Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

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Let me get this straight

I hadn’t planned to write about this, I swear I was in a good mood. But this morning, as I was browsing Facebook and Twitter, my attention was caught by this simple sentence “want to speak like a native speaker?” and that was enough to set me on fire.

You can’t speak like a native speaker that easily.

Unless you are a speech therapist (and a good one), you can’t and you won’t change anybody’s way of talking. You may a great student, but you are not going to sound like you had spent twelve years in a British prep school after twenty, or fifty, or a hundred lessons. Same idea, you might be an amazing teacher, but you don’t have superpowers. This is FALSE ADVERTISEMENT, people.

Not everybody wants to speak English like a native speaker.

Believe it or not, not everybody wants to sound like an American or a British person. Having an accent is a part of your identity, and tampering it, or purely ignoring it is an attack against that identity. The reasons our students need English are numerous, but sounding like a native is rarely number one. Unless you are teaching spies, of course.

More non-native speakers are actually speaking in English

It is indeed proven that non-native speakers are way more than native speakers. As well, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives. So, again, why the whole supremacy of the native speaker? Let me say it out loudly once again: MARKETING. It makes non-native speakers sound like a fraud before they even start talking. And a lot of people can master fully two languages, that’s called bilingualism and it’s actually the norm (not monolingualism!)

We need real teachers, qualified teachers, more than native speakers.

You probably spend a few hours on the internet, like I do, and you probably encounter native speakers who are writing despicable English. This is not an insult in any way, I have received yesterday an email in French from a native French student and that was gibberish. Nothing made sense. Not everybody has the same command of the language, that’s just a fact. So, obviously, we need people who have a decent command of the English language to teach, not someone who was born in Liverpool and decided that was good enough (it’s an example, of course, I have nothing against people from Liverpool, and I loved discovering the city). The fact that it’s your first language doesn’t mean you have a decent command of it, sorry not sorry.

Find out why your students need English for

In this century, our students always have a reason to learn English: for exams such as Cambridge or IELTS, for their jobs (ESP), for university, to follow a specific course online, to understand what the hell Sheldon is talking about on The Big Bang Theory, whatever reason is a good one. But understanding this reason (or these reasons) is way more important than the rest. And way more important than sounding like a native speaker.

I really do hope that one day people are going to understand that being a native or a non-native doesn’t matter, and that the only thing really important is being a good teacher. It’s very naive of me, I am aware of this. But I guess it’s better than just accepting the situation, and think of myself as a second-rate teacher.

I don’t want to teach online

Obviously, I don’t have a choice right now, as my school is closed, like the two companies I regularly teach at. Hear me out, I am doing it right now, because we cannot do otherwise. But I am not interested into doing it more than necessary.

I am fully aware that online teaching is huge within the ELT industry, that it’s comfortable to work from home, that it’s way more convenient, whatever, I am not interested. I didn’t become a teacher so I would sit in front of a computer. It’s a very reductive image, I know there is way more than just sitting down and talking to a screen, but that’s how I feel when I’m teaching online right now.

How are you supposed to pass on your passion, your love for the language you have been teaching for years when you cannot even see the genuine reaction of your students? I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted an easy path, a hideout, a 9 to 5 job. I had one years ago, I worked in a competitive atmosphere, and I hated every minute of it. I am not the only one who decided to become a teacher (worse, an EFL teacher) despite all the difficulties we all know about. I am getting tired to hear that we are just lazy people, sitting on their asses, that we are complaining about this or that, and now, a whiny EFL teacher doesn’t want to teach online. Yeah, I don’t want to, sue me.

I need to be in a classroom, I need to share the experience with my students, I need to know them, I need to be able to decipher their body language to get them, I need to be able to adjust my speech. My students are my priority, always have, always will. Teaching online is taking away all these things, and I just can’t cope. Call me old fashioned, but I can’t wait to go back to school for real.

I have a Teams chat with my students though, and that’s the bright side of this entire story. We are keeping in touch lightly, without any pressure, they are free to answer when they want. Our relationship changed, probably for the best: they are less afraid, I would say, to ask for some advice, to participate, to get involved. At the end of the day, I am still working for them.

It’s okay not to be okay

Turns out 2020 is not exactly what we have been hoping for.

Actually, it has been the complete opposite: seeing half of Europe quarantined, in lockdown, and hearing presidents, prime ministers talking about closing borders, closing schools up till September(to name a few), well, nobody thought about it.

Since the beginning of this whole lockdown thing, I have seen, heard, read about numerous ideas about how to cope with this difficult time. Extremely motivated people, some of them being my friends, seemed to have a lot of projects: “It’s great,” one friend told me, “you are going to be able to focus on your MA!” “I have decided to work out every day,” another told me. “I am going to learn Korean!” “I am going to learn how to cook!” “I am going to write a novel!” “I am going to read Lord of the Rings!” Let me tell you, the list was endless. And it made me feel like shit.

What have I done since the beginning of this nightmare? I called my parents, who are in Brittany, so roughly one thousand kilometers away from me every day for at least one hour. I binge watched Hannah Montana the second Disney + was available in France and The Chilling adventures of Sabrina before that. The only book I managed to finish was edited by Disney Press and is a part of the Twisted Tales collection (A whole new world – what if Jafar got the lamp before Aladdin?). I have worked maybe two hours on my MA because the current module is annoying me so much that I can’t focus on it. I have worked A LOT on my Italian because I can’t wait to go back there. I worked out a week or so, and gave up. I adopted a puppy. I haven’t written a novel, a short story, or even an article before this one.

The truth is, we don’t know what will happen. It’s hard to focus on the future when you don’t know what it will hold. Sure, it was okay for a few days to hang at home. It was (and it is still) an interesting experience to teach online college students and senior students. I am nowhere near to leave my current job to teach online full time though. As I said, it’s an experience, but I’ll be damn glad when it will be done.

Come on, I am not going to complain: my job will still be here at the end of this dreadful moment (actually, I’ll have a better job at the local college), I have a nice apartment, I have my husband, my cats and a lovely puppy who is glued to me 24/7. But I am also a teacher who is fighting against inequalities, who thinks that everybody should have the same chances, and who knows that the gap between the students is getting wider by the minute.

So now, I am not okay. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back home (my real home – Aosta Valley, Italy). I don’t know if my students are going to find a deeper motivation within themselves. I hate the uncertainty. I hate to ignore where I am going, it has been giving me anxiety for the past thirty years; imagine how terrifying the world is to me now.

But I am not going to write a book, start a blog about cooking, learn an exotic foreign language. If I am considered lazy, or depressed, or whatever, well, be it. I am not going to pretend that it’s all going to be fine because it’s important to stay positive. I made peace with the fact that I’m not okay, that I am nowhere near to be okay, and with the fact that pretending is not gonna work for me. Self-acceptance, you say?

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

Why I am taking a step back

2020 is going to be different. I am not saying that because it’s January, or anything like that, it’s not a resolution. It’s simply a fact: this year is going to be very different.

Before you actually start reading, you must consider that these opinions are mine, and that I am not criticizing anybody.

You may remember that I only started within the ELT field three years ago. I started online with the TKT, then I did a French degree in education, which allowed me to work in a bilingual primary school. We all know I didn’t get the job after because I was not native (this is not an assumption, the management explicitly told me so) and I continued, with a CELTA. I started to get involved in TESOL association, to read a lot about Second Language Acquisition, about methodologies… Which led me to start a MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. In other words, I am still a baby teacher, a rookie.

I admit that my first year of MA was quite disappointing: a lot of theories, not enough cases, and I guess I had another vision of it. Nonetheless, I am quite happy I am doing it (I just finished another Module) despite some setbacks. Alongside my MA, I started my Delta, and well, I have written a lot on this topic already. Saying that Delta didn’t go as planned is the understatement of the year, but it made me realize that my priorities were not straight.

But the thing is, I worked non-stop for the past three years. I went to conferences, I met people, I did some research, I didn’t stop reading and I worked on several projects. I wanted to develop some CPD workshops in Lyon, France, where I have been living. I wanted to develop my academic research, despite not feeling academic myself, because I wanted to show that I was a good teacher. And I wanted other teachers to become more aware of their environment, to create interesting sessions.

Boy, I was a bit presumptuous. CPD workshops are a great idea in theory, but after organizing two workshops with an attendance close to zero, I just decided to spend my Saturdays elsewhere. Attending conferences are great, but expensive, let’s be honest, and is it really interesting and relatable? And if I spent a great deal working on some research, it was not always related to my context, nor my students. I won’t say it was a waste of time, but I could have used this time differently.

I have been teaching in a local college for five months now, and it’s probably the best gig I had so far. The students’ general level is quite low, but the degrees they are studying for is interesting. It’s not 100% academic, which is fine by me, because I am not 100% academic. I seemed to forget that before being a teacher, I graduated with a BA in management, another BA in business and worked six years in real estate. It’s a real added value that I didn’t really use properly, obsessed over the fact that my passport was less important than my degrees. So, when this local college asked me if I were interested by teaching something else than English, I said yes.

Teaching English is, and will always be, what I prefer to do. I love this language way more than I could actually explain it. But I also live in a country which doesn’t fully appreciate other languages, in which teachers are not being recognized, in which native speakerism is all over the place. My MA is not going to change that. If I ever get tenure in that college, or in another school, that won’t be because of it, as the national education system doesn’t accept it. If I ever finish DELTA one day, once again, it will be for me.

I feel better writing these words, almost liberated. I put so much pressure on myself for so long that it feels amazing just to say “I am doing this for myself”. Working in ELT is not easy, it can actually be quite vile and I won’t apologize because I have decided to step back from the whole academic world. What really matters here is the person I am in front of my students, and the quality of my work, not if I transcribed correctly in an presentation.

Writing here is still very important to me, and despite being non-academic, I’ll continue to do so. I still have things to say, even though I am not a part of any TESOL or IATEFL association anymore.

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