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. 

Errors in disguise

A colleague of mine has a very weak student in class and she’s worried that he might fail his final English exam, which he’s taking in May. Now and then, during our regular coffee chats, she comes up with a little rant. Last time she looked really frustrated when she told me that the student, who should by now be somewhere around the B1-B2 level, can’t use basic grammatical structures correctly. I should stress that my friend does her best to help this particular student and she has spent lots of extra hours with him after school explaining stuff.

Nevertheless, she is desperate that, for example, the student uses the present simple tense when talking about past events. So instead of saying: The other day I went to Prague … he says: The other day I go to Prague …. I couldn’t but agree that this could be a real problem during his state exam, but then I thought of the last conference I went to, and I remembered Piotr Steinbrich’s plenary speech, in which he mentioned the fact that although the present simple is considered one of the most basic grammatical structures, i.e. A1 structures as described by CEFR, it can actually indicate a fairly advanced level of English when it’s used for talking about past events. So in an attempt to console my friend, I told her humorously that during the actual exam we can pretend that the student uses the structures on purpose.

My colleague smiled faintly but immediately went on to tell me another example of the student’s ignorance. “Just imagine, I asked him something about dinner and he started describing his typical lunch at the school canteen. I couldn’t believe my ears!” I sympathised with her but then I remembered another conference, particularly Nikki Fořtová’s workshop, during which she talked about differences in lexis across various cultures. She told us, for example, that *pond* is not what Czech people think it is and that *dinner* may actually be *lunch* in a particular cultural context. So again, I tried to lift my friend’s spirits by telling her that if this happens, we can pretend that the boy is actually on topic.

Now, this chat I had with my friend got me thinking. We have all sorts of errors, such as typos, slips of the tongue, errors related to interlanguage, random errors, systematic errors, etc. But sometimes students use structures which may be correct under certain circumstances but as their regular teacher you know that they use them because they can’t use the ones you expect them to use. I mean, the student mentioned above does not know that dinner may be lunch or that present simple can be used for past events. He simply messes things up and his teacher knows it because otherwise he makes mistakes which imply that his level is not that high. The question is whether and/or how to penalise those errors in disguise.

I face a similar dilemma when teaching reported speech or the past perfect tense. The rules are not always clear-cut and as a fairly advanced user of English I know that it’s not always necessary or even desirable to use a more complex structure, simply because it’s not natural.

The obvious conclusion is that as long as the student is understood, everything’s fine. On the other hand, our students are required to take exams which are designed to test their level of proficiency, and we teachers need to take this into consideration when assessing a student’s performance. On a more learner-centred note, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to push our students to acquire the more complex structures, even though we know they will easily do without them, because without this extended linguistic knowledge they might not be able to come back to the simple structures and use the language naturally. I might be completely wrong but that’s how I feel it being an L2 learner myself.

On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

When this happened for the first time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a mention here on my blog.
Scene 1: 
I’m sitting in the classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We’re looking at a list of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she’s really enjoying the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now she’s retired and she’s been travelling a bit around the world and she’s having a great time. She’s come to the Czech Republic to visit her son – a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I’ve noticed that it is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience. Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my favourite presenters and I wonder whether she’s a native speaker of English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says: “Well, I really don’t know but she sounds English to me”. And then she adds: “And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to me too.” I’m a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although her English is flawless, it’s definitely her L2.
Scene 2: 
I’m sitting in the classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who’s giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading. At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a little puzzled, asks: “And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren’t you?” David shakes his head – he’s actually Dutch. “Really?? I thought you were a native speaker”, adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn’t surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he sounded perfectly native-like. But I’m a NNEST, so you can trick me easily, you know. 
And that’s the point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I’m convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody’s Czech is their L1 or L2, and I was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can’t. This is truly intriguing. Although both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between ‘real’ English and other Englishes long ago. 
So it made me wonder why there’s so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently, even NESTs can’t tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes. It really makes no difference what Daniele’s, Paula’s or David’s linguistic backgrounds are – one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it’s actually their L1 or L2. Thus it’s clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher, not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your passport. 
Note: the storied above are real stories, both of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).