Individual care pays off for award-winning French-language teacher

Focusing on the needs of individual students pays off for award-winning French-language teacher Svetlana Grier, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 9:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 12:44pm

When news broke early this year that she had won an international teaching award, Svetlana Grier had no idea who had nominated her. The Russian-born French teacher at the Chinese International School only found out later from the Johns Hopkins Centre for Talented Youth, which presented her with the Friedel and Otto Eberspacher Award for excellence in the teaching of a modern Western European language, that it was one of her former students.

The South Korean student, now studying at a US boarding school, had left Chinese International School a few years ago. "It was the first time I had heard of him since he left," says Grier, who had been teaching in Hong Kong for a decade. After his nomination, she was asked by the Johns Hopkins Centre to submit a short essay explaining why she took up teaching. It led to her winning the award, beating about 80 other teachers worldwide.

Teaching 11- to 18-year-olds is something I really enjoy every day
Svetlana Grier

Her passion for teaching is obvious to her students. "She focuses on every single student, and teaches students as individuals. She knows how to accommodate our needs and learning styles," says Year Nine student Victoria Ngai.

Individual attention and motivation are known to be important factors for language learning, whether English, a common second language in Hong Kong, or a third or fourth language, such as French, which is being taught in several schools here.

In her home country, Grier had hoped to study to be an official interpreter. But admission for the training at top institutions in Moscow was extremely difficult. She had good grades in English in high school, so she studied French at the Tyumen State University in Western Siberia because it was relatively less common.

She became drawn to languages at the age of 11 under the influence of her father, who was learning English and was a big fan of the Beatles.

"Learning the language gave him something to do," she says. "He sang Beatles songs, played the guitar and read English books. He worked on computers and, in those days, most computers came from IBM, and he read the manuals from the company."

When she first arrived in Hong Kong 10 years ago, she taught for a year at a small international school, and had a training role at a law firm before joining Chinese International School. She remains passionate.

"Teaching 11- to 18-year-olds is something I really enjoy every day. My students are learning French as a third or even fourth language," she says.

Grier is keen on fostering an encouraging environment in which everyone wants to learn. "Sometimes it is not easy because students are tired. So we play more games when they are exhausted at the end of a day. If it's the first lesson of the day, we do more hard work."

To engage her students, she utilises various activities, from games to role-playing exercises. She splits students into groups that assume the role of family units; these act as a source of support and allow students to mimic native speakers.

Students are also put in real-life situations like pretending to show French-speaking parents around the school.

"If you are teaching tenses and you take it out of context, it makes no sense," says Grier.

Multilingualism research overseas has shown that the ideal language teacher has also experienced language learning and can pass on this knowledge in the classroom. Now learning Putonghua via Skype with her teacher in Xian, Grier draws parallels with what some of her students are going through. "Some words sound the same in French and Cantonese or Putonghua. Ham in Cantonese, for example, sounds like armchair in French ( fauteuil)," she says.

While keeping up to date on language learning theories, she also borrows ideas from Russian books, praising the country's approach to teaching languages as logical.

She understands the joy and sense of accomplishment of being able to unlock the world of another culture. "Learning languages is like solving puzzles. I enjoy learning how to read Chinese characters before bed every night.

"And when my students finished reading a whole book in French they felt so satisfied. It might just have been a basic book for beginners, but the sense of satisfaction drives you to do more," she says.

A small class environment certainly helps. There are only six in Year 13 student Vera Lummis' French class.

"We have one-on-one attention and she tailors the class to our learning styles," says Lummis, who is planning to study in France. "We do different things; each class focuses either on grammar, text comprehension or oral exercise. It kind of changes all the time and it keeps the class interesting."

Research has shown that bilingual children are better at learning more languages. They are also more likely to be successful academically because language acquisition lights up the part of the brain used for decoding information.

The best way to learn a foreign language is through repetition and variety of learning tools, says Brian Cooklin, principal of Nord Anglia International School, which is opening its campus here in September with a third language requirement from Year Five. The school is among a handful of schools here with such a requirement.

Cooklin says it is also easier to acquire languages that are connected in terms of having similar structures, grammar or sounds, as in the case of French, Spanish and Italian, languages that share Romanic or Neo-Latin roots.

"It is a reflex, the brain is a big muscle. If you are constantly using that part of your brain for decoding and understanding of languages, it is easier for you to pick up a language, particularly languages that are connected."

Nord Anglia students must learn Spanish on top of Putonghua and English from Year Five. Cooklin says this is intended to make sure they know the top three most widely used languages in the world and to increase their awareness of other cultures.