Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: February 2019

I teach seniors, and I love it

It was not my plan to teach seniors, quite the opposite. The first plan was to teach, as many young language teachers, Young Learners. You may remember that my first job after my TKT was in a bilingual primary school, as a substitute teacher. I would have loved to stay but that didn’t work out after all (my passport was not the right color). Just a few days after I heard that my application has been turned down, I received a phone call from a local association of retired people.

« We are looking for a qualified trainer, to teach us general English. We have a bunch interested but it may not work long term, we have to give it a try. We need someone who can explain in French and in English.»

That was in July 2017.

In September 2017, 25 students enrolled, and the adventure started.

In September 2018, 95 enrolled.

Teaching seniors is very specific. They don’t need to take an exam, to speak professionally, to write emails. They want to communicate, to help grandchildren with their homework, to understand something in a menu, at the airport… It must be practical. They have a deeper motivation, I think, as they took the decision to be learners again by themselves and they set their own goals. They are not here because someone forced them to be: they want to be here.

It must be relaxed. Seniors are less stressed but not less busy! They want to learn and that changed everything. They are not afraid to ask questions because they have seen worse. That also sometimes means that they cannot stop talking about their previous experiences.

Discipline within the classroom is another experience itself!

I had the worst moment of my teaching career with some of them. I assessed their levels at the beginning of the year to split the big group in two: beginners and intermediate (basically A0-A1 and A2-B1). One of the beginners decided that he was intermediate and showed up at the intermediate class. During that class, he spent the entire time googling every word written on the whiteboard. His goal was clear: proving that I wasn’t a good teacher.

He also told me, very loudly, that I wasn’t a real teacher because my degrees were not French but English and American. Visibly, he thought that he could do the hell he wanted because he wanted to do so. I did not have the time to say anything back: another student called him off (quite violently, for someone over 75 years old). He never came back.

Since last September, I teach two groups of beginners, two groups of intermediate and a group of advanced students. There is between 10 and 15 students per class, with basically the same background profile. Seniors who want to learn English are most of the time curious and they are not afraid to provide examples or input.

It also means that, for the beginners, the structure plays an important role. It must be clear and efficient, they need to know where you are going and what is the goal. Can they use it rapidly? Is it too complex? Is it useful? The way you structure a lesson is utterly different. They will need a routine, to revise the vocabulary previously seen in class, they will need (I should say « ask for ») grammar exercises.

Being bilingual is a huge advantage. Mostly, they are going to compare English with their native tongue. They want to relate to another learner, if possible, a successful one. If you, the teacher, cannot provide the answers to their numerous questions, they will grow out of interest quickly (true story, they ask a question and wait for the answer, and just don’t listen the rest)

Why can’t we find a course book designed for SL (senior learners) but a million or so about YL? Because they won’t take an exam at the end. Because the market is not interested. Because there is less money to make.

Even though, I wouldn’t leave my gig. I genuinely love my students, and the relationship I developed with them couldn’t be possible with another kind of learners.

Can we prefer a language?

Being bilingual is far from being extraordinary: being monolingual is way more rare than the opposite. The context in which you have to use the L1 or the L2 differs most of the time, as your link to the language. As student of mine is from Armenia: she used to speak Armenian at home, French at school (then at work) and she learned English by pure pleasure. I asked her to rank her languages by fondness: Armenian was first, English was second and French was third.

She told me “Armenian was the language of my family, and of my native country, it has a special place in my heart. I chose to learn English. I didn’t choose French, I had to learn it.” The affective factor is not always taken into consideration when it comes to language, yet, it plays a part.

In 1928, Dr Minkowski of Zurich, Switzerland, published a paper entitled “the case of a multilingual aphasic”. To sum up, he studied the case of a Swiss patient whose mother tongue was Swiss German . At 49 years old, the patient had an apoplectic stroke with loss of consciousness. Minkowski (1928, p.130) wrote “the patient began to speak again two or three days after the fit, but to anyone surprise, he spoke in the beginning only French.”

The doctor dig up the personal history of the patient: his mother tongue was undeniably Swiss German, but at the age of nineteen, he moved to France, where he worked and met someone. He remained six years in France, then went back to Zurich, where he married someone else. He never talked in French again, only in Swiss German and German (mostly for formal activities, which is common in Switzerland). The patient explained that the most beautiful years of his life had been spent in France. His preferred language was French, so despite not using it much, he remained a strong francophile.

Can we talk about “love” when it comes to languages? Can we, as teachers, provoke that love? Despite being French, I prefer to talk and write in English, mostly because I feel awkward writing in French (it’s so pompous, I cannot stand my own style). Some researchers think that the bilingual person change personality when changing language, others think that the bilingual person simply adjusts to the social environment.

Is the attitude towards a language enough to provoke a better acquisition (or learning)?

In that case, now would be the time to change the way we are teaching languages to generate a positive attitude toward the target language…



Minkowski. M, 1928, Sur un cas d’aphasie chez un polyglotte in Revue neurologique, p.130.

Grosjean.F, 1982, Life with two languages, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

A little more about the upcoming Lyon TESOL workshop!

Last September, I became the new Lyon region coordinator of TESOL France. I have been teaching for two years full time now, and I was lucky enough to meet really early on members of TESOL France (my former teacher at the University of Grenoble was then president) who really showed me how important these teachers’ associations could be.

Let’s be honest, in France, being an English teacher mostly means that you work for the national education system. Private English teachers are not exactly well-considered, and most of the time, you have to show your passport before getting a job interview (things are actually changing, so let’s keep our fingers crossed).

Next month, on the 9th of March, there will be the first workshop of the year. It will be held in a local school, as the manager is kind enough to lend us a room. The title is Working abroad: From brain drain to brain gain and it will be presented by Aymen Elsheikh, PhD, from Texas A&M University at Qatar.

Aymen himself wrote a few words about this workshop:

Due to globalization and the spread of English as the international language of economy and business, an increasing number of expatriate teachers (those who live and work outside of their home countries) of English are found today around the world. As global patterns of migration and human mobility are increasing, it is imperative to examine and reflect on the lives of teachers in these global contexts if we are to understand the diversity of the teaching and learning processes. In this workshop, I reflect on my own experience as an expatriate teacher from the Periphery (i.e., Sudan) and how the experience has been transformed from “brain drain to a brain gain”. In so doing, I also share findings of an ongoing study which examines the collaboration practices between expatriate English language teachers and teachers from their home countries through involvement in different professional development activities. Throughout the workshop, the participants will be invited to share and reflect on their own experiences as expatriate teachers. The workshop will conclude with discussing challenges and opportunities which result from living and teaching abroad.

I know I will sound stupid and childish, but I am so excited to organize such a workshop!

Why do we need to teach about culture?

If you are following this little website for a moment, you might have realized by now that I have something for culture. I wrote a previous article about how to teach culture through art, a point that I will develop soon during a poster presentation at the LAIC. But what is really culture? Why do we care about culture when our job is teaching a language? Why do we care about something else than grammar and functions?

(Yes, I know the last one is cliché. But it was actually a genuine question from a student last week.)

Culture and language are tightly linked: we wouldn’t have intercultural management books and classes otherwise. When it comes to the English language classroom, we will mention the folklore (Halloween, Guy Fawkes’ Day), the famous writers (So, Shakespeare 99% of the time, the last 1% being devoted to Oscar Wilde or even sometimes, Jane Austen!) maybe the culinary habits (marmite!).

But talking about gender roles, body language, work ethic ?

Knowing more about culture helps to understand the language. It will be foolish to assume that we all need to speak about Queen Victoria from now on (only to mention that she was a non-native speaker and that nobody gave her hell for that, at least in public) or about the British civilization only. English doesn’t belong to England, or to the UK in general anymore. What kind of English our learners needs to know?

That would be an interesting first question. In which context do you, dear learner, use English? The answer will shape the rest. As teachers, we can guide the student towards his/her path, but at the end, the student will need to be autonomous.

It will be gullible to think that all learners will need the same elements. The reasons learners are enrolling to English classes are wide, and I guess only one-to-one classes are possible to reach that goal. Unfortunately, not everybody likes that (I, for one, hate it) or can do it anyway. So, what can we teach nonetheless? We can involve the students, by making them choose a specific point, like beliefs and values. By doing so, we are making them autonomous, which is the ultimate goal, after all.

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