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:

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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!

 

References:

  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
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‘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’.

Multicompetence

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.

Identity

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. 🙂

 

References

  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

Taking the classroom into the world

Earlier this week I wrote about global issues, social justice and the possible imperative to bring those issues into the classroom. So it’s only fitting that I take the opportunity to talk about the opposite ― taking the classroom into the world.

Fresh from our workshop at IATEFL 2017, my Dynamite blogging partner Lindsey Clark has just arrived in Athens to volunteer as a teacher trainer at the No Border School, an association dedicated to empowering refugees and migrants through language teaching.

I urged her to write something about it for the blog. When she told me she was (understandably) too busy settling in and preparing for her workshop, I suggested an interview by phone to get her first impressions. (All photos by Lindsey Clark)

What’s it like there?

It’s like no school I’ve ever worked in, that’s for sure. I’m volunteering for the No Border school which is collaborating with, partially housed in, but funded separately from the Khora Community Center (or see here, on Facebook). At the center they run classes and provide services to help refugees/migrants ―  there’s a kitchen, a creche where parents can leave their kids with volunteers as they attend classes, medical assistance and dentistry. There’s also a workshop where they make furniture for the building.

So language teaching is only one aspect; they teach German and French as well. The No Border school works partly from the center but also in other locations around Athens.

What’s the plan for the workshop?

I’m going to be training volunteer teachers in some of the basics. Some have teaching but not EFL experience, others may have no experience at all. They’re from a variety of different countries, as well: Italy, Spain, Greece, France, America, Canada and Brazil. Some have been here for a few weeks or months and some have just arrived. So the first step is figuring out what knowledge and experience the volunteers are bringing with them.

They might need to know about things like lesson planning, giving instructions, setting up activities. One thing we might work on is simply awareness of learner language level and knowing how to grade your own language.

I’m going to both share some of the no-prep activities we demoed at our IATEFL workshop as well as trying to find out where they are with their actual knowledge of grammar. The plan is to start with examples, find out what they know, have them do some basic research, and then help them create exercises.

The school would like to get on online platform up and running to help start the volunteers on training tasks before they come, and I’ll be helping them with that. New teachers are coming all the time. Anyone can sign up for minimum 2 weeks.

What are the students like?

To be honest, I don’t know personally yet. Just judging from the translators and what I’ve heard there are Syrians, Kurds and Afghans. Urdu speakers and Farsi speakers. I’ll find out more as the week unfolds.

What’s the English-language program hoping to achieve with the students?

For some students, they’ve got to start with basic literacy skills in English before they do A1, mostly due to unfamiliarity with the English alphabet.

But others come in with a great background already. I know there are IELTS classes already going. And the exam fees will be paid through funding and donations.

Foto da Kyle Dugan(4)

What kind of materials or resources do you have to work with?

I have to say I was amazingly fortunate to get great help from the publishers at IATEFL. I had checked out No Border’s Amazon Wish List when I was in Glasgow and managed to talk to a number of publishers before the book fair was closed.

Lucy Constable from National Geographic donated a ton of coursebooks from their Life series at from beginners to upper-intermediate, as well as a range of IELTS books. Pearson was also a huge help with lots of graded readers. I brought it all down in the car with me from Glasgow, including a printer got donated as well.

The volunteers are busy writing up a syllabus based on these coursebooks.

How did you get involved with this in the first place?

I wanted to go to Greece. I also wanted to get involved in teacher training, and do it for a worthy cause. I heard about another school setting up schools in tents. I contacted them but didn’t hear back from them.

Then I found the No Border school ― I think on Facebook. I wrote to them, told them I was interested and asked them if I could bring materials. They said yes, bring anything you can get, and like I said before I set about trying to make contacts at IATEFL for resources. I even gave a very brief talk at the Global Issues SIG day.

When I’m finished I’m going to send an outline of what’s been done to Linda Ruas and Julietta Schoenmann of the Global Issues SIG and then they are planning to come here and do more training sessions.

What’s made the biggest impact so far?

The wonderful thing that I’ve seen so far is that everybody’s patient. Everybody’s kind. Everybody talks and listens to each other. It seems like there are constant meetings because there are so many people to keep in the loop.

I’ve been here such a short time but it’s already a pretty emotional experience.  

Yesterday one teacher left who’d been here for six months. It was really difficult for her to tear herself away. You want to give and share as much as you can. 

Of course, volunteers don’t have the worst of it. As one refugee said: “You are volunteers ― if it gets too much you can go back to your families and homes.” They don’t have that luxury.

The school and the community center need support.

If you want to donate money or teaching materials (or find out more about what they need), click the link below.

Donate to No Border School, Athens

Donate to Khora Community Center