Sunday, 17 March 2013

Where does students' English come from?

As my teaching placement has progressed, I've found that I've been getting better at estimating the level of students. Naturally, I'm still not perfect at this, and the dreaded words 'I don't know' still rear their ugly heads more often than I would like, but when I look at a class there are definitely fewer blank faces staring back at me than there were back in October. This development, this building on what my students do know as opposed to focusing on what they don't know, got me thinking about another question in English language learning: where does my students' English knowledge come from?

The most obvious source of English knowledge is perhaps the most closely associated with a school environment: their teachers. Although I'm treated as a teacher by the school's administration (and hence get the benefits of the staff coffee machine and a shorter queue in the canteen), the day-to-day work that I do differs quite substantially from what a fully-paid-up, agrégation-qualified teacher does. In many ways, I've got it easy: while teachers have to work through areas that many students find quite dull, such as grammar, we language assistants are employed to enrich students culturally and to get them speaking. As a result, we don't have to worry too much about grammar, whereas teachers are constantly having to strike a balance between intriguing students and teaching what has to be taught. Generally, though, they're very good at this, meaning that some classes in particular are (a) very motivated and (b) in possession of an impressive grammatical knowledge. So if, in a lesson, I ask them about the phrase 'I would have wanted' and they identify it as a conditional perfect, the teachers are the ones I should thank.

But in this increasingly-interconnected world, there are plenty of other sources of linguistic and cultural knowledge. It's hard not to notice the presence of the English language in France, whether it's in shops (Monoprix's 'We love babies' ad campaigns springs to mind) or on billboards (see my friend Dominic's commentary on this here). Then, of course, there's the Hit Parade, France's version of the Top 40. The sheer number of English songs present among its ranks is still surprising, even six months into my time in France. The café I'm currently sitting in is playing one of the music channels, and in the past hour we've had Tinee Tempah, Rihanna, Olly Murs, Nicki Minaj … the list goes on. All this English music can be a boon for language teaching - I've listened to Adele and Taylor Swift with my English club - but it can also pose problems. I was surprised to discover yesterday that the current number 1 single in France is none other than Thrift Shop, an irritatingly catchy ditty about vintage clothing whose lyrics are definitely not repeatable in polite conversation. Inevitably, these lyrics were being sung with impressive enthusiasm (thankfully without complete comprehension) by the ten-year-olds around the rowing club yesterday.

And of couse, no discussion of language acquisition would be complete without a mention of the technology. YouTube and Twitter in particular are excellent distributors of the English language, and as a result quite a few of my lessons have begun with a YouTube video of some kind. Then there are the computer games: when we were discussing gun control in the USA a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover the depth of my students' knowledge of different types of firearm, and their ability to describe them in English. Surprised, that is, until I remembered about Call of Duty. And Battlefield. And Medal of Honor.

But actually, it was a rather more sedate word that got me thinking about the provenance of my students' vocabulary*: specifically, their awareness of word 'harvest'. Thanks go to Harvest Moon, a Japanese strategy game, for that one. And it was at that point that I said something to my students that, back at the start of my assistantship, I don't think I could have said: 'I don't care where your English comes from. As long as it's good.'

And that feels like progress.

On an unrelated note, here's a piece of advice for you. If you're committed to producing short- to medium-form content a couple of times a month (such as, for instance, a blog), and you fail to produce anything for a couple of months, just try not mentioning this fact at all during your next publication. That way, no-one will notice.


  1. I got my English level from watching tv shows and movie and reading books in English. I didn't have a lot of good English teachers and most of them weren't really that good at it... And that probably is why a lot of French people are pretty bad at English. And the fact that we start learning languages at the age where we are becoming less and less efficient to learn other languages..

    1. When do you start learning languages in France? Some friends of mine are assistants in primary schools, but I imagine it becomes compulsory from age 11 ... if that's the case, then you're absolutely right: we need to start earlier! (The language education system in England should probably be the topic of another post entirely, although it might be a little unrelated to this particular blog ...)

  2. Hi Edward
    Plus ça change...
    Your post reminded me of when I was an assistante in Nantes in 1981/2 and the 6e wanted me to explain/translate the name of the group Soft Cell and their song Tainted Love...
    Also, I don't know if you are aware of the recent announcement here in England that 'foreign languages' (as Mr Gove calls them) will be statutory in KS2 (primary school Years 3 - 6) from 2014. However, his choice to drop the 'modern' from MFL is calculated: English primary schools will have to choose from the following list - French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, Ancient Greek. There has already been consternation from many, arguing that Polish, Portuguese, Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic, Dutch, Roumanian and Hebrew (amongst others) are already being successfully taught in primary schools and should be recognised. Mr Gove says schools can of course continue to teach these, but that one of his [random?] 7 languages must be the 'statutory' choice. The consultation process on this proposed new curriculum is still open...

    1. Hello Sue! Thanks for the comment. Did you tell them what the lyrics meant in the end? I can imagine it might not all have been suitable for 11-year-olds ...

      I assume that the announcement on 'foreign languages' would be the one contained in this article? To be honest, I've got mixed feelings about this ... on one hand, learning Latin is a very, very good idea, as it's a great way to give students a grasp of grammatical concepts, since you can't really teach it without adopting a grammar-based approach. However, you'd have to teach it very carefully indeed, since I can imagine many primary school students would find it incredibly boring without any spoken element to engage them. Also, surely you could incorporate the grammatical elements just by changing the way *modern* languages are taught ...

      ... and speaking of modern languages, I have to agree that the choice offered by Michael Gove does seem a little random. When you compare the languages listed with the most widely-spoken ones, you start to wonder how he picked them. Urdu, for instance, has as many speakers as Spanish, Italian, German and French put together, so in terms of how useful it will be to its learners, you have to ask yourself why it wasn't included. Saying that schools can 'continue to teach them' outside the statutory choice strikes me as a red herring, since timetables are so squeezed already that schools simply won't have the luxury.

      Oh, and seriously, how many state primary schools will be able to offer Ancient Greek?

  3. Edward,

    Your resident Grumpy Prescriptivist begs forgiveness: I am compelled to spoil your blog with my comment!

    In Paris also there is English everywhere, particularly in advertising, and not just because of tourism. We may hear about 'Franglais', but it has astonished me to have seen its prevalence and the general presumption of (I feel) a fairly advanced command of English. This is more or less invisible from the perspective of Britain!

    I must admit that I find this Anglophone pressure rather disconcerting, as is a Grumpy Prescriptivist’s duty, even without having French as a mother-tongue. (It is certainly distracting for an English-speaker learning French!). I would mind it less if it were a different kind of English. This has to do with your (rather good) line, "I don't care where your English comes from, as long as it is good". That has struck me, because the English of popular culture, the same English which is being taken up enthusiastically by young people in France, is not good at all, but brittle, careless and poor; and worse, to our shame, often filthy, as you have mentioned. It can help with learning English, but I feel it is hardly a good advertisement. And it is damaging French as well as English. I imagine that many French people must associate English with ugliness and vulgarity, and who can blame them? I think I would, if I were French. It just goes to show the responsibility which public figures and song-writers have, and often ignore.

    There, that is better now I’ve got that off my chest! Back to dreaming of an English Academy.