A passing mention in a David Mitchell column this weekend started me thinking about the 1970s British sitcom Mind Your Language. As it was cancelled before I was born and not that suitable for repeat showings I knew little about it, apart from that (a) it’s the only mainsteam media portrayal of my chosen career and (b) it’s generally looked back upon as a shameful excuse for a parade of borderline-racist stereotypes in the name of cheap comedy.
A quick search revealed the episodes to be fairly accessible online, so for some reason I’m going to review the episodes and grade Mr Jeremy Brown on his teaching.
If teaching ESL around the world has taught me anything it’s that everyone’s different but that we share a great deal, and that very little of a person’s personality can be determined from their nationality. I can’t count the number of fascinating, bizarre characters I’ve met. Does the first episode of MYL reflect this? Well, no, obviously, it doesn’t. Each and every character seems to be nothing more than a broad stereotype with little or no other characteristics. This isn’t great, of course, but lazy jokes are the worse crime. To take the most obvious example this is the opening exchange between Jeremy Brown and his student Ali Nadeem, a Pakistani;
“I am Brown”
“Oh no, you are committing a mistake.”
“You are not brown. We are brown. You are white!”
In order to add some conflict to the situation, every character is fiercely proud of their country on arbitrary grounds – the German and Japanese characters arguing over who is more efficient, and Ali (a Muslim) and Ranjeet (a Sihk) at each-others throats immediately, possibly spurred on by Brown’s erroneous assumption that they are “countrymen”. Taro, the Japanese character, is played by British Asian actor Robert Lee, who appears to have very little understanding of how Japanese people behave – his slack bowing and half-hearted handing-over of a business card make his performance somehow substantially worse than the other stereotypes. Did he think that not bothering to do basic research or acting on autopilot would excuse him from responsibility for his role in this? The Chinese character, Chung Su-Lee, is played by fairly respectable Chinese-British actress Pik-Sen Lim, and (it being the 1970s) is portrayed pretty much as a Red Guard. The cultural revolution had ended the year before this series was broadcast, but development times in the world of TV being what they are, this is just about excusable. What’s a little less excusable is her accent, which is somewhere between Hong Kong and Japan. She is unable to distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’, which is not a problem mainland Chinese really face. This might seem like nit-picking, but since this is one of her two character traits, I would’ve hoped they’d get it right. The cherry on the cake is when she says she’s from the “Democratic Republic of China” – where is that exactly? It really is shockingly lazy to not bother to find out the name of the most populous nation on the planet.
As it’s a first class, there are no textbooks available, and the class is being constantly interrupted, it’s probably not fair to pass judgement on Jeremy Brown quite yet. The odds have also been stacked against him by the school’s insistence on putting all the students in a single class, though some are absolute beginners and some are at an advanced level. I wish I could say this was a case of low realism levels, but having taught for eight years I’ve seen it happen quite a few times.
Though final judgement is suspended for the moment, there are several worrying signs. Jeremy makes no attempt to grade his language to the level of his students, instead opting to speak slowly and loudly while pointing at things, in the time-honoured ‘Briton abroad’ fashion. He’s baffled by the students’ errors, though most are simple first language interference and accent issues. I hope a little time and effort will help him get past this. He attempts to get “countrymen” to sit together, though having them sit apart would prevent them speaking their first language in the class. His teaching point for the class is the verb ‘to be’, which is way too easy for the majority of the class, and accompanied by other, much harder verbs. Thankfully he has the students form sentences with it, which could be considered a first class ‘getting to know each-other’ activity, albeit a very dull one indeed. At the end of the class he burbles out some homework instructions, fails entirely to check understanding, and runs out of the classroom.
On the whole then, very poor, but we’ll give him a chance to improve.