Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: April 2018


This morning, before going to my extremely fulfilling (and temporary) new waitressing job, I have read another article about education in France. Besides serving pizzas, I still have a two students who are taking in a few weeks the big bad exam called the BAC, and man, that’s harder than I thought. I mean, it’s harder to contain my frustration.

Lately, in France, there is a trend called “indulgence”. We must be indulgent to our pupils, for some reasons that I don’t get because last time I checked they had more than two brain cells. Basically, when it comes to English, it is becoming ridiculous, considering that one of the exam, called “listening comprehension”,  follows that procedure (and it’s been this way for six years now!):

-The student listens about a subject he/she already knows (because there is only four subjects possible)

-Then, he writes about it IN FRENCH

Yeah, I had the same reaction: what’s the point? They are studying English, not translation nor French as a Second Language. They also have a speaking test, but that one is a joke considering that they have to learn by heart a summary (which their teacher actually corrected months before) and then to recite it… to the same teacher; and a writing test, like writing a letter, an essay… I should also mention that, in average, a senior high schooler (it’s called a terminale in France) is having between two and three hours of English lessons per week.

I don’t care about how the French educational system works, actually, because I am not a part of it. What I care about is the students, and how this system is lying to them. One of my students is Gavin, whom I talked about in a previous post, and Gavin already knows that he is going to nail his exam, so he told me “Why bother? I do the bare minimum, and I’ll be fine!” He is 100% right. He is not encouraged, so why bother?

Being indulgent is not helping our pupils. When it comes to language, we cannot lie to them, or just arrange the truth. What is happening now is that they have good grades in English, but they are aware of their flaws. I recently talked to a bunch of them in the restaurant I am working on (they over heard me talking in English to American customers) and they were as frustrated as I was. Their fist question, after “where do you come from?”, was “how did you learn to talk?”

Learning a language isn’t only about getting good grades. Learning a language can open doors, but in France, apparently, these doors are sealed. Am I crazy to think that it’s not normal that a 17 years old in France, who is learning English for six years, is not able to utter a single sentence without preparing it before?

My friends tell me that I am too harsh because I am a language teacher, and I am expecting too much. That’s probably the case, but when I decided to  become a teacher, I decided that my students’ successes were the most important point and today, I realize that we are lowering the bar for nothing.

Education is not about being indulgent. Learning a language is not jumping through hoops. And English matters as much as mathematics and P.E.

What about culture?

It’s been a few weeks now that I am tutoring a high school student here in France. Let call him Gavin.

Gavin is a straight A student, he is learning English, Spanish and Chinese since he is 6 and he wants to be a professional interpreter. Gavin got his CAE last year, grade B. You get the idea: Gavin is high maintenance.

But Gavin doesn’t have the faintest idea about culture. He is great when it comes to language, don’t get me wrong, but don’t ask him (because I did) to write an essay about the US (the topic was “is it still the land of opportunity?”), because he won’t talk about freedom, or the West, or the self made man ideology. The kid knows about adverbs and present perfect, but doesn’t know who Queen Victoria is.

I am starting my MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics (at the University of Portsmouth) this September, so I already bought some books (An A – Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury) and started to read it. The word “acculturation”  suddenly appeared, followed by the sentence “Some researchers have claimed that the success in second language learning has a lot to do with the learner’s degree of acculturation into the second language culture”. Although, a lot of people are using “acculturation” under the name “socialization”.

As well, in Gavin’s case, we are not talking about English as an international language, but English as a foreign language, and culture is a key point (in the contrary of EIB). I am not saying that he should read the entire Pop Sugar Reading Challenge list; I am saying, learning a language means learning its history. A language is not a collection of words, there is history behind it, and as language “experts” (teachers, interpreters), we have to be aware of it.

How can we explain an idiom, or an expression if we have no idea what is it about?

That made me think about my German classes in middle school and high school. You may know that, but I tried to learn German unsuccessfully for years. Talking with Gavin made me realize that none of my German teachers included German culture in their lessons, which may be an explanation for my current reluctance towards the language now.

That, and declensions.

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