Teaching English as a foreign language: A baptism of fire with classes of 65

Few Britons go to India to learn to teach English. But Phil King did. He tells how it made him sweat
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The Independent Online

In India there are millions of people learning the English language. In schools they may speak it during science lessons. On the street they speak English to ply more foreign trade. In the world of business they do it to increase communication links with other Indian states and the world beyond.

I came to India, to Calcutta to be precise, to gain my Teaching English as a Foreign Language qualification. The Tefl certificate is accepted all over the world as a qualification for teaching the language to non-native English speakers. At the moment it is particularly in demand in South-East Asia.

So why India? I chose to study in Calcutta largely because of cost. The price of a one-month Tefl course tends not to vary much from continent to continent. But the price of food and board does, of course. Two to three pounds buys a restaurant meal in India and as part of Tefl International's course they offer a month's accommodation for £50.

The accommodation may be a cell-like affair with few of the luxuries of home, but it's a fraction of the cost of living while studying for a Tefl course in London. And my room – in Garia, 12 kilometres outside the city centre – is a world away from the improvised tents on the centrally-located Sudder Street, crammed with infants and adults driven to begging even in the monsoonal rain. The best thing about being outside the city centre is the respite from the continual noise of car horns – though the centre is still only a two-pound cab ride away.

This is worth knowing as the course allows plenty of time to experience the sights, smells and sounds of Calcutta. If you want Bengali kebabs and beer from pewter tankards, you can find them easily. If you want to wrap yourself in fabric, from loose kurta pyjamas through hand-loomed sarees to hand-stitched bedsheets, there are huge open markets for these too.

The key benefit of this course is the time spent teaching in schools. Those Britons, Australians, Americans and Indians who take the Tefl International course will, every day, experience six hours of teaching in small, sweaty and often overcrowded classrooms in the sprawling city, teaching students with a wide range of abilities.

Taking a class of 65 in a room 18 foot square while oozing sweat might not be everyone's idea of fun, but it's a great baptism of fire. The other 100 hours of the course take place in an old primary school buried deep in a Calcutta suburb.

As for my tutors, Sangeeta Banerjee's knowing smile inspires confidence, and beneath Aradhna Jha's diminutive exterior beats the heart of an uncompromising disciplinarian. Just the pair to take you through the Tefl method. Countless lesson plans and even more drawings of words such as " sad", "birthday", "late" or "luck" won't get finished by magic. But the black-shirted factotum Sushanto's always on hand to make tea, order lunch or make photocopies.

Aside from the benefit of the large practical focus, what differentiates this course from courses that friends of mine have taken in Europe and South America is the grammar. Or the lack thereof. Tefl International's belief is that grammar is imbibed by osmosis. Well, that suits me. Twenty five years on I still find it difficult to isolate an adverbial clause. Only basic grammar is covered.

For me the course fitted neatly into a four-month tour of this difficult but fascinating country. For another graduate, Jess, from Oklahoma, it provided the chance to teach untouchables in Madras. For Chithra, from Bangalore, it improved her CV so she could teach IBM executives.

You might not want a whole class asking for your autograph at the end of a lesson, but even so, if you're not faint of heart, gaining your Tefl qualification in Calcutta is something you might want to place on the " maybe" list.

The course costs £785 with accommodation, £736 without accommodation. www.teflintl.com