The ‘Interrogative Point’ of Teaching English

There are very few things I don’t like about living in Italy; tripe, but then that’s available from any good butcher’s the world over; the lack of interest from women, but again that’s something I can get, or rather not get, anywhere in the world; and the quality of teaching of English in its schools.

The first two, I can do nothing about. However the latter has been and, presumably, will continue to be a constant concern of mine for the foreseeable future. At the moment, it’s who makes the better English teacher – a native English speaker; a fluent, but non-native speaker; or somebody with a good theoretical knowledge of the language.

From what I’ve heard from products of the Italian school system, both those currently in the mix and those that have served their time, while English language is a compulsory part of the sentence in Italy, its quality is dubious; a teacher that is not native is a rarity. I’ve experienced several instances in both of my stints au pairing of evidence of poor quality teaching.

Case in point – one of my children returned from school triumphantly clutching an English test with a perfect 10/10. I glanced over his work and spotted at least three errors that hadn’t been annotated or seemingly noticed. Another case in point – just last week I spotted a pluralising ‘s’ needlessly added to an adjective. I questioned it and the response was, “but [the teacher] said!” I wasn’t surprised. Third case in point – one of my children was explaining something funny he’d seen online, the punchline of which was a question mark. He mimed it in the air and called it an ‘interrogative point’. I corrected him, as usual, and he replied with the expectable “but my teacher says it exists in English!” I explained that while the individual words he used did in fact exist, and yes, I had understood, through knowing the Italian name for what he had just gesticulated, what he meant, that it was called something completely different in English. This also supported my next thought quite nicely.

This is primarily why I think having somebody knowledgeable in English, but ultimately sharing the mothertongue of the students, is on balance a bad idea – mistakes like this won’t necessarily be picked up upon. I wouldn’t dream of trying to teach Italian at a primary or secondary school level, no matter how good I became. I would never be able to pick up on nuances and I wouldn’t have the instinctive ear for something sounding convoluted or wrong that I do with English.

However, having taught to two groups of Italians, there is a definite advantage to having some knowledge of the students’ mothertongue. How much of a knowledge, on the other hand, is another matter. Too much and you allow students to become lazy and talk to you in their own language, knowing you’ll understand. I see this happening in my lessons all the time. Conversely not enough and you can’t teach effectively; in the rare instance a bridge cannot be built somehow, you have to rely on other students to plug the gaps. My Italian teachers know just enough English to help the struggling students along, but not enough to hold a conversation. Or at least they’re not letting on that they do.

Jack out.


About Jack
A small-time traveller in a big-time world

3 Responses to The ‘Interrogative Point’ of Teaching English

  1. barbedwords says:

    Totally agree with you. My friend’s daughter is 12 and has just moved from an English/International school to an Italian school. Her English is fabulous yet there is no advanced class available and she has to sit in complete boredom as the others learn the numbers up to 50 (as she told us with great disgust!)

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