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A ‘neither-too-long-nor-too-short’ personal reflection on my linguistic background

Not too long ago I was called a non-linguist. Fine. I have also been called a non-teacher … and a non-aikido black belt. Very funny … and weird, considering that I am a language teacher with a strong background in English and Spanish linguistics … and an aikido first dan. In all three instances, I am very aware that such observations are non-truths. Deep down those comments reflect more on the people that made them than on my person. In any case, these situations can bring in enormous opportunities of exponential growth if they are used as a springboard for self-awareness and personal — as well as professional — development.

I have written this reflection following advice from Dr Fernanda Peñaloza, Chair of the Department of  Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney where I work, mainly for the purpose of giving a clear idea of what my study background consists of. Sadly and regrettably, in Australian academia there is little or no knowledge of how TESOL / TEFL teachers are trained in Argentina, whereas in the UK and the rest of Europe, the US and Canada there appears to be much more awareness and recognition of the high-quality TEFL / TESOL training imparted in Argentinian higher education institutions. The result of that high quality training has been objectively measured: in the latest Education First report, teaching and learning of English as a foreign language in Argentina ranks in the fifteenth place worldwide (“EF English Proficiency Index 2015,” 2015).

My linguistic “early days.”

My love of languages and language studies started very early in life. At home, my mother’s family spoke Galego or Gallego as it is known in Spanish (the language of Galicia, Spain), whereas my father and his relatives spoke español rioplatense / porteño, known in English as River Plate Spanish. Ever since I remember, I was acutely aware that Galego and Spanish were two different languages and I kept them “separate” in my mind.

One of my earliest memories from when I was three-and-a-half years of age was that of my grandfather teaching me how to read and write in Spanish. I found it very challenging to use cursive writing then, but I could do print characters without any significant difficulty. Interestingly, my three brothers learned to read and write in Spanish well before primary school as well.

At the age of seven, my parents sent me to study English as a Foreign Language at a local academia in Buenos Aires. The word academia refers to a local language school where people of all ages learn foreign languages. I would not exaggerate if I say that it was a watershed moment in my life, and even though some of my teachers probably needed to be a little bit more methodologically open, I managed to develop good language skills and thrive in my studies. Those were the days of Direct Method (DM) and my teachers would never ever reward the use of Spanish in the class. Sometimes I failed to understand a lot of what was said in a classroom situation, but without a doubt I loved learning English. I soldiered on and used my own “tricks and hacks.” One of them was “self-translation” — the sort of thing our teachers did not encourage to do, but  which I did it in my own time nonetheless. Alternatively, I tried to “think in English,” but only when my knowledge of the language reached the stage that these days would be called B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe, 1971).

Meanwhile, in the Argentinian school system …

Argentinian primary and secondary education includes linguistic topics such as for example Spanish morphology and syntax, on top of basic spelling and punctuation. I found an intuitive way to transfer that kind of training to my EFL studies, and later on to my two years of French in high school. I will always uphold my Castellano (Castilian Spanish) studies, which were based upon the ideas of noted linguist Dr Ofelia Kovacci (Kovacci, 1963) as a substantial basis of my foreign language studies. Having been exposed to morphological concepts such as gender, number, prefix, suffix and declension, together with syntactic elements such as subject, predicate, direct and indirect object, adjunct and complement in my Castellano classes, I was able to “crack” English grammar easily as a learner of English as a foreign language.

My undergraduate studies at the Instituto Nacional Superior del Profesorado “Joaquín V. González” (JVG for short) or down the “profesorado de inglés linguistic rabbit hole. 

By the time I started my TEFL and English studies at JVG, I had already developed a rather sophisticated and intuitive linguistic mind that served me very well in my complex and nuanced higher education process. I undertook a five-year course of study that in Australia would be considered a double degree.

In my first and second year at JVG, I had to learn the specifics of English grammar (G. Leech & Svartvik, 2013; Quirk, 1972; Quirk & Greenbaum, 1973; Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, Svartvik, & Crystal, 1985) and delve into morphological, syntactic and semantic concepts. I learned how to perform syntactic analysis following traditional (Jespersen, 2003), structural (De Saussure, Baskin, & Meisel, 2011) and basic transformational (Chomsky, 2002) criteria. Given that my classmates and I were non-English language natives, our teachers worked hard at raising awareness on the difference between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” grammar in preparation for the coming five English literature subjects. However, when it came to matters of prescription, it was in the English language classes that we were thoroughly trained into the differences between English use and usage, register, cohesion and coherence.

The study program included four “English Language” core courses that involved a minimum of eight contact hours a week, and students were expected to do work on their own for written assignments such as creative and essay writing, and oral assignments such as discussions in class, and a final exam, which by the way also had a written component. The students’ reading, writing, speaking and listening skills were thus pushed to the next level; academic English became de rigueur, not only as a register but also as a standard to be used in the classroom. We may have been in Argentina, but as Harold Fish from the British Council put it, the JVG TEFL classrooms could belong in any university of the English-speaking world. I hope he forgives me if I misquote him, but I do clearly recall that one of our teachers briefed us — that is, my classmates and I — on the positive impression that Mr Fish had of how future TEFL teachers were trained at the JVG.

In Language Lab classes I received intensive listening and fluency training. In Phonetics I and II, students were taught phonetics, phonology and prosody. I learned the IPA system and was exposed to Received Pronunciation (Jones, 2011), English intonation (Halliday, 1967; Kingdon & Scott, 1958; O’Connor, Arnold, & Arnold, 1973), and stress patterns in English words (Guierre, 1975). Additionally, the two hours a week of Language Lab classes were designed to enhance ear training and fluency, and to develop the necessary linguistic skills to differentiate between various English accents and dialects.

In my fourth year of studies, I took a capstone subject, misnamed “Introduction to Linguistics.” It was not introductory at all; it drew together all the theoretical and practical strands of my undergraduate degree, and furnished me for life beyond undergraduate study. Students had to read discipline-specific literature on grammar (Palmer, 1984), sociolinguistics (Trudgill, 1975, 2003) and semantics (G. N. Leech, 1974), among others. There were two units on the history of linguistics (Robins, 2013) and the “bigger picture.” The course requirements involved two projects that focused on discipline-specific topics of our choice and a final exam (written and oral).

Coupled with “Methodology and Observation” and “Teaching Methodology and Practice,” “Introduction to Linguistics” sought to furnish the graduate teachers-to-be with the necessary tools and classroom experience to work as teachers of English as a Second / Foreign Language in secondary schools, universities and other tertiary institutions, and businesses.

The Communicative Approach to language teaching had already become the gold standard (Widdowson, 1978, 1990; D. Wilkins, 1976; D. A. Wilkins, 1972). In “Methodology and Observation” the syllabus included topics on the history of language teaching (Howatt & Widdowson, 2004). One of the practical requirements to pass the subject was to teach and observe “mock classes” on specific EFL topics to enhance peer-to-peer observation and support; classroom observation to learn how actual TEFL teachers did their work in a real classroom situation; and last but not least my classmates and I had our “baptism of fire,” which consisted of teaching five English classes at a state secondary school. We were required to submit class plans for our teachers’ approval before being given the green light to front a classroom full of students. After each class, we received written feedback from our teacher and participated in discussions on how to improve and / or polish our teaching method and classroom dynamics.

“Teaching Methodology and Practice” involved weekly two-hour lectures, but most importantly it involved a practicum or student-teaching placement at a state secondary school where we would be entrusted with the full range of responsibilities of a teacher, under the supervision of our Methodology teacher and the teacher in charge of the course. Together with our teaching responsibilities, we had to write weekly teaching plans and a final assignment on a methodological / pedagogical / applied linguistics topic of our choice.

My degree also included English culture subjects, such as five English literature courses that used a common core textbook written by a successful best-selling author who is also a linguist (Burgess, 1958) and three history courses (British and American history). English Literature I comprised eight centuries of English literature, from Beowulf to the Elizabethans. English Literature II started with John Milton’s Paradise Lost and included English fiction and non-fiction up to the late Victorian period. English Literature III was “all Shakespeare” — to the point that it became metonymically known as “Shakespeare.” Contemporary English Literature was all about British and American modern poetry the year I took that course. American Literature comprised the literature written in the US right from the days of the Mayflower to the twentieth century. I could devote another one thousand words plus to how those literature courses were structured, the literary works that we had to read, the specialist bibliography we had to familiarise ourselves with, and the assignments we had to write. In a course of study that was mainly oriented towards linguistic and pedagogical study, there was an almost reverent respect and appreciation of English literature. We read original literary works in English, and the classes were also taught in English.

There were also general subjects such as philosophy, teaching ethics, and educational psychology / pedagogy, which were taught in Spanish and constituted the “core” subjects shared with other courses of study in other disciplines.

It’s important to mention that the syllabuses of the English language subjects that I attended during my studies were developed by the Head of the TEFL Department of the JVG Institute in cooperation with the British Council of Buenos Aires, and that most of the lecturers had attended postgraduate programs (including PhD programs) in English-speaking countries.

Postgraduate studies and beyond.

My translation studies were at postgraduate level at the “Instituto Nacional Superior del Profesorado en Lenguas Vivas ‘Juan Ramón Fernández’”. There were two “streams”: interpreting and literary, scientific and technical translation. I decided to go in for the latter, and also got a NAATI certification when I decided to migrate to Australia as part of the Skilled Migration Visa requirements. However, I would like to add that a NAATI certification is something I would have sought, even if it had not been one of the visa requirements.

In 2015 I completed a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at the University of Sydney. I have kept up-to-date with the latest trends in e-learning and blended learning. I also have a Diploma in Web Development from TAFE NSW.

Bibliography

NB: This list consists of many of the textbooks that were compulsory reading when I was a TEFL / English student. By no means could it be considered complete and exhaustive; I have not listed the very many papers that we were supposed to read and it does not include the literary works themselves, the bibliography on history and politics, or the “core” subjects’ academic references. I have cited the most recent and / or updated editions of most of the bibliography as it appears in Google Scholar.

Burgess, A. (1958). English literature: a survey for students: Longman Green.

Chomsky, N. (2002). Syntactic structures: Walter de Gruyter.

Council of Europe, L. P. U. (1971). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Strasbourg: Oxford University Press.

De Saussure, F., Baskin, W., & Meisel, P. (2011). Course in general linguistics: Columbia University Press.

EF English Proficiency Index 2015. (2015). 8, 37-39. Retrieved from www.ef.com/epi website: www.ef.com/epi

Guierre, L. (1975). Drills in English stress-patterns: Armand Colin-Longman.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1967). Intonation and grammar in British English (Vol. 48): Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Howatt, A. P. R., & Widdowson, H. G. (2004). A history of ELT: Oxford University Press.

Jespersen, O. (2003). Essentials of English Grammar: 25th impression, 1987: Routledge.

Jones, D. (2011). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary: Cambridge University Press.

Kingdon, R., & Scott, N. C. (1958). English intonation practice: Longman.

Kovacci, O. (1963). Estudios de gramática española: Edicial.

Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (2013). A communicative grammar of English: Routledge.

Leech, G. N. (1974). Semantics, Harmondworth: Penguin book Ltd.

O’Connor, J. D., Arnold, G. F., & Arnold, G. F. (1973). Intonation of colloquial English: a practical handbook (Vol. 1): Longman.

Palmer, F. R. (1984). Grammar: Penguin (Non-Classics).

Quirk, R. (1972). A grammar of contemporary English: Longman Group.

Quirk, R., & Greenbaum, S. (1973). A concise grammar of contemporary English: Harcourt School.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., Svartvik, J., & Crystal, D. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language (Vol. 397): Cambridge Univ Press.

Robins, R. H. (2013). A short history of linguistics: Routledge.

Trudgill, P. (1975). Sociolinguistics: an introduction: Penguin.

Trudgill, P. (2003). A glossary of sociolinguistics: Oxford University Press on Demand.

Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching language as communication: Oxford University Press.

Widdowson, H. G. (1990). Aspects of language teaching: Oxford University Press.

Wilkins, D. (1976). Notional syllabuses. Bulletin CILA (Commission interuniversitaire suisse de linguistique appliquée)(«Bulletin VALS-ASLA» depuis 1994), 24, 5-17.

Wilkins, D. A. (1972). Grammatical, Situational and Notional Syllabuses.