Thoughts and reflections

Language teacher, language learner

Photo taken from by @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,
Photo taken from by @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

I like reading language teachers’ accounts of learning a new language. Posts like this tend to reveal some personal info (well, that, and there’s only so much reading up on SLA theory you can do in a day), generally serve to reassure me that other teachers are also human (as opposed to model language learners), and often throw some practical tips into the bargain. What’s not to like?

I’ve always felt woefully inadequate when filling in that part of my CV where you’re supposed to document your language skills. I say inadequate because I feel like I should be able to put down five or six languages, but claiming any level of proficiency at any of them besides Croatian and English feels distinctly fraudulent.

I could put down French. Sometimes I do. I’ve definitely been a learner of French for a very long time – maybe since junior high school? There have, of course, been gaps. I was more regular when French was a school subject, and also at university when I attended a couple of different language schools. Incidentally, I don’t recall any particular motivation to carry on learning French throughout this time – I think it was mostly inertia and my mom. I also had no idea I was going to end up a language teacher, although that’s neither here nor there.

Fast forward to now – over the past two years in Belgium, I’ve seen and heard French everywhere. I should – and want to! – make more of an effort than is currently the case to be a better learner of French. The fact remains that I am at best a B1 user when it comes to reading (which is particularly annoying when reading authentic materials and finding how much more vocabulary building you would need to do in order to dispense with constant dictionary checking), and a complete mess when it comes to speaking. I freeze if someone addresses me in French and immediately respond in English, sounding like a total tourist and hating myself. I remember every unflattering comment I’ve ever heard about native English speakers who have spent years in Croatia without bothering to learn any Croatian, and suddenly feel deep and unreserved sympathy for them. I think I’ve only had one single student in 17 years with a case of language anxiety to rival mine.

I could put down Italian. I started learning Italian when I was working for the school before Octopus. The school had been offering in-company training exclusively for a number of years before the owner decided to start offering courses for the general public – a couple of other European languages in addition to English. These were free to attend for teachers at the school and their spouses. I cannot emphasize enough the appeal (to me) of not having to pay for a language course. This was at a time when the global economic crisis was still a long way away, and I could pretty comfortably afford it. But working with all these in-company learners makes you believe that even the most lowly of corporate employees have a number of perks, none of which we seemed to have working for a private language school. Free language course? I was so going to take advantage of that!

I took Italian classes for four semesters, if memory serves. During this time I was a pretty good learner by the standards I judge my own adult learners; I didn’t miss classes, I did my homework, I bought graded readers (and read and reread them), I tried to watch some Italian TV (but was discouraged by how little I understood). Then I changed jobs and I thought I would carry on learning one-to-one – I even had a couple of lessons with a colleague who worked for the same school – but that didn’t last. My schedule had changed completely, and, besides, having one-to-one sessions was not something I could afford in the long run. That was roughly ten years ago. I haven’t progressed beyond A2 – and I’m most likely being generous.

I could put down German. Who am I kidding? I definitely couldn’t put down German. I had German in grade 9, and that was it. My most vivid memory is of having to stand in front of the class to read out (or present) something. It couldn’t have lasted long as we were a beginner class, and it probably wasn’t particularly difficult in terms of language, but in grade 9 you do not want the whole class looking on as you are doing something uncool. I rattled off what I had to say and was sliding back into my seat trying to look invisible, when the teacher stopped me and asked me to say it all over again! I had apparently been too quiet (or too fast or both) for her to hear/understand me. Why she hadn’t stopped me after the first couple of sentences will, I suppose, remain a mystery forever. 😛 So…no, that never goes on the CV.

I wish I could put down Arabic. I had Arabic classes for six years. This was in Libya, where non-Libyan schools could only operate if they included compulsory Arabic language classes for all students. I have no idea if it is/was true – this is what I remember being told back then. It actually wasn’t as dictatorial as it sounds – I think it was one class a week or something equally undemanding – but it was entirely unproductive. The teachers were native speakers – this is actually an excellent example of how that by itself, unless combined with good teaching, doesn’t bring about results.

I remember the teachers were pretty stationary during these classes. I can’t recall any writing on the board, moving around the class and helping individual students (any pairwork or groupwork at all) – I can just see the teacher sitting at her desk. We had books which we read out loud from. I have no idea if these were books written for the purpose of teaching Arabic as a foreign language.

It was only in grade 9, the last year I was there, that we got a teacher who was clearly different and who knew what she was doing. She was great. She was also cheerful, and moved around and wrote on the board. I was stunned to learn that Arabic has the dual form in addition to the singular and plural – it was the first time I had heard of the concept. But it was too late for any significant progress in the language. What a waste. I’m sure we could have covered substantial ground in six years.

I also wish I could put down Polish. It’s funny about Polish. My brother has been living in Poland for around six years and speaks the language quite well – I’ve been told he’s upper-intermediate. Since his in-laws are Polish and speak no other language, our family have been somewhat reluctantly exposed to more Polish than we bargained for. The funny thing is – many people in Croatia seem to genuinely believe that because it is also a Slavic language it must be mutually intelligible with Croatian. It is not.

The less funny thing is that having people believe that if you speak in Croatian you will miraculously be understood by Poles, and vice versa, makes you feel more than a little stupid and frustrated. Although you are familiar with the concept of mutual (un)intelligibility, you begin wondering if it’s just you. How can all these other Croatian people effortlessly understand Polish – not to mention the entire population of Poland apparently understanding Croatian with ease? The only people to whom this does not apply – in obvious proof of Murphy’s law – are your family and your brother’s in-laws!

Fail or FAIL (First Attempt in Learning)

It now occurs to me, looking over the post so far, that I may well be using a double standard to judge my own language learning experiences as opposed to what I tell my students about the process. Clearly I see all my attempts at language learning as failures (of varying degrees) except for English; the question is why? Is it because as a learner I essentially think that one is only successful if one achieves C2 proficiency? My teacher self disagrees categorically, but is apparently doing a poor job of convincing the learner self of this.

What do you think? Is there a degree of language proficiency (either descriptive or in terms of levels) that needs to be reached before we can say this language deserves to be included in a CV? I always imagine a potential interviewer saying, “Oh, so it says here you speak French,” and switching languages, leaving me embarrassed and stuttering, “Umm, it’s my reading skills, actually…and see, I said they’re B1…” Is there a degree of language proficiency that you would need to reach before you would be comfortable with claiming to know/speak that language – the terms are deliberately the vague ones learners might be expected to use?