‘Audio Lingual Method’ proclaimed a sign outside a language school (frontistirio) in Kavala in 1985. I’m not sure if this blandishment was successful in packing in the punters or indeed whether anyone took any notice of it. It is open to doubt that even the school owner knew what the audio-lingual method was, for it had fallen into disuse as an exclusive approach to language teaching a good twenty years earlier. It was rather like a doctor proudly advertising leeching and cupping. That didn’t matter, though. Any Greek language school faces incredibly stiff competition and needs to put up a bit of front. If you scan the signage outside many a frontistirio, you’ll see that the owner is a ‘Degree holder from the University of Cambridge’ (Πτυχιούχος του Πανεπιστημίου του Κέιμπριτζ) Don’t be fooled. She has probably never set foot in Cambridge, but she has passed an international exam known as Certificate of Proficiency in English, which is set by Cambridge ESOL, an affiliate organisation of the University of Cambridge. The school owner’s glory is thus only of a dimly reflected kind. Don’t begrudge her this; she has vicious competition, a family to feed, teachers to pay and extortionate overheads of various sorts, so slightly adjusting the lighting this way may help just a bit.
Once upon a time, the brightest feathers in a school’s cap were young native speaker teachers. Every school wanted one, which is why I wound up in Kavala in 1985. It didn’t matter to most schools what your qualifications were or weren’t, so long as your first language was English and you didn't drool or slur your words. Now, many of those young people who left their own countries to drift about the world tended not to give high priority to teaching. Their priority was drifting around the world, and teaching - or occupying classrooms under that pretext - funded this. Their number included quite a few misfits who hadn’t been able to hack it at home: people with chronically itchy feet, people filled with inchoate longings for… something, y'know?... I dunno, just something… and serious piss-artists. They were not, in many cases, people you should entrust with teaching kids whose parents want them to pass exams. Schools could always rely on this odd short-sightedness on the parents’ part; ‘he’s English, so he must be able to teach English.’ What would they have said if someone asked ‘well, you’re Greek, so how would you go about teaching Greek?’ Most would have confessed that they wouldn’t know where to begin, but nobody ever framed the question. Parents shelled out to have their kids taught by people who had no more idea how to teach than they had about performing open heart surgery.
The idea that any mugwump who speaks a language can teach that language is gradually dying out, but not yet extinct. It was alive and well when I returned to Greece in 1990, qualified and evangelical, this time to work as a trainer of teachers. My first group of trainees were bewildered at the idea that one might plan a lesson. Why would you need to do that? Had the language changed since the last time they taught this particular structure? Anyway, how could you know what questions students might have? This was my first experience of the powerful resistance on the part of some Greek teachers to what they thought were new ideas. Some took to the freshness of the modern, eclectic approach immediately, but others dug in their heels and refused to budge. An extreme case was Sotiris. The director of the branch where he… ummm, taught, called and asked if I might observe him and give him a few pointers, as his students were complaining about him. So I went and watched him do a session on reported speech, an area of grammar much beloved of pedants, because it involves tinkering with tenses, if you want it to. Actually, the area of reported speech that really is worth looking at is the so called reporting verb – tell, warn, advise, threaten, and so on, as this is indicative of the speaker’s attitude - far more interesting that changing this tense to that. Teaching the tense changes is pretty much a waste of time, if you ask...
But I digress. Sotiris was a lugubrious individual with a droning voice, and his class of about seven young adults had to spend most of the lesson attempting to read his mind. I mean, try this. On the board, Sotiris writes:
‘Now, what is the reporting verb?’ Sotiris asks, sadly.
There is a long silence, as all involved are thinking ‘fucked if we know, Sotiri*, but if we sit here quiet for a few minutes, no doubt you’ll tell us.’
‘OK’ he sighs, and under the first sentence writes:
Everyone writes this down, maybe wondering how the hell they were supposed to arrive at that answer, but also possibly feeling stupid because they didn’t. I can’t remember what sort of written feedback I gave him. Where do you start? All I remember is that he had a major fit, angrily rejecting my every suggestion as unworkable, patronising and stupid. You win some, you lose some.
Towards the middle of the nineties, things picked up considerably. Teachers began to get more interested in knowing more about what they doing, but with some, old habits died hard. I remember a lovely, friendly, bouncy young woman whose classroom manner was wonderfully kind and humorous, but who just couldn’t come out of traditional frontistirio mode. Why, I asked, did you spend an entire hour thrashing English irregular plurals? I mean, just how much time can you spend talking meaningfully about children, sheep, mice and teeth? Do you think kids in twentieth century Piraeus could possibly manage without knowing ox and oxen? If the criterion for choice of language to teach is simply ‘because it’s there’, why not chuck in kine and brethren for the sake of completeness?
The Hellenic love affair with grammar at the expense of vocabulary and skills work**continues, even if it has cooled off a little of late. The mind-bendingly dull grammar practice books of the seventies have given way to some cutsie new versions with colourful pictures, but the exercises remain just as they were, pure chloroform. Since untrained teachers lack ideas for presenting and practising grammar in engaging and entertaining ways, all they can do is try to sugar the pill. Nauseating attempts are made at jollying things along, as parents might persuade toddlers to eat - finish your greens and you'll be able to see Noddy and Big Ears again. 'Hurray for English! We are curious about lots of things! So we can use the present continuous to ask all about what all our friends are doing! Youpee!!!'*** The best (?) example of this genre is a series of books with the truly desperate title of 'Granny Grammar in Joy Castle'.
The latest must-have, I saw last week, is not a callow native speaker who's stopped off in town for a while on his way to India, but an interactive smartboard. School owners all over Greece are shelling out a fortune on these. If Frontistirio Papahatzipatata-Johnson down the road has one, then ‘Glossolalia’ is going to have to get one as well, or maybe even two. I almost hope that this Keeping Up with the Papadopouloses is the reason for the proliferation of smartboards, rather than any residual belief that we have finally hit upon the Best Way to Learn English - we gave up on that one yonks ago, didn't we? (Please tell me we gave up on that one yonks ago?) Of smartboards, what shall be said? They’re alright, I suppose. Teachers who use visual aids can carry them around on a memory stick instead of in a heavy file, and there may be less photocopying to do these days, but if a kid is eight years old and his classrooms all have smartboards, well, smartboards are just part of the furniture, not necessarily more interesting or motivating than blackboards were to his grandparents. (Maybe adult classrooms could be fitted with blackboards now, so as to look chicly retro.) School owners, ρε παιδιά, invest in, motivate and educate your teachers first, sod the smartboards, the smartboards can wait.
* Most Greek male names end in 's'. Drop this when addressing the man directly.
**Skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
*** This is Greek for 'yipee!'. The more linguistically able among you might have deduced this from context.