In this part of the blog I’m going to post articles about different aspects of EFL which I have come across in the different countries where I have taught and still teach: Argentina, Spain and Mexico. From Argentina I got my solid background after 6 years of seriously studying Methodology, Phonetics, Literature and furthering my studies in Spain, mainly in Catalonia, where I first plunged into EdTech and e-learning and incorporated it in my daily teaching.
The top 5 difficulties when teaching EFL to adults in Catalonia.
An Adult student comes to our EFL classes with different motivations but I’ll speak mostly of the students who attend the EOI Language Schools which do serve as reference for other language schools.
These ‘Escuelas Oficiales de Idiomas’ are spread around Spain. Students’ ages range from 16 to 70 and they come from all walks of life – from school leavers to housewives, few retired professionals who seek personal progress, some businessmen and women from different trades, but a good percentage of those (I would venture a third) are teachers or teaching staff who need their English to further up their curriculum. Their motivation will be, mainly, to learn fast, effectively and eventually get the certificates which will in turn give them a raise in their salaries.
2. L2 Exposure
The younger the learner the more probabilities he’s had English tuition previous to their first course at the EOI which does not mean he has learnt it well. Differences in levels within the same course are tangible in 2n. level, when students are asked to write longer pieces (mostly letters and narratives).
Anyway, you may be surprised to see development in students who practically did not have any L2 exposure before coming to the EOI and it’s a pleasure to see how well they do, regardless of their age. I have had 50-60 year olds to fit in that framework and I have put it down to the fact that they have strong intrinsic motivation as well as knowledge of the effort involved and are optimistic when it comes to monitoring and correcting their mistakes.
3. Institutional Demands
EOI’s initial level is an A1+ and the whole of their studies are structured in 5 levels and/or academic years, taking them to a comfortable B2 level. (At the University of Girona- ES48 for Cambridge- we would call that a B2.2 level, being the second year of an FCE course)
What the system does not say is that there will be very few students who will successfully attain the expected B2 level in 5 years. Those will probably be the ones who had previously studied English but for some reason or other quit and are now in the process of ‘re-learning’ or now start from intermediate level and go on. As far as I’ve seen, it’s impossible to reach level 5 and get the Advanced Certificate (Certificat de Nivell Avançat) if you don’t have extra coaching or you take it slowly, sometimes re-taking a course If you have not done very well.
4. Cultural barriers
There are many exercises in English which train the student’s ability to recognize what is different and account for that. Typical of this is the famous ‘odd one out’ but hold on! Catalan students are not used to doing any of these exercises. The majority will look blankly at the page and ask you to give them instructions as how to address the exercise. It seems that Spanish schools have failed in training them to spot differences and account for their discrepancies. Or give definitions either. You have to train them as if they were primary schoolboys. No harm about that, but you’ll have to be patient till they get the idea, especially in the basic level.
There are certain English consonants which are difficult to articulate for a native Catalan speaker:
– All the aspirated sounds with / p/,/ t/,/ k/
– Clusters with ‘ch’ /ʧ/. In initial position, such as in ‘child’….will be pronounced as ‘sh’. The same happens with final position ‘sh’, as in ‘watch’ ‘coach’
– The ‘r’ in car, has not the rolling effect on the tongue, they do not retract it, they just flap it as in Spanish ‘arte’ or ‘carta’.
– The ‘b’ and ‘v’ are also difficult to pronounce. This difference does not appear either in Catalan or in Argentine Spanish.
Unlike Argentinians, Catalans pronounce well these consonantal sounds: /ʤ/ and /ʒ/ because they both appear in their native language. Eg. Eng. John – Cat. Jaume-
Or in French : Eng. ‘casual’ Fr.’ Jean’
Unlike Argentinians, too, Catalan people can make the distinction between /ɵ/ and /d/ but they have more difficulty in getting the fricative / đ/ as in ‘this’.
The reason is that /ɵ/ is found in Spanish replacing the /s/ sound in many Castilian people eg. In sp. ‘cocina’ /kosina/ they pronounce /ko ɵina/
Phonetics is an aspect that pervades all the teaching. I’ve been surprised to see how little importance the teachers at the EOI’s give to it, just some in the Basic level but then, as from intermediate level, they fail to monitor their students and give them proper feedback on their progress and their mistakes. Even in Level 5, I often found myself to have to ‘re-teach’ basic English sounds, when students are supposed to have attained a B2 level.
This is nothing to be underestimated at ANY level, specifically if you’re thinking that these students will take official exams, based on the CEFR framework which has correspondence to the Cambridge levels. ‘Clarity’ in the message has to be the focus, and if any of the sounds stated above are not clearly articulated, this will probably lead to a loss of information on the recipient’s part.
It shouldn’t be difficult but…
I have recently read an article by the Guardian in which they say 80% of the students at university level are stressed. I’m not going to go into debate whether they’re stressed because we’re immersed in a system which only evaluates the results, and not the progress of each student- which, up to a certain point, I adhere to but rather, I will just focus on the teachers and their language output.
Being a teacher, I tried to put myself under their skin and see whether I was complicating things too much for them. I have tried, sometimes more succesfully than others, to recreate the teaching situations and forsee their doubts so as to come up with sensible, transparent answers. Why do I say ‘transparent’? Because I remember once being trained into developing sentences to make the meaning of a new word clear or ‘transparent’ and how difficult it was. I was already a teacher, but seeking development, I had enrolled in a Cambridge examination course (called CEELT, no longer available). I remember having trouble writing clear, transparent sentences. And as I did, I became more aware of the difficulty for the students to decode my intended meanings in their minds.
From that day on, I promised myself to make my explanations more ‘user-friendly’, simply wording them in two different ways and then check, whether they had understood. A straightfoward, out-of-the-top-of-my-hat explanation, for the sake of those who had a more advanced knowledge and a second, simpler one, paraphrasing what I had just said, to the rest of the class. And thirdly, ask for the well-known -but much obliterated- ‘feedback’ to the whole class, or only one student chosen randomly.
Stressed? It’s the teacher’s role to make the atmosphere of the class less intidmidating by giving the students the proper tools for autonomous thinking, but the teaching itself has to be done in a language that eases all possible difficulties, making meanings as transparent as possible and not feeling frustrated if the students say they haven’t understood. Simply, work out ways of saying things clearly, with a good rhythm and the proper intonation and tone.