Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

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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.

What I’ve read in 2019

Last year, I had quite a long list of resolutions, mostly professionals, but as you may know, it didn’t turn up the way it was supposed to be. In other words, I am going to take a break from the whole Delta mess after trying LSA4 another time. I’m not ready for Module 1 just yet, maybe I’ll never be, and it’s okay. Today I’m not writing about Delta or MA or even about my job.

Today is about another resolution I took: trying to read as much as possible. Here is the list of all the books/short stories I read in 2019 and some of my impressions. So yeah, it’s a long article today, sorry.

January

I love Dick – Chris Krauss (didn’t like it, tbh) / Becoming – Michelle Obama / Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime – Oscar Wilde (LOVED IT) / The portrait of Mr W.H. – Oscar Wilde (I have the entire collection I must admit) / High Fidelity – Nick Hornby (I preferred Funny Girl from the same writer) / The rules of attraction – Bret Easton Ellis (it was actually the second time reading it)

February

I never knew that about..the royal family – Christopher Winn (I read the whole series to be fair) / The wicked wit of Princess Margaret – Karen Dolby (I have to admit that I chuckled more than one time)

March

Victoria Revealed (500 facts about the queen) – Deirdre Murphy (I visited the Victoria exhibition at Kensington Palace so of course I bought the book) / La Saint courtisane – Oscar Wilde / The picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde / La Sirenetta (the Little Mermaid, in Italian, yeah, I had to start somewhere)

April

A .45 to pay the rent – Charles Bukowski (that was a refreshing change from Oscar Wilde!) / Doing time with public enemy number one – Charles Bukowski / Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson/ William III and Mary II – Jonathan Keates (I love this collection, from Penguin, short, yet complete) / Elizabeth revealed : 500 facts about the queen – Lucinda Hawkley (blame The Crown on that one)/ Playboy – Constance Debré (a book in French! It happens sometimes, and this one is amazing.)

May

The Prodigal tongue – Lynne Murphy (bought it at the Harvard bookstore, which is always a nice memory) / the Great zen wedding – Charles Bukowski/ Reunion – Charles Bukowski / The Hollow Crown – Dan Jones

June

White – Bret Easton Ellis (read it in three days) / The wicked wit of Prince Philip – Karen Dolby (gift from my mom, but didn’t like it, not remotely funny)/ Goodbye Watson – Charles Bukowski / Il Re Leone (yes, the Lion King in Italian!)/ Matilda – Road Dahl (with my students, tbh)

July

I shot a man in Reno – Charles Bukowski / Wife-wooing – John Updike / My thoughts exactly – Lily Allen (which was quite entertaining) / Henry VIII – John Goy (same wonderful Penguin collection)

August

The handmaid’s tale – Margaret Atwood (the BEST book I have read in 2019, period. Read it in two days.) / Mary I – John Edwards / The White Album – Joan Didion (didn’t like it) / Edward VIII – Piers Brendon / 99 glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown (I took a LOT of planes in August)/ Buffy: high school is hell (comic book)

September

The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth (incredibly interesting) / The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (couldn’t stop it, read it in four days) / the wicked wit of Queen Elizabeth II – Karen Dolby (also from my mom, but that one was funnier at least.) /American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis (can you spell “masterpiece”?)

October

And then they were none – Agatha Christie (last time I read it I was eleven, and it’s still as good as then)/ La regina del ghiaccio (Frozen, but in Italian. Baby steps, guys, baby steps!)/ US History for dummies (this is not a joke, as I have an “Introduction to culture and history class”) / The Crimes of Grindelwald – JK Rowling (definitely the worst thing she has ever written)

November

Rebecca – Daphné du Maurier (I would like to thank forever the student who gave me that book. I forced myself to read only one chapter a day so I could appreciate fully the story!) / The story of English – David Crystal (this is technically a book about English, but in a funny way and not related to my MA) / A rainbow in the cloud – Maya Angelou (aka the most incredible author ever. It should be mandatory to study her art.)

December

The adventure of English – Melvyn Bragg (also about the English language, but in a nice, entertaining way) / Elizabeth I – Helen Castor / American Boy – Helene Combe of Glencoe (well, okay, I may have also written that one)

I hope you survived through this incredibly long article, which was not meant to make you snore, I swear. I didn’t include the numerous books I read for my MA and Delta module 2. If I have to suggest only one book for you to read, it would be The Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t let it down, and I felt terrible once it was finished. I haven’t purchased the sequel for now, because I don’t have the time to read for now, and I want to have all the time in the world for this one.

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.

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