The Not So Immediately Clear but Surprisingly Poignant Relationship Between Teaching English and the Alien Franchise

There’s a scene in Alien 4 (which, by the way, is terrible, so if you haven’t already seen it, I would recommend you don’t go out of your way to do so just to get this reference) where the genetically engineered Alien-Ripley comes upon a room full of failed earlier attempts at creating her*. The prototype creatures are all deformed horrors, and she ends up torching the entire room with a flame-thrower.

In my attempts to teach English to a class full of 11-year old Khmer kids, I feel a deep kindred with the scientist responsible for those deformed Ripley hybrids. Every week, I try some new experiment in teaching grammar to the class, then we’ll do a writing exercise to see whether the lesson has stuck. And every week, I get back grotesque defilements of the English language. However hard I try, each new experiment produces mutilated punctuation, eviscerated spelling and sins against conjugation. And alas, I have no flame-thrower to ease the pain.

Unfortunately, as with genetically engineering a hybrid alien species, there are just so many ways to screw up a language – especially one as complex as English, and especially when the student trying to learn it natively speaks a far simpler one. Khmer has no tenses other than past and present; I believe they just figure out anything more specific than that from the context. Verbs aren’t conjugated. There are no capital letters, and they don’t even have spaces between words. So coming from this background, how could one ever grasp how to use the past continuous or when a comma would be appropriate? I think this is an important thing to remember when judging ESL speakers.

Much like killing Alien Queens, learning English is Hard. But there’s no sense crying over every mistake. Learning is iterative, and it’s clear that students do actually improve at English as they ascend through the school years. It evidently just takes a very long time and lots of patience. And as with taking out Alien soldiers, you never can get every grammar rule. There’s always that one last sneaky bugger hiding on your space ship.

*In this sentence alone I used the simple present, negative present perfect, conditional and infinitive tenses. You can see the difficulty!

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