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Last week, students sitting for the school-leaving exams in Hungary were up against the English test on the higher level. This test is something the results of which count towards university entrance exams, so naturally, perceived or real trouble about it counts a lot more than that on the normal level tests. Internet news about the issue with the listening part can be read in Hungarian here. I hope that my interpretation of the situation may be useful for English teachers in other countries as well and may help students understand some features of the situation.

In short, of the 9809 exam takers, in one day, more than 2500 joined a facebook group (though this could be misleading, seeing that parents also joined the group) and submitted a petition to the relevant government agency against the quality of the listening material as they thought the material couldn’t be heard properly because of distortions of sound in classrooms. Some actually claimed the original sound already had echos. We can also listen to it in the middle section of the article, right next to the link to the pdf of the task sheet involved. As my listening to the published material reveals no distortion problems to me on my computer, the story reveals a lot of problems in the Hungarian education system.

Admitting that the inclusion of several French and Spanish words was not exactly fair, I still wonder if that may have disturbed takers. Not only in my teaching practice but also in all teaching materials, there are lots of names from other languages recurring all the time. How can one learn a language without mentioning outstanding people from history, science, the arts etc.? English doesn’t distort foreign names like Chinese does, so this can’t really have been a problem for trained examinees. Trained, I’m saying, and I’m returning to this a bit later.

Another problem claimed was the extreme distortion. The article claims many schools use ancient portable tape-recorders to play … what exactly? The listening material was issued to schools in two copies of the relevant CDs, so no tape-recorders could have been involved. Such a distortion is, to my mind, indicative of the quality of … the Hungarian media. Other than that, CD players may have been of dubious quality, in bad repair, I had already met a number of such equipment 10 years ago. However, if a CD player doesn’t work, it is taken away to be repaired or thrown away and is exchanged to a better one. Some people actually claimed that they didn’t hear the sound sitting in the second row and they have good listening abilities. To my mind, it is doubtful that the teacher administering the test purposefully brought in a bad player with bad loudspeakers to disturb her/his own students. Claiming that the loudspeaker had to be turned up too strongly in the big rooms is also strange: the same students had been sitting in the same rooms for four years listening to the same players at similar intensity. What may have been new, pray?

However, this point only in itself brings the technical background for schools in Hungary in the limelight, and probably deservedly. This in turn underlines the poor financials of the same for extended years. While in my study years we only had really ancient big tape-recorders to listen to the one set of intermittent pre-recorded (that is, unnatural, carefully read-out) listening material, the 21st century makes it necessary to expose students to realistic listening in countries, like Hungary, where English-language TV-programs are practically unavailable and dubbed films prevail in the cinemas. This practice is also in need of changing, but the poor general financial situation makes it very difficult for any broadcaster to buy the rights of contemporary TV programs and air them as they are. And what would be their incentive? That change nowhere to be seen in the pipeline, it is the schools’ duty to provide ample practice for listening. If they can. But that is only one side of the equation.

And that brings me up to my next point. As I said, it is up to schools. But schools consist of not only teachers, there are, in the majority, students as well. Meaning, the vast majority of people in a classroom are the students. Have you ever stood in front of a large group of people who resist all your efforts to bring them together and make them quietly learn something instead of their own will? It’s a lot easier for a party leader to speak to a huge crowd from their own party – they want to hear what he wants to say. Try doing it in front of the opposition. And that is still only speaking, not making them practice performing skills. My experience shows that during the last 15 years the willingness of most students in Hungarian schools to learn has been nose-diving. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, as the proverb goes. More and more students do not want to drink from the fountain of knowledge, so to speak, but weep and wail each time listening is brought in – I faced this reluctance increasingly myself.

I’m not saying it happens everywhere, but that it has been increasing dangerously. Now, if the teacher doesn’t want to antagonize her/his students all the time, she/he yields and there goes the listening practice. This may turn into a general tendency because it is easy to neglect something once again what we’ve already neglected a couple of times and yes, listening is not easy and also not easy to teach. With a decrease of quality students, teachers’ average levels of quality and professionalism may also decline, and in a culture growing towards accommodating the perceived ‘needs’ of the customer (the students), teachers get used to catering to what students ‘want’. And that can be dangerously close to very little. This based on the majority will. And the majority is always right, right? At least before Copernicus …

That said, I’m not saying those students hadn’t practiced listening – I’m saying, what they had done was far from satisfactory, far from enough.

Learning a language has nothing near to the logic of developing mathematical or historical knowledge. It is not even only knowledge, it is rather a huge set of skills. It is a lot more complex than other subjects except for learning a musical instrument, and contrary to beliefs, but due to the complexity as well, there are very big differences in learning abilities, especially if we consider the time constraints. Hence the complaints in the complaining group on facebook, demanding logical, rational answers. No, there may not be logical, rational answers. No, the way we learn languages is next to impossible to follow with logic. Yes, intelligence may have a limited part in it. Yes, it may also be due to psychological barriers, individual learning styles, short- and long-term memory differences, methodological differences on the part of the teacher as well as on the students, to name a few problems. And listening is an area where a lot of those factors converge for many as there is no possibility for individual speed, time to stop to consider and the like. It is thus very tiring and also difficult to really assess. I am next to stating that teaching a language is an instinctive art, with an instinct not easy to develop. So many colleagues in the classroom may give up on trying and practicing listening. It is easier to resort to a dry, seemingly logical structure of what happens easily each time: turn to page … read and answer the questions. Choose … fill in … let me see … correct … incorrect because … (grammar explanation following). Satisfaction – duties have been fulfilled.

Of course, students wanting to take the higher-level test are the cream of the classes. Why couldn’t they perform at the test without problems? Well, it’s because they are a minority of the communities they had been brought up in to be the best. To be the best among a general decline may mean very different from what it meant for us 40 years ago, or for my first groups 30-or-so years ago. Those communities are the real initiators of this protest and the real cause of the problem. They may be the reason why the best may think they are good listeners. Among whom?

Parents seem to subscribe to the general mood of protest. I have seen and felt this too. Parents have become more and more defensive of their children based on the perception that they know their kids better. Parents’ perceptions have been shifting towards seeing, if not the school, then at least the ‘problem’ teacher as the enemy instead of the ally in improving their children’s capabilities and thus future chances. Unfortunately, this perception has been spreading among the student community as well. And this has been happening in a country and culture where parents are more and more inundated with their own work. Before I forget, there is also the other side, the group of parents who can provide their kids with everything they wish for. As one student explained to me a few years ago, “I don’t need to speak English, I’ll have my father’s business and I’ll employ interpreters.” Well, yes, that seems easy for some. If that’s the image they make fashionable, what are the chances for the meek not to follow in laziness? However, that’s already a social problem that I can’t address here. But that’s another reason for the students to consider the teacher the enemy – she/he, the ‘loser’, seems to be powerless against the ‘mighty’ parents, so what do they want? Reminiscent of the situation in Chinese private schools. Does it also remind you of “another brick in the wall”?

I see one positive. And that is that the tasks are still given in English at an English test, something that may often not be the case in the Netherlands, or Italy, or China, for example. I can feel, however, that this may also change as so many other things have changed in the course of the last couple of years in the Hungarian education system. It is always easy to take the easier path. But that is going to be the subject of another article next time.

A few days after I posted this article, on 14th May, what do I see on Dutch TV? Mass protests on the net by Dutch takers of their respective school-leaving exams against the time constraints they thought was too short … while in Nigeria, where more than 270 girls were earlier kidnapped to prevent them from going to school and punish them, people are still hoping that there may still be a future for girls’ getting a profession.

by P. S.