So there I was last Thursday sitting in the barber’s chair having an haircut. The chair next to me was occupied by a young guy having the latest haircut craze to sweep Puglia the very short sides and back and floppy long on top. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to call it Hitler youth but that is what it looks like. My barber Rocco says to me how important learning English is now if the youth want jobs and how his wife has bought a book of English words and phrases and is busy putting English words on everything in the house so his very young children will learn both the Italian and the English word for everything. Good idea I say wish I had done that with Italian years ago. Rocco then punches the lad in the other chair and says how is your English? The boy looks over and asks in broken English how I am and where do I live. His haircut done he comes and stands by me and asks some more questions and I reply. His real problem is understanding my English as he says they never did conversation at school ( he now works in the bakery from 3a.m till 11a.m. ) and though he seems to know words well enough he is guessing what I say most of the time and so his replies are often wrong. I have seen this lad around and he knows the way to my heart so he says. If I buy you a beer Mike will you talk English to me for an hour a week? I, of course say yes but tell him to skip the beer . I will buy him coffee if he will also correct my Italian and we arrange to met. That is why today I found myself in the barber’s shop again. However instead of just him there were three lads wanting to speak English and they told me that two more want to come but they work all day so can only come during their long lunch break 1p.m. till 3.30 p.m.. One of the lads there today had a very good accent and I was amazed when he said he didn’t finish High School and therefore even elementary English. His parents couldn’t pay for the books and the other costs of going to school. In Italy even in the State system pupils have to buy all their own books and after 11 years of age there is no free transportation to and from school either. The Villa Castelli pupils have to get to Francavilla which is 20 kms away each day. So this boy dropped out of the system early and has worked for several years on the black like all the others.
The barber’s shop is closed in the afternoon so Rocco suggested that we use the shop as it has space and plenty of seats. So tomorrow Geraldine who has done her TEFL and I will start probably the first ever free English lessons to be given in an Italian and certainly in a Pugliase barber’s shop. Me and my big mouth !
Parla con me – talk with me and hopefully that is what they will do. The real pity is that these guys most of whom dropped out of school realise that these days you must learn English to get a job that isn’t just manual labour. The South has fallen well behind because of the poor education standards down here and the lack of good English teachers and a decent curriculum . At 15 years old the English they learn is Canterbury Tales written in Olde English and at 16 years old it is the 19 century aesthetic movement poets. Now hands up those of us with English as a first language who knows who they are and what they wrote. So imagine the Italian who goes into a coffee shop in London and is unable to ask for a coffee nor order a snack but can quote The Miller’s Tale in olde english and of course poems by Algernon Swimburne who as we all know was one of the leading lights in the movement. Rosa, our Italian friend speaks English, Dutch, French, German and Italian. She learnt in a Dutch school when her father moved from Martina Franca to work there. They received a list of verbs and words each day to learn as homework. Then the next day they came in and had to use those words in conversation endless conversation . It is little wonder the Dutch are such great linguists.