Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: language (page 1 of 8)

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.

Still I rise

This week was all about Experimental Practice; as you may remember, I am currently doing DELTA module 2 and as part of the PDA Action and Research, I decided to focus on a specific point: poetry.

Before going further, I have to add that despite the fact that I studied French literature in high school intensively, I always despised the poetry part of it. I never understood the point of explaining, stanza per stanza, what the author was trying to say. But that was in French.

Since I became an English teacher, I studied literature differently, for my own pleasure. I have realized the power of literature, how it provides a strong context to the learners, how it can be used to introduce a complicated topic. I have always read a lot in English, but I started to read poetry in English only a year ago, thanks to Maya Angelou. I read Me & Mom & Me while at Yale, and pretty much read her entire work after that.

For most of my learners, English is a simple way to communicate; and there is nothing behind it. English is way more than that, but the magic is hidden behind grammar rules and lexical patterns. I decided to focus on poetry during my EP to show how powerful language can be, and I chose Still I rise by Maya Angelou.

Bear in mind that my multilingual class is composed of five different nationalities (Ecuadorian, Czech, French, Saudi and Venezuelan), from age 29 to 56 and are intermediate. I started the class by quickly introducing Maya Angelou (As a learner, I really do think it’s helping to know who wrote the piece before actually reading it) and today will be about poetry (I could see right away who would be interested and who would be on Snapchat during the entire lesson)

I then explained the different poetic figures: hyperbole, metaphor… (teaching how to pronounce “hyperbole” was actually funnier than I thought it would be) and put them in pairs to read the poem. While they were done reading it (and very puzzled), still in pairs, I asked them to underline each hyperbole, or metaphor or imagery they could find in a stanza (each pair had a different stanza) and to write what they thought the author wanted to say. I did the first stanza with them, to provide a model.

Some of my students were just looking around like “what the hell is she asking us to do?!” but my older ones were really into it. Everybody tried their best, even the one who literally asked me what I was trying to do with that damn poem. We discussed the several topics Maya Angelou mentioned in the poem and I ended the lesson by showing them a video of the poet reciting Still I rise at Clinton inauguration.

The whole point of that lesson was to force me out of my comfort zone, but to make my learners realize that by learning another language, they were entering a new world. Learning a language is not about putting words next to each other in order to be understandable when you order in a restaurant. Learning another language, any language, is sculpting your own door to another way of thinking.

That is why I teach English and not French. This week, I have seen that Facebook post which was literally “dear non-natives, why don’t you teach your own language?” Languages are beyond passports and nationalities, and the only reason we categorize people over these insane criterions is purely marketing. I cannot teach French because I don’t feel a connexion with it, I teach English because I love it with every fiber of my being and that detail change everything when you are a teacher.

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