Grenoble Life editor James Dalrymple shares five pearls of wisdom gleaned from teaching English to professionals in the city.
This month presents a watershed moment for me professionally as I end my stint as a teacher-trainer – of mostly professional adults – at a private institute and prepare for my first taste of l’éducation nationale française. Having obtained a post on campus as a lecteur, I will complete the job that has defined my experience in France since my arrival, and take a step into the unknown.
Some might say that the move from formateur to lecteur will be a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” but, as a cathartic act of drawing a line under my experience, I have compiled a list of five pearls of sagesse concerning teaching professional English in France.
1. Everybody speaks English now, right?
Wrong. Even if English has gone global, there will be times when you are confronted with students who have apparently never spoken it before, let alone knowingly seen or heard it. Even in cosmopolitan Grenoble, expect to have to teach some adults who are closer to vrais than faux debutants.
Why should everyone speak English? I have had the unenviable task of trying to teach people who had neither significant professional need to speak the language, nor a lifelong burning passion to begin doing so. At one time I had to manage a contract with a medium-size manufacturer, at which all the shop floor operators were obliged to have English training. For many of these mostly middle aged men (and some women) from the shop floor, whose modest education was a distant memory, the effort spent in learning English vastly outweighed the reward.
No doubt these same men could acquire certain technical skills faster than I ever could, yet English remained alien and abstract despite many hours in contact with it. During my time with these people, I am ashamed to admit that I may have learnt more from them (about industry, about how things are made) than they learnt from me.
Most English teachers in the private sector will probably relate to my feeling that many student-trainees have been permanently damaged by a school approach to language learning that was, for many, didactic and dogmatic rather than communicative or intuitive. It is often difficult to get the French to let go of the idea of grammar as language’s evil twin, and that speaking a language is akin to navigating a minefield of punishable mistakes.
2. « On est nuls en Anglais en France »
Despite what I said in observation one, many French people speak excellent English. Countless times I have met students who, upon eloquently introducing themselves, feel the need to add the little disclaimer that their English is terrible and how embarrassed they are to speak it. Normally I point of out the window at this moment and ask them which country they live in, where they grew up, and why on earth they are not prouder to be able to express themselves in another language, even if only a little.
Maybe it says something about the French attitude to their own language that they would prefer not to speak another if they can’t speak it beautifully. Compared to Britain though, where learning foreign languages has been in serious decline since a law was passed making it no longer mandatory after the age of 14, the French are a nation of linguists.
3. Time = results
Not necessarily. Interest and enthusiasm for the language and the culture remain paramount. Too many people are sent for English training as if sent to learn any other professional skill. I have often been confronted by a belief that time spent in the classroom will automatically be rewarded with improved TOEIC scores, for example. Professional need is no substitute for passion for the subject, and the fact that many adults in France come to training out of obligation rather than choice engenders a passive attitude to learning which is often an obstacle to meaningful progress.
4. I want to speak Business English
Unfortunately for teachers, human resources and training managers – not all known for their broad knowledge of language pedagogy – often insist upon certain thématiques for the ESL classroom. In my opinion there is too much interference from companies who want to impose skills-based English upon their employees. However, you can’t run before you can walk, and it is very frustrating being told to teach students how to participate in a meeting in English, or speak on the telephone, for example, without having mastered the basics.
5. Grenoble needs an International House
Grenoble has an enormous market for English teaching, but no focal point to promote excellence or provide training for its teachers. For us long-term formateurs, we need to do more to share our ideas and improve standards. Hard-working teachers also need to feel that their efforts be rewarded with the possibility of professional development, whereas often the door to such progress seems permanently closed. As far as I know there is currently nowhere to do the CELTA in Grenoble – an internationally recognised English teaching certificate that does not hold nearly as much weight as it should in France – although Marianne Reynaud organises TESOL-affiliated seminars.
Given the size of the English teaching sector in Grenoble, there should be an innovative and internationally-accredited institute like International House where teachers can be trained and learn to train others. Such an institute could act as a catalyst for improving standards and, by bringing teachers together, raising the morale and pride among the ESL workforce.