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‘We can easily forget about the students’

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French-born English teacher Hélène Combe put herself in her students’ shoes by trying to learn Italian and German in just a year – and she learnt some important lessons.

Since I became an English teacher last year, a lot of people have actually asked me why I chose this kind of career – after getting a degree in business and working six years in real estate.

After all, as a French speaker, I learned English mostly by myself, by watching TV shows with subtitles on and by reading short stories, newspaper articles and movies reviews. So, why did I choose this career?

The answer is fairly simple: I love languages. I didn’t wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep with an infinite love for English. I fell in love with English at an early age. I had my first English lesson at four years old, and my teacher, back then, told my mother that I had a ‘thing’ for it! And it has never left me.

Maybe it’s the prosody, or maybe it’s the way I was introduced to the language, which was mainly through culture. I was lucky enough to travel a lot, and I have always been curious about other cultures and civilizations.

When I decided to become a language teacher, I wanted to put myself in a student’s shoes and learn a language in order to understand them, to understand the process from the inside out.

You, as a teacher, may be deeply in love with English – and British and American civilization – but the student sitting opposite you might not care a whit about this.

Somebody might be making them learn English against their will, and they may think they won’t ever need it. They already hear enough English, through the radio, music or movies. Perhaps they already have enough exposure to English in their lives and don’t feel a need for classes. After all, there are a lot of apps available, and they can revise some basic vocabulary through them.

So I thought I could do the same – with another language, of course, one that I had already encountered but never really fully studied. Around that time, I read an article about a night guard in Venezuela who learnt six languages through apps and movies.

“You may be deeply in love with English…but the student sitting opposite you might not care a whit about this ”

I was inspired by that story and decided to give it a try myself for a whole year. I chose Italian and German, bought some books, downloaded some apps, and started the experiment.

Learning a language on your own is a different experience from learning in a classroom with a teacher, so I found some friends who could help me.

Fortunately, my father being Italian, I had spent time there and still had a couple of bilingual friends.

The process was simple: I had to work myself on grammar and vocabulary, and they would help me with the conversation part of the language. I realised quickly that having a real interest in the language changed everything: within two hundred days of starting this experience, I was able to talk in Italian to waiters, to cashiers and to my friends without hesitating. The accuracy wasn’t always spot on, but let’s look on the bright side – the fluency was.

German was a whole different ball game. I had some friends (including a German teacher) willing to help me, but I was unable to generate interest by myself for the language.

It was not my first attempt, to be fair. I started to learn German at thirteen years old, but back then it wasn’t my personal choice (it was my parents’) and I guess I rejected the language because of that very reason.

I tried to do at least one exercise a day but after two hundred days I caught myself skipping the daily exercise, which became a weekly couple of exercises. I realised that the reason I couldn’t focus on German was that I didn’t like it, and forcing myself to study was leading nowhere. I am still studying German, but once or twice a week, and I know it will take me some time to achieve a decent level.

Everybody is different, and everybody learns differently. As teachers, we assume that students are dying to learn, that they are just as motivated as we are.

Being a language-learner again, basically from scratch, proved to me that as teachers we can easily forget about the students, and tend to concentrate on our subject, the language we studied for years. But what’s really important, when you teach, is the students. It’s not how you pronounce, how you talk or if you like that topic that counts. What counts most is what they need.

After a six-year career in French real estate, business school graduate Hélène Combe is now a general and business English trainer in Lyon and St Etienne, France.