Global Language Map
Global Language Map


I’ve been trying to learn a new language, (Castillian) Spanish, & have come across some fairly interesting stuff which you probably won’t find in the text books (but is out on the internet). So this follows on from my series about Good Writing but examines at the more atomic level of language, and how we actually learn this fundamental skill.

Firstly I went on a Celta course in Mallorca (still here). Celta is a course set up by Cambridge University which qualifies you to teach English in four weeks? From the outset (my father being an English teacher) I perceived this aim to be a bit of a pipedream but, hey ho, lets go.

Palma in January has the climate of London, but I found the cold weather the least of my problems as I tried to navigate what I could only describe as the course from hell. The main problem was it wasn’t a training course it was a four week assessment, of your knowledge of the CELTA methodology, which after two weeks I found over and underwhelming.

I can honestly say very little teaching took place as we were subjected to a daily tsunami of CELTA data with minimal help as to how to absorb or implement it. One of the constant pedagogical paradoxes is we were assessed on content the day before we were taught it.

Language teaching in Europe
You’ve got to pick a LANGUAGE OR TWO

I say teach, another paradox was the teaching often violated the CELTA mantra of show not tell .. with a few exceptions we were told, often after the fact. There was an amazing show not tell Hindi language lesson (I was born in a Hindu town) on day one, but simply we didn’t have or develop the chops to implement it.
Another CELTA mantra is that we should not go native; so when a student asked what gap-year meant we had to go through an elaborate Lindsay Kemp type mime or board exposition, rather than simply explain it in Spanish (I speak Portuguese). This was part of the CELTA methodology where you can go and teach English anywhere in the world. A laudable objective but like world peace totally unreal. Language learning as I have found out becomes more difficult when you don’t understand the native paradigm. For example, the way the Spanish use and think about impersonal verbs is significantly different … (in the Spanish collective, you can only have one head & two hands). I have experienced both monolingual & bilingual teaching in Spanish, & bilingual teaching is far more efficient. You sometimes wonder if the CELTA monolingual mantra is not just more post-colonial claptrap.

European English language speaking

In my Palma (ayuntamiento) Spanish class we just use the dictionary on our mobiles or google the word; far more prescient & efficient than doing a mime; there is a collegiate atmosphere which is participative & creates a particular cogency to the learning. Mime is a beautiful art form, but in a language class, it is often time-consuming & ambiguous. Also no need to take notes, you just cam scan the board.
Paradox’s box
Another of the many course paradoxes was that we asked to note specific language problems of the cohort & how we would remedy this in one of the written Assignments (3?). Broadly speaking the students had good receptive skills (reading, listening) but very poor speaking (writing) skills, which I learnt was a characteristic of Spanish speakers; they performed consistently well on comprehension exercises (largely fill in the blanks, true or false) but could barely say “My name is Slim Shady”. Specifically, pronunciation was consistently Spanglish, which is something I had noted in the UK; the Spanish were characteristically by some margin, the poorest speakers of English I had met in the UK. 
I duly was given the chance to bale out of the course which I resignedly accepted as I was totally at odds with the content & methodology of the tuition, the teaching methodology was at least 50 years out of date with an embarrassingly poor use of ICT (in the age of YouTube or even daily newspapers). My tutorials soon degenerated into trashing sessions to which I eventually responded in kind or maybe not so kind. A particularly heated exchange occurred after my final TP (Teaching Practice) where I eschewed the boring textbook for English Banana’s more constructive (student-centred) methodology which I was told was subversive & thus had no educational merit. The fact that good teaching relies on a high level of Teacher/Student interaction never seemed to come across the CELTA radar. I always maintained a high level of interaction with my students, but never received any credit for this. As the course progressed the more farcical was the feedback process which became very personal & unobjective, as I increasingly questioned both the content & manner of the teaching. How dare I go against their core principles. A bit scary in life let alone Education for which I was paying a small fortune.

AGE OF 2ND LANGUAGE teaching in Europe
AGE OF 2ND LANGUAGE teaching in Europe

The thing I have learnt about speaking, is that confidence (as with many things) is core to teaching & this was certainly not engendered by my feedback.

I also felt that the generic CELTA teaching philosophy didn’t adequately address the core issue with Spanish speakers; their productive (Speaking) skills. There was a lot of good content on the course (phonemes, music, connected speech, cognates et al ) but we never had the time to reflect on this content let alone develop our skill level in their application, before we had moved onto the new content. There was no coaching let alone teaching.
So I finished the course dazed & confused on what really happened, but convinced that giving someone a teaching qualification who had spelling and accent issues, was not a good standard to set for an English teaching qualification. The fact is in the UK your accent has a huge influence on how you are perceived. It’s a pure snobbery but failing to acknowledge the culture is totally bizarre. How often do we hear that the mayor of London’s father was a bus driver rather than a Muslim. Consequently, does it really help our students speak like Ken Livingstone or God forbid Alf Garnett? I found CELTA’s refusal to acknowledge R.P. , totally perverse! In addition, we were continually told the Spanish understand Grammar, but what is the point when they can’t even say what their name is?
My (Galiciana) Spanish teacher told me the story of her arriving in London after several years of English classes & not understanding a word the cab driver said (QED … nuf ennit!).

Selling English by the Euro
More disgusting than my own personal failure was the Big Brother aspect to all this; Cambridge is one of the top ten Educational brands in the world and millions flood to their products. This is a multi-million dollar global business. International House their accredited course provider divested me of €1500 plus expenses, for no end result. I made complaints to the assessor, who turned up to my interview without even a pen let alone paper; extraordinary for a professional educationalist.
The franchisee International House is a multinational (UK) organisation with revenues that must run into millions. However, on my daily schlep to the school, I passed several competitors advertising their wares. I presume IH is no better or worse that these enterprises (often charities); as J.Rotten said: “ Have you ever feel you’ve been had”.
This all may come across as sour grapes (four weeks sleep deprivation makes your capable of anything) but my proof is the Spanish are differentially such poor communicators in English.
I also consulted people who knew both the School from a personal & professional level, & the personnel involved. There was an uncanny coherence: I’m was not alone in my views about the fundamental issues with IH in Palma.

If the standard of teaching I found in IH is consistent in the commercial & non-commercial schools, I know why Spanish speaking performance is characteristically poor compared to say their next door neighbours the Portuguese. In my Spanish classes, I also found that certain students (e.g. the Chinese, Arabic speakers) found speaking Spanish very difficult, as their sound palette (Soundscape) is so far removed.  To mix metaphor it’s a bit like trying to convert a footballer to play rugby league, or a fine artist to do painting & decoration.

My Spanish teachers seemed aware but unable to deal with this; I found that they were themselves contracted by the Council (SMEA), and hence equally engulfed by the same traditional fog when it came to teaching pronunciation. In an Internet age where we can download so much information, it is still staggering; I sorted the problem by enrolling on Idahosa’s amazing course.

Conclusion: Thieves in the temple.

What the hell is going on? It’s Obrigado

Three decades ago Spain decided to stop teaching French in its schools for English. This was obviously a bit of a punt, presumably aimed at improving economic performance, and the trend towards English as the lingua franca of business. However, it has really failed. The vacuum of solid linguistic practitioners has been filled with opportunism at both the Institutional & individual level. The language industry like any is easily gamed, & I would say a fair bit of gaming is going on.
Notwithstanding a million Brits live here, the Government’s investment has had a mediocre yield where the level & quality of English speaking is poor compared to a relatively poor country such as Portugal. We have this multi-million dollar teaching machine which certainly from my experience in Spain, is not fit for purpose. Now some would say this is consistent with State sponsored education & they may have a point, but the massive difference is that often these students fund this out of their own pockets, because of a compelling motivation. Secondly with the increasing amount of globalisation does it make any sense to support this arcane colonial type of language teaching?

There are two types of people in this world: those who learn languages easily and those who struggle with them. I (and probably you) fall into the second group. I don’t even want to think about the hours (and money) spent trying to learn English when, really I hated pretty much every minute of it.

Luci Gutierrez : English is not easy

Language Yoga; a miss is good a mile
I was running over in my mind why the Portuguese could speak better English and reflected on my own experiences of speaking Portuguese in Spain; sometimes it worked sometimes it didn’t
entendo x entiendo, tambem x tambien, es x “e ,no problema (não problema)” . Whether they mishear my Portuguese or understand it … who knows?
However when I mispronounce ¨café con leite¨ /leitɛ/ para levar x café con leche para llevar/ʝɛvar/ , quente /kentɛ/ x caliente /kaliɛntɛ/ estrella /ɛstrɛla/ x estrella /ɛstrɛʝa/, or say Obrigado x complicado, they had no clue what I was saying, and this happened consistently.
So what is going on? It’s Obrigado!
In the first cases the Portuguese sound is very close (a syllable) to Spanish, so they get it instantly.
In the second a (critical) sound is missing (/kali/,/ʝɛ/) or a complete mishearing in the case of Obrigado. Notwithstanding that the stress is also critical my conclusion was that the Spanish are very wedded to critical sounds. If you stumble on a sound e.x ie, es) they can cope but when sounds are missing, comprehension breaks. There is some physics associated with this; for example where the tongue is placed, how the breath is used, and memorisation, but these things are secondary imho; as George Clinton famously said, free your mind & your ass will follow. More worrying is the fact the Spanish knowledge of their most proximate language Portuguese is so poor, as it is deemed without any importance.
The other very important factor is the Regions in Spain have their own languages, for example, Catalan, so quite often English is actually the third language.
Exposure is often cited as a problem, but we live in the era of the Internet, the Spanish know the whole Beatles/Rolling stones/ Metallica/ACDC/Bowie/M.Jackson/Jay-Z, Beyoncé/Oasis an anglophone musical canon by heart and frequently walk about with camisetas emblazoned with totally inappropriate English (I spotted the rather tepid “Wake me up before I go go ” yesterday).
On a personal level there seems a fundamental difference; from my general linguistic nouce, I can often understand by guessing, what the missing sound is. The Spanish find this kind of mental gymnastic unnecessary if not incomprehensible. This is probably a direct result of a rigid (binary) Education System, which is as much about indoctrination as Educating in a liberal sense? Some would say we have a similar system in the UK, but there is less emphasis on Grammar. I managed to somehow emerge from UK system with a functional mental elasticity to pronunciation, and vocabulary.
To learn languages well, you need this mental flexibility which it seems the Spanish Education system doesn’t seem to encourage. My conclusion is as a teacher (as in yoga) you have to reverse this rigid conditioning & utilise exercises (ditto Yoga) that develop Cognitive Flexibility certainly when it comes to Sound. As a basic minimum a student should know & recognise the basic sound elements of a language, and be able to produce those Sounds with a functional accuracy i.e. speak. This is analogous to the functional vocabulary of 500-100 words. This is often hinted at in methodologies such as CELTA, but to me, these exercises (controlled conversation) are critical to reversing this tidal wave of grammatically educated students, who can barely speak a word, let alone discuss if Trump/ Rajoy should have been elected. Like all paradigms mental flexibility has its limits & there isn’t much material to support this style, but I think it will be alot more rewarding, than students sat doing say FIB (MC), which is so easily gamed.

Is it conspiracy or cockup?

The systematic way these Schools operate leads me to believe there is an English Language mafia who control the teaching of English, and boy they won’t give up their cartels very easily. CELTA has many technical aspects which when appropriately implemented, can help deliver quality lessons. However, the (boot-camp) way its implemented imho would be comical, were it not for the egregious expense. The main issue is the Cambridge self-elected language police though, (as language is not copywriteable) English still belongs to the people, last time I looked. Whilst there is no ancien regime change, English will continue to be a difficult language particularly when it comes to speaking & this is not just confined to Spain.

  • Teaching requires a certain depth of knowledge; acquire it, it takes years. They say enjoy it but I think this comes only with a degree of skill & cohort interaction levels.
  • Facilitate don’t dictate. Leadership skills are as critical as student interaction. Ideally there should be a conversation i.e.communcation. Get students to explain themselves/self correct;it’s a beautiful thing. Let them create in a lesson. Teaching is about imagination & creativity, not fill in the blanks. Live it.
  • If you can’t go native, use the web it is often quicker & more efficient than an elaborate mime. The mobile phone is a game changer.
  • Student need profile is essential, whether written or mental. Soundscapes determine your strategy; teaching a Portuguese speaker requires a different strategy level to a Chinese, or Arabic speaker.
  • Improvisation (changing the lesson plan) is essential & unique to the classroom. language is more Jazz than Classical.
  • Teach what the cohort needs not what they think they need; your ability to analyse is presumably that’s why you’re there.
  • Tailor content to student profile; students often come with interesting back stories, exploit these as they can personalise/customise the content.
  • Use multimedia; newspapers, videos, music, internet, again stay cohort relevant. Books are more systematic but often have a short shelf life (Grammars notwithstanding), & FIB can be easily gamed..
  • English is multi-cultural, Cambridge notwithstanding, the majority speakers are not English & you need to reflect this, at some point.
  • Make the learning fun, but this does not mean cretinous games; Students are often highly educated & bright, & can bring something to your teaching: teach up not down. Pressuring students a la CELTA is to be avoided, try to have a relaxed class., where students aren’t afraid to make mistakes.
  • The Spanish have a great expression Poco Poco which literally means little (by) little but actually means we’ll get there in the end. Good teaching can improve the speed of learning but you can’t force it. Certain skills take time to acquire; it took me five weeks to pronounce enpadronamiento with any semblance of authority.
  • Care what happens in your classroom, it could be life transforming, and monitor measure & correct. At the same time a teacher’s duty is to take a student out of their comfort zone, but in as safe way. These are essential & unique teaching functions.

With respect to teaching Spanish students you need to take cognisance of the following

  • Linguistic Physics & Soundscape ( sounds)
  • A mental rigidity when adopting alien soundscapes(Education)
  • Familiarity with English popular culture (Marketing)
  • their knowledge of Grammar(Education)
  • The Riddim is gonna yet cha (Stress); Spanish is a fast rhythmic language. The Spanish will naturally export their rhythyms to English, with varying degrees of miscomprehension. however their instinctive grasp of rhythm can be enhancing if handled appropriately

Eso yo lo sé.

Celta is not without merit, but it violates many Educational tenets, and is particularly weak when it comes to speech ( pronunciation and rhythms), and hasn’t really helped Spanish speakers conquer their base problem: speaking. Also many things like bilinguality in the classroom are just plain wrong.

QED ennit!


What we are doing wrong in teaching English

 Spanish Education

Spain teaching of foreign language  begins at the latest age in Europe.

Teaching pronunciation : Phonetics are they helpful? (Richmond Univ. prezi)

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