Inside Warsaw Wniwersity Library
I’m very pleased to introduce Aleksandra, who accepted my open invitation to NNS teachers to tell us about how they learned English.
Aliksandra lives in the north-east of Poland with her family and their dog. She studied agricultural science at university, but got drawn into the world of ELT through her determination to be a really proficent English speaker. She currently works freelance, teaching English at private language schools and doing on line courses via Skype. Aliksandra is an avid reader with a special penchant for whodunnits, she enjoys spending time in the country with her family, and I get the imnpression that she laughs a lot.
So, here’s Aliksandra’s story and her reflections on language learning; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Actually, you might enjoy it even more, particularly the bits where my favorite hobbyhorses get a gentle roasting.
I am writing this guest post, encouraged by Geoffrey Jordan, who asked me to describe how I learned English.
I started learning English at school when I was sixteen. I thought my English teacher had a great accent, very British. We used a textbook in every lesson. But what exactly did a lesson look like? So we read a text, translated it, wrote a list of new words and discussed a particular grammar point. Our Latin lessons looked exactly the same! I don’t know if the grammar-translation method is good or bad, but the lack of communicative activities – pair work, group work discussions, etc. – didn’t help me communicate in English when I went to the UK for the first time. Of course, I wasn’t aware of that then. After two years our English teacher emigrated to the US and we didn’t have English agin until our final year of upper secondary school.
When I was twenty-two I went to the UK for the first time during my summer holidays. At that time I was studying agriculture. It was a student exchange program. With a group of Polish, Czech and Slovakian students I worked Monday to Friday on a farm in Ely. At the weekends there was a lot of sightseeing, which I enjoyed a lot: England enchanted me. And what’s more, finally I got a chance to speak English. But at first I didn’t connect very well – it was like getting blood out of stone, and on my side, I struggled to understand simple conversations, and I was often lost for words. However, I wasn’t too hard on myself, I just enjoyed meeting new people and talking to them in English.
A few years later, when I obtained a degree in agriculture, I went to a language school in London to learn English. I was placed in a group at pre-intermediate level (B1) .The lessons were run in a completely different manner. First of all, the teacher was great – open, energetic. She worked the room. I don’t remember if there was a textbook accompanying the course. What I do remember is a lot of speaking tasks, problem solving activities and group discussions. The teacher also used to tell us anecdotes about her teaching experiences and life in Spain. I still remember some of the stories and even use them in my lessons if they serve the topic.
I stayed in London for two years, but I only went to school for six months. I also worked part-time in a sandwich bar. I made sandwiches, salads, coffee, and served customers. I worked with a multicultural staff from Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England. It was quite an experience, in as much as Polish society is rather homogeneous. Apart from learning names of foods and dishes, I also learned some useful words and phrases, for example instead of. Customers often asked me for margarine or mayonnaise instead of butter on their sandwich. I remember I learned that while serving customers. One day I even got lucky and saw John Cleese who popped into our sandwich bar to ask where the Tandoori restaurant was. That job helped me open up and speak English. I immersed myself in English, soaking up English and culture. I started speaking the language fluently, i.e. I didn’t have problems with communication and wasn’t afraid of speaking, but I thought my English still wasn’t good enough and I spoke with a strong Polish accent, which I didn’t like at all. I would describe it as survival English.
After two years I decided to come back to Poland. In Poland I passed the FCE exam, then CAE. For the latter, I prepared on my own – I bought a textbook, teacher’s book and cassettes. At that time I was also looking for a job and there was a local primary school looking for an English teacher. I took the plunge, I applied, and I got accepted for the job. Needless to say, I was unprepared. I remember I went to a kind of facilitator teacher to seek advice. She didn’t help me much. There was nobody to teach me the ropes. I thought I would be doing what my best teachers used to do in their lessons. However, the main thing I had to cope with was discipline. There were a lot of children with behavioral problems, but I was very determined and succeeded somehow.
I know I wasn’t the best teacher. I made a lot of mistakes, I lacked experience and knowledge (poor students!); I was learning on the job. Another thing I had to deal with was to keep students interested, so I tried to vary my lessons, make them lively. For example, I recorded parts of BBC programmes on VHS cassettes and built lessons around them, or did something else to keep them engaged. Then I signed up for a methodology course organised by the British Council. The course helped me a lot. Also, it gave me a clear path to continue my education. (By the way, the book required for the course was The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer!) My next step was to enroll in Teacher Training College. I passed the entrance exams and became a happy student. All the other students were also practising English teachers. During my studies I developed my teaching methodology and improved my pronunciation. I benefited greatly from the insights of my teachers.
My success in learning English I attribute to self-motivation and self-study. For sure, living in the UK helped me communicate fluently. But, when it comes to vocabulary, correctness and pronunciation, all these are down to self-study. The materials I used were mostly coursebooks. They seemed to be a quite obvious choice for self-study. Thanks to coursebooks I enriched my vocabulary, I also did listening exercises especially when I was preparing myself for exams. To practise grammar I used grammar reference books.
Nowadays, with the internet, easy access to information and resources, learning is easier. I read articles, blogs, the news, etc., and I’m still learning. I write down new phrases which I find interesting or useful. I choose what really interests me. I think that for me learning English has always been a conscious process, and still is. I make lists of new words, index cards, I revise. Sometimes I do exercises to recycle vocabulary or grammar. I don’t talk with native speakers, but I use English to communicate with my students. I often try to use simple language. Although I haven’t been to the UK since 2000, my English has improved tremendously. Yes, I have learned a lot from teaching. Probably, if I didn’t teach English, I would forget the language.
In regard to the role of implicit and explicit learning, I think both methodologies are effective if they are used as required. In my case I learned English both explicitly (i.e. studied grammar rules and memorized vocabulary) and implicitly (i.e. I read texts in English for pleasure, watched tv, etc.).
Learning a foreign language is a long and often tedious process. There’s no shortcut or hack. I believe that the sine qua non of successful learning is motivation. As Ushioda (2010) says:
“The analysis of motivation and its role in SLA has largely been at the level of global learning outcomes, and research has had little to say about how motivational factors relate to the interim processes of linguistic development. Thus while motivation is recognized as a prerequisite for successful SLA, the relevance of motivation research to understanding the finer detail of how SLA happens has been unclear.”
Ushioda, M. (2010) Motivation and SLA: Bridging the gap. EuroSLA Yearbook. http://www.jbe-platform.com/content/journals/10.1075/eurosla.10.03ush