Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: March 2018

Is our nationality a matter of linguistics?

I didn’t plan to write about linguistics (my initial plan was to write about the CertIBET and the assignment I still have to write) but I read this article on The Guardian, which you can find here https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/24/elena-ferrante-on-italian-language-identity

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist (Neapolitan Novels among others), whose work has been considered as influential, and who keeps her identity a secret since 1992. The Guardian managed to get some words from her (we are not even sure she is a “she”, she might be an invention from several writers), on one particular theme: what makes her Italian.  Being half Italian myself, I was, of course, hooked.

‘Yes, I’m Italian – but I’m not loud, I don’t gesticulate and I’m not good with pizza’

That’s the headline: thank you very much for this amount of clichés, but last time I checked, a lot of Italian people were like this. Being French doesn’t mean you wear a beret, while you are playing accordion with a baguette under your arm. Being English doesn’t mean you drink tea all day long, wearing tweed and muttering “sorry” every damn minute. I could do that with every citizenship, I guess.

The baseline of the article was no better : “Being Italian, for me, begins and ends with the fact that I speak and write in the Italian language.”

What about multilingual people? Do we switch nationalities every time we switch languages? I asked myself if nationalities were depending on the language or if it was just an accessory, despite the fact a language is shaped by history, geography, culture (I am paraphrasing Ms Ferrante with these words).  Do we have a linguistic nationality? But what about our own choices?

I grew up equally between France and Italy, therefore I prefer to express myself in English. What does it make me? Schizophrenic?

Actually, I do understand why Elena Ferrante use her native tongue (I hate using that expression) to justify her citizenship. I would have said something else to justify it: it’s where you have been born. I don’t feel French (I already wrote about this on a previous article) nonetheless it’s written on my passport.

“When I say that I’m Italian because I write in Italian, I mean that I’m fully Italian – but Italian in the only way that I’m willing to attribute to myself a nationality” : I am always suspicious when people are bragging about their nationality, by the way. It’s not something you can brag about: you don’t choose being American, Italian or French.

Personally, I avoid people who are proudly wearing a pendant shaped in a country, any country. It is as stupid as bragging about being tall, or being blonde or having freckles. It is not a choice you have made. Using linguistics to justify your citizenship could be seen as a way, but why justifying the citizenship in the first place? It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter.

The diary of a newbie teacher: 6 months of being a freelancer

If you are reading my blog for a long time, first of all, thank you, second of all, you may be aware of the fact that I am a freelance English teacher in France.

I didn’t want to be a freelancer: I hate paperwork, I hate invoices, I hate searching for clients. Unfortunately, life decides by itself and right after I came back from Britain, I became a freelance English teacher. What does it mean? It means that I am working for several clients, that my schedule is changing all the time, that I can cancel a class without giving a reason, so can my clients/ students, and that I never know what I am going to receive as a payment at the end of the month.

Being freelance in France is not easy: this country just worships paperwork. You have to fill numerous forms, you have to attend a seminar, you have to check a million times if you are doing everything properly, you have to promise to give your first born to the devil (okay, not that last one, I admit)… Being freelance is more about filling forms than actually teaching.

It also means no safety: fortunately, I found some decent contracts, and I pretty much know what I am going to get by the end of the month. That’s, of course, if the accountant doesn’t forget to pay you when she is supposed to. The customers don’t care about your rent, your gas, all they care about is if you are able to teach that precise group on that precise day.

I mostly work for a training centre, fortunately, that means I don’t have to search for contracts by myself. I have great colleagues there, but it’s not the same as belonging to an actual school. I am the freelance girl, despite everything, if something goes wrong, I am the first to go. Training centers are under a lot of pressure lately, because the laws are changing, which means I am under pressure right now.

I have some thoughts about teaching in companies. Most of the time, I really enjoy it, because I meet a lot of people but lately, I am annoyed. Maybe it’s because a lot of my classes got cancelled over every damn reason possible (“I have a meeting.” “I didn’t find someone to replace me.” “I am going on holidays.” “I am too busy to learn English…”), or maybe I think the right conditions are not reunited and the learning process is too complicated. I do understand why they are cancelling: I worked in a company once too. But I feel like they cannot commit for more than three months; after three months, it’s not funny anymore, you are still asking attention and they want to think about something else.

I am also teaching a bunch of retired people, who are just exquisite, and that I couldn’t have taught if I wasn’t a freelance teacher. My oldest student is 76, she travels her entire life, she shares her memories, she brings every week a new topic, and she is the sweetest person I ever met in my entire life.

The perks of being a freelance are numerous, but the happy encounters we make are a huge benefit.

I took the IELTS and I survived !

Remember when I said that I wanted to do a MA right after CELTA, last year? I didn’t know about the IELTS yet, I was naive enough to think that my Proficiency Certificate from Cambridge would be enough. But sadly, it wasn’t the case, so I bought some books about IELTS and I planned to take it in December.

Spoiler alert: I couldn’t. I started a teaching job in September and I just couldn’t find time to study. In the mean time, I applied to my dream university, Yale, crossed all my fingers, wrote the best cover letter I have ever written (that’s my personal opinion, but still) and I GOT IN.

IELTS was still a requirement for my MA, but I couldn’t focus on it and I never managed to find time to practice, until February. I was thinking, well, either I know, either I don’t, and I don’t, I don’t know why I am an English teacher.

I was scheduled to take my test by the end of February, so by the end of January, when I was in London, I went to Foyles and I found some other books. All the books I bought for IELTS in France were useless (sorry, but it’s true.).  I found at Foyles Vocabulary for IELTS (great for the writing part, it provides really specific vocab) and IELTS Practice Material (I am not getting paid to say that).

I didn’t do a lot of practice, to be honest, but I tried to read more than usual and more specifically, read more the kind of books that I would have never read normally, to get vocabulary (which means that I read something else than historical biographies and Bill Bryson’s work for four months at least) and I subscribed to the New York Times. That’s all I did for reading, I didn’t reinvent the wheel here.

For the listening part, same, I just watched movies, a lot of movies, from everywhere, with different accents and different situation (stress, pronunciation..). I did one practice test and that’s all. (I understood most of Darkest Hour so I was reassured about it!). I also listened to podcasts, but I didn’t like it.

For the writing part, I wasn’t confident, because writing is not my forte,  speaking is. I didn’t really know what to do, and how to practice it, so I thought reading would help anyway. I know I am not supposed to say that, as a teacher, but I didn’t practice writing.

I was really surprised to meet a lot of people during the test who had no idea what the scores meant. A lot of parents were pressuring their kids, a lot of kids were taking the test for the second or the third time and I was in the middle of it, vaguely amused by the British Council staff and the whole environment. One of the girl actually threw up because she was stressing out.

I got my results yesterday, and I am pleased to say that I nailed it (my personal challenge was 8, I got 8 in overall, so I can say that I nailed it, right?) and now, I have a ton of questions about MA, because the whole point of IELTS is to do a MA, not just having a piece of paper.

Dear readers, if you have any recommendation about distance learning MA, I am all ears.


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