Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Learning English on the Cheap.

This blog has always been about questioning our assumptions about each other's cultures in the hope we can reach better understanding and acceptance of our differences. One of the ways to improve understanding is of course communication, which means having a common language.

As a teacher of English in France, I strongly believe that today's lingua franca is the key to functioning in the world, and it is often said to be at the heart of global competitiveness.

Last night the French evening news had a piece on how the French have improved their use of English in the workplace.
The part that got my attention (about 20'47" into the news), was when a teacher of English corrected the pronunciation of the word "operator" by stressing the penultimate syllable [op-uh-rey-ter] instead of the usual first syllable [op-uh-rey-ter].
I don't know if you any of you English speakers have heard but it does not seem to be either British or American, and well, the jury is still out as to whether the teacher is a native speaker...
This may seem like a small mistake but from my experience stresses are the greatest obstacles to communication in English for French people. This is particularly true of words that are the same in French and English like "orange".

Of course, it can get complicated at times since British and American can use different stresses on the same word, and pronounce things differently (here) but overall, most English native speakers understand each other.

The conclusion of the news clip is that the French have been improving their English.
-1/3 of the French workers are allegedly autonomous in English. (level B2)
- to no surprise, the highest scores are to be found in the workers between 25 and 35.

Good news, right? Well, yes, of course, but as always reality is slightly more complicated.

This result comes from ETS Global, a private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization which has developed a number of worldwide famousstandardized tests for non-native English speakers like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication).

In the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), France made a national score of 748 points – an improvement of 64 points since 2004. Out of the 120 countries surveyed, France is in the first third of the group, behind Germany, but above Spain, Turkey, Greece or South Korea. (La Croix)

This particular result (which is what the news clip is based on) comes from the TOEIC exam which tests reading and listening. It is a good test but only for those abilities in the specific context of multi-choice questions which does not necessarily reflect the work environment.

The main problem is that high scores in reading and listening comprehension does not necessarily indicate you can express yourself well, either orally or in written, and as an teacher of English in France, the French have a much harder time with expressing themselves orally than with understanding a written text.

On a regular basis the French government talk about how to improve the French ability to speak English.
- they tried to have English taught in primary schools, which despite the spin has been a failure for lack of qualified teachers in English.
(when a teacher says "pick up your hand" instead of "raise your hand" 12 times a day, it is likely the kid will eventually learn the wrong expression). (see great video clips here in French)

Now they're talking about teaching English to 3 year-olds (Le Figaro) but because there's no funding for qualified teachers or even for English native assistants - every country is broke these days - the French Minister of education has suggested using "modern technologies", mostly the Internet.

A 3 year old learning a foreign language in front of a computer screen? Seriously?
Yeah... if he can spend about 12000 hours in front of the screen... he may learn it but most likely with a few other deficiencies in the process.
My mind is literally boggled that some people are even buying it.

There is not way around it: exposure is what is needed to learn a foreign language - either with a qualified teacher (in small groups over many hours) or through time in a foreign country.

NOTE: if they want to go on the cheap, they should make more movies and programs available in English with subtitles (in V.O.) or V.M.) on French television, especially on public television which NEVER broadcasts in English. Especially since with the "new technologies" like the Digital Terrestrial Television or - Television Numérique Terrestre - now available almost everywhere in France, it is quite for people easy to choose - providing there is choice

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