Teachers

I ask in all seriousness: what attributes would you expect of the ideal teacher?  I have today undertaken some training, and this was one of the questions we were asked.  The answers – adaptability, fairness, flexibility, empathy, sense of humour, were all as you might expect.  Where my fellow educators and I parted company was over my suggestion that “passion for the subject” should be included.  Likewise, they dismissed knowledge – what you needed to teach at primary level, they said, was nothing that you could not mug up the night before.

Actually, I am scandalised by this.  I am, though, but a lowly Behaviour Support Assistant, so what do I know?   What I do know is that independent schools consistently perform better than state schools, and that all independent prep schools teach separate subjects from Key Stage 2 (eight years) onwards. 

From September, I shall be off to learn how to become a teacher – at primary level, with a language specialism.  I don’t think that I shall be able to “mug up” my language the night before I teach my class.  One of the teachers today suggested that he was compelled to teach RE, but he did not have any sort of passion for the subject; indeed would not have considered it at all were it not a requirement of the national curriculum.  To this I say that perhaps he is not, then, the most inspirational teacher of this subject that his pupils (not students – and particularly not students in primary schools) have encountered.

I am passionate about modern languages, even though I do not have a degree in the subject, and may not be the wisest exponent of the subject that my pupils have ever met.  What I do offer them, though, is both passion and a belief that languages are worth learning.  This is why I am off to France tomorrow: to hone my skills.

There is much to be said about both language teaching and learning in modern Britain, and I may well return to this in another blog.  I know, though, that for many primary teachers, MFL (Modern Foreign Languages) is simply another subject to be shoehorned into an already overloaded curriculum.  For me, it allows for the teaching of just about anything in a different way.  You can have fun with languages: you can play games and read picture books, and while you are at it, you will be improving your pupils’ literacy and opening their minds to a new way of thinking, both literally and figuratively.

But I still think that a degree of sheer knowledge is required before you can hope to impart what you know to expectant children.  It is all very well to be told that “all teachers are graduates, so you take as read that level of expertise”:  I have worked with people with reputable degrees from sound universities who proved themselves incapable of stringing together a sentence, and who were surprised when I pointed out that a subject and finite verb were not optional extras, but a sine qua non of writing a sentence.

Everyone has an idea of what education should be, and what makes a good teacher: we have all been to school and we remember, for better or worse, our own schooldays.  I think fondly of many of my teachers, and of what made them memorable.  Dedication to their profession was one thing: knowledge and passion for their subject was another.  If the teacher is not sure of what he is teaching, what hope for his hapless pupils?

53 thoughts on “Teachers”

  1. Squarepeg – at the end of a long career, mostly in law, I ended up as a TA in a secondary school in Feb 06. In Sept 08 was I was made up to an HLTA and in January of this year I was appointed Tutor and Teacher in a class of autistic children (as an HLTA). I am going to reply to your post sometime before Sunday night as I want to spend time preparing what I want to say. I want to say it well! Thanks for an interesting blog.

  2. Papag –
    Many thanks for that, and I shall look forward to reading your comment. I had better point out, though, that I shall be away until Sunday 20th.

  3. I don’t wish to sound grumpy, squarepeg, but having been a secondary teacher of modern languages I and many of my colleagues wish the government had not added it to the primary curriculum. An unenthusiastic teacher, of the sort you describe, can cause more harm than good. Too often we had pupils arriving in the first year of secondary school announcing they had “done French”, but unable to put pen to paper to write it. This is very disheartening for them, as you can imagine.

    That said, I hope you enjoy your time in France and your training. You sound like the sort of primary teacher most secondary teachers would love.

  4. nothing worse than an unenthusiastic teacher. my Chemistry teacher at school had completely lost interest in the subject, he had enrolled for a computer science degree to start the following autumn, and he killed my interest in the subject. I taught physics at university where there is no one to check up on you, but even if you know the topic, you still have to work out what you are going to say if you are going to be even halfway coherent. Seems that must hold for any subject.

  5. I wish you all the best, we need teachers with passion for their subjects. I think a properly functional education system is one of the most crucial services a country can offer her demos–second only to military protection from conquest(including of course, from the EU). I think the sign of a fine teacher is the legacy left to his or her pupils, it’s one that makes an individual pupil genuinely interested in pursuing a subject beyond the school term. Teachers though must also not be deterred by the frivolities of even the most seemingly interested pupils.
    Funnily enough, I was inspired to learn about political history when at 15 a girl a rather fancied told me I knew nothing about the subject; I was determined to prove her wrong.
    I still love politics and history and have no idea where she is or why I fancied her–school is a funny place.

  6. In a somewhat related topic, I think schools ought to offer more diverse choices in modern languages than(without causing offence) languages of irrelevant countries like France and Germany. Just as people in Asia are rekindling a love for English, I think schools in the UK and right round the Occident should put an increased emphasis on Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

  7. Squarepeg – as a teacher, this is something in which I have more than a passing interest…so I have come up with a list of qualities that I think every teacher should have.
    1.Passion for the subject – an absolute pre requisite. That cursory knowledge of Voltaire which may have got one a first in French literature may seem a million light years away when Year 11 are idly yawning, flicking paper at one another, or jabbing each other with compasses during GCSE revision sessions…but it is still, nevertheless, a shining light..
    2.The ability to compromise. Very useful when negotiating the sweat-filled ranks of bottom set year 10 French – all boys, on a Friday afternoon.
    3. Recognition that the grudging concession, ‘well, you’re well better than our last teacher. She/he was well crap’, is a serious, heavyweight compliment.
    4.The ability to laugh at yourself when you make a total fool of yourself, yet again, in the name of whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.
    5.The ability to maintain a stern mask when you are laughing inside, or to launch into your strict persona of sergeant major at any given required moment.
    6.A willingness to deal with the tome of paperwork pouring from pigeonholes, classrooms, to and meetings in the name of efficiency.
    7.Acceptance of at least two hours’ extra work in evenings, be it marking, preparation or whatever.
    8.Realisation that during lunchtimes, you will inevitably find yourself marking, doing extra teaching or patrolling corridors, or on bus duty.
    9.A readiness to launch into ‘anger management’/crowd control mode at the drop of a hat, regardless of exhaustion, PMT, or personal issues.
    10.A genuine liking for kids. And yes, I mean teenagers. They are bright, funny, and sparkling; they never cease to amaze. They see things and dream of things that we left behind long ago…

  8. Adam, that was the thinking behind Labour’s disastrous decision to ditch compulsory GCSE Languages and introduce them at primary…the idea that we can diversify; offer Urdu, Mandarin, etc etc. Very laudable in principle but the reality has been piecemeal and shoddy since there are very few language specialists who can offer those languages. Where I live, you would be hard pushed to find a state secondary school which offers French, since they all teach anything but.
    But apart from the practicalities, I honestly believe that the utilitarian function of language learning has been emphasised far too much in state education, and that languages like French and German bring a huge amount of cultural and linguistic enrichment to our schools.
    Latest I heard is that Cameron wants to bring back physics, biology and chemistry in place of the watered down version that we have at present in schools. I say that is good news, and I hope they do the same with traditional languages.

  9. Claire,
    I agree with Dave’s decisions in respect of science. Don’t though be fooled by the Labour fecklessness on language. Under the Raj one of the largest nations in the world became fluent in English(amongst all but the impoverished–which would have changed had Churchill been listened to in 1935). This was accomplished not by Labour’s half hearted approach but through old fashioned strict education–the kind that bashed knowledge into people without remorse. If traditionalism was brought back we could accomplish what I desire.

  10. Claire, also. I’m not sure the situation where you live, but are the teachers of Hindi, Urdu and other Asian languages at a secondary level competent teachers?

  11. Adam, I agree wholeheartedly re traditionalism. Grammar became a dirty word in language teaching for a long time – I recall being told at teacher training college that we just weren’t to touch it.
    In my experience, Adam, native speakers who are not trained teachers have to be drafted in to teach things like Mandarin. In the case of the Asian languages, since many of the local immigrant population speak these languages at home as their mother tongue, the qualifications in Hindi, Urdu etc have become something of a fast track route to easy exam results for their schools.
    Of course, there are exceptions. Many good schools do offer trial Mandarin/Urdu to a select few of their brightest students, but on the whole, the teaching of traditional European languages like French, German and Spanish is what they do best.

  12. Very enlightening Claire, tis much appreciated. I think that we most certainly need to shift emphasis to the Asian languages as they are far more important to the world today–just as ironically they were in 1900 when more people in Britain realised this truth.

  13. Adam Garrie :

    In a somewhat related topic, I think schools ought to offer more diverse choices in modern languages than(without causing offence) languages of irrelevant countries like France and Germany. Just as people in Asia are rekindling a love for English, I think schools in the UK and right round the Occident should put an increased emphasis on Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

    Germany is not an irrelevant country — it’s one of the world’s top exporters, one of the world’s epicentres for engineering, and one of the most fiscally sound countries on earth. France, while not the country it used to be, is still one of the world’s cultural centres and the French language is spoken by well over 100,000,000 people.

  14. Christophert,
    That may be true, but Germany and France both stand in the tall shadow that is India, and the world’s not seen anything yet in respect of India.

  15. Pas de probleme, Adam. Sans les accents, malheureusement (:
    I would argue for the continuation of traditional languages; French, German and Spanish are part of our linguistic and cultural heritage.
    I think that schools would struggle to find qualified teachers to teach the Asian languages and Mandarin. And because of the linguistic and geographical distance between ourselves and these languages, as opposed to French and German, I daresay even the most gifted pupils would struggle to achieve anything beyond pigdin speak.
    That’s my hunch, as a linguist and a teacher, but I could be wrong; I am not a specialist in secondary language acquisition theory. And just because a subject is a challenge is not reason enough to abandon it, I suppose.

  16. Adam Garrie :

    Christophert,
    That may be true, but Germany and France both stand in the tall shadow that is India, and the world’s not seen anything yet in respect of India.

    Oh, I agree with you — in my opinion India will become Asia’s dominant power in the mid-to-long term. It has its numerous problems but is dealing with them from the ground up and its government has concluded that it has only been impeding the ability of the Indian people to push the country to a greater future and is getting out of the way. I have also noted that India’s successes, as contrasted to those of China, have come from the Indian people — not from government policy. That always bodes well for a country’s future. The emphasis on teaching Asian languages should be increased, absolutely — but things still need to be kept in perspective.

  17. Claire,
    I accept the argument about lack of qualified teachers for Asian languages. This is something that ought to be rectified. But I see no cultural heritage between Spanish, French and German and British culture. If one wants to talk about philology, the Indo-Aryan languages are the father languages of all the Indo-European languages including Greek, Latin and all the Romance as well as Anglo-Saxon languages.
    As for cultural heritage, Britain is far more related to India though both history and immigration than to France, Germany or Spain–whose history is written in pages of violence of which I needn’t remind you at this late hour.
    The future of the world is Asia–the great past traditions of The UK are intertwined with Asia–time to apply this algorithmic logical correctly. Such is my message to this or any Government.

  18. Christopher, yes; there are lots of sound economic reasons for the study of German and French that we were always parroting at students in my last school. Things like, ‘people who speak French earn, on average, eight per cent more than those who do not.’
    No idea if it’s true by the way.
    But I come back to the cultural dimensions of the thing. We have lost so much of our cultural heritage in watered down education over the years. Extracts of Shakespeare for coursework – instead of a whole Shakespeare for an exam; the wholesale abandonment of texts like Paradise Lost and th Faerie Queen because they are deemed ‘too difficult’. Pidgin Mandarin instead of a good solid grounding in French or Latin.
    It’s late. Don’t get me started 😉

  19. Claire, I have to laugh, you and other teachers spouting pro-European propaganda(albeit rather harmlessly in your case) without knowing if it’s true, is so manifest of the corrupting attitudes of Pan-Europeanism. It would make one laugh if it didn’t boil the blood.
    But yes, I’m with you completely on great English literature as well as the need to have teachers of ALL languages be as highly qualified as possible.

  20. Adam; it is late for arguments about etymology!
    Yes, Indo European languages are derived from Sanskrit.
    But in order to see the relationship between words and ideas, and to appreciate the logic of how grammar functions, I believe that the study of European languages must come first.
    Forty per cent of the English lexicon is derived from Norman French, which accounts for our wide vocabulary base, and this is something that can be immediately evident even to the least able of secondary school pupils.
    Linguistically, leaping straight from English to Asian languages, unless you are actually Asian, is something of a tall order. That’s not to say it isn’t achievable in the right circumstances, but I suspect what we are seeing right now, in the teaching of Asian and Mandarin in our schools, is a token gesture aimed at pandering to multi culturalism, which is piece meal and arbitrary and destined to leave pupils with nothing more than a smattering of pidgin vocabulary, rather than serious, academic learning of foreign languages.

  21. claire2 :

    Christopher, yes; there are lots of sound economic reasons for the study of German and French that we were always parroting at students in my last school. Things like, ‘people who speak French earn, on average, eight per cent more than those who do not.’
    No idea if it’s true by the way.
    But I come back to the cultural dimensions of the thing. We have lost so much of our cultural heritage in watered down education over the years. Extracts of Shakespeare for coursework – instead of a whole Shakespeare for an exam; the wholesale abandonment of texts like Paradise Lost and th Faerie Queen because they are deemed ‘too difficult’. Pidgin Mandarin instead of a good solid grounding in French or Latin.
    It’s late. Don’t get me started ;)

    Those who speak a second language generally speaking earn somewhat more than those who do not,
    that is true of any language. I was very lucky — my teachers forced us to read Shakespeare in its entirety and gave us exams on it. We had to deal with it, we had to work with it. It really inspired me to branch out into my own studies and go further.

    As for Mandarin… Well, I will leave that subject alone… It seems inevitable that I will learn Japanese and Mandarin because my personal life is becoming increasingly entwined with Japan and Taiwan. The thing that frightens me about Mandarin is the writing and having to learn the 3 romanisations used in Taiwan.

  22. claire2 :

    Adam; it is late for arguments about etymology!
    Yes, Indo European languages are derived from Sanskrit.
    But in order to see the relationship between words and ideas, and to appreciate the logic of how grammar functions, I believe that the study of European languages must come first.
    Forty per cent of the English lexicon is derived from Norman French, which accounts for our wide vocabulary base, and this is something that can be immediately evident even to the least able of secondary school pupils.
    Linguistically, leaping straight from English to Asian languages, unless you are actually Asian, is something of a tall order. That’s not to say it isn’t achievable in the right circumstances, but I suspect what we are seeing right now, in the teaching of Asian and Mandarin in our schools, is a token gesture aimed at pandering to multi culturalism, which is piece meal and arbitrary and destined to leave pupils with nothing more than a smattering of pidgin vocabulary, rather than serious, academic learning of foreign languages.

    It isn’t that bad, really — depending on what ones studies.
    Japanese, for example, is a non-tonal language with a very manageable grammar. The writing system is rather difficult but, all things considered, is a blessing in disguise. It is, by and standard, a difficult language but not one that is impossible to learn. The languages of India are also highly approachable. Even though English is a Germanic language it remains very difficult to learn other Germanic languages — especially German which has a grammar that only a masochist would willingly study.

  23. Claire,
    I don’t see how learning the languages of the future is pandering to multi-culturalism any more than learning French is. As I said, ALL languages are crucial to learn, but politically, historically and economically some hold more relevance–for this age there is no doubt which languages these are.

  24. Yup, with you all the way, Squarepeg. Funnily enough, this came up talking to a friend as we were going along to a Science Festival event. I was telling her that I really enjoy hearing about the latest studies and discoveries and what’s coming up in future from distinguished speakers at the Festival, yet at school, I was turned off chemistry and physics at by teachers who, while knowledgeable, lacked enthusiasm or the ability to spark the curiosity and wonder that I always felt about biology. I also got the feeling, because they never really related to me, that they were really subjects for boys, so it was ok for me not to be too bothered. A tragedy really. It was only with my own boys and visits to the Science Museum that I realised that my teachers had failed to communicate even the basics in any meaningful way. Same with my pal, who said she dropped sciences as soon as she could and didn’t understand anything about physics and chemistry at all.

    So yes, I’d say knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are vital plus the ability to engage individual pupils. It might be just the way I worked, but I responded hugely to encouragement. I did well in all the subjects where I liked the teachers and their style, which inevitably involved feeling they were actually genuinely interested in the business of getting me, as a person, to do better. This pattern was repeated with my own kids and I think that this holds true all the way through from infant reception to sixth form.

    I’ll shut up now but I wish you well, Squarepeg in your continuing career. Sounds as though you’ve got it right.

    Actually no, I’m not shutting up before saying “Hurrah” to Claire’s comments, which are heartfelt and genuine and her assertion that a genuine liking for kids is necessary too, to enable teachers to do all of the above.

  25. Adam Garrie :

    Christophert,
    That may be true, but Germany and France both stand in the tall shadow that is India, and the world’s not seen anything yet in respect of India.

    Now I know you have lost your marbles, if you ever had any.

  26. But back on thread, the worst aspect of language teaching prevalent in the UK and btw in Denmark, is that most teachers are are not native speakers of their subject language. No matter how many exams most teachers pass, they don’t know a foreign language well enough to teach its beauty and intricacies properly. It’s why, here in DK, that many sixth-form students go off to summer schools or spend academic years abroad – to learn the languages among native speakers. Far better for everybody if the school unions here allowed non-Danish teachers (yes, that’s the problem here but in the UK, who klnows?).

  27. Adam –
    Multi culturalism? What I’m talking about is tokenism. When current modern foreign languages policy was launched a few years ago, my heart sank. This was because I could see that the sudden push for languages in primary as well as Urdu, Asian languages etc spelled disaster from the outset.
    Many secondary schools in inner cities simply closed their language departments, since it was no longer obligatory for students to learn languages; thus effectively closing off a qualification/career in languages to a generation of students. Suddenly, instead of a single coherent policy of modern foreign languages at secondary level, we saw the fragmented and incoherent teaching of languages at primary. Primary teachers, despite their best efforts, are not linguists, and the subject was bunged on primary headteachers’ ‘to do’ lists with no forethought or provision. Add to this a ‘pick n mix’ policy of delivering whatever language happens to be cheapest/most readily available – be it SPanish, Mandarin or Urdu – then you start to get the picture of what is a distorted, cheapskate, ineffective national policy on modern foreign language teaching.
    So I’m sorry to say this – since I personally have no issues with learning the language of immigrants to this country – but the introduction of the Asian languages and Mandarian to our schools has not helped, and if anything, has further fragmented what is already a disastrous national policy on languages. If a primary headteacher can say that a teaching assistant – often very low paid – is delivering Mandarin CHinese or Spanish to five pupils once a fortnight, that headteacher can ‘tick the box’ of government requirements… But I ask you, is this kind of tokenism a substitute for serious, coherent language teaching which enables all teenagers to leave school with a qualification in a foreign language?
    That is why I say that, in most cases, ‘multi culturalism’ in modern foreign languages has been used as a cover up for cuts and closures.

  28. claire, I agree entirely. The world is so small these days that every child needs exposure to something ‘foreign’ but I reiterate my earlier point – only if it is authentic.

  29. Janus – interesting comment there. I have been told I have native level French, at least in spoken French, and have often been very surprised to discover that colleagues do not have the same level of confidence/ability. There used to be loads of French and Spanish native speakers who were teachers in Leeds – most went home when they lost their jobs a few years ago.
    It does require a bit of effort to maintain a level of expertise in a modern foreign language, particularly when teaching at A level. But I disagree that you can’t teach the beauty and intricacies of a language if you’re not a native speaker. You just have to make sure that your own knowledge and preparation of the subject are still of a high standard.

  30. Back to the point of the blog, I would sit firmly in the camp of knowledge of a subject andpassion to teach as vital attribute for teachers. Teaching is not just a job, it’s a calling, and we no longer recognise this. In primary and secondary school I was taught by eachers who wanted to teach, and that makes the difference.

    On languages, you are talking crap, Adam. The influences on our language, and culture are rooted in Europe, not Asia. You clearly understand little about Asian culture – or history, European or Asian, for that matter – if you argue that

    I see no cultural heritage between Spanish, French and German and British culture

    and

    Britain is far more related to India though both history and immigration than to France, Germany or Spain

    European cultural influence in the Raj was confined to a thin skin of the elite and the educated, mainly for government over a huge bubble of stubbornly Indian culture – not that I am saying this was a bad thing, just that it was the case. In China and Japan, the cultural influence was small to the point of vanishing. A few Indian loan words in English do not represent a great cultural influence on the language.

    (Aside.)Chinese is not, in fact, a difficult language to learn, even writing Chinese is a matter of application, rather than any real difficulty.

    You also miss the point that, to operate in an international environment, anywhere, the language you need to learn is English. It is, de facto, Terran, and this is not going to change in the foreseeable future, there is simply too much social mmomentum behind it. This may change, and there is no good reason why it shouldn’t, but not for a few generations. (It is true for my generation, for my children’s and for my grandchildren’s and, given the afore-mentioned momentum, is likely to be true for my great- and great-great grandchildren’s generation also.)

    None of this is to say that learning a foreign language is not a good in itself, quite the contrary and I agree with those who argue that learning a foreign language should be compulsory in our secondary schools. What that language is, I care not, though I do lean towards a European language for the majority.

    The first language that children should be taught is, however, English – there was an excellent article by Samir Raheem on how we are failing our children in that regard here: herehttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7817602/English-Examinations-Have-they-got-easier.html

    There was another good article on more general failing in education policy here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/7822520/Academies-can-succeed-where-the-grammar-schools-failed.html Quote:

    A curriculum which excludes any depth of knowledge, exams which are laborious but untesting, grades which tell lies, universities which can no longer choose candidates on merit, and a wider culture which is obsessed with “accessibility” and terrified of seriousness – all these are the symptoms. Illiteracy, innumeracy, inarticulacy, a reduction of social mobility and a decline in business competitiveness and professional standards – all these are the results.

    But back to Squarepeg’s point. We need teachers who are passionate to teach; we need to restore the respect that the teaching profession once enjoyed; to do that, we need to let teachers teach, and, in infant and primary schools in particular, we need to let them teach children to read, write and figure – without a solid foundation in these core skills, how is further education possible, I mean, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t it blindingly bloody obvious? (Aside: not, apparently, if you are a sociologist, or a student of ‘education.) Get rid of all the other baggage we have loaded onto our primary schools and most of the ‘issues’ surrounding modern (UK, and, specifically, English,) education go away.

    I’m with Squarepeg all the way on this, give us teachers with passion.

  31. PS 1. Appologies for the length, Squarepeg, I came late to the thread.

    PS 2. Claire, not sure I agree about native speakers, entirely, it is, clearly. best, but a good teacher can teach a foreign language as well as any other subject. In the dim and distant days of my youth, the norm was a UK graduate teaching with a language assistant – a just graduated or third year student – providing the native element.

  32. Bearsy, I spoke much better mandarin than most of my HK colleagues – I once had a policeman in China turn to me and ask me what one of my HK colleagues had just said 🙂 If you want a giggle, ask a HK friend to say ’44 purple stone lions,’ in Mandarin. (Sishisi zhi ze shishi.)

  33. Claire, I have emailed and no response.

    Did you know you’d won the creative writing comp on MyT?

  34. Sorry to barge in on the thread like that, Squarepeg!

    What does a teacher need?
    Real interest, and knowledge, in the subject and the child – and empathy to discover blockages and the whys and wherefors of these ‘blockages’

    I have a friend whose children are bright, but who have reached a ‘stumbling block’ around 14-16 and it has been the perception of some teachers that they had become lazy, whereas in fact they had artfully (not intentionally) been disguising a dyslexia problem, recognised by certain teachers with understanding and empathy, allowing them to fly again.

  35. Claire,
    I agree that in language like everything New Labour did it was half-hearted and ill motivated. I want schools that teach all languages well–with an added emphasis on the languages of the future. I think Bearsy’s example is rather eye opening too, in that respect.

  36. Bearsy, I agree that no child has an innate predisposition to learn any particular language as their mother tongue, of course, but the ability to absorb a second or third language is much easier if there are similarities between those languages and the mother tongue.
    There is a common base of vocabulary and grammatical frameworks within European languages, and by that I mean those of Germanic and Romance origins.
    I come back to my point about French vocabulary forming 40 per cent of the English lexicon; the sheer fact of this alone is enough to facilitate the learning of French for an English native speaker.
    Similarly, many German friends have told me that English is ridiculously easy for Germans because our grammar is not particularly complicated, and the accent is very similar.
    That said, I have found myself in the strange position of being able to pronounce French Arabic names properly when French people can’t, because of the English ability to pronounce ‘h’ in English, which French people just cannot do. So that leads me to conclude that while there is a common base for European languages, one can always encounter all kinds of weird and unforseen phonetic and lexical to-ings and fro ings between many civilisations and languages which initially appear to be very far removed from each other.

  37. Adam, I agree whole heartedly with you on Labour’s languages policy.
    I would also like to see a return to traditionalism in a wider, literary and cultural sense. Where would we be without Goethe, Moliere, Rousseau? And where would I be without Voltaire…? 😉

  38. But that would mean that English and French speakers couldn’t properly say Khartoum(with an ‘h’ sound not a ‘k’)–I don’t think it’s too difficult at all, but I understand what you mean. Many people it seems have most jaundiced and rigid tongues.

  39. Pseu, thanks for that; sorry I have been locked out of email for days now.
    I will take a wander over to dark side and see for myself…

  40. They can’t say words like henna. I found myself at a sort of henna painting party in Paris a few years ago -sort of like the Muslim version of a hen night I suppose. Lots of Islamic wailing, headscarves and funny sweet cakes. The bride, second generation French Tunisian girl, kept going out to get changed into a new glittery outfit every half hour or so. And I got painted in henna. There were some older women there in burkas and whatnot who didn’t speak a word of French or English, so we couldn’t communicate, but it was kind of funny that the one thing we could say – that the French arabic girls could not even begin to pronounce – was ‘henna’.

  41. Claire,
    What a lovely little story. It is funny that some people can train their tongues more easily than others. The native French speakers just could’t get past the ‘h’ dropping–incidentally, the cockney ‘h’ dropping is a legacy of Huguenot migrants in the East End.

  42. Squarepeg I think the answers given by your colleagues sum up what is wrong with Britain’s educational system. A passion and knowledge of the subject is vital. A pupil can only learn so much by force. He will learn a great deal more if he has a desire. A teacher, through his own passion and knowledge, can instil in that pupil a desire to learn that will achieve far more than would be the case with one who knew the minimum required to complete the curriculum.

  43. Really? I love stories about the history of dialects.
    Most English people I know cannot hear the phonetic difference between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French. To a French person, it’s a dead giveaway sign of a person of English origin.
    French people, as is widely known, have difficulties getting their tongues around the various pronunciations of ‘th’ in English.
    English is spoken from the teeth, the tongue; it’s like a dance of nasal tones, the palate, tongue and teeth. French concentrates more on the back of the tongue and the throat.
    I’ll shut up now.

  44. Very interesting Claire. Did you know that the modern RP actually owes much to French dialects? There’s a great book by Professor J.C. Wells on this subject.

  45. Really? In what sense?
    I would love to have Received Pronunciation. I would even go as far as to say that its impact on a person’s social standing/mobility is worth its weight in gold.
    Annoyingly, I was teased about being a scouser today. Which I am most certainly not. Strange how even the slightest hint of intonation can betray a linguistic influence from a very short time span.

  46. By the way Claire, I thought your number for the proportion of English words derived from French was a bit skewed. From ‘Ask Oxford’ – website of the OED:

    It is very hard to make this estimate, particularly as many words reached English, for example, from Latin by way of Norman French. However, the result of a computerized survey of roughly 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973). They reckoned the proportions as follows:

    * Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
    * French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
    * Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
    * Greek: 5.32%
    * No etymology given: 4.03%
    * Derived from proper names: 3.28%
    * All other languages contributed less than 1%

    http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutenglish/proportion

  47. That depends what your source is. I got into a bit of a ding dong on this in front of a class with another English teacher a few years ago. Some etymologists put the figure as high as 50 per cent.
    I’ll come back to you on that.

  48. Bearsy :

    A few random thoughts –

    I wonder, Claire, where you get the idea that Asian/Chinese languages are difficult to learn “unless you are Asian”? There is no in-built facility in any race to predispose a child towards a particular language group.

    One of the funniest things I have seen was in a basic Mandarin class, where all the students but one were English native speakers, the odd one out being a native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong. Mandarin, as you know, only has 4 tones (plus neutral), whereas Cantonese has either 7 or 8 (I forget which). The poor girl could not get her head around the simplicity of 4 tones. While the rest of us struggled to include tonality into phonemes, she struggled to exclude them. Our teacher, who was native Mandarin speaking, but fluent in Cantonese, English and about a half dozen other languages, spent as much of her time berating our colleague in Cantonese as she did castigating us in English – for opposite reasons. She would take the mickey out of us by mimicking our flat speech, and then mimicking the warbling efforts of our co-student.

    But what a teacher. Passion, extensive knowledge of her pupils culture and an ability to link culture with language and make it all fun. “Don’t think English – don’t translate, BE Chinese, communicate directly”.

    I was always sorry that business commitments only allowed me to attend about half the lessons in the course. My wife (of the time), a Speech Therapist, emerged from the course with several ideas of application in her own profession.

    It is not so much a case of pupils’ inability to learn a different language group, but of teachers’ inability to bridge the gulf between different language systems and their associated cultures. Teachers have to know their stuff in both – being a native speaker of the target language is no help if you don’t know that of your pupils.

    Cantonese has officially 6 but there are some variants which are not usually considered separate. As you said, Mandarin has four and Taiwanese has by some counts 9.

  49. Adam Garrie :

    But that would mean that English and French speakers couldn’t properly say Khartoum(with an ‘h’ sound not a ‘k’)–I don’t think it’s too difficult at all, but I understand what you mean. Many people it seems have most jaundiced and rigid tongues.

    I can’t say it properly either, even if I am a native German speaker. The guttural sound is different than what I am used to.

  50. bravo22c :

    By the way Claire, I thought your number for the proportion of English words derived from French was a bit skewed. From ‘Ask Oxford’ – website of the OED:

    It is very hard to make this estimate, particularly as many words reached English, for example, from Latin by way of Norman French. However, the result of a computerized survey of roughly 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973). They reckoned the proportions as follows:

    * Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
    * French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
    * Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
    * Greek: 5.32%
    * No etymology given: 4.03%
    * Derived from proper names: 3.28%
    * All other languages contributed less than 1%

    http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutenglish/proportion

    There is also the matter of grammar. English grammar was influenced profoundly by Danish Norse and later on Latin.

  51. Bravo: etymologists – including those who have conducted the survey which you are referring to – all agree on one thing; that it is very difficult to pinpoint statistics for the various origins of English lexis. The survey you are referring to includes a second figure, which is the percentage of words of Latinate origin, many of which have also come to the English lexicon via French. I quote David Crystal, who says this: ‘Over two thirds of English vocabulary is Classical in origin. Often the words have entered English through French and the other Romance languages. Often the words have been borrowed from Greek and Latin directly. Often it is difficult to say which route the words have taken to enter English. But in the final analysis, the routes are not important. The words are grounded in the Classics.’
    Crystal also makes the point that French has not only played a role in shaping the English lexicon, but also its morphology – i.e., the variants of affixation within that vocabulary. So once a word is ‘borrowed’ from French, it is subject to the usual variants of affixation within English. But affixation itself – ‘ation, ance, con, trans, pre, ment’ is also derived in many instances, from French.
    Interestingly, a large proportion of the English words which can be pinpointed as clearly Norman French in origin– i.e., not falling within the lexical grey area of Latin-via-French –are words associated with power – ‘chamberlain, chancellor’, war – ‘archer, battle, siege’, law – ‘accuse’, leisure – ‘brooch, ornament’ and so on. Melvyn Bragg, in his excellent book ‘The Adventure of English’, noted that our words for meat – beef, mutton, are Norman, whereas our words for the animals – cow, sheep, are Anglo Saxon, which is a poignant indicator of how the social divisions caused by the Norman Conquest shaped our vocabulary. My students have also pointed out that texts which include lots of French affixation and words of French origin are generally of more formal registers.

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