The situation of language teaching – comparisons: Hungary


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I believe that nothing really feels strange, or awkward, or wrong in our native society as long as we have a glimpse of other systems, other possibilities, other ways of how people in different societies go about their business. To see examples of differences from our own is perhaps the greatest initiator of change, hopefully development, that’s why some systems even try to exclude their members from getting information about these differences.

That may partly be the reason why in countries under the socialist system for decades after WWII language education was not a priority, to say the least. Although half a century before, in the years of Hungary being a semi-independent and large part of the Habsburg empire, the country had largely been multilingual, the loss of a majority of its territory meant a loss of most of its multicultural, multilingual peripheries, and what remained is the mostly pure Hungarian core. Or rather, it was made to seem pure, because even within this territory, there remained various peoples of ‘ethnic’ origin, except that they were largely driven under the ground, or out of sight.

This happened to language education too. The system was completely revamped to avoid the impression that there was much culture and diversity outside the ‘iron curtain’. Where in secondary education there used to be Latin, sometimes Greek, almost always German and often French, especially during the empire period, after the victory of socialism, there remained Russian as the sole language to be studied by all kids from the upper half of primary school, which meant around the age of ten. From secondary level, which in Hungary starts after 8 years of primary round age 14, Russian was compulsory, and in ‘gimnázium’, the kind of school for the brightest and equivalent of the grammar school in Britain, kids could choose to study English or German, if fortunate. Mind you, this was not a country of the darkest parts of the socialist-communist part of the world, but I keep wondering until today where those teachers really came from who took up teaching us languages they themselves may have never encountered in real life, except some German teachers who could travel to East-Germany, and those English teachers that could manage to visit Britain on a 50-dollar allowance form the government every three years, if you were not considered a ‘class enemy’, in which case you couldn’t get a visa, or couldn’t even teach.

On the other hand, we students hardly ever had the opportunity to hear or meet real native speakers of those languages. Radios couldn’t be tuned to the BBC well at all, and television was very new even in the 70’s. Even so, we saw the beginnings of English language teaching programmes imported to Hungary. Thus our almost exclusive source of knowledge was the teacher. I myself had never met a live native speaker until university and never set foot on British soil until well after graduation. The most difficult result of this to get rid of was the heavily accented pronunciation and the difficulty understanding natural, everyday speech.

Language teaching and study possibilities didn’t change very dramatically with the abolition of socialism and opening up of the borders. Possibilities to travel did multiply, but alas! our financial resources hardly did so. But at least teachers could start to travel to summer courses, visit each other in ‘the old block’ at least and to a unified Germany, and the coming of the British Council and a number of international funds made it possible for the elect few to be funded for courses or even a whole year of studies in the West, which benefitted some of us.

In schools, Russian was abolished overnight, leaving an army of teachers without a job, but with the possibility to re-train to teach a western language, an arduous process for most middle-aged and aging ‘babushki’ though it was, most managed somehow. The quality of teaching English must have suffered, though, with the sudden widening of possibilities to study various new languages, because, obviously, the new re-trained teachers were not only not at the pinnacle of teaching methodology, but also themselves often in the middle of learning the languages concerned.

After a few years of stumbling, and setting up enthusiastic new institutions to cater for the new pedagogical needs, then suppressing those institutions to suit the old system in order not to give too much new thought and quality, the university system widened its admittance from below 2% of school-leavers to near-western levels, above 30%, but mostly without getting substantially greater resources. Financial means, teaching space and teacher base has hardly grown in tertiary education for more than two decades, except for the introduction of electronic administration, which swelled the anarchy in the area of course organizaton and has taken its toll on quality of instruction attainable.

As was already suggested, secondary school starts around age 14 with the more practical technical school and schools for various trades up to grammar schools. Education is, like in the Netherlands, compulsory until the age of 16 with a low-level graduation exam, but at most technical and grammar schools, students go on to study until 18, when they can sit for higher-level school-leaving exams, ‘érettségi’, which is absolutely necessary to be admitted to university of any kind. The quality of the necessary examinations is on the decline, but in Hungary, the HBO-style, shorter type of higher education is of much lesser importance than in the Netherlands. Thus university studies last about 5 years, except for medicine, where they take 7.

English: Language learning among students in u...

English: Language learning among students in upper secondary education in Hungary in 2007 (%) – source: Hugarian Central Statisctical Office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, the number of languages and teachers to teach them has greatly grown in the school system as a result of the much higher numbers of graduates. This leads to an oversupply in teachers, which is coupled with an uncertainty about the quality of their background and abilities. This problem aside, the pupils of today are provided with at least three language classes per week in at least one electable language even in technically oriented education. The most popular languages are English, closely followed by German, then with some French, Spanish or Italian, and Russian is also staging a come-back. On university level, almost everything can be studied.

Ancient, dead languages don’t feature in the country. Although a few people study Latin as a major at a few universities, besides this, Latin is only taught for students of medicine and law, the latter only for a year or two, and then forgotten. Thus Latin is almost non-existent in schools. On the other hand, modern languages are supported very much outside university too, by the British Council, by the Goethe Institute, the Italian Institute and the like, but mostly only in the capital, Budapest. As this city is, for reasons of history, over-sized, it concentrates a larger share of the population, and with it of financial, cultural and educational resources, than may be considered healthy. Saying this, I’m also saying that the quality of teaching in the country also depends on its geographical situation, so expect much better background in the capital than in country towns. However, for social reasons, teaching may be much more rewarding in the latter, with much less social unrest in rural schools than in the capital, where students are more exposed to western patterns of behaviour, which they take to school with them.

Teaching is becoming just as difficult in Hungarian schools as anywhere in the Western World. However, for language teachers from abroad, this country still seems to be a bit exotic, so it provides an opportunity for adventure for, mainly, young teachers from America and Britain, and some German teachers as well. Nobody who ventures to come to teach English or German speaks Hungarian on arrival, and it’s not necessary either, because they are guided and helped by their Hungarian peers at school as well as in their more private life while with the particular school. For the pupils, this provides an excellent opportunity to get to know the culture of the guest teacher first-hand, learn the native sound and ways of speech, and also some fun to teach them a bit of their language, but the task of the guest teacher is not to learn the local language, which is far to difficult anyway, but to teach their own to the local kids. This is the second best way of learning a foreign language anyway, next to doing it while living in the country of the target language, which can’t be an option for the masses anyway.

The life of a teacher as an employee and private person in Hungary is not easy. Average incomes in the country are about a fourth of those in Western Europe, perhaps an eighth of those in the richest countries, but teachers’ salaries here are way below the national average, compared to the above-average levels in the West. Thus the gross salary for teachers with degrees is around 600 Euro according to recent data, the net income is usually around 400 per month. There are variations, but the grid is quite flat and the highest salaries are perhaps not more than 40% higher than the lowest, except for university lecturers.

Compare this to the ‘CAO schaal’ of approximately between 2400 and 3700 Euro per month in the Netherlands, of course depending on ‘diploma en ervaring’, and we’ll instantly see the reason why someone would like to ‘go west’ to teach. Most teachers, of course, have no such intentions, let alone chances, because of the nature of their subjects, but for those with outstanding language skills, teaching their subjects in English in IB-schools around Europe is a great possibility but for the fact that vacancies are limited in that area.

An important part of my analysis of the state of language education should also touch on methodology. As expected from the lack of Latin, instruction on methodology at university follows the influence of the modern methodology of the language involved, which is most apparent with English. British linguistics and methodology inundate courses, just as it happens with teaching material for schools. The country imports not only ideas from the international best, but the commercially available as well. Older lecturers not always teach based on these ideas, but the teachers, working with the modern means, are more or less made to make use of them in practice. The unfortunate system of dubbing films, scarcity of English-speaking TV-channels, and the distance from English-speaking countries also make it imperative for teachers to rely on imported listening materials, and on insisting on students’ speaking activities in classes.

With institutional help from the BC and teachers’ associations, attending courses, conferences, discussing ideas with each other and with the international community is wide-spread, though not everywhere. School exchanges with schools in the neighbouring countries and with German, or even with British or Dutch schools is also frequent. The big difference, as far as I can see, is that Dutch teachers don’t seem to do anything else internationally: at the numerous events I’ve taken part, from Ireland and Romania to Croatia and China, the one nationality I’ve never encountered from Europe is Dutch.

So, where are the teachers who are, on paper, responsible for the high levels of English skills in the Netherlands? After years of encountering the sort of answers I keep receiving for my applications, if any at all, my answer, provocative as though it seems, is that Dutch English teachers wouldn’t benefit from and wouldn’t have anything to share with English teachers from other countries. They have their own ways, and those seem to work well enough for the country, so what else would they want? Not developing a system, though, carries the danger of being left behind. But with the country’s proximity to Britain and availability of the British media in the country, even this doesn’t seem to be a danger. Also, with no real contact with their peers from outside their system, everything seems to be right, doesn’t it?

to be followed by a description of the Chinese language education

by P.S.


The situation of language teaching – comparisons: the Netherands


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In this new post, I’d like to compare the language education systems in a few countries where I’ve had some experience. Because I suppose most people properly educated in English have a fair idea about the education systems of Great Britain and the United States of America, I only draw a few parallels where this seems practical, but I’m not going into details there. I also have very little first-hand experience about the US.

Firstly, I’d like to discuss the situation in the Netherlands. This is the country that has come out on top of Europe in a recent poll about the ratio of people speaking at least one foreign language, so it can be assumed that language teaching is of utmost importance and in a very modern state here.

As far as I can see, in the Dutch education system, there are lots of choices for people as to denomination, educational philosophy and the like: this is a country for catholic, protestant, muslim, Montessory, ‘themaonderwijs’ (theme-oriented teaching), Dalton, Jenaplan, adaptive or development-oriented schools and a lot more. I personally haven’t seen a system in which the force of competition led to a greater variation of idea-based, philosophy-based, theory-based schools than in the Netherlands. There is great pressure on schools of different levels to stand out in one way or another, perhaps at all cost. True, this leads to a variety of choice perhaps unprecedented elsewhere. This also means that it is next to impossible to generalize about the kind of educational practices followed, it’s only possible to draw a few wild conclusions. However, that’s what I’m trying to do below.

The different levels of education in the Nethe...

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

As can be seen in the chart, education in the Netherlands starts at age four and secondary education starts at twelve. How much foreign language education goes on between these two points depends on the kind of school the kid goes to. From secondary age, studying at least two foreign languages is compulsory, often one changed to a third one after a couple of years. There’s a wide range of choice, but at schools in the VWO section, which prepare students for higher education, especially at ‘gymnasia’, students must choose between Latin and ancient Greek. The number of lessons for modern languages is very low, maximum two or three in all three types of secondary schools, but students often have only one class per week per language in HAVO or VMBO-schools. One may wonder whether the system itself is designed to give no chance for students to learn a language properly, or to economize on the likelihood that they will do so later anyway. For the brighter ones, some larger, comprehensive-like institutions, like in lyceums, give the possibility to upgrade their studies by shifting upwards from VMBO or HAVO level, but then they get a compulsory dead language for their efforts.

English: Education System in the Netherlands N...

English: Education System in the Netherlands Nederlands: Schema van het onderwijssysteem in Nederland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What really strikes me as a language teacher and a foreigner is that teachers at interviews and other colleagues admitted that most students don’t speak English until about age fifteen, or two or three years of instruction. This is further attested to by former student friends, who maintained that they didn’t really learn anything about English at their schools, especially at the more technically-oriented HAVO and VMBO. The stress here is on learning about the language, as if English was one of the classical, i.e. dead languages. It seems widely accepted that classical languages are necessary for higher education, which may or may not be the case from other points of view.

What is further interesting is the opinion of a colleague at an institution between secondary and tertiary institutions, where English language training for university entrance exams takes place for those who have failed first. The course at his institution consists of test- and reading practice and a little writing, but apart from occasional listening to their own reading, there’s no listening practice, and no speech practice. Out goes the complex views of language learning prevalent in the English-speaking world, or where they have strong impact. The reasons are that students must be prepared for reading almost all, or at least most, university material in English, have to write in English for their papers, and there’s no time for other activities at the course. Besides, the students can practice listening from the television, and speaking in their private lives.

This all points to a strong leaning on the grammar-translation methods of yore. At an interview, I felt that time has stopped in that one school, and since then I feel it has stopped in this country as a whole. My own experience supports the now wide-spread wisdom that teaching through grammar and translation without real communication slows down the learning process. I’ve reached a stage in my Dutch studies when I’m able to just talk Dutch without thinking first in my own language or English about what I want to say. This is the aim of all learners, but it has to be on a level when one can really express everything. I’m not at that level, so when I can’t find a word in Dutch, I try to fall back on my English, and that’s the point when I find that not only can I not say that particular word in English, which I’ve been speaking for over forty years, but in my own mother tongue either. So, how can, I wonder, Dutch English teachers effectively teach their students a foreign language through Dutch? I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the panel this at the time of being asked how I can teach without Dutch. Obviously, they have no idea about the truism that translation is a separate skill, to be taught separately from the others.

I should perhaps add that the Netherlands has a strong system of teaching Dutch to immigrants, with support from ‘vrijwilligers’, or volunteers from all walks of life. The preparatory phase for full-time employment in education, as well as with perhaps all jobs, called ‘stage’, is general, which creates the foundations of effective workers in the education as well. On the other hand, the job of teacher assistant is not wide-spread at all to the extent it is in Britain, although it exists. For foreign teachers trying to get a job here it would be a useful step.

So how does it come about that the Dutch are so proficient in foreign languages in general, and in English in particular?
As was suggested above, the Netherlands has come out on top of a recent survey of Europe about language proficiency. Irrespective of methods, this result shows a wide-spread use of second languages here. We can hear it in the streets of most towns and cities, and it not only means the use of their mother tongue by the lot of immigrants to the country, but also the use of English, German, French and other major languages. True, it’s not very usual to hear German, French of Spanish, perhaps because visiting speakers of those languages already know that if they speak English here, they will surely be able to communicate. So one hears mostly English by tourists asking for tickets, ordering hotel rooms or asking for beer at pubs, and even train or bus conductors answer them as a matter of fact.

People in the Netherlands like to travel and discover the world. One of the closest neighbours is also one of the most popular destinations: Britain. The reasons could be anything from studies or work to following a match of favourite football clubs there. Instead of animosity, there’s a strong sense of rivalry towards the English in the Netherlands. Historical animosity may already have been forgotten towards England, much more, than towards Germany. I know of young people who have been to Spain or France to work in the summer holidays, and they have gradually learned those languages, especially if they already had a course about them. I also know about German spouses or Dutch people who live in Germany, but on the whole, the use of these languages seems to be very limited. Besides personal and possibly historical reasons, these languages are also not very often used in television programmes or in cinemas. On the other hand, English-language programmes and films abound in the Netherlands. Young people have the opportunity to watch relatively good quality English soaps and at least one TV channel airs an English or American film every evening, often without subtitles, but those with subtitles also benefit learners a lot. Besides, programmes about fashion, famous people and lots of other, sometimes strange topics abound on several channels even in peak time. I have to underline the fact that dubbing is not used in this country at all. Besides, to follow university courses, one has to be able to read any literature pertaining to their subject more or less fluently, as a colleague has pointed out. All this leads to an overwhelming knowledge of English (87% of the adult population, 5th in Europe after the English-speaking countries, and Norway and Sweden, according to a recent survey here, or the latest full results downloadable here), but less so of other second languages, or the others are simply and clearly far less popular and accessible.

If we look beyond the convenient everyday use of everyman, then specialists of English, like travelling businessman, language teachers and linguists, must rely on more than watching films. The businessman meets native speakers often enough to have no problems with English, or other languages, and the Dutch are a great nation of travelling businessmen. On the other hand, they may be less great with linguistics, as far as I can see. University students, or those aspiring to become one, must rely on dictionaries. In this field, I must feel sorry for them, because dictionaries available in two languages are not unlike their Hungarian counterparts: some words are translated with only a single word, many without example phrases or sentences that would help the learner to understand the contextual use of the word or phrase, and I’ve come across several mistakes, whereby the equivalent is given in an English word that is not used or doesn’t exist in that sense. I find this mostly with my big van Dale Studiewoordenboek, but sometimes with Kramers too. It disturbs me as a learner of Dutch greatly, but this is also the source that learners of English are supposed to rely on. Enough? Hardly so sometimes. I also find it conspicuous that it’s very difficult to find the single-language English dictionaries and specialized dictionaries like slang, or phrasal-verb dictionaries here, just like it’s next to impossible to find internationally-published, modern coursebooks that abound in Hungary and other countries. I still have to dig deeper into the local offer to offer views on those, but if the Dutch coursebooks we receive at the Dutch course are anything to go by, I have little to expect in organization, methodology or life-like interest enticing the young learner.

Just as a by-thought, I’d like to add that the perhaps largest and best institution to teach English as a foreign language around the world, IH, or International House, only has no school in Europe in the Netherlands, Denmark and the two Scandinavian countries mentioned, thereby ridding their learners of English of a direct possibility of learning from native speakers, or their highly competent equivalents. May it be down to self-confidence, or self-deception, or sheer arrogance, which countries like Germany or Switzerland give a wide berth to by giving the possibility to their learners to study with IH?

Next, I’d like to give a general overview of the Hungarian system of language education. So that each post doesn’t become too long and tiring to read, I’m going to do that in the following post.

regularly updated with new ideas if possible

by P.S.

Learning languages and teaching in the Netherlands


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Learning languages means learning to communicate with people who don’t speak our mother tongue. So how do we go about it? And how do teachers go about it? Are there fool-proof methods, perhaps one method that could be perfect for every learner, and most people just don’t know about it? Or is even this question, well, amateurish? Then have a look at this:

What is, then, amateurish? Who thinks that this activity in class helps students best to acquire and use English for communication? Hardly anyone, I think, outside the Netherlands. Doesn’t this resemble the way my father used to study Latin in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Hungary? In the end, he was able to quote a few lines from some famous texts, but nothing else. And that was just as well because he and similar others never had to and still don’t have to communicate in Latin. Yet, in the

English: Main dialects, regional languages and...

English: Main dialects, regional languages and minority languages in the BeNeLux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Netherlands, Latin, along with ancient Greek, is a compulsory choice in gymnasia, the highest-ranked kind of secondary schools, the equivalent of grammar schools in the Netherlands. Besides, a teacher is required to speak fluent Dutch to be able to teach English there and at other secondary schools.

Why, should we ask! The Netherlands as a country is still very helpful to immigrants at the moment with teaching Dutch to them often free, or almost so. In my city, people can receive 3 hours of teaching 4 days a week if they have their middays free. So how do those teachers there teach their own language? Like this, may I ask?

Well, to be honest, no English, or any other languages are spoken there. The teachers speak some or good English and very occasionally help someone with a word if absolutely necessary, but it’s avoided – students have to talk and understand the target language.

This is the point: use the target language! Most English teachers would agree that this is one of the most important elements of a language class. Of course, with a modern language the aim is not to translate texts and fill tests about the language but to learn to think in that language and thereby communicate as effectively and fast as possible. Do English speakers only forward this notion so that they can get jobs around the world? True, without this aspect, nobody from America or Britain or Australia could get jobs in Eastern Europe, or further to the East, nobody could get jobs in China or Thailand, or other exotic but developing countries where English learning is needed. I wouldn’t have been able to teach English in China either. The German guest teachers couldn’t have worked in my school’s German classes in Hungary either.

Do we fail? Not at all. I haven’t failed, and neither have those whom I’ve seen in Hungary or China do their jobs in class, whose classes have been enjoyed by students who have benefitted greatly from the experience and even taught their mother tongue to the guest teacher a bit.

The different levels of education in the Nethe...

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

So why can’t I get a teaching job in the Netherlands, and neither could anyone else without fluent Dutch? I’ve been told on several occasions that this is basic if I want to teach here. I know that the law prescribes having our degrees assessed and approved by the “Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap”, the Dutch Ministry of Education. It is necessary for all teachers from abroad, for obvious reasons. But I am not usually asked about it even when I am sometimes not rejected outright without any serious explanation. The few times somebody got to communicate with me about my application, I was asked instead how I keep contact with the students, with the parents and the colleagues at school without fluent Dutch.

Fluent seems important because at these occasions we communicated in Dutch all right. Still, it didn’t suffice. May I ask if my job is to teach English, or to chat and bide my time with the students? For the heap of money I would get, in comparison to my Hungarian salary at least, I’d happily do that, but no, no way.

I would also very much like to know who can decide what it means to be a fluent speaker of Dutch on the basis of a two-minute telephone conversation in which I’m praised for my language level but told outright that still, being a foreigner, I can’t speak fluently. What if I can? How does anyone know if I’m not given a chance?

On the other hand, earlier, when I was interviewed once, the panel didn’t want to hear my English at all. I wasn’t even asked how well I could speak. They asked me, in Dutch only, how I could keep in touch with everybody only in English. As if nobody here, no parents and no colleagues could speak English in this country, which, according to the EU report published recently and downloadable here, is on top of Europe with regard to foreign language competency, especially to English. At the end, my interviewrs admitted that at  around age 14 or 15, their students didn’t speak English. They start English teaching at the beginning of secondary school at least, at the age of 12. How could they not teach them some reasonable level of English in two or three years?

Very possibly with methods seen above in the first example. People learn English later, outside school, from TV, films, music, whatever, and by travelling to the other side of the English Channel. Easy. For school as well – people will learn English without them doing anything serious. Except tests for those going to university. Thus is the English level of  an applicant not really important at all, but his/her Dutch is of utmost importance.

My further question is, how could teachers here be so incompetent?

Possibly, because they haven’t had to learn the language in language classes either. Perhaps they’re just jealous of their positions. Isn’t it their job to teach English? Do they not do their job? Yes, lots of foreigners could do it a lot better.

by P.S.

Hello world!


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Een beeld van een leraar in Amsterdam

Learning languages means learning to communicate with people who don’t speak our mother tongue. So how do we go about it? And how do teachers go about it? Are there fool-proof methods, perhaps one method that could be perfect for every learner, and most people just don’t know about it? Or is even this question, well, amateurish? There’s a lot of research going on about the problem of helping students and of students trying, or quite often not even trying, to use ways that help the memory, the understanding, the spoken or written communication, the correctness which most call, correctly or less so, grammar. As a student of English in Hungary and a teacher ever since, I’ve listened to lots of wise thoughts about it all at university and at conferences, and even sometimes contributed somewhat. I’ve attended very many classes by other teachers too, mostly while it was my job to train young English teachers at my own school for the university. But most teachers would attest to it that teachers learn to do their job mostly by doing it as best as they can. So here I don’t want to pursue research projects, only to share experiences about this whole process, and mostly with a view to the situation in the Netherlands, which I’ve come to find, well, strange, in spite of this nice statue in Amsterdam.

After working in language education for so long, and getting so little response in the Netherlands, I’ve decided to open up to the world and put my ideas to the test on this site. I would like to receive comments on what I say because I would like to go on learning about language education here or anywhere.

I would advise my readers to go about the articles in chronological order, it would make more sense I think. If the reader finds them provocative, it’s because I intend them to be so. I believe that my provocation has a better chance to provoke or invoke contrasting ideas, without which my own ideas, coming from one person only, may prove to be limited, or one-sided, therefore not true or realistic enough. Besides, feedback is a central tenet of the British teaching ethos, right?

by P.S.