just understand a joke about Armenian music? I did, and it was a breakthrough. Continue reading “Music Lesson #1: A Bluffer’s Guide to Armenian Pop Music”

Armenian Lesson #6: Hello Again…You!

Walking around is one of my favorite things to do in my village, and it is also one that exposes me the gravest of blunders: saying hello to the same person twice in one day. I can’t speak for other parts of the country, but in my village, at least, it’s considered rude to greet a person you’ve already met that day. It’s as if you forgot about that person, I’ve been told, or that you don’t notice them. Call it a gentler version of asking the name of somebody you’ve already met. So it’s important to keep track of who you’ve met on a given day. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it, because I still don’t know very many people in the village, and strangers are much harder to distinguish than friends, so I make this mistake on a daily basis. To my village’s credit, most people are, as always, unflappably kind towards my mistakes and eccentricities.

In fact, saying “hello” in Armenian invites all kinds of difficulties for me. Having criticized my students for their problems with greetings in English, it’s only fair to admit that I have my troubles saying hello in their language. This is because nothing as simple as “hello” exists in Armenian. I mean it does, but if you’re not fluent, then it really doesn’t. I’m going to explain, but first, I need to admit up-front that everything I write here is tentative, as I’ve only been speaking this language for nine months and I often speak it badly. Case in point: my difficulties in saying hello. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #6: Hello Again…You!”

Weather Lesson #1: Winter Is Icumen In

Ughtasar, December
View of Ughtasar after snow, author’s home, 8 December 2017

There is a medieval English song (one of the oldest in existence, and certainly the earliest nonreligious polyphonic song in English) that goes:

Sumer is icumen in

†Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
†lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ

murie sing cuccu
†Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu


*Sing cucu nu, sing cucu, Sing cucu sing cucu nu Continue reading “Weather Lesson #1: Winter Is Icumen In”

English Lesson #1: It’s Always Morning in Sisian

It’s always morning at my village school. Not in any kind of odd, metaphysical way, as much as time may drag its heels out here. And our clocks aren’t broken—I mean, they often are, but our cell phones tell the right time. And even without phones, my students often keep a running countdown until the end of every class and are likely to use it against you assigning any more work for the class period. What kind of exercises could we possibly get through with only thirty minutes left in class?  But no matter what time it is, whenever my students speak to me in English, they always greet me the same way: good morning, Mr. Davis! It’s always morning, and the morning is always good, be it morning, noon, night, or any other time of day; when our most intrepid chronologists have discovered new forms of temporality in worlds we can scarcely imagine, my students will be there, saying Good morning, Mr. Davis! Back in this world, a 4th grade boy once shouted this at me from across the street. It was 8:45 PM. Continue reading “English Lesson #1: It’s Always Morning in Sisian”

Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners

[I am a man who keeps his promises. Because I promised my advanced English club that, if they would at least try to write a short story incorporating certain vocabulary and grammatical constructions used in that week’s lessons, I would also write such a story. In Armenian. Then I translated it into English. This way, my story would be at a level of English much closer to that of my students. In keeping with the fairy-tale nature of the story, I have accompanied it with my own artistic compositions. Critical observers might notice that the illustrations are poorly drawn and incompetently photographed. Critical observers might be asked to write their own damned short story in a foreign language, illustrate it with a set of dollar-store colored pencils, and photograph it in a dimly-lit village house. Anyway. What follows is my second ever short story written in Armenian, translated as fluently into English as possible while remaining faithful to the atrocious Armenian beneath it.] Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners”

Six Months and Six Moments in Armenia

Old Sisian Factory.
Old factory in western Sisian. Author’s photo, August 2017.
  1. It occurs to me as I cut my chin shaving in the concrete shower/bunker under my house that I’ve now been living in Armenia for six months. I can barely see my chin in the old mirror—despite being exposed, the lightbulb in here seems to cast more shadows than illumination. I’ve been shaving like this for months and somehow haven’t pricked myself to death, although I certainly seem to be trying. My shower room is an empty stone room with rusting pipes and a door made of scrapped plastic, attached to the house but only accessible from outside. Even in the heat of early August, shower room is always cold and damp, and that’s before the faucet comes on. As far as I can tell, the water temperature is controlled by the whim of occult forces out for mischief. On a lucky day, I get several minutes of hot water; usually, I don’t get any. You get used to it after a few days. You get used to the spiders, too. When I first moved here, I would slip off a shower sandal and take out as many spiders as I could. After a few weeks, I’d only go after the most active ones, reasoning that I could instill some kind of discipline by making an example the troublemakers. But spiders are lousy students, though, so I stopped going after them at all. My mood has changed, too and now I praise the spiders as much as I can—that’s because I’ve realized the spiders are my comrades in the fight against the housefly—a densely-packed cow-farming village is perhaps the finest environment Musca domestica can hope to find, and so can always be found in your food, or sitting on your arm. You get used to them, too. A lot can change in six months.

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Armenian Lesson #3: Armenian Poetics for Beginners

David of Sassoun. Hakob Kojoyan, 1922. C/o Wikipedia

My job as a TEFL instructor in Armenia is to teach my students sturdy, practical English. They must be able to express themselves and understand others with language that is clear and direct, the language of business, development, science, international trade, and TED Talks. We call it the communicative approach because it’s rooted in the primary function of language: communicating in English. A student who can carry on a conversation in English, errors or not, is a successful student from our point of view.

I may not be the right person for that job: all of my experiences in other languages is stupendously impractical. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #3: Armenian Poetics for Beginners”

Here in the Garden

Here in the garden, I throw rocks at stray cats. I don’t throw to hit them, but I try to aim near enough to scare them away. We have a dog, but he’s on a chain, and stray cats in all their tough-won, Hobbesian wisdom know that a dog a chain is a solved issue. So the cat problem falls to me. The cat problem is that when cats get into the garden, they eat my food. I mean this literally: every chick that they steal is a chicken that I don’t eat. A chicken is valuable. Its eggs are valuable. Protein is valuable. So, I throw rocks at cats. My aim is getting pretty good.

Admitting it makes some of my friends back in the United States uncomfortable. I can only ask them: have you ever lived on a farm in southern Armenia? Continue reading “Here in the Garden”