Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: May 2018

Happy teaching anniversary to me!

Warning: cheesy post (sorry!)

This month marks my first year anniversary as a teacher, and I can’t believe how fast it went, or how crazy it has been. It seems like I quit my real estate job six months ago, and I still consider myself as a newbie teacher!

I had some ideologies when I decided to become a teacher: that my students would always come first, that I will always try to create a personalized content, that I will make them feel at ease. I grew up in schools, and I know how they work: I wasn’t afraid to take the plunge.

But I didn’t end up in a school. I did a two months internship in a primary school, I loved it, I loved the students, I thought that it was too perfect to be true. After the director told me that she couldn’t hire me, despite a vacancy, because of my citizenship, and the fact that I was non native (and despite the fact that the kids had no idea that I was French), I left France for England, and took a CELTA.

I wrote several times about my CELTA, already, and I won’t do it again here. You may know that I became a freelance teacher in Lyon.

Being a freelance teacher in France is far from easy, and I realized too late that it was not made for me. I always imagined myself teaching in an institution, in a school, with a team surrounding me and within a structure. Being a freelance teacher, right after CELTA, was presumptuous, and led me to believe that I wasn’t good enough. The day I took a waitressing job because I didn’t have students left was one of the worst I ever had (it was also temporary, I resigned two weeks later because I had found new students).

These past twelve (almost thirteen now) months taught me more about myself than I ever experienced. I wanted to do a MA for a long time, but I didn’t know which one to choose (for the record, I started a master in marketing and left after a few months, seven years ago) and these past events made me realize that what was moving me was Second Language Acquisition, and not only teaching English as a Foreign Language. I am starting my MA next September, distance learning, through the University of Portsmouth.

That year has been rough, but I met incredible students, I witnessed some incredible efforts, and I tried to mix it up a little (I even wrote an article in EL Gazette!). In a few weeks, I will start a new adventure, one I dreamed about for years; Yale’s TEFL seminar begins on the 25th of June.

The journey is far from being over, I still a long path ahead of me but I have to admit: I can’t wait to write about my second year anniversary.

An interesting weekend

(This post is unusual, I know)

Last week, due to numerous bank holidays in France, I had nothing to do (yes, it happens sometimes) so I went to Italy to visit my parents, who are living in a tiny village in Valle d’Aosta.  They have new neighbors since January, and I knew they weren’t Italians (my village is multicultural despite being tiny: Frenchs, Italians, Russians and even a Polish woman are living there): the woman is actually American.

So, of course, when I met her on the street, I talked to her in English, which is easier for me than Italian. She looked confused, looked around her and stammered back. I was really surprised, but I continued to talk. After three minutes, she finally said “well, my father is American, I have an American passport, but I have been in the US only once, and I never talk in English. You speak better English than I do!”

She, then, proceeded to talk to me in Italian, which was clearly better than her English. My mom was astonished, as I was. I finally asked her ” What’s your mother tongue?” (I never use the term “native speaker”). She sighed and said “Technically, it’s English, but since childhood, I always talk in Italian, I guess it’s now Italian”

My last question was “If I wake you up in the middle of the night, in which language are going to curse me?”

You already know the answer: “Italian.”

I am currently reading a lot of books and articles about bilingualism, as I am starting my MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics in September, and the notion of “native speaker” is often discussed. We already know that the term itself was coined during the eighties, and the actual definition varies. Technically speaking, my parents’ neighbor is a native speaker of English, but she doesn’t know its grammar rules, and isn’t comfortable talking in English at all. (If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I’ll curse in English (believe me, it happened more than once) despite being a French person raised by a French mother and an Italian father.)

Considering that being monolingual isn’t the norm, but quite the opposite now, can we still use the term “native speaker”? Or can we use the term “habitus speaker”, which would mean that the habit prevails over the citizenship?

Or can we just agree that schools and institutions are using this excuse to discriminate teachers and to pay them less?

The case of Business English

For those who are following my blog for the past year, I am sure you are aware of the fact that I followed a CertIBET course this January in London. You may also be aware that before being an English teacher, I worked in real estate for six years, and before that, in the fashion industry. Specializing in Business English seemed to be the perfect path, considering my background. 

Right after my CELTA, I came back to France to teach General and Business English, but I didn’t feel legitimate, and I really thought I needed to know more. I applied to International House, got in, and left for London. That was a few months ago, and strangely, I still have mixed feelings about it. 

Truth is, most of our students right now don’t have the required level to start Business English. Companies don’t want to hear that, because they don’t even get what is Business and General English, let along the differences between them.  Most of the course books are designed for strong A2/B1 at the bare minimum, but most of my students are A1/A2, which means I cannot really use them properly. 

What I learned doing the course was mostly what I already discovered all by myself, it was just a confirmation. As a Business English teacher, you need to be flexible, and to adapt yourself and the content of your lesson. You actually don’t have a choice, or your student will stop listening to you anyway. You are not the priority, you are more an accessory to their jobs, that means you are the first thing they are going to remove from their timetable if it gets too busy. 

Most of our students don’t know what “kind “of English they will need in the future: social? small talk? purely down-to-earth business like presentation or negotiation? When you ask that precise question: “Why do you need Business English for?” The answer will be, most likely, “Oh, everything.”

The CertIBET lasted two weeks and I was incredibly tired at the end of it, but now, I honestly think this was not enough at all. We brushed the surface, but the subject was so dense that we didn’t actually dig deeper. We didn’t talk about the coaching trend (Helen Cherry from York gave a great speech about it last November at the TESOL Colloquium) or how to coach effectively students in that order. We remained pretty generic, about how to adapt authentic material and to create a class around cross cultural awareness. 

Even though I think we deserved more time on some subjects, we spoke a lot about English as a Lingua Franca and as a International Language. I was the only non native speaker from that CertIBET session, so this lecture had another taste for me than for the others. When it comes to Business English, most of the interaction our students will have are going to be with non native speakers, it’s something we need to take in consideration. It’s sometimes okay to skip on a specific grammar point, because their clients won’t get it anyway. It’s okay to avoid confusion, because our students don’t want to write essays, but quick emails, 99% of the time.

We cannot be an expert in all domains, even if we have time to check out the students’ work field. I consider myself good when it comes to real estate, finance and management, because I have some experience on it, but I am far from being an expert, and I cannot become one over the weekend. Our expertise is the English Language, and the student is going to teach you about their own area of expertise. Personally, I am not interested into metalworking industry, but since some of my students are working in this area, I let them explain to me what they are doing. Trying to fool them would be a rookie mistake, they know we cannot be expert in everything and just claiming “how I just love talking about soldering” would not make them appreciate you, I swear. 

The future of ELT is uncertain, but so is the future of Business English, if not blurriest. I realized something incredibly important during my CertIBET: I don’t want to confine myself into BE. I didn’t hand over my assignment, actually, because writing about it just felt dull and millions miles away from what I have been living. I like teaching in companies, I like teaching one to one, but I wouldn’t call that strictly Business English. To be honest, I prefer to say nowadays that I can teach ESP, English for Specific Purposes, but it is just one of the strings I have in my arrow. 

The Language Experience: it’s been a year already!

I made it! A year after I decided to learn new languages, starting by two of them, which I already “knew”, here we are, and boy, that’s been an adventure. If you remember correctly the beginning of the journey, I wanted to study Italian and German for a few months, simultaneously, and then, to add another language (I even chose Japanese and searched for a teacher).

But it didn’t happen this way, and my experiment took another turn. I dropped German after seven or eight months, because I couldn’t do it anymore; I had no time to study, I was making silly mistakes, I didn’t feel any progress. In a word, I was demotivated. I felt like crap when I stopped, because I thought I was stronger than that, and that quitting was not a part of the experience. It was difficult to admit that I couldn’t continue, not without a teacher, not alone, but I do understand why I had to stop. I don’t know anything about Germany, the culture, the history, I talked about it on a previous article, I don’t feel concerned when it comes to German. It’s not for me, I guess. I highly doubt I will study German ever again, but at least, I tried.

On the other hand, Italian is now a part of my routine. Waking up, checking Facebook, doing my Italian exercise, showering, in that order, every morning, for a year now. Even if my level didn’t significantly improved since the last article I wrote about it, I am still proud of myself: I am understandable, I understand the language, I can follow a simple conversation and read a simple text. I don’t need more for now.

Japanese is out of the picture, despite the numerous books I have.

I recently started Russian, because my sister in law is Russian and she is been trying to teach me some Russian for years now (and apparently, my pronunciation is good for a French person). For now, I am just able to say “Hello, I am learning Russian, sorry, bye”, but it’s not that bad, considering how hectic my timetable is lately. I enjoy learning it, at my speed, reading about the culture, without pressure.

Finally, something happened a week ago. I was talking to two American girls in the restaurant I was working in, and a customer talked to me in Spanish. I never learned Spanish, I just watched heavily Jane the Virgin (for the record, half of the show is in Spanish) but somehow, I was able to understand AND to answer his question, fairly simply, I must admit. He was impressed, but not as I was (I just hide it better). I realized that hearing the language, which is extremely close to French and Italian, made me understand the meaning and because I probably heard the question previously, I was able to give a simple, but understandable answer. It was not a magic trick, but an unconscious response from my brain.

Why do we learn languages? To be understandable, to be able to work, to write essays, to read novels in their original version?To make our lives easier? Why are our students learning? Why is it easier to learn a language in particular?

How can we train our brain efficiently?

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