Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Teaching Business English in France

I hear that quite a lot actually: why did you decided to teach Business English and not General English? I am pretty adamant myself: when I say that I am teaching English, I always specify. So, why teaching Business English?

When I made a transition from being an executive in real estate to becoming an English teacher, I already had a clear idea in mind: I would teach EFL in a business school, in my home country, France. It all made sense after all: I graduated from a French business school myself, worked in the business world for a few years and I loved teaching English. But following my CELTA, I realized that despite my knowledge of the business world and my qualifications, it would not be enough to get hired in a French business school. My case was quite simple really: my CV was interesting, but my citizenship, my mother tongue, French, was not.

I went to teach EFL in business schools, but in the US; when I came back to France, I finally got hired in a business school in Lyon. There, I realized that I was the only non-native speaker EFL teacher. The situation changed since then, but non-native speakers are still outnumbered by natives.

Business schools in France, and in Europe in general, are not hiring non-native speakers, or sporadically. Despite the anti-discrimination legislation voted by the European Union, business schools are putting job ads asking for native speakers only, and do not even bother responding to non-natives. We can then ask ourselves: are business schools’ students destined to work only with native speakers of English? Of course not.

Actually, as Lowenberg (2012: 84) observes  “among 80% of the worlds’ English users are non-native speakers of English”. In other words, there is a bigger chance for a non-native speaker to discuss in English with another non-native speaker: a fact which is not acknowledged at all by business schools, where the only English model provided come from native speakers, and rarely from a non-native. Most schools are actually proud to say that they have ONLY natives, who are teaching their mother tongue.

But does this native teacher know anything about business? One of my colleague was a former police officer in Glasgow, how is that relevant to business students? Indeed, he was a native speaker. But he was no teacher, he was a native. Students complained about him the entire year, and his contract was not renewed. The following year, a young London girl, with no teaching qualifications whatsoever, but who had worked at Primark for a year, arrived. She quit within four months. None of them knew enough of French to communicate with the students.

But the school was happy to have natives. It is clear, in this context that having a monolingual teacher cannot be the proper way, as the students are by definition multilingual, and are confronted to situations a monolingual cannot properly understand or anticipate. At the end, the learners’ specific needs of English are not meet, as they rely, sometimes heavily, on their mother tongue, French, which the teachers do not speak, or do not know enough, to use it efficiently in the classroom. At the end, nobody is satisfied.

It will be a mistake to say that the students wish to attain native-like competence, their main goal is to communicate effectively. McKay (2002: 40) even points out that “many learners of English do not want and may even reject a native-like target”. French learners first and foremost: the old rivalry between French and English is still around.

Still, being a non-native speaker is often synonym to bad accents, limited vocabulary, in overall, “bad English”, and this cliché remains alive in business schools. Numerous students there openly prefer to have native speakers because they consider that the foreign accents of non-native speakers teachers have somehow an impact on the quality of the language, despite the fact that the NNSTs have an extended knowledge of the language while the NSTs are relying on their instinct. I had a NS colleague who tried to explain the present perfect by saying ‘it’s like that, don’t think too much about it’ to students who had numerous questions about the tense and could not use it properly. My colleague ended up asking me, a NNS, to explain the present perfect, as by his own terms, he ‘never learned’ grammar, therefore, could not teach this specific tense.

Personally, I have been welcomed quite warmly by my students as a NNEST, as they tend to see me as a linguistic model, a language ‘success story’ and are less afraid to make mistakes. My career path, which they all know of, gives me a legitimacy to teach them and as Seidhofer (1999) notes “the greatest strength of a bilingual English teacher is to provide a model of good language learner is relevant to their own social and cultural experiences”.


Lowenberg, P. (2012) ‘Assessing proficiency in EIL’ in Matsuda, A. (ed.)

McKay, S. L. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP

Seidhofer (1999) ‘Double standards: teacher education in the expanding circle’ World Englishes 18/2: 233-45

So, it’s been a hard year

I know I have been quite silent here for a while, truth be told, I just didn’t have the time to write a proper sentence, and I felt like I was inadequate. Here, I said it: this whole academic year, I felt inadequate. I finished my dissertation, ultimately passed my MA with flying colors; yet, I still felt like I shouldn’t be here. Weird, huh?

As you may know, I had a baby last summer, so I came back to work for real in November. Classes had started two months ago and my colleagues were pretty dismissive as the beginning of the academic year had been tough. Basically, I didn’t feel supported by my colleagues, and while I was happy to teach again after my maternity leave, I felt like I couldn’t manage being a good parent and a good teacher. I guess that’s a normal feeling to have, but I also had my MA dissertation to write and I just felt like drowning by the end of the year. I didn’t feel like I was teaching the way I was before, I felt like I was less prepared, I doubted a lot my own abilities. My support system at home wasn’t great either, as my husband got diagnosed with depression. I felt like I had to hold down the fort, but at what price?

It didn’t help that two of my classes were incredibly difficult to manage. One of them was especially complicated: the students were not interested, they had false expectations, they weren’t studying enough. We are a private business school, but many of them thought they were “buying” their degrees (it’s a national state exam so NOPE, definitely not!). It didn’t help that the homeroom teacher (my deputy head of department) had decided that she didn’t care anymore, so I had to cover for her. She didn’t ask me to cover for her: I decided to do it because I couldn’t accept the situation. The students were complicated to manage, yes, but at the same time, telling them “I don’t give a crap about you, I don’t understand what you are doing here” was not helpful either (I am not saying anyone said that to them per se, but you get the idea).

Most of these students shouldn’t even be there in the first place, let’s be honest their results were incredibly bad but the school management decided to keep them around. I thought (and I still think) that it was a disservice to them. Half of the class failed the year and will have to redo it. My deputy head of department resigned as a result, and I understand why she decided to take an administrative job instead. Despite having a good relationship with my supervisor (who never taught a day in his life, he is purely an administrator), I can see the flaws of the system, and it’s not okay for me. Most of my colleagues felt abandoned this year by school management, and I can’t blame them.

My current working situation is fine for now: I am teaching four days a week, from 8am to 5pm, my Wednesday is devoted to administrative tasks and spending time with my baby girl. I have a good salary for a teacher in France (I also teach more classes than the average teacher, let’s be clear), as I said, I have a good relationship with my supervisor. But as I said, it’s fine FOR NOW. I am currently doing an online certificate in Educational Management through Harvard Graduate School of Education and I still daydream about doing a PhD. Speaking of which…

I have been criticized, sometimes heavily, by my family, my colleagues, my so-called support system because I didn’t stop my studies after completing my MA. After all, I am *already* 33 years old, I have a family to provide for, and come on, couldn’t you knit instead? When I enrolled to my online certificate, most people rolled their eyes. I have stopped talking about it, about the fact that it’s my safe space, my breath of fresh air. I have stopped talking about doing about a PhD, even though I think of it every day. My parents, on the other hand, are incredibly proud and are pushing me to pursue my dreams.

I am not writing these words because I want attention, or because I want people to feel sorry for me. I am writing them because life is not perfect, schools and teachers aren’t perfect, and it can’t be hard not to lose yourself in the middle of it. I feel so alone sometimes that it physically hurts. I have learned a lot this year; in time of crisis, I can at least count on me. I am not afraid to speak my mind to school management anymore. I am more transparent now that I was before with my students, and it works great . Ultimately, as the great philosopher Britney Spears would say, I feel stronger than yesterday. But again, for now.

About gaslighting

A mere 24 hours ago, my Twitter friend Natalie (if you stop by this article, thank you so much for your words!) shared an image about gaslighting, and what it looks like. Unfortunately, it only brought back to me some bad memories that, for years, I tried to repress. But as it’s been now 10 years that I left his sorry ass, I guess now it’s the time to open up a bit.

Gaslighting, what on earth is that? I guess some people call that ‘narcissistic perv’ or something like that. It’s a form of abuse and manipulation, where the victim doubt their reality. That what happened to me, and to numerous people, who probably, like me, still feel a bit guilty about it.

My mom loved my first serious boyfriend. He was everything she could dream of, and back in the day, we had troubles communicating. She loved him so much that everything he said was just golden. I guess that’s why I couldn’t escape my very own nightmare that easily. It’s been ten years, and she still blames herself over it daily.

It started slowly after all, so I was not sure that he was really trying to cut me off my friends. At first, he encouraged me, made me feel seen for the first time, loved. I was happy for a while, that’s true. And then, I realized there was a huge gap between what he was saying, and what he was doing. He started to tell me that I couldn’t hang out with my friends without him. He didn’t want me to have male friends. He called my damn mother the day I told him to fuck off, and went for a beer with a male friend. When I told that story to one of his friends, he shrugged and said that my boyfriend was just jealous. “Just Jealous?” I couldn’t have my own friends, those who tried to resist where automatically cut off. ‘They don’t treat you right,’ he was telling me, ‘they don’t accept me as your boyfriend, so they don’t accept you.’ Slowly, I didn’t have anybody else but him.

We moved to another city, and I started a prestigious internship in the fashion industry. It was, back in the day, my dream (I was 22!) and I was immensely proud of getting this internship. When I got the phone call, he couldn’t be happy for me, because he didn’t have a job. Nobody was calling him back. So I didn’t celebrate getting my internship. Anyway, we moved, he still didn’t have a job (he was playing video games all day long), and my internship was very, very, very intense. It was not what I had imagined, I had to work long hours, and every time I was coming home, here he was, berating me. In addition, my coworker started to harass me, morally, and I felt like sh*t at home and at work. When I was telling my bf about him, he responded that ‘at least, I had a job.’ I left my internship right before Christmas. We spent Christmas at his family: his mother greeted us with a charming ‘here comes our unemployed couple!’ I never wanted to choke anybody before her, but I surely did that day. I’ll never forget it.

It took me almost three years to realize what he was doing. I couldn’t be sad, because he was sadder. I was crazy. Nobody could love me as much as he loved me, because I was crazy. He didn’t pay the rent for two months because he wanted to alienate my parents, and make me choose between my parents and him. I was shutting down. Every time I was saying something, it was wrong. I took a night job at a burger joint to financially support us, because he was still not working, and he blamed me for working late. I felt inadequate, vulnerable, weak. I hated myself, and my inability to defend myself.

He did not cut me off from my dad, even though he truly tried. He knew my dad was my main support system, so he actively tried to cut him off, and almost succeeded, to be honest. Ultimately, his mom wanted us to move with her and I refused. We were arguing about this, when I told him I was going to my best friend’s, as I was tired of arguing and he raised his hand to hit me. He raised his hand and I knew exactly what would happen. He would apologize, send me flowers, give me gifts and hit me again. My whole life flashed in front of me, and I saw exactly what could happen if I let him.

I hit him first. I took my purse and ran.

He knew what he had done: when I came back to grab my stuff, so I could sleep at my best friend’s, he said nothing. I got my own place, my parents and my best friend helped me move out and as he was looking at us with a depressed look on his face, my best friend told him to go to hell. My dad was so happy she did that he brought her flowers the second we left the apartment.

It was hard for me to get out of this. He was such a huge part of my life, I had lost so many friends because of him, I felt so alone sometimes. I must admit that following our split, I partied a lot, to forget what had happened. He tried to come back, came a few times to my place to make me forgive and forget. I was finally able to cut ties, despite being traumatized by the whole experience.

The first time I talked about my experience to someone, this someone told me that hitting him before he had hit me was a mistake. It was not: I saved my own life that evening. Abuse is extremely serious, and it’s because victims are not believe that the amount of deceased is rising.

It took the guy I dated a year after my ex YEARS to make me feel okay, comfortable, beautiful, interesting. This guy became my husband, and he could tell you that what I suffered from was close to PTSD. It’s been ten years, and only now I realize how lucky I was to escape. I made it out, I made a decent life for myself, and most of all, I’m happy with who I am.

So, in which language do you think ?

This precise question was asked by one of my students a few days before the end of term break. I had told the class a few seconds before that I was talking in English to my daughter most of the time, and this question was among others :

  • Is it hard to switch between languages?
  • Do you have to focus when you talk to her in English?
  • Why don’t you have an accent when you speak?

I know I looked puzzled and a bilingual student answered to one of the students: “you don’t think, you just switch, it’s natural.” The first student insisted then : “but you must think in one language over the other, right?” I finally answered that it depended on the situation, on the context, that it was not linear at all. I knew she wanted to know what was my dominant language: French or English?

Being bilingual in a (mostly) monolingual environment means being asked a lot of questions. France is ambivalent when it comes to bilingualism: one language must dominate the other, you cannot have the same level in both, ammirite?

Bilingualism doesn’t have a clear definition, Grosjean still writes wonderfully interesting books about it, but in my case, in France, I can see that it mostly depends on how people perceive bilingualism. For example: A is born into an Italian family, where the grand parents were talking mostly in Italian, surely A is bilingual? A heard Italian since birth, clearly A has a high level, so how come A is flunking Italian classes ? How come A cannot translate easily from one language to another? (insert surprised Pikachu meme here to understand the absurdity of the situation)

Let’s take another example: B is born in a French family, Mom and Dad spoke only French. B liked English, so watched movies in English, read in English, and studied extensively English. B cannot be bilingual, right? Because B learned the language? So, it’s not the same thing than being bilingual? Even with a IELTS test score at 8 (out of 9), B is still not considered fully bilingual in English, because you know, Mom and Dad were French. Hey, B, stop showing off!

You get it: A is my father’s example, B is mine. I am SICK AND TIRED to hear that I am not bilingual because my parents speak only French, while I am able to read Joseph Conrad in original version, to watch a program about economic stakes and to write a damn MA dissertation in English. My father, on the other hand, who is not able to hold a conversation in Italian at the bank (for example) without checking Reverso, who cannot write a damn sentence, is considered bilingual.

Dear monolinguals, since you master only one language, you just can’t get it. Language is not fixed, it evolves, and it’s not encoded in your DNA. Yes, my dad was raised by his Italian grandmother, who mostly spoke about everyday life, but he went to school in France. Yes, I was raised by a French mother who knows literally 5 words of English (lift, morning, evening, Saturday, Sunday – that’s it! But she pronounces them perfectly, at least) and by a father who blurted out some Italian words from time to time. But I went to school in France, in the UK, in the US. Bilingualism has many forms, but dear monolinguals, stop trying to put us in boxes.

France is quite hypocritical when it comes to bilingualism too: if you are bilingual in Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, people will just shrug and go on with their lives. But say you are bilingual in English (or German),and people go wild. Are you from this country? How did you become bilingual? Are you really bilingual? The prestige is not the same, you see.

I define myself as multilingual: I can read, listen, write, speak in French, English and Italian. It is not that uncommon; once again, monolinguals are not the norm, bilinguals and multilinguals are. But in any case, the question remains the same: what is your dominant language?

Let’s talk about tokophobia

I am fairly sure that you read this article thinking “what on earth is tokophobia and why is an English teacher writing about it?” Well, today, I decided to write about something close to home, something extremely personal, related to my new life as a mom.

Tokophobia, to explain quite simply, is the primal fear of pregnancy and to give birth. It’s way more common than we think and nobody talks about it, like we are supposed to be ashamed of it. In my case, I wasn’t scared of pregnancy, not even worried, despite the fact that my first trimester was actual hell. But I was (I still am) TERRIFIED to give birth. I could feel it in my entire body. I couldn’t wait to meet my child, but the idea of giving birth was making me sick. Physically sick.

It’s not something that happened overnight: I have always been afraid of giving birth. As a kid (around 4 or 5), I was already worried and I asked my mom if it was painful. She said ‘yes, but you forget once you have your baby’. Cut the crap, I knew I wouldn’t forget at all. I am extremely sensitive, I suffer from endometriosis, I had a trauma as a toddler (you don’t want the details, I swear, but it involves me falling and getting stitches where you don’t want to have stitches). Giving birth the natural way was a big fat NO.

When I got pregnant with my daughter at the end of 2020, I openly said to my OB-GYN that having a natural birth was out of question, and that having a C-section was the only option. He shrugged, and probably thought I was being eccentric. I met my midwife, I had the exact same discourse (I even included gruesome details), she asked me a couple of questions and then continued to explain to me all the steps of a natural birth. In France, you can’t simply ask for a C-section, you need a medical reason: my trauma, which I was able to talk about, was as real as a scar, but was not taking into consideration.

I never envisioned myself giving birth naturally: I told every professional that it was physically impossible for me. I didn’t want to tell them how to do their jobs, no, I wanted them to understand that psychologically, I couldn’t give birth naturally. I wanted to be heard and helped.

Up till my 8th month of pregnancy, Baby was badly positioned, and at the beginning of June, my OB-GYN told me that if she wasn’t moving soon, I would have my C-section. I felt so relieved, I felt the weight off my shoulders. I could breathe again. But at the following ultrasound, mid-June, Baby was positioned perfectly, and I was back to square one. I explained, once again, how scared I was, how the concept of episiotomy was terrifying (just thinking about it gives me goosebumps). Do you know what I have heard when I said that I was scared of episiotomy, to the point of having a phobia? ‘You shouldn’t.” Would you say ‘you shouldn’t’ to someone who is arachnophobic? No. ‘Giving birth is natural.’ Every time I heard this sentence, a part of me was screaming. I know it is. I didn’t ask for this crippling fear, I am trying to fight it and these platitudes are not helping.

Despite my plea, my request for a convenient C-section (that’s how it’s called in France) was denied and I started to look elsewhere for help: acupuncture, meditation, sophrology, I was even looking to get hypnotized (my appointment was scheduled but I gave birth in the meantime). I was fighting my phobia, I was trying to overcome it the best I could. Then, following a stressful OB-GYN appointment, out of the blue, I was induced.

I won’t go into details here, because it’s irrelevant. What is relevant to my story here is that my body shut down. My baby wasn’t growing anymore, my placenta was calcifying, I had to give birth, and my body shut down. Three times I was induced within 24 hours. My body didn’t respond. I had fake contractions at first (looks like real contractions, feels like real ones, but nothing moves), but soon enough, it stopped; my baby, on the other hand, was doing great. Strong heartbeat, strong moves. Nothing to worry about for now, but I had to deliver.

With my consent, my midwife broke my waters manually. My husband was holding my right hand, my OB-GYN my left. The second it happened, I wished to die. I couldn’t give birth naturally. I would be scarred for life, I wouldn’t be able to be intimate with my husband anymore, I couldn’t have more babies (it’s not the plan anyway, but you have the idea) if I was having a natural birth, even with an epidural. I cried so hard after, I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I finally calmed down, the anesthesiologist came, but I just couldn’t stop thinking. Would adrenaline be enough? When my OB-GYN came back to check on me, I saw his face becoming pale. Nothing had moved. The baby had to be delivered today, the whole calcified placenta thing was getting dangerous but my body refused to move an inch despite everything. I went through all this for NOTHING. This time, I looked at him and I asked him, begged him, to get a C-section. He agreed that it was the best decision, and a mere thirty minutes later, my daughter was born.

Tokophobia is not known. Giving birth is natural, why would someone be afraid of such a natural act? Once again, would you tell someone who is afraid of snakes or spiders that they are natural creatures that you shouldn’t be afraid of? I heard about women who were afraid, who refused to push and had to deliver with vacuum help. I heard about women who cried the whole time. Until it happened to me, I never heard about a woman whose body literally shut down by fear.

I warned every professional I had met that I was afraid. I wish I had been heard earlier, instead of feeling alone and afraid during most of my medical appointments and my birthing classes. I suggested early on that I see a therapist who would ensure that I was not faking it: I wouldn’t have heard that all I wanted was a ‘convenient’ birth.

But here’s the thing: having a C-section is not convenient. My belly was cut open, it’s not convenient, that’s even the opposite. I wish I wasn’t afraid, but it’s not something I have control over. I preserved myself, and my mental health, by requesting a C-section, and I am glad it happened: it is what matters after all. I didn’t give birth naturally, but I kept my sanity, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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