‘To have another language is to possess a second soul.’ Charlemagne
France and Hungary have the lowest English proficiency rates in all of Europe. The question becomes what are they doing wrong when it comes to teaching English?
France and Hungary may as well be Mars and Venus in relation to each other, neither having much empathy for or knowledge of the other. However, having lived in both countries, and which may come as a surprising to them, both nations have many similarities.
First, the people are surprisingly warm hearted with deep rooted communities infused with traditions and festivals which can be said easily for both.
Second, food and alcohol are interagent parts of the country and their people’s identity.
Third, they both have had turbulent times in history which gives them a resilience and a pride in protecting what’s theirs and they ferociously fight to preserve their society. Yet, just under the rough exterior lies a fierce loyalty and once in their circle, you are members of their family for life. You can’t get rid of them if you try.
Lastly, and the most important point today, is that they share an academic school system that hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. And that is where Angol Otthon Itthon comes in.
Parents from both countries want to give their children a competitive edge in school. Getting into the top universities is getting harder, and you must have the grades to advance. Having a second language opens doors to other careers, like in the tourist industry, hotel management, and restaurants that pay well that don’t necessarily follow the academic line towards higher education. A second language is mandatory to enter university, but once in, it is often forgotten. Either way the second language opens doors.
Parents can see where the system falls short when it comes to learning a second language and one solution in France has been linguistic sejour programs like Daily English, where the kids live with an Anglophone family in their own country for part of the school holidays. Through this type of immersion, students are advancing in English so much so, that the French government will now accept CAF vacation grants to pay for part of these language holidays.
Hungary can also appreciate such a specialized program for children, like Anglo Otthon Itthon, a program already proven successful throughout Europe. An early start learning English as a second language can be the difference between comprehension and fluency.
Why does English immersion holidays work for students?
The school systems in both Hungary and France have strict academics, and the approach to teaching English are formulated lesson plans from a standardized textbook leaving little wiggle room for teachers to sway from curriculum. Unfortunately in class, this means they have very little time hearing or practicing their new language. This downward teaching method is in part the culprit for such low levels of English proficiency in both countries.
Let’s take a closer look. The teacher instructs the student in their L1 language, which results in the less effective bilingual method. The students rely on translation programs and are constantly switching between their native language and their second language during homework and class time.
In classrooms, when teaching English to speakers of other languages, teachers feel the pressure to prepare the students to pass their examinations to enter university, without actually preparing them to use their language in the real world. Application-oriented grammar is not taught in school.
Teaching is not a one-way process but a multi-way process. Being such, students must learn to speak to their teacher, one-on-one with other students, and in group settings, which for the most part are largely unheard of if not forbidden concepts in classrooms in both Hungary and France. The teacher has all authority and the students are not allowed to question the curriculum, even when it is outdated.
My experience. I have been teaching English as a second language for four years here in southern France. We have received over 80 students per year during the French school holidays. We host students between the ages of 8-21 but have on rare occasion hosted entire families, including a child of 5 years of age.
Many arrive with high tests scores from English class, nevertheless, cannot speak a word. They come with all the grammar points drilled into their brains and can recite their tenses verbatim, a feat that most native-speakers cannot achieve. Some can write, while only a rare few can string together a complete sentence in everyday conversation and be understood. The private sector is better, but they too are very academic and unless they are in the European program, where they have entire lessons from other subjects, like Math and Science for instance. in the English language, the same rings true.
Our job is to give them the practice needed to relate what they already know to real life situations. Very quickly I can evaluate where a student’s biggest obstacles lie, and the holes in their learning perhaps left by a year with an ineffective teacher. We make sure to cover those grammar points, tenses and issues during the week of classes. We fill in the gaps that the system leaves behind to help students achieve a comprehensive level of English. 24-32 students in one class, leaves little time for a teacher to teach to a student’s individual needs. With four, or on rare occasion five students per week, the individual time with their teacher is high, plus my family is here to help in between lessons and homework time with their teacher.
Another problem students face from France and Hungary are their strong accents, which makes speaking to other English-Second-Language students very challenging, a common scenario in the business world. An accent can make it nearly impossible to be understood.
One solution is to learn the ‘American’ English which has infiltrated most media streams or to learn many different accents when learning your new language. Using films, music and Youtube, and listening to people from all over the world who speak English can be a solution. Multi-cultural societies are better at understanding each other, simple because they hear different accents their entire lives and we are used to it. Both Hungarian and French are monocultural societies and have a harder time understanding accents even from different regions in their own countries. Although this problem seems to be getting better with the younger generations.
In a student’s 12 years of learning English in the school system, they are learning from teachers that are masters in their L1 language; a requirement in both countries to teach English. I know it doesn’t make sense, when your teacher has a master’s degree in French or Hungarian how in the world will that help your child learn English. Many teachers have never used their English outside of their classroom, or even have a full understanding of pronunciation. They in turn are teaching incorrect versions of the language to the youth in these countries. After collège teachers seem to have more freedoms and the situation does improve.
What we do. Normally we have four students who are within a three-year age grouping. Through our program, the children learn English by applying it. Eventually the children start to use the grammar, their new vocabulary and the expressions that are common to the English language.
Being a native English speaking family, all four members of our family correct the children as soon as mistakes are made, and then they reiterate the correct example throughout the day. They utilize the lessons learner in real time settings. It is natural and stress-free to learn in this environment, like osmosis, when listening to everything in English from morning to night.
The reason activities are incorporated into the program is simple. Hands on learning. It is another example of using your new vocabulary or lesson in actual situations. Going horseback riding and speaking in English gives students a reference. They will remember, yes that’s a horse, that’s a stable, that’s a ranch with memories attached, not just a photo in a book. Using this method helps the student to hold on to the lesson for the long term, and not just prepare for an exam and immediately forget afterwards. This forms concrete reference points related to their life. They talk about their experiences during the week, write about them and read about them each day in class. Having such small groups gives every child an opportunity to practice throughout the day, instilling lasting knowledge.
Learning can be this fun and easy. After a week, many students feel they haven’t learned much, it was far too enjoyable and some students think something must have gone terribly wrong. Then, back in class, their grades improve, they have context to their lessons, and they now have a better understanding of how their curriculum falls into relation to their own lives. They can now progress, and eventually with their new firm foundation in English, they can build towards fluency.
Angol Otthon Ittohon is booking summer holidays for 2016 with the Hamori Family near Lake Balaton.
For more information and prices please contact
Eva or Alfonz HAMORI at