A review of an ELT stand-up comedy

If you asked me about my favourite workshop/presentation/plenary/keynote I’ve recently been to, I’d probably say that something that really struck a chord with me was the talk given by Péter Medgyes at the 25th P.A.R.K. Conference in Brno. There were many other great speakers at this particular event, including big names like Marjorie Rosenberg and Scott Thornbury, and they were absolutely fabulous. However, Péter Medgyes’s topic and the way he presented it resonated with me the most. Why? The answer is because it was full of humour, which, by the way, was the topic of his closing plenary.

Anyway, his morning presentation I’m referring to called Who is better: natives or nonnatives? was peppered with amusing stories and anecdotes. But why, apart from the fact that it was funny, was his talk more powerful than other speeches I’ve heard so far? The answer is – and now you have to excuse my impudence – because he is a non-NEST with a background similar to mine. What he was saying would hardly be replicable by speakers coming from different backgrounds. Also, I really liked the fact that his speech was tailor-made for a Czech audience as well as the global teaching community. His tongue-in-the-cheek remark that unlike Hungary, his native land, the Czech Republic is obviously not part of Eastern Europe – it’s actually Central Europe – really got me. This is something we Czechs are sensitive about so I really appreciated the fact that he included this into his speech. I suspect these are the little tricks with which you can easily wrap the audience around your finger. Is such a tactic artfully deceptive? Yes. Do I mind? Absolutely not!

His morning talk was, in fact, a description of a long and arduous journey of an L2 learner, which finally led to successful mastery of English. I felt that to a great extent, his experience is universal. In other words, the examples he provided were so similar to my own reality that it made me smile inwardly all along the way. Throughout his talk (as if almost inadvertently) he was constantly drawing the audience’s attention to various problematic areas we English learners grapple with, such as the tricky pronunciation of words like species or Los Angeles. What is more, all the examples he kept throwing at us were so skillfully embedded in his talk that it made me want to pay attention to every single word of his.

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I also liked his honest confession regarding his struggles with listening, particularly when interacting with native speakers. This is something we non-NESTs will never be willing to admit openly, let alone publicly. He also mentioned how disadvantaged we non-NESTs are in terms of L2 proficiency when compared to native speakers of English, especially when it comes to lexical areas such as metaphors, idioms and collocations. I believe this is something many non-NESTs avoid saying out loud too.

To conclude, this was a good, old-fashioned talk, in the best sense of the word you can imagine. It was so refreshing that I even skipped my sixth cup of coffee that afternoon. In fact, now that I think about it, it was a stand-up comedy rather than a serious talk about a burning ELT issue. Still, the impact it had on me was immediate and significant. I don’t know about the other people in the audience, but for me, the punch line was that humour is an essential part of successful instruction. Unfortunately, it’s often underestimated and even neglected – by coursebook writers as well as the teachers themselves. Most of all, this talk finally confirmed my assumption that non-NESTs can be as inspiring and influential as NESTs.

 

 

On strike today

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Today, many teachers here in the Czech Republic are on strike. Teacher unions have been threatening with a strike for some time now because the government failed to keep its promise to raise teachers’ wages by 15 per cent as of January. But the unions’ patience was really over with the government’s final promise to raise the base pay by 8 per cent and provide an equivalent of another 2 per cent for bonuses to be distributed to the best teachers. The unions want a 10 per cent increase in the base pay.

Many people involved in the field of education, including the Prime Minister, think the strike is pointless. Some teachers also believe that the unions’ demand is actually counterproductive since it is less advantageous for the more efficient and competent teachers. In other words, it will not be in the school principles’ power to reward their best teachers. The minister of education complains that Czech teachers are finally getting the pay they deserve and he accuses the unions of taking a “destructive” position.

It may be true that our salaries keep increasing but a study by the Prague-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Analysis has found that despite recent rises teachers’ pay is low by comparison with other professions in the Czech Republic – and with the remuneration enjoyed by their peers in other developed countries.

Anyway, in the school where I work, less than 50 per cent of the staff have decided to give up today’s wage and stay at home. I am one of them. I’m aware of the fact that the strike may not achieve the unions’ original goals, but I believe that it’s important to speak up from time to time. Teachers should demonstrate that they pull together as a team.

Thinking about it, I am also immensely grateful for the opportunity for a peaceful protest like this. I recently learned about the working conditions of garment workers in some of the developing countries. Once these people joined a strike, they were beaten up by the government armed forces. This happened in the 21st century. So I think it is a real blessing to be living in a world where we can express our opinion freely without being punished.

Having said that, although we don’t get punished physically, we are frowned upon by some people, especially those outside of the field of education. Some of them believe that we are greedy. Isn’t it enough that we have two months of holidays in the summer? By the way, according to them, we keep asking for more but we

“can’t even teach their kids a simple phrase like I was in London. If my son hadn’t studied this on his own, he wouldn’t know how to say this”. (end of quote)

But you know what, no matter what everybody says, I am proud to be a teacher and I feel it’s my prerogative to be on strike today. Personally, I have gone a long way to get where I am now. Also, I believe that I’m good at what I do and I’m passionate about it. So as I see it, asking for more (whatever this ‘more’ means) is not a sign of greed; it is a sign of confidence. It shows that I am (=we are) deserving of it.