Werkloos = waardeloos, i.e., jobless = worthless?


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In connection with most recent developments in my teaching career in the Netherlands, I’d like to muse over a couple of disturbing questions that relate to wishful colleagues, and perhaps practically everybody who has been out of jobs for a while, especially those who are a bit advanced in age.

First, let’s see a recent letter I’ve received, in my translation. The original, in Dutch, can be read here: afwijzing.

Dear Sir,

Thank you very much for your application. Unfortunately, we can’t work with your application any further. We have rules regarding applications, and the focusing on further handling of applications and enrolling in connection with the huge numbers of people looking for work. From your CV I can see that your most recent experience finished in 2009, and you don’t have recent experience with teaching in the Dutch public education system. Therefore we can’t use your application any further in the selection procedure for this vacancy. Afterwards, we can’t use you actively now for other vacancies because of your recently broken work experience.

If you don’t want your data to stay registered with us, we ask you to make this known to us by e-mail. Then we shall erase your data.

I hope to have given you proper information. Should you have any more questions, we kindly ask you to contact us.

We wish you a lot of success finding a proper job.

Best regards

Well, this is not a typical refusal. I have amassed more than a hundred, perhaps two hundred rejections by now (I’ve been trying to get a teaching job for four years), but this is only the third one that explains the decision of the school.

I would like to draw the attention of my readers first to the fact that, this one excepting, we almost never receive reasons why our application is refused. This is perhaps usual in other countries and in other professions as well, especially with the popular places where hundreds of applicants litter the way of the one and only successful applicant. But I don’t live in Amsterdam, not even in one of the ten biggest cities, and most of my applications have been sent to small towns around here. Although a couple of rejections mention a very large number of applicants (one international school replied with these very words: “We received a very large response to our advertisement and have employed someone who particularly fits our profile,” (my italics) – they use English like this but I am not suitable for them!) one school in a small place mentioned 75. Well, in the four or five cases when I actually got to the selection procedure or was given an interview, I had one or two competitors – Dutch ones, of course. At one well-known school, there were of course a lot more, but I am beginning to doubt the honesty of some places about this. This is not Spain. Jobless figures stand around 4.5% in the Netherlands after all, there can’t be dozens of applicants for each teaching job in small places in such a country. I find it hard to believe.

But my main, and possibly most general, problem with this answer is the one which is probably the most honest reason: the one about the broken experience. I know that joblessness is a huge problem at these times in Europe and hardest hit are the young generations. Among young adults in most countries, jobless rates are double (or nearly treble) that of the average. Yet, there are lots of middle-aged people with degrees between jobs not only in Spain, or France, or Greece, but also in Hungary, or Bulgaria and the like. This is a trend which firms dealing in the career advice business attest to. Who cares about us? What can we expect if we get such an answer?

Age in itself is a problem when you have to look for a new workplace. For a while you can see that experience is required, but after that while you are soon found too old. Not officially. But, if advice bureaus are to be believed, do not lose your job and get on the dole over 40. My question is, how can you stay in your job until you get 65 years old. Because that is the target according to most governments in Europe. And then you see university professors, teachers, doctors and judges thrown out of job at 62, at least in Hungary. What is going on?

Once you are out of your job, you have to get back into another very-very quickly. Otherwise, expect to get into the situation in this letter, which suggests that anyone a few years out has to hang himself.

Because following this logic, you can never get back into work. The writer of that letter supposes that I have forgotten my skills within a few years. I haven’t driven a car for a number of years now, third time in my life – does the writer suppose I can never drive again? Does he/she think that once you don’t use your bicycle for a while, you can never get on it again? Does he/she honestly think that after 30 years and more than 3000 students, many of which I brought up to university from zero, I have forgotten how to teach? That I have forgotten the skills?  Or I can’t adapt to a third culture after the other two where I have given classes? I have actually given a couple of lessons at my Dutch language course, so those skills are transferable to a new language as well. To give some more examples, I have not played the piano for 30 years, but now I can accompany my singer friend and can play my own pieces at small concerts, and that requires a thousand times faster reactions than teaching. Or does the writer think that I’m too old a dog to be taught new tricks? Haven’t I learnt Dutch over 50?

Obviously, the answer to all, or most, of these questions seems to be unfavourable to us in most workplaces, by most bosses. Has the writer ever thought about these questions? He/she should know that a teacher always stays a teacher. It has become second nature at least. It is in our blood. Perhaps that person is too young to understand this, or has only met bad Dutch English teachers.

Last, but not least, a few pieces of advice to you people. Do no stay at home with your kids, especially not with several, because you will never get back on the job market. If you think that it is not necessary to consider this because your partner has a stable and well-earning job, think twice: can’t your partner ever lose his/her position? Even secure Dutch families should be aware that nothing lasts forever in this world.

Young people in cultures where wandering a bit around the world before starting work should think twice. By the time they return, they may be deemed too old for a starter on a market where experience, or a very young age with high qualifications are favoured.

Next, do not leave your job if you already have one, except if you are directly invited to another place. Even with a good history of achievements and recommendations, you may not be able to get to a new job from the market. Except, of course, if you are aiming to become a postman, or the like.

Last, do not leave your country if you are not a hundred percent sure that your experience and expertise is welcome in the new place without further requirements, and it does not break your career in any way. It has happened to me, not only self-inflicted, or by the pressure to speak Dutch for an English-teaching job, but also through illness, which can break anybody’s career at any time. Don’t challenge Lady Luck. Except if you are young, adventurous and fortunate with some excellent background, and you don’t want, or have to work anyway.

Other than these, as my uncle would say, don’t get old. (But he was 25 years older than me when I last heard him say it. So how old is old?) For that, as the letter originally suggests, I’d better go hang myself.

by. P.S.


Grammar of the ‘grammar-translation’ method


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It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about the ‘grammar-translation method’, and I’ve had to realize that I’ve neglected the first part of the equation: I haven’t tackled the way grammar plays a part in this approach to teaching a foreign language.

For those who need some brush-up on the most famous language teaching approaches, I’m providing a link here to the same material that I linked to my first post about the matter in January. In that post, and in a few more later, we have seen that this method has several shortcomings mainly attributable to differences of meaning of words and phrases, and cultural differences among languages, shortcomings of dictionaries that are sometimes also a consequence of those differences, and the fact that concentrating our methods on translation, we slow down cognitive processes of the learner. But if the overwhelming use of translation is detrimental or at least very problematic for learning, what is the value of concentrating on grammar at the same time, or perhaps at different times?

The first further problem with the method is that classes are taught in the students’ mother tongue, with little active use of the target language. How can proponents of the method justify this? How is it possible for the learner to speak the foreign language without speaking it? First hearing it, and then trying it, that is. As I have pointed out earlier, this method harks back to early times of the school system, in most parts of Europe no later than the 1930’s, when Latin, and to a lesser extent, classical Greek, was widely taught without a view to speaking it. The aim was to understand the wisdom of the thinkers of old, not to converse with them, not even about them. Students had to take the wisdom as it was.

Is this possible in today’s world? Obviously, language teachers in the Netherlands and in China still think so. In the Netherlands, learning Latin and ancient Greek is a tenet of the best education, and modern languages are sometimes still taught with similar approaches, as I pointed out earlier. In China, the approach is still prevalent in English teaching due to a lack of sufficient exposure to native speakers and media, which are in abundance in the Netherlands, which in the latter accounts for acquisition of English after and outside school.

The main problem with mother-tongue instruction and omission of the target language is that without sufficient oral input, and then practice, no language habit can be formed properly. The development of understanding written texts and writing skills are hindered by the lack of general language skills and are thus unduly slow, and without a sizeable oral pattern to follow, speech production becomes distorted and often very different from native patterns. This is coupled with a lack of attention to pronunciation practice. In short, the learner becomes, or stays for a long time, incapable of taking part in conversation with skilled speakers of the target language, let alone native speakers.

Sadly, this is coupled with little attention paid to the meaning and content of texts. This seems to be nonsense, because the application of this method concentrates on texts. However, as the focus is on translation, discussion is beyond this approach. No wonder – discussion is next to impossible in the target language, and why should the students discuss a text the understanding of which they already proved by translating it? The purpose has been reached, and it was not internalizing, or evaluating the meaning: it was translation.

Of course, translation is not bad per se, but in a modern language class, it could still be followed by discussions, couldn’t it? This depends on who applies the method, but whoever it is, s/he has to speak himself/herself and make the learner speak too. Not within the proper tenets of this approach.

On the other hand, elaborate grammar explanation, providing rules for putting words together, emphasizing the correct forms and inflection of words can be considered a clear strength of this method. Indeed, learners usually demand for more, or clearer grammar, parents ditto, and if something is unclear about what they consider grammar, there is trouble for the teacher responsible. And with good reason.

One reason is that most learners have to sit for a language examination sooner, or later, and such an exam consists to a large part of manipulating sentence patterns. How can the learner do that properly if s/he does not receive proper grammar explanation? On the other hand, proponents should be warned that a number of international tests for English, for example the TOEFL test, cannot be taken on grammar – these tests try the candidate on their oral skills. The oral part of the Dutch test for foreigners is another such example. However, the grammar-translation method does not per se deal with oral skills, and not at all with listening, originally.

The trouble is that teachers applying this method rarely go further than explaining grammar extensively. Grammar input is fine, but being satisfied with grammar is not enough at all. Grammar explanations are followed, therefore, with pattern practice if the teacher is somewhat familiar with the somewhat later audio-lingual approach and behaviourism, probably concentrating only on writing tasks, as it lends itself most easily to correction.

A teacher applying this approach tends to believe in the importance of his/her authority and his own knowledge of the language, and feel safe when s/he can come up to all students to point out problems. It may sometimes be a result of his own educational background, but as a result in his turn, he may find it difficult to face students with their own opinions, which he would have to, should he apply parts of other approaches and allow for discussions, or even oral practice.

The great problem is that most teachers applying this method attack the first, and then every grammatical mistake committed by the learner. A lengthy revision of the rules may follow, perhaps not in order to drive home the notion that the faulty student was lazy, or inattentive, or, god forbid, stupid when s/he did not follow and apply the original rules, but it may all lead to this feeling. Besides, there is little time for follow-up activities, with which the teacher would feel uncomfortable anyway, but s/he can finish the lesson with a good feeling of accomplishment because he can’t be accused of not properly explaining the grammar points of the day. But his approach severely hinders practice vital in approaching the desired skills, behaviours, listening and understanding, pronunciation, thinking, evaluating, debating, and fluency in general.

Compared to this, where do we stand with respect to accuracy, which adherents to this method strive for?

When it is time for some practice, the method originally allows for drills which are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue, and vice versa. I believe that most teachers of today are beyond using this approach, though it can’t be discounted. But most are already tainted with behaviourism well enough to apply pieces of the later audio-lingual method. This is where the four skills have originally become well-known from, and this is where habit-formation really began.

Well, teachers of this mixed kind have no problem with audio-lingualism as that method also emphasizes minimalizing errors, disregards content which the grammar-translation teacher is uncomfortable with, and emphasizes structural practice on a determined sequence based on reading texts, all of which bodes well with him. What does not, viz. pronunciation and use of target language, is conveniently overlooked in preference to first giving detailed grammar explanations, which the audio-lingual method overlooks, but has still become the buzz-word since. I advocate a mixed approach, so why cannot grammar-translation teachers do so?

Because one-sided use of the familiar and prevalent grammar practice books is boring, time-consuming and superfluous. However, testing even today often makes it the only valuable option for teaching. The only problem is, the learner is cheated of his/her time, even if s/he plays along.

As to drilling, if we come to think about it, a 20-item oral drill takes about a tenth of the time required to write the same amount of fill-in sentences and checking them with everybody around class. Yes, the teacher should have good ears to follow most sentences pronounced, but everybody has the chance of uttering target-language sentences and still practicing grammar. To achieve that, though, we have to start practicing. Don’t overdo explanations, but go over to practice quickly even if you consider yourself a conservative. Written fill-ins can easily be done at home and be checked only if necessary, but after ample oral practice, it won’t often be.

Naturally, this can only be done after we have started to speak the target language in our instructions and expect same from the learner, helped with occasional pronunciation practice if necessary. After several rounds of oral manipulation and similar exercises aimed first at accuracy and grammar, students will achieve bouts of enhanced fluency with certain structures they have practiced. With more confidence and different grammar points following, the range will widen.

Of course, grammar and practice of grammatical differences between the given languages is important. Unfortunately, several dozens of authors have long inundated the international market with hundreds of grammar guides and grammar practice books, thereby reinforcing the importance of this trait in language classes.  This overshadows the fact that, even done in the very best ways, sheer grammar practice is utterly boring in itself and is met with hostile resistance in the class sooner or later. It can only form the basis of some degree of accuracy. Today’s learner does not care very much about that, however. Most people find it sufficient if they are understood and they understand others, even if they can’t recognize when this urge leads them to misunderstandings. Fluency is far more important than accuracy, and grammar practice itself can’t yield good listening and understanding, and can’t lead to successfully expressing ourselves. This, on the one hand, may force changes in the language. It may still, on the other, lead to good levels of language use. There are several ways leading to heaven – accuracy can also be achieved by exposure to good language use. And because oral language use leaves room for far quicker exchanges and far more exchanges of ideas among people than grammatization, it can lead to the same level of language use in a couple of years as grammar practice in a decade, while far more ideas and a wider understanding of the world are used than with grammar.

It is thus the communicative approach which the teacher should embrace more. Not exclusively, but if he/she pays attention to oral patterns, meaning, task-based practice aimed at achieving certain results in discussion, culturally defined differences of meaning, and to thinking in the target language with a view to exposing various opinions of the students about the world, foreign language production will speed up enormously. This will lead to more confidence in the learner’s own language use, faster development and to better overall language levels.

Now, if this has not been convincing enough for the conventional teacher, let me add that usual grammar practice does not cover what is most important in many languages, and that is vocabulary. It does not explain why certain words are used in certain contexts and exchanges, but others are not, why certain words are used together, while others are not. Only precious few course-books make it possible for learners of English, for example, to understand and practice in which order adjectives can be used, which emphasizers can be used with which which adjectives, what is the system of and how we can use phrasal verbs, just to mention a few problems which remain outside the scope of most grammars and course material. But word partnerships remain seriously outside most course materials even in the British publishing industry, not to mention ways of making the learner think about other cultures, other learners and the world in terms which they understand and find interesting.

Such materials, kinds that ask the proper questions, make the necessary challenges suitable to our times, use authentic materials in an effort to enhance native-like understanding and cross-cultural understanding, are very hard to come by. Authentic listening materials, kinds that the Dutch can come across every day on television, cannot be used in international publishing, because copyrighted material costs would drive prices to near Dutch levels, which only the Dutch can afford to pay. This way, most of the world can only buy cheap, commercialized material which make twelve to the dozen, in which the listening material is read out by actors, and the teacher can only dream of and strive for providing suitable pattern for his/her students with that.

But then he/she had better use better and faster approaches than the grammar-translation method on his/her own. Unduly concentrating on grammatical correctness, neglecting oral communication and interaction may lead the learner to a prolonged period of fumbling uncertainty in the language class, and could ultimately lead him/her to completely losing interest in the target language, unless he/she otherwise finds interest from elsewhere. Grammatical accuracy practice is a necessary part of language development, but if it overwrites oral communicative competency, it takes time away from fluency practice, often completely, and that is detrimental. On the other hand, developing fluency fosters confidence, and provides opportunity to recycle and strengthen the old and newer language patterns, grammar among them. Who would like to overlook this chance? It is also a lot more interesting.

Beware – in the American system of education, there have already huge paradigm shifts taken place towards i-learning, which almost only the most adventurous are ready for in other parts of the world. But it is coming, and you may not be willing to be left behind. How is a teacher prepared to take that step, and to what use, if he/she still bases his/her instruction and methods on age-old, more-or-less discredited paradigms?

My readers may find that my opinion is not based on research. Agreed. I am not a linguist myself. The opinions expressed above, however, are based on my long professional experience. Never being very communicative as a youngster but brought up on grammar, translation and grammar tests, I found my way to university easily based on the written entrance examination at a time when about one fifteenth of the numbers of today made it to higher education in my country. However, I then struggled for a couple of years in surroundings where translation was not used at all; instead, we had to discuss loads of literature orally, for which I was not really prepared enough.

My co-author on this web-site, Ms. Shen has received very little English and Dutch grammar, never learned a foreign language at school in China, yet, she is quite fluent in oral interaction in both languages through her communicative efforts after a few years. Far from being among the best writers, but that aspect is also improving for her.

As a teacher, I have used various materials in increasingly communicative ways and I have always found that those who only concentrate – insist on concentrating – on grammar practice, are soon left lagging behind more adventurous types, those who try to creatively and bravely use even the little that they already have up their sleeves from the beginning. For the latter kind, accuracy has come a bit later, but it comes much earlier than fluency for the grammatically oriented. It may be almost unnecessary to add that when my students were later asked to translate, their production did not depend much on their grammatical, or often not even on their communicative competency – it depended largely also on their native language competencies, the students making all kinds of mistakes in their mother tongue that showed understanding, but an incorrect use of their vernacular.

by P.S.

The System of the Dutch State Language Examination – part 2


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At an average NT2 Staatsexamen, the second part of the first day is the speaking test. The listening test itself takes about 30 minutes, but it is perhaps the most precarious of the four parts. After the one-hour break following the writing part, sitting through registration and the identity check again takes enough time for our blood pressure to seriously drop to near zero, which is anything but what we need for this part.

The speaking test on Level 1 has about 20 questions in two parts, consisting of 20-second and then 30-second answer intervals, whereas on Level 2, the 20 or so questions are grouped into 20-second, 30-second answers with a third part requiring two two-minute answers. As to topics, what we have said about level differences in general holds here too, with Level 2 requiring more professional answers.

The questions in the first part require fairly simple, short, one- or two-sentence reactions within 20 seconds. Time before the following situation is short, the candidate has to put themself into new shoes rather fast and then respond very quickly again. This is fairly do-able due to the relatively simple situations, but if the candidate’s blood pressure has already fallen, it is difficult enough to suddenly speed up.

The questions in the second part tend to be a lot more complex, and the changes in topic follow each other similarly fast. We noted that the 30 seconds allowed for response prove too often to be rather short. Chatty types could do it better, but the questions require anything but a chat. With the frequent demand for the explanation of two or three different aspects of the problem, illustrated in three drawings, or sentences, a decision supported with minimum two reasons often proves too much for 30 seconds.

What a prospective candidate needs to bear in mind is that preparation for those two parts of the speaking test mainly requires preparation on their own in the most unnatural circumstances. We have to get used to communicating our fast shifting personality to someone who never reacts to us. This is as far from normal human interaction as can be, but this is the basis for the examiners to assess our speaking skills. No matter how appropriately we can communicate in real life, here we have only 20 or 30 seconds to say something, and properly at that, otherwise we lose valuable points and may fail easily.

Computerization is inevitable, we all know, but my personal opinion as an experienced oral examiner in Hungary is that a 15-minute personal dialogue about three various topic areas provides a far more reliable impression of the candidate’s language skills (and overall communication abilities as well, as human interaction is far more than speech) than such lightning-quick, impersonal attempts at reaction. Even with  secondary impressions sometimes at play. IELTS, Cambridge First Certificate English (FCE), or Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) tests provide similar examples of well-documented dialogues as speaking tests. There, there is possibility to bring out what the candidate is capable of, here, the candidate’s shortcomings are mercilessly brought to light under unnaturally intense circumstances. Here, momentarily forgetting just one key-word is enough to ring alarm bells in the mind and to lose half the time for a response, not to mention a potential to lose quality through embarrassment to oneself. Besides, I am not sure there is less time needed for evaluation here. The two evaluators have to listen carefully for 30 minutes of recording from each candidate and then decide. In the classical oral format, the two examiners rarely need more than 15 minutes per person to come to a decision, and in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Of course, we can say that, due to the standardized format, evaluation based on computerized answers here may happen extremely easily, almost automatically. But is it not this that allows for the complete loss of the individual?

Under the circumstances, this sort of testing requires rigorous preparation. The candidate has to get used to what he or she never faces in real life, after all. Alas, such training is often missing at courses. Most teachers preparing you for the exams feel the need to control the language use of the students, the need to correct if something is not completely good. But such approach demands far too much time, and does not make it possible for the students to get accustomed to the demand that they need to give rapid reactions for anything that gets thrown at them appropriately and sometimes even with mistakes. The stress involved is the most demanding, most important to be used to, but that seems to be least practiced. At the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, the necessary first step was taken, with recording the speaker and the output analysed afterwards, but then again, it happened only once or twice to a few people for 20 or 30 seconds. Hardly anything in terms of training for the stress involved in keeping it up for half an hour and taking turns of personalities about 18 or 20 times. So a prospective examinee must do the whole thing on his/her own, with his/her own recorder at home. It’s only that he/she needs to make up the questions themself too, because the one or two practice sets used at courses are far from enough, and they are usually not to be taken home either. How realistic does all this sound?

I have to add that the last two questions of the Level 2 exam are much more complex than those before, but there are two minutes of preparation time and two minutes of answer time provided, so the stress is far less. Also, these questions do not require four times as complex and detailed answers as the 30-second ones, and the candidate  has enough time to accommodate themself to the new circumstances and roles. Almost a cinch, compared to the previous 15-or-so questions.

On the second day of a full state examination, the candidates face a two-hour reading test followed by a long break, and then a somewhat shorter listening test of around 70 minutes answer-time. In both parts, 40 questions have to be answered.

In the reading part, you have to read six different texts on paper, but that number may sometimes vary, and one can wonder what it will look like if they completely computerize the texts as well. The questions have to be answered on the computer screen, usually out of three possibilities, occasionally out of four. The candidate can follow his/her own speed and rhythm, which seems to make this part relatively easy, but mind you, the texts and answers tend to grow in complexity towards the end, so the two hours provided are normally just enough. To divide your time in two hours is also a lot more difficult than within one hour, not everybody finds it comfortable, so do not make the mistake of thinking that this part is easy, all the less so because the vocabulary and complexity of text is here on the highest level of all the four parts, coupled with the necessity to have good analytical skills. However, on courses, this type of work is the most frequent, so you are already well used to such tests. That said, this part is not very stressful, but, due to the language level and complexity, tiring enough so that we need the break afterwards.

The listening part could again prove quite stressful. At courses, listening tests are sometimes done, but very rarely discussed, so I would say that the logic of choosing answers and the language points involved are not properly trained beforehand. In my own experience, at a summer school provided for hard money at the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, listening tasks were not covered at all.

The test itself, consisting of the usual 40 questions, is a continuous fight for fast understanding. Before each question, there is the same time provided to read the question and the three alternative answers, whether the answers are short and simple, or consist of longer and more complex sentences, so very often, you do not have enough time to read through the questions properly before the relevant snippet of one of the five or six dialogues already begins. Even if you can easily follow the dialogue, which may or may not be the case, if you need more time afterwards to browse through the options again and choose, you lose your time to properly read through the following question and answers. And that is where you may get stressed and frustrated again. You can later go back to a previous question, but only in your own time for another answer and also without the possibility to listen to the relevant part again, so it is strongly advised not to do this. What I deem necessary is to fully understand the question and the options as well, and then to memorize the gist of all the options. With that in mind, we can choose the correct option while we keep listening, then check ourselves at the very end of the snippet and click. Not always easy, but must be done. That having said, I can say this part is do-able, especially if one already has some practice through frequent talks to people in real life, or watching television, or doing the listening tasks most likely coming with a course book.

Candidates get the official result by post six weeks after the exam, but it is already available to be seen on the DUO web-site with your registration number after five weeks. It is possible to get diplomas about each successful part if you do not succeed overall. One re-take per year is possible, and if fully successful in all parts after that, DUO  is ready to issue a full diploma if requested.

With these explanations, I hope we have provided prospective students of Dutch a useful overview of what can be expected at preparatory courses and at the exams themselves. We wish you good luck and success.

by Z.J.Shen and P.S.

The System of the Dutch State Language Examination – part 1


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In this post, we’d like to shed some light on this system for the sake of those only considering taking to studying the language at the time of reading and later planning to take an exam. The system is described in detail on the English version of the DUO web-site, but instead of repeating some tedious details, we’d like to outline some of the facts more from the perspective of the student and his/her needs.

There are three kinds of exams in the system. The first is the so-called “inburghering” exam, which, from the language point of view, corresponds to level A2 of the Common European Framework. Above this is the NT2 Staatsexamen Niveau 1, which corresponds to B1 level, and then the same at Niveau 2, which corresponds, on paper, to the higher B2 level.

The first sort is actually necessary for those from outside the EU wishing to stay in the Netherlands for a longer period and get Dutch nationality, that is, “inburghering”, to become Dutch citizens. Until now, in order to pass, the candidate has had to, among others, choose the correct response in various more-or-less official situations, which necessitates knowledge of some laws and a lot of customs in the country. Another part involved choosing the correct responses in small everyday situation. Sadly, preparatory courses to prepare for such tasks take the form of rote-learning contests and the winners remember the most of the necessary reactions well to be able to make the correct choices on screen. From the student’s point of view, teaching is a nightmare.

Another part of the exam has been to record the opposites of words read out in the head-phone on the computer. We consider this to be very far from language use as well, still, it demands a bit more active participation than clicking choices. Preparation for such tasks is also a nightmare. Not very much better was a part where the candidate was required to re-tell and record a small story read out to him/her by the computer. This task seems to require active participation, but actually, its point is to instantly memorize and regurgitate things heard. Tiring and very testing on concentration, but not very realistic either.

Besides three central parts, this exam included a practical portfolio as well, which the candidate had to fill in with the results of actual conversations with people, often at offices of the police, or a lawyer, or in a shop, and this is where it made sense. This was the only really valuable part, except that it was sometimes possible to cheat, and preparation for it was rather half-hearted.

This system has now been changed into a five-part central test. Besides the usual four basic skills, knowledge of the Dutch society still forms a part. We must point out that preparatory courses on this level teach very little of the language, there is little language practice during lessons, so there is very little room even to understand basic Dutch grammar there. Hopefully, the new, more skill-based exam engenders more language teaching instead of rote-learning, yet, at least until this becomes the norm, perhaps within a number of years, those starting to learn Dutch from scraps are well advised to first follow a good Dutch course in their own country and learn the basic necessities, and then undertake an “inburgheringscursus”. For those with other, deeper interests, understanding and learning from a spouse is always a better option.

For those who do not need to get nationalized, but wish to learn the language and take exams, we strongly advise to avoid such courses here. Instead, they had better bring up their level to A2 in other ways and then follow a B1-level course. After sudden changes and economic downturns in the country, there is now very little state subsidy coming in the way of the participant, so you have to look carefully what you pay for. Besides, the cost of the examinations have doubled for this year, so now expect to have to pay €180 for a full NT2 exam on both levels. And that after a course already cost you a thousand or two. On the other hand, exam courses may sometimes well serve you to get you acquainted with the demands and required techniques of each part of the state exam. After you’ve already learned the language well.

For nationalization, you are not required to raise your language level above A2, that is, after the “inburghering” exam, you can simply stop and become a housewife. NT2 exams are necessary, however, if you want to follow studies. Level 1 is needed for you to follow secondary courses, to become a nurse, or cook, or the like, or to get a simple job; level 2 is necessary if you want to go to university. We are not saying that those exams are enough for those purposes, but that the paper about them are prerequisites. Institutions and work-places retain their rights to individually look at what the applicant’s language is like. But don’t worry – if you are capable of obtaining one or the other diploma, the studies you follow will take care of the further development of your language. Just do not expect anyone to teach you the language when you already follow school or university courses – you have to have a sufficient basis to succeed on your own. We have to add that, on the job market, in certain industries where there is a real shortage of highly skilled manpower, like it is with ICT turners, reasonable levels of speaking English, or German are enough to get a well-paid job.

As our experience with Level 1 is more than a year old, we are not going into details about that. That and Level 2 of NT2 is now renewed and is still in the process in that it is not yet fully computerized, but it is going to be until the end of 2013. Besides, there are only a few small differences between the tests at Level 1 and Level 2, the difference being mostly of quality and level, not of kind. However, more recent experience of others also indicate that there is a thematic difference between the two levels: on Level 1, the candidate has to switch roles or react to situations more in everyday life, simple work tasks and the like, like talk to a neighbour, or give instructions about using office equipment, or give directions somewhere; whereas on Level 2, the candidate has to read, or write about, or react to tasks and roles that require interests in higher education, like work procedures of a physiotherapist, manager of a national park, or an entrepreneur in commerce or art.

At the moment, half of the writing part of NT2 is done on paper, but it will cease to be soon, so the candidate must have ample typing skills. The timing and so the tempo of the test requires more speed than how we can type with two fingers, so be prepared to acquire this skill by all means. In both halves, there are a number of shorter tasks, like one or two sentences to be filled in an e-mail, and a couple of longer texts to be composed. As we are allowed to use dictionaries, the skills for doing that is also of importance for success. The length of each part is about one hour, so it is also a matter of perseverance.

Much more difficult is the speaking part, of which we are going to talk tomorrow along with the listening and reading part. Stay tuned if you have the interest.

By Z.J.Shen and P.S.

Bending immigration statistics – English version


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As I promised yesterday, I am adding my English version of my criticism of a Dutch article from yesterday here. The original of the article,

 Immigratie steeds meer uit Oost- en Zuid-Europa

or “Immigration grows again from East- and South-Europe”, published by NRC Handelsblad on 8th March, can only be accessed digitally by registered users of the NRC Handelsblad. Sorry about that.

The bending of statistics

We already know that demagogy knows no borders. Communism spread from Germans in London on to Russians, Cubans, Indians and North-Koreans, Nazism spread from Germany through Italy and Austria to Finland and Japan. It’s well-known that statistics are an important and good way of describing the world, but also that, in the wrong hands, it can lead to demagogy. I am quite used to it in Hungary, but it surprised me here in the Netherlands the other day.

I always thought NRC a high-quality newspaper, until now. This opinion changed when I read their article of 8th March about immigration. In this article, they distort statistics, not very seriously, but enough so that people do not give it a second thought. If someone seriously distorts the truth, people may also react strongly and fast and think that a refusal is necessary. But a little clouding over easily remains unobserved. Easily creeps into the mind as the truth. And I find that dangerous.

NRC Handelsblad

NRC Handelsblad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do the writers state? First of all, it is not clear from the article if they use the statistical figures they quote on yearly basis, or as the sum total of immigrants. In most cases it can be said that it is not likely that a country with 17 million inhabitants receives close to 600 thousand people from the EU each year (the population of the Netherlands is still growing, but not that much), but who knows, it may be possible in the case of Bulgarians, whose numbers grew from 6 thousand in 2007 to 18 thousand in 2012. The article does not say at all that that means the whole number of Bulgarians that live in the country. But the article starts by saying that “Most migrants (!?) who come to the Netherlands, … from within the European Union.” (!? is my addition, because I also find it conspicuous that immigrants are usually called migrants in the article, as if they were just shifting like nomads; and the word, in the headline of the attached chart, can be understood as people migrating from the EU, to other countries, that is.) So is it first about the number of migrants who are coming at the moment (in Dutch, the normal present tense is used for general, momentary and even future meaning, so ‘komen’ allows for all interpretations)? Afterwards, the article only uses full data sums of people living here. It becomes thus shifty. Why? Because otherwise, people could clearly see that there are only 18.000 Bulgarians in their country of 17 million, which only means 0.1% of the whole population. People could simply ask, “What’s the problem?”

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second problem with this piece is that it is highly unclear what they mean by East- and Middle-Europe. Added to this, this dubious idea is washed together with East- and South-Europe, which shouts out of the headline as if it were an entity. Completely wrong. What is this article actually about? But it seems to be alright for the masses of Dutch, they should not worry about such small matters, and that is good enough for the editors.

Furthermore, from the chart it seems that about 580 thousand people live in the Netherlands from the EU (and the number is rising). Here, South-, and East- and Middle-Europe are separated. But where do Bulgarians, or Rumanians belong? Alright, it does not matter. According to the text, “the number of migrants from the previously communist (my problem: all those countries were ‘socialist’, not ‘communist’ – we knew our definitions better) EU-countries has risen … to 237 thousand,” and that seems represented in the chart by the ‘Middle- and East-Europe‘ line. Besides that problem of where Bulgaria and Romania belong (politically perhaps East, geographically South!), we have the problem of who are most of the immigrants.

EU and candidates

EU and candidates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the text, we have the following, “Most migrants from inside the EU come from Poland.” Same problem as above: do they mean ‘are coming’? This is important because we get only the percentage of Polish people. What does their 28% really mean (if it means 28% of those now coming, then we have a problem of who constitute the 237 thousand)? If it means the percentage of all present inhabitants from the EU, then it gives 165 thousand Poles who live in the Netherlands. Whether only short-term, or long-term, it does not seem to matter. Well, from the chart we see that the number of EU citizens living here from the EU is 580 thousand. Out of this number, and from the number of Bulgarians and Romanians (only 18.000 and 14.000 respectively) at fourth and fifth place, we can find that the group of Germans and Belgians at second and third place should be really large, but the article does not say anything. Otherwise, however, where do men between 200 thousand (all Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians) and the full 580 thousand from the EU come from? Each other country can send only fewer than 14.000 people, the number of Romanians at fifth place. We can thus only guess that there are also relatively many English (who come to do translation or language teaching), Spanish, Greeks, perhaps also Portuguese and Italians living here. There can’t be many from other countries, so we can guess that there are about 50 thousand from those five countries. Add a number of thousand Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks. After that, it is not likely that many people emigrate from dynamic and very small countries like Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus or Malta, and French and Nordic people also do not do so. This leads me to deduce that we still miss about 300 thousand to make up the 580 thousand. That number can only belong to the Germans and Belgians, who account for the second and third largest group, although not given in numbers.

What does this mean? It means that more Germans and Belgians together live here than those from all other countries of the EU. However, this is not a problem at all in the article. It tells us nothing about the 300 thousand. Also no word about South-Europeans. Only in the headline, further nothing. It tells us only about the 0.1% Bulgarians and Romanians, and of course the Polish people.

Why is it a problem, according to the article? Because “last year there were a good 4 (four!) thousand EU people receiving social security provisions, and that number … is rising.” That is 0.068% of all ‘migrants’. It says nothing about the 17 million (my addition, based on the opinion of friends and facts: for example about the thousands and thousands of Dutch who rarely worked in their lives and receive regular social security support). So what a problem that that number of 4 thousand is rising! Where is it going to lead? “We still don’t know exactly how much of those don’t have a right to those provisions,” they admit, but we should think that a few hundred more illegal receivers of social support will cause a really big problem.

5886859183_6b31c87b95_mSo, “There is fear of a social security migration.” Indeed. According to the newspaper, there is no such problem with the two and a half million people from countries outside the EU, or the 300 thousand Germans and Belgians, only with those 4 thousand on social support. Or with the 165 thousand Polish people, most of whom, by the way, are provisional guest workers and busy working hard in industry. Or with the Rumanians and Bulgarians, who may be more professionally able to work in industry or in language education than some Dutch, but may not get work on account of never being able to speak the language well enough. That is a problem, but not in the article. East- and Middle-Europe is complaining of ‘brain drain’, but at the moment, thousands of people with high levels of education from there have to work as cleaning personnel, postmen, or storage personnel. About which the Dutch do not know. That is a problem. Yet, the writer-editors, and as they say, some ministers do as if the country should quickly stop the influx of East-Europeans.

I think that if that is the message, Western Europe had not thought over the effects of widening the community well enough. And then the Netherlands could shut down their borders in front of all immigrants. Just like some professions are shut down by law.

But then, to lay all fault on the shoulders of “East-Europeans” is demagogy from the cold war.

by P.S.

Only after I added the links below did I realize that such a problem and debate is raging in the UK as well now. My readers are kindly asked to contribute their opinion about it all below in the ‘Reply’ space. Thank you.

Bending immigration statistics


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Dear reader,

I feel I have to turn my attention over to subjects that have little to do with language learning. As I am also a geographer by education, so statistics and politics are not far from me. The topic of migration is also to some extent to do with language knowledge, at least here in the Netherlands I have to find that to my own disadvantage. So what I’m writing about also relates to languages. Or politics. Please don’t be too much taken aback.

Over the last few weeks nothing much has been happening to me, no news on the job front, still lingering health problems, no new experience except at the language course, where we were given an article from NRC Handelsblad of 8th March which discusses immigration from some countries within the EU. It is called

Immigratie steeds meer uit Oost- en Zuid-Europa.

As in my opinion this article distorts truth, I want to react to the editors of the newspaper, so my text is still in Dutch. I still have to work on it to make it shorter so that it falls within their limits, but here I can publish it as it came to me. It’s in Dutch, but for the benefit of those who don’t understand that language, I’ll soon translate it to English. Now it goes like the following.

Het verdraaien van statistiek

We weten al dat demagogie geen grenzen kent. Communisme verspreidde zich van Germanen in London naar de Russen, de Cubanen, de Indiërs en de Noord Koreanen, Nazisme verspreidde zich van Duitsland door Italië en Oostenrijk naar Finland en Japan. Dat statistiek een belangrijke en goeie mannier van het omschrijving van de wereld is, is bekend, maar ook, dat het in slechte handen tot demagogie kan verworden. Ik ben eraan gewend, dat het vaak op zo’n mannier in Hongarije gaat, maar het verbaast me in Nederland.

NRC Handelsblad

NRC Handelsblad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ik dacht altijd, dat NRC een dagblad met kwaliteit is, tot nu toe. Dit is veranderd toen ik hun artikel op 8 maart over immigratie heb gelezen. Ze verdraaien statistiek, niet serieus, maar genoeg, zodat mensen er eigenlijk niet veel over zouden moeten nadenken. Als iemand de waarheid sterk vervalst, zouden mensen snel reageren en hun afkeuring kenbaar maken. Maar een kleine onduidelijkheid kan niet makkelijk ontdekt geworden. En dat vind ik gevaarlijk.

Wat zeggen de redacteuren? Ten eerste is het in het artikel niet duidelijk of het aantal migranten er eigenlijk per jaar of als het hele aantal gebruikt is. Met de meeste getallen is het niet waarschijnlijk dat in een land van 17 miljoen mensen elk jaar bijna 6oo duizend immigranten uit de EU krijgt, maar wie weet het met het aantal Bulgaren, het aantal waarvan steeg tussen 2007 en 2012 van 6.000 tot 18.000? Het artikel zegt het nergens duidelijk, dat dat het volle aantal is, hoewel het artikel begint met te zeggen, dat “De meeste migranten die naar Nederland komen, … van binnen de Europese Unie.” Dus is het eerst over het aantal migranten die nu aan het komen zijn? Daarna gebruikt het artikel alleen volle bedragen. Dus wordt het niet duidelijk. Waarom niet? Omdat de mensen dan wel zouden zien dat er alleen maar 18.000 Bulgaren in hun land van 17 miljoen blijven, die alleen maar 0.1% van de bevolking uitmaken. Mensen zouden dan makkelijk kunnen vragen, ‘Wat is het probleem?’

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ten tweede is het helemaal niet duidelijk, wat de krant bedoelt met Oost- en Midden-Europa.  Bovendien is die onduidelijk idee “samengespoeld” met Oost- en Zuid-Europa, die in de krantenkop staat alsof het een eenheid zou zijn. Helemaal fout. Waarover gaat het artikel eigenlijk? Maar het blijkt goed voor de meeste Nederlanders, ze kunnen zich over zo’n kleine probleem helemaal niet schelen, en dat is goed voor de redactie.

Verder blijkt uit de grafiek, dat er nu ongeveer 580 duizend mensen uit de EU in Nederland blijven. Hier is Zuid-EU en Midden- en Oost-Europa verschillend. Maar waar horen Bulgaren of Roemenen bij? OK, het maakt niet uit. Volgens de tekst, “het aantal migranten uit de voormalig communistische EU-landen steeg … naar 237 duizend”, en dat blijkt de lijn ‘Midden- en Oost-Europa’ in de grafiek te zijn. Behalve het probleem waar Bulgarije bij hoort (politiek Oost, geografisch Zuid!), krijgen wij het probleem wie het meeste immigranten zijn.

Uit de tekst blijkt het volgende: “De meeste migranten van binnen de EU komen uit Polen”. Bedoelt de redacteuren dat de meeste NU komen uit Polen? Het is belangrijk, omdat wij alleen een procent bij de Polen krijgen. Wat betekent hun 28% eigenlijk? Als het de % van alle hedendaagse bewoners uit EU betekent, dat maakt het 165 duizend Polen uit die in Nederland wonen. Tijdelijk, of lange termijn, dat doet er niet toe. Nou, uit de grafiek blijkt het aantal EU-immigranten 580 duizend te zijn. Uit dit cijfer en het aantal van Bulgaren en Roemenen (alleen 18.000 en 14.000) op de vierde en vijfde plaats lijkt dat de groep mensen uit Duitsland en België op tweede en derde plaats heel groot moet zijn, hoewel het artikel dat niet zegt. Maar anders, waar komen mensen tussen het aantal 200 duizend (alle Polen, Roemenen en Bulgaren) en de EU-totaal van 580 duizend vandaan? Enkele andere landen sturen minder dan 14 duizend, het aantal Roemenen op vijfde plaats. Dus kunnen wij alleen raden, dat er nog veel Engelsen (hier om te vertalen of les te geven), Spanjaarden, Grieken, misschien Portugezen en Italianen hier wonen. Uit andere landen waarschijnlijk niet veel, dus kunnen wij raden dat er hier ongeveer 50 duizend meer uit die vijf landen wonen. Wij kunnen nog een paar duizend uit Hongarije, Tsjechië of Slovakië toevoegen. Verder is het helemaal niet waarschijnlijk dat vele duizenden uit de dynamische een heel kleine landen als Estonië, Slovenië, Cyprus of Malta emigreren, ook doen Fransen en Noordelijke mensen dat niet. Dat lijdt tot een aantal van ruim 300 duizend die wij tot 580 duizend nog missen. Dat aantal kan alleen uit Duitsland en België komen, die op de tweede en derde plaats staan, zonder cijfers.

Wat betekent het? Het betekent dat er nog meer Duitsers en Belgen in het land wonen dan alle andere mensen uit de hele EU. Maar, volgens dit artikel is het helemaal geen probleem. Het praat over 300 duizend met geen woord. Ook geen woord over Zuid-Europeanen. Alleen in de kop, daarna niks. Het praat alleen over de 0.1% Bulgaren en Roemenen, en natuurlijk over de Polen.

Waarom is het een probleem, volgens het artikel? Omdat “er in Nederland vorig jaar ruim vierduizend EU-burgers waren die een bijstandsuitkering kregen en het aantal neemt … toe.” Dat is 0.068% van alle migranten. Die zegt niks over de 17 miljoen bewoners. Jammer dat het aantal stijgt. Waar leidt dat toe? “We weten nog niet precies hoeveel van hen daar geen recht op hebben”, maar wij moeten denken, dat een paar honderd onrechtelijke bijstandsuitkeringtrekkers meer een heel erg groot probleem kunnen veroorzaken.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: bogers)

Dus, “Er is vrees voor ‘uitkeringsmigratie’.” Inderdaad. Volgens de krant is er geen probleem met de ruim twee en half miljoen mensen uit andere landen buiten de EU, alleen maar met de ruim 4 duizend mensen met een bijstandsuitkering. Of met de 165 duizend Polen, de meeste waarvan bezig zijn met het hard werken in de industrie. Of met de Roemenen en Bulgaren, die ook in de industrie of in het onderwijs meer professioneel kunnen zijn dan Nederlanders, maar ze kunnen misschien geen banen krijgen omdat ze nooit goed genoeg Nederlands kunnen praten. Dat is een probleem. Oost- en Midden-Europa klaagt over ‘brain drain’, maar tegelijkertijd moeten duizenden daarvan met hoge opleidingsniveau als schoonmakers, postbezorgers, of magazijn medewerkers werken. Nederland weet niks erover. Dat is een probleem. Toch geeft de schrijvers en sommige ministers in, dat het land snel de instroom van duizenden Oost-Europeanen moet stoppen.

Ik denk, dat als het de bedoeling is, hadden er mensen in West-Europa niet goed nagedacht over de gevolgen van de uitbreiding van de EU. Maar dan kan Nederland alle zijn grenzen voor alle immigranten ook sluiten. Net als dat soort banen die nu al rechtelijk gesloten zijn.

Maar van alles de schuld aan de “Oost-Europeanen” geven is demagogie uit de koude oorlog.

Followed by the translation in the following post.

(After writing the above, I shortened my Dutch text to the requirements and sent it to the paper, but they answered that, due to a huge number of new articles, they cannot publish mine. I have to face it: it would be inconvenient.)

by P.S.

A famous literary mistranslation between Hungarian and German


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Karinthy Frigyes

Karinthy Frigyes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d like to present here an artistic mistranslation from the 1910’s which is very famous in Hungary. It was originally written by F. Karinthy, a famous, witty Hungarian poet and writer of lots of short stories and sketches and a famous novel. He took a stanza by a great poet, E. Ady, and followed the ways of translations through a few rounds of misinterpretation. The English is my explanations to the original poems based on Karinthy’s original explanations. I hope that the full piece can be appreciated by those speaking German even if they don’t understand the Hungarian.

Ady Endre, Hungarian poet

Ady Endre

Jöttem a Gangesz partjairól 
Hol álmodoztam déli verőn
A szivem egy nagy harangvirág
S finom remegések az erőm.

Which means, roughly, the following:

I’ve come from the shores of the Ganges Where I was day-dreaming in the midday sun My heart is a large blue-bell And fine trembles are my strength.

A translator with a flair for beauty read this in an anthology and was deeply moved. He dicided to translate it and send it to the paper called “Dichterstimmen”.

So he translated it thus:

Ich kam von Ufer der Ganges 
Dort traumt ich von südischen Schlager
Main Herz, du Blume, du banges
Du bist so zitternd, so mager.

Well, for the sake of rhymes, one changes a thing or two in such a poetic translation.

At this point, Karinthy does not add explanations for the misinterpretations, because he could be sure that his Hungarian readers at the time all understood the differences. For the sake of my readers here, I venture to add a few points:

Although the word ’verő’ could mean ’Schlager’, yet, the poet meant a shortened and well-known form of ’verőfényes’, which is an adjective meaning something like ’brightly sunny’, and the short form can refer to the time of day characterized as such, as can the noun form ’verőfény’ as well. Further, unfortunately, ‘déli’ here is not supposed to refer to the southerly direction as in ‘südischen’, but to the midday. Thus the ‘bright midday sun’ becomes ‘southern hitter’ in the translation. ’Banges’ is supposed to rhyme with Ganges, unfortunately, the original has nothing to do with being ’anxious’. It spells a bigger problem that, according to the original, the poet’s trembling is his power, just the opposite of any meaning of ’mager’.

Well, so far so good, or not. But the problem got bigger when another translator read the German version without realising that it had been translated from Hungarian. He thought it to be an original poem and so translated it to Hungarian and sent it along to a literary journal like this:

Ufer, a zsidó kupléíró 
Aludt a folyosó mélyén
Barátja, Herz, biztatta
Hogy ne remegjen, ne féljen.

There’s an undoubted misunderstanding here, but who can fully find his way among those strange Gothic letters (at the time still widely used in Germany). So it is no wonder that the otherwise excellent translator misread „südischen” to be „jüdischen” and turned the name of the river Ganges to be a corridor.

There wouldn’t have happened a bigger problem if a third, otherwise excellent, translator didn’t happen to read it, who then translated it and sent it to „Gedicht-Magazin”, in full artistic reformulation:

O, Dichter der alten Juden 
Was schlafst du im FluBsalz so tief?
Hörst du nicht den stolzen Herzog
Der dir in Ohren rief?

Well, as to the corridor, it is true that if one is a German translator, he can’t be fully held accountable for the slight difference in Hungarian between ’folyosó’ and ’folyó só’ – corridor and fluid salt respectively. Besides, the translator supposes the proper name ’Herz’ to be an abbreviation for ’Herczeg’, ’Herzog’ in German, meaning a duke.

The magazine duly accepted the originality of the poem without further investigation and published it. That’s how it got into the hands of the fourth translator, who then published the poem, which rose to world fame in the meantime, as follows:

A Herz-féle szalámiban 
Sokkal sűrűbb a só,
Mint más hasonló terményekben
Hidd el, ó nyájas olvasó!

Which means roughly the following:

In the Herz-salami Salt is a lot denser Than in other produce, Believe me, oh kind reader.

He was right that ’Dichter’ can be translated to be ’denser’ just as ’poet’ from German.

Apart from smaller modifications that duly suit a poetic translation, like calling on the kindly reader in the last line, this translator, otherwise, did not change much of the content of the poem.

… he probably even obliged to gratitude the famous Hungarian manufacturer of salami, who, we hope, duly expressed his gratitude.

Moral: always check the source of the source of the source. If somebody has done it, it doesn’t mean it is good.

I owe my gratitude to the following source for the original work, where those who would like to read Karinthy’s original in the original can do so:

Karinthy Frigyes: Műfordítás

by. P.S.

A criticism of translation methods from the point of view of dictionaries


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In this post I’d like to provide further basis for the discredit of the grammar-translation method through looking at the possibility of misinterpretation based on dictionaries.

Lots of English linguists insist that there are actually no precise synonyms in a language, and I can just copy that in my mother tongue too, but even if we allow for synonyms encompassing words meaning almost the same as another word, no wonder that dictionary translations to another language rarely meet the criteria necessary to achieve successful word-to-word translations. Unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough in Dutch so that I can give you convincing examples in the field of meanings, but I face the problem daily if I get near a Dutch person who I could ask. “Yes, what you say/write is ok, I understand more-or-less what you mean, but this is not exactly how we would put it in Dutch.”

Besides this fact, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of cases when the meaning of a word can be completely misinterpreted using the exact foreign equivalent a dictionary uses. This is simply the result when dictionaries don’t bother to give details for exact meaning of the foreign equivalent, and sometimes even failing to mention which part of speech they are quoting. Often there is a mistake to the extent that the purported foreign equivalent doesn’t even exist.

My examples come from two bilingual dictionaries I have, the ‘Kramers handwoordenboek/Engels-Nederlands/Nederlands-Engels’ and the ‘Van Dale Studiewoordenboek/Nederlands-Engels’. When necessary, I check the real meaning of the words with the help of ‘Kramers woordenboek Nederlands’, where English is not used. I know for a fact that smaller dictionaries in the Netherlands are just as often void and useless as in Hungary – I’ve tried to use one or two, then quickly got rid of them. I don’t suppose that the lot of other two-language dictionaries found in abundance in the country are any better – the small Hungarian dictionary is definitely not better, why should the Farsi-Dutch, or Russian-Dutch dictionary be any better? So, here is a bunch of problems I’ve discovered over the last few months in the two large dictionaries, where Dutch learners of English are also likely to look up meanings of Dutch words.

Het weer is omgeslagenthe weather has broken, or Het weer slaat omthe weather is breaking? The clouds, but not the weather. Medemens is frivolously turned to be a fellow man, which would be a fellow creature if used at all by Englishmen. Handelen over iets is correctly given to mean deal with, but to treat (of)? What were the makers thinking of?

Bonenkruid is given as savoury, which is fine if one notices that it’s a noun. Most learners wouldn’t notice the small ‘o’ after the headword, which means it is a genderless, so-called ‘het-word’, and because ‘savoury’ is very rarely used as a noun in English, an unsuspecting learner-translator would be likely to use ‘bonenkruid’ as an adjective, or ‘savoury’ as a noun after encountering the word.

I owe gratitude to the dual-language ‘Kramers handwoordenboek’ that it doesn’t include ‘beamer’ in either the English, or in the Dutch section. This widely-used Dutch word represents the wide-spread misunderstanding that it is an English word, which the ‘Van Dale’ includes, but which the single-language ‘Kramers Woordenboek Nederlands’ excludes. Rightly so.

It can also happen that after the foreign equivalent is given, the headword is put into phrases as examples of use. This should always be part of a good dictionary, though, sadly, it never makes into smaller dictionaries. However, what can a learner do with entries like the following:

eigen 1 own, private, personal met de hem eigen bescheidenheid with his characteristic modesty; dat is hem eigen that is typical of him, (inf) that’s him all over; zich iets eigen maken (ook m.b.y. taal) make o.s. familiar with sth., (m.b.t. taal ook) master, pick up …

I personally appreciate the effort that the makers of the dictionary took pains in this case as in numerous others to supply an appropriate translation to the whole phrase. But shouldn’t there be at least one example where the translation conforms to the given English headwords? In all the three expressions with ‘eigen’, there’s not one which contains the three originally given translations. How is the student supposed to learn the meaning in English if he is to use the grammar-translation method for his own sake? Besides, I can also call it typical that, for the sake of a foreigner studying Dutch, the necessary preposition in the Dutch phrase equivalent with ‘familiar with’ is blissfully missing: “zich iets eigen maken” – van? met? aan? over?

In some cases the translations in the two dictionaries don’t match enough for a learner. ‘het gedrang’ is correctly interpreted as jostling, pushing from the original meaning of the stem-word, dringen, but it’s very likely that the other dictionary is closer to normal use translating it to be crowd, throng. However, even this second one creates problems with giving crush, which lots of young learners must be all too familiar with here from British soaps. Further, if one needs the meaning of in het gedrang komen in his translation, which meaning shall he/she choose: 1. get in a crowd 2. fig. be hard pressed, suffer from one, or (fig) get into a tight corner or be liable to be pushed aside/to be postponed (???)/to suffer from the other dictionary?

In other cases there is simply the danger that the learner can’t find which meaning quoted under the headword is the one he/she needs at the place and moment required.

Bent is given as set, clique, party, which together may vaguely indicate what the word means. Still, one keeps wondering, what if the meanings are apart? Then which meaning of set, or party is to be understood out of many?

Het voorbehoud is translated as reservation; which meaning of reservation? It is a bit hidden among other information that this is not about booking a flight, but about partial disbelief, a restriction.

Summier is defined as summary, brief , and only bn(=bijvoeglijk naamwoord) shows that these are meant to be adjectives (and summier is also an adverb according to the big ‘Kramers’), although ‘brief’ is often used as a noun or a verb, ‘summary’ is mostly used as a noun in English, and neither can function as adverbs.

Het vermoeden means suspicion, surmise, supposition, presumption, still, this word doesn’t mean mistrust as we could also deduct from suspicion. It’s not really a synonym of argwaan as the synonym section in the big ‘Kramer’ lets us believe.

There are similar problems with words like boorijzer bit (which meaning?), zijgen strain (which sort?), solutie solution (to a problem, or chemical?), soos club (a meeting-place, or a bat?), spaander chip (a piece of wood given for a silicon chip in the computer age?), keuvelaarij and keuvelen given as chat (in the internet age, when the meaning is restricted to broken speech of toddlers?), most given as must (when neither culture is used to what steps grapevine-making goes through until wine, the odd learner may be enticed to take it to be a form of the auxiliary – this translation misleads even a wine-savvy Hungarian where the exact same word must is used, with a difference of pronunciation).

I’m not sure that very many Dutch teachers of English are capable of explaining the subtle differences in the fields of meaning of English words in English – one can’t really suppose they can maintain their level of English high without speaking English in class to their students in the first place. Then, if they manage to maintain their English, they can mostly do it with dictionaries. They don’t have so much time to immerse themselves in life in Britain with all those teaching hours over the year. But they should remain the main source of vocabulary input, what with the quality of dictionaries as we’ve seen it, and the probably short hours students invest in studying outside class.

I’m not saying that all my examples play a big part in learners’ experience either. But there are lots of similar examples wherever I look. One can meet these problems in Hungarian, Sino-English or other dictionaries as well. But to do it only in Dutch seems to be just as weird as it is in Chinese or in Hungarian. Sometimes it may lead to situations similar to having to explain to a Beduin what ‘snow’ is like in Arabic, or to a North-Korean what ‘democracy’ means. Or to explain to a Chinese, or a Dutch, for that matter, what the difference between adjective and adverb is. There’s no distinction between the two in those languages …

by P.S.

harm·less drudg·ery

Last Thursday was a rare treat in our house: one of those nights where the homework was done early, the dinner was cooked by someone else, and snow was in the forecast. The evening stretched out, molasses-lazy. My eldest daughter sauntered into the kitchen where I was spending some meditative time with the pots and a scrub brush.

“So,” she began lightly, “I wanted to talk to you about your pottymouth.”

I hummed. She does not approve of my penchant for cussing.

“When I came into your office today, you said the s-word. Cursing is evidence of a lack of creativity.” It is always a delight to hear your feeble parenting parroted back at you.

“A guy said something stupid on the radio this morning and then defended it by misquoting the dictionary. I was just frustrated, that’s all.”

She whisked a dishtowel off the shelf and began drying pots…

View original post 1,909 more words

Examples for translation difficulties


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As I promised in my previous post, I’m presenting you with a list of examples that is intended to prove how difficult, mostly impossible it is to translate among languages texts which contain idiomatic language. But I’d like to begin on the level of phrases, which is the first level that may present such problems, like with the English phrasal verbs.

Dutch to English

Two of my favourite Dutch verbs are something I find very amusing word-for-word:

‘slagen voor het examen’ and ‘zakken voor het examen’

The first means to pass an exam, the second means to fail an exam. The problem comes with ‘voor’, which means that I can pass or fail before the exam.  Which will happen to me if I don’t go? But I shouldn’t go because I’m going to pass or fail before it anyway – the only question is, which?

One thing the Dutch can’t translate to English is “Eet smakelijk!” or “Smakelijk eten!” simply because the English don’t say much before eating. Some may occasionally wish “bon appétit!” with the French, which is equivalent to the very rarely heard Dutch “Goeie eetlust!” but then again, how to translate the jovial “Tuck in”? The translation of the Dutch phrase to English would be to wish “Eat tasty!”, which sounds completely ungrammatical, and may also question the quality of what we have just received in front of us. Hungarians at least regularly wish “jó étvágyat!” Good men! But to wish for what the reason is for sitting down to eat is also not very logical. Still, there it is.

The Dutch word ‘stom’ has, strangely, two meanings, one being ‘mute’, or ‘dumb’, but the other one seems to associate muteness with stupidity, meaning ‘stupid’. People in the Middle Ages may have considered this correct, thus the word meaning ‘fall silent’ became ‘verstommen’ in Dutch. Not very nice, as if stopping to talk automatically meant a mental disorder. In interesting comparison, the Hungarian word for ‘falling silent’, ‘elhallgat’ associates stopping to speak with listening. It’s a nicer way of looking at it I presume when we suppose that the silent one isn’t speaking because he is listening, that is, paying attention to us. Perhaps Chinese concert audiences fail to fall silent during a classical concert also because they’re afraid of being accused of becoming stupid. Chinese?

The Dutch ‘heeft verkering met dit meisje’, but if they informed their English friend translating this as ‘I have courtship with this girl’, they would get strange eyes. The English ‘go out with a girl’, or ‘pay courtship to a girl’ if they want to be very high-class, which they don’t really. Actually, this Dutch phrase is also going out of use and a teenager would speak about his ‘vriendin’, just like the English about their girlfriends, but then there’s no expression for ‘going out together’ in Dutch.

Other examples of phrases that are directly not translatable are:

‘iemand een optater verkopen’ = to sell a punch to someone (sell?)

‘een knal verkopen’ = to sell a clap on the head (?) = kupán vág valakit (Hongaars: ’kupa’ means a cup)

‘vriendschap sluiten met iemand’ = make friends with sb; what do we want to close in translation? (the Hungarians ‘tie’ a friendship, but the same word – ‘köt’ – is also used for ‘embroider’)

‘zo te zien’ = so to see? no! = evidently, apparently

‘het zwaar te pakken hebben’ = heavily have it to take? = to love s/b badly, or to have big problems

‘het schip ingaan’ = enter a ship? no! = something goes wrong, to have big difficulties

‘iets onder de knie hebben’ = have something under the knee? no! = this idiomatic phrase means ‘to have mastered something’ – the problem with the Hungarian ‘elsajátít’ is that is means ‘making sg his own’, but it also has a very close connotation to sealing

‘een appeltje te schillen hebben met iemand’ = instead of an apple to peel? = to have a bone to pick with s/o – the Hungarian ‘elszámolnivalója van valakivel’ makes it akin to paying the bill but it doesn’t expressly say who has to pay, so it’s also difficult to put in English

‘weten hoe de vork in the steel zit’ = to know how the fork sits in the stalk (of a flower)? handle (of a hammer)?= to know the ins and outs of the matter = ‘ismeri a dörgést’ in Hungarian, but that sounds like ’he knows the sound of lightning’.

On idiomatic levels we can almost always see the problem, usually in all ways.

English to Dutch

To begin this section, phrasal verbs offer themselves the best. We’re not always so fortunate with them, like in the case of ‘to be cut out for’, which is ‘geknipt zijn voor’ in Dutch and is directly translatable. Not so in other languages. Surprisingly, the Chinese ‘当… 能力’ (dāng … nénglì) is simple and only suggests the power to work as someone, or to bear some responsibility for something, so you don’t have to be cut in any shape. The Hungarian ’erre van teremtve’, on the other hand, has a very strong connotation with being created for something by god. But it wouldn’t really be appropriate to translate it back as ’to be created to do s/g.’

We could go on with phrasal verbs infinitely to prove the point. But I deem it unnecessary, as most people learning English find this area very difficult. I’d like to go on with other kinds of differences instead.

When friends are already inside their homes, the English make you ‘feel at home’ or ‘make yourself at home.’ The Dutch invite us with ‘Com even binnen,’ and rarely wish us “Moge het je bekomen”, so it may surprise many Dutch how often they may encounter it in English.

When two people regularly quarrel, the Dutch may say ‘elkaar altijd in de haar ziten/haren zitten’. Try translating it to be ‘to sit each other always in the hair’ or something, and you’ll make people’s eyebrows rise really high. Why would such people ‘sit’, we may ask. The Hungarian ‘marakodnak’ is suggestive of biting each other or burning material in a caustic manner, for which English has no verb.

How does a ‘queer fish’, or a ‘strange customer’ become a French bean? But here it is = ‘een rare snijboon’ (and ‘snij’ is also not French!)

One thing the poor Dutch can’t translate, probably don’t even know exist, is how to ‘go Dutch’ ??? They may sometimes share the bill, but other than ‘verdelen’=’share’, there’s no idiom to this effect. But the phrase and the practice is very popular among Australians and Americans teaching in South China, perhaps an excuse to again exploit the poor Chinese.

It mostly happens with proverbs and proverb-like phrases that translation may become completely funny. Because of the different symbolism and different metaphorical world of each culture, word-for-word translation would often sound stupid. The English ‘don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’, while Hungarians say ‘előre iszik a medve bőrére’, which is not a warning, but a fact, but the Dutch may find it a lot more familiar, except that instead of drinking for its hide, they wouldn’t like to sell the hide of the bear before it is shot in ‘niet de huid verkopen voor de beer geschoten is.’ The reason for the use of the bear in Dutch is very surprising, given that bears may have been last seen in their area some two thousand years ago, unlike in Hungary, but if the Dutch wanted to ‘shoot the chickens’ or ‘hatch the bear’ instead in translation, English people would only scratch their heads bloody in wonderment.

Of course, if the metaphorical viewpoints of different languages are similar, translation becomes a lot easier on the phrasal level. This happens, for example, with relationships viewed as journeys. As a result, two former lovers may ‘go their separate ways,’ which is exactly what two Hungarians may do when ‘elválnak útjaik,’ but the Dutch say ‘ze gaan van elkaar,’ or ‘ze scheiden van elkaar,’ only the second of which is interesting, with reference to being cut away from each other.

Of course, with a lot of interest and also time, good teachers, good dictionaries and interested friends, all of us could make up much longer lists to prove how difficult it is to translate. Unfortunately, most dictionaries have shortcomings on the phrasal and idiomatic level, and smaller ones don’t even deal with such parts of the languages concerned. Besides, they contain the occasional errors, of which I have a gradually lengthening list. One such mistake, only for proof, is that for ‘zij hebben verkering‘ one relatively good dictionary gives ‘they are walking out.’ Out of a shop, may I ask? Are the authors of the dictionary aware that ‘walking out (on somebody)’ is the opposite of expressing love to the other one, or going together? Which, actually, is the meaning of the Dutch phrase …

It is also a matter of fact that highly qualified translators and interpreters of both languages in question are fully capable of doing this correctly. But to learners, these strange differences create a situation in which being asked to translate among languages they don’t possess appropriately may become insurmountable. More dangerously, it becomes a source of failure which impedes the learning process very strongly. Teachers in their right minds wouldn’t like to create failures, would they?

by P.S. and Z.J.S., with help from E. van Rossem

As a refreshing change from my own diction, let me encourage you to click on this link to an article by a teacher in Amsterdam explaining in his own manner why he thinks translation does not work with learning Dutch – with any language if you ask me.

A criticism of the grammar-translation method


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Quite recently, I taught English to a Hungarian born in Slovakia, who also speaks German and some Polish, so when he had told me his level in English was around advanced, I believed him and started to deal with him with that in mind. Well, as it turned out, he was anything but. His grammar had a lot to be wished for, he seemed to lack vocabulary, and often seemed to suddenly become very reluctant to speak. It may have been a case of bad chemistry between us, but because we seemed to hit it off really well in our mother tongue, I lowered my expectations of him and waited for results. Then, in the middle of our short course, he admitted that he had studied English with translation at school a few years before. I was very surprised, because I know a few colleagues from Slovakia who really avoid this method. I tried to give him more help with what to say, but with the short time on our hands, he developed very little in fluency.

Although he knew his profession and the vocabulary for it in English well, he fell short when it came to discussing topics loosely related to it, sometimes even when closely related. His thinking processes were seriously impeded and prevented him from talking about what he knew well. He represented a huge failure of the ‘grammar-translation method‘. It’s because of this experience why I’ve decided to try and summarize some of my ideas about the deficiencies of this method.

Translation Process

Translation Process (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ideas are not based on research, only on experience and the common sense of a teacher and language learner. I’m unwilling to completely dismiss this method, I was originally brought up into the English world through this method, and I understand the need of learners to resort to ‘what does this word mean’ from time to time. I still use dual-language dictionaries as well as the single-language Dutch dictionary on B2 level. But I’m not as flexible of mind as a young learner either. I believe, as a learner and as a teacher as well, that the sooner someone gets rid of the shackles of translation towards speaking a new foreign language the better. It reduces the time of understanding others and expressing ourselves greatly, and anyway, imagine what level of proficiency it would require to constantly translate while listening to the 200-words-per-minute prattle of some Italians, Chinese or Dutch speakers.

In normal language, on a beginner’s level, where we meet mostly factual vocabulary, translation may be applied. A ‘table’ is ‘tafel’ in Dutch, ‘asztal’ in Hungarian, ‘桌子’ (zhuōzi) in Chinese, just like a ‘man’ is ‘man’ in Dutch, ‘férfi’ in Hungarian, or ‘人’ (rén) in Chinese. These are easily translatable, so my guess is that this is why those insisting on the grammar-translation method may keep using it and honestly believing that this is good basis for its application. However, because this is the case with lots of factual, palpable language, they should be aware that for exactly the same reason, that is, palpability, factual language lends itself most easily for doing exactly the opposite in class: we can avoid translating concrete words simply by pointing at them and forming a new habit in learners of using a new name for familiar objects, thereby saving a lot of precious thinking time on word level. Language, and most notably names of objects are the result of consensus, so the task of the teacher is simply to create a new consensus about the naming of things and stuff. Once the consensus is firmly built, thinking and speaking will speed up considerably. I consider this to be a very important aspect of foreign language teaching because it gives invaluable confidence to the learners and a solid basis for further development.

There are sometimes difficulties even at this level though. Let’s remember the classical example of the forest. Can we all understand what kinds of different perceptions this word evokes in the middle and west of Europe compared to Siberia,  the mangroves of the south of the USA, or the bamboo forests of south Asia? Or in rain forest regions, for which English has the good sense to use ’jungle’. But then again, how can Portuguese learners of English in Brazil really grasp the word ’forest’ if not with a lot of photos? I bet that quite a lot of other object-words carry similar difficulties, some of which are ‘music’ (what differences in the world! compare classical, rock, pop, classical Chinese or Indian, or Arabic or African), ’church’ (try to explain a gothic one in France or England to Latin-Americans or Muslims), ’house’

Houses in Koprivstica, Bulgaria

Houses in Koprivstica, Bulgaria

Houses in Szentendre, Hungary

Houses in Szentendre, Hungary

Historical houses in Riga, Lathvia

Historical houses in Riga, Lathvia

Windows on a Chinese house, Dongshan

Windows on a Chinese house, Dongshan

(compare the differences between mediterranean houses with the upper floors being the widest, a ’normal’ West-European house with several floors and a one-floor building in Eastern-Europe or Africa), ’fireplace’ (made of what? what shape?), ’horse’ (the heavy Irish or middle-European plow-horses, or the race-horses of the Arabs and anything in between), ’telephone’ (which is fast becoming obsolete), or ’window’, which reminds me of the time when a Chinese host suddenly realized in the middle of winter that they had no glass on their windows — glazed windows simply don’t exist like that in that area, there is complicated and carved old latticework instead of the open space in the wall to let in light and air.

Slovakian dumplings

Slovakian dumplings

A special non-translatable category of words consists of nouns denoting things non-existent in the target language culture. A large section of food vocabulary belongs here. You can’t translate the Hungarian ‘pogácsa’, or ‘főzelék’, or the now omnipresent ‘curry’ to other languages as the things don’t exist elsewhere. A favourite with me are ‘饺子‘ (jiǎozi) and ‘包子‘ (bāozi) in China. Before I was given them for the first time (and sometimes even afterwards), people speaking some English tried to convince me that I would be given ‘dumplings’. Being a Hungarian, I have a very strong sense of our ‘dumplings’, which are quite different from the English kind, so I asked if they were sweet, contained milk-curd or something, cooked in boiling water and then covered

Shaomei, a kind of jiaozi in Beijing

Shaomei, a kind of jiaozi in Beijing

with breadcrumbs and sugar, and they were very surprised, saying no, none of those, and especially when I said that then theirs were not dumplings at all, because dumplings are all the above. I call that kind of food ‘jiaozi’ and ‘baozi’ for want of anything better, and especially because they are also very different from each other. At this point we should also remember that there were reasons why lots of languages picked up ‘loan-words’ from other languages, and not only in the field of food. Just a short list in English should include ‘igloo’, ‘wigwam’, ‘mosque’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘cockatoo’ (from Malay through Dutch), ‘tobacco’ (from Spanish), or ‘biro’ and ‘coach’ (the wagon, not the trainer), both, strangely, from Hungarian.

in the Durmitor mountains in Bosnia

in the Durmitor mountains in Bosnia

Some adjectives may also carry the danger of misunderstandings. What I may mean by, for example, ’tall’, ’high’, ’long’, ’wide’, ’fast’, ’big’, or their opposites and the like, may seriously be misunderstood elsewhere, depending on the original surroundings of my listener. Can we always rely on experience from the media for a Dutch child to understand what is meant by high mountains, when the highest point in the Netherlands is around 400 meters above see level? Of course, on beginners’ level, it’s not a source of concern for the teacher – he/she just translates and relies on the original notions of the pupils. Is that always right?

high ground and forest in the Netherlands

high ground and forest in the Netherlands

Abstract nouns obvously have an even greater chance of carrying differring fields of meaning, but also obviously, most teachers of lower levels of a foreign langauge neglect such possibilities simply for the sake of simplicity, and rightly so up to higher levels, when, however, high achievers may suddenly face the strange fact that their mental pictures should often be re-evalutated. But if they have never used methods of understanding other than translation, how can they grasp explanations that also obviously suddenly require explanations in the target language? And this was only the level of words.

The fact that in lots of languages, simple words can also converge to form compound words makes the translation process a lot more complicated, however. How can we understand that if the Dutch speak about ‘doodslag’, they actually mean ‘manslaughter’? Where is ‘man’ in this compound word when ‘dood’ actually means ‘dead’? In the Chinese ‘杀人’ (shārén) the order of the compound is opposite to that in the English compound, ‘man’ being the second member, and the Hungarian ‘gyilkosság’ has nothing to do with the word for a person, but is a reference to the murderous object. Both of the two latter words omit the aspect present in English, that is, that the action was not premeditated. The jargon of law has a word for it, but it’s not used much in ordinary language. It would also be un-expertly overdoing it if one translated ‘szándékos emberölés’ to be ‘premeditated murder’, ‘murder’ being enough to express the intention.

The fact that the English-Chinese dictionary omits the word ‘manslaughter’ may represent a lamentable omission from “The World’s Most Trusted Dictionaries” by Oxford, but I also suspect that the Chinese may not make a difference between pre-meditated and incidental homicide. They may think perpetrators of both deserve to die. Which is already a cultural issue, the enormous impact of which could take up volumes about language use. I guess that in a country where language teaching is still seriously influenced by the teaching of Latin and Ancient Greek as it is in the Netherlands, culture may not be at the forefront of teaching considerations. Who knows exactly what the ordinary culture and language of the Latins or Greeks was, one and a half thousand years after they became extinct, from writings of ancient members of the upper classes? Ask a Hungarian teacher of Latin for comparisons …

All this already illustrates the point well that translation is often difficult directly to be done even on the level of what most people call words, usually from the level of compound words upwards. It regularly happens, however, when we try to translate idiomatic language, or proverbs, so I’m going to present, in my following post, a small collection of such problems, mostly between Dutch and English, as I suppose most of my readers don’t really want comparisons with Hungarian or Chinese, and some of my readers may come from the Netherlands anyway. We may suppose that similar examples may be derived in comparison with German too. My readers who speak German would like to add their own such examples, but I don’t speak German myself.

Before I go on to the list of examples, I’d also like to point to the fact that on the level of sentences and texts even much more difficulties and differences exist. Whoever tries to translate sentences to Russian, French, or Hungarian, for example, or to other languages using inflexion heavily, is up to a very big task, especially if they try to use translation software. In very many cases, the teacher has almost no recourse even for grammatical explanations, mostly to learners of languages, like Chinese, in which even most of the grammatical categories do not exist — a word in Chinese may usually stand in the role of noun, adjective or adverb, often even that of verb. The grammar method also almost breaks down with languages using inflexions heavily, like with Hungarian, that express several dozens of aspects mostly inexpressible in grammatically simple languages like English, Dutch, or Chinese.

Chinese Parliament

Chinese Parliament

And once again, we still haven’t mentioned most differences coming from the cultural point of view, which lead lots of Chinese learners to be non-plussed by the ideas around ’elections’, ’parliament’, ‘representative’, and the like. When they push for a translation (the dictionary contains these words, after all), they don’t realize the world of difference between what is meant by the original and the translation.

British Parliament

British Parliament

With this and the following post I wouldn’t like to redeem the profession of language teaching, or the worlds of language learners. But I do hope that I may cause a shift away from the situation of my sorry student from Slovakia and similar learners who can’t learn to speak a second language well because of the exclusive use of grammar and translation.

There are a lot of different Methods-of-language-teaching (downloadable), like the direct method, the audiolingual method, community learning, total physical response, the communicative method, or the lexical approach, which may be far preferable. Role-play may also be regarded as almost a method, at least an approach to letting learners learn from their own behaviour. I recommend a good article about role-play here.

See my next post with examples if you’re interested. You can read about the grammar side of this approach in a later entry here.

By P.S.

A big leap forward for me … where exactly?


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For those that already know my story from this blog or from elsewhere, I’m happy to announce that today I received the recognition (‘erkenning’ in Dutch) of my MA from Hungary for the Netherlands on the second level. For the sake of those who are nursing similar ambitions to mine to become active (and salary-earning) members of the Dutch education system, I’d like to elaborate further. It may give you a good laugh …

First of all, to clarify for those who still don’t know what a second-level degree (‘tweedegraads bevoegdheid’) means in this country, let me quickly point out that from now on I have a paper to prove that I’m legitimately able and allowed to give English lessons to students in the secondary system between the ages of 12 and 15, which means the first three years of secondary education. This also means that my MA has actually been accepted as a BA, or something like that. Furthermore, it means that those members of my profession from the former Eastern Block who have studied to get degrees in two subjects at universities for five years (I also read Geography), will also be recognized as having completed three years of study at an Eastern-European high school (‘főiskola’ in Hungary), which would qualify them to teach in primary schools. If you have such a double MA from there, you should also first ask for this second-grade recognition. You won’t get the first-class recognition straight away, but will get second-grade if you ask for it.

If you still want to have first-grade recognition, you can choose to apply for – supervised – practice teaching for a year at a qualified secondary school on that level, or apply to a university to make it possible for you to follow a short programme to reach the same. But this latter also involves practice teaching.

Today I’ve decided to consider my cup half full, instead of pessimistically saying it’s still half empty. If you wouldn’t under any circumstances like to admit that all coins have a second side, please don’t go on reading this. For others, I’d like to shortly explain why my other eye still has tears in it.

The tears may come from crying, but in my case, they may also result from laughing. Hard.

On the one hand, before this recognition, I was told that I can’t have followed enough education in English with two majors compared to Dutch students following one. I wonder what I didn’t read or discuss in my five years. Was there anything missing from Beowulf through Chaucer through Marlow and Dryden to Mary (or Percy Bysshe) Shelley to Laurence? Not to mention all the Americans? Or have I missed a rare use of a particle or preposition in the grammar course? Thirty-four years ago. Guess how much of that knowledge I have had to use through the decades of my career. If I have missed anything in grammar classes, I have definitely had to make up for it through teaching.

Anyway, if I want to get first-degree appreciation, I get the chance to brush all those up, and fast. Time is not on my side.

On the other hand, now I’m allowed to teach kids of ages that I mostly never taught – those under 14. This is where I have no experience and methodological background, nor psychological leanings or instincts. I’m not the playful type. I’m rather the logical and culturally and otherwise interested type. But I can’t teach those who I’ve been teaching for 30 years and more-or-less successfully have been working with. In short, I can’t teach those and how I am able to teach and can teach those and how I’m not able to teach because I may not have been educated enough 34 years ago in facts that a teacher hardly ever uses while teaching, although I’ve read almost everything important published since my graduation, which I doubt very much that a lot of Dutch English teachers ever read. I find this a lovely contradiction, don’t you? But, of course, I’ll do my best if I get the chance.

Finally, a little bit about the supervising we may get during practice teaching from my own point of view. I got training for, and did supervising, or mentoring, or coaching for would-be teachers in Budapest for a decade. It may be interesting to become a ‘mentee’ once again, perhaps supervised by somebody younger and less experienced than I am. However, I definitely have less experience in classes in the Dutch system, so I have to try to look forward to hearing “but we here in the Netherlands …” a lot, possibly followed by remarks like ‘I’ve never hear about Murphy’, or ‘What is First Certificate Language Practice by Vince? I’ve never used anything like that’, and ‘Where can I get Inside Out or English Panorama?’ On the other hand, I’ll have to brace myself to translate the Dutch in the English language tests.

If I survive an interview successfully first. And that has to happen in Dutch, to a large extent. My new paper also stresses that it’s at the discretion of a school to decide how much knowledge of Dutch they require from an English teacher. A few years ago I would have guessed, as much as an American or English colleague was required to speak Hungarian, or Chinese, in Hungary, or in China respectively. Now I’m not so sure. I guess I should go back to Hungary, kick out all those ignorant Americans and take over their jobs. They would be better off if they came here and learnt some Dutch, then earned five times as much. Do I have a future like that here?

by P.S.

On goals, limits and neurology


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One thing I’d like to mention connects to how much freedom of choice a teacher should give to his/her students to make their learning more effective. I’ve seen a number of young teachers or tired older ones come into class asking the students, “what would you like to do today?” and the like. Occasionally, such offers may create wonders, but has the teacher ever thought about, let alone tried to verify, how much those students actually learned?

I’ve also seen teachers who go into class and start talking about what interesting things come into his/her minds, or asks the students whatever has happened to them since they last met or during the weekend and so on. All this is first intended to be an introduction, a warm-up, to let students quietly get into the mood of learning and activate their curiosity and involvement, but very often, these introductions take up most of the lessons, become a lecture by the teacher, or a series of anecdotes by anyone inside the room and don’t lead anywhere. The involvement and curiosity wanes after ten or fifteen minutes, and the teacher doesn’t realize it, because the faces still show interest. Out of politeness perhaps. But the class has already turned into a Chinese-style language class.

Some of my readers may still remember the four vultures in the wonderful “The Jungle Book” cartoon of a few decades ago. They’ve had flown into the burnt-out wilderness, landed on the skeleton of a tree and started considering, “Whaderwe gonna do?” “Ah dunno, whaderwe gonna do?” “Ah dunno …” which goes on for some time, clearly showing that they have no purpose any more. They obviously can’t do anything more. I consider this lack of focus a danger to a language class. If a teacher goes in and expresses indecision in his actions, the result is inevitably a lack of learning.

The same danger is similar when the teacher asks the students to “write a text about something.” This means limitlessness, which is also a lack of focus. Full freedom is not appropriate for school. We have to have goals, short-term, mid-term and long-term purposes for our students so that they have an idea where they are expected to be progressing.

Out in society, limitlessness, even in less severe cases, may lead to unruly gang activity like from events in Romeo’s Verona to ‘favelas’ in Rio, or slum disturbances in any ‘developed’ or less developed country. Let’s not imagine that school activities cannot end up like these. I’m convinced that it is the teacher’ task to train students to concentrate their energies when in school. In most cases I can identify with film examples of taking children off streets to learn even martial arts and the like. These imaginary examples are pedagogically sound. They put the role of pedagogy in a wider context, the context of society. Teachers may not be able to teach high science to everybody, but they can turn pupils from even the worst backgrounds into useful and contented players in the world, according to their own abilities.

My other topic today falls into the category of limits as well. I’ve read a debate about using the 5-paragraph academic essay in schools, many doubting its role on the basis that in real life there’s no such thing. I agree with this latter. But we have to be aware of other connections as well: school and classes are not exactly what in real life happens – they are meant to introduce it. A class lasts for 45 or 50 minutes, life begins afterwards. Children go home after school to their own lives and may start their own mental adventures. Teachers also have lives outside schools. If we don’t bear this in mind and give tasks to our students simply ‘to write an essay’, students may write three lines in three different paragraphs, or write five pages according to how interesting they’ve found the subject and how much they have to say. The first remains nonsense and useless in pedagogical terms, and doesn’t help the student to acquire any sense of structure and supporting ideas at all. The second becomes fluid, also unstructured and so unreadable. It also requires incomparably long time for the teacher to assess it, not to mention provide advice on improvement. It’s also the case when a teacher tells students to ‘talk about something’ in class, ‘which interests you’ implied, but most students’ minds simply stop at this asking. Wouldn’t yours? Remember the advantages and application of task-based learning.

This said, I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that in real life, imaginative writing also requires structure, support to ideas, a balanced flow of events and so on. A present-day English poet once told a group of interested teachers at a short course on using poetry that looking at poetic inspiration with awe is nonsense. Anyone can become a good poet through practicing doing it. Musical geniuses also go through the process. They assign ‘opus 1’ to their first composition which they think is worth it. But they do a lot of work before too, for practice. My advice is for the teacher to teach students to focus, and limit verbiage to manageable amounts both for student and corrector. Afterwards, in real life, if things went well in class, some of the students may develop to be writers.

StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students recei...

StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students receiving the cane, 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally for today, I’d like to mention that I’ve read a very good article and listened to a brilliant lecture embedded into it as a video on how the human brain processes information flowing towards and through it. The pedagogical implications that are described are enormous, as it is pointed out first of all that any information that represents danger, or is not appropriate to learning something new and important is blocked out automatically by certain parts of the brain dependent on its own state.

Apart from the fact that I’m glad I won’t see the day when scientists will be able to stimulate or manipulate the sequence of neurons necessary to program the brain, I’ve found this article and the video inside it very-very useful and interesting. I consider it a must-see for boring, bored or tired teachers who’ve already given up on certain students or on improving their work and impact. And for anyone going into class. The teacher-scientist speaking also means to say that the main way of learning may not be among the traditional four skills. Thinking, which some educators, including me, think is the fifth skill, is the key to acquiring all the other 4 skills, not vice verse. What she presents also quite contradicts the traditional learning-style categories (auditory, etc.), while introduces something different and much more efficient. Besides, it points to the shortcomings of the communicative method of language learning, exposing the weakness in that if somebody speaks, he/she also learns something. Much more learning can take place simply while the student is allowed to reflect, take notes, exchange a remark with someone, besides full discussions or writing essays. Of course, a well-though-out argument presented to peers may be the best.

The article and the video can be accessed here at Classroom Aid.

by P.S.

Trends in education and culture in Hungary


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If anyone reads my previous posts, they may wonder why I don’t live and work in Hungary, instead of criticizing some features of education in the Netherlands. Instead of pointing to economics too much, I’d like to point out two of the latest ‘developments’ in Hungary, whereby, however, I have to turn towards politics first I’m afraid.

All through the sixties, seventies and eighties of the previous century I had to witness the power of politics over the lives of masses and individuals. As an individual, I didn’t have to witness much, we (I and those I knew) didn’t stick our necks out, and so we could get by. Promises for a brighter future remained the basic tenet of everyday life, but ordinary people had quite rich means of culture in the form of all classic literature properly published (except a few that overly criticized socialism, but we didn’t get to know about them for a while), a rich theatrical, operatic and music life, and a relatively good system of higher education for those very few (1-2% of school-leavers) gifted or fortunate enough to pass the entrance tests. We sang praise to the power of the people and of the Soviet Union in schools, but we also sang our rich heritage of folk songs, all adults could get jobs, and the best artists annually received their rewards for their achievements in prestigious prizes.

All this changed little with the change of the political landscape in 1989, except that the prizes inflated along with the prices. The ruling elite also changed somewhat but the methods of ruling changed little, which led many to point fingers to new forms of the same politicians as before, then back, and so forth. The lives of ordinary people didn’t change much, except that universities opened up their gates to a huge influx of the new young generations without receiving suitably more financial means to cater for their further education. Some campuses had to move over because the old ones had to be given back to former owners, mostly one of the churches, but personnel didn’t get boosted in numbers or finances and had to make do in about the same size lecture halls as before. Still, numbers of students have swollen to about 35% of the annual school-leavers.

It goes without saying I’m afraid that the quality of services rendered both by universities and their graduates have declined. I see a number of good reasons to reducing the number of entrants myself, largely because their job prospects after graduation are anything but bright, what with the slowly further growing unemployment rate (also among the young) and the also slowly further inflating salaries for them if they get into a job, and because good skilled workers are disappearing in large numbers, not only with the disappearance of whole industries but also because of the declining numbers and quality of school-leavers from technical schools.

Enter the new, rightist government with a huge bang and 2/3 majority in 2010. Gone is the influence (and balance) of opposition, common sense, ideas and methods of democracy. All is substituted with new laws and a new Constitution that requires any change to them with a 2/3 majority in the future. Besides political, economic and financial question-marks over their policies and their dealings with European and world institutions, about which the world gets briefed from time to time, they’ve now turned their hands on cultural decisions.

Their new law on the media has received lots of criticism first, at home as well as from abroad. Then a few weeks ago, the conservative government decided to invest most power in acknowledging artistic merit in the country to MMA, the Hungarian Art Academy, and this fact has been entered into the law as well. It’s not simply this fact that may irritate anyone interested in Hungarian culture, but mostly the ideas behind this organization. Its very outspoken leader has rushed to clarify to all that art and artists not conforming to their conservative ideals centered on Hungarian-ness, artistic merit and political and religious requirements will not receive space, funding and acknowledgement in the county.

Remarkably, the first criticism from abroad is already in, from the Rat für die Künste, the association of arts and artists in Berlin, which issued a public letter voicing strong criticism in the matter, mentioning, among others, that the issue fits into the line of impoverishing all independent theatres, museums and artists in Hungary. An interesting by-product of the ensuing debate is that a critique tried to find out who the new leader of the MMA as an artist is and why he received prizes in the 1960’s and 70’s, but mainly found very new pieces by the person, Fekete György, on a level which he wrote would mean he should be expelled from his own Academy on account of lacking artistic merit. The article shows a few pictures of his work here (the text is in Hungarian).

The latest ‘development’ on the cultural front is that the new conservative government has decided a drastic cut in state funding for university students. Although I mentioned above that a reduction in the numbers of university students would be prudent, but full funding for 10 thousand entrants following year instead of 38 thousand this year is outrageous. Equally outrageous is to make it seem a logical step for reducing state deficit. Education in general has never been a priority in Hungary, and although the education sector is one of the large sectors of the service industry to be funded from state and local government coffers, its cost is simply a result of the large numbers of people necessary to work there. But if a government seeks to rule by force and not through the ideas of its citizens forwarding the cause of the country, education becomes an obstacle to governance. It was so during the socialist regime and it seems increasingly so under the new one, which looks back to the history and nationalism of the country instead of looking ahead towards solving challenges of the future saying that the future can only be solved by looking back to our history. This in a small country that has had very little independence and success in the last 500 years.

To translate some of this from national level to the level of the common people, we have to understand first that university education used to be free in Hungary during socialism. After the ‘changes’, the right to a free degree became the right to a first degree, that is, if someone followed two major courses, which was compulsory at arts and sciences faculties before, he/she had to pay for the second course and degree. This, obviously, has reduced the flexibility of the graduate on the job market compared to those with two degrees from the old system. Now comes the drastically increased financial burden to getting even the first along with the complete lack of funding for law and economics and a very law numbers funded in technical subjects, informatics and science subjects. Almost everyone who would like to follow these subjects in higher education, would have to pay full, or in a small number of cases, half price of the education.

To understand the financial side, gross salaries in the service sector, mostly for those working in education and health services for state-run institutions, vary somewhere between €6000 and €10000 per annum in a country whose nominal annual GDP is around €10000. Most teachers and health service providers get by on a monthly net income of around €4-500. The new reduction of state funding for university studies means that a student willing to study but not getting state funding has to pay between €650 and €1200 a semester, but to follow medicine, one has to pay nearly €4000 per semester. This further means that most families where parents work in the intellectual sphere will not be able to finance their children to follow similar studies to theirs. Student loans can be obtained, though, resulting indebtedness for half a life, because student work, paid even worse than others, is hardly a solution for the masses with the growing unemployment.

One interesting side to the matter is that those using full or partial state funding have to sign a contract forcing them to stay and work inside Hungary for a period double the time for their studies. Similarly to serfs in feudalism, bonded to their places. Looking back to our history indeed.

Another interesting, political, side to it is that current Prime Minister Orbán Viktor has always maintained that he won’t introduce tuition fees, he won’t allow people to be hindered in their future by the burden of having to pay for their education. The article, which quotes him at the end saying such thing over the years, can be read here – Google may translate it well enough for my readers to understand the main ideas there.

That such contradictions prevail, and such laws can be brought upon Hungary any day, I’ve suspected for a long time. It’s not a war-torn country, civilian unrest is not yet on the horizon, but I’d prefer to try to find a place for myself somewhere more humane, logical and calculable.

by P.S.

I’ve found a solution … sort of


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They’ve never told me about it, because they’ve never suspected it could be otherwise … I’ve never asked about it because I’ve never suspected it could be so …

But here it is. There is a possible solution to the problem of why an English teacher can’t get a job without talking superb Dutch. I’ve uncovered it through my efforts to get that elusive job, and voilá! The other day, I received a sample of the kinds of tests secondary pupils face while being tested at a VMBO-school. Here is the beginning:

Tekst 1

(1p) 1 Wat vindt Katie het engst aan de gebeurtenis die hieronder beschreven wordt?

A dat er mensen zijn die haar bang willen maken

B dat het horloge na een jaar opeens weer opduikt

C dat het kennelijk echt spookt in hun huis

D dat hun huis inbraakgevoelig blijkt te zijn

And then comes an English text to go with this item. The test goes on like this, and even when one of four choices needs to be supplied into gaps of another text, the last question is of the translation/interpretation kind:

7 Geef van elk van de volgende beweringen aan of deze juist of onjuist is op grond van de alinea’s 6 en 7. Omcirkel ‘juist’ of ‘onjuist’ in je uitwerkbijlage.

a Bij een half uur joggen verbruik je meer calorieën dan bij een half uur touwtjespringen.

b Bij touwtjespringen worden alleen de benen goed getraind.

c Touwtjespringen is volgens veel jonge mannen typisch iets voor meisjes.

d Sommige vechtsporters trainen ook door touwtje te springen.

Which means, of course, that not only do the students have to translate for themselves all the time (I’ve already written about the drawback thereof), but the teacher also has to understand and be able to explain why some answers are incorrect and others are correct.

On top of this, the final year of the lower-high and upper-high-school is a test-year, which means students are given test practice throughout the year. I can’t imagine how much drilling of grammar and translation goes on there because I’ve always worked on the principle that if the language is well-based and fluent and assured enough corresponding to the level of the applicant, the test won’t be a problem. If students converse and read and write freely on, let’s say, B2 level, passing a test on B2 level will also be easy for them with a minimum of test preparation, which I consider a very ineffective and time-consuming way of language development itself. It is necessary to give such practice for the sake of understanding what the testers want from them and how.

As far as I remember – which is more than 40 years ago, when I began to study English at grammar school – our books and tests were written by the Hungarian authors and our teacher in English. I’ve done state examination training, corrected university entrance tests and the like, but I’ve never seen a test given in the students’ mother tongue … well, perhaps there were a few in China, but as far as I remember what they showed me there, they were tests written in English. The student has to understand the task in English. This is simply a reading task, also measuring in itself the understanding of the target language, full-stop. I can imagine no reason why the Dutch have to make it extra complicated for their children by making them translate even if they have a chance of understanding it in English – and that’s the point of the test, isn’t it?

It makes me a bit more optimistic that others tell me students at the higher-level theoretical schools, like ‘gymnasium’ and the like, get tested by English-language tests. But I’ve also got insider information which suggests that that the level of English of even some HBO-groups are so shaky that students need Dutch-language instruction and testing.

My other discovery is connected to one school’s brochure, which states that

De docenten van de moderne vreemde talen van het … College hebben de afgelopen twee schooljaren gebruikt om de lessen, de toetsen en de schoolexamens aan te passen aan de kwaliteitseisen die aan het ERK zijn verbonden.

English: CEFR and ESOL examinations correspond...

English: CEFR and ESOL examinations correspondence diagram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which is to say that the school’s teachers of modern languages have been adjusting their classes, tests and examinations to the Common European Framework of Reference for the last two years. Which is to say … two years. The first draft of CEFR came out in 1997, although it is true that the Reference Supplement came out in 2009.

I have very big doubts about the application of the CEFR in the Netherlands. Although a Dutch committee prepared the Reading/Listening Grid, I doubt that the team-leader, J. Charles Alderson of Lancaster University would really have advocated the use of the mother tongue with these items, and because the committee had members from France, Germany and Finland, I don’t think they all used their mother tongues while formulating the common reference points. Saying this, I have to admit that I haven’t read CEFR and I’m not intending to in the short term, so I could also say, anything goes. But then, why do they have CEFR? And if they do, how could anyone not speaking Dutch solve such a test? Does this conform to CEFR?

English: Map of the Council of Europe members ...

English: Map of the Council of Europe members and other European countries with their population figures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My personal feeling is that most of the earlier tests were not re-written in the Netherlands, although some texts are said to be from sources around 2009. Also, this is how they’ve been making tests for as long as they remember … And see, even the Council of Europe deems Dutch test-makers to be worthy of preparing a large chunk, so it must be alright. Nobody thought it could be otherwise, as I pointed out above. Also, two years is not a long period, they may be waiting for what’s happening in the longer term.

In the Netherlands, testing is in the hands of the highly-regarded CITO, the Central Testing Agency, and they don’t expect any primary pupils to understand tasks in English or other respective languages, so all their all-important final exams for primary education have Dutch instructions for foreign languages. So that’s what teachers have to prepare their students for, obviously in Dutch. By extension, logic dictates that, if test solutions have to be discussed in Dutch, teachers have to explain grammar and other stuff in Dutch during preparation to tests, so the language of instruction is also Dutch. And if the system doesn’t change for secondary levels, nobody is going to complain there, right?

For me, though, Dutch foreign language education does not seem a jot better than its Chinese counterpart, as long as I can’t see it from inside. What makes the two systems very different in terms of efficiency is the social and economic system surrounding them in general, and the outside-school possibilities for learning in particular.

Some professional opinion points towards change, though, saying that in the very last few years there seems to have begun some tendency to implement target-language instruction in language classes. I dearly hope that the ‘Age of Latin’ is on the wane here too, at long last, and I may ride a wave of target-language instruction to my first teaching job in the country. Touch wood …

by P.S.

Make mistakes … ?


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My thoughts have been a bit stirred up after reading a little bit more than usual of colleague opinion and political opinion on teachers’ learning processes of teaching behaviour, on language learners making errors and on how to deal with the latter. The following article here is a very good description of most people’s opinion:

What I find outstanding is that almost everybody praises making mistakes. As to me, I can go along with Anton’s and others’ view that we may learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. The logic is actually based on our inner monitoring system that praises us for our successes, which may often have no lasting effect other than magnifying our ego, but if not that bad, at least lets us fairly swiftly forget about what was actually successful. Let me see the next … On the other hand, for most people, especially with self-monitoring types of teachers, partial or larger failures don’t leave us alone, keep our minds working on our memories of what may have caused the problems, and even keep us awake for some nights. Man is basically a problem-solving creature, we could say.

As a result, we go on experimenting and adjusting. But it usually happens on the basis of justified knowledge and on our previously successful practices. We very rarely change our whole way of teaching for the sake of change. We usually do it gradually, and according to plans, rarely on that basis of on-the-spot decisions even when we feel something’s gone wrong in class. It’s also only our consciousness that realizes the problem, not that of the students, at least for a while. It’s the normal way of professional development to reflect and then change.

We mustn’t forget, however, that a teacher occasionally making mistakes while experimenting is still a teacher, he/she has worked for years successfully to become a teacher, and then as a teacher. His and her ego is not going to be hurt for long and he or she has the expertise and knowledge to find a way or two to get around similar problems the following time. But what about students?

A totally different story, we should realize. Even if feeling the strength of being in a group, sometimes or often against the teacher as the case may be, they are still fragile, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, faced with the group, with the teacher, with groups in the street and with their own families, while they can’t rely on  a history of successes at whatever they also make mistakes of. In most cases, they make a facade of strength to cover their insecurities, in certain cultures to a greater extent than in others, but they do. This should be one basis of our handling the mistakes they make, be it social or linguistic mistakes.

The other basis is the linguistic effect of our corrections. Linguists maintain that making mistakes is not only natural, but it’s also beneficial to the students’ development of the target language, and it will be solved all by itself in time anyway. I may agree, but perhaps only to differ.

The benefits of making mistakes can be justified to some extent if we consider the students’ good feelings while they play with, fool around with the language freely. For a while. But how long? When we want them, because we have to make them, to use the real kind of foreign language, how can we explain why and why then, not later, and not before? A solution to this could be if we could devise parts of later classes as well when they are allowed to fool with the language. If only it were so easy! But, granted, playing games with the language is important for learners.

Then there’s the question of mistakes disappearing all by themselves with time. Yes, if the student has a long enough time, and a lot of casual input, they may. Over a decade or two, as it happens with lots of Dutch people. But school takes shorter, results must be achieved, or the final exam result will be less outstanding than what all concerned desired for. True, there was little pain at school, but also little achievement.

Which is alright for a lot of kids, but look, if that’s the way everybody looks at it, students, left on their own wishes to be corrected, would achieve just as little in Maths or History, Physics or Biology as in English. We wouldn’t like to argue against the notion of guidance, would we?

But guidance as far as foreign languages (or music and art, for that matter) are concerned is involved in a lot more than giving the knowledge of the teacher over to the students, explaining and then after a while giving them tests. The development and then results at “tests”, if that’s the desired end-result, is based on doing a lot of small things all the way from saying the first strange sound and word, through simple repetition of basic sentences, listening, reading aloud, making up or writing their own sentences and texts to real communication and thinking in the strange, new language that they don’t use in their lives for a while. The Dutch may also be exceptions as they watch English TV, and also those with time and enough money and the addiction who play games in English. But if even the latter type only meets language patterns used by other freak users of English, their language wouldn’t ever evolve to resemble the English language used by natives and well-educated professionals all over the world. Besides, other languages don’t have these added benefits, so the problem of correction and other teaching methods is still there, and I myself would not consider it professional behaviour to simply let my students talk whatever way they prefer.

With this last statement, I declared already, in the face of all opposition, that I’m in favour of correcting mistakes. The question is rather how and when, than whether, as I see it.

Taking the first basis discussed above, that of considering students’ fragility, I argue for soft correction approaches. I’ve seen many a student with good abilities and intentions not able to get over their weaknesses and mistakes after lots of years, in one case after nine years, simply because of the rarity of exposition to the language and to correction. People can be understood and can communicate quite well in a freak language, if that’s all they want to achieve with priorities elsewhere in life. But for real good language use, they must be corrected in school.

The soft approach means that not all mistakes deserve immediate attention. Lots of methodology books deal with how we can make a list during lessons of some of the mistakes made by the students and then we can tell them about the problems. My problem is, though, that if I start taking notes during the lesson and then later look at the notes and begin to quote their mistakes and faults, they will surely know next time when I start taking notes that they’ve made mistakes. It’s like political tricks – people and students are not stupid, even if sometimes mislead.

I like instead to make different small signs when the mistakes happen and quietly let them quickly understand that they’ve made a mistake and perhaps let them time to correct themselves. There’s also a lot in the literature about this. What I consider important is that during valuable communication in class I don’t frequently stop students to correct small faults. Communication being the ultimate goal for me, it is valued high above any problems with the language. On the other hand, if misunderstandings ensue, I must remember perhaps a chain of mistakes that led there, and I must be ready to help, which the context usually helps a lot anyway. If there have been a few smaller problems, I may quote a few by heart and we may discuss them.

Usually, if there’s a major language issue at the basis of the class and the discussion, I only concentrate on mistakes related to that. But in such cases the discussion must usually be preceded and supported by some directed, more structured task to practice the language item in focus, so not a lot of correction is necessary later, which makes it easier. But correction is feedback, a sign of developing in the right direction, so it must be given. In this respect, learning a language is different from other school subjects in that a mistake doesn’t lead the student, without being monitored, all by herself, to a realization of it – a mistake has no consequence in itself for the student because he/she usually can’t find out about what’s wrong and what’s correct on his/her own. In this respect, language learning is not the perfect way of self-experimenting with the world for the upbringing of geniuses. Only the teacher can draw the attention to the fault, reality has no other way to make its way.

After introducing new language, the ride gets tougher with group work, if the teacher employs that at all. Of course, some don’t risk group work, because he/she himself/herself feels insecure, not being able to be in charge of several groups at the same time. I admit that it’s daunting to follow a dozen students talking perhaps at the same time in groups of three or four (I don’t often find it beneficial to assign discussion tasks to larger groups unless the nature of the task demands so, because the smaller the group, the more chance everyone has to express themselves, leading to invaluable STT – student talking time). But I can assure you that with practice, most teachers can get used to identifying so many different voices in their classes, like a conductor can identify dozens of various instruments in the orchestra, sometimes each musician playing the same instrument. It takes time and practice. For me, it goes without saying that correction of mistakes during group-work is not only next to impossible, but it’s also unnecessary. The aim of group-work is fluency, remember, not accuracy, and some of us feel insecure with that in small groups. But it is a very important phase of language development. We will surely experience an enhanced wish on the part of the students to speak the language and a more relaxed atmosphere after group work, which is usually necessarily followed by class discussion, if for nothing else, at least for a summary of points collected in groups. Students will feel brave enough in that phase after well-prepared and well-performed group-work. Task-based learning is one major such system which utilizes group-work followed by class discussions, the ultimate variety being, as far as I’m concerned, the so-called ‘balloon debate’, but I’ve also created mock-political discussions as well, which led to several hours of great, meaningful and enjoyable language use.

During whole-class work, I’m sure that direct and ad hoc correction and practice of mistaken language is not a very good way of dealing with problems, except at the initial stage of presenting a new kind of language feature. Too strong criticism and correction from teachers may draw various reactions depending on the personality and the situation of the student. Some may react by closing in, and then our correction is lost on her/him. Some may react violently, provoking arguments and disrupting work. We don’t want that. Of course there may be some who take even strong correction well. The variation is endless. But I don’t jump on the opportunity to correct also because most students are vulnerable and ready to counter-attack, perhaps after class, when we don’t hear them. They feel urged to defend their pride in front of peers at the cost of the authority. I agree that they often don’t have other means of defense. So why stimulate this behaviour? If, on the other hand, they don’t feel attacked and thus intimidated by the authority, everybody has a good chance of escaping unscathed, and then the correction of the mistake can really build into the language system of the student as correct language use. And this is the aim, isn’t it?

by P.S.

Answers to our applications – take heart, or give up?


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When in the Netherlands, judging from the answers that I’ve been receiving, one can’t really stay optimistic for very long. You can imagine the pile of refusals I’ve got in my mail-box, or on my desk (oh yes, there were still a few institutions about two years ago that sent you a real letter even on refusal).

When you get the hundredth or so refusal, you are justified to ask yourself what to do now. To understand the situation, lets have a look at what kinds of answers you can expect. First of all, you get messages that simply state that you haven’t been selected for further procedure. There’s nothing you can do about and with such answers, but they are the vast majority, though, granted, nobody really forgets to wish you good luck to your further applications.

Then you get a few replies that say that you don’t suit their profile. When I first received such an answer, I started to think that perhaps they want someone who’s written more than just one course-book, published more than one other kind of book, has a PhD in Education while he/she is only below 40, has presented dozens of times at international forums (which they surely haven’t even taken part of, as I mentioned elsewhere), and of course lives in the neighbourhood so that the institution doesn’t have to pay transportation costs. But this is not China, is it? Except that in China they’d provide a car with a chauffeur to pick you up if you otherwise suit the above criteria.

Then, suddenly, came a ‘brief’ – it means a letter in Dutch, and yes, it was quite brief, but yet it stated that as I have never taught in a Dutch school, they can’t accept my application. Oh, yeah, I thought, just like my grandma decades ago, when I wanted to climb a tree for the first time in my short, then ten-year-long life, “little kid, don’t try, you’ve never climbed a tree”. So childish! As I then answered, “But how can I ever climb if I can’t try for lack of trying,” I also wanted to answer that, for once, I’d like to do it and prove that a language class is a language class wherever we teach and what is different, even a Dutch teacher freshly out of university has to first try to find out about. Oh, how green was I! Now I know that they can’t get out of university without at least a year of practice teaching.

Still, this answer reminds me of the bondage of serfs in feudalism. Or of bonding Chinese people to their own region in the communist era of yore, which still exists in some areas. Stay where you are, don’t try anything new.

Then came a few other replies giving answers that are a bit different. One from a little town (or village) between here and the German border, really almost at the end of the world says that, due to the great number of applicants, they’ve found better ones, so I’m not among them. Yes, there are so many good ones here, you bet there are! I’ve just received yet another similar one from near Utrecht that informs me that they’ve considered all aspects of the applications, but due to the great number of applicants, I’m not among those invited for an interview. I’m beginning to think that, although the Netherlands has the third lowest unemployment ratio in Europe, there still are dozens of unemployed teachers in most areas, perhaps most villages, of this country. Or there are reasons completely beyond me.

I’ve also recently been rejected by a school where even my job-coach thought I have a good chance. Well, for a vacancy in Tilburg, the sixth city in the country there were three applicants, including me, yet I wasn’t given the opportunity. On the one hand, this number makes it highly likely that the refusals I’ve been receiving with the reason that there were too many applicants were simply lies. On the other, I’ve been given the reason, not for the first time either, that I haven’t worked at such a type of school, VMBO, in the country. Very true. Not in this country. Only in Hungary. In this case, see my remark about feudalism above.

On the other hand, I may think that the serf-like feudal attitude may also be present in the Netherlands on the whole. If someone has come out of the university with a practice period spent in, say, a gymnasium, he/she won’t be deemed suitable for a job at VMBO’s, and this works quite the same way with other types as well. A language class in one is not perceived similar to a language class in another one, though the age of students is the same. Are students in some schools so terribly different from decent students in others that no teacher who’s never worked in such circumstances may be able to cope, although he/she has a long experience elsewhere? Only a beginner can get used to such circumstances? Do we all get so rigid and unadaptable a few years after initiation? I’ve never thought so back in the other countries. We are aware of the logic of the language, of the learning processes of the age-group, and there we go, thought I. No, not here.

One big problem with this attitude is the feudal and childish thinking behind it, referred to above. The other is that it seems to underline the opinion of so many pig-headed youngsters, wherever, who think that a teacher considerably older than they themselves must already be senile, inflexible, unadaptable, rigid – to me implying that they see themselves as such in 10 or 20 years down the line, but, admirably, this seems to be the ingrained opinion of this school system too.

So now what? Does it make a difference if I fight for an acceptance of my old degree from back Hungary? I have doubts, considering the above. But then again, I’ve never been allowed to add to my CV that I’ve received such an acceptance, or that I’ve done practice teaching here in this Dutch school, or like that. I may still entertain the hope that such an experience may make a difference.

On the other hand, it may not. If I simply listen to the voice of the rejections and some political opinions, I may also conclude that this country, one of the founders of Western Europe as an entity back in the 50’s and a staunch member of the EU and the Euro-zone, quietly goes against the very rules they helped created, and more and more resists the influx, formerly seen as beneficial, of foreign knowledge. I may deem it institutional, as I’ve described it in my previous post, but it may simply happen in the heads of ordinary people, or ordinary school staff, for that matter. Even I, never mind a Dutch employer, may not see a reason why I may be chosen against a local teacher as long as there is one. True enough, I may want to create a kind of small revolution wherever I go, by using material out of the English-speaking source countries, bringing in the ‘lexical approach’, the ‘communicative method’, ‘cultural approaches’, or whatever I find as new and interesting, and this may go against the influence of local publishers. But, c’mon, is that so important for the individual schools? Do they get price exemptions if they apply local books?

What advice may I offer to Eastern-Europeans? Seeing the difficulties, they may find it a lot better to stay at home and fight for appreciation in their own land. This one may be a country which has dug itself into the trenches of its own successes and talents – like the old Hungarian vine-producer, who maintains that his method worked with his father, grandfather, with generations back to hundreds of years, so it must still work for him. Never mind that you can’t make ends meet in your fatherland – this is not your fatherland, so you won’t make it here either. This is only a part of unified Europe. Or so it seems.

by P.S.

Dutch teacher education – institutional shortsightedness?


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It has just happened. Just the way I suspected. But it wasn’t a self-fulfilling prediction. It had to happen on the basis of the laws of the land. I knew it.

My father used to say in the old ‘communist’ era that laws are worth as much as they are upheld. But what about bad laws? Or about flexibility often demanded by life?

What happened was the following. As I have been an English teacher all my professional life, which is to say over thirty years, I have tried to get an official permission to teach here as well. I got my degree, along with a degree in Geography, 33 years ago, which means that I haven’t been able to teach during the three years I’ve been in the Netherlands. I let out some steam, did some other things, and then looked for a job. In vain, as those reading my first post will already have known.

I have always taught students in secondary schools in Hungary, then sometimes above, trained trainee teachers for nine of those years, for which I received additional training, and I did all these a little bit more in China too. I tried teaching young kids too, but I felt I wasn’t really cut out for that. During my training years, I also visited a few primary classes, and then I knew more exactly why I wasn’t. In short, it’s a different psychological and intellectual world. The teacher should behave and do things quite differently as a result with kids below 14.

A few weeks ago I applied for the acceptance of my degree in the Netherlands. Fair enough, they didn’t take very long to answer. The only problem is that they let me know I can’t get the same kind of acceptance as back in Hungary. Just as I had supposed.

To make it understandable what the possibilities are, let me explain. In the Netherlands, a secondary teacher can have ‘erste graads’, that is ‘first-degree’, or ‘twede graads’, that is ‘second-degree’ level qualification (or competence, depending on how you like to translate). In the reality of secondary education, this means that the second group of teachers can teach the lower intermediate classes between the ages of 12 and 16, the first-level qualification holders can teach the upper intermediate classes, from age 16 and above. A holder of this qualification can also teach in some classes of higher education, though not at universities.

The answer I was given states that because I received university education not only in English but also in Geography during the same five-year period, I can’t have received the same depth of training as Dutch students with only one degree, that in English, receive. I can either re-apply for a second-degree acceptance, or I can ask for an additional ‘stage’, that is, training, if I still want a first-degree qualification. Fair enough, one could say, and that’s what I’d half-heartedly expected too. Though I had also hope for something better. In a way I got something a bit better with this offer of an additional training period. But I still have my strong reservations.

My first reservation is that no education below the 850 hours received count towards qualification. On paper, my 120-hour teacher-training course and 100-hour CELTA training is nothing here. Never mind that with the latter I could teach English to adults and young adults anywhere in the world. Never mind that I was able to use the first for nine years to train university students who wanted to get a teaching qualification. These count nothing in the eye of the law, all I could do is to go back to a school and get training as if I were my own trainee. It sounds ridiculous.

My second reservation is that by sticking to the word of the law, my experience of 30 years is neglected and negated. I count as if I was still sitting at university and haven’t finished. I am worth as much as I was around 35 years ago, except that I’ve become that much older.

Third, I could qualify, if I wanted, as a second-degree holder. In Hungarian terms, I count as if I had only studied those two subjects at a teacher-training college for three years, as all primary teachers did and still do in Hungary. It doesn’t make a difference that all university students received enough education to enable them to teach at and sometimes above secondary level. Back in the old days, all university students were only allowed to study two subjects, for the sake of their more flexible practical value, and there was no education above that level.

Next, it seems as if all those studies of the English and American literature, syntax, phonetics and the like were also for nothing. Or as if a Dutch second-degree-holder also gets that much and besides, uses literature for 12-year-olds. My guess is that the real difference is in the methodological preparation and that first-degree-holders are the only ones required to do what I did. As for methodology, no preparation is better than long-term practice, which, in my case, is neglected. Also neglected is the fact that I’ve never received proper methodological preparation for young students, yet I could get a second-degree licence to teach them if I wanted. But if I do, say, a half-year practice, I may get enough preparation to be declared a first-degree teacher. Which counts more: half a year of undergoing mentoring the way I did to others, or 30 years of doing teaching and 9 years of mentoring?

I think, after all, that the most important difference between the teachers who are considered first-level and second-level teachers is that the latter should be trained to do what helps young teenagers, and first-level teachers should be trained and equipped to do what suits older teenagers. There is a world of difference between a 12-year-old’s needs and interests and those of a 16-year-old, and the ability and skills to accommodate and adjust to them can only be acquired through practice, not by attending more or fewer classes at university. The latter fast becomes irrelevant. I think I must insert a quote I already used in one of my earlier posts, but this one, out of a Guardian article, is most highly relevant here:

In recent years a very dangerous idea seems to have been accepted by the decision-makers around the education system that the best teachers are the best qualified teachers, leading to a sliding scale of funding that financially disadvantages those without high-class degrees from the classroom. The reality is very different. A good teacher has to be an exceptional communicator, with patience, common sense, focus, more than a little belligerence and vast reserves of tolerance and empathy. Many prospective teachers simply do not possess these qualities and yet are accepted on to teacher training and even passed despite every indication that they do not have what it takes. The most fantastic academic background cannot make up for a lack of these qualities, but a great communicator with a third-class degree has far more than the necessary knowledge to inspire a class of teenagers.

To neglect these points is what seriously counts as shortsightedness. Cling to the letter of the law and neglect the person with experience. Is this Eastern-Europe after all?

However, it must be said to all people with an older degree from Hungary, and very possibly to all those of my friends and acquaintances from Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Serbia, or Croatia who have been doing a great job in their respective countries, that if they would like to come to the Netherlands to try teaching, they will have to undergo the same procedure. Rules are rules, we have to obey them if we want to make a living in the West. Equal opportunity may reach the younger generations, those masses who I trained too, but not those few who received their degrees in times when only a few were able and allowed to. Hours of education received counts, hours of education provided since then does not. We are equal in the EU, but still, there are some who are more equal …

by P.S.


Discoveries and advice about finding a teaching job in the Netherlands


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As I already dropped a hint in my first post, it is important for someone with a foreign degree to ask his degree to be nationalized by the authorities of the “Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap”. It can be done through the DUO-group, or through NUFIC. Their web-sites can be found under these names, they describe the necessary procedure and requirements. It takes about six weeks to get your diploma/degree to get what they call ‘erkenning’, or ‘waardering’, after which one can go about job-hunting. For those who are looking for such appreciation of their CELTA, or similar diplomas, I have to add here that Dutch law states that no course counts for ‘diploma waardering’ which involved fewer than 800 teaching hours. The Dutch word ‘diploma’ is equivalent to the English ‘degree’, as MA or above, but CELTA is not one, the English word ‘diploma’ is not equivalent to anything much in the Netherlands in this respect, in spite of what some dictionaries say.

While I’m waiting for DUO to answer my request, I haven’t stopped trying to collect information and submitting applications. In this post, I’d like to describe what I’ve found out in the meantime.

Language Learners and Gaming - IATEFL

Language Learners and Gaming – IATEFL (Photo credit: blogefl)

First of all, though I’ve earlier written that I’ve never met a Dutch at international events, I have to admit that I’ve discovered the presence of an IATEFL-associate at the annual IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference this year. I mean, the presence of ONE person. Smaller countries like Hungary, or Slovakia, regularly send five-six members.

The other thing I’ve found about Dutch presence at IATEFL is that the Dutch organization as partner to this international organization is called ‘Levende Talen’, which, true to its name ‘modern languages’ in English, has 14 modern language sections. This means that the Dutch organization associated internationally has little to do with English, it is only the English section of it which is really associated. Accordingly, their web-site is written in Dutch almost without exception (the exception being a part of the small Italian section-page), and so is the ‘Newsbrief’ of the English section. Unheard of with IATEFL-Hungary, though their web-site content is still relatively weak and under construction, very possibly because of under-funding.

As to finding a job in the Netherlands, it is most advisable to sign up – for free – with some of the national search-engines, which collect a huge number of vacancies daily from throughout the country. Such are, for example, JobrapidoWerkgever-vacatures,  Jobbird, Meesterbaan, TrovitMatafoor personeelsbankCareerbuilderUnique, Banenmatch, StudentZonderBijbaan (obviously, mostly for students, so here you can find possibilities for ‘stage’), or FunktieMediair. Some of such search-engines are general kinds, but most have a separate search field for jobs in education. You can also join the international site Skillpages, where you can advertise yourself as having special skills, like languages.

One piece of advice after you start receiving information from one or some other of the above search-engines: when you look at the vacancies contained in the ad, it’s worth opening even those that do not look suitable for your, for example for geographical reasons. I have repeatedly received ads saying in their titles that they concerned a vacancy in, say, Utrecht, but in reality, the job was offered in Tilburg, or Lelystad, or the like. It has also already repeatedly happened with a particular search-engine that a vacancy was said to be for Hungarian speakers in the Netherlands, while inside the text it was revealed that it was intended for German speakers in, say, Brno in the Czech republic. Another company always advertises with a time-frame of 20 to 36 hours per week given on the side-bar, but for a while the applicant is continuously perplexed to find that every second one of their ads is for “0.2fte”, which means 20% salary and workload of a full-time job, which means about 4 or 5 contact hours a week. After a while the unhappy job-seeker comes to understand that this search-engine almost never adjusts its settings to the differences inside its advertisements, so you either open up each and every one of them, or give up bothering about any.

While most schools advertise their own vacancies in the major national newspapers during the main period for job-hunting for the following year, they advertise throughout the year in their region, mostly through their school-groups, or community of schools, like Eudelta, in the delta region in Zuid-Holland and Zeeland, Plana, around Arnhem and Nijmegen in Gelderland, or VIA-scholen for Christian schools in the ‘Bible-belt’ between Gelderland and Utrecht. Besides this, they often outsource most of the selection procedure to headhunter firms, or ‘uitzendbureaus’, which are the most important channels for finding jobs in other sectors of the economy, but not so usual in education. One can find dozens of such ‘uitzendbureaus’ in the centres of all towns and villages, but those for education I’ve found work almost exclusively through on-line search-engines, so one should know about them, like http://www.upointonline.nl/, http://www.intermediair.nl/, http://www.flexibilityonderwijs.nl/, http://fairflex.carerix.net/, or http://www.match4onderwijs.nl.

As I’ve had the good luck to find out, personnel at ‘uitzendbureaus’ care a lot more about the applicant than school personnel. While most advertisements contain constraints that would scare away most applicants, like “if you are experienced in final exam training in VMBO, you’re welcome to apply”, or “we expect applicants who have a distinct affinity to HAVO/MAVO/MBO students” and the like, ‘uitzendbureaus’ have a lot more information about the school’s requirements. They then call each applicant personally and try to understand the strength of applicants while also informing them about all the advantages and drawbacks of the job on offer. Very possibly, they work on the axiom that no perfect match at a given point in time is likely. But they work hard on getting the nearest possible match for their money.

Foreigners with a degree can also approach a school or a university and choose a place where they may get a ‘stage’ (/sta:ʒɘ/, as I’ve already mentioned earlier). This means they may have to work a year full-time, or for several years part-time, but without a salary, while on the other hand they receive experience in the school-type and may have their degrees validated much more easily, but definitely can get a job much more easily than those without having done so. This path is best for those women of the younger generation who have Dutch partners to take care of their daily victuals and other supply. Those having to fend for themselves better be equipped with strong financial reserves and a good measure of optimism. Yet again, this latter kind may be willing to pay several thousands of Euros per year for obtaining a Dutch university degree (‘diploma’ here) after a few years, but they would go to ‘stage’ towards the end anyway.

Whichever way one is willing or able to choose, the need to speak ‘good enough’ Dutch is an unavoidable first requirement. It’s a bit difficult to define ‘good enough’, but judging from my peers at the Dutch course, I suspect that if one speaks very fast, understands everything a native speaker or anyone else throws at him/her, and has a strong foreign accent, his/her mistakes are shrouded up enough to pass as ‘good enough’, which means that fast thinking without translation rules. Quite the opposite of the methods I suspect foreign language teaching employs.

If someone’s Dutch is on a low level, somebody suggested the other day that he/she should not lose heart either. Nowadays, nearly half of school children are not Dutch and do not speak Dutch well either, so they may be a lot better off at an English lesson with a teacher who is only willing to speak English. Older types of teachers may be put out by such a proposition here, but if one gets through such a barrier, they may succeed with flying colours.

English: White Pine Montessori School in Mosco...

English: White Pine Montessori School in Moscow, Idaho, USA; from Wikipedia

A few things to know about while applying. It goes almost without saying that you have to tailor your cover letter to the needs of the school, however strange it may seem when, for example, they ask for somebody who can work and make decisions on his/her own and is an outstanding team worker, or for somebody who is experienced in drama and also in testing – this latter leaving one wonder what kind of teaching philosophy is at the heart of the school’s culture after all. It is also quite unimaginable to get a job at a Dalton-, or Montessori-school, not because we aren’t used to applying their pedagogy, or something very much like it, but because we can so rarely point to experience working in such schools outside the Netherlands, where they feature much more often than in other countries.

Writing our cover letters and CV’s, we also have to be aware that, although seemingly excellent speakers of English, most educators themselves rarely understand abbreviations from abroad. The Dutch use a shocking amount of abbreviations in their daily and professional lives as well, but English teachers have no idea what the BC, IH or CELTA means. It may be due to the isolation of the profession from mainstream English teaching trends and communities as I suggested in an earlier post. It seems imperative that we give the full versions of all abbreviations we may employ in our application. To illustrate this need, let me tell you about a very funny experience I had a couple of years ago. I was interviewed at a local private teaching institution, where I also pointed out that for me it is no problem to teach adults because I have CELTA, a qualification from the University of Cambridge for teaching adults. I was asked to give a lesson to a pair of teenagers from abroad who had until then failed to pass their English exams but would sit for a re-take the following day. Besides being criticized for not dealing with their otherwise somehow excellent pieces of homework and not giving them more test items (off the top of my head) but trying to communicate with them and covering several key grammar issues in the process that they still seemed to find difficult, I was told by the boss of the school that his colleagues also have all kinds of English diplomas from the University of Greenwich and the like, so I’m no speciality. Not that said university doesn’t exist, very much to the contrary, but it was glaringly obvious that he had no idea what he was talking about – he only remembered a famous name from Britain that sounded similar to the name I mentioned, which he might have found less known. Perhaps this was the basis for his failure to send me my meagre fee for the lesson as he had promised. To be fair to the Dutch, this guy seemed to be of Turkish origin by his looks and name. In all fairness, it’s shameful to have such an ignorant face in charge of any teaching institution in this country. Whatever their shortcomings, people here deserve better.

by P.S.

Interesting features of education – Part 3: teacher training in Hungary


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When I moved ‘up’ to Budapest, as we say, I never thought this move would send me in so many directions, and make it possible for me to live in several countries around the world. At the time, i was a successful teacher in a rural town and never imagined travelling would be possible: the socialist system didn’t let us travel to the West except on a very tight budget every third year. I had only been to Britain once, but the following year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and opened up opportunities in professional development and elsewhere too.

I soon found myself on a course organized by the newly set-up department of the university, the Centre for English Teacher Training, or CETT and graduated as a certified teacher trainer. It was unique at the time, not only because I came off the first such course ever, but because all teacher training at the time took place at designated ‘training schools’ affiliated to the universities. That system is still in place for all subjects, so let me point out that the normal procedure for training takes place at those institutions within a semester during the last year of studies. it consists of twenty hours of visits and teaching by the university students, so in the Dutch sense of the word, it counts anything but ‘stage’. Discussions and reflexion sessions are done, but the depth and extent of it all is rather limited, and the teachers training the students there are designated to do so on account of their reputation as outstanding teachers, not because they are fully qualified in directing reflexion sessions. The system had a confidence that all getting through this stage and all the trainers do and will do a great job.

While I was doing the training course, I met a completely different system of thinking, and the most important message was that our job was not to show the trainees how to teach English, but to make them develop to their full potential as teachers without criticizing them. This is a unique feature in Hungarian education at large, which I kept myself to all through the years while I did this kind of work.

This mentor training course we are offering was developed by Caroline Bodoczky and Angi Malderez. The course material was published by Cambridge University Press titled Mentor Courses and it was the Winner of the 1999 Ben Warren Trust Award for ELT Methodology books.

(quote from the web-site of IATEFL-Hungary)

The outstanding feature of this system was that training was intensive and fully immersive. Trainees were asked to go to the school, which was not necessarily a training institution, several days a week and hold lessons for one class of students all throughout the year in pairs. These pairs were fully responsible for their teaching and evaluation and all aspects of their work, were allowed to make their own decisions, but were supervised by the trainer. Every teaching our was discussed, disseminated, evaluated in detail. Self-reflection was the order of the day. Trust was the basis for it all to work well, and it did. Even those trainees that didn’t really want to go into teaching afterwards, did their best.

Unfortunately, the system existed only for about a decade and only in Budapest (though this means a very sizable part of newly initiated students in the country), and then it was scraped by new laws. Training time was cut to half, most of staff at CETT was made redundant, and this for most meant a huge step back towards the usual, much less effective format. I did this for one more year and then left.

The old, semester-based format is the only teacher-training existing in Hungary now, except that with English, the format is filled by the same fully-responsible trainees coached by colleagues trained with me or a little later. I’m happy to see that IATEFL-Hungary is organizing a mentor training course next year, which may attract a few young teachers again to the trainer/mentor profession and will be able to train their trainee students at their local schools for at least a semester. Elsewhere, it’s twenty hours watching and doing it, counted together. With this, we are back to the old days of mostly academic training coupled in the last few months with a little look into how teaching is done. Let me quote one of the articles from The Guardian (to be found below among the articles), which clearly states the most important qualities of good teachers versus academic knowledge:

In recent years a very dangerous idea seems to have been accepted by the decision-makers around the education system that the best teachers are the best qualified teachers, leading to a sliding scale of funding that financially disadvantages those without high-class degrees from the classroom. The reality is very different. A good teacher has to be an exceptional communicator, with patience, common sense, focus, more than a little belligerence and vast reserves of tolerance and empathy. Many prospective teachers simply do not possess these qualities and yet are accepted on to teacher training and even passed despite every indication that they do not have what it takes. The most fantastic academic background cannot make up for a lack of these qualities, but a great communicator with a third-class degree has far more than the necessary knowledge to inspire a class of teenagers.

The only positive side of English teaching in Hungary is that this is the section in education whose members stick relatively strongly together, hold meetings, annual conferences, training courses among themselves, it’s all dynamic. The teaching philosophy seems to be relatively level, teachers trying to use modern, communicative methods, building on students’ interests and abilities. However, the aim is the same for all: put students through exams at the end. And that doesn’t make it easier at all.

by P.S.

Interesting features of education – Part 2: teacher training in the Netherlands


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I was recently lucky to meet someone who explained the ways of becoming a language teacher in the Netherlands.

The different levels of education in the Nethe...

The different levels of education in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As it happens around the world, teaching a language starts by following university courses. In the Dutch system, universities constitute the WO section of education, which stands for ‘Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs’. Those who wish to become teachers, have to do practice teaching as well as following university courses during the last two years of their studies. This is called ‘stage’, pronounced, unlike pronunciation of the English word of the same lettering, as /’sta:ʒǝ/. In general, teaching practice takes several days a week over a year, when the student visits and later conducts lessons in several hours a day, followed by ‘reflexion’, that is, discussion of what has happened, what went well and what didn’t, and what could change another time. There is also opportunity follow university studies part-time, in which case practice lengthens a couple of years and course-work formats are changed somewhat.

In theory, this system looks very good because it gives over a hundred hours of practice for the development of the trainee to become a full-blown teacher. However, as a former teacher trainer confided to me, the quality of trainees is often quite low, while trainers often neglect their trainees, cutting down on the reflexion stage, sometimes to a quarter hour per week, sometimes to nothing. In this case the whole idea of development through discussion, reflection and self-reflection suffers a deadly blow, as it happens to a friend of mine also on ‘stage’. Her practice turns out to be a full-time job without being paid. It looks like employment-lead training in Britain, except that there she would be paid a salary.

Teaching practice takes place at schools of any kind anywhere in the system where the leadership offers opportunities to those on practice time. One looking for job opportunities most usually reads about vacancies for people with one year experience in their specific sector (VMBO/MAVO, MBO, HAVO, HBO or VWO for secondary-level applicants) followed by saying that ‘stagiaires’, those on teaching practice, are also most welcome. There are a few ads for people with several years of experience, but the stated number is usually below five years. This probably doesn’t have much to do with refusing experience, but a belief that those freshly out of WO have more dynamism, but also with a very steeply rising salary-scale until fifteen years of experience. This to me means, on the one hand, that the system believes and appreciates a fast improvement in quality with the first years of practice, but also that experience quickly becomes expensive. However, older, more experienced teachers don’t get further pay-rise, so they don’t become overly more expensive for schools to employ them instead of a 40-year-old. Hopefully, this gives chances for older people to move, but it my also be an indication that most experienced teachers don’t usually have any incentive to do so.

This system is different from the British or Hungarian systems. In Britain, for a teaching diploma, one needs a separate line of studies after the specific subject is fully completed, at which point the would-be teacher enters teaching college. Here I would need help from British teachers about the ways of how and where teaching practice is carried out, as I have no relevant experience. However, one article, listed below by Daniel, describes the author’s path to teaching and out of this article, we can safely deduce that teacher training in Britain has a great variety of forms depending most often from the training school’s own ways. As teaching requires post-grad studies in Britain, the Dutch system may only resemble this in its institutional variety.

How the – much more unified – system works in Hungary is discussed in a the following post.

by P.S.

Dutch Flag


Interesting features of education – Part 1: volunteers and teaching material in the Netherlands


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I’ve discovered a number of outstanding features about language education in the Netherlands during the few years I’ve spent here. Perhaps the most special kind concerns teaching Dutch to foreigners, ‘Nederlandse taal voor andertaligens’, as it is called here.

It has been an important issue for the country because the Netherlands has been one of the few countries in Europe where the country has received a very sizable influx of foreigners for years. As a result, the Dutch comprise only 80% of the population, which means that teaching Dutch to fast growing numbers of immigrants has been big business and important for the country. My educated guess is that with a 1.76 fertility rate, the long-term and steady population growth of around 0.50% is to a large extent due to immigration.

Availability of Dutch course-books in libraries reflects this importance, but not that in book-shops. A couple of recent forays into local book-shops strengthened my earlier feelings that course-books in general are not publicly available. This holds true for any languages, be it Dutch, English, or German. It contrasts starkly with the availability of foreign language course material even in smaller towns in Hungary or at bigger places in China, and also with the availability of a very wide range of dictionaries that conforms to the colourful presence of so many ethnic groups in the country. The availability of Dutch course material in libraries indicates a healthy effort to supply for the needs of immigrants, but the lack of it in book-shops strikes one as strange. Even the rather muted efforts to widen the teaching of the native language in Hungary seems huge in comparison on this basis, not to mention the presence of Chinese courses available in China in spite of the weak state of teaching methodology. One seriously wonders how to get a picture about what students are taught from at school.

Insider opinion I’ve met recently holds that languages are taught using course material made in the Netherlands, not internationally. The same opinion also stated that choice usually depends on conservatism versus the over-valuation of the new. This would also support the conclusion I’ve drawn elsewhere and also from the fact that one can’t find Dutch participants at international events, that is, the profession is over-confident and isolated from international influences in language teaching. It also indicates that teaching languages is big business for Dutch professionals, though the quality may not always match international levels, which can be deducted from the price per quality ratio of the new series of books used by our regional MBO school for teaching Dutch, Code: the content is sometimes very strange, sometimes really modern with live video; the looks of the books reminds one of the quality of the Alexander-series of yore from Britain, or the quality of the first Hungarian course-books published in the late 1970’s; and the price is about four times that of international publications by Cambridge or Macmillan. If it is anything to go by about other languages, somebody does make big business out of teaching English, French and the other languages at school at the expense of those who need to buy their products in the absence of foreign competition.

Because ‘inburghering’, that is, helping immigrants learn the culture, administrative systems and everyday life as well as the language, is so important in the Netherlands, teaching is widely supported and delivered in a large number of various institutions and also by the population. One evidence is that schools are able to draw quite a number of volunteers, ‘vreiwilligers’ in Dutch, to help teachers with their work in class. This means that ordinary Dutch people with enough time feel it nice to come to classes and take part in group work making sure that good enough language is used by the groups. They are not teachers, but as natives, they can help the foreigners understand and use ordinary Dutch. Some of the volunteers also hold regular “office hours” in a separate place to help those in need of something extra after or before class, which takes the form of short one-to-one talks and discussions. I find both these kinds of help extremely useful and kind of the people involved.

But the most outstanding and unique feature takes us outside school. The system is called ‘taalmaatjes’, which means that a lot of Dutch people volunteer to regularly meet foreigners interested in the programme for a few hours a week and share their culture and language with them just for the sake of spending a few hours usefully and with communication with strange people. Such ‘language partners‘ also do this free of charge, for the joy and friendship in their free time. As this is also face-to-face, but regular as well, people get used to the foreigners’ needs, and can concentrate on them personally a lot more than teachers in class could. I can personally thank more to my taalmaatje now than to my teachers because my language partner is intelligent and can provide invaluable information on the one hand about collocations and idioms in the language, which are the most difficult to practice in class circumstances, and because, on the other hand, make it possible for me to speak intensively in supported circumstances for two hours. Such intensity and density of information about the language can’t be achieved in a normal Dutch class. Besides, the programme adds a lot to the understanding and the accommodation of newcomers in the country, so it is a basic ingredient to the much-needed mutual understanding and acceptance of differences among peoples.

With economic problems hitting this country too, schools in the Netherlands don’t have to see their budgets seriously cut, but, to my amazement, the ‘taalmaatje’ program was officially scraped in the middle of 2011. I find this very strange especially because the system only needed a small number of administrative people who have other tasks in their jobs as well, while the people involved in the actual work of helping learners, i.e. the ‘taalmaatjes’, didn’t get any remuneration. A proof of the success among Dutch people of the program is that a lot of those who were already participants at the time of the cuts have been keeping contact with their foreign friends ever since. This was and still is, through its intensity, perhaps the most effective way of language teaching coupled with tolerance and cultural understanding, while it costs next to nothing.

A great pity the government doesn’t support the program, but perhaps it is in connection with a kind of turning away from the long-term trend of welcoming foreigners in the country. Financial support to help immigrants learn Dutch has also been scraped on the whole, which is very likely to represent an emerging trend among the population against easy integration and further welcoming of immigrants. This trend was represented, for example, by one parliamentary party’s web-site earlier this year against Polish workers in the country.

To let you better understand the impact of such moves on a small country like the Netherlands or Hungary and the like, I’d like to give you a personal example. I’ve known a very nice young man from Iraq for years, who came here, and received refugee status and financial aid to live here and follow his studies at one of the best Dutch universities. His specialization is in microbiology, and after receiving his MSc mostly in English, he’s now pursuing his PhD studies in Dutch. Had he not received any financial help and language support over the years, he wouldn’t be able to do this, he would have left for Great Britain, for example. He may not stay very long after graduation because his field is very specific and this country is too small to support further researchers and research in it. It is far more likely that he’ll be able to get a research job in one of the English-speaking countries. By extension, we can safely say that any people with talent coming here would not stay here without language help, would not be able to utilize their talent to its full potential and wouldn’t make it possible for the Dutch economy to invest more in, and benefit more from, R&D on a scale comparable to the potentials of larger economies speaking the largest world language. The Netherlands can’t really become larger, but is still attractive to foreign talent, but only if the language barrier is surmountable in the first place. As R&D is the real measure of economic growth potential, and its source, besides capital, is the brains and intellect of the country’s inhabitants, talent shouldn’t be lost at the very first hurdle, on the language front, in any small country.

by P.S.

Ideas about what works while learning a language – Part Four: mostly to the teacher


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As to teaching and teachers, I hope that quite a lot of ideas may already have been presented in my previous postings, but I’d like to add and elaborate further.

Most importantly, I think that interaction, speaking and revising are also the main areas which most teachers tend to forget about, unfortunately, though in the name of doing good to the customer.


Teacher (Photo credit: tim ellis)

Very often, in more traditional classes, especially with very low frequency lessons, there’s no time for listening practice at all. By that I don’t mean that students don’t have the opportunity to listen to their teachers – oh, yes, they do the talking all the time very often. The problem with that arises if they either talk in the students’ native languages, which happens all too often in China, but probably, as I’ve already mentioned, in the Netherlands, and even in other countries as well, or if they don’t really stop talking – to check the understanding of their students, that is. These two cases are definitely not cases of time well spent to a smaller or greater extent and can’t be counted towards listening practice. There’s no practice without a degree of interaction, and more precisely, not without performing a task in the meantime. That can be done even while the teacher talks himself/herself, but can’t be done with the teacher talking incessantly.

English: kdi students listening to professor i...

English: kdi students listening to professor in class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teacher talking time, or TTT is very important for students. Let’s not forget that if nothing else, the teacher is the basis for a while for the aural/oral perception of the foreign language, and even if there’s some systematic work on listening with taped native material, he or she is the most frequent example to follow. Without examples, spoken language can’t be formed, thus no interaction can be expected of the learner. On the other hand, extended solo lectures are also not enough basis for interaction, and can become utterly boring and counter-productive in the long run. While talking, the teacher should at least frequently stop to ask the opinion of the students, which provide incentive to talk and also feedback to the teacher about understanding. If this latter fails, TTT was useless, and the nature of teaching should be adjusted approriately.

Very often, in more traditional classes, especially with very low frequency lessons, there’s no time for listening practice at all. If there’s a listening part to an important test for the students in the country, teachers tend to run a few practice tests through without discussing the results and parts of the test, so the learners have no idea about the reasons for some answers that they have missed, they have no chance to pick up the odd piece of vocabulary, they only have the tension of concentrating on several tasks at the same time for an hour: reading and understanding the questions, listening to the material and then making logical decisions, which, however, often doesn’t happen on the basis of the material heard, only on the possible answers. In many cases, if someone is weak in the language, or is taught with translation, he/she also has to translate the questions for himself or herself. A very tall order to succeed. Even so, in many cases there’s no time for a re-run, as I’ve experienced it in my Dutch classes, and anyway, the real tests also demand that the applicant listens only once.

Instead of this, according to English teaching traditions, even the highest-level language exams (Cambridge First Certificate, Cambridge Proficiency, IELTS, TOEFL, PTE General, PETS) allow the student to listen to texts twice and adjust their answers with the second listening, or with BULATS, the computer adjusts the listening and the question to the applicant’s previous answer. This follows an understanding of the workings of the brain, which needs first wider contexts, and often also adjustments to what has been heard before it can make informed decisions on details. This is why, for testing purposes, we need a second listening opportunity.

But this is only a question of testing methodology. The other, more important question is whether the students receive proper listening practice before that all-important final test, or are left to practice on their own, or perhaps not given anything in this direction. It sounds obvious to me that listening skills need to be built up just like grammar skills, from easier to more difficult, originally with a strong focus on language already covered and cutting out the kind otherwise. But not for many of my colleagues. Moreover, learners need appropriate activities and tasks to perform while listening. From answering general questions, through following the text with the script to gap-filling, re-arranging the text and repeating some sentences or items of important or problematic vocabulary or grammar should feature strongly among the techniques. These should be varied quite often and all should be ‘do-able’ so as not to frustrate the students but build up a proper understanding of the text.

By ‘do-able’, we usually mean that for developmental purposes, we are not supposed to ask deduction questions right at the start, or the kind that need outside knowledge. We should also not ask questions on passages that are unintelligible, difficult to follow even for native speakers, or demand spelling of unintelligible, or items not yet learned. Asking the students to write a series of answers only after a whole listening passage is also above most learners even at higher levels for the sake of practice. Giving answers in full sentences in response to listening is not a do-able task even when the text is broken down, at least on lower levels.

Instead, we can first ask near-beginners, for example, how many people talk and in what situation, what’s the relationship among them, and the like. Fill-in questions in the later stages should not contain groups of words, rather parts of groups where the other part helps understanding by making quess-work possible. In any case, expected language is a lot more understandable than the unkown or unpredictable kind. The listening passage should not contain non-understandable, unpredictable grammatical items that haven’t been introduced. If we want to introduce grammatical features, we should use it with items that are not difficult to hear.

There’s also debate about how long a ‘do-able’ listening passage may be. I myself have experienced in my teaching as well as my own language learning a very sharp decline of general attention after two minutes, often, at lower levels, even after one minute. With a foreign language, long-term memory on the basis of the logic of the text doesn’t work nearly as well as with our own, or on high levels of language competence. Before the student can think in the target language, he relies only on short-term memory, which mostly relies on understanding each and every word, interprets them and puts them away shortly. After a while, while the listener is still struggling to understand and interpret the ever-flowing following items, earlier memories quickly fade and the task becomes impossible to execute. Rather, such a long task above the student’s level of competent understanding will execute the learner.

I may here add as an aside that this is to a large part the reason why simply living the everyday life of a foreign country trying to learn the language doesn’t work in itself for a few years for most people. Without getting help in interpreting the language showering the new-comer, he or she will be inundated so much that exhaustion takes over very soon for a long time. Some formal help is also needed. But it’s also true that work or some other special activity that demands absolute attention and provides the ultimate need for learning (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere) can also speed up the learning process very effectively if there are helpful people around. Workplaces may not be ideal, but partnerships very much so. At later stages of development, all immersion kind of situations do so too.

Dictation seems to be a good listening task, but while it is also a writing task, we mustn’t forget that it relies on no understanding of the text much and it’s not creative at all. Above a certain level, when students have little problem with the spelling of individual words, normal slow dictation tends to become very boring and even counter-productive. As a result, some students may commit mistakes they wouldn’t in creative writing because of over-confidence, or get no benefits that they could carry over to their creative writing, when they only focus on meaning, still committing mistakes they no longer make in dictation. At levels starting at mid-level, scripting of videos by native speakers without the intention of dictating could be set as task, but with several rewinds if necessary. The difference for the learners’ hearing abilities between live dictation and machine sound from videos can still be huge, so this is the phase to be practiced carefully because at exams, machine sound must be decoded while performing additional tasks.

Such advice can be extended for quite a while longer, but I’m sure it’s already understandable enough. These types of points can also be extended to reading tasks as well. Part of the reason is that just as listening is a necessary basis for talking in oral interactions, reading can be understood to do the same in written interaction. Similar questions can first be put to students about the general meaning of the text, by way of fast extensive reading. Once the context is worked out with this help, more specific questions can be asked and activities can lead to intensive reading within the borders of boredom. Here we can come back to the general demand for teaching in interesting ways. On the one hand, both listening and reading material should be introduced by discussions or at least a few well-designed question about the possible meaning of the text and the feelings of the students about the topic. On the other, we should provide enough room after listening and reading tasks for discussion before the whole activity becomes boring, by which I mean overworked. Before discussions, more detailed work can be done on specific language items like grammar, or vocabulary, of which reading is the most fool-proof means of development. But if we don’t ask the group for their opinion, we have only done half of the useful work, because we haven’t activated the material just heard or read. Active use in post-listening and post-reading activities revise the meanings, vocabulary and grammatical features of the text in a way that involves the learners deep, if interesting enough for hem, making the activity memorable.

Which means that it’s more important to devise and carry out discussions than reading. We can set up interactive tasks just as easily as reading tasks, but interaction can happen preceding, following or instead of reading, the most important point being that it can’t be neglected for fast learning of the target language. Culturally, Far-Eastern, or South-Asian, Middle-Eastern cultures may pose a major obstacle to interaction if they demand absolute quiet and attention concentrated on the teacher most of the time. People of those cultures would find little help towards their interactive oral skills. So, as far as behaviour is concerned, the relaxed atmosphere of relatively free Western cultures can provide a lot more possibility for language development than stricter cultures. Sometimes, though, the infamous misbehaviour known from Hollywood films is also a major obstacle of course. I can assure everyone that the same may face you in Hungary or China if you try the appropriate places, and the one principal in the Netherlands I’ve talked to also warned me of behaviour special only to Holland, although, I suspect, she has had no experience of the same in said countries where I have. But that’s another story, perhaps pertaining to the headline ‘pigheadedness in education in the Netherlands’, where I have to stop before I can also be accused of the same.

‘balloon debate’ in Kitto college, near Plymouth

Extreme cases of misbehaviour aside, speaking and interactive tasks must often be given after careful planning. For whole activities, asking just a couple of simple interest-raising questions may not be enough. There must be a task to be performed with and end-result to be achieved. Task-based learning and role-plays are effective because, paradoxically, they steer attention away from the language necessary for them to be performed. Students are less controlled in such cases and, consequently, feel less inhibition to express their preferences and opinions, all in pursuit of a common goal of the group. Role-play also allows them to change personalities, which is often very exciting, but not for everyone and not at every age, so discretion should be used when assigning such tasks. In more elaborate and complex cases, the activity works like a simulation, without computers, naturally, but with real roles for everyone involved, which may help the more reticent ones.

It is sadly usual that, if such interactive tasks are given at all, feedback is not asked in return at the end. Except in very strange cases of group dynamics, the whole class would find it interesting to get a glimpse of what other groups thought about the case in question. Feedback serves as a satisfactory closing down of the activity or a whole study period and also serves to revise and reinforce some items of language that may be important for all. Good interactive tasks usually also serve as natural basis for written work, as homework in cultures which use it, or at following classes in cultures where homework is not often used, for example in the States or Britain.

Furthermore, there are strong arguments to using discussions not only as planned. With the multitude of different kinds of learners in each class, every single lesson planned the same way for different groups naturally tends to, and should be encouraged to, go in different directions. Differences should be encouraged and will surely emerge if the students are allowed room to contribute to the proceedings. They have a right to do so, they are the customers, we have to provide for all of them. Besides, providing for them doesn’t necessarily mean we have to give all the answers: we are there to provide the framework for learning, and that framework includes all members of the group with their differences. Consequently, they should be invited to discuss and give answers if necessary to problems other members have. On questions of grammar and vocabulary usage, it’s mostly the teacher who is best positioned to decide on best answers. In other cases involving opinions and decisions on tasks, better leave the group to decide for themselves, like with the ‘balloon debate’ represented above with my photo.

English: Some of us and our teacher, having fu...

English: Some of us and our teacher, having fun while understanding curcuits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a teacher must under all circumstances care for is that debates and discussions do not lose their aim and become loose and limitless. A friendly teacher would do well starting a lesson with personal questions of interest to the students, but that should lead towards a point and not become an hour of talking about how they like the latest music. Chatting on the level of teenage street conversations is also important but its level is not enough for foreign language development after a short while. After that, nobody can take home anything new. So it is up to the discretion of the teacher and his/her flexibility do decide when to channel introductory chats into learning.

I’m sure that I don’t need to discuss handling grammar here. Most of my readers, I think, are professionals and grammar is the area almost everybody feels comfortable with enough. The only remark I’d like to make is that, as I earlier warned, grammar should not be overdone, especially with the mostly isolating languages, those without differences of forms of words. On the other hand, word forms of agglutinating and fusional languages, those with a lot of changeable affixes and forms need to be thoroughly drilled before higher levels of understandability and fluency can be achieved.

I do, however, feel the need to talk about the good old ‘grammar-translation’ method. Quite a few teachers in Middle-Europe, those who have connections through teachers’ associations, the BC, meetings, conferences and summer courses, those who manage to and willing to keep up with English-teaching methodology in Britain and the USA have long ago refuted this method. Yet, I meet colleagues and students from time to time who try to stick to it. I’ve meet them not only in China, where, as I’ve described the situation in an earlier post, it is still widely in use, for lack of anything better known to many, but here in the Netherlands and also in Hungary.

For people so inclined, I’d like to  point once again to the intricate ways the brain has to take to process information both ways when trying to translate, which is not only difficult but also extends reaction times, especially because it almost always involves writing down the translation, and writing is already a lot slower than speaking. We can say, then, that this method reduces the possibility for using a lot of language within any given period, while it demands levels of knowledge that the learners are still only striving for. For translating a text, we must be in full command of both languages, which is not the case all too often. No wonder that translating and interpreting are two very demanding high-level professions very distinct from teaching, and are taught those already in full command of the target language. I can hardly imagine a slower and more dragging method than this for lower-level learners. Translation is also conspicuously missing from internationally accepted English language tests. Teachers using this method should at least keep this in mind. But one thing is sure: the conservatively or intellectually inclined students can feel after such a lesson that they’ve been given something, they’ve achieved something during the lesson: they’ve understood a text now. Alas, this hardly helps them communicate better in the target language if it stays the only method of teaching/learning.

With this we’re already at vocabulary practice. While the system of grammar structures can, with good, ordinary practice, listening, reading or writing, also be acquired, particular words and word groups may resist memorizing until the language system is internalized.  Until then, a lot of rote learning may sometimes help, but even afterwards, words must be practiced and recycled systematically. The house won’t stand without its building blocks.

The original source of vocabulary is necessarily the teacher. For good results, we do our best starting our very first lesson already in the target language. In this way, they find it natural to try and think in the other language already at the outset and find it gradually easier on the way, getting used to it quickly. Not much time is lost on thinking in two languages, trying to translate everything first, then translate it all back to the target language. At the same time, care must be given to meaningful vocabulary work all the time, avoiding unnecessary and rare items until much later or perhaps never. The aim is not to teach them everything, but to let them develop their second or foreign language competence as fast as possible and prepare them to respond in and to likely situations and language use. Unlikely, old-fashioned, too formal phrases don’t have much place in EFL classes. They can learn them later if they decide to specialize in the literature or linguistics of that language.

I could even say that vocabulary is one of the greatest responsibilities of the teacher, because the learner is inclined to forget the new words even in their own language and can at home tell his/her father that they haven’t learned anything today. The student must be made to keep a vocabulary booklet of his/her own from the start, it should not only be encouraged but regularly checked. But not only that. Because of the forgetfulness of the students, the teacher is responsible to make sure that the students also remember the words covered. The teacher must explain the new vocabulary and important idioms, and soon must recycle it – within the same lesson, at the next lesson, or even next week. I understand how difficult it is for us to remember with each group what items we’ve taught, but we can keep track of it ourselves too. It’s a nasty argument if later students start grumbling that they were tested about vocab they’ve never properly covered. If that happens, as it quite often does, I sympathize with the student. Of course, the student is responsible for his/her own work on the language, but without help, he or she is at a loss and can’t cope.

After good introduction of basics of the language by the teacher, to make sense of vocabulary regularly and to revise it, learners need good dictionaries in the first place. Only good two-way dictionaries can help, those that not only give one supposed meaning to the target word in either language, like some weaker Dutch-English dictionaries do, though the ultimate horror sometimes comes from my Chinese-English double dictionary published by Oxford UP, which, if I randomly open the Chinese part, may come up with a Chinese word like 衰 (shuāi) and give me ‘decline’ as translation. Does it then mean ‘get smaller’, or ‘refuse’ like in refuse an offer – or a request? There are example phrases that help with this one, but far from everywhere. Also, smaller and simpler dictionaries either don’t give example sentences, or give no idiomatic phrases at all in which the words are used. Soon, learners will find such dictionaries inadequate. On the other hand, at later stages, single-language dictionaries can become more and more useful as they become increasingly usable, when the learner has reached a level on which he or she can think in the target language. So, if possible, we have to give good advice on which dictionaries students should buy for their money.

Even if the learner achieves the ultimate aim and can think in the target language fluently, the teacher has his/her role to the end. Because it is so difficult to reach that ultimate aim, the teacher should focus on working towards that aim providing guidance and structure to learning in class and for home work as well and caring for recycling all the way. He or she should also see to it that the language is learned in a complex way, not only as individual skills. I find a so-called ‘grammar lesson’, or ‘vocab lesson’, or ‘listening practice lesson’ as full lessons very strange. All the skills had better be mingled, providing new angles to ideas and new ways and expressions to utter them.

Student teacher in China teaching children Eng...

Student teacher in China teaching children English. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I’d like to add something about what is not really necessary to do in school classes. One such thing is too much translation. Words or idioms may be translated if necessary, but real translation is a completely different skill to the usual four skills. It had better be avoided, especially if the language levels of students is relatively low. How could they then benefit from translation, a complex skill requiring total competence in their own language as well as the target language, if they don’t have a complex competence in the new language? No wonder that most Chinese students, who also suffer from inappropriate language patterns to follow, fail miserably after a decade of being taught English 6-8 classes a week, while their abilities at repetition is outstanding, as attested to by the fact that they manage to learn the tens of thousands of characters of their own mother tongue. No mean feat. The reasons can be found if we think about how important creative, interactive use of the language is, how inefficient sheer word-repetition is, and how futile it is to translate from or into a language that you don’t understand or can’t use in the first place. Studying their own characters happens in the context of their mother tongue, it’s not something out of thin air, as words of an unused language are.

Another thing that has little place in purposeful class work is using complex tests. The Chinese prove its futility too. But above that, we have to remember that most tests are used as the measurements of achievement, so they should be treated as such, not more. Fortunately, there are tests devised for assessment of development. In this case, however, the students must be well prepared for them, meaning that they should contain material already covered in a re-structured way. They serve the teacher to be able to ascertain how far his/her students have progressed. Using the large, general test instead of this kind only frustrates students.

My usual approach is that once the language is properly acquired through purposeful and well-constructed activities, practice tests among them for structures and vocabulary too, the important, hot assessment tests, for language proficiency tests or university entrance test, for example, will be taken care of by the skills acquired along the way. Sitting through examples of these kinds of tests are necessary as far as the need to experience the feeling and the structure is concerned, but repeatedly doing them is overly and unnecessarily tiring and purposeless, because most of the time they’re so long that they can’t be properly discussed, though that could lend some usefulness to them. That discounted, better keep with meaningful interaction in class. Correcting usual written work, compositions, grammar tasks is enough to keep the teacher up some of the night alright.

Now a late addition to this post. It seems obvious that although language teachers usually speak in terms of the four skills, development of the students’ language use often happens, or rather should happen, along different lines, and particularly without using tests in the first place. I’d like to point out, too, that the role of the fifth skill, translation, should be reduced as much as possible. Instead, active use of and thinking in the target language should be promoted, especially using the sixth skill, that is, thinking! For anyone having doubts about its applicability or being in need of related methods, I’m directly providing a link here to a very interesting article which leads on to the details of the methods themselves: It’s about The Learning, Not The Tools.

Some final words. We can use a wide scope of methods that we think is best suited to our students, but we are only human, and not omnipresent or omnipotent. Consequently, there may always be a few students who we can’t help. They are also human and may have their priorities far from our classes. Don’t let yourself be disheartened by failures, you also learn from them. On the other hand, real results tend to come slowly. We may only see them many years after our work is done.

by P.S.

Ideas about what works while learning a language – Part Three: mostly to the learner


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So now let’s go into more detail, even though I already gave a few ideas in the previous posts as well.

First, I’d like to give ideas to students, although those who can read my posts well, are not in much need to get additional ideas, they may already be well on the way to speaking English perfectly. However, teachers may also find some ideas to forward to their students, and we’re not only talking of learning English as the ultimate aim, but possibly learning as many languages as other bloggers have done. Besides, I’d remind my readers again that this site is written by an average language learner who happens to have become an English teacher and now has decades of experience, so the points of view I’m making my noise from is not the learner-genius-teacher for whom his own instruction to students once is perfect and anyone who can’t follow him had better think twice and cram into their own caves to practice a lot more. To avoid pig-headedness, I’d also like to remind colleagues that the state of English teaching is so much higher in quality than with other languages precisely because it’s based on a tradition of a lot of exchange of ideas. By writing this blog, my own purpose is to a great extent also to learn from the reactions of my readers. Learning never ends.

For those learners who would quite confidently state that their English is fluent, let me bring up the story of an excellent former friend who went on to study English and American literature in the States, where she was often met with people asking if she really came from Hungary. When it had become embarrassing enough for her, she asked her mentor, who she wasn’t embarrassed with, about the reason why so many people knew her country of origin. What he told her was that on the one hand, everybody in the States pronounces /w/ correctly and differently from the sound /v/, while on the other, almost everybody from Hungary can only pronounce /v/, of which Hungarians have become famous.

English: Image taken by author of a sign on a ...

English: Image taken by author of a sign on a door. This is an example of Chinglish. This door is located in the city of Taipei, Taiwan, the foreign immigrants recreational hall administered by the Taipei government. The word “Steek” is a legitimate English word, except it fell from common use hundreds of years ago. From top to bottom, the languages are Chinese, English, Vietnamese, Thai, and Bahasa Indonesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can also tell you that teachers who relatively often meet teachers from other countries, can usually correctly guess who comes from where. My point is that even the best speakers, professionals and excellent students have some peculiarities at least in pronunciation that they can work on. National dialects have small, but sometimes disturbing features that can make the speaker difficult to follow, like the English spoken by lots of South-American colleagues for Middle-Europeans, which, however, may just as well work in the reverse direction. To avoid talking Chinglish like the Chinese, as mentioned in an earlier post, you’d better work on your spoken language at any possible occasion.

If you are not so talkative and don’t have so many opportunities to talk the target language, you can at least try to listen to others talk it. The internet age helps a lot compared to earlier times. If you don’t even have a Skype-friend, or you find talking more tiring than useful, you could still listen to news and other radio and television programmes on-line. It has great advantages over direct listening if you can find broadcasting sites that re-broadcast overdue programmes. Then you can go back to what you didn’t understand for the first time and clarify the vocab or the strange structure. It works like rewinding a tape twenty years ago. One example can be http://www.hebikietsgemist.nl, where you can find English-speaking programmes as well as Dutch. Another is Metropolistv, at http://www.metropolistv.nl, where you can add /en for English-, or/nl for Dutch-language programmes, while some of the broadcast comes in the original local language and the broadcast is dubbed.

For the best, trying to revind the video while transcribing parts of the program is perhaps the most outstanding listening activity that helps break through the ‘intermediate plateau’, which is widely known among teachers but quite unknown for students, the best of whom perceive lack of steady development a failure. It is not so. Experience and skills accumulate even while you can’t feel it, and on or above the intermediate level, it takes longer to achieve higher levels than below. As a student, you’d better believe your teacher that it exists and makes your feelings about your perceived lack of development wreched, but you shouldn’t give up on using a language that you already speak. People can forget anything not used over a longer period, so don’t let that happen. It would be a huge waste of your time and energy already invested. But transcribing is definitely time well spent, because it focuses on all aspects of the language and writing it down makes it resemble a kind of interaction.

Listening practice is the most important and often neglected side of language learning and is especially important when real communication is rarely possible. Besides, we can only use knowledge already acquired for talking. If we can use the listening material for collecting vocabulary, we provide ourselves with more to be used for interaction when the possibility arises.

For those less inclined to talk or listen, reading is the best way to build up the often elusive vocabulary base in meaningful contexts. But for good results, you shouldn’t be too lazy to revise, and you’d better revise a little frequently than too much too rarely. The brain tends to forget stuff fast after a while, but after revisions of not-yet-forgotten material, the rate of forgetting tends to get lower. It’s much more difficult to revise what we’ve almost forgotten, and then it may again become easily forgettable.

Methods of revision are numerous, but keeping your own vocabulary list and often revising it is a minimum. It’s also a good idea to keep a clean version of handouts so that you can later compare your solutions to grammar or vocabulary tasks, or the understanding of former texts to your present knowledge of them. There are also computer programmes, for example the kind downloadable from http://www.byki.com/ where you can find vocabulary lists, often with pronunciation from dozens of languages, and for a little one-time fee, you can upgrade and then make your own vocab lists. Those lists also serve as testing tools in both directions using flip-cards. In several countries there are also web-sites that have been designed to enable you to make your own vocabulary lists and tests out of those, like the http://www.wrts.nl/ site, which is possibly also accessible in lots of countries.

With these activities, the rules of interest are easy to apply: you listen to or read or practice what you are interested in, at the time and to the depth you find most suitable for you. My additional advice would be to use both ways to practice speaking. While reading out sounds quite matter of fact, you can also repeat what you’ve heard on the video. This is a very important preparation of real speech, because the speaker’s speaking organs also need practice before they can perform their tasks well. Every sound has its specific place of origin in the mouth in interaction with the tongue and lips, often with the throat too, and each has its own specific pitch, for which the larinx, in the depth of the throat, needs various positions that we are unavare of. It’s all like a singer preparing for the opera stage.

What I haven’t talked about is the area of grammar. There are numerous reasons. For one, some languages, among them English, Dutch and above all Chinese, don’t really rely on grammar much. There are rules, naturally, covering the structures of sentences, word-formation (if any), or verb tenses (if any, because these don’t exist in Chinese), but there aren’t numerous forms to verbs to be adjusted to the number, gender and person of the subject, and there aren’t numerous forms to the nouns and adjectives according to noun gender and various aspects and cases, as is the case with French, Russian or Hungarian and a lot of others.

Vocabulary - Words Are Important

(Photo credit: Dr Noah Lott)

A large part of modern English teaching considers vocabulary groups far more important than traditional grammar, that is, in what contexts and together with which other words can we use items to form utterances, which come together as idioms, what sentences can we learn by heart without grammatical analysis to be used as everyday forms. So you are also advised to consider certain structures in English as whole items to be learned, like for example ‘would you be kind enough to tell me if …’, just for the sake of being polite enough to your next interviewer for a new job. In the same way, it’s useful to learn something about the sequence of adjectives like in ‘a very old bright brown sunny Austrian wooden mountain house’ where you’d like to spend your next holidays, and that to talk about any other idea is not ‘very preposterous’, but ‘utterly preposterous’. There are rules about these possibilities, but they are in the usage, not in grammar.

And at the end of the day, teachers usually tend to overwork grammar anyway, so you’ll have covered probably everything five times over by the time you leave school. If something is not clear, there are masses of books to answer, and the teacher is always there to explain. That’s where most of them feel completely at home.

Some final words to students. Teachers know that you have lots of priorities outside class and studying, and some may resent that. They also tend to stick with their own methods, which may not suit you. If that is the case, find out what your own best methods are and use them to cover what needs to be done. But before going into rants about that stupid teacher, look into your own ways and habits, put your hand on your heart and try to declare that you’ve done all you could to develop and learn what was necessary.

Ideas about what works while learning a language – Part Two


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Another important additional factor for success is the relationship to the language. Many claim in Hungary that pupils didn’t learn Russian because everybody hated the people as occupiers. That may be so for most. I didn’t have such thoughts, but started to suffer for lack of the usefulness factor: it was highly unlikely that anyone might use Russian in the streets because the occupiers locked themselves in their barracks. Another likely factor was that we didn’t learn any useful language. We knew about Comrade Lenin‘s early life and later importance, but we didn’t learn to talk about things people, let alone young people, talk about. It follows that, one way or another, the student must be aware why it could be useful for him/her to speak that particular language. It may be a good idea to reinforce this awareness at the beginning of a school year when a teacher takes a group over from last year’s teacher. Even in California, where acquisition of Spanish may happen, it takes a brave student, or a conscientious one, to study Spanish at school. Or to study Italian in New York.

Photos are less likely to work with those who like and need listening to learning. In this respect, if the popular song repertoire is not so enticing, the teacher can use the modern media of international television. Over the internet it is possible to receive broadcasts of far-away lands, which then can be played (and shown on the whiteboard or with the OHP from the computer) over and over again if need be. I find it a matter of course that the teacher make a script of a useful recording, or try to collaborate with the students ad hoc if necessary to script it, for the benefit of those needing the written word.

Languages with internationally published media are at an advantage anyway, but we can here mention the use of newspapers form the country of the target language as well. Grammatical structures, certain vocabulary areas as well as, naturally, cultural areas and news of interest can be covered by articles from foreign press, and then used for tests of all kinds according to what the teacher considers important. Here, what I consider most important is that the topic should be the carrier of real meaning, which will carry, often undetected by the learners, all the learning that can be. For the sake of the tactile, articles can even initially be cut to pieces for un-jumbling, or matching with photos, by enthusiastic groups of detectives. The meaning will carry the coverable language along.

There’s a lot of talk going on, not without good reasons, about the need to enjoy your learning. This translates itself for teachers as a need to make students enjoy their learning at class. To my mind, that’s all very well in kindergarten or lower primary school, where students behave themselves like quicksilver and are allowed to switch moods and activities like the wind, and, besides, there’s less stress on academic progress.

my Chinese students at test

Whether for better or for worse, with students advancement of age, another trend seems to also be general, and that is that students have to sit down to tests at earlier ages and have to be boxed for future studies, school-types and career as soon as possible. Comprehensive schools and lyceums (in the Netherlands) seem to counteract this trend, but it is still in practice getting more ground at the same time as there is still a lot of talk about enjoyment.

English: The Sega Master System video game con...

English: The Sega Master System video game console shown with original “joystick” controller. This is the PNG version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t really assess how much joy can or has to be generated at a physics, or history class, for example, around the world, but if a teacher of languages must generate fun, then he/she is against a host of other sources of fun out there, against electronic gadgets, game consoles, internet games, partying, vandalizing the neighbourhood or simply listening to the mesmerizing rhythm of rap, just to name a few. What can the teacher realistically expect from him/herself and what can society realistically expect of him/her?

Teacher with students in Benin classroom

Teacher with students in Benin classroom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let me remind ourselves here, before we forget, of the role that education has to fulfill in society, and that is to prepare its young members en masse for later taking part in the workings of its everyday strive for development for the sake of the later new generations. Preparing to work for the future for the sake of more work for the future, I could say, but that’s how it works. Where does it say anything about enjoyment? Has anyone promised joy in this life when we emerged into it?

But of course, this is far too grim a picture of reality. The reality should be somewhere between the grim and the joy of it. The difficulty lies with finding the ever-shifting balance between them.

Before trying to break down the implications of this, I’d like to point to one more factor. I’ve already talked about the importance of our relationship to the learning material as a source of learning, which is mostly expressed through our emotional attitude to it. I’d like to add something a bit, or radically, different. Let me tell you about my most shocking experience ever.

When I went to teach to China, I had already learned a bit of the language from a book with a cassette. Yet, on arrival, I was made to feel like a toddler who can’t understand anything, can’t read, hear, talk, but stands forlorn in the middle of the largest population in the world. No wonder that I tried my best during my tenure to learn as much as possible at the school. Without going into details about my ways and methods, enough to say that though I wrote down (in pinyin, the Latinized transcription) almost everything that came in my way into my copy-book, but nothing stayed in my brain for many months.

Then came the winter holidays. I had invited my 16-year-old son to stay with me for two weeks when I was still confident in my progress with the language. But there I was on the morning of his arrival and I still didn’t remember the ways to ask for a bus ticket, or to understand the possible answers. I had to take a bus to the airport to welcome him, so I packed all my study material and embarked on my trip to the airport.

On the three-hour ride to Shanghai, I learned everything important that had escaped my abilities to retain for more than half a year. I got a taxi to the airport all by myself and later we enjoyed ourselves immensely everywhere on our criss-crossing of half the frozen country in safety.

My point is that there’s hardly any greater boost to learning than real need. Not the need to sit down sometimes and relax, not the need for a new iPhone, or a better car, but the kind on which not only our own safety and life, but also the safety and life of our loved ones depend. Then, as second best, as my American colleague in China put it, is to live with someone whose mother tongue is our target language. So go ahead, bring your children to the end of the world, or marry a Dutch if you want to learn Dutch, or relocate to England or Hungary if you are intent on learning excellent English or Hungarian.

For most people, let alone students, it is very difficult to create such circumstances and, to be honest, it is also not necessary, of course. But teachers and students should be aware that then no such great and swift results can be expected either.

Some more down-to-earth ideas are to follow.

It’s going to take a while to write my next posts. Until then, I give you a link I’ve found with an interesting collection of sources for those wishing to study Dutch on-line. I hope somebody will find some of the links among these useful: http://polyglotmae.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/update-dutch-learning-resources/

by P.S. and Z.J.S.

Ideas about what works while learning a language – Part One


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Now that I’ve done so much description, I’m going to expand on the critical side with some positive touch for the benefit of those who may find any kind of advice useful.

I must hasten to add at the very beginning that I’m not a good language learner. I studied, well, yeah, I know, but even then: Russian at school for 8 years followed by 2 more at university, and in the end I didn’t understand when they asked me for my name at the oral exam. However, I made a perfect written translation, so that’s something about what kind of learner I am. I have also studied some (between a few months and a year of) French, Italian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Slovak, but I never really spoke more than a few sentences in these and they are, for lack of practice, long gone by now. Then I tried Chinese and now Dutch. Not a very fruitful linguistic career, but then again, I can say I belong to the majority, who can only learn maximum one second language. That’s what I could use as encouragement for my Chinese students: if I was able to learn good English, so can you, because I also didn’t have much else to help me but the teacher and the classes at school, we also did not have listening material, didn’t meet native speakers and didn’t, for the most of us, listen to English songs (at the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, few people had access to western radio channels).

But as an average learner, I can say that most people then are average learners. Most people in the world find it difficult to learn a second language at school. On the other hand, most articles, blogs and their comments come from people with outstanding linguistic abilities, the kind that already speaks 4-5 languages because they have talent, time and money to do so. I wouldn’t like to explain myself on those terms and levels, I’d like to speak to those who have none of the above advantages, perhaps. I’d also like to benefit the masses of teachers addressing crowds of average students.

I must also point out the difference between language acquisition and language learning. The acquisition of a language is the natural process of learning to understand and then speak and read and write our own mother tongue. Multilingual acquisition also happens in some parts of the world, where people acquire a second language, or more, in a natural way, mingling with neighbours who speak a different one from their own mother tongue, like many people in rural Africa, or South-East or South-Asia, where the former colonial languages are also often naturally acquired along with perhaps several tribal-local languages. This could be ideal, but it depends on where we were born, so can’t really be affected. What remains for others is studying at school.

And there come the problems. The student depends on the national culture of schooling or education as well as his/her own work and talent. If he’s a lazy one, he can still get by alright in the Netherlands, where the general idea is to let the kids develop at their own pace and in general, there’s little interference or pressure on a learner. In China, the lazy one may become suicidal in areas where studying is considered the only possible way to get out of poverty. Such suicides have lately been widely publicized, although the case may be that statistically it happens just as rarely as in Europe, where the population is only about 60% of that of China, or in the US, with half the population of Europe, so it doesn’t happen every decade. Perhaps Japan is famous for some earlier cases, which might mean a higher occurrence statistically.

However it happens, studying a language at school is just one among a lot of other subjects, so the majority handle it that way. But I’ve often met the idea, usually promoted by failing students, that their failure is the teacher’s fault. They shouldn’t be failed, because everybody is capable of learning a language just like history, chemistry or maths and they’ve managed to pass those – well, often only just, I must add. And while probably few students have ever got suicidal over languages, they quite often fail in maths or other subjects, so, we can be sure that they can sometimes fail in a language as well. That just happens at school, as it almost happened to me with Russian.

The reasons are numerous even if discounting the basic cultural surroundings and requirements. I would group them into three areas: the complexity of learning languages, the so-called learning types and individual psychological/intellectual differences.

First of all, learning languages is perhaps the most complex kind of learning, only comparable to learning to play a musical instrument. Both involve a lot of muscular activity (of course of different parts of the musculature), flexibility of body organs as well as the brain, intellectual power, the retaining power of the memory, the power to repeat and persevere with practice in the face of possible boredom, but with languages, we need more interactive ability, problem-solving ability, power to analyse and synthesize smaller and larger structures, like grammar and sentence types, creativity to restructure the elements of language in new ways, so possibly even faster reaction to stimuli, and above the level of everyday chatting, speaking a language well also presupposes a lot of knowledge outside the language itself.

This also means that some extent of failure to speak a language doesn’t mean that the person is not intelligent. On the other hand, he or she may lack patience to practice, withstand the boredom inherent in revising and practicing vocabulary items or grammatical patterns, may be impatient with any kind of grammatization, or is simply a reticent person who doesn’t like to speak a lot.

By the same token, somebody very successful with languages in general may not be a very intelligent person but may simply have the knack and liking for the aforementioned, may perhaps be only a very sociable, perhaps even foolishly sociable person who feels absolutely no shame when uttering stupid mistakes – it may be enjoyable practice for him/her even when others may consider him/her aggressive. That may be a kind of positive selfishness as well.

The second set of conditions for un/successful language learning is the variety of learning types, which are not often discussed in blogs lately, so let me give you some basics.

Pedagogy usually mentions three basic learning types. Visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.). Its use in pedagogy allows teachers to prepare classes that address each of these areas. Well, idealistically. But if a teacher of a class of 30-40 pupils, or more than 50 as in some countries like China, tries to work according to the so-called mashing-method that takes these types in consideration, he/she is likely doomed to failure simply by the impossibility to get to know most of his/her students having 5-6 or more such groups every week. Sometimes methods also contradict the culture and traditions, so I can find it difficult to imagine that a lot of teachers would dare and be able to use methods catering for kinesthetic students in a country used to students sitting rigidly at their places slavishly repeating phrases or words by the teacher. I also met the idea in Hungary of giving differentiated materials and handling students according to their abilities in language classes, where the usual class sizes are very often halved for languages. The idea is usually promoted by headmasters and other colleagues not related to language teaching, but I never really met a colleague who managed to implement this ideal well in practice. We have to accept that we do our best and the students do theirs if, but it’s next to impossible to prepare for each and every individual in 5-6 teaching hours every day 5, or in China 6, days a week.

Students can themselves use the model to identify their preferred learning style and maximize their educational experience by focusing on what benefits them the most. Could, but for the fact that teachers don’t draw their attention to such possibilities and have precious little time to suggest a few activities for the students to start with at home. Besides, pedagogy is in itself in contention if the whole idea of the three learner types is neurologically valid. If it were, I should have learned Russian along with English at secondary school, especially after good result in primary. But I didn’t. Or there were and are other factors at play too.

It is true, however, that some students who love listening to English pop songs and do so often, learn, or should I say acquire, the language naturally. It is sometimes suggested that learners listen to music and get to love the language through it. Well, to my mind it’s a good ideas and I have often seen it work, but what if the target language is not English? Have large numbers of pupils ever listened to Chinese, Slovakian, or Dutch pop-songs? I can’t imagine that situation. For learners of some languages other than English, some other methods may work better. It’s about the emotional relationship now. If one doesn’t care about the use of the language but enjoys listening to it, it makes a world of difference. So as teachers, we could try to entice the students

A painting from the Rembrandt-museum, Amsterdam

with something aesthetically pleasing – not with paintings of Picasso, Rembrandt, Riepin or Munkácsy, though those can also be used, but we can show (especially for the benefit of the visual type) photos of interesting cities, buildings, people or activities to our students. Easy again with English, but not significantly more difficult with German, French, Spanish or Italian either. Lots of European language teachers are of the open-minded and well-travelled type, they can even raise their students interests in learning more exotic languages, like Arabic, Chinese or Russian, or even Swahili, by showing them their own photos taken during holidays. However, the important point here should be not simply to flip through the pictures, but to stop with many, evoking personal stories and inviting discussion. Such experiences have a chance of becoming an experience for the pupils themselves too, and through the emotions going with this, will become memorable fix, familiar points to learning.

From the point of view of learning types, language learning may give some advantage to some and disadvantage to others in comparison with learning other subjects. Whereas learning most other subjects may give advantage to the intellectual visual types or, if the teacher lectures better than the book to follow, the audio types, language learning involves a lot more doing than, say, learning biology or history, if there’s any discussion in the pedagogic repertoire of the language teacher. Most kinds of group work, discussion of problems, problem solving tasks and the so-called task-based learning above all, involve a lot of speaking, and that itself is doing for many. Problem-solving stimulates the intellectual types. Games and other group activities like line dictation, arranging sentence part or themselves in patterns and the like add real bodily movement and such a language lesson far exceeds the effectiveness of language classes for the kinesthetic type that any other subject can attain.

The third major group of factors involve the learner’s psychological and intellectual leanings. Like with all people, some students may be sociable types and like talking overlooking their own mistakes easily, as I’ve already mentioned. They can survive any language course with flying colours and being among the most popular members anywhere in the world, though the quality of their achievement may vary greatly. Others are almost afraid to speak out in public, be it a small group or a larger community. This type can just survive an oral test every semester in Hungary and can completely avoid attention in China, whereas could have very hard times in good

Classroom scene, student as teacher

Classroom scene, student as teacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British schools where lots of community tasks, discussion and interaction is in order. Intellectual, quality-oriented people could take a lot more time to achieve good results, especially as speaking is concerned, but if they have resistance to the boredom of repetition, they may emerge as by far the best after a few years of study, and could become very good writers and debaters inside and outside class. They only need to survive the years before that without giving up their seemingly futile and embarrassing effort. On the other hand, they may stay slower speakers for the rest of their lives, but being more keen on reading, their vocabulary and general knowledge could sky-rocket.

Then there are the analytical and synthetic types. Without other major strengths, they may become great at solving grammar tests or writing tasks, could especially well analyze pieces of literature, but could never become good teachers or orators on the pulpit of a university. With a good balance and strong intellect, such people will become the best writers. I once had such a reticent type of student who started to write poetry at a young age, also in English. Another one concentrated solely on writing fantasy-literature, also instead of doing his homework tasks, but was so good at it that he got away with it. Unfortunately, those with such limited interest can’t bloom to be all-round excellent speakers of a language.

Others again may lack the sheer memory that is necessary for learning languages. Such people may need logic to support their retaining power, such that may easily come to their help in their own language with any subject but language. Without memory, they may acquire grammar skills, but could hardly use them for lack of means to fill in the spaces.

Another major requirement is to be able to hear well. If effort, intellect, memory, interactive interests are all present but the person still can’t make good differences among the sounds he/she hears and makes, they may become utterly embarrassing talking partners, sooner or later avoided by most. A language inherently has its musical qualities and without getting that right, correct intonation, articulation, sound formation will suffer greatly to the detriment of being understood. Of course, such people can still become very good writers, fast, voluptuous readers, or successful in any other field of life requiring language competences if they don’t need to and insist on talking too much.

Well, it sounds obvious that a language teacher should understand most of these sleeping abilities and difficulties at the cocoon-stage in most of their students and try to draw the attention of as many as possible to their own strengths and weaknesses within the time-constraints that may be. Besides, the teacher should have the utmost quality of the good teacher: persuasiveness. On the other hand, the student who has the advantage of being informed of his/her qualities should need the added ability and brevity to follow advice. With that, they may become successful language learners even against the odds. A tall order against the pull of modern hedonism.

Dutch Flag

Dutch Flag (Photo credit: Guido.)

Still more to come in part two

by P.S. and Z.J.S

The situation of language teaching – comparisons: China


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The country where the grammar-translation method breaks down is China. Chinese, in its utter grammatical simplicity, resists most grammatical explanations about kinds of words and word forms that exist in European languages, the differences between adverbs, adjectives, verbs and nouns that mostly do not exist in Chinese, also about singular and plural, or conjugated, pre- or suffixed forms in complex languages especially like Russian, Hungarian or French and the like.

This Chinglish is not so bad …

On the other hand, the fields of meanings can be so different that simple word-for-word equivalents in dictionaries may completely miss the point in both ways. One can’t explain this to Chinese students of English, they keep doing what they have done for the last couple of decades, or perhaps for centuries with all subjects, that is, walk around campus holding their copy-books or books mumbling out lists of words or sentences half aloud hoping that they’ll be performing well at test the following class. Yet, wherever we go in the country, we can’t miss the perverted English translations of public signs wherever they make the attempt, like on these ones in this collection. The fun is a bit lessened by the fact that we don’t know the real meanings of the original Chinese sings.

Thirdly, and this may sound strange, there are the sometimes insurmountable cultural differences that a European first finds exceptionally strange. If we, for example, ask Chinese students to translate the following, “Next week, citizens of the Netherlands are going to election to vote for candidates to represent them in the lower house of Parliament”, except for ‘next week’ (and perhaps ‘the Netherlands’), they will ask for the meaning of each and every word and will still shake their heads for lack of understanding the explanations. There are no direct elections, no representation, no known candidates to vote for, voting in our sense doesn’t exist, and there’s no parliament, let alone a lower or upper house to it in China, so how should they express these notions and institutions? I know about the problem, because I already had a hard time trying to explain this stuff to university students in one of the most highly developed area, the South-East. Then, even if they manage to put the sentence somehow into Chinese, inserting the name of the Congress of the People’s Communist Party for ‘Parliament’, we will wonder why ‘the Netherlands’ was left out, because in this language, internationally well-known names necessarily come in disguise for lack of suitable phonemes.

So how do language differences of these kind translate into foreign language education? Let’s have a look at public education before discussing teacher training at universities.

Compulsory education starts at age 7, but for most kids, community teaching starts in babyhood, with the whole overage and underage neighbourhood handling them simply because most working-age mothers must work for lack of childcare benefits after the first few months and for the low wages that press them to add to the family budgets. After a couple of years, children have to be taken to kindergarten, usually provided by the workplace, and it can often happen that they already get used to some English nursery rhymes there, simply out of being fashionable on the part of the kindergarten. At primary school in modern China, kids start studying some of the Latin ABC along with some Chinese, and when they go into the higher levels, this naturally increases in scope and depth. Unfortunately, not all teachers know the real English pronunciation of the Latin ABC, and overall, they inevitably drive the notion into children that that’s the only pronunciation of the letters. This may lead to huge problems if somebody might later try to study a language other than English, although this happens very rarely.

Most primary schools are inside town, but with the spreading of private schooling institutions over the last two decades, if the school has primary as well as secondary section, the pupils may usually be moved for a decade outside cities, where the land is cheaper for building a new school. So although there are still lots of traditional state secondary schools in the cities, an alarming rate of emerging private schools means that perhaps a quarter or more of secondary school children in the developed areas go to ‘high school’ to enclosed, though spacious institutions, where they mostly remain within the campus walls, simply for lack of the time it would take to get to town and back.

private school

a private school near a housing estate way outside town in SE-China

Staying within the school means that children have no way of meeting the few foreign people who may come to town, thus missing any opportunity to communicate in English. Although they often have 6 or 8 English classes in lower (3 years) and upper high (3 years) school, they receive them from Chinese teachers of English, who, with few exceptions, hold their classes in their mother tongue, as if the class were about Latin a hundred years ago. So the focus is on understanding English texts, translating them, however difficult that may be as we’ve just seen above, and then talk about the grammar and taking tests. Tests are the ultimate goal because English is necessary for students to get to universities of any value.

The trend is a bit counteracted by another trend, vis. the one that schools, especially private schools, lure one or two native English speakers to teach with them. In practice, the need is so high that people of other nationalities, like myself, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Russians also often get such a position. The requirement for such ‘foreign experts’ is of course proficiency in English, which is usually thoroughly tested by a native associated somewhere along the line with the school.

On the other hand, the system hardly works well in practice. The foreign expert, be it native or not, is given one hour per week per group and simply told to ‘teach them something’. The only chance we get to do something useful occurs if the school is able to set up a group of students aspiring to university in Australia, or the USA, and for them, the foreigner gets several hours of teaching that one group.

Then the difficulties of being understood multiplies. In most classes, it’s an uphill struggle to get yourself understood, as can be guessed from lessons in Chinese and lack of meeting any foreigners before. Chines media don’t help either: there aren’t any foreign-language programmes on TV except for the occasional Chinese lesson by an expat and the occasional English-language news for English-speaking folk resident in the country on one of the 15 channels of China Central TV. And students rarely watch anything but NBA matches with Chinese commentary. No wonder, then, that students keep asking each other ‘shenma, shenma’ (what? what?) for several weeks, that is, for several lessons. Some do believe that the ‘laowei’ (that is, foreign devil, as every white person in the country is referred to) doesn’t speak English and possibly they do. Of course, nobody can utter an English sentence for a while except “What’s your name?” and “Where do you come from?”, and the sound of English stays completely alien for most.

Although my American colleague wasn’t understood much better, I was often complained about as being impossible to understand until the American explained to everybody that I speak with a British accent and that’s more difficult to follow than educated standard American. Still, we succeeded somehow, managed to make an impact by employing all techniques available for explaining everything without speaking the students’ mother tongue. The message to Dutch English teachers worried about this is that it’s not easy, but can be done and it can sometimes be great fun and a great experience for all concerned – we can be the very first foreigners, and for a long time the only ones that the students can talk to, and that’s a big thing for most kids there. We can also learn some local language if things go well.

'foreign devil' at sports event in school

‘foreign devil’ at sports event in school

For the sake of those aspiring to take up this line and try to get to China to teach English, I must admit that for most of the groups and time and schools, the foreigner is a figurehead used for representing the status of the school. There are no real responsibilities for us other than the requirement to be present when prospective parents are met, or existing parents visit the school. Besides, the foreigners should be present at all school events, be that about sports, or singing competitions of classes and the like. In exchange for this, standard salaries for foreigners are considerably higher than for local teachers, which inevitably makes some of the staff jealous (usually those who have no English competence at all), still, they are hilariously low by western standards, comparable to salaries in Eastern and Central Europe. So the experience is for the fun and experience and adventure of it almost exclusively, especially because in most provinces, most of the salary saved (living costs are very low, so saving can be expected) is not allowed to be taken out of China. But at least most schools provide very spacious, new, if not altogether high-quality living quarters free of charge.

Back then and in the particular city where I worked, it was possible to be discovered and lured over from the school to teach at the local university, so I also had experience about that. Let me add in a rush that since then, age has been restricted to 40, employment at universities have been linked to PhD and the native speaker requirement has really been enforced. But as university is the origin of the future generations of teachers, I have to talk about the situation there.

new friends in the street

Although perhaps not as general as in Europe, tertiary education is still already open to masses of young people in the more developed regions. At the same time, it’s really not for the uneducated. Those making the entrance exam really have to work hard and achieve high standards to be admitted. As English is on the list of tests to be taken, most students have some English, at least a grasp of grammar and basic vocabulary. It means that in and around campuses, the ‘laowei’ more often encounters those usual questions, and is even sometimes approached by the request that the foreigner become a friend (on the spot) and improve the guy’s English (also on the spot, and ever after). Most such young people then can’t understand a word of our answer. These are the ones with a good heart and intentions, but they don’t study English at the Uni.

after a happy end-of-year class

Those that come to study English are the real cream of the area concerning English. The ‘laowei’ has a chance of being understood, and also of enticing tentative responses from the students. Students majoring in English have two or three classes a week with the foreigner, sometimes even four, and several of them regularly come to take part in the weekly ‘English corner’ activities intended to further providing a chance for their improvement. They tend to be open-minded, caring, interested and very friendly, often years after the departure of their former teacher: a few keep mailing me even after five years.

only in English at the English corner

On the other hand, we must bear in mind that by the time the ‘foreign expert’ meets them, those students had already had about 10 years’ of formal teaching in about 6 to 10 hours a week by mostly Chinese people who themselves may never have met a living specimen of English speakers. The Chinese co-author of this web-site was born before Deng Xiaoping got to power and graduated in the mid-90’s in one of the largest cities, and had never received any English tuition, so that’s how usual it was to be able to study English at all. This is the generation that teaches the future English teachers at universities nowadays. We can realistically hope that with the opening to the West the situation improves fast, but we know that in education, results are slow to achieve.

some of the better, young generation of teachers

Besides the personnel and outside-of-school possibilities, we must also consider teaching/learning material available for developing knowledge. In this regard, I found a much wider range of internationally published material in South-East China than in the Netherlands, though, naturally, less than in Eastern-Europe, where publishers and the BC are very active. I must also stress, however, that these were Chinese editions, supported with Chinese explanations and translation tasks very unlike those originals available in Eastern-Europe. Listening material was also hard to come by. It must be added that I also found Chinese-made teaching material reasonable, except the excessive test material often full of mistakes. For what we think of testing, our readers are kindly requested to click here.

A few more words here about the new requirements for ‘foreign experts’. I would have no problem with the native requirement if it weren’t for the ridiculously low salaries, according to western standards, the country can offer. It results in drawing only the young and adventurous to the country, with a few talented ones alongside, who are inexperienced, but at least strive to do their best and are interested in really discovering the local language and culture, like my own colleague, Chris was. As a result, secondary education would get an influx of talented Middle- and East-Europeans, who would be as happy as I was with the few hundred dollars to take back home after a year’s work and exploration of the country. They would, if it weren’t for the more strictly enforced laws.

This requirement looks superfluous, because any reasonable school can demand and execute high-level spoken interviews over the telephone as it happened to me, so the quality can be made sure. It also goes against the fact that English has so many variations around the globe that any perceived deviation from the so-called ‘standard English’ may also be regarded as standard enough. Besides, almost any dialect can be beneficial in the face of the very low quality of Chinese English, and if the school so wishes, the dialect of the applicant can be monitored over the phone, as this happened around me, people saying that the school wanted to avoid the Indian pronunciation, which they regarded too distorted compared to American. Which American, we may ask though. All in all, this requirement is counter-productive to the interests of language education in China.

Universities apply the PhD requirement quite strongly nowadays. This I find ridiculous, seeing the ridiculous wages, even though they are considerably higher for a PhD than it was for those without a few years back, but the biggest problem is that a PhD is usually quite inexperienced in teaching. He has become a researcher over the years spent on his special field and has given a certain number of lectures to younger fellow students, but that doesn’t make them comparably competent teachers to career teachers. A PhD’s purpose is not teaching but researching, so he or she is also less focused on teaching in China than ‘ordinary teachers’, who also have taught a huge number of lessons while the PhD was doing his/her research. As a result, as it also happens in other countries, like in Hungarian universities, university lecturers give lectures in ways that don’t appeal to young adults at universities at all. As it happens with English, teaching it at universities can’t be efficiently done by lecturing, especially not in China, where the language itself still needs developing while they also have to study the usual linguistic aspects. Experts only in linguistics are not well disposed and well equipped in this department. Those who are, haven’t had the time and interest, but often only the money, to go on studying for PhD after getting their Masters, and went into practicing teaching instead. So China would do better without enforcing this requirement, they could employ far better teachers that way.

But the PhD requirement in itself may not be so counterproductive, as those who go into teaching after getting their PhD’s have a chance of becoming better teachers in time. However, many areas have also imposed an age limit, which is usually 40, and only in a few cases 50. Well, how does a young PhD acquire teaching skills without having time to do so? This beats me.

Experienced foreign English teachers at the National Conference in Beijing in 2004

Fortunately, those already in the country for several years haven’t been required to leave their jobs everywhere for their advancing age, and can also often find a new work-place too. Most institutions understand the advantages of the foreign expert having expertise with the system and possibly also the language after years of work there. But the PhD requirement is often rudely imposed, having resulted in releasing many competent teachers only for lack of the degree. We can’t really understand the reason why this so happens, but, then again, that’s the way they are. Also, they will think again another time, very possibly.

One word of warning for those who have managed to read through our article thus far. What we’ve discussed and criticized above may not apply to some of the largest and oldest university cities in China, like Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, or probably a few more, but is likely to hold more-or-less true for most other areas. But then again, China is such a vast country, with so many differences, and such fast changes, that, hopefully, our points about weaknesses hold less and less true for more and more areas.

regularly updated with newly-emerging memories

by P.S. and Z.J.S.