Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: language (page 1 of 9)

So, in which language do you think ?

This precise question was asked by one of my students a few days before the end of term break. I had told the class a few seconds before that I was talking in English to my daughter most of the time, and this question was among others :

  • Is it hard to switch between languages?
  • Do you have to focus when you talk to her in English?
  • Why don’t you have an accent when you speak?

I know I looked puzzled and a bilingual student answered to one of the students: “you don’t think, you just switch, it’s natural.” The first student insisted then : “but you must think in one language over the other, right?” I finally answered that it depended on the situation, on the context, that it was not linear at all. I knew she wanted to know what was my dominant language: French or English?

Being bilingual in a (mostly) monolingual environment means being asked a lot of questions. France is ambivalent when it comes to bilingualism: one language must dominate the other, you cannot have the same level in both, ammirite?

Bilingualism doesn’t have a clear definition, Grosjean still writes wonderfully interesting books about it, but in my case, in France, I can see that it mostly depends on how people perceive bilingualism. For example: A is born into an Italian family, where the grand parents were talking mostly in Italian, surely A is bilingual? A heard Italian since birth, clearly A has a high level, so how come A is flunking Italian classes ? How come A cannot translate easily from one language to another? (insert surprised Pikachu meme here to understand the absurdity of the situation)

Let’s take another example: B is born in a French family, Mom and Dad spoke only French. B liked English, so watched movies in English, read in English, and studied extensively English. B cannot be bilingual, right? Because B learned the language? So, it’s not the same thing than being bilingual? Even with a IELTS test score at 8 (out of 9), B is still not considered fully bilingual in English, because you know, Mom and Dad were French. Hey, B, stop showing off!

You get it: A is my father’s example, B is mine. I am SICK AND TIRED to hear that I am not bilingual because my parents speak only French, while I am able to read Joseph Conrad in original version, to watch a program about economic stakes and to write a damn MA dissertation in English. My father, on the other hand, who is not able to hold a conversation in Italian at the bank (for example) without checking Reverso, who cannot write a damn sentence, is considered bilingual.

Dear monolinguals, since you master only one language, you just can’t get it. Language is not fixed, it evolves, and it’s not encoded in your DNA. Yes, my dad was raised by his Italian grandmother, who mostly spoke about everyday life, but he went to school in France. Yes, I was raised by a French mother who knows literally 5 words of English (lift, morning, evening, Saturday, Sunday – that’s it! But she pronounces them perfectly, at least) and by a father who blurted out some Italian words from time to time. But I went to school in France, in the UK, in the US. Bilingualism has many forms, but dear monolinguals, stop trying to put us in boxes.

France is quite hypocritical when it comes to bilingualism too: if you are bilingual in Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, people will just shrug and go on with their lives. But say you are bilingual in English (or German),and people go wild. Are you from this country? How did you become bilingual? Are you really bilingual? The prestige is not the same, you see.

I define myself as multilingual: I can read, listen, write, speak in French, English and Italian. It is not that uncommon; once again, monolinguals are not the norm, bilinguals and multilinguals are. But in any case, the question remains the same: what is your dominant language?

Be proud of your accent

A few days ago, I watched a YouTube video from a French woman who was explaining that her dream was to speak perfect British English. She knows how to speak English already, she has a quite decent B2/C1 level but she was saying that she was « ashamed » to speak English because of her accent. That she « wanted » a British accent and that she would be ready to pay a lot of money to be able to do so. I felt incredibly bad (and sad) for her, knowing that a lot of people feel the same, ashamed of their accents. 

We can thank native speakerism for that I suppose. A lot of non natives are truly ashamed to speak English, despite their perfect command of the language, because all they think about is their accents. 

A student asked me last month if her accent was assessed at the spoken exam. Like we could assess an accent, because apparently there is a scale of acceptable or non acceptable accents I am not aware of. I said «no, of course, but pronunciation will ». Do you know what she answered ? « Oh, it’s the same. »

Mmmh, no ? Not at all ? Most students are confusing the two of them and for this precise reason, are trying to modify their accents.  Pronunciation is NOT about accents.

Non-native speakers are constantly bullied because of their accents. One of the first questions we are asked after telling our names, for most teachers, are « where do you come from? » and « how come you learn English like that » among others. 

I spent only a short time in the US but I felt bad every time someone was asking me about my accent, which was literally every two days. And I am privileged: I am a white woman, 6ft tall, with blondish hair. My name can be perceived as American, despite being Italian (Pattio) and French (Combe, even though I met people with the exact same surname in Britain too). It was not to make fun of me that people asked about my accent: it’s because it’s socially acceptable to ask about an accent and to consider that one is better than another. AND IT SHOULDN’T BE. It’s an invasion of privacy, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t matter, especially since I am intelligible. That should matter way more: intelligibility is key, accent isn’t.

That’s why a random French lady, educated, with a decent English level, wishes she speaks with a British accent, despite the fact she is not at all British, that she went to the UK only a few times and that it is NOT her. Why would someone who spent her entire life in Paris would have a British accent?? It doesn’t make any sense, if you think about it more than a second.

Be proud of your accent. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of your successes. Dear NNST, you mastered a language well enough to teach it, that’s amazing! You should be celebrating your achievement, not being ashamed. Teach your students to be proud as well: learning a language is tough enough as it is.

The problem with Native Speakers (within the field of ELT)

If there is one thing a bright new English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL), or English as an International Language (EIL) teacher can notice quite quickly while entering the job market, is that an enormous amount of job advertisement is specifically asking for native speakers.

All these wonderful acronyms seems all the same, but it’s not. In my specific context, France, I am teaching EFL: French people don’t need English to carry on their lives, it’s not important whatsoever to work in the country, academic life doesn’t depend on English and so on. I felt more than discouraged when I moved back to France after teaching in England because pretty much all the job ads I was seeing were about NES while the need for teaching qualification was actually not even mentioned.

Not only that discourages brilliant non-native teachers, but it promotes nativeness, and diminishes the importance of being properly trained as a teacher. It often appears that the mere notion of ESL/EFL/EIL teacher is quite blurry for a lot of people, and that it could be summarize as a conversation class, while a native speaker would speak and the students would magically pick up. Most schools tend to justify this “need” of native speakers by the importance of the accent, despite the fact that “80% of the conversation in English is between two non-natives speakers of English” (Crystal, 2017) and that native speakers are largely outnumbered by non-native speakers. Spoiler alert marketing guys: you can’t catch an accent just by sitting one hour, maybe two hours (let’s be crazy) a week with someone who speaks English. It’s not the linguistic equivalent of the flu.

Moreover, it is clear now that English as an International Language (EIL), and more specifically, as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is actually more common than English as a Native Language (ENL). We do not teach a native language the way we teach a second or a foreign one, we all know that, we can all agree on that, but despite that, NES are still being voted in.

A lot of my (adult) students tend to say that they start too late, that they should have started early on. Some others are saying that learning a second language should be more natural, like when you are learning your native language. Spoiler alert number two of this article: an adult brain doesn’t react the way a child’s brain does. It’s never really too late to learn, but the way of learning is going to be different. The knowledge will be more procedural than declarative, but in the end, what’s the real difference?

Accents. That’s the one and only element which will change. And why are NES still hired everywhere in the world despite having no qualifications whatsoever? Accents. There is no good or bad accents, this is not a haircut we are talking about here, we are talking about someone’s personality, background, linguistic history. Nobody has the same accent, and everybody’s accent is evolving, even in your native tongue (sorry, people who thinks accents are written in stone. They are not.) A child MAY speak later on with a native-like accent, but so can an adult. Is it really the point anyway?

Take the example of France. It’s not necessary at all to speak English with a C1, or even B2, level to work there, and it would be presumptuous to say that 50% of the population speaks with a B1 level as well. The indicated level at the end of high school is A2 (no joke here) and the test mainly done while in college is basic TOEIC, which doesn’t require any oral production. Why, then, the primary concern is the accent, and not the fact that basic grammar elements (such as present continuous) is still not known correctly? (Once again, this is not a joke. Half of my MA students have no idea how to build present continuous.)

Promoting only NES to speak English is literally sending the opposite message: it is saying “you will never be as good anyway because you are not native.” As a learner, a student need a “language sherpa, someone who struggled with the language and conquered it. (…) There is much to be said for learning a language as an adult from someone who knows the terrain.” (Roberts and Kreuz, 2015:89)

I am not saying here NES teachers are bad teachers, this is not my point at all. The most common belief is that it’s necessary, or somehow better, to learn a language from a native speaker, and it diminishes the abilities and the skills of numerous NNES. It’s just discrimination, pure and simple, hidden under a fancy curtain marketing (and racism) designed.

Sources:

Crystal, D. (2017) The English language, 3rd edition. Cambridge: CUP

Robert, R. and Kreuz, R. (2015) Becoming Fluent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Teaching French learners

This term has been quite hard. I did not write here for quite a while, mostly because I can’t find the time to do so. I miss writing here, I believe it helped me for a long time but lately, it seems like the universe is just messing with me. The term is almost over, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

As mentioned previously, I teach a few classes in college, mostly people who are studying marketing or management. Obviously, English will be an important part of their future jobs, even if they don’t move abroad. But I am afraid some of my students are reluctant.

Teaching in France is quite a challenge: England and France were enemies for centuries, the French language invaded (and almost killed) the English language (the only thing stronger than the French language was the Death Plague) and it’s been said, for decades now, that French people suck at English. That’s pretty much what my students say to me, every lesson: “in France, we suck at languages”. Like if it were some sort of cultural thing.

The whole concept of bilingualism is a problem in France: I’ll write another article about it (I am preparing it now). But purely psychologically speaking, if you start something by saying “I will suck at it”, you can be sure that you won’t succeed. A lot of my students (maybe half of them) are convinced that they can’t learn a foreign language, and specifically, English, because they are French.

Being French is not only about eating croissant, admiring the Eiffel Tower and wearing a different beret each day. It is indeed an important country, with a great cultural impact, and an enormous history. The French language is fiercely protected, after all, the Académie Française has been around since 1635. But it also means that learning a foreign language is threatening this identity.

During the eighties, the French president Mitterand said that it was perfectly useless to speak English, and promoted the German language instead. Unfortunately for him, we now talk of English as an International language, and not German as an IL. The national education system is not promoting languages learning (this article is dedicated to my middle school headteacher who told my mother that knowing languages was “not important, and it will never be.”) Efforts are not being made. Classes are overcrowded. The snake eats its own tail.

Can we talk about ethnocentrism? Maybe a little bit. Are the French alone in this situation? I highly doubt it. Is it going to change anytime soon? English is an International Language, but not in France, obviously. We have a long way ahead of us.

No, I am not a native speaker

But English is my first language nonetheless. I read in English all the time, probably a lot more than most people; I speak in English every day; I watch documentaries, movies, information channels, pretty much everything actually in English; hell, I even text/tweet/Instagram in English.

Yet, today once again, someone was surprised when I said that my ultimate goal was to train teachers of English as a Second Language. Her reaction was actually quite extraordinary: “but you have to have a high level of English to do so!” That person being my dentist, I cannot exactly qualify her of being stupid so I answered that I was indeed bilingual.

“Yes,” she continued, “but are you originally from England, or another English speaking country?” I would love to explain to her that I don’t know half of my biological details but as I couldn’t (TMI already) I just said that since she wasn’t from the land of the Tooth Fairy but could manage to be a dentist, I would be just fine being an English teacher and teacher trainer despite having a French passport.

The year is 2019: we know that English is an International Language, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives, we know that bilingualism is real yet, when it comes to English, it seems necessary to prove that we are somehow related to an English speaking country.

An educated person once told me that I was good at English because my ancestors were probably from an English speaking country. As I am not exactly motivated to do a DNA test to prove these people wrong, I am just gonna say that I probably have Celtic origins, but I highly doubt it matters.

The thing is I am white, (fake) blond, tall woman. I am lucky if I compare myself to others, who every day have to face discrimination just because of their skin color (and it’s only one example). I face discrimination because I am not a native speaker, but hell, I can clap back as much as stupid people can ask dumb questions.

English is my first language, and I am proud of say so. My native language remains French, but I prefer to express myself in English, and now this is not something recent: I am sure I can dig up an old diary of mine from 2003 already in English. I chose to teach English because I love it, and honestly, I would be the worst French teacher ever. Literally, you should run away if you enter in a French as a Second Language class and see me.

So yeah, English is my first language, French is my native one, and I have to work twice as hard to make people understand that I am competent. I have nice certificates upon my walls, from Yale University, Cambridge University, and they are not only here to decorate, and I am far from being the only one who has to demonstrate her ability when she explains what she does for a living.

For the record, a lot of writers who are considered genius, such as Joseph Conrad or Jack Kerouac, had another native tongue than English. For some reasons, I highly doubt that it is impacting the book sales nowadays.

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