Category Archives: The Garden of English Delights

English is fancy, English is lovely, and English has many delights. I am an EFL teacher ready to unravel them.

Learning English: Do You Need a Teacher or a Native?

<<You cannot possibly teach English if you are no native; maybe you can explain grammar rules, theoretical phrasing and irregular tenses, but only a native can really teach the spoken, common, salt-of-the-earth, real language; English belongs to the native-speakers>>

My guess is some of the above is all too known to many teachers and learners of English alike, and unfortunately, it all comes down to a question of belief. That is, not based on any provable evidence from reality. And that is truly sad because most often than not, human beings are prone to embrace fiction, creativity, art, originality and then some more – but this suspension of disbelief is many times not even tolerated when it comes to teaching languages.

So basically, we are all too willing to accept the reality in a science-fiction movie, the love story of a power couple in showbiz, or even the given interpretation of the most beautiful impressionist painting – but when it comes to teaching languages, we know for sure that only native speakers can do it. It’s like a treasure that only natives have access to, a longed for good that only natives should be allowed to share, an earthly possession that only natives know how to use.

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No Love Lost for English in Spain

Yes, after several years of teaching English as a foreign language in Spain, and after months of trying to inspire my students to love English for its versatility, liveliness, richness, and even playfulness, I have come to terms with the hard truth: Spaniards don’t like English.

Maybe there is no likability there; maybe that is a moot point; maybe there are several reasons to it. But the fact stands. I am not trying to make it a general statement, to fly this slogan over all Spaniards, or to impose my opinion on just about everybody. Let’s just say I currently don’t see any love lost for the English language in Spain.

From what I could gather, English has always been what Spaniards call la asignatura pendiente – a booed curriculum subject of sorts that pupils and students alike had to stumble upon at some point and that is doomed to never be ticked off the list. For some, the rejection started with the very first primary school English teacher who did not speak English and yet forced irregular verbs and plurals, tenses and adjectives on their pupils. For others, the resentment grew when once on a highly competitive and at the same time relatively restrictive labour market, they found themselves served with the mandatory English exam. To some, English is just the foul-smelling pill they have to swallow to have a chance at a job for life in the public sector. To others, it is just something they have to have in their resumes, since you know… you never know.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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