Author Archives: Ruxandra Constantinescu

About Ruxandra Constantinescu

I was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania. I had been traveling in my mind every since I can remember and then started doing it for real as soon as I could. I studied and worked in Romania, Germany, France and Spain and I am interested in books, movies & series, journalism & communication, and teaching EFL.

A Plea for Bilingualism

To my most pleasant surprise as a language trainer, my students show an absolutely amazing English level even before we start classes. And this has to be addressed as such: in a country where English is not loved nor liked, where the subject has been subject to forced learning, despised grammar lessons and irregular verbs learning by heart, to actually meet people who speak English fluently, who make an excellent use of English and who know expressions and idioms I could only think of when teaching a specific class – well, that just leaves you in awe of them.

So imagine my bafflement when most of my students decidedly state, when asked, that they are definitely not bilinguals. To them – especially and specifically to those who have an admirable level of English – bilingualism has come to mean a perfect proficiency in both mother tongue and a second language.

But that’s just wrong. Bilingualism means speaking and understanding two languages, receiving and producing messages in two different languages. There is no limitation,

Continue reading

Trinity College London: The Forgotten English Qualifications?

Who hasn’t heard about the Cambridge exams? They are the most important English qualifications for non-natives and everybody knows all about them. Some English students and teachers alike even dream about the structure and know the scoring and scales system by heart. But the careful observer should not fail to look elsewhere: there is an alternative to the highly demanding, stairway-to-professional-success Cambridge ESOL exams, and it is just as prestigious and internationally recognized.

The English qualifications offered by Trinity College London are almost as old as the Cambridge ones, dating back at the beginning of the 20th century. They are just as ruthless with non-natives trying to get an EFL diploma and they have an equally recognized certification level within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Nevertheless, in recent years, many a student made a move towards the ISE Trinity exams either as a second option after failing a Cambridge exam or even as the very first choice.

Continue reading

The Great Divide: English Exams and Tests of English.

British English tests and exams, American tests, exams and tests for Spain… Where there is so much choice, there must be lots of differences. Relax! All these acronyms and abbreviations that sound like secret organizations have more in common than you would think: they are all about English, they all test both receptive (listening and reading) and productive (speaking and writing) skills and they all assess the level of English knowledge, whether for general or specific purposes.

So let´s take a closer look to what the differences are all about.

Continue reading

What´s the difference between an English exam and a test of English?

Cambridge FCE or TOEFL? Advanced or PET? TOEIC or APTIS? The Oxford Test of English or IELTS?

There are so many of them and yet so little understanding of what each encompasses that you come to feel that much choice is not actually what you wanted. But English is a global language and depending on many different purposes, you might be asked to take one of them.

Well, first of all…

… there are tests and there are exams.

Continue reading

If you were a man, would you not be a misogynist, too?

This was the question I was asked by a loved one when I was telling him my recent trials and tribulations at work. The boss was a man, and he was probably a misogynist in the original sense of the word: he abhorred he had to deal with women, treat them with at least a feigned form of respect due to social norms, and thus show such consideration by implementing said social norms through deigning women with the occasional hello, good-bye, and thank you. Of course, all that turned up once you had the ill luck of getting to know him.

He was young, smart, and successful. He had travelled the world, he liked books and movies, and he was interested in the trendy-fashionable left wing politics, dressed highly casually, and was not least of all what would generally be considered a socially charming person: he was perfectly able to have a witty conversation, show interest in his employees’ personal lives, offer advice and even help to some extent. He did voluntary work, had his eco-friendly collective farmers’ group and was genuinely interested in all things hip and not mainstream. The glass house was a perfect mirage.

He could have easily fitted into a pro choice or women’s rights demonstration. Only he didn’t. You spend enough time with someone, the honeymoon is soon over and the haunting truth starts to leak out of the fairy tale and dawn on you with its ugly dark face. It took me longer to realize it all, and I like to believe it was because I had never come up against anything not even remotely like it.

My fall was steep. But my friend’s question – if you were a man wouldn’t you be a misogynist, too? – made me wonder.

Continue reading

The Longest September

As the month draws to an end, I can´t stop myself from thinking that for the longest of times, I could not, for the life of me, remember what I did in any given September. Worse yet: looking back, I couldn´t even tell how the month had passed.

It had always been the month to come back to work after long and nice holidays; the month of plans and projects; the month of creativity and thoughts on new and exciting things to do; the time for looking ahead and foreseeing a good, ripe next couple of months.

Except for this year. I can´t remember sadder or voider holidays and I can´t remember that many days in a row thinking – and not the usual, dreamy thoughts. No, I mean scrambled thoughts, the painful type, the type that makes you constantly ask yourself: how did I get here? Could I have stopped to just back off, at some – at any point? Would it have changed anything at all?

Continue reading

Help. Cuando el mal es un grito de auxilio

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down/And I do appreciate you being ’round/Help me get my feet back on the ground/Won’t you please, please help me?

Pedir ayuda no es fácil; dar auxilio no es difícil. Pero ¿qué hacer cuando el que pide ayuda no sabe expresarlo? Más aún, ¿qué hacer cuando el que pide ayuda lo está haciendo a través de insultos, humillaciones, rechazo y reproches?

A raíz de una reciente discusión muy amarga y con profundo sabor a mal, no puedo dejar de pensar en una de las escenas finales de la última novela de Jonathan Franzen. El protagonista, el que había malvadamente construido un engranaje del que todo el mundo sale ileso menos él, se acerca a un precipicio tanto abstracto como físico. Pretende tirarse al vacío, pero durante la última conversación con su oponente bueno y luminoso, le pide ayuda. Cada frase que le echa en cara está doblada en sus adentros por un grito de ayuda y una suplicación a la redención. Cada cosa fea, torcida, amarga que le dice viene seguida por un “te suplico, ayúdame” que sólo él escucha, porque lo dice exclusivamente en su mente. Cada insulto que escupe se traduce por una imploración a auxilio que sólo el lector percibe.

El villano da el paso más allá del acantilado en el final de una escena sumamente poderosa para una novela y digna de una obra de teatro ántico. Era un protagonista que tenía que expiar sus males a través de una muerte trágica. No obstante, no puedo dejar de pensar que muchas veces, aunque no contestemos con mal al mal, carecemos de la capacidad de ver en el comportamiento de nuestros protagonistas negativos un grito de ayuda.  Continue reading

A Tearful Footballer and People Dressed in Flags

It was only after I came back from an amazing trip to Vietnam this summer and I was telling a friend how much I had enjoyed it and how I had just fallen in love with the country’s exquisite blend of modernity and authenticity, its mix of cosmopolitan touch and specific traditional nuances and colors that I realized I should come back down from my cloud-eleven holiday. Vietnam is beautiful, but I live in one of the best countries in the world.

And Spain being one of the best countries in the world makes this madness of showing off flags and giving out dramatically dense and yet sadly locked-in, narrow-minded, and immovable political speeches all the more absurd and aberrant. The mere fact that the drama-queen tears of a Catalan footballer made it to the headlines of news bulletins around Europe is ridiculous. That footballer maybe leaving Spain’s football team because of what he said on national TV – along with the utter nonsense of professionals actually showing interest in what he had to say on the topic as to allow him precious on-air time – is just bad journalism and definitely not news.

News is the situation where a political party currently in power seeks to capitalize its position of strength by antagonizing prospective voters a little over one year in office and with almost three years left till the next general election, diverting their attention from relevant current issues. News should be the bitter reality of a people that forgets how the same political party currently in power had surprisingly managed to survive an immense corruption scandal during which it had been direly revealed how members in its highest ranks used to cash in monthly cash coming from illegal commissions and plain-sight money laundering of public funds. News is that the same high-ranked members got re-elected. News is the ugly truth that politicians all over the world count on the electorate’s ridiculously short memory and nobody dares to go only three years back, when Catalonia had another referendum organized and there was no violence, no fights to get to vote, no major participation, no conflict, nor any repercussion for that matter.

Take a toddler’s toy and it will start crying; tell a teenager he or she is not allowed to drink and smoke and they will spend their money on booze and cigarettes; tell adult voters in democratic Spain they are not allowed to vote and there you will have the perfect ingredients for a major and gratuitous political conflict.

Of course, that is just stupid. Maybe a toddler or a teenager can’t stop to think for a second whether their lives will get better or worse with or without the momentously denied object of interest. An adult citizen should, though. It goes without saying that being for or against Catalonia’s hypothetical independence does not help Spaniards pay their mortgages or find decent jobs, make their small businesses take off or stagnate, feed their children or offer them better opportunities in life. Walking on the streets of beautiful Madrid wrapped up in a Spanish flag does not keep anyone from having to go back to work on Monday or taking their kids to school nor does it help them make ends meet.

Spain has long hours of sunshine almost all-year long, and one can feel how light literally enters the skin through its pores and makes its way to all the cells that quickly transform it into bliss, joie de vivre, and daily delight. Spain has nice beaches and great food, good wines and cool people to share them with, a rich history and amazing metropolitan cities, modern constructions and talented people who manage to get funding for arts and promoting literature, a language that makes its speakers emotionally wealthy people, a culture that supports tolerance and that zen-like sense of live and let live.

Spain used to be a country where people could not care less who ruled them as long as they could have all of the above and be able to afford nice holidays, have their children have a good start in life, and spend quality time with their loved ones. Spain has been my home for many years now, and that is precisely because I believed it to be a country that learned from past mistakes and was bound not to absurdly let aberrant and stupid confrontation perpetuate into this century.

Unfortunately, it is seemingly that much easier to forget all about that and somewhat just by watching TV, be persuaded that taking one side or the other could make anyone stand a better chance of paying this month’s rent, save up for the next holiday or be able to fulfill one’s hopes and dreams.

 

El TOC del inglés o cómo ponerse con para luego dejar un idioma

Al principio, el inglés es necesidad; y como tal necesidad, se asume como un proceso a corto plazo, que además requiere esfuerzos y sacrificios. En seguida se transforma en obsesión: se aprende sólo con nativos – profesores o no; de hecho, da igual mientras sean nativos – y si posible, con métodos prodigiosos que prometan un éxito rápido. Finalmente, la necesidad que lleva a la obsesión se convierte en compulsión. Y no de la buena. Se respeta a rajatabla la receta del trastorno.

En un país que ya tiene un idioma internacional que se puede escuchar en cualquier rincón del mundo y que por circunstancias y oportunidades históricas ya tiene asegurado su lugar dentro del patrimonio cultural universal, el bilingüismo se ha convertido – tristemente – en una obsesión que empieza a dejar de ser la ventaja que debería de abrir mentes y perspectivas, de tender puentes y compartir creencias y pensamientos.

“Ahora mismo quiero aprender inglés para sacarme el certificado; después voy a aprenderlo sin presión, por goce, con libros, canciones, pelis y series”.

“Eso de los exámenes oficiales es un timo; nos están engañando, son demasiado difíciles, no se corresponden al nivel”.

“Quiero ponerme ya con el inglés. Es que lo cogí y luego lo dejé por cosas del trabajo. Aunque lo tenga más oxidado, ya que llevo tiempo sin usarlo, tengo nivel avanzado y quiero un grupo de mi nivel”.

“Los exámenes oficiales sólo están para sacarse el título; aunque no me lo saque, esto no quiere decir que no tengo el nivel avanzado”. Continue reading

This Obsession of Labeling

There was this Woody Allen movie I once saw – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – where at some point, Scarlett Johansson’s character gets The Question popped after she confesses to her friend that she´s living with her lover and his girlfriend and she´s pretty okay with it. So the friend asks her something like “so what, you´re lesbian now? Or bisexual?”. And the answer is memorable – and not just because I remember it now for the sake of my latest blog entry – : “you know what? Why should I have to put a label on it? I don´t know what I am. And I don´t really care for naming it. I just know I´m happy and for now it just works out for me just like that” or something along these lines.

No, I´m not trying to get into a heated discussion on that topic. The point I´m trying to make is that ever so often I feel it´s just a sad little world we live in (by the  by, some food for soul: “what if our whole existence is some forgotten C-graded school science project gathering dust on the upper shelf in some alien kid´s room in another galaxy?”. A science blogger was asking himself that and I keep thinking of it whenever I just want to move to the Moon, hopefully, while it´s still unpopulated.) if people keep trying to put names on stuff and label experiences and thus necessarily corset any human possibility within the confined space of limits. I hate that word and everything it implies. Put a limit to thinking, put a label on what people are or are not and you´ve got a pretty full stop for just about anything.

Most recently, I get to be disappointed verging on furious when so many Spaniards who want to learn foreign languages (mostly English) because they suddenly realized they need to go out in an unfairly English-favoring world start by labeling themselves – “how would you assess your English level?” ; “a B1+”, comes the mind-blowing answer. As a teacher, I am always going and waiting, with this general question, for something less self-demanding, like: “I am pretty good at reading and writing, I come up short with speaking and listening and I have issues with understanding”, so, of course, my follow-up questions are around these lines. Then they label me, because “no matter how bilingual you may be, you still can´t master the language as a native speaker, and I can figure out from your accent that you are not native” – whatever that means. Most surely, they say that and they realize “my accent” is different only after they find out directly from my most sincere and foolish self that I, well… am not native. I am also not blonde, I am pale rather than fair-skinned, my eyes are black, I am not tall and most importantly, I am not just yet in possession of an American or Commonwealth passport. But I guess that doesn’t help either.

Let me share my limits with you, as well as the labels I supposedly have to carry along. Continue reading