How (not) to choose an English language school – part 3 of 4

If you’ve been following this series of posts about how not to be deceived by appealing offers and promises of fast, better language learning, welcome back. If you haven’t, be my guest and, if you like, also check out the previous posts, where I talked about two common myths about foreign language learning (just click on the titles):

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months.

MYTH 2: The earlier you start learning English, the faster you’ll acquire it and the better you’ll speak it.

Today I’m talking about another argument often used by language schools to lure customers:

MYTH 3: FOR THE BEST RESULTS, COME STUDY ENGLISH WITH OUR AMERICAN TEACHERS.

What is behind this myth is the idea that the best teachers anyone can have are those who are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. Well, it seems to make sense. What could be better than learning English with someone who comes from an English-speaking country? This person will provide you with the best vocabulary and pronunciation and an in-depth knowledge about the culture. No Brazilian teacher can beat an American when it comes to knowledge about the English language, right?

WRONG!

Almost everything’s wrong with these ideas. Let’s see why and how.

Who’s the native speaker?like a native

Imagine we have a Portuguese language school and need to hire native speakers of Portuguese to work as teachers. On the day of interviews, we have four candidates: (1) a girl from the megacity of São Paulo, with a degree in International Relations and lots of travel experiences; (2) an Engineering undergraduate from a town in the south of Brazil; (3) a man who didn’t finish elementary school and (4) a teenager from Rio.

What do they all have in common? They’re all Brazilian and native speakers of Portuguese. What don’t they have in common? The language they speak, funnily enough.

This is because “Portuguese language” is basically a general term used to refer to several varieties of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) community. It’s not only about the different accents these people have. There are lots of differences in vocabulary and grammar as well. And the same thing happens in English. Someone from Yorkshire, UK speaks a variety quite different from someone from Austin, USA. And even within the UK, you’ll find loads of differences in the way people use the language.

The thing is that some native speakers have more prestige than others. If you decide to study in a school that has native speaker teachers, what you expect to find is a very sophisticated person from a cosmopolitan centre such as New York, London or Sydney, not native speakers of English coming from Thurso, Scotland or Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Everything I said about native speakers so far is interesting and relevant, but there’s only one reason why our candidates above wouldn’t make good language teachers: they have no training on foreign language teaching.

In order to illustrate how this important, just try to answer this question: what would a ‘Portuguese As a Foreign Language’ lesson given by that uncle of yours who is a physician be like? What sort of skills would he teach? What techniques would he make use of? How would he choose the best assessment approach?

The truth is that foreign language teaching is a complex activity that requires not only a high level of fluency but also great knowledge about the structure of the language, the methodologies, the different techniques for teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, speaking, collocations, pronunciation etc. Just like practically all of the professions, it requires qualification. Being a native speaker of a language doesn’t qualify you to teach it.

Native vs non-native teachers

Ok, let’s suppose we have two candidates for a teaching position in an English language school in Brazil. Both of them have had language teaching training and have taught English for a least 5 years. One of them is an American, born and raised in the USA, but now living in Brazil for about 2 years. The other is Brazilian and learned English in Brazil. In this sort of more balanced competition, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of having a native or non-native English language teacher?

Non-native speakers of the language they teach can be great examples for their students, as they’ve gone through pretty much the same learning process. They know which aspects of the language will pose greater difficulties and they can easily switch to the native language they share with the students in order to explain or give instructions. The communication between teacher and students is genuinely bilingual.

On the other hand, non-native speakers will probably not be as good models of natural language usage and pronunciation as the native speakers. And the latter will have cultural information to share as someone ‘from inside’ the linguistic and cultural context. However, native speakers might not be good models of International English, depending on the variety of English they speak, and this is an important issue because most people learn English to communicate with the world, not with the guy from countryside Texas.

The fact is that it’s not really important to know whether your English language teacher will be a native or non-native speaker of English. Professor Jeremy Harmer, a leading scholar and researcher of ELT, says that the two most important questions to be answered are:

  • Does the teacher speak English that is good enough?

  • Does the teacher know how to teach?

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How (not) to choose an English language course – part 1 of 4

ENGLISH LANGUAGE – AN EXPENSIVE PRODUCT

Learning languages is all about advantages. It can improve your memory by making your brain work in ways it normally doesn’t. It can broaden your horizons and take your understanding of other cultures to a whole new level. It can be that asset that will land you that higher-paying position in the company. And while being bilingual or multilingual is actually the normal thing for the majority of the population (I may talk about how and why humans are mostly bilingual in a future post), there’s still some prestige in it, depending on which languages you know. This is because some languages are politically more “interesting” than others.

That English is the most important language in the world is surely beyond dispute. It was spread round the globe during the apex of the British Empire in the late 19th century. During World War I, it started standing out as an international language, and by the late 1950’s it had already established itself as the lingua franca of the world. It all happened quite fast, in the speed of the industrial revolution, and because of the overwhelming political, military and financial influence of the United Kingdom and the United States. But although their influence is still great to this day, the scenario is a lot different, at least from a linguistic point of view.

It seems that the English language, which had traveled the world riding on the coat-tails of the UK and the USA for over a century, has finally become independent. Today, it’s the official language in other 51 countries and it’s the language of international commerce, science and foreign affairs. Brazilian tourists visiting Russia will probably use English to buy their theatre tickets. In the business dinner of a trade fair in Sweden, it’s very likely that the Arabian businessmen will communicate with their South Korean counterparts in English. And in a world in which knowledge (in particular, skills and professional qualifications) is a true and highly profitable asset or product, it’s no wonder that English has inherited from its original owners a great potential to be capitalised, monetised.

MIRACULOUS LEARNING ON OFFER

And here we finally get to the point. While language is the property of those who claim it – whatever historical, cultural or political reasons they may have for that – language teaching and learning isn’t so much so. In other words, anyone can teach any language and there’s hardly any regulation of if or how this should be done. Because of the status of English in the world, teaching it as a second or foreign language has become a highly profitable business. And in this extremely competitive market, where giant corporations duel over market dominance round whole countries and where all sorts of medium-size and small companies elbow each other to surface in the ocean of local language schools, it’s no wonder that we’re bombarded with all sorts of bizarre adverts and miraculous offers about how well (or fast, or effortlessly, or enjoyably) we can learn English. Advertising done this way, in a fashion very much likely to be referred to as confusion marketing by the experts, often misleads those trying to choose a language course.

learnenglishfast
Don’t take that bait!

Quite obviously, if you’re reading this post, it means either that you’ve somehow survived that process or that English is your native language. Anyway, please help me spread the ideas and hints in this text to those who will go through the trouble of formal foreign language instruction. Note, however, that I don’t intend to bring up the solutions to language learning problems. This is but a reflection on a few facts which I think everyone willing to take up language lessons should be aware of. In this series of four posts, I’m going to talk about common (mistaken) ideas about foreign language learning and go through a few strategies or hints that will hopefully help your friends make informed decisions about where to study English.

COMMON MYTHS

From a myriad of widespread myths about how English language is best learnt, I’ve selected just three of them, which I find specially interesting as they’re usually sold to people as truth. The first one is discussed below.

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months

Come on, folks, let’s face it: there’s no such thing as cutting-edge methodology. Every English language school has its procedures and coursebooks guided by (or, at least, based on) one or more of the following methodological approaches:

  1. Learning by using only English, in order to simulate a real-life immersion into a far-fetched scenario in which the natives have no knowledge of any language other than their own (aka ESL – English as a Second Language);
  2. Learning through repetition and drilling, often triggered by pictures or short dialogues (aka audio-lingual method); or
  3. Learning by trying to solve problems or complete tasks that involve and require exchanging information in English with other learners (i.e. communicating with them) (aka CLT – Communicative Language Teaching).

None of those methodologies are new. The ESL approach is basically another name for the Direct Method, in vogue in the 1970’s, but whose ideas and practices can be tracked back to the second half of the 1800’s. On its turn, the audio-lingual method derived from the language courses developed in the 1960’s by the US goverment to train their military and are heavily based on behaviourist principles put forward in the late 1950’s. Finally, the CLT (or Communicative Approach, as it’s also commonly referred to) is not really a methodology, but a set of strategies and practices aiming to help create a genuine communicative setting for the target language to be used, and it was suggested in the late 1980’s.

And what about the time issue? Can anyone become fluent in English in 18 months? The answer is yes and no. First, we need to define whatever it’s meant by fluent. If they mean you’ll be able to say who you are, where you come from and what you do, and maybe to buy your own train tickets and order food from a simple menu, then yes, you may well be “fluent” after 18 months of study. Bear in mind, however, that for most institutions (and even for most people), if you have only these basic communicative skills, you’re quite far from being fluent. You will probably need at least a couple of years of frequent classes and contact with the language in order to be able to discuss misunderstandings, solve problems, persuade and get across your opinion on climate change. This is, among other things, what a fluent English speaker is usually expected to be able to do.

There are several other old methods and approaches that are still used to this day and there are also schools that shape their ways of doing things by frankensteining what they consider to be the best bits of each of the earlier methods in what has been called a post-method or post-CLT approach. At the end of the day, all you need to tell that friend of yours who’s thinking about taking up English is that he shouldn’t trust the advertising.

Follow me. In my next post, I’m going to talk about why you’re not a loser if you only started learning a foreign language at 35 years old. (That 3-year-old niece of yours isn’t going to be fluent by the time she’s 6.)