Tuesday, September 08, 2009

BBC fail

Sometimes I really wonder whether the country the BBC reports on is the same as the one where I live. According to Aunty, we are all "gripped" by a "row" over Sarkozy's height. I can't find anything on it on Le Monde's website, and it's hardly news that he's a bit vertically challenged. If he wanted to surround himself with people who didn't make him look short, why didn't he marry Wee Jimmy Krankie?

Yet the same BBC don't appear to have picked up on the alleged bust-up between Thierry Henri and Raymond Domenech ahead of tomorrow's qualifier against Serbia. I reckon that's probably gripping a lot more French people right now.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Warning, rant ahead

I've just discovered this interview on BBC World with American expat Laurel Zuckerman. As you'll see from the interview, she's made a name for herself by writing a "docufiction" which roughly recounted her experience as a student preparing the Agrégation, which is one of the exams you can sit in order to teach in the French education system. Actually, it's not really news as the French edition of the book came out in 2007, as reported in The Guardian with an extremely misleading headline, although they, at least, interviewed other people. Here's why I think BBC World have given a deeply skewed picture of the situation in France.

Patrick Cox starts by saying "If you want to become an English teacher in a French public school, you have to go to a university and take an exam." Er, yes, just like if you want to become a lawyer, doctor, architect and so on. Why should teaching be any different? But what the article fails to mention is that Laurel Zuckerman took the Agrégation, which is the elite version of the CAPES exam I took. No mention of the fact that many "Agreges" go on to do PhDs or teach in Higher Education, where a more in-depth knowledge of the subject is required. The vast majority of teachers take the CAPES, so if you want to discuss teacher training in France, you should talk about the exam most would-be teachers actually take.

I described how the written part of the CAPES works a while ago so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that an oral presentation in English accounts for one third of the marks, while another third is based on your ability to evaluate teaching materials and discuss them with a panel, and the remaining third comes from your performance in the written exams, so Zuckerman's assertion that the ability to write a dissertation in French is more important than your level of English is just not true. In fact, being a native English speaker gives you an edge in some of the tests. And if you're going to work in the French education system, isn't it reasonable to expect a good level of French, so you can talk to your colleagues, take part in meetings, write reports and so on? If Mr Cox or Ms Zuckerman took the time to talk to any actual teachers, they would have known that there is a lot more to it than just the time you spend in front of the kids.

Patrick Cox goes on to say "it's a fairly standard assumption in language teaching circles that you're better off if you're being taught by a native speaker." I don't know where he gets that from, and in any case, it's a wrong assumption. You're better off if taught by someone who knows how to teach; at lower levels, it can even be an advantage to be taught by someone who's gone through the same process, who can understand and anticipate the problems. Zuckerman claims "In France, they constructed this whole, let's say, this idea that if you're a native speaker because you've never taken the time to really take apart the language and understand what kind of obstacles a learner might encounter, you can't explain the grammar properly." She dosn't seem to consider that that might actually be a fair point. I certainly couldn't have answered a lot of my students' questions without having done some study of the English language. When I ran a language department in an FE college in England, I was snowed under with CVs from peope who thought that just because they were native speakers, I would offer them a job despite their absence of any teaching qualification. It led to a pretty full waste paper bin.

She peppers the interview with anecdotes, like an inspector who thought that the plural of duck was duck or a teacher who mispronounced the extremely frequently used word Lutheran (because native speakers never mispronounce words ever, oh no...), but there's no evidence that this kind of thing is endemic. It's certainly not the case with any French teacher of English I've ever worked with. They may make the odd slip, just like I did when I taught Spanish, but they certainly weren't above coming to me with questions when they had a doubt about something.

Yet it is true that the level of English in France remains low compared to other European countries (though not, I suspect, as abysmal as the level of your average Brit in any foreign language). The assumption is that it must all be down to bad teaching, but I wonder. Having taught in a state school myself, I see teaching materials that encourage plently of oral practice, and not just traditional grammar-translation. In fact, the biggest resistance to more communicative approaches actually came from parents, not teachers. In the meantime, I've spoken with teachers from Holland who tell me that the approach in Dutch schools is very traditional, yet the stereotype is that they speak English better than your average Brit. Maybe it has something to do with cultural attitudes; the Dutch understand that few foreigners speak their language, so speaking foreign languages is almost as important as being able to read. Also, their foreign TV programmes aren't dubbed, so they get a lot more exposure. The French, like the British, speak an international language and the sense of urgency isn't the same.

If anyone at BBC World happens to come across these lines, feel free to leave a comment. I'd welcome the opportunity to point out to their viewers that the reality is more complicated than Laurel Zuckerman suggests. And I don't have a book to plug.