Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: May 2019

We all have accents, get over it!

There is a huge trend nowadays: accents. How can we reduce them, how important are they, pretty much every media, from the Guardian, to the BBC has been mentioning accents. Why does it seem so important now? Are we really talking about accents, anyway?

To answer, I won’t take precautions. I am sorry to burst the bubble, but every damn soul on Earth has an accent. We are all different, we all come from different backgrounds, so yeah, we don’t speak the same way. And it’s fine, because as far as we are intelligible, there is literally no problem. I am not talking about grammar or vocabulary, but about intelligibility, only. At least three times a day, I see a job ad for a native speaker. Having a teaching certificate is less important than holding a passport from some countries. Rich countries, I should add, and white because if you have the audacity to be black, well, you can’t be a proper teacher (and now, I threw up a little in my mouth because some people actually think that).

A student of mine asked me, just last Friday, if I knew a native speaker who could teach her sons. I am a non-native speaker myself, they are aware of it, they seem fine with it, but she thought it was appropriate to ask deliberately about a native teacher. I said no, I don’t, but not only because I don’t know any YL teacher in Lyon, France, where I teach Business English, but also because I was shocked. I asked her why she wanted a native speaker so badly. “So my kids will get the correct accent.”

Spoiler alert: there is NO correct accent. The fact that you have a native speaker as a teacher won’t change anything to your accent, dear student, it’s not working this way. Your environment, your personality, your background, will shape your accent. Also, it changes, it’s not written in stone or something like that, it’s evolving with you. I speak French with a Parisian accent (but a Belgian one when I am tired), my mother speaks French with a Breton accent, and last time I checked, she is the one who raised me. “Our perceptions and production of speech change over time.” ( Esling. J, 1998)

The only reason we are speaking about accents right now, it’s because talking racism will be less tolerated. That’s the main problem with ELT, and it’s been around for a while. Being native doesn’t mean you have no accent, and the industry knows that, but hell, a school can charge more if the teacher is a native. As an individual, we cannot hear our own accents, it’s physiological. Others may sound funny to us, but nobody will say “hey, I have an accent when I speak, check it out!” We don’t want to hear that we have an accent, because that’s deeply personal. I felt attacked when a friend of mine said that my accent was “muddled”, and he realized it pretty quickly. He told me right after that he wanted to say that it was hard to figure out where I was coming from.

He is from Boston, and he is proud to say that he speaks like a true Bostonian. But to conclude that brief (and angry) piece, I would like to add that we traveled a lot together for the past year, in the US and in France, and I have heard way more people asking him to repeat, than asking me to do so.


Esling. J, Everyone has an accent but me in Language myths, 1998, Penguins: London

The Language Challenge: 2 years later…

If it’s very first time you are coming here, or if you don’t remember what I am about to tell you about, here’s some elements you need to know before going further:

-Two years ago, I read an article about a security guard who learned 6 languages at once, using apps and TV.

-There is a myth saying: the more you are learning languages, the easier it will become!

-I was about to leave my day job to become a language teacher, so it seemed important to become also a language learner.

The beginning of the experience

I started on the 2nd of May 2017, and I chose to start with Duolingo and Babbel. The two languages I picked were Italian and German, because I had already some notions (my dad is Italian, and I had German classes for years, I was basically A1). The first trimester went pretty well, and I actually preferred German over Italian for a couple of months. I stopped using Babbel rapidly, but kept Duolingo so I bought books instead (Harraps, Lonely Planet, Assimil…). I was working one hour a day on it, every day. The plan, at that precise moment, was to start on another language, completely different from the others, later on. I chose Japanese mostly because a friend of mine gave me her books and because I had a Japanese acquaintance who teaches Japanese as a foreign language.

Real life strikes back!

In July 2017, I moved to the UK and started my CELTA. All of the sudden, I didn’t have one hour to devote to Italian nor German, and I dropped from using several techniques to only using Duolingo for one or two exercises a day. I sometimes even preferred to work on my German, but the exercises I was doing were not exactly interesting nor useful. After I got hired at BEET language center, I worked more regularly, and I felt a real improvement in both languages.

But I moved back to France, started to teach in companies, and slowly, I realized that my Italian was getting stronger than my German. I went back to Italy to see my parents and  I was able to speak with pretty much everybody (random stuff: “where is the parking lot?” “when does the show start?” “I am a teacher, what’s your job?”) and that cheered me up. I had a personal reason to learn Italian,  and my motivation did the trick: I was not afraid to speak, to make mistakes, all I wanted to do was to practice. Somehow, it didn’t work that well for German, and despite having German friends, I was never truly able to utter a complete sentence. I stopped gradually to learn German, realizing that I was too afraid of making mistakes, that I didn’t have time to devote to its learning, that I needed a teacher. At least, I know what went wrong. It’s been more than a year now that I stopped German, and I am pretty sure that I won’t try again, because I have realized, also, that the way I started to learn it, fifteen years ago, shaped my way of seeing the language, and I am afraid I can’t get over it.

What about Japanese, then? 

As I previously said, the original plan was to start Japanese in December 2017. Considering that I had a lot of work, and that I was struggling to learn German, I decided to postpone the experience until Spring 2018. It got postponed again, and well, I just decided to give up. Trying to learn an entire language all by myself was impossible back then, especially without help.

German is ditched, Japanese didn’t work out, so that’s it?

Something weird happened though, and makes me think again about the way I was seeing languages. Last summer, I attended Yale’s TESOL session, and some of my friends were Spanish speaker. I realized that I could understand a few words, sometimes even a sentence. I started to watch Jane the Virgin, which is a TV show set in Florida, where the protagonists speak in English and in Spanish. The strangest moment occurred when I started to dream in Spanish. A friend of mine tried to convince me to learn Spanish for real, but I was too busy to think about it seriously.

On the other hand, at Yale, I was glad to be able to talk in Italian every day, even if it was only for 5 minutes, with my Italian friends. I started to read Italian books there (for kids, let’s be honest) as well.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t speak French at all there. I used it only one minute to snap at a despising, mean and arrogant Belgian teenager who had spent the entire hour insulting people in French, thinking that nobody, but his buddies, could understand him. Raté. 

So, Spanish?

After Yale, I stayed a month in the US, continued to work on my Italian with Duolingo, but didn’t think about Spanish at all, despite the fact that I could understand what Spanish speakers were saying most of the time.

In January, my husband surprised me for my 30th birthday with a trip to Punta Cana. Most tourists there were Italians, which caused a very funny scene where an Italian organizer tried to recruit me for her yoga class, because we were sitting on the Italian side of the beach… And because I spoke only Italian to her, she thought that I was just being lazy, until my husband spoke to me in French! (so after, I was still lazy BUT proud of myself)

Anyway, back to Spanish. Everybody (hotel employees etc…) there spoke Spanish, and it became frustrating to be able to understand 80% of what they were saying but to answer in Italian. Back at home, I decided to start to work on my Spanish.

What now? 

I still religiously learn Italian: I am around B1+ now. I can follow an episode of Baby on Netflix in Italian with Italian subtitles! I can still be tricky because of the speed, but I feel more confident than before, even though there is still a lot to do. I don’t learn Italian because I want to write an essay, nothing as fancy. I just want to be able to talk with people on various subjects, to be understandable, to read a simple book (Elena Ferrante is out of my league for now), to follow an episode of a show without having to concentrate. I am quite proud of the results, to be perfectly honest!

Spanish is interesting, also because I love the prosody of it. It is still tricky for me because I never talk in Spanish. I do my exercises on Duolingo, I watch Spanish TV shows (with English subtitles, I am afraid). I didn’t set a precise goal for myself, I just learn it because I like it, and I am fine with it.

There is another language that I am interested in. I don’t really have the time right now to focus on it, but I’ll enjoy hearing it, and I am trying to practice with my sister in law whenever it’s possible: it’s Russian. Is it because she is Russian? Is that because I like the prosody of it, as I like the Spanish one? Is it because she told me that my pronunciation was on point?

If you managed to arrive here, thank you for reading this rather long post! I hope that you didn’t fall asleep while doing so, and that I didn’t sound so naive or cliché. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions, or to comment the article!

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