Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

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.

Melania Paduraru

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

Nicolae Ceauşescu's Casa Republicii, now known as Casa Poporului (The People's House), the world's second largest building, after The Pentagon

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.

Stonehenge - vital cultural information about the UK ...

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.)

After 1989

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

Comments on: "Guest post 9 – Melania Paduraru on Romanians speaking English and other political matters…" (17)

  1. Another excellent blog-posting, Ken – very well done! OK, I know I should be thanking Melania, but you know what I mean. This is a really good series that you’ve brought together, and one of the reasons I like your blog so much – it’s independent and possesses a cute off-centre angle. (can an angle be ‘off-centre’?)

    Now, about my Christmas present(s)…

    • Dear Sandy,

      I also thank Ken for being so generous as to host us, unknown bloggers!

      And thank you for taking the time to read us!

      Melania

  2. Good morning Melania!
    What an interesting post and great that you provided the historical background for us as well.
    It is saddening to see what the Romanian people went through for so many years, but how strong they came out of it.
    The teachers during the Communist era not only had to work with minimal and censored resources, but were also influenced in the way they were teaching. The optimistic fact is that today Romanian English teachers have access to a lot of resources and it is great to see how eager teachers are to adopt new methods, attend conferences – no wonder why their English is so good! Congratulations to all of them on their great work!
    Our thoughts are with the Romanian teachers these days, who (according to Melania’s info on another post) “have been forced to go on unpaid vacation a week before the winter holidays, with 15.5% of their salaries off… Just before Christmas…”
    Thank you so much Melania for such an interesting post and I hope to meet you one day in person!
    Vicky

    • Dear Vicky,

      Thank you for your comment and support!
      You are right, we could say that Romanian teachers of English (and Romanians in general, why not?) are living proof to “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”

      I’m sure that one day we’ll meet in person!
      Best wishes,

      Melania

  3. Melania, I think this was the most interesting of Ken’s guest posts for me personally.

    I think the most positive I’m taking away from the post is that our methods do work and we aren’t barking up the wrong tree. Your story is proof positive that success can be found by being communicative and supportive rather than grammar-translation focused and abusive.

    Thanks so much for the story.

  4. Hello Nick,

    You’re so generous to think so high of this post! I found something to take away in all the other stories and I am so grateful to Ken for offering us the opportunity to “hear” other bloggers’ voices and make ourselves “heard”!

    Thank you for your comment and let’s keep up the good work!

    Melania

  5. Dear Melanie,
    Thank you for such an awesomely accurate and vivid story…reading this made me feel how much it means teaching to you. Besides, i know you have that something that is needed when you talk to your students and share experience that enriches their outlook on life…
    Always an admirer of yours,
    Cristiana

    • Dearest Cristiana,

      Thank you for your kind words! We both know only so well what those times meant for us, Romanians, and I consider myself lucky to be one of those people who have learnt from their own experiences (and mistakes). I truly believe that whatever statement “In my time…” might introduce, that experience should never be forgotten, yet it should never be compared to “Nowadays…”. If we don’t adapt, it will be us missing the wonderful ‘today’, not our students missing the (you-choose-the-adjective) past…

      I also strongly believe in giving my students what I always wished I had received from my teachers…

      With mutual admiration,
      Melania

  6. Andy Hockley said:

    Great post Melania, thanks very much. It certainly tallies with my experience of Romania and of the teaching and teachers here, as well as the very high level of English spoken by young people here.

    What’s really frustrating with the great English teaching that is happening in Romania is that it doesn’t get applied to the teaching of other languages – and specifically I mean here Romanian! As you know (but others may not) Romania is host to the largest ethnic minority in Europe – approx 1.6 million Hungarians, all of whom have to (for obvious reasons) learn Romanian as a second language (though for political reasons which I still don’t really 100% understand, nobody is allowed to refer to it as Romanian as a Second Language). The coursebooks and the national curriculum and the teaching of Romanian is still locked into some old style format (in fact Hungarian kids – like my step-daughter – are taught Romanian as if it were their first language. they have to learn poetry and literature, rather than study the language as a communicative tool).

    There are people working to change this, but for the time being, the wonderful teaching and learning of English which you see throughout Romania is sadly not something which has been taken up by those that matter as an approach that might just work for other languages – and especially the most important one! I find it very frustrating.

    [A short but illustrative vignette – we have some friends who are from here but who moved to Hungary in 1990 -as many people did- they quite recently came back to live here, with their two children aged 11 and 13. Obviously having been brought up in Hungary the boys spoke no Romanian, but back here in Transylvania attending school, one of the subjects -of course- is Romanian. At a party a few months after they came back here, the boy was asked by his mother to show us what he had learned at school that week. he then proceeded to recite the entirety of a fairly long Octavian Goga (famous Romanian poet) poem. He could recite it word for word, quite well, I’m told, but understood barely a word of it!]

    The question is, how do we get politicians in Romania to accept that the English teaching methods are working and use them in the teaching of Romanian to those for whom Romanian is not a first language?

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to make this comment into something political! I really enjoyed your post, Melania, as I did Cristiana’s a few days earlier, and I’m really glad that Ken has given this platform for others to hear the inspiring stories of teachers in Romania and elsewhere!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Blimey, Andy, never knew that this problem existed in Romania. It is, as you say, surprising in a country where the teaching of one foreign language is so good. Have you any idea what the teaching of French or other ‘proper’ foreign languages is like?

      As you point out, there seems to be a lot of politics in this. But thanks for the ‘vignette’ – I wonder how many ethnic minorities in other parts of Europe are locked in a similar situation…

      • Andy Hockley said:

        I think it’s probably not bad Ken. German at least seems to be well taught, and the Goethe Institut are very good and active here (more so than the BC, I’d say). Not sure about French, as that tends to be rare here in Transylvania (historical reasons why German is more popular as a 3rd/4th language), but I know French is very popular elsewhere, such as in Bucharest (also for historical reasons).

      • Dear Ken,

        Andy might be exaggerating a bit, probably because the policy of the educational system here and the politics behind it are things we are not so much aware of… I’ll have a deeper look into it and try to write something on my blog, although I’m pretty sure I will not be able to provide some official answer to Andy’s questions.

        Thank you again for hosting us! It’s been great being here!

        Melania

    • Dear Andy,

      Thank you for your comment, you’ve touched a very good, yet sensitive point which, please try to understand, I cannot go too deep into answering, mainly because I don’t have all the information from all the perspectives involved in the educational policies and political issues.

      All I can say for the moment is: you’re so right! English may not be the only language taught with so much enthusiasm, but it surely is the first answer you’d get here to the question: ‘What foreign language would you like to study?’ (more than 85% – I’d venture to say). The demand influences/forces the offer…

      As of Romanian as a second language… we’re probably misinterpreting things a bit… Romanian is the only official (national) language in Romania, while Hungarian, German, Russian (and Rroma) are mother tongues to minorities… To my knowledge, most of these minorities can study most subjects in their mother-tongue but that doesn’t make Romanian less of a national language that all people with Romanian citizenship should be able to use properly.

      In point of how other language teachers fail to apply the successful methods used in teaching English, I think it’s a matter of perspective and things are changing, yet probably not as fast as they did twenty years ago with English…

      I feel there’s a lot more to discuss about but, not willing to outstay my welcome on Ken’s blog, I’d rather invite you to expand on this issue as soon as I write about it on my own blog (which, hopefully, I’d be able to do sometime today…).

      Thank you again, Andy, and I hope to keep in touch,

      Melania

    • Andy,

      Please refer to my blog for a more detailed response to your comment.

      Thank you!

    • My son, now in year three at a good Bucharest state school, had a native speaker take his English class for both of his first two years (my son is bilingual, but can’t opt out of English, yet). This arrangement has now come to an end, due in no small part to some other parents complaining that the native speaking teachers were not giving the children enough ‘fise’ (forms, formal exercises) to complete, instead concentrating on teaching spoken English.

      They now have a local teacher who needless to say sets them homework which includes such fun things as writing the same words many times on a piece of paper.

      Still, the other parents seem happy…

  7. Dear Melania,

    (Sorry for the late comment, but as a new blogger, I just stumbled upon your post.)

    As an ethnic Hungarian being brought up in Romania under communist times, and now an EFL teacher and teacher trainer, there would be lots for me to reflect on the ideas posted in your blog as well as the comments followed, especially Andy’s. I’ll try to be as brief as I can, however.

    First, I would like to add a few thoughts to why Romanian students are so good at English, as this is a question I’m asked frequently myself, especially that my degree is in maths and not English Philology, which is usually the case for most non-native EFL teachers in Eastern and Central Europe. Neither do I possess an MA in Linguistics and I’m not married to an English person. In fact, the first time I ever visited England was in 1999, when I went to the IH Teacher Training conference for three days as a fresh CELTA trainer myself, and the second time ever was exactly ten years later in 2009, funnily enough, to the IH DOS conference followed by the DOS certificate course, as a then DOS of IH Budapest. Of course, the question of “How come your English is so good?” was something I have been asked a lot. So I really had to think about it, and arrived to the following conclusions, which I’ll try to be as brief as possible about.

    First of all, under the oppression of the communist regime, my curiosity as a child, led me towards finding out about things that are “out there”. This combined with the forced isolation from information, as you pointed out, as well as from the English language, I was having to find my own ways of discovering things, finding out meaning of the unknown, teaching myself. I must have been around 11-12 being taught German at school, when I was first exposed to English through Dallas, the blessed American series – gosh, would you believe that I’m writing this? – , which was THE only film on TV, after an hour of Ceausescu news, shown as a negative example of how bad capitalism was. This is how I got to like the language, the music of it, the new sounds. So I was watching the film full of action unable to read or understand the Romanian subtitles, and I found myself picking up chunks of language, words of which I first saw written down only a few years later. I can clearly recall the my first language chunk ever: “Shut the door”. Two years later my sister found two books in the paper container at her school: “Engleza fara profesor.” (Teach yourself English without a teacher – in free translation) and “Follow me”, an old BBC series book, if I remember correctly. This is where I fist saw that the word “door” was actually spelt with two “o”s. From then on no one could stop me. I would collect plastic bags with English words on them – very hard to get hold of in those times! – and trying to work out their meaning, and lots more you wouldn’t think that one can learn from.

    So all in all, what happened during this time was that
    1. I was exposed to the spoken language
    2 and the difficult circumstances, plus my curiosity enabled me to develop my own skills of discovering meaning of new language.

    These two are still true in Romania. Most films on TV are in English and they are not dubbed, so there’s an immense amount of unconscious exposure to the spoken language. In addition, all kids are curious by nature, including Romanians, so they DO acquire learning skills that are needed for a speedy learning process without realising it’s happening. If you watch Sugata Mitra presenting about how kids can teach themselves on TED, you’ll realise that we are talking about the same skills and aptitudes. The context and their circumstances are the only difference, but the ability to acquire learning skills and use them is innate, i would say. All we need to do is make sure we facilitate this process as educators.

    The second thing I would like to reflect on is what it was like for me as an ethnic Hungarian living in Romania. Until the age of 6 we lived in a remote village inhibited by ethnic Hungarians only in the north of Transylvania. When I started school we moved to Zalau, a “proper town”, where during my school years I was always tested against Romanians – whose mother-tongue was Romanian – in Romanian Literature, History and Geography, subjects we all had to study in Romanian, although we attended Hungarian school. There was a huge amount of gap in my language knowledge compared to my Romanian fellow students, so it was a very hard job for me to always hang in there. And I got no help in being explained difficult words, or anything like that. We were EXPECTED, as Romanian citizens, to know just as much Romanian as those whose mother tongue WAS Romanian without being taught the language as a SECOND language. It was tough, but again, the Romanian I managed to pick up was from the kids I played with in the streets of Zalau, and I’m very proud of being able to speak this wonderful language as well. And I’m proud of being Hungarian Romanian, or Romanian Hungarian, or Transylvanian Hungarian, whichever, choose the one you like best. I feel a much richer person in all aspects being brought up in multi-cultural environment.

    Maybe, something could done, though, for todays’ ethnic minorities living in Romania to be taught Romanian as a second language. It might be happening as we speak… I’m more than convinced that it would benefit everybody.

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