Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

What I have learned during my second year of teaching English as a Foreign Language

The academic year 2018-2019 seemed promising, after all. I had a new contract (teaching MA students), I had contracts with several training centers, I was starting my own MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go as planned.

As a teacher, I learned valuable lessons. I have realized that teaching one-to-one was clearly not for me, and I stopped very early on. My experience at Yale helped me design a new curriculum for my MA students, focused on speaking, and I have set reachable goals for each of them. I wanted them to feel safe, to find themselves a motivation and a reason to come. I wanted to make a difference, which sounds a little bit idealistic, but I think I succeeded with some of them. One of them wrote me a note, at the end of the semester, to say that my class was always enjoyable and that she had gained confidence to speak in English. It’s exactly the goal I tried to reach with them. With my seniors, we worked on a long-term project: a trip in London, which we planned for months, before actually go in April.

As a person, I also learned a lot. Being a teacher means that you can care too much about your learners; they are not only people you see every week, they also share a lot with you, you are involved within their progress. That’s why I don’t teach exams: I would be more stressed than my students! But this year, I experienced some health issues, and a training center basically told me that I shouldn’t stop to take care of myself. I had Lasik surgery (to get rid of my myopia), and my cornea was scratched in the process. I had to rest for three weeks, and obviously, I couldn’t drive. But that particular training center decided that it wasn’t a decent reason, and they literally accused me of being lazy. Needless to say, I left that training center ūüôā

As a student, I started my MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics in September. I quite enjoyed it, but I underestimated the amount of work I would have to do, which is 100% my fault, and also the fact that I would be completely alone. I cannot compare my MA with the previous long distance certificate I did before, such as the TKT, but I really thought that I would have some support. I failed my last paper, as I had too much work, so that was not a huge surprise, but anyway, I didn’t do the job. I applied for a MA with all these wonderful ideas, with that utopian vision, and now, I have realized that maybe I am not MA material after all.

One of the most important things I have learned this year is that I deeply care about my students, and why they are learning. I am involved in my classes, I spend a great deal preparing them, and I am always trying to learn new things. It’s interesting to read about Universal Grammar, but honestly, I know I’ll never use it in real life. Writing a Critical Literary Review on the difference between adults and children learners of English was not something I regret, but I would have preferred to write about adapting authentic material.

I am not done with my MA yet; first of all, I failed a paper, second of all, it is a long distance course, so it’s taking even more time than usual. I set an unreachable goal for myself, and I am considering focusing on my DELTA instead of doing both. Doing a DELTA was something I decided a long time ago; right after my CELTA, my teachers said that I should consider a DELTA. It is way more practical, it involved having a teaching practice, to write about a specific situation, to provide answers. Doing a DELTA was always my plan, and the idea to do a MA came second. I needed experience to apply for a DELTA, I didn’t need that much for my MA. Turns out, that experience was much needed, and I should have waited before starting my MA. Maybe also, a MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL is not what I need.

I am also TESOL France Lyon region coordinator, a job I took last September, but that I am not doing correctly. I organized some workshops, but I could do more, I could get involved more, but let’s be honest, I don’t have the time. And teaching is my priority, always. My students will always come first and foremost.

I am moving back to Bournemouth by the end of the week, to start the second module of the DELTA. I was supposed to take the first module this June, but I didn’t train enough and clearly, one failure was enough. I studied for the first module though, and I’ll take it in December.

Did I try too much this year? Yes.

Did I make a lot of mistakes this year? Yes.

Do I have to slow down? Yep.

I feel quite embarrassed to write that I had failed. I really thought I could have it all: to teach, to be a student again, to create workshops, to meet people, to go to conferences… I can’t. My priorities also changed, and I already know that I’ll work differently next academic year. If I had known how difficult that year would be, I would have stopped a lot of things beforehand.

However, I am now completely sure of the kind of teacher I want to be, and that one is valuable enough to make me feel (almost) okay.

We all have accents, get over it!

There is a huge trend nowadays: accents. How can we reduce them, how important are they, pretty much every media, from the Guardian, to the BBC has been mentioning accents. Why does it seem so important now? Are we really talking about accents, anyway?

To answer, I won’t take precautions. I am sorry to burst the bubble, but every damn soul on Earth has an accent. We are all different, we all come from different backgrounds, so yeah, we don’t speak the same way. And it’s fine, because as far as we are intelligible, there is literally no problem. I am not talking about grammar or vocabulary, but about intelligibility, only. At least three times a day, I see a job ad for a native speaker. Having a teaching certificate is less important than holding a passport from some countries. Rich countries, I should add, and white because if you have the audacity to be black, well, you can’t be a proper teacher (and now, I threw up a little in my mouth because some people actually think that).

A student of mine asked me, just last Friday, if I knew a native speaker who could teach her sons. I am a non-native speaker myself, they are aware of it, they seem fine with it, but she thought it was appropriate to ask deliberately about a native teacher. I said no, I don’t, but not only because I don’t know any YL teacher in Lyon, France, where I teach Business English, but also because I was shocked. I asked her why she wanted a native speaker so badly. “So my kids will get the correct accent.”

Spoiler alert: there is NO correct accent. The fact that you have a native speaker as a teacher won’t change anything to your accent, dear student, it’s not working this way. Your environment, your personality, your background, will shape your accent. Also, it changes, it’s not written in stone or something like that, it’s evolving with you. I speak French with a Parisian accent (but a Belgian one when I am tired), my mother speaks French with a Breton accent, and last time I checked, she is the one who raised me. “Our perceptions and production of speech change over time.” ( Esling. J, 1998)

The only reason we are speaking about accents right now, it’s because talking racism will be less tolerated. That’s the main problem with ELT, and it’s been around for a while. Being native doesn’t mean you have no accent, and the industry knows that, but hell, a school can charge more if the teacher is a native. As an individual, we cannot hear our own accents, it’s physiological. Others may sound funny to us, but nobody will say “hey, I have an accent when I speak, check it out!” We don’t want to hear that we have an accent, because that’s deeply personal. I felt attacked when a friend of mine said that my accent was “muddled”, and he realized it pretty quickly. He told me right after that he wanted to say that it was hard to figure out where I was coming from.

He is from Boston, and he is proud to say that he speaks like a true Bostonian. But to conclude that brief (and angry) piece, I would like to add that we traveled a lot together for the past year, in the US and in France, and I have heard way more people asking him to repeat, than asking me to do so.


Esling. J, Everyone has an accent but me in Language myths, 1998, Penguins: London

The Language Challenge: 2 years later…

If it’s very first time you are coming here, or if you don’t remember what I am about to tell you about, here’s some elements you need to know before going further:

-Two years ago, I read an article about a security guard who learned 6 languages at once, using apps and TV.

-There is a myth saying: the more you are learning languages, the easier it will become!

-I was about to leave my day job to become a language teacher, so it seemed important to become also a language learner.

The beginning of the experience

I started on the 2nd of May 2017, and I chose to start with Duolingo and Babbel. The two languages I picked were Italian and German, because I had already some notions (my dad is Italian, and I had German classes for years, I was basically A1). The first trimester went pretty well, and I actually preferred German over Italian for a couple of months. I stopped using Babbel rapidly, but kept Duolingo so I bought books instead (Harraps, Lonely Planet, Assimil…). I was working one hour a day on it, every day. The plan, at that precise moment, was to start on another language, completely different from the others, later on. I chose Japanese mostly because a friend of mine gave me her books and because I had a Japanese acquaintance who teaches Japanese as a foreign language.

Real life strikes back!

In July 2017, I moved to the UK and started my CELTA. All of the sudden, I didn’t have one hour to devote to Italian nor German, and I dropped from using several techniques to only using Duolingo for one or two exercises a day. I sometimes even preferred to work on my German, but the exercises I was doing were not exactly interesting nor useful. After I got hired at BEET language center, I worked more regularly, and I felt a real improvement in both languages.

But I moved back to France, started to teach in companies, and slowly, I realized that my Italian was getting stronger than my German. I went back to Italy to see my parents and¬† I was able to speak with pretty much everybody (random stuff: “where is the parking lot?” “when does the show start?” “I am a teacher, what’s your job?”) and that cheered me up. I had a personal reason to learn Italian,¬† and my motivation did the trick: I was not afraid to speak, to make mistakes, all I wanted to do was to practice. Somehow, it didn’t work that well for German, and despite having German friends, I was never truly able to utter a complete sentence. I stopped gradually to learn German, realizing that I was too afraid of making mistakes, that I didn’t have time to devote to its learning, that I needed a teacher. At least, I know what went wrong. It’s been more than a year now that I stopped German, and I am pretty sure that I won’t try again, because I have realized, also, that the way I started to learn it, fifteen years ago, shaped my way of seeing the language, and I am afraid I can’t get over it.

What about Japanese, then? 

As I previously said, the original plan was to start Japanese in December 2017. Considering that I had a lot of work, and that I was struggling to learn German, I decided to postpone the experience until Spring 2018. It got postponed again, and well, I just decided to give up. Trying to learn an entire language all by myself was impossible back then, especially without help.

German is ditched, Japanese didn’t work out, so that’s it?

Something weird happened though, and makes me think again about the way I was seeing languages. Last summer, I attended Yale’s TESOL session, and some of my friends were Spanish speaker. I realized that I could understand a few words, sometimes even a sentence. I started to watch¬†Jane the Virgin, which is a TV show set in Florida, where the protagonists speak in English and in Spanish. The strangest moment occurred when I started to¬†dream in Spanish. A friend of mine tried to convince me to learn Spanish for real, but I was too busy to think about it seriously.

On the other hand, at Yale, I was glad to be able to talk in Italian every day, even if it was only for 5 minutes, with my Italian friends. I started to read Italian books there (for kids, let’s be honest) as well.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t speak French at all there. I used it only one minute to snap at a despising, mean and arrogant Belgian teenager who had spent the entire hour insulting people in French, thinking that nobody, but his buddies, could understand him. Rat√©.¬†

So, Spanish?

After Yale, I stayed a month in the US, continued to work on my Italian with Duolingo, but didn’t think about Spanish at all, despite the fact that I could understand what Spanish speakers were saying most of the time.

In January, my husband surprised me for my 30th birthday with a trip to Punta Cana. Most tourists there were Italians, which caused a very funny scene where an Italian organizer tried to recruit me for her yoga class, because we were sitting on the Italian side of the beach… And because I spoke only Italian to her, she thought that I was just being lazy, until my husband spoke to me in French! (so after, I was still lazy BUT proud of myself)

Anyway, back to Spanish. Everybody (hotel employees etc…) there spoke Spanish, and it became frustrating to be able to understand 80% of what they were saying but to answer in Italian. Back at home, I decided to start to work on my Spanish.

What now? 

I still religiously learn Italian: I am around B1+ now. I can follow an episode of¬†Baby on Netflix in Italian with Italian subtitles! I can still be tricky because of the speed, but I feel more confident than before, even though there is still a lot to do. I don’t learn Italian because I want to write an essay, nothing as fancy. I just want to be able to talk with people on various subjects, to be understandable, to read a simple book (Elena Ferrante is out of my league for now), to follow an episode of a show without having to concentrate. I am quite proud of the results, to be perfectly honest!

Spanish is interesting, also because I love the prosody of it. It is still tricky for me because I never talk in Spanish. I do my exercises on Duolingo, I watch Spanish TV shows (with English subtitles, I am afraid). I didn’t set a precise goal for myself, I just learn it because I like it, and I am fine with it.

There is another language that I am interested in. I don’t really have the time right now to focus on it, but I’ll enjoy hearing it, and I am trying to practice with my sister in law whenever it’s possible: it’s Russian. Is it because she is Russian? Is that because I like the prosody of it, as I like the Spanish one? Is it because she told me that my pronunciation was on point?

If you managed to arrive here, thank you for reading this rather long post! I hope that you didn’t fall asleep while doing so, and that I didn’t sound so naive or clich√©. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions, or to comment the article!

L2 acquisition and heritage language

Most researchers tend to say that native like pronunciation of an L2 generally requires exposure during childhood. Qualitative exposure, I mean. Most people, those who don’t study languages, think any exposure is fine enough, an element I strongly disagree with.

I recently read an article about “heritage language”. I don’t know if you recall this, but for the past two years, I have been trying to learn languages on my own, as it is said that learning only gets easier once you get the habit of it. I started with Italian and German, and added Spanish on the way (and kissed German bye bye FOREVER, I’ll explain more later). This research I read investigated “the acquisition of Spanish by college students who had overheard the language as children, but who did not otherwise speak or understand Spanish.” (Au, Knightly, Jun, Oh, 2002)

The “overhearers” were compared to people with no exposure at all: their results are clearly better when it comes to pronunciation, but not necessarily when it comes to grammar. In other words, it is easier, according to that research, to learn a language you feel a connection with, and not a language school, or sometimes life, forces you to study.

As I said above, and in numerous articles before, I am learning Italian, it’s been 2 years now and I became fairly good (I won’t write an article such as this one in Italian anytime soon, but that’s my goal nonetheless). The fact that it’s technically my heritage language clearly helped, but not only. I had a deep motivation, which I still have, as I have a personal reason to learn that particular language (it’s my father’s mother tongue, and my parents moved to Italy recently). Heritage language learning is also about that, a personal link that the student can have with the language: it may be because the student overheard his/her grandparents talking in that language, it may be because the student is interested by his/her own family history. Details may vary.

A student of mine was forced to choose Russian over Portuguese, as she is currently studying in a management school. She doesn’t care a bit about Russian, but she wants her CV to be more interesting, so she chose Russian, despite the fact that her grand mother was Portuguese. She started only last September, and she already regrets her choice, as she feels no connection towards Russian, but likes to hear people speaking in Portuguese.

The point is: all languages matters. Choosing to learn a¬† specific language over another is personal, and nobody should say that one language is better than another. I have been told for years that it would have been smarter to fully commit to German, and I felt like a failure because of my lack of results. Turns out, I ditched German, turned to Spanish, and I don’t regret it a bit.

I guess I needed a deeper motivation, and we forget, most of the time, the importance of it. We cannot force someone to learn if that someone is reluctant to do so. Motivation, along with aptitude, is “one of the most important factors determining L2 success”.¬† (Gass, Behney, Plonsky, 2013). If you don’t want to learn a language, the fact that you are young, or your CV will be more interesting, or your parents pay for it (that is often the case for YL or teenagers) won’t be enough to motivate you.


Au. T, Knightly. L, Jun. S, Oh. J, in press. “Overhearing a language during Childhood”,¬†Psychological science,¬†2002

Fromkin. V, Rodman. R, Hyams. N, An Introduction to Language, 7th edition,  2003, Heinle: Boston

Gass. S, Behney. J, Plonsky. L, Second Language Acquisition, 4th edition, 2013, Routledge: NY

A few words about our London field trip

I am afraid an essay would be more appropriate to talk about my seniors’ field trip to London last week, but I’ll try to sum up.

We left on Tuesday late afternoon, without any troubles, the flight went smoothly, we arrived right on time at the restaurant. The schedule had been defined weeks in advance:

Day 1 (morning to mid afternoon)¬† Group A (the extra teacher’s group)¬† : British museum/ Group B (my group): Madame Tussauds and the Sherlock Holmes museum. Then, both groups were supposed to meet in Camden. That was the plan.

That didn’t exactly happen like that. Due to traffic, Group B arrived one hour late to Baker Street, causing a major delay. The whole “mid afternoon” element was taken extremely seriously by Group A, which means that at 3:03 pm, I received phone calls saying that Group A was waiting for Group B. That was the only bum note of that day.

Day 2 was utterly different, because I realized that I needed to be more structured. Managing kids and managing adults is not that different after all: “be careful when you cross the street” “don’t walk away from the group” “watch your belongings”… It was funnier than the day before, but we couldn’t do everything we had initially planned. We visited Trafalgar, St James’ Park, we wandered around Buckingham Palace and ended up in Westminster, where we ate in a Pret a Manger. We were supposed to go to the Tower of London, but we all went to Kensington Palace instead.

Some of my students decided to finish the day in a pub, and the others (including their beloved teacher, aka me) went to Motown, a musical about the eponymous label. I was especially glad when I realized that one of my students had spent the entire evening talking to a Yorkshire native (without my help)!

Day 3 was more challenging because everybody was tired, everybody had something else in mind and well, that led to some strange situations. That’s how I realized that managing people was definitely harder than what I expected (I used to manage a small team when I was in real estate, not 12!). I even had to yell so loudly in Victoria Rail Station than fifty people looked around, confused: half of my students didn’t listen to my announcement (“our train is platform 14”) and entered in the wrong train (platform 15)! Fortunately, the employees helped us finding them, but it was a close call.

In overall, they enjoyed the experience, I learned a lot (about patience, mostly), and they all asked me to organize another field trip next year!

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