Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: April 2019

L2 acquisition and heritage language

Most researchers tend to say that native like pronunciation of an L2 generally requires exposure during childhood. Qualitative exposure, I mean. Most people, those who don’t study languages, think any exposure is fine enough, an element I strongly disagree with.

I recently read an article about “heritage language”. I don’t know if you recall this, but for the past two years, I have been trying to learn languages on my own, as it is said that learning only gets easier once you get the habit of it. I started with Italian and German, and added Spanish on the way (and kissed German bye bye FOREVER, I’ll explain more later). This research I read investigated “the acquisition of Spanish by college students who had overheard the language as children, but who did not otherwise speak or understand Spanish.” (Au, Knightly, Jun, Oh, 2002)

The “overhearers” were compared to people with no exposure at all: their results are clearly better when it comes to pronunciation, but not necessarily when it comes to grammar. In other words, it is easier, according to that research, to learn a language you feel a connection with, and not a language school, or sometimes life, forces you to study.

As I said above, and in numerous articles before, I am learning Italian, it’s been 2 years now and I became fairly good (I won’t write an article such as this one in Italian anytime soon, but that’s my goal nonetheless). The fact that it’s technically my heritage language clearly helped, but not only. I had a deep motivation, which I still have, as I have a personal reason to learn that particular language (it’s my father’s mother tongue, and my parents moved to Italy recently). Heritage language learning is also about that, a personal link that the student can have with the language: it may be because the student overheard his/her grandparents talking in that language, it may be because the student is interested by his/her own family history. Details may vary.

A student of mine was forced to choose Russian over Portuguese, as she is currently studying in a management school. She doesn’t care a bit about Russian, but she wants her CV to be more interesting, so she chose Russian, despite the fact that her grand mother was Portuguese. She started only last September, and she already regrets her choice, as she feels no connection towards Russian, but likes to hear people speaking in Portuguese.

The point is: all languages matters. Choosing to learn a  specific language over another is personal, and nobody should say that one language is better than another. I have been told for years that it would have been smarter to fully commit to German, and I felt like a failure because of my lack of results. Turns out, I ditched German, turned to Spanish, and I don’t regret it a bit.

I guess I needed a deeper motivation, and we forget, most of the time, the importance of it. We cannot force someone to learn if that someone is reluctant to do so. Motivation, along with aptitude, is “one of the most important factors determining L2 success”.  (Gass, Behney, Plonsky, 2013). If you don’t want to learn a language, the fact that you are young, or your CV will be more interesting, or your parents pay for it (that is often the case for YL or teenagers) won’t be enough to motivate you.


Au. T, Knightly. L, Jun. S, Oh. J, in press. “Overhearing a language during Childhood”, Psychological science, 2002

Fromkin. V, Rodman. R, Hyams. N, An Introduction to Language, 7th edition,  2003, Heinle: Boston

Gass. S, Behney. J, Plonsky. L, Second Language Acquisition, 4th edition, 2013, Routledge: NY

A few words about our London field trip

I am afraid an essay would be more appropriate to talk about my seniors’ field trip to London last week, but I’ll try to sum up.

We left on Tuesday late afternoon, without any troubles, the flight went smoothly, we arrived right on time at the restaurant. The schedule had been defined weeks in advance:

Day 1 (morning to mid afternoon)  Group A (the extra teacher’s group)  : British museum/ Group B (my group): Madame Tussauds and the Sherlock Holmes museum. Then, both groups were supposed to meet in Camden. That was the plan.

That didn’t exactly happen like that. Due to traffic, Group B arrived one hour late to Baker Street, causing a major delay. The whole “mid afternoon” element was taken extremely seriously by Group A, which means that at 3:03 pm, I received phone calls saying that Group A was waiting for Group B. That was the only bum note of that day.

Day 2 was utterly different, because I realized that I needed to be more structured. Managing kids and managing adults is not that different after all: “be careful when you cross the street” “don’t walk away from the group” “watch your belongings”… It was funnier than the day before, but we couldn’t do everything we had initially planned. We visited Trafalgar, St James’ Park, we wandered around Buckingham Palace and ended up in Westminster, where we ate in a Pret a Manger. We were supposed to go to the Tower of London, but we all went to Kensington Palace instead.

Some of my students decided to finish the day in a pub, and the others (including their beloved teacher, aka me) went to Motown, a musical about the eponymous label. I was especially glad when I realized that one of my students had spent the entire evening talking to a Yorkshire native (without my help)!

Day 3 was more challenging because everybody was tired, everybody had something else in mind and well, that led to some strange situations. That’s how I realized that managing people was definitely harder than what I expected (I used to manage a small team when I was in real estate, not 12!). I even had to yell so loudly in Victoria Rail Station than fifty people looked around, confused: half of my students didn’t listen to my announcement (“our train is platform 14”) and entered in the wrong train (platform 15)! Fortunately, the employees helped us finding them, but it was a close call.

In overall, they enjoyed the experience, I learned a lot (about patience, mostly), and they all asked me to organize another field trip next year!

The truth behind teaching seniors – elementary students’ edition

Most of the time, when I say that I teach seniors, the first question I hear is “why do they learn English?”

They may not need it to work, but they travel, they have family abroad and they pretty much need English as much as everybody else. The only true difference is that they have a different way of life: their focus is not on work anymore, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that they knit and cook meals for their grandchildren every damn day. They have more time to read, to watch movies, to visit and to learn a language.

For some of them, they purely never learned English before: it was not mandatory, back then and now is a whole new world. For others, they had classes in middle school, forty years ago, but they never practiced since.

On the other hand, some had to travel for work and had some training, sometimes quite informal. My first task was to divide the group in two: the beginners (elementary) and the intermediate. Today, I will focus on elementary learners.  Teaching elementary learners is usually a challenge, but imagine teaching people who almost never heard English before, or very quickly while waiting in an airport for example. It is literally impossible, let’s be honest, to teach them only in English: I have to use translanguaging to be perfectly understandable.

Why is translanguaging that important, and why can I find a solution to avoid using the L1? Because they spent their entire lives in French, and all they know is the French grammar and vocabulary. If I don’t draw a parallel, if I don’t adjust, they will be lost in no time. It’s challenging enough to learn a new language, especially when you are a senior, so imagine if the teacher in front of your refuses to speak your language!

You must keep a routine: if you go all over the places, it’s not going to work at all. They need to be structured, clear and visual, if possible. Don’t forget that they probably won’t have a lot of time to study, despite the fact that they are not working, so revising some notions every session will be necessary. Numbers can be quite challenging! I established a routine with them: I draw smileys (a smiling one , a confused one (-_-) and a sad one) and I write adjectives or sentences next to them. We drill them (to get the pronunciation right), then I ask them to use it right away with the infamous question: How are you today?

We worked on the past simple a few weeks ago, but I don’t want them to forget how it’s working, so I ask them to write a few sentences about what they did the day before, or the weekend before, or to summarize a movie they saw. The idea is to make them speak, not write: I want them to be able to communicate with ease, which is incredibly difficult. They don’t feel comfortable talking in English, they are afraid to make mistakes and they are not confident with the pronunciation. I like to use tongue twisters to make them feel better, and they actually love it!

The most difficult part with seniors is grammar, to be honest. They are used to their L1 grammar, and they tend to apply the same rules to English, which is extremely difficult. That means that I have to be patient, to explain for some time and to make them practice a lot. It may sound dull and boring, but it’s necessary, or the errors will be fossilized, which is exactly what I try to avoid. Vocabulary is easier and funnier to practice, with games, mostly!

I enjoy teaching them, even if they can be a little bit undisciplined, and fuzzy, because they truly care, they are really trying and the atmosphere is quite enjoyable to be fair.

We don’t care about teachers anymore

A week ago, I went to Doha, Qatar to participate to a conference (the Liberal Arts International Conference, 7th edition). The conference lasted 3 days and a lot of students volunteered to it, so I was able to talk to a lot of them. I was astonished by several elements:

  • they were motivated to learn, especially another language, they felt it as a necessity
  • they were extremely respectful towards teachers

In France, like in a lot of others countries, being a teacher is not exactly the dream lately. We heard a lot about Milan lately (teachers from the British Council got laid off) and Ireland (teachers woke up one morning jobless), but lately, in France, education, in general, is also taking a step back. Let me explain rapidly what is going on:

  • Elementary schools (primary schools) and middle school (secondary school) are now only one school. Yeah, because you have the same focus and needs when you are 7 and when you are 13, indeed…
  • In high school, only two hours will be devoted to English (same for the second language they are learning, as Spanish or German). TWO HOURS.  May I remind that the average number of students per class is 33? The students would be able to learn more, but that would be a specialization, and that would determine their future, so let’s be clear, they won’t choose it.
  • If the teacher is not here, someone who is NOT qualified will take over. In France, some people are looking after the students (at the canteen, to check if there is disturbance at the library…), and that would be them. I have nothing against them in particular, of course, I had that precise job at some point, but they shouldn’t be teaching. That’s NOT  their jobs.
  • Equality? Which equality? If the high school you are going to is not well ranked, for some reasons (geographical, the options there are not great…) your high school diploma (baccalaureat) will have less value than someone else’s baccalaureat. This precise point makes me wanna puke.

What’s happening though? Let’s save money, here is what’s happening. Money is way more important than education, and creating a gap between public and private schools is not a problem anymore. We don’t care about youth anymore, we don’t care about knowledge, we don’t care about education no more. We care about what it will cost. Educating teachers correctly should be the main priority, but no, let’s put in front of students incompetents, because they did not receive training.

I know it’s quite shocking for a lot of people but guess what? Being a teacher is a real job. It’s not a hobby. Not everybody can do it. Nobody should be able to teach without a degree.  I know that in some countries, being white and having an English/Australian/American/Irish/NZ passport is enough to teach, but sorry buddies, you are NOT teachers. You are a lot of things, but you are not teachers. Being a teacher is not innate, and it’s time to realize that we have to respect teachers, to give them more credit and to promote them way more than what we are doing right now. Without teachers, the world is doomed, sorry to burst the bubble.

Equality is not only a philosophical concept, it’s time to think about it.

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