Problems in EFL in the Western Czech Republic

James Kirchner

Note: This appeared on the LINGUIST list recently. James Kirchner, who taught in the Western Czech Republic, wrote of the misconceptions about English held by the English teachers there, and asked for native-English (particularly British English) speakers' input. I thought that the summary might be of interest to TESL professionals and others.--Kristina

Some weeks ago I posted a request for British speaker judgments of some purportedly "British" forms my former high school students in the Western Czech Republic had been taught by their new non-native, mostly non-proficient English teachers. I should mention one thing now that I didn't bring up in the original query: These students are not necessarily aiming at a British standard themselves, but simply want to sift out some nonsense they must parrot in class, in order to arrive at some kind of clear, intelligible international English, free of silly-sounding calques and malapropisms.

Correcting the teachers, so as to help them improve is out of the question. A claim to infallibility seems to be what some instructors rely on for their authority, and the label "British" is often the final refuge of such teachers, when defending their own mistakes against correction by students formerly taught by Americans. A quote from one of the students' letters to me illustrates their predicament: "I've stopped arguing with Mrs. S. When I told her that you had taught us the difference between 'stranger' and 'foreigner', she said, 'It's obvious that there are differences between synonyms, but it's really small.'" ("Mrs. S." had been teaching that the words "foreigner" and "stranger" are interchangeable. A dictionary would have helped.)

Many respondents also indicated interest in the social and cultural reasons for the prejudice against perceived (though often not real) American usage, and in the Czech Republic, there are definite, identifiable causes for it. It is, however, evidently a global phenomenon, and it was pointed out that Australians take this kind of guff from all sides, i.e., from foreigners revering either a British *or* an American standard. For those interested, I will discuss these matters at the end of the summary, but first my questions and a synopsis of the responses:

Do you ever:

1. say "basic school" for elementary school?

A unanimous "no". Not surprising, because this is a calque from Czech "zakladni skola". The preferred term for most respondents was "primary school", some said "elementary school" is relatively uncommon in Britain (it is common in the U.S.), and some Britons also mentioned the term "junior school", which in the U.S. would certainly be confused with "junior high school" (ages 11/12 to 13/14). I taught "primary school" as the most internationally intelligible option.

2. say "secondary grammar school" instead of secondary school?

No. Either "secondary school" or "grammar school", the latter constituting a more academic form of secondary education, which is supposedly dying out due to changes in the British education system. Some Britons even accepted "high school". These terms were problematic for the Czech students. I stressed both "secondary school" and "high school", the latter so as to eliminate confusion with its exact Czech cognate "vysoka skola", which essentially means a university. The term "grammar school" presents difficulty also, because in North America it is an old-fashioned term for "primary school".

3. say "school servant" for caretaker or janitor?

No. The term "school servant" was almost universally regarded as insulting (as I had told my doubting Czech colleagues), although it is present in the standard Czech-English dictionary, and according to P.K.W. Tan, "...this term is used in the Methodist Girls' School in Singapore." Most Britons preferred the term "caretaker", saying that "janitor" sounded American.

4. pronounce "sweater" as [swi:tr] (i.e., rhyming with "sweeter")?

A unanimous "NO," but boy, did one of my Czech colleagues ever insist that it was "what the British say"! It took us Americans from 1991 to 1994 to (mostly) purge it from town. It had been nearly universal prior to that. Real Britons prefer [swet@].

5. pronounce all the vowels in "vegetable"?

By which I meant all but the final /e/. Most usually say [vedZt@bl] (three syllables); four syllables only in slow, careful or stilted speech.

6. negate "used to" as "usedn't to"? (It's in a textbook.)

This was the real surprise. Neither I nor my 77-year-old ex-schoolteacher mother had ever seen this, and I believed it impossible on morphological and syntactic grounds. Some Britons have seen it, but they characterized it diversely as "old-fashioned, "quaint," "possible but clumsy," "very formal style," "informal," "substandard." They all prefer "didn't use to," and in cases, "used not to." Anglo-American accord here, as usual. Steven Schaufele (an American) provided this insight: "Not since the 18th century, at least in the Standard dialect; in 19th century British literature you begin to get non-Standard speakers ridiculed because they sometimes still use this form."

7. Do you fall in love *in* someone or *with* someone?

Only "with", although there were a few erotic quips that the male gender indeed can fall in love "in" someone. The sentence the kids were told to learn by heart was, "Goethe was many times here and fell in love in young Ulrike von Lewetzow." I know the local tourist brochure this comes from, and the same translator also had many local hotels boasting "reefer in the room" (he meant "refrigerator").

8. Can something happen *at* about 10.00, *after* about 10.00, *round* about 10.00, etc., or is "by" the only preposition permissible before the word "about" in a time expression?

The overwhelming consensus was that any preposition that is acceptable without "about" is fine with "about", so all these words and more were okay for almost all respondents. My kids already knew this, but their teacher began insisting that only "by" was acceptable.

9. In questions, do you normally invert main verb "have", as in "Have you a dog?" If so, do you usually say, "I haven't a dog."? If so, with the idiom "have to" (="must") do you invert and negate similarly? (E.g., "You hadn't to do it!" rather than, "You didn't have to do it!") (One American colleague who taught "do you have...?", and "have you got...?" in an elementary school was soundly reprimanded by a Czech colleague for teaching "unacceptable)Americanisms".)

Most found inverted main verb "have" to be old-fashioned or "very formal," and preferred sentences like, "Have you got a dog?" or "Do you have a dog?" Likewise, "I haven't got/don't have a dog." Inverted forms do appear to survive for some people in certain fixed contexts ("I haven't any matches.") Almost all found the negated "have" in, "You hadn't to do it," to be quite strange, but Paul Werth made the following interesting comments: "Similarly, you can say 'you haven't to do that', but not as a synonym for 'you mustn't do that'. The latter is a prohibition, the former expresses a lack of compulsion (you don't need to do that), as of course does the form with 'do'. Actually, come to think of it, I would use 'you haven't to do that' more as an instruction to someone ('that's not in your job description'), so not merely 'there's no need for you to do that', but rather 'you're not supposed to do that' - a case of nature abhorring a synonym, perhaps?"

10. Do you consider the pronunciations "ate" [ejt] and "can't" [kaent] (/ae/ = low front vowel) to be "incorrect" or stigmatized?

The general consensus was that [ejt] (rhyming with 8) is not standard British, and may have been somewhat stigmatized 30 or 40 years ago, but is now acceptable. In referring to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, Anthea Fraser Gupta reached a conclusion similar to that under which I operated: "[ejt] is fine, alongside [et]. Both are in LPD which indicates that a BrE poll voted almost 50/50 on these two, and further indicates that /et/ is considered non-standard in AmE. So [ejt] would be the better one to teach foreigners, I feel." There were some opposing impressions of [ejt]. One person would describe it as "rustic", while another would say it was "stiff". One respondent considered [ejt] to be both regionally and class stigmatized (i.e., not RP), but another said, "/eit/ would be the RP pronunciation and therefore the "proper" or formal one, which I do use when I want to sound 'respectable'!" The "can't" pronunciation [kaent] was generally considered unstigmatized Northern British or American.

All this confusion feeds right into my "stun gun" question that usually stopped Czech colleagues cold: "WHATAYA MEAN BY BRITISH ENGLISH?!" They were generally stuck for an answer, and couldn't characterize what they meant.


The dilemma of my former students is caused by certain understandable factors. Part of its origins are found in the fact that under communism Czech and Slovak English teachers had only limited contact with native English speakers or authentic anglophone culture. This can be only *part* of the problem, because my colleagues from Russia had very solid comprehension and grammatical knowledge. (One tells a story about a Czech instructor, who on an examination, asked a student to decline an English pronoun into "all seven cases". The Russian protested that English did not *have* seven cases. Since she was not American, the Czech could only sneer, "Well, you studied in *Russia*!")

Among the native materials available to Czechs before 1989, there was evidently a certain amount of classic American social consciousness literature. My students' current teachers cannot read these novels, but I am convinced that their professors' professors' professors' formed their image of American English based on the Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath" or similar characters. And because these teachers were seldom exposed to the cadence of native English, they have trouble understanding any native speaker, and pride or ignorance often leads them to attribute the problem to the speaker's non-British speech. (In times of unusual frustration, I would switch to RP and diabolically wait for them to complain about my incoherent Yankee accent.)

A second factor is that Czech schools teach a standard literary language that is actually more or less an artificial creation of their 19th century National Revival movement, and diverges greatly from the way people really talk. This form was deliberately a bit archaic even at its inception, and had never been anyone's native tongue. Even today, almost no one outside of broadcasting or the theater speaks this standard, though many feel a bit guilty about not doing so. However, those who actually speak 100% Literary Czech in ordinary conversation may attract considerable resentment. Just as this concept of literary language must be explained to anglophone students of Czech, the Czechs have trouble conceiving of a multiple-standard language like English that survives without an academy, and changes through its own momentum. For this reason, they are very susceptible to the idea that there must be one "correct" English that emanates from one center.

The third main factor is economics. After 1989 a huge number Czech teachers, who were truly fluent in the foreign languages they taught, were attracted away by private enterprise. Some were burned out on teaching, some needed the additional money. While thousands of young anglophones have descended on Prague hoping to teach English (and a few actually know how!), labor office clerks are frustrated to find that most of these backwards baseball caps and sorority sweaters would rather remain jobless than venture away from the Prague scene. For this reason, primary and secondary schools elsewhere are reduced to searching out nearly any local who professes to speak a little English. In many cases, the teacher is literally only a lesson ahead of the students, and in secondary school, it's not so unusual for kids, who have brought themselves nearly to Cambridge Advanced English level, to get teachers who have failed (or would fail) PET or First Certificate. Most such teachers cannot understand the tapes, teacher's notes or methods used in British textbooks, so they rely on faulty Czech-written texts ("dog [dok]", "The Great Lakes Region shares the United States with Canada.").

In such a bad situation, the non-proficient teacher has two possible choices: One is to admit to the limits of her knowledge, and discover English along with the kids. This can actually be effective. One primary school teacher, who could barely speak English, sent me the most solid, fluent crop of 14-year-olds I had. When recalling her instruction, the students always gratefully emphasized that she never pretended to know anything she didn't, thus leaving pupils cognizant of what they needed to find out. The second solution, seemingly very popular, is to insist on infallibility and set the limits of the permissible (aka "British English") right at the border of one's own knowledge. This results in order, but also in very suspicious students.

This summary is already too long, but anyone who wants to discuss such issues further (in English, German, French, Czech or maybe Spanish) is welcome to put his or her two cents in. BTW, Achim Stenzel gets an A+ for the best non-native anticipation of native speakers' judgments.

Thanks to all, all over the world, who helped. Listing their names would add another long paragraph or two, so I'll refrain from doing so.

James Kirchner

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