Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: October 2018

How do you know enough is enough?

Over the past two years, I taught a lot of students. I did face to face with high school students, worked in a bilingual primary school, taught a bunch of retired people, started to teach in a business school. I am not entirely confident still, but I am starting to know what is fine by me or not. Before I left for Yale, I started to teach General English to adults here in France. It was face to face, which wasn’t my choice, but it was just for a couple of days. I stopped face to face with high school students last year because I couldn’t cope with it anymore.

After I came back from the US, several adult learners asked me to come back. The first two weeks were fine, the students were well-rested, almost motivated. But rapidly, they cancelled last minute, didn’t show any interest and of course, couldn’t focus more than ten minutes in a row. They were never rude to me, but their minds were clearly off.

Here is my question today, folks: is it okay to just drop it? Can we say, as educators, “I don’t want to waste my time on you, because clearly, you don’t give a crap about me?” Because they don’t, I mean, they waste their time, I waste my time.  Why do they want to pay for a face to face class if they don’t want to work?

If a learner isn’t motivated, as a teacher, can we say “I am done?”

Because I am afraid I’ll do so pretty soon. I have realized recently that I wasn’t comfortable with face to face classes anymore. I prefer the thrill of a group, the challenge it can represent. Maybe I am growing up, changing, maybe I am just fed up with unmotivated students.

But how can I say “this is not for me anymore” when the industry is so tough? Who am I to say so?

Some thoughts on studying Second Language Acquisition

As a bilingual, and wannabe trilingual, I was on cloud nine to hear that my first MA’s module would be about SLA. A month later, here are some thoughts about it, as an EFL teacher.

  • We talk a lot about native like proficiency. Do they (our leaners) have that goal? Why are they learning the language in the first place? It seems like we talk a lot about what they won’t be able to do, but not what they want to achieve…
  • A huge point of SLA is the critical period. Basically, if you learn a language as an adult, you won’t be able to reach native like proficiency. What if the critical period wasn’t for language itself, as we have at least thousand examples of proficient adult learner, but for pronunciation? Joseph Conrad kept his Polish pronunciation but wrote incredibly novels in English.  Actually, he preferred to write in English than in Polish, as a lot of bilingual writers, like Elsa Triolet or Jack Kerouac. Yet, they kept an accent…
  • Let’s admit that some people will learn better than others. As some people are going to kill it math, others are going to fail math anyway, even if  they studied it for a long time (yeah, that’s my own example).  One of my students is learning English for years, but she knows she won’t do wonders. Our learners must be aware of their weaknesses and strengths.
  • What about motivation? We talk a lot about UG, Chomsky’s theories, Larry Selinker, but what about motivation itself? Determination can change everything, and yet, the factor is not developed…

These thoughts are purely mine, after a month studying it. I know it might sound a little bit dull, because I just started, and it looks like I grumble. I don’t! I just try to understand how I can use these informations with my students, and for now, I am afraid it’s still a bit blurry…

What about languages?

That’s one of the first questions my students asked me yesterday.

They know, as you probably know too, that I recently started my master in Applied Linguistics. Last Tuesday, France 2 broadcasted a documentary about languages and immigration, so they thought of me. The whole idea of that documentary was bilingualism and biculturalism: exactly what I am studying right now. The conversation was extremely pleasant, and we all had something to add on to it.

One of my students totally blossomed during that conversation, and explained her whole life story. Prepare to be blown, because I was, and I totally admire her.

She was born in Bulgaria, from Armenian parents. She learnt Armenian at home, but her childcare center was run in Bulgarian, so she picked up some Bulgarian. By the age of 4, she was able to speak with ease these two languages, but her family moved to France.

In addition, she learned French at school, continued to speak Armenian at home but stopped, little by little, to speak Bulgarian. Her two older sisters though, they continued to speak to each other in Bulgarian, just to annoy her! She totally forgot Bulgarian, and French became her dominant language, as she had to work in that language. She continued to speak to her parents in Armenian, and to write to her family back there in their language, by her own will (her sisters gave up at some point). She is now forced to check her vocabulary on a dictionary, as she lost her parents, and so reduced considerably her practice.

As you can guess, she added English to that mix, when she was around forty, because she was interested by the language itself. She practices once a week in my class, and told me yesterday that she spoke better English now than Armenian! Her level is English being a strong B2, she could totally live in England as well (and before Brexit, she was thinking about it!)

She is 68 years old, and managed to function in four different languages. If that’s not inspiring…

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