Learning English – Foreign Students Shortchanged By Underqualified Teachers

Since my high school years in Slovakia, and throughout my university studies, I have been dreaming of becoming an English teacher. My objective is to educate children, adolescents and adults whose native language is not English.

Though there are many people in Slovakia who speak English – they are still in the minority. Often, expertise is lacking and those who have just a little knowledge about foreign languages and a little practice in speaking them are employed as teachers. The deficiency of teachers who are real professionals is due to a bad economic situation in the Slovak school system. Many schools are so under-funded that they close each year around November, because they do not have enough money to heat the classrooms.

Further, those who graduate from a college or university as high school or elementary school teachers are not willing to teach because their job is not appreciated and valued enough. The value of their salaries is not equal to their education. Even if a school had the funding to hire qualified language teachers, they would have a very difficult time finding a qualified teacher who is willing to take the job.

The school administrations have no other choice but to hire fresh high school graduates or college students who speak some English, German or any other language demanded by students. Many times these so-called teachers are ex-babysitters or ex-housekeepers who spent some time abroad. But still, principals assume their language skills are probably very good, which can produce an illusion of competence for students who have little familiarity with a second language.

These positions would be better described as a substitute for teachers, and one reason for these lay-personas being hired by the school system is money. Hiring helpers instead of trained professionals means that the school can operate at a profit, while students are unaware that they are not being instructed by experts.

These untrained language teachers are far from having the experience in using and teaching the language. Their contribution to educating children is short of knowledge in syntax, morphology and literature, not to mention their marginal pedagogical skills.

Parents may sometimes wonder how come their children demonstrate a poor level of skill in communicating in a foreign language. Those children have a hard time expressing themselves and it’s difficult for them to compete with children educated by professionals.

Obviously teachers should be able to do a great job without any help in printed form, but better textbooks, dictionaries and magazines for illustrating a language represent no harm either for teachers or students. However, the textbooks and magazines available in Slovak elementary and high schools are based mostly on British English. Words, phrases, even grammar have specific features different from, for example, American English. There is also a significant difference in the pronunciation of British and American English. Students mainly in elementary and high schools are barely aware that the English language has various deviations. They are taught English one way. The differences between the American and British English, or even Australian English, are hardly presented at class.

I personally prefer American English. Americans speak more smoothly than the British do. This English is softer and I feel good listening to it. The British English sounds hard – it’s more like the German language in some ways, but both of them have the same basis and I grow every time I speak in English, read in English or listen anything that sounds like English.

In Slovakia, I was one of those lucky ones who had an opportunity to receive the basics in English even before the Velvet Revolution in 1989 – the fall of Communism. My teacher had been working with me and my classmates during our elementary school years and later we all appeared in his class at high school.

I enjoyed English a lot. A regular English class in Slovak schools doesn’t differ much from any other class over the world. The textbooks help students and teachers to provide the best possible information about life in English speaking countries. Video and audio tapes introduce students to live speech between British students, people in public, in libraries, and stores, etc.

Slovak students learn about the biggest and the most famous cities in Great Britain and the USA. We are even wrapped up in facts about population, climate and the school systems in English speaking countries. College students have a better knowledge about phonetics, phonology, syntax and literature. They are also introduced into the depth of grammar.

From my perspective, too much “science” is not very practical for future teachers. Young college graduates know a lot about subjects and objects in sentences, so they can explain why and how to use some lexicology methods, but they are lacking in vocabulary. Before I left to come to the USA, I had completed three years of my university degree and I had earned over 90 credits in English.

Despite of that, I still have to admit that the level of my vocabulary could have been compared to that of a high school student. One important thing in teaching a foreign language in Slovakia that’s missing is talking and expressing what you think and what you know.

I was pretty confident coming to America and talking to the Americans. But I experienced shock right away when I couldn’t understand what I cashier said to me. I felt like a beginner.

Since then I have had many opportunities to improve my language skills. Television, radio, magazines, books not to mention communicating with the Americans and finally studying – all that means an inexpressible help in reaching my goal of becoming an English teacher.

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