Saturday, August 8, 2009

Exercise 4: Listening

When my sister and I were kids, and on Sunday afternoons my dad would take us for a walk, my biggest worry was that I wasn't good enough at math. Everyone at school is better and faster than I, was my complaint. (Had I had Spelling Bees contests I would have crowned myself the queen bee, but unfortunately there weren't any around).

So well. In one of those walks my father told me that I didn't have to worry about being the fastest or had my homework perfectly done for the sake of it, but that the importance of math (for someone aged 8) had to be able to know if the money was enough at the store, or how much time and at what rate I had to save money in order to purchase something (a doll or a book, the summit of my then ambitions). What actually matters is how you deal in real life, he told me while our legs swallowed blocks and blocks.

Flash forward to a decade later, which I spent entirely studying two foreign languages at the same time, and occasionaly three. I was always good at it, but my grades never shone. Partly because of a private method of learning (I would focus my energies in class and never submitted a piece of homework until the advanced courses), which for some reason wasn't very popular among my teachers, and partly because I would always perform quite poorly in one of the four tests.

Basically, foreign languages courses are built around four linguistic competences: to speak, to listen, to read and to write (to express oneself and to understand others, in other words). Since I've always been an avid reader and I have good memory for words, when I spoke I could summon words I had never heard, and when I wrote, I was using ideas I had actually already read somewhere else. But going through the listening exercises was always extremely difficult: I would lose focus the moment the teacher would press PLAY, and I have never been able to watch a film without captions. I once sat for a listening only test and failed. And though the grumpiness of having failed lasted for about 8 years (and when it worn out I sat again and passed), I never truly worried about not having great marks because of having a carrot stuck in my ear, because what actually matters is how you deal in real life.

Flash forward to yet another decade later. I went down my path well far from courses, classrooms, exams and every other student life paraphernalia. In real life's full swing I've been around a year and a half submerged in the English language and I still struggle on the phone or trying to understand what people say on the radio. Let's admit I don't try too hard, but in the back my head I've always wondered... would I be up to it if I really had to? Or was I truly that bad?

And then, in an unpredictable twist of events and the ruling order of the universe and the movement of the planets, last week, the real life took care of my question.

I began a temporary job in a call center, taking calls in English and French and collecting information from clients from a certain european home appliances manufacturer. A certain line of products may have a defective piece and those clients are entitled to a free replacement, so I basically have to write down names, telephone numbers, addresses in Canada and the United States (the manufacturer deals later with that information), and no, I don't have to ask madam, are you sure it's plugged? It's for 8 hours a day, 3 days a week, in an office far from home but driving is not such a big deal.

I uncork my ear, and on top of that, they pay me for that. Wouldn't it have been great if they had paid me, years ago, when I was preparing for the Proficiency test?


You can read a Spanish version here:

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