Wednesday, 8 October 2008

ABC Wednesday: L for language school

It's ABC Wednesday again, and L is language school.

Language schools (in Greek, we call them frontistirio) in Hania, and the whole of Crete (I may as well add the whole of Greece) are like the corner shop in a neighbourhood; in some places, there is one on each street. Chiefly English, as well as French, German, Italian and Spanish (but not Chinese or Russian which I view as far more economically 'important' languages) are taught there. Children start English lessons at state school in the third year of primary school. This is also the year that they start English lessons in a private (ie you pay a monthly fee) language institute which operates in the afternoon. This kind of after-hours school is completely optional of course, but there is no Greek child that does not attend a language institute at primary school age; everybody goes to them, whether they come out of them with foreign language skills or not. If the child attends an optional all-day school program (a kind of child-minding service for working parents), there may be English lessons in that too, apart from the morning school program's regular lessons. If they are weak in some areas, their parents may hire a private language tutor to teach them in a one-to-one basis. Does it all sound too much? Maybe it is, but it shows how much focus there is in Greece in second-language acquisition, primarily English.

The principal of my children's school recently said: "Children get over five hours a week of English lessons every week, and come out of the school system not being able to understand a word of it." I disagree with this statement. In Hania, there are ample opportunities to hear and speak English, and all seasonal summer jobs require some foreign language skills. You cannot avoid hearing English every day of the week if you live and work in the tourist areas, and it is second nature to most people in Hania to be able to direct a tourist to some focal point in the town. Outside the tourist areas, many children may not be learning the English language as ardently as the average child in Hania (I should know, as an English teacher and EDEXCEL examiner), but in Hania, all children learn English, and most do come out with the bare basics in communication skills.

When I came to Greece, I had already gained my ESL-teaching qualifications in New Zealand. I had heard that there were ample opportunities for well-qualified English teachers, which was what I found when I arrived in Athens. I landed a well-paid job working in one from half past two in the afternoon till half past ten int he evening every weekday. The first week I worked there, I felt strange teaching until so late at night, especially because I had become accustomed to going to bed at the time I was still at work. The second week, I forced myself not to go to bed immediately after I came home from work, so that I could sleep in in the morning, so that I could pretend that when I did actually leave the house for work, it was still morning, even though it was actually afternoon. The third week, I realised that I would always hate working in the evenings, no matter what time I woke up or went to bed.

By working in this kind of system, I was supporting the para-education system of Greece, the one that does the work that the state education system should do, but for various reasons (disorganisation, a relaxed attitude, employing the wrong people, state indifference, etc) it is not being done. It is not only English lessons that are being given in the private 'user-pays' institutes; it is also extra tuition for all the subjects taught at school: history, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, composition writing, chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, computer lessons, and a whole host of other 'hobby'-type lessons such as sports, dance, music, etc. Politicians have been known to make moves to improve the education system, all the while sending their own offspring to the most elitist private paying educational establishments.

I have been working in this kind of educational institute for 17 years. This is the first year that I have decided not to return to such work. At present, through my own choice, I am unemployed. My children are nearly of the age when they will be deemed to have started lessons at a private English language institute. They already understand more than they can speak in English. I do not wish to support the Greek para-education system, but I still need to
teach them to read and write in English, because, let's face it, they need that skill, as everyone the world over needs it.


  1. interesting. over here, there used to be more of an emphasis on being bilingual (speaking english and a local language), but that is unfortunately fading, to our detriment.

  2. Oh the wonderful frontistirios and of course the crammer schools. What you say about Greece is true, of course, but in the Uk there is a large number of children coming out of school without the full ability to read and write - at fifteen.

    This is very worrying and in the UK it is because the curriculum is now political . . . etc etc.

    I won't bore you any more. And hey thanks, Leophorou Katzatzakis is just where you said it was.

    All the best


  3. similar situation in india! sad though..

  4. As an English teacher myself, I find this fascinating! I really had no idea how education was set up in Greece.

    Does this mean English classes are open to all age groups? I just wondered about the late completion of classes surely would not be for primary age children!

  5. Πολύ μου αρέσει το σημερινό σου σχόλιο. δωρεαν παιδεία και άστα να πάνε. και αφού είναι τόσο ευχαριστημένοι με την πορεία της παιδείας, κόβουνε κονδύλια από το εκπαιδευτικό πρόγραμμα και τα ρίχνουν στην αγορά στρατιωτικού υλικού. και μετά ανθίζει η παραπαιδεία

  6. For your information, this happens not only in Greece...

  7. So many countries put an emphasis on learning a language. We have compulsory lessons here but very few of us end up able to speak another language as well as others can speak ours.

  8. I hope these lessons help my children when they get older because English are "a headache" for them for the time being,contrarily to French and German languages which are their choices.

  9. You're so right about everything you say.

  10. Quite a story. It's sad, public schools seems to be going downhill everywhere. I'm glad you are free to make the choice you did. Your kids will profit and we, your readers, also.
    BTW, is homeschooling at all permitted in Greece?

  11. Hello Med.Kiwi

    The description of the situation is very realistic.

    However, in Greece, there are still parents who -for various reasons- did not have the chance to receive the education they deserved OR in general felt that they "do not have an inclination for studies" (most of the times this is a view imposed on them by others :-( ).

    These people have the (right) intuition to put their children on a foreign language course (or other courses that will equip youngsters for a good quality life) BUT they do not have the means to estimate whether or not the education their children receive is appropriate. So, sometimes they get captured by some "hawk" educators who paint a nice picture but do not deliver it...they continue to get paid for their services though.

    Public schools should definetly have solved this problem long time ago...but unfortunately they continue to deteriorate.

    Please allow me to disagree with your decision though, at least on the grounds of not wanting to support the Greek para-education system.

    Judging by the way you express yourself on this blog (and i follow it for some time now to have a good statistical sample) i think that you must have been carrying out an excellent job as an English teacher in Greece and as you came to realise we are in need of people like you.

    I appreciate that the person you worked under might have been running an excellent example of a para-education business or that there might have been other tiny little relevant reasons that got accumulated over time to lead you to this decision for which you have my full understanding.

  12. The ESL learning must be very important. The English is the best way of the communication in the whole of the world and it is the requirement of at present world...
    learn english usa