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The International Writers Magazine: Yes We Can't

Can and Can't in Casablanca
Nichol Wilmor
A four-week teacher training course in Shaftesbury Avenue has equipped me with the skills I need to teach English as a foreign language and now here I am in Casablanca ready to perform in the classroom — en principe at least.


‘En principe’ is a useful phrase that I have acquired since arriving in Morocco; ‘inchallah’ is another. They lend a kind of distance to the day-to-day and I employ them frequently. (What I don’t know at the time is that I will continue to use both for the rest of my life.)

Teaching a full timetable in the Avenue de l’Armée Royale has proved to be very different from our ten-minute teaching practice sessions in London. For these I used to prepare diligently every evening, seated with my notepad at the bar of The Blue Posts in Rupert Street. Then I was intent on impressing my fellow trainees with my virtuosity. Now I must survive three hours twice a week with my zero beginners class.

By Thursday, my students — an amiable assortment of native Moroccans and pieds-noirs — have forgotten most of what I thought I’d taught them on Tuesday. And by the following Tuesday, they have forgotten the rest. In these circumstances rigorous lesson planning seems superfluous.

I decide to re-cast myself in the role of entertainer as much as teacher. This being the case, it’s important that everyone should have a good time. This includes me. It’s how I justify — if ever I feel the need for justification — my afternoons lying under the jacaranda tree in the paved courtyard of our villa in the Passage Lacépède smoking pipes of kif.

This evening I am going to teach ‘can’ and ‘can’t’. (I will be teaching the ‘going to’ future in three weeks’ time.) I know my students haven’t mastered prepositions of place or the difference between the simple present (‘I smoke kif every afternoon ...’) and the present continuous (‘I am not smoking kif this evening ...’). However, it’s a shortcoming they share with most foreign speakers of English and I’m pretty convinced that further explanations and examples from me won’t help them remotely. Also, it’s time to move on or we won’t finish the course book by the end of the summer term. I light another pipe of kif and relax. After all, the grammar of ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ is perfectly straightforward. It can’t be difficult to teach, can it?

The textbook we are using has plenty of line drawings to illustrate the grammatical point.
Here is a picture of a girl swimming. (‘Can Myrtle swim? Yes, she can.’) And beside it a picture of a boy drowning. (‘Can Cyril swim? No, he can’t.’)

Another picture of Myrtle with sweet musical notes proceeding from her throat. From Cyril’s mouth comes a stream of asterisks and exclamation marks. (‘Can Myrtle sing? Yes, she can.’ ‘Can Cyril sing? No, he can’t.’)

Further down the page there are more pictures: Myrtle playing the piano, Myrtle riding a bicycle, both skills which Cyril has seemingly failed to acquire. (I find myself associating more and more with Cyril.)
We move from the third person to the first and second.
‘Can you play the piano?’ I ask Giselle. ‘Yes, I can,’ she answers. (I believe her.)
‘Can you swim?’ I ask Hasan. ‘Yes, I can,’ he says. (I have my doubts.)
‘Can you speak English?’ I ask Lucette. ‘Yes, I can,’ she replies. (I know for a fact this is untrue, but she smiles so confidently and says the words so sweetly that I can’t bring myself to contradict her.)
‘Can you fly a helicopter?’ I ask Fatima.
‘Can you walk on water?’ I ask Fawzi.
‘Can you see Saturn?’ I ask Benoît.
‘Can you paint happiness?’ I ask Latifa.
They assure me that they can because by now meaning has flown from us and the only purpose of our class has become to sing out, as loudly and joyfully as possible, ‘Yes, I can — Yes, I can — Yes, I can’. Which, when I think about it, isn’t the worst way to spend a Tuesday evening here in Casablanca or anywhere else.
© Nichol Wilmor November 2010
Nichol.Wilmor at

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