My ninth and penultimate guest blogger is Melania Paduraru from Romania. I first visited Melania’s blog partly because of Dede’s and my long-standing interest in her country. I have re-visited it several times because I love the precision with which she describes Romanian life, history and her teaching circumstances.
Dede was one of the group of teacher-trainers who went to Romania in the early nineties with John Haycraft, and Melania was one of the teachers who attended those training sessions.
I live and work in Mangalia, a small town in the south east of Romania, on the Black Sea coast. I have been teaching English for 24 years, level K-12 in state schools and adults in LLL programmes. I am interested in Web 2.0 tools and I use some of them in my classes. I also like attending national and international conferences (when I can afford it).
WHY DO ROMANIANS SPEAK SUCH GOOD ENGLISH?
This post is meant as a possible answer to a recurrent question that has been asked by many plenary speakers (most of them NESTs) at each and every conference in Romania over the past ten years.
Our distinguished blog-host himself could testify that the above statement is true because, when writing the Prospects series, he and the team working on those textbooks were requested to write one more level, above Advanced (which usually ended the series at the time). The request was based, among other reasons, on the Romanian students’ level of English. This is how the Prospects Super Advanced textbook came to life.
If you’re expecting to read about how extraordinarily intelligent and super-hard-working Romanian students are, how skilful Romanian teachers are at applying new methods and adapting to the cutting-edge technologies, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, this post is not about myself, but I need to refer to my experience and base my writing on what I lived through as a pupil or student and later on as a teacher. Otherwise things might be misunderstood.
In order to make things clear, we’re going to need a bit of history.
Before December 1989
Romania had been a communist country for forty-five years, part of the Eastern European communist block led and controlled by the USSR. Although French had been the main foreign language studied before World War Two, after Romania declared itself a socialist country, Russian took over and became compulsory in almost every school. French and German could also be studied in school, but very few pupils had this chance and they considered themselves really lucky.
For those who don’t know, it was not the Russian language Romanians were against (even though it is not as beautiful as English or as musical as French), it was the strong influence of the USSR, their interference in the communist countries’ leadership and the permanent threat all Eastern European countries felt.
Moreover, the Romanian communist party did their best to convince everyone that we, the communists, were on the right track taking us towards a bright and happy future, while the Western European capitalist countries and the USA were on the brim of the abyss, heading for the definitive destruction of their societies and people.
I’m sure it sounds unreal, mature people would be expected to know more and better than simply believe what they’re told, but remember that most Romanians had no access to information, we could not compare our reality with the one abroad. The few who were lucky enough to travel were forbidden to speak about the countries they visited, the quality of life, the freedom of speech, the human rights… Unbelievable, I know, but most of the information about the rest of the Europe reached us through a clandestine radio station based in the Federal Republic of Germany, where some Romanian exiles worked, always fearing for their lives.
Radio Europe, as it was called, was mainly listened to at night, in the privacy of your home and the news and information you heard was whisper-shared only with the people you trusted the most, otherwise you risked being arrested and imprisoned for high treason.
Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that the “informed” Romanians looked up to the Western European countries and hoped that one day they would have the chance to leave this country to go and live in the US, the land of all opportunities, the land of the best music, best films, best liberties, best life, best… everything! Did we have a distorted image of it all? Yes, but we didn’t know it, and compared to what we were living here, the US was heaven on Earth anyway!
English as a foreign language was introduced in Romanian schools on a somewhat larger scale sometime after 1970, at a time when Romania was granted the status of a “favourite nation” by the USA for several years. Obviously, English was studied in very few schools, by very few classes, usually as a second foreign language. At the age of 10-11, in the 5th grade, pupils would start the first foreign language (Russian, French or German) and when going to high school, at the age of 14-15, the second foreign language (French, German or English).
In language faculties, the combinations offered were mainly Romanian and one of the foreign languages – with the largest number of places, while fewer places were offered to the combinations between two foreign languages. In 1980, when I started my first year in the University of Galati, we were two groups of ten students each, specializing in English-French and English-Russian.
Teachers and textbooks before 1989
I started teaching in 1985, using the methods I had been taught in university, from the traditional Grammar-Translation, the audio-lingual and the cognitive methods, to the humanistic approaches to language teaching (the silent way, the comprehension approach and suggestopaedia).
Teachers of my generation and previous generations might remember what these methods meant and how one applied them. For those who don’t know, these methods aimed at developing the listening and speaking skills and mainly focused on acquiring vocabulary through translation, drilling, repetition and habit-formation as the central elements of teaching.
As a pupil, I myself had been taught using those methods and I’m not proud to admit that I entered university not knowing too much English and graduated from university unsure of my grammar accuracy, pronunciation and vocabulary. Had I been in the situation of sitting for a Cambridge examination for FCE, I might not have got higher than C…
The textbooks were loaded with texts about the accomplishments of the communist party, the great leader, and the important events in our history. No reference to Western Europe and very few things about the UK, general things like the double-decker, Big Ben, the British Museum or Stonehenge.
Even so, we need to give the authors of those textbooks the credit they deserve: they used as many English literary texts as they could, probably aware that, even if the censors cut out whatever was considered inappropriate by the communist party, they could not touch the literature. This is how kids aged 15 to 19 discovered Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Hemingway, Salinger etc.
The texts were followed by comprehension exercises, vocabulary practice, grammar and structures and everything culminated in the literary analysis of the fragment, based on some guidelines which were so difficult for the students to understand and apply!
Can you imagine that some teachers would dictate a literary analysis of two A4 pages and then ask the students to learn by heart and recite everything during the next class? Can you imagine that some students could read and write in English without understanding most of the words, unable to connect pronunciation and spelling with meaning?
In many schools, each English class would start with checking homework and giving marks. At least four students would be picked from the register and summoned to the front of the classroom, notebooks in hand. Every mistake, irrespective of its nature, was corrected on the spot, no matter the task of the exercise. The larger the number of mistakes, the thinner the teacher’s patience and the lower the mark a student would get!
And, as if a bad mark was not enough, the teacher would also humiliate the student, because that’s what the communist party had always excelled at and that’s how almost all the people in some authoritative position would treat all those “below” them. Usually, three out of five students would be granted this treatment, not because their English was that bad but because “they need to know who’s in command here!”
The lesson continued with the teacher presenting some new vocabulary or structure, a new text etc. The teacher would write the rules and examples on the board, the students would solve an exercise or two, humiliated again for not having understood the rule or the task. In many cases, the students would not dare to say they didn’t understand something because they knew that they would get no explanation but even more humiliation.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention one tiny little detail: besides the model-reading and the corrections, the teacher would mostly use Romanian during the English class!
Some of the best and most talented students in English continued their studies to become teachers; when graduating from university some of them replicated their teachers’ behaviour, others remembered the atmosphere created by the humiliation of the class and changed their behaviour. It is mainly teachers in the latter category that were open to the changes and eager to discover the new methods the English teacher training programs brought to Romania after 1990. (You can read more about this on my blog.)
One major change the Romanian revolution brought in December 1989 was the opening of our frontiers. After dreaming of leaving the country for so many years, Romanians were now allowed to travel and see the world. Cable TV was introduced in almost every town, offering a choice of channels and programs people had not known existed. Films and documentaries, cartoons and music, almost everything worth watching was in English, with Romanian subtitles.
Those who were born between 1972 and 1983 were either starting or still in school. Their parents, people at least my age (30) or older, aware of the novelty of the times and of the future opening in front of their children, demanded English to be studied everywhere, urban or rural. All other languages lost ground to English and Russian almost disappeared, as mysteriously as a sock in the washing machine. The demand for English was huge and it (English) simply boomed across the country in just a few years.
The leaders of the country encouraged foreigners to come to Romania and help to implement the “rotten capitalist” life-style. The British Council took this opportunity and presented the Ministry of Education with teacher training programs they organized in Romania or they offered as scholarships in UK. It must be difficult to imagine how teachers in the first years of their career reacted to these opportunities and what they felt after living through such a course and experiencing real communication with NESTs…
Things improved gradually, but steadily! The enthusiastic teachers, who realized the importance of the chance they were offered, started attending methodology courses, teacher training programs and conferences. The more courses and/or conferences they attended, the more their way of teaching changed, attracting more and more children towards English. The more the methods changed, the better the results. The better the results, the more enthusiastic the teachers!
In a few years, Cambridge university exams were brought to Romania and the number of students sitting for and passing these exams grew every year. The British Council and the US Peace Corps facilitated the presence of volunteer native speakers in some schools, in programs covering at least one school year. Year after year, more and more students graduating from high schools in Romania were accepted to do undergraduate courses in universities across Europe or in the USA.
The level of English of students entering Language Faculties in Romania improved each year. University professors could travel abroad and they, too, adopted the new approaches and adapted the new methods, thus raising the standard of the new teachers graduating from their universities, who enthusiastically embarked upon teaching English and attending methodology courses and/or conferences.
The snowball has been rolling for twenty years now and it keeps rolling…
A word of advice:
If you happen to visit a town in Romania and need directions, four out of five kids aged at least 12 would be able to help you.
Ken, thank you for your kind words and for the opportunity you offered me! I am so grateful!
Melania works at Liceul Teoretic “Callatis”, Mangalia and blogs at http://mellaniep.wordpress.com