Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!

The source of true happiness …

foto 008After several things-that-worked-really-well-in-class-last-year posts, I’m finally in the mood for some quiet contemplation.

Last year was not a particularly exceptional year. Lots of things happened; some of them might be labelled as successes, others seemed to be failures. However, I can’t think of any major disasters or noteworthy achievements on my part, at least in the usual sense of the words.

Still, deep inside, I feel something truly significant happened, even though not in the ‘world of forms’. By the world of forms I mean all the things that happen around us, things that happen to us, things we see and the thoughts that usually come to us.

Towards the end of 2015, I came closer to a truth that transformed my life dramatically. The message that caused the change is nothing new under the sun, though; I’m sure you have come across the words a million times in your life – in many versions and under various circumstances. I had, too. And I had thought I understand so I hadn’t paid too much attention really. Until I suddenly saw where the words point to. Until the truth hit the very core of my heart ….. until it finally reached my soul.

Be grateful for always this moment, the now, no matter what form it takes.

Because the now is the only thing you have and by refusing it for whatever reason you only make yourself suffer. Because, in effect, the past and the future don’t exist – they are just mental forms in your heads, which often turn your life into hell.

Although this sudden realization changed the way I treat each and every moment of my life, my past self still tends to creep in. It tries to convince me that it feels good to be better than others. It urges me to cry over the spilled milk. It encourages me to regret the things I did or didn’t do. It invites me to judge people, myself included. And I sometimes join in and play the game, but I do so less often and less enthusiastically.

The change that occurred may not be visible to the outer world yet. Maybe the closest ones have sensed a minor shift, but otherwise, things appear to be the same. But it’s fascinating to observe that as my perspective is changing, things around me have started to ‘change’ too. My students suddenly seem better-behaved and more motivated. My eldest son, who is a bit of a troublemaker, doesn’t get on my nerves so much anymore. I’m coming across people who are on the same wavelength and those who aren’t are now completely out of sight. I’m bumping into books, movies, articles and posts in which people share insights which resonate with me like they have never before.

This makes me believe that I’m on the right track. The only thing I need to do now is to stay in touch with that place where black is as good as white, where cold is as good as warm, and where grief is as good as joy.

The place which is the only source of creativity and true happiness in life …

G526DET (6)

When the pain is finally blown away …

IMG_20151028_120203The draft of this post was written a couple of days ago. It was written in a very vulnerable and unstable state of mind. When I calmed down later on, I decided not to post it. But earlier today, something eventually made me change my mind. A friend of mine told me about something that had happened to her, which I felt was in some way similar to what I had experienced.

Both stories have something to do with the fact that you have no control over what people think and what they say about you. If they say nasty things and they share them publicly, on social media, for example, you can’t but let it be when the pain goes away.

Here’s the original story.

As you probably know, I’m a homeroom teacher to a class of 25 teenagers. One of them recently set up a class blog. Soon afterward, I incidentally learned about the blog and I immediately whooped with delight.

I promptly shared my joy with the kids so from then on they knew I was visiting the blog. Over time, I’d discovered that only a handful of students were regularly contributing to the blog. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they shared verged on inappropriate. I suspected that the web was not a perfectly safe place, so the rest of the class probably preferred avoiding it. So I told the kids that they should be careful about what they post and that they were fully responsible for the content of the blog. I reminded them that cyberspace can be a tricky place. This story is an irrefutable proof of that.

The other day, the founder of the blog posted a ranty comment in which he complained about school. He mentioned a few teachers, including me. In his comment, he said that he had enough of Mrs. T, who constantly pokes her nose in everybody’s personal stuff. Another boy joined in and actually continued in the same vein – he complained about school and how annoying it was, how disgusting the food in the school canteen was, how irritating the homeroom teacher is – nothing new under the sun. Anyway, the first boy then replied to the second boy’s comment. This time, however, his comment was intentionally and openly rude.

I know teachers get on teenagers’ nerves; I have two teenagers at home after all. At this age, adults are probably seen as enemies and students feel the need to be rebellious at all costs. Nevertheless, I did feel sad when I saw the comments. The matter was complicated by the fact that I was at home on holiday and I couldn’t talk to the students face to face to get things straight.

So my sadness slowly turned into a mixture of disappointment, fear, and anger. I had always regarded the founder of the blog a nice boy and I was surprised how much bitterness there was within him. I think I particularly didn’t like the fact that he was manipulating others, infecting them with his negativity and disgruntlement, but the worst thing about the whole incident is that he knew I’d see the comment, so I couldn’t but take it personally.

However, I tried to stay rational. I used a technique that should be helpful in situations like this; whenever I thought of the incident, I started breathing slowly. I tried to recognize the pain, feel it and then let it go. This helped a bit. I went back to the website to find evidence that I was actually being paranoid and that nothing really terrible was happening. I re-read the comments, especially the last one. The pain came back again. I dosed myself with another breathing exercise. Was I expected to respond? They boy had sent out a clear message and believed I’d receive it at some point.

After a while, for a fleeting moment, my feelings changed; I suddenly felt admiration and respect towards the student. I realized how much courage it took to write such a comment and sign beneath it.

But the disappointment came back. It was impossible to fight it. I was hopeless and desperate. I had to act. I had to do something. I kept telling myself that these things simply happen, that they help me learn and grow. This purely cognitive approach helped, for a millisecond, but then the negativity was back again. I finally became angry with myself. I ended up blaming myself for being totally irrational, impulsive and over-sensitive.

Now, this is my train of thought: I might have pretended I hadn’t seen the comment at all. Or, I might have pretended that I didn’t give a damn about their website. I might well stop visiting the blog completely to save myself from potential trouble and tears.

IMG_20151028_112554Long story short, I chose the third option. However, I should add that I did talk to the boy as well (not face to face to face, though). I wanted him to know that I knew. I wanted the other kids to know too. I don’t know if it was right, but for me, it was the only way of handling this burdensome situation. And even now, when I’m relatively calm, I don’t regret it. Now I can finally let it be and forgive the boy and myself.

My final set of (rather suggestive) questions would be this: Do I have the right to feel emotional in such a situation? Do I have the right to tell my students how much it hurts to hear the nasty things they utter. Should I teach my students about the rules of decent (online) communication? Or should I stop controlling them, i.e. should I stop poking my nose into their stuff, and let them discover things for themselves?

Formal observation observations

IMG_20150622_152041Like every semester, I have just started a round of classroom observations. I’m required to see each English teacher in our department at least once in six months, which has been part of my job since Septemeber 2014. The main purpose of the observations is to help my colleagues to improve their teaching. However, officially, the observations are also conducted for the purposes of job-performance evaluation.

One of the problems related to both aforementioned purposes is that some of my colleagues have been teaching for a longer period of time than I have. In effect, there’s only one teacher who’s got less teaching experience than me. This, obviously, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I mean, it’s ok when you do peer observation; the amount of experience doesn’t really matter because you’re both in equal positions. However, once you’re in a situation when the observee feels they must perform well because their performance will later be reflected in the overall evaluation, such a type of observation will never be seen as a genuine tool for professional development.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to diminish the impact of the inequality inherent to every formal observation. When observing a lesson, I take a lot of notes on a separate sheet of paper, but eventually, I have to summarize, and, to a certain extent, depersonalize, the feedback by transferring it onto a prescribed template. There’s lots of ticking there, which, to my mind, is a chore and doesn’t really say much about the actual lesson, and there are boxes where I’m supposed to record the amount of TTT as opposed to STT. This is noted down in the form of a percentage. But how could I possibly measure this accurately? Needless to say, I don’t bring along a stopwatch, which, by the way, might be a great idea, except that it would scare the teacher as well as the students, plus it would probably cast doubt upon my sanity.

Anyway, most of my colleagues already know that the ‘ideal’ ratio of TTT to STT is around 30% to 70 %. In other words, students should be engaged in plenty of speaking activities (if it’s not a writing lesson, for example). So, if there’s a decent amount of meaningful pair/group work, the observee will get the ideal ratio. Once I feel there’s space for improvement in this area, I leave the box empty.

Another thing that makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable is the two boxes titled POSITIVES and NEGATIVES. For one, they are too small. If I could design a new template, I’d definitely make them much larger and I’d rename the NEGATIVES one. I was thinking of something like THINGS TO CONSIDER instead. This sounds much better, but most importantly, it’s more acceptable for the observee, who might otherwise feel as if being criticized or even reprimanded.

When sharing feedback with the observee after the lesson, I take advantage of the separate piece of paper where there are all the ‘negatives’ (not called negatives). Eventually, I only copy the conclusions into the POSITIVES box and I leave the other one empty.

There’s also one more thing that bothers me and that is the final ‘grade’ the observee is supposed to get from me. The range is from outstanding to poor. I believe grading the observee’s performance in this way is not the best thing an observer can do. Not only is such a simplified conclusion very subjective and says nothing about the lesson, but anything except outstanding will always be somewhat discouraging for a professional, let alone a highly experienced one. So I also leave this box empty. Sue me.

How languages should be taught

20151017_122011When I was registering for another ILC IH Brno conference earlier in October, I noticed that they were offering two workshops for teachers of German. This tweak immediately caught my attention, mainly because this was the first time the organizers had included another foreign language in the conference programme (at least as far as I know).

Despite my rather limited knowledge of German, I worked out that both presentations were aimed at helping teachers find ways of motivating students to learn the rather unpopular language. Although I’ve never taught German and I’m not planning to, I eventually decided to go and listen to two talks done in a language I understand but can’t speak. I knew that it was a big step out of my comfort zone, but for some reason, I simply couldn’t resist. Needless to say, I gained some really valuable experience during this ‘experiment’ and made a couple of interesting observations, as a learner as well as an EFL teacher.

The first presenter was a non-native speaker of German. She spoke fast but quite clearly, so I could understand most of what she was saying. My success was partly influenced by the fact that she spoke about something I was familiar with. i.e. language teaching. I estimate my receptive knowledge of German to be somewhere around the B2 level (my bold guess), which means that I can understand discussions about some topics (and some German dialects) without major difficulties. My productive knowledge, though, is less satisfactory – currently around A1-A2 level. This means that I can only produce simple sentences, but I believe that if I was given plenty of speaking opportunities and time to practise, my speaking skills would probably improve quickly.

Anyway, due to the above discrepancy, I felt rather frustrated during both presentations. I’d describe the way I felt as a sort of paralysis, and I imagine this is how innocent victims of devious villains respond when administered a dose of curare – they can sense everything, but they can’t move a single muscle. My frustration wouldn’t have been a big deal really, but when we were asked to work in groups or pairs, I was sad that I couldn’t contribute to the discussion sufficiently. I’m afraid this often happens to our students too and we teachers often misjudge this as a lack of enthusiasm. Luckily, the teacher and the other participants were endlessly patient with me (plus they could speak Czech or English), which made me feel relatively safe. So my first observation is that the gap between the passive and active knowledge of a  foreign language can be enormous and that the Silent Period is a theory that should be respected.

The other speaker was a native speaker of German and although I had already tuned in a bit during the first presentation, I had real trouble to follow this one. Thus, I infer that non-native speaking language teacher can sometimes be advantageous, especially for less confident or less proficient students. Fortunately, the native speaking teacher was very expressive, using plenty of facial expressions and pantomime, which often helped me to finally get the meaning of what she was saying. Again, the topic was familiar to me, which definitely eased the burden of the enormous language load constantly thrown at me. By the way, when I got home, I noticed that my neck was somewhat stiff, probably from all the nodding which, on a very subconscious level, was to make up for the lack of productive skills on my part. What now comes to mind is the indisputable merit of Total Physical Response.

Some other things that helped me a lot were the visuals, board work, lots of repetition and occasional translation – from German to Czech or English. The fact that I wasn’t forbidden to use my mother tongue (or a language I speak fluently) made a huge difference to my experience. What springs to mind now is the ongoing debate regarding the use of L1 in an L2 classroom.

While listening to both presenters, I suddenly got a very clear idea of how foreign languages should be taught. Not that I hadn’t had a firm opinion before. I mean, I myself have been a language teacher for more than two decades, which has definitely made me an experienced professional in my own field of expertise. However, the fact that I’m familiar with all sorts of teaching methods doesn’t necessarily make me aware of all the problems a foreign language learner faces on a daily basis. It is experience that is often the best teacher.

On trust and other virtues

IMG_20151007_204405Some see life as a string of lessons. When I think about it, it’s interesting that we call the moments of insight ‘lessons’. Taking into consideration traditional education, I quite understand why we use the idiom to teach someone a lesson when talking about punishment. But if you learn your lesson, the kind of experience we mean doesn’t really have much in common with those lessons we usually take at school.

First of all, there’s no teacher who judges us or assesses us. These lessons are never planned in advance and as there’s no teacher, there are no objectives or expected learning outcomes. In fact, there’s nobody (but you) to expect learning to take place. When you learn your lesson, things just happen and oftentimes, you realize with a little delay that learning actually happened.

Anyway, back to my lesson. I’d say that I’ve always known what my weaknesses are. For example, I’m aware of the fact that I jump to conclusions too quickly and that I can be easily deceived by the things I see and hear. I believe in intuition, but I admit that my vision is often blurred by prejudice. I tend to use my previous experience to judge the present, thus a stimulus can often create a totally wrong response on my part. However, I’m proud to announce that I recently learned my lesson and finally managed to save the day by widening the space between a stimulus and my response.

But first things first. A few days ago, the following incident happened. Towards the end of a class, I asked a couple of students (14-year-olds) to clean the board. The rest of the group, including myself, left the room before they finished the job. When I came back to the same room 10 minutes later to teach another class (19-year-olds), I noticed a potentially abusive symbol materializing itself on the board (somebody had scribbled it down with a finger and it took the doodle some time to show up on the drying board). It was not a big deal but it was somewhat embarrassing and unexpected so I asked the 19-year-olds if they had done it. They said they hadn’t. So I went and asked the two younger students if they had done it. Obviously, they said they hadn’t. I really don’t know why I wanted to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I suddenly couldn’t step back anymore.

IMG_20151007_185235The problem is that I automatically trusted the older students and accused the younger ones with no evidence whatsoever. I just supposed that the younger kids would be more inclined to do such a thing. I should stress that the younger boys (let’s call them John and Peter) are no angels. Nevertheless, they felt pretty aggrieved that I didn’t trust them and they expressed their attitude quite openly (read: in a somewhat rude manner). Anyway, they came to me voluntarily the next day and we clarified things a bit. I apologized for my prejudice and they apologized for having been rude. I’ll conclude this story saying that I’ll probably never find out if they did it or not and that it’s actually not important in relation to what I’m about to say now.

The next week, another incident happened. I found out that a boy from my class had created a website. I was happy when I incidentally learned about it and as their homeroom teacher, I was obviously curious to see what my students were up to. I checked the website a couple of times and everything seemed ok at first. However, a few days later somebody tampered with the cover photo adding some ambiguous (religious and political) symbols. To cut a long story short, I automatically assumed that it was John who had done it because of my previous experience and because he was one of the administrators of the website. I thought I had enough clues to believe he was the culprit. Again, it was not a big deal but I got a bit angry with John because he seemed to be mocking all the effort the other boy put in the website.

In retrospect, I must say that luckily, I didn’t take action, such as informing the parents, immediately. The next day I talked to a couple of kids from the class and finally learned that John was not guilty of tampering with the cover photo, even though he had allegedly posted some inappropriate content, which the creator of the website decided to delete (and which I have never seen). Ironically, the person responsible for adding the symbols was someone I trusted unconditionally.

The morals of the story:

  1. Things are not always what they seem to be.
  2. Stick to the presumption of innocence rule.
  3. If you don’t have hard evidence proving someone’s guilt, you’d better trust them.
  4. Trust is very fragile. Try not to break it.

Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …

How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It’s as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it’s easy because many people have already done it before. It’s as if you were asked to do karaoke – it’s basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I’ve nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.… All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments – they’d probably remembered something resembling my story, or they’d simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support – because my story suddenly didn’t seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all – not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It’s not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it’s often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it’s something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example…

Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….

Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom.