Stories from Greece

If you’ve been following my summer musings you’ll know that I’m on a tiny island in Greece doing research for my MA. This involves interviewing Greek nationals about how and why they’ve learned English, and to comment on the situation in Greece in general as regards the influence of the English language.

They are asked to describe what Benson (1) calls their ‘language learning career’. I’d read in other research papers that some people can be a bit reticent about telling their life stories, but (at the risk of essentialising again) not the Greeks, it seems. In fact I’ve had quite the opposite problem : disgruntled people saying ‘So when are you going to interview ME?!’

So I’ve ended up with more data than I actually need for the assignment. But all of it valuable and in Holliday’s (2) words ‘rich’.

Some people stay on the island all year round, and others come only for some months, usually in the summer. They are from all over the country, and are of all ages and from all walks of life. As a result I’ve been privileged enough to hear lots of different and fascinating stories.

Participants had to be minimum CEFR B2. Although they were not selected on this basis, all of the people I interviewed had had private English lessons, either at a language school (frontistirio) or one to one. All of them had taken and passed the Cambridge First Certificate exam when they were teenagers.

Below is a random taster of some of the quotes from the interviews:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How were your English lessons different in the private school (frontistirio) from the state school?

– “Like night and day.” (Fay, baker)

What were lessons like in the state school?

– “In Greece, if you don’t do your reading or homework…it’s OK!” (Cassiopeia, student)

– “We did nothing. It was a play hour.” (Dimitris, unemployed)

– “I remember my friend…he used to come out of the desk and start doing push ups in the middle of the class.” (Panagiotis, economist)

– “When I was a girl…there wasn’t an option. They didn’t have English lessons…Nothing.” (Hannah, artisan)

What were lessons like in the frontistirio?

– “There it was very serious.” (Dimitris)

– “We were doing more interesting stuff like music and movies” (Costas, student)

– “I remember the first book we had. There was a character called ‘Tricky Dicky’ haha!- but we didn’t know what that meant then!. It was a nice book…nice pictures.” (Babis, student)

– “I had a very good teacher…He was good at teaching the pronunciation, how to speak with the nose and stuff like this…” (Hannah)

Why do Greek parents send their children to frontistiria?

– “Greek society. You do what your neighbour is doing.” (Babis)

– “The (state) education system in general is problematic.” (Costas)

What else helped you to learn English?

– “Music! Music!” (Eleni, psychologist)

– “Songs! songs!” (Hannah)

– “English girls! English girls!” (George, shopkeeper)

– “Oh yes I had an English girlfriend. I forgot that!” (Panagiotis)

When you speak English do you feel you behave in a different way?

– “Yes of course. It’s not me. I’m Hellenic.” (Vasilis, businessman)

– “I cannot make jokes or be that clever in English…I don’t have that sort of connection as I have in Greek.” (Costas)

– “Yes! My flatmate told me that and for me it was like a shock because I didn’t realise!” (Anna, nursery school teacher)

Who do you use English with now?

– “Just YOU! The interviewer!” (George)

What is ‘Greeklish’?

– “It’s like poison” (Fay)

– “I LOVE Greeklish!” (Costas)


Much much more to come. Watch this space…

A big thanks and a big kiss to all my new friends from the island who participated. You are the best!



  1. Benson, P. (2011). Language Learning Careers as an Object of Narrative Research in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly Vol 45. No. 3 pp545-553
  2. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. London: Sage

Friendship and Filoxenia: ‘Otherings’ or Facts?


My Greek is actually coming on. Not thanks to my ‘friendship’ (long story – I should write a book.. or better, a soap opera) but the friendship (no scare quotes), hospitality and general loveliness of Greek people. I have a bagful of scribbled notes of things that people have taught me. I don’t have a teacher, I have hundreds of them. It’s as if the island itself is willing me to learn Greek. It’s actually an incredibly effective way to learn, because I attach new vocabulary to the person or situation where I heard it, which helps me to remember.

Since my MA research is about the influencing factors on English language learning, it got me wondering about whether students of English in the UK ever meet anyone who has the patience to help them in this way. I seriously doubt it. I don’t imagine many of my respondents will say ‘I studied in England and everyone I spoke to wanted to help’. Picture a grumpy pub  landlord saying ‘Yes of course I can explain the use of the present perfect. Oh and have some free food and wine too!’

I may be wrong though. Adrian Holliday would say that I’m ‘othering’ or ‘essentialising’ (1) about my own culture. That is, I’m making assumptions based on the stereotypical attributes of people from a particular country. People in the UK are: individualistic, capitalist and hence less likely to be hospitable and give time to someone without the expectation of financial gain.

Greece, however, is a different story.

There’s even a word for this phenomenon from Greek mythology: ‘filoxenia’, which can be said to be the opposite of xenophobia. Basically, (I’m ‘othering’ again) Greek people are hospitable to foreigners.

Where do these differences come from? Is it to do with the climate? In the summer in Greece everything slows down.  And what do people do? They chill out. They chat. The other day, after shamefacedly admitting to one Greek friend that I’d just walked to the beach then done nothing all afternoon, she said ‘It’s normal to do nothing when it’s hot. And it’s a 5km walk there and back- that’s not nothing!’. Thus my busy-Britishness revealed itself. (I have henceforth decided to make an effort to do absolutely nothing for at least four hours a day in attempt to liberate myself from such embarrassing capitalist tendencies. This is actually way more difficult than it sounds, hence why I’m currently lying in a hammock… writing a blog post).

Seemingly, Adrian Holliday would do away with cultural generalisations altogether. Benjamin Whorf (2), on the other hand, famously emphasised the importance of culture on language. And from my own experience, I know there is no word in Italian for ‘hangover’ and there is no word in English for the Italian ‘dislivello’ (the difference in altitude between the start and end point of a climb in the mountains) presumably because the British drink a lot, and Italy is mountainous. There seems to be a hundred different ways to say ‘no problem’ in Greek, suggesting Greeks are chilled out people. Are these otherings or facts? And I’ve heard that in Swedish there is a word for the inside of your elbow. Goodness knows what that means…

I agree with Holliday insofar as stereotypes are dangerous…But surely some differences are to be celebrated and enjoyed?



1. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. LA:Sage Publishing

2. Whorf, B. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Retrieved 21.01.17 from:




‘Friendships’ and L3 acquisition on the beach

At the risk of sounding narcissistic, for my MA dissertation I’d planned to study myself. That is, my L3 acquisition experience here in Greece. Unfortunately the proposal looked more like a PhD thesis: too much stuff. So instead I’m going to research language identity by interviewing Greeks about their English language learning experiences.

But the L3 thing is always present in my mind for obvious reasons. After having learned Italian, it’s exciting to be at the bottom of the acquisition ladder again and slowly feel how the pieces are starting to fit together. It’s all too easy to feel complacent here with learning Greek, though, because so many people are proficient in English. I found that Athens was the worst place to learn. It’s almost as if English is an unofficial second language in the capital. Most people switch effortlessly from Greek to English as soon as they hear you’re struggling.

So now I’m on a tiny island and have finally found a few people whose English is marginally less amazing, so it’s giving me more opportunities to learn. I’m trying to follow my own teachery advice: trying out new language without worrying about making a fool of myself, immersing myself in Greek conversation, make notes of new vocabulary. But I have to say that I’m not being very systematic and it’s much more fun to.. erm…let’s say… form a ‘friendship’ with a native speaker.

In my reading about second language identity I came across an article by Kinginger (1) which says that sex can be seen as a valid learning strategy and should be researched more thoroughly.

I feel exonerated.

And in fact many of the competent speakers of English that I’ve met here have told me that they reached proficiency through having a relationship with a native speaker. When I do the interviews it will be interesting to note what sort of effect this experience, what Benson et. al. (2) might call a ‘critical incident’, has on feelings of language identity.

Integrative motivation

Apart from my ‘friendship’ as motivation, my desire to integrate and understand conversations is pushing me forward. I’ve gone back to being that dumb person sitting at dinner not saying anything, but when there are occasional recognisable snippets it feels pretty amazing. I’d actually missed being the dumb person! I remember experiencing something like disappointment when I felt could understand everything in Italian, like there was nothing fascinating about it any more. I guess it works both ways: once you think you’ve integrated you feel demotivated. I’m sure there is plenty of Italian lexis that I don’t know but I’m not particularly driven to learn it any more. Maybe because I don’t have an Italian ‘friend’ any more…

Reading and writing are of course tricky in Greek. Apart from the different alphabet, there are (for example) four ways to write /i/. So my reading speed is pretty poor. SMS messages help with writing thanks to suggestive text, as does my dictionary app, which provides me with essential lexis for my… ‘critical incidents’.


Cook (3) said that multicompetent language users have different sorts of brains. And in fact I can feel that my neurons are firing in two directions. I’ve noticed that: both of my languages activate when I’m listening and speaking. I code-switch between English, Italian and Greek. Some words are similar in Greek and Italian: portafoglio (wallet), cappello (hat) have Greek cognates, and Greek has lots of loanwords from English: ‘hangover’, ‘party’. Not that I’m partying much, obviously (just in case my dissertation tutor is reading this …). But it can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Having been used to communicating freely in Italian for the last few years, it’s frustrating not to be able to say what I need to say, especially in those…erm…important moments.


About my own language identity, I don’t feel ‘just’ English. I feel European. It’s as if my experience of living in Italy gives validity to this idea, and my knowledge of Greek will strengthen it. Dornyei (4) writes about how integrative motivation for learners of English now refers to the international community (as ownership of English is global) and thus also implies an international identity. Perhaps by my attempts to learn European languages I’m trying to psychologically ‘remain’ despite the decision of my fellow countrymen? Maybe my new friend will help me with that. 🙂



  1. Kinginger, C. (2015). Student mobility and identity-related language learning. Intercultural Education 26:1, 6-15
  2. Benson, P., Barkhuizen, G.; Bodycott, P.;Brown, J. (2013). Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad. Palgrave macMillan
  3. Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly  33(2): 185-209.
  4. Dornyei, Z., Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, Language, Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol:Multilingual Matters

My week in Athens

My week in Athens is almost over, and I’ll be sorry to leave the amazing people I’ve met here, who have made me feel so welcome. I’m off to finish my MA and collaborate at distance, but I’ll be back at NBS as soon as I possibly can. So much has happened this week. I’ll try to put it in some comprehensible order…


The scale of the refugee crisis is truly immense. It’s estimated that there are 60,000 displaced people in Greece, most of whom are in the Athens area. I only started to get a real idea of what that means when I visited a camp. One camp alone houses 1,500 people.


There is an incredible community of volunteers here, some of these are refugees themselves. Everyone uses whatever skill-set they have to contribute. They live very simply, give as much of their time as they can, and are constantly working together to get stuff done. I’ve seen people responding to calls at midnight to go to pick someone up or do some other job. They achieve so much: for example Khora community centre feeds 1,000 people a day. These people are practically moving mountains.

One of the problems volunteers have is that if they’re non-EU citizens (as, actually, I will be in the not-so-far-off future thanks to Brexit) they can only stay here for three months after which they have to return to their own country for a certain period before they can come back. I met one teacher who is from the US and has to fly back there (obviously at her own expense) every time her visa runs out, after which she comes right back. As I said, the level of commitment and humanity I’ve seen here is simply mind blowing.

The students

The motivation level of the students is generally high. English is the lingua franca in the camps and outside in Athens. There’s a mix of L1s, mostly Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish speakers, so English is used as a lingua franca between the residents too. English is absolutely essential for them to be able to do anything, which makes them want to learn.

That said, students can get depressed, which can stop them from coming to class. Some people are trapped in their housing as going out would mean running the risk of getting stopped by police, (which because of racial profiling they often are) and being deported back to their country. Thankfully, if they are able to explain themselves in English the police tend to be more lenient.

Many students are multilingual. I met one man from Afghanistan who could speak six languages and subsequently teased me mercilessly about my paltry knowledge of only two! And yesterday an Afghani 8 year-old taught me how to write my name in Greek (see pic).

What’s needed…

What they need most is long term teaching volunteers. A lack of continuity is a clearly a big problem for both the school and the students. It makes assessment of learning progression very difficult. And, as displaced and often vulnerable people, the students need to feel secure and form a trusting relationship with their teacher, which is impossible if someone new is arriving every two weeks.

Most of the teachers that come have had little or no teaching experience and have no teaching qualifications, but lots and lots of generosity and enthusiasm. They need and want support and training. No Border School offers teachers’ workshops open to all teachers in the Athens area. I was fortunate enough to run a couple of these this week on using technology in the classroom. The students here usually have mobile phones and most buildings (apart from the camps) have WiFi, so using apps and Google searches can be a good way to personalise lessons and can make up for a lack of materials. The teachers were very enthusiastic and they’ve asked me to do more sessions.

But my lack of experience in this context means that I’m not able to help them with everything. What they need most of all is ideas on how to teach adult literacy. They find that it’s difficult to keep students engaged while they’re learning to write in our alphabet, as adults aren’t exactly enthusiastic about copying text from the board. They find that the materials available are either aimed at children, or at people who aren’t literate in their own language, which is rarely the case here. I’m afraid I came up blank when they asked me about these issues.

If you can help with any of these things please do get in contact. Thanks for reading. Please share.

The Flipped Language Classroom: a case study

I’ve been pretty busy with my MA over the last few months, but have taken a sneaky couple of hours off essay writing to share this. 

In the not-so-distant past I was DoS in a private language school. I was asked to write a new set of syllabi, and the management team decided that these should follow the principles of the flipped classroom.

The students and the course package

Our students were mainly adult working people who were attending lessons in the evening. Courses were comprised of three elements: a group lesson for two hours once a week (60 hours an academic year); unlimited access to free group conversation with a fluent English speaker; and an online platform provided with the coursebook used in class.

Why change your syllabus?

These were our reasons, some of them will sound familiar:

  1. Our students expected to complete a whole CEFR level during in the short academic year which ran from October to May, while only coming to class once a week.
  2. EAQUALS accreditation requires that syllabi are mapped to the CEFR, our old syllabus was not.
  3. We had no scheme of work. If students missed lessons, it was difficult for the admin team to tell them what they needed to catch up on, ditto for late starters.
  4. Our old syllabi were heavily grammar or function focused. Skills were largely absent.
  5. End of module tests often assessed students on discrete language points that hadn’t been taught (because there was no scheme of work).
  6. Often the teachers didn’t have time to get to the practice part of the (usually PPP) lesson in the course book, or to use the teacher’s book activities. Being (in my opinion) the most useful and fun part of the lesson, and the only part that the students couldn’t do on their own, it was a mistake for them to be neglected.
  7. Students had commented that the group conversation element was not relevant to what they studied in class.


How we did it: getting rid of the grammar

As we were already offering a blended course, we decided to ‘flip’ the online platform content i.e. learners would use this to study and practise grammar points before coming to class.

I designed a scheme of work detailing the content of each lesson for each level. Explicit grammar presentation was removed completely. We instructed the teachers to refer students to the grammar reference part of their books and study it at home.

The productive practice (speaking) exercises for language systems in the course book became the main focus of each lesson, thus our syllabus became predominantly skills based. Teachers were encouraged to have students repeat tasks, and were given training on how to personalise and extend activities in different ways.

Although a scheme of work may sound prescriptive, we allowed for some flexibility to avoid the dreaded ‘teaching from the book’ syndrome and adapt lessons to students’ interests. In each module there was a Dogme-style lesson, when learners brought in their own texts. Another was simply ‘a YouTube video’. Teachers were given freedom in terms of content, but support with lesson planning and staging.

The group conversation element of their package was integrated with the syllabus, and used as practice for specific skills or language points, using the teacher’s book materials. Extensive reading was also encouraged by asking learners to borrow graded readers and discussing their reactions to the text.


Resistance- Teachers’ comments:

“It’s a lot. I think they’ll feel overwhelmed. I don’t think all of them will do their homework.”


“It’s very different from the education system they’re used to.”


“They might get used to it by module.”


“It’ll be a bumpy beginning.”


We had a pretty good idea that the teachers wouldn’t be happy about the changes. The biggest adjustment for them would be giving up their trusty PPP framework.  The students, too, would no doubt feel that a complete absence of grammar from the programme was too radical and destabilising. To counter this, the scheme of work included a ‘Grammar SOS’ session every 5 weeks. This was a 20 minute slot of lesson time dedicated to extra practice or clarification of grammar points. Students were asked to prepare questions for the teacher in advance of the lesson.

Flipping the grammar input also meant that things got tricky for the teachers if the students hadn’t studied at home. We encouraged them to soldier on with their lesson in this case, thus forcing the students (we hoped) to become more independent learners.


The fact that the syllabus was (in part) a-posteriori, and not structural, meant that we could assess our students purely through skills. Unfortunately, this made marking (of the productive skills) more time consuming, and also more subjective. We had to produce our own set of assessment criteria and carry out standardisation, since the teachers would eventually be marking their students’ work.  


Implementing a flipped syllabus meant that there was much more onus on the learners to study independently. Some protested about this of course, but as we explained to them, this was the only way they would get the results they wanted in the time they had available (i.e by attending school only once a week).

After the predicted bumpy beginning, when we asked for student feedback it was 90% positive. Most students said that they didn’t mind studying the grammar at home, and that they understood and appreciated the methodology we were trying to deliver.

What do you think?

How would your students react if they had a flipped syllabus thrust upon them like this?

How would you react if you were told not to teach grammar?

Thoughts from Greece 2. Why do we need grammar?

It’s all Greek to me!


I’m sitting in a bar on a remote island. There are very few English-speaking people around (just what I was looking for) and I’m trying to ‘acquire’ more Greek. But it’s not really working. I decide to whip out my iPad and amuse everyone by reading out loud the bizarre selection of words that my app has sent me:
‘elastic band’
‘Yiannis Parios’ (He’s a Greek singer, my waiter tells me- old people like him)

Apart from the questionable utility of the vocabulary, I find that I’m puzzled by the change of form of some of the words in the sample sentences. The verb for ‘see’ is βλέπο or ‘vlepo’ so why doesn’t the sample sentence (‘she can’t see without her glasses’) contain any word that remotely resembles ‘vlepo’?? And if ‘nostimo’ means ‘delicious’, then why does ‘itano stimotato’ mean ‘that was delicious’?? Which bit means ‘that’? Why does the adjective change? Do adjectives have a past form in Greek? Although the guys in the bar are very friendly,  I think these questions may be a tad annoying. So I don’t ask. 

The Lexical Approach

I find that I want and need someone to give me the ‘rules’. This a surprise for me, because I’m a great advocate of Lewis’s Lexical Approach to teaching grammar. He suggests that grammatical ‘rules’ should emerge from samples of authentic written or spoken language, rather than be taught. I have to say that it’s not working for me in Greek. I guess this is probably because:

  • There aren’t enough contextualised samples of the same lexeme/chunk/verb.
  • There’s no teacher to direct my attention to the samples and encourage “noticing”.
  • There’s no teacher to ask leading focus questions to help me work out the patterns, such as ‘Is it singular or plural’, ‘Are we talking about the present or the past?’.
  • Greek’s bloody difficult- many of the Greeks I’ve met have told me I should give up!


We still need grammar! It seems to make the whole language learning process a lot faster, especially in the beginning, so not using it would be pretty silly. As a beginner you are impatient to make sense of the new language and join its parts together. I see grammar as a network that connects the pieces of what would otherwise be a confusing maelstrom of lexemes. Perhaps grammar teaching should/could be seen as a ‘stabiliser’ that can slowly be removed as a learner progresses?

We still need teachers! 🙂 Over time…eventually…I’d probably acquire Greek, but a teacher can direct my attention towards the useful stuff, like how to conjugate the verb ‘see’, and away from the useless stuff, like Yiannis Parios!


Learning or acquiring? More thoughts from Greece.


In my valiant attempts to learn Greek, I’ve been reflecting on the role active study and technology can play in language learning.

My memorised sentence

I have an app…it sends me a Greek word every day with sample sentences and translations.  It’s the free version, so it’s pretty limited. I’ve been flicking through these words for a couple of years now, basically since my last Greek holiday, but have only managed to remember a single sentence, translated by the app as: 

‘The station is far from here.’

(Actually we would probably say ‘a long way’,  but that’s another article 🙂 )

In Greek: 

‘Ο σταθμός είναι μακριά από εδο’ (I think!)

Or with our alphabet:

‘O stathmos ine makria apo etho’

Apart from that, all the Greek I could remember was chunks of language that I’d actually used with real people on my first holiday here like: ‘Where’s the toilet?’, ‘How much it it?’, ‘A glass of white wine please’. This would seem to confirm Vygotsky’s theory that we learn socially, through connecting with other people. So if that’s the case, then is there any point in studying grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary? Was Krashen’s acquisition theory on the nail?

Going back to my Greek sentence, what I’ve noticed is that it did give me a few tools to decipher more langugage. I guessed that:

  1. ‘O’ is a definite article (the), but probably this changes according to the gender of the noun, as in many languages?
  2. stathmos = station
  3. ine = verb ‘be’ – ‘it is’
  4. makria = far (the key word and translation of ‘far’ was ‘makrinos’ so maybe it changes according to some other factor?)
  5. apo = from?
  6. etho = here?

A quick check in the dictionary confirmed my translations. The sentence gave the language a context and (I guess) made it easier to remember.  So when I got off the plane and spoke to my first real Greek person (a taxi driver), and I told him where I wanted to go and I heard ‘ine makria’, I was pretty chuffed with myself that I knew what it meant, and of course knowing how to say ‘it is’ in any language is enormously useful. That said, it has to be taken into consideration that I’m a language teacher and deciphering and analysing language is what I do. Nevertheless, my experience would seem to suggest that theoretical linguistic knowledge and awareness can help our learners. 

Individual words

Listening to the bus drivers’ chat during my journey yesterday, I noticed that I could recognise some of the words from the app in their fluent speech.  I couldn’t necessarily translate them immediately though: ‘imerologio’ I knew was something to do with time- year? clock? (It was ‘calendar’). And when on the next bus the driver put a football match on the radio, helped by the context I heard the words for ‘head’ and ‘zero’, among others.  After that happened, as with the taxi driver, I felt that I would  be confident enough to use the language in conversation. It was as if it ‘clicked’ into place in my head. You could say that theoretical study of language is useful for receptive awareness, but this knowledge is transferred to the long term memory/speech (?) part of the brain only once you’ve had the language ‘confirmed in real life’ by a fluent speaker??

Another point of interest is how at this stage I am relying very heavily on translation, a fact which makes me feel rather shamefaced about how often I’ve said ‘Don‘t translate!’ to my poor students!