In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

What’s your language personality?

| 13 Comments

Good morning people! This blog was a bit dormant lately but now is school is out there are no more excuses for me not to write. And the problem is not that we have run out of ideas. Quite the contrary, the ideas keep coming at all times. Nevertheless, I wasn’t able to find the time, the motivation or the inspiration to put them down. Let’s see if I can correct that now!

Today I am going to write about a topic that I have been thinking for some time now, probably for years. I am non native speaker of English. I learnt English in Greece and I have lived in an English speaking country for a short summer in 1998. (Manchester, I miss you). I have had a number or teachers from different countries, from the USA, from Canada, my personal favourite, a petite, super energetic Ms Tina from Australia, a couple of teachers from the UK. That is to say I have had a number of influences as far as accents are concerned. Many years ago, when I was a young, insecure teacher I was a bit self-conscious of my own accent. But now I have been emancipated and I feel confident about it. Well, you know, reading can do this to people…

What concerns me lately is not how I speak but what I say. Let me explain. All of us believe we have interesting personalities and naturally want to show these when we speak another language. It is actually a recurring problem when you teach adults: the fact that they have all these ideas they want to share and all they can say are a few elementary phrases. It’s pure frustration. And my question is this: IS there a time when our native language personalities come out when we speak a foreign language? I have been learning English for 31 years and sometimes I feel I am not as fluent as I would like. Words don’t come easy, especially the informal words, the idioms, the slang of the language, the jokes. Maybe because living where I live (in the middle of a valley, with minimum interaction with native speakers) my communication with foreign people are mostly written.

But I don’t think it is  personal matter only. I observed a huge difference in a teacher I know recently. She is a very experienced teacher, a well-read person, someone who keeps reading and developing. She is also a very lively person, with a sense of humour, someone you enjoy being with. She is a teacher trainer and usually she gives her presentations in English. For some reason she gave one of her latest presentations in Greek and it was like watching a metamorphosis going on. In Greek she was a much deeper person, with many layers, referring to common experiences and memories. I’m not sure if I can even begin to relay the experience but suddenly I realized that her English, no matter how fluent and grammatically correct was a bit sterile. And I immediately felt the same for myself.

As I’m writing this I realize that there are many implications for our teaching. How do you teach these elements of the language? I am also pretty sure that if I lived in an English speaking country for some time, these elements would come more naturally to me. But how do I simulate this situation in class? Is it really possible?  I would be more than delighted to read your opinions about this! Tell me also, do you feel the same when you speak a foreign language? And are there differences between languages? For me I can safely say that my “Spanish speaking” personality is closer to my “English speaking” personality.

Looking forward to your contributions!

13 Comments

  1. Hello Anna

    Do you know the feeling you have when you read somebody else’s words and think: this is ME? Your post could indeed have been written by me. We have a lot in common: many years of learning and teaching English as a foreign language, many years of struggling, slightly frustrated, to be who we really are in that foreign language, anxious to come across as “ourselves” in English.
    I remember that I explicitly asked a native speaker many years ago how I “sounded” (came across) in English. He told me I sounded a bit “stand-offish” -the last thing I wanted to hear but it was the result of learning English at school, trying to speak “correctly”, trying to copy an RP accent. I am more confident now and have learnt to minimise that chip on the non-native speaker shoulder but I haven’t stopped trying to be the real me in that language I love so much.

    Language, as you illustrate, is so multi-layered. It is so much more than communicating pure content. In our mothertongue we can “read” other people in their accent, their choice of words, their subtle nuances. We cringe at some ‘fashionale words’, we associate expressions with a certain group of people, we can guess their backgrounds, their political ideas etc etc.

    We can only keep on learning, listening , reading and trying to grasp the intricacies and subtleties of a language and a culture. Just like you I have little contact with native speakers on a day-to-day basis but I embrace all the new media and social networks and in the last months I have really enjoyed talking, albeit only online, to some native speaker teachers on Twitter.

    I do not really know how we can help our students other than telling them to listen/read as much as they can, learn every day. The better their English will be, the more their personality will show as they have a wider choice of vocabulary and register.

    So maybe we should not be frustrated that much any more but see it as a drive to keep on learning. When we speak English people at least can tell one thing about us: that we make an effort, that we are open-minded and that we show an interest in their language and culture.

    In all those years I have always had very positive reactions from people who appreciate that you can communicate with them in their language.
    So, even if we are not as witty, funny, deep or fluent as we are in our mothertongue :-), we at least understand what it means to learn a foreign language.

    To answer your last question : is there a difference between languages? I think that being more advanced and being more familiar also with the culture enables you to be yourself more. The language itself does not really matter I think. But I can only speak for myself here.
    My French is poor so I am rather a quiet person in French :-)

    When I write this now I realize that also in writing I am a different person from the speaking me but that is for another time :-)

    Mieke

  2. Thank you for this comment Mieke. These are my feelings exactly! I worry that I sound a bit too formal in English, while I am a quite funny, even sassy person in my own tongue (if I may say so myself) :-) Where are you from by the way?

  3. it is sth that concerns me over the last years and that’s why if feel a bit insecure speaking in English with native speakers….and it is also sth that i could never imagine would bother you! :)

  4. I’m telling you it does, my friend!

  5. Αναμφίβολα η μητρική γλώσσα με τις πολιτιστικές και πολιτισμικές εκφάνσεις της μας χαρακτηρίζει τοποθετώντας μας στα πλαίσια συλλογικών δράσεων και στάσεων (συνειδητά ή ασυνείδητα). Πολύ ενδιαφέρουσα ανάρτηση Άννα.

  6. Ευχαριστώ για το σχόλιο Νίκο. Αναρωτιέμαι πόσα χρόνια πρέπει να ζήσει κάποιος σε μια άλλη χώρα για να γίνει η γλώσσα πατρίδα του…

  7. Anna,
    I come from the northern part of Belgium, Flanders, where they speak Dutch. As Belgium is a bilingual country, I learned French at school but like most Flemish people I have very little contact with French speakers. English, on the other hand, is everywhere in Flanders. Like English, Dutch is also a Germanic language so that makes it easier for us too.

  8. Very interesting that English comes more natural to you than French.

  9. A very honest and thought-provoking read. My L2 skills are woeful, I can speak Italian up to a point, and in a quirk of fate, being so slow, I can actually think of funny things to say that I would miss in English, because I’m off onto the next sentence. (Well, things I find funny, my listeners are probably bored rigid).

  10. I liked this Anna.

    Like David my L2s,3s & 4s are pretty poor. In English I am complacent, and becoming quite quiet. In Bulgarian I imagined and felt very butch. In Arabic, I never really found a voice….

  11. Thank you both David and Ed for the comments because they add to the discussion! I even learned a new word from Ed ;)

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