Language Learning In Britain Past
Our experiences of language teaching create the language teachers we may become. I think one of my greatest advantages was that my experiences at school were so negative, that I learned how not to do it. Most teachers get into language teaching because they loved language learning, and so they assume kids will. I assumed they wouldn’t unless we added interest in some way. Some people are natural language learners and assume it’s all fun and easy. My co-author John Curtin was bilingual level in Spanish, French and Portuguese, and could hold conversations in Italian, German, Arabic and Hebrew. He always thought it all terribly easy. I always thought it hard. That’s why I became a Beginner / Elementary specialist, I suppose.
TEACHING POINT: Just because you’re good at something, don’t assume others are.
I started French at grammar school aged eleven. My older sister (who loved French so much that she had a picture of Montmartre on her wall) spent the summer holiday before teaching me bits. I was enthused until I got school. Our first French teacher was a man in his late fifties with a bright scarlet face and purple nose, set off by a mustard yellow waistcoat, Brylcreemed grey hair and the OCD habit of examining his large shiny cufflinks every few seconds to check they were there. I expect he thought kids would steal anything. His idea of Lesson One was to get us to come out one by one and pronounce un and une. Une wasn’t too bad, but un was beyond our ability. Our attempts were greeted with a sneer and barks of “Again!” then he got into laughing at the selected individuals as the alphabet progressed, by the time he got to me, it was “I did not believe anyone could do it as badly as Taylor, but Viney has succeeded.” Roars of laughter. I vowed that if I ever had to speak French, all nouns would be feminine. Incidentally, if L’Académie française ever decides to modify the language, this would be a really good starting point, followed immediately by accents. And why is é easy in Word, (ALT-E), but a grave accent difficult?
TEACHING POINT: Over-attention to the exact niceties of pronunciation is dispiriting. Learners have to hear the sound many times before they actually hear the difference.
Sometime around Christmas, our yellow-waistcoated torturer disappeared never to return. Older lads told me that he was taken from the premises in a straitjacket frothing at the mouth. I believed them. They had no replacement, and the Deputy Headmaster had to teach us himself, a departure from his A level Economic History / British Constitution classes. He kept a heavy wooden board duster in the long sleeve of his academic gown, and could swing it to miss your hand by an inch, denting the desk, if your attention wandered. I loved his French lessons, because we didn’t do any French. He knew about French, but always brought it back to history, so that the verb oublier brought a lesson on the oubliette where unhappy prisoners were consigned to be forgotten and die in the Middle Ages. No one had laid a hand upon them so no one bore responsibility for their death. He was a marvellous raconteur. We learned all the Norman words for the parts of a castle. When I started university English, I amazed my tutor by knowing all about the social divisions of Norman England enshrined in language. The Normans ate meat, and called it beef, veal and pork from French, while the Saxons tilled the fields, looked after the animals, ate bread and gave us words like swine, sheep, calf. So English maintains the separation of animals and meat, which probably leads to excessive vegetarianism.
TEACHING POINT: Asides are often more entertaining and more memorable than the text book.
The third term of our first year, our timetable of five lessons a week was filled in by the new French assistant, an Algerian in his very early twenties. Unlike any of his colleagues in the French department, he could speak French. We took to him at once. In retrospect, I feel embarrassed that he had to share a staff room with our third year (Year 9) French teacher, whose favourite expressions of distaste were You’re behaving like Arabs … You didn’t do your homework? You lazy Arab … and so on. His extreme racism was learned in Egypt in World War Two. Our Algerian Assistant’s idea of a French lesson was taking us out to the playing field with a football. A goal was ten points, but each shouted instruction to a team mate in French was one point to your team. Any shouting in English was minus one point. Those too injured, asthmatic or plump to play kept the scores … in French. We loved him. They soon stopped him doing it.
TEACHING POINT: Physical activity and movement and a genuine need works.
On to the second year (Year 8). Our French teacher often talked about his French pals (in English) but let’s not kid ourselves. He was a man whose only friends were imaginary. He had been on a short refresher course and been told that you should use French in a genuine communicative way in the classroom. Using French beyond a direct translation (Viney! What does la porte mean?) was a novelty in our school. Unfortunately, all he could think of was Ouvrez la fenêtre, said in a strong West Country English burr. He started every lesson with it proudly, whether there was rain, hurricane or blizzard outside. If only he had thought of fermez as well. We shivered through those lessons.
My granddaughter is doing one of those bizarre things where kids have a little bit of French, Spanish and German before choosing which to start studying to GCSE next year. This is of course a con, because the timetable and the availability of staff means they won’t actually be able to choose freely, and most will be assigned. She announced that the German teacher was fun, but strange. I asked why. “She can’t speak English at all. Not a word! I don’t know how she goes to the shops.” Mm, I thought, choose German then.
TEACHING POINT: Use the target language and stick to it.
Let’s stay with the second form. The teacher concerned used the Fougasse picture strips that I later used for teaching English. One was Le corbeau et le reynard, which was labelled The Fox & The Raven in the later ELT teacher notes … a raven is a grand corbeau. Anyway, the 12-13 year olds stared blankly at him. “Ah!” he said in a flash of inspiration … “Corbeau! Comme (Smith).” Poor Smith (not his real name) possessed a very large beak-like nose. Very large indeed. For the rest of his school life he was known as Corb, Corbeau or Crow. When we were 16 or 17 and going to dances, girls would always say, ‘Peter, why is your friend called Corb. I’ve never heard that name before.’ Then poor Smith would have to recount the entire story to hoots of laughter and pointing. Mysteriously, he left town as soon as he got to eighteen and was never heard of by any of us ever again.
TEACHING POINT: Respect your learners.
ADMIN POINT: If you have a teacher like that on your staff, sack the bastard.
I remember his opinion of the tu form in French. “Forget about it. You will never know a French person well enough to use tu.” “I hope” was hanging in the air at the end. He was not to know that my niece would marry a Frenchman, and I have a great-nephew and great-niece in France. I remember when my great-niece was about four and starting singing Frère Jacques. I joined in cheerfully and she said, “Stop it, Uncle Peter! You don’t speak French!” I like to think this was compartmentalization by a bilingual child, but I must admit that it was really a comment on my accent. Anyway, our Corbeau-calling teacher did not know enough about French to be aware that a teacher addresses a pupil as tu.
TEACHING POINT: Know the language you’re teaching.
On to the third form (Year 9). We called him Thunders, short for Thunderbum, because he was wont to break wind loudly in class. As he was virtually deaf, he happily assumed that his flatulence went unnoticed. In those days, when most people had a bath once a week, the smell of plimsolls and unwashed sweaty sports kit in our gym bags, and general teen male body odour would have masked much of the smell. This was the man who called us lazy Arabs, cheating Arabs, useless Arabs and so on. His sole teaching method was reading aloud around the class. Because he was so hard of hearing, we did what all 14 year olds do and made buzzing noises which had him patting his hearing aid in consternation. I’m not sure why as he must have forgotten to change the battery in years, When we read aloud, we did what fourteen year old boys have been found to do in surveys … we competed to see who could Anglicize French pronunciation the most strongly. Interestingly, girls don’t do that. It is said to be a point where boys identify most strongly with their own national culture. It worked in our state grammar school, but was apparently different in public schools. I knew several people with a more elite education who delighted in using French. Maybe they had curvaceous pouting mademoiselles as French assistants. One ex-neighbour greeted me daily with Bonjour Pierre. But we never delighted in it, so started garbling the language, then speaking total nonsense. He would strain to listen to our reading, ‘Um erzy rhubarb caterpillar cauliflower bump da doo ron ron.” “Very good, Viney. Your pronunciation’s improving. Williams!” And Williams would carry on in the same way.
TEACHING POINT: Reading aloud is a total waste of time. It’s monotonous, boring and presents a bad listening model (and breaking wind in class is rude, and as for the racism, he’s another bastard who needed sacking.)
In the fourth year they appointed a new Head of Languages who spoke French and German, and at around 30, he was twenty years younger than the old stagers he was now the boss of. I had a similar experience when I first became a head of department. He was somewhat terrifying as he had a short temper and hit the front page of the national newspapers after knocking a boy out. Actually, he had a heart of gold … just a short fuse. I had written myself off as useless at French after three years of dreadful teachers.
I remember this as Theresa May waxes lyrical about the academic excellence of 1960s grammar schools. Ours was one of the very most selective. I think it took around 4%. We had six classes of 30 kids in each year, and they were streamed. As they took such a small number, any kid in any stream was an academic high achiever, but in fact they were only really interested in the top two streams, the potential Oxbridge entrants. And in such an elite school, I’d say, after my many years of doing teacher training, about half the staff were useless. Until that point ALL the language staff were useless. Fortunately, we had the new Head of Languages teaching us, who I was later told had been employed to shake things up radically. He issued us with a graded reader in French … a Maigret story. Instead of reading aloud the dull continuing (for four years) story about a circus in the textbook, we had to read large chunks silently outside class. I’m a great guesser. My French to English guess rate and reading speed suddenly gave me a new sense of achievement. I got a second Maigret story in short order.
TEACHING POINT: Use extensive reading. In fact switch between approaches so that learners with different skills can excel.
I could go on, but do add any similar experiences below!