Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: language (page 1 of 9)

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.

Am I good enough?

I pretty much ask myself that question every day since the beginning of the school year.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, sure you had realized that I was quite busy, that I hadn’t updated in weeks, that my plate was quite full. I started yet another challenge, yay. I have been teaching for more than two years, I’m still a baby teacher, a rookie, after all. So I guess wondering if I am a good teacher is quite normal at this stage.

Let me explain what’s happening lately: I started teaching in a local college (literally right after high school – first year college students!) and well, the experience has been enriching so far. I never really took for granted that students wanted to be in front of me; even when I worked briefly for a language school in England. But this experience is whole new level.

So I was expecting young people in front of me (they are ten to twelve years younger than me after all, I can call them young people) but not that young. I mean, that type of young. I wouldn’t be mean to call them naive, but they are definitely out of this world. Not all of them are like that, of course not. I have also amazing classes who are motivated, focused, and know that education matters. But I also have a class full of slackers.

France is not a huge fan of teachers in general and I am not a huge fan of the French system either. We teachers are basically the official government’s punchbag for quite some time now, and language teachers are considered as useless most of the time. I can’t count how many students have told me “I can’t believe you are French, you never speak French in class!’. Apparently, it’s mandatory to speak your native tongue despite teaching another one, I was not aware of that rule though.

I know I sound dorky by saying that I want to help my students, that their successes matter to me, that I am glad when I hear a struggling student saying “I got it!”. I decided to teach English fully aware that half of my students would probably hate it. But I really mean it, I feel lucky enough to do a job that I love.

But despite that, I wonder if I am enough, if my good will, my good feelings will be enough to prove my point. When marketing and advertisement became more important than education and knowledge, I guess society lost it and will pay the price later. Sorry for getting dark tonight guys, I didn’t want to. I guess wondering is healthier than just accepting facts, but nonetheless, it can give quite a headache.

Five weeks out of six!

I used to think that I pretty good at my job. Not like a genius, but pretty good. These days are OVER.

That’s the magic of Delta: you think you know something, like yourself, or your job, or the English language, and well, you don’t. Mostly because you have to think a specific topic (like multi word verbs) completely differently, and because you have to write 2000 to 2500 words on it (which can sound either too much or not enough) and create a lesson. It can make you loose all confidence in yourself. It can make you scream that you are the shittiest teacher ever on the planet. But apparently, at the end, you are a better teacher, so I heard.

I toyed with the idea of teaching poetry for a while, and I never felt good enough to teach writing. I love writing, obviously, but I felt that teaching it would be just too much, that I wouldn’t know what to do. So for my second skills assignment (I passed my first skills assignment on reading for global understanding), I decided to go for it, and I chose writing informal emails (LSA3). The bright side: my students didn’t sleep during my poetry class, nor just wrote a couple of sentence during the informal emails’ lesson. The less bright side: I didn’t sleep a lot because of all the prep, but it was worth it. It showed me where my strengths were, but it didn’t show me how to overcome my weaknesses aka systems assignment, nor my demons.

I am not surprised I failed my systems assignment (LSA2). I was sloppy on it, I designed the lesson backwards, I wasn’t confident AT ALL during the lesson… I would have been surprised if I HAD passed. Now that LSA4 is around the corner, (and yeah, it’s a system one again!) I am feeling more and more insecure. I know I shouldn’t, because that’s also why I failed the previous one, but I can’t help myself but thinking that my explanations are too blurry, that I don’t know how to anticipate problems… I am writing down pretty much everything I can think of, hoping it would click or something like that. My lesson is better designed than the one I had for LSA2, and I feel a little more confident about the topic in general (modals of obligation and permission), but I can’t stop myself from thinking that I won’t be enough.

Remaining sane during this course is not an easy task. Honestly, it’s been the worst five weeks of my life so far, despite the happy moments and I can’t thank my cohort enough. I am pretty sure we are going to start a support group the second we are going to leave Bournemouth, because we will seriously develop PTSD. It feels like we have been here for months and that we have been through everything together. (That’s the silver lining moment).

I still have learned something along the way: it’s healthier to question yourself daily than never at all.

Older posts

© 2020 Helene Combe

Powered by Jonas ChopinUp ↑

Pin It on Pinterest