ELENA STYRINA ON HOW TO MASTER ENGLISH
Nowadays knowing English has become essential. This is an international language, and today a number of books, films, and TV programs are in English. Elena Styrina, Candidate of Philological Sciences and English teacher, shared her ideas about how to effectively master it and what helps to overcome the language barrier.
— According to your students, you are the most cheerful teacher. Is being a teacher your vocation?
— In fact, my becoming a teacher is a happy accident. My mother is a teacher. Usually children of teachers don’t want to follow in their footsteps. They see this profession from inside and understand how many hours it takes to prepare lectures. I thought I would never work like that to be free at home. (Laughs). But after my graduation from university, I didn’t know what to do next. Then my mother invited me to try teaching. I planned to be a teacher for a year just to see what it was. Then I liked it and could not stop.
— Did you enjoy feedback from your students or the feeling that you can teach them something?
— Initially, I was afraid of giving lectures to third year students. I was just a bit older than they were and doubted I had enough experience. I was imitating what successful teachers did there. I liked communicating with students, however, that was a big challenge. It taught me as well. And during the first year of my being a teacher I learned more than during five years of receiving higher education.
By the way, I graduated from the Moscow State Pedagogical University. After defending dissertation, I looked for a higher education institution with broad creative opportunities. When I found IGUMO, I was very impressed and fell in love with it from the first term of working there.
IGUMO provides me with opportunity to deliver lectures not only in the traditional, but also in the modern way, by using game elements. Flexibility is the thing I like here. We are always making progress. Students prepare theatrical performances in English, discuss cultural events in terms of the project called ‘Cafe Europa’, practise simultaneous translation in our Translation Agency, and even undertake internships in the Chech Republic.
After defending dissertation, I wanted to share my experience. The Faculty of Linguistics of IGUMO gave me this chance. In fact, its students are very skillful and its teachers are friendly. I always share funny stories about my lectures with my colleagues. We constantly follow all the changes in English and new methods of teaching. In fact, recently we discussed that nothing can be learned forever. Even over the past 10 years many familiar words and phrases changed their meaning and pronunciation.
— What was your approach towards working with students in your first year of being a teacher?
— I probably used to be not so cheerful in my first year. I needed to prove myself as a teacher. During our lectures, we often had roundtables with a rule not to speak Russian. I also learned to give my students bad marks. That was a challenge for me.
We were told that the previous generation of teachers tried to look older when coming to work. We didn’t do the same. We even were able to come to work in jeans.
— How many languages do you know?
— In addition to English, I know French. I studied sociology in French. Officially, my second language is German, but I don’t use it and have almost forgot it. Moreover, now I am learning Italian.
— Why do you learn Italian?
— I reached the age when one learns something without any reason. I don’t think students do the same. They study what they need in life. I did that with French thinking I would need it as a businesswoman with a broad circle of communication. But my life went in a different way. However, I need it for myself, I still use it in communication. The same is with Italian. I learn it just to know it. As I understood, a teacher-linguist should always learn new languages. My teacher of Italian says: “Teacher should learn new languages to know what it feels like to be in the student’s shoes”.
The thing is that you understand students better when you learn and do the same mistakes. You realize how to teach better, how much you should repeat words, you do not get irritated when you hear wrong answers again and again. This is normal, you know it from your own experience.
— Can you share some memory techniques?
— There are people who have inborn good memory. For example, my children remember everything very quickly, but I do not. If someone tested me at school, maybe I would be told that learning foreign languages wasn’t my path. But I remember information very well in context. For me it is useless to learn a word, writing it out in a notebook and repeating it million times. But I will remember it if I meet it in the text a couple of times.
— What scope of vocabulary is optimal?
— It depends on your goals. I started learning Italian two weeks before visiting Italy. I had about six lessons, and they were extremely intensive. When you have more far-reaching goals, you can do it slower. Then your course is not that intensive and you have enough time to keep everything in your memory.
In my opinion, if a person has a goal, he will master everything better than a student having lists of things to be learned to write a test well.
As I think, brain is able to remember seven words. Not every day, but every other day to reinforce knowledge. Otherwise, one will be overloaded with information very quickly.
— How do you organise lessons for students to learn English quicker?
— I try to organise lessons-performances sometimes. Recently we had a court with Professor Moriarty being judged. During the trial, it turned out that Moriarty was innocent, he was an actor hired by Sherlock Holmes. That was a funny performance. The students prepared well. They found evidence, fabricated photos and, at the end of the performance, there appeared a witness who used to date with Sherlock... Last year we had a different court performance about the Fox being judged for eating Kolobok. The Fox was acquitted because of being allergic to wheat.
We also had a lesson dedicated to selling. My students had a task to sell the things they brought with to their groupmates. Those things included students books, tickets to Italy, clothes, etc. The most unusual object taking part in this game were headphones.
— How do you invent such games?
— I feel the necessity of creativity. If I hadn’t become teacher I would probably write plays. In my opinion, when people start teaching, they realize their creative needs. I also want to inspire this creative spirit in my students. Under such conditions, my students are more open to dialogue. Thus, they practise their live speech.
— What do your children think when watching you while preparation for your lectures? Are they afraid of becoming teachers?
— My younger daughter, who is 8 years old, sometimes suffers from my being busy because she needs much attention. She decided to take part in my preparation. She always comes, looks over my shoulder, asks me what I am doing, and then asks more questions on the subject of the lesson. My elder daughter, who is 16 years old, wants to become a teacher. I didn’t contribute to her decision. Her history teacher inspired her. That is why my daughter wants to become a history teacher at school.
— Do you teach your children English?
— No. And this is a common thing. At first, I was surprised when my colleagues shared that they hired tutors for their children. I wondered why one can’t teach one’s children? What is the use of one’s working experience then? In fact, it is extremely difficult to teach your own children. You get used to being listened to by students. Your children may say that you explain something wrong, that their teachers explained that in a different way, that translation of the word is different.
I managed to conquer respect of my elder daughter. I speak English with her, for example, when we need to exchange information in secret from my younger daughter. She mastered it simply, without studying it. I admire her.
— Was it difficult for you to learn languages?
— I always had satisfactory mark in English. Only when I was in two last forms I started learning it properly. Then I entered the Faculty of Linguistics. It took me 4 months to master French. However, that happened in France.
It is both simpler and more difficult to learn new languages. I have many parallels with French when learning Italian.
— Some people teach their children English from the very early age. What is your attitude towards it?
— I am completely against it. The brain of a child can manage it. But child’s nervous system can’t. Children should think and learn culture in their native language. Only after that it becomes possible to learn foreign languages. If a child is talented, it won’t be a problem to master second language at any age.
— Are bilingual people victims?
— No, it's a matter of necessity. If the child lives in a family, where mom and dad speak different languages, this is normal. The brain develops better, there are a lot of positive moments in it. But we must always remember that this child will not belong 100% to a certain culture. He won’t feel completely Russian culture. And he probably won’t like Dostoyevsky’s works. (Laughs).
When we live in the same community, then we have a common cultural space. With friends, we understand each other without words. This is extremely important. When people live in different cultural environments, the gap between them is very clearly felt. Of course, when we study the language, we must necessarily study the culture of the country. To be honest, I know British history better than Russian. But I'm ashamed before my elder daughter when I confuse tsars Alexander and Nikolay. She knows Russian history better, and I decided to improve my knowledge in this field as well.
— How many percent of the English language and culture have you mastered, in your opinion?
— I would say I have mastered 78 percent. I think that many Englishmen do not fully know their culture. By the way, there is a special exam called Certificate of Proficiency in English. I didn’t take that exam but I provide my students with extra tasks for them to be prepared. They pass it well. Once an Englishman tried to pass it but he failed. The idea of the exam was not only to perfectly know the language, but to be able to use synonyms, to feel subtly the semantic nuances in the text. In the future, I will definitely take this exam.
I must say that teachers in IGUMO are not shy to ask each other about something and admit that they do not know something. I can say for sure that inexperienced teachers do this very often. I also had to do that when starting my career.
When students don’t know something they can immediately find it out on the net. For teacher it is much more difficult. When they ask me about translation of some words, it's a compliment for me, because I would not ask anybody, I would immediately refer to the dictionary. I often notice that when students don’t know some work they constantly look for its translation in smartphones. It is good, as it stimulates their memory and knowledge.
— They say that one must watch films to better master a foreign language. What films would you recommend?
— It depends on your level. If you only start learning English you can go to YouTube and write ‘english for beginners’. There you will find several quite simple videos. If we talk about continuing education, I would recommend TED.com. While watching videos there, you can turn on subtitles and even download the speech. Thanks to that, you can prepare in advance, translate some words, and then listen to live speech. TED is very good, and if you want to understand every word, you can first take not British speakers, but German ones. They speak English slowly.
In feature films very often the speech of actors is fluent, very idiomatic, often fuzzy. I would recommend watching serials, because characters speak there more clearly. Watch one episode with subtitles and then one without them. This will improve your understanding. Very often subtitles do not correspond to what was said, they are shorter. It can confuse you.
Talk to yourself. Voice what you do. It is impossible to master English just surfing the internet and pushing buttons. You have to make the brain work in order to overcome challenges. If you don’t face them, you do not learn. Translate what you do: “I put the plate on the table, I serve the porridge on a dish, I stick the plug into the socket, I turn on the kettle”. By the way, these are the most difficult things however they seem a simple everyday speech.
Communicate with someone. But I immediately say, if you are looking for a teacher on the Internet, the British are not good ones. They explain poorly, they do not correct mistakes. There is a psychological rule I also follow during my lessons: a person can not be corrected before he or she finishes speaking. You can’t interrupt him or her immediately, otherwise the fluency of speech is lost and a language barrier arises. This is a very delicate moment. Apparently, the British are very delicate people as well. On the other hand, if you need fluency, then, of course, you need practicing with them.
But the main advice is not to learn separate words. Remember words immediately in combinations, in context. This is extremely important. After all, each word has several translation options. And do not use Google translator! It is terrible!
Agata Korovina, news agency of the Eurasian Women’s Community
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov