Do Slovaks want to learn English? "Yes. It's the world language," said Andrea Janeušková, a 28-year old English student and pharmaceutical firm employee with aspirations of heading West. "And if you know English, you can get a better job with a foreign firm."
And how do Slovaks believe they can best master the language? "When learning English, it's better with a native speaker," she added. "I have had Slovak teachers and some are good, some are not. It's best with a native speaker because then I am forced to speak and express myself only in English."
The Slovak appetite for the native speaker has, since the 1989 fall of communism, brought a flood of expat English teachers into the country. As any student, teacher or language school manager can verify, the rush of westerners has brought its fair share of dedicated and qualified teachers; it has also, however, brought the so-called 'backpacker', a sub-group of transient, unqualified teachers more interested in experiencing cheap beer and Slovak women for a season than in imparting knowledge of their mother tongue to their eager students.
"There are some Mickey Mouse people here who are using the fact that they speak English to get paid a lot of money, but it's complete rubbish," said Liz McCubbin, a native of Scotland and the director of studies at Akadémia Vzdelávania in Bratislava. "I've met some seriously dodgy people here, and sometimes I want to say to them, 'I know why you're here, because you can't get a job in your own country'. These people give the good native teachers a bad name."
The 'backpackers' - seen as unreliable, flaky characters who get by on minimal classroom skills - can be a frustration not only for their students, but also for the language schools that are competing for solid instructors. Weeding out the backpackers, said Canadian Peter Tóth, the founder of a small Bratislava language school, has left him groping for "real teachers".
"At least half of the teachers I see in Bratislava, if not more, are backpackers," Toth said. "I don't take them on, so I've got a problem because it's hard to find quality teachers, people I can depend on. I want stability, not someone who's going to take off on me or who the students will complain about."
Ill-will for the backpackers extends beyond the classroom and school management to their colleagues, both expats and Slovaks alike. Qualified native speakers say the backpackers give them a bad name. Slovaks teaching English, meanwhile, complain that the native speakers get paid more money than they are worth in a country where teachers are the lowest paid profession, averaging about 8,200 crowns ($160) a month at state schools.
Freelance teacher Eva Pázmányová said that she had been discriminated against by both students and schools who dismissed her English skills, which she picked up living in Scotland, in favour of native speakers simply because of her Slovak ethnicity.
"In certain situations it's really unfair," she said. "Some native speakers don't even have the minimum qualifications, yet they get paid double [what a Slovak would earn]. Even if the quality of the Slovak teacher is very high, we will never get paid like a native speaker."
Teacher Dušan Djurovie, who speaks with a British accent so impeccable that he has been flown to London by the MTV music video station to audition as a VJ, agreed that native speakers were sometimes given preferential treatment.
"There is some prejudice against non-native speakers," he said. "But [being a good teacher] is more connected with the teacher's personality, their ability to relate to a student and keep them interested. The native speaker teacher is not necessarily a superior choice."
"I can see how it annoys the Slovaks," Akadémie Vzdelávania's McCubbin said. "Native speakers are making twice what a Slovak makes after one month of TOEFL [Teachers of English as a First Language - an international language teaching certificate - ed. note] while the Slovak may have spent seven years at Pedagogical University [teachers' college] to become a qualified teacher. It's a problem with supply and demand. What can I say, they need native speakers."
The need for native speakers, she continued, was a result of a slowdown in the westerner influx which peaked in 1995-96. "Now we can only get male teachers out here," she said, explaining that 14 of the Bratislava school's 16 teachers were men. "They've seen a Slovak au pair somewhere and they decide to come here for the women. You want more native speakers? Send out more au pairs."
But at least one local teacher believes that the situation is changing - that backpackers who use teaching as a quick and temporary money-making solution to support their travels are now finding that the number of people willing to hire unqualified educators is dwindling.
"The backpacker teacher element is shrinking because the standards are rising," said Peter Blight, a British teacher at Bratislava's Pedagogical University who has over 20 years experience teaching English. "Companies are now getting more discerning. Someone without qualifications can chat to a class in English, but they can't create a [lesson] plan or teach students effectively."
Still others said that if the backpacker phenomenon was to be eliminated, schools themselves must take more responsibility when hiring teachers.
"I fault the company more than the teacher because they're just taking advantage of the fact that they're native speakers," said American Gerald Hatcher, founder of ACE (Assured Communication in English) language school in Košice. "The schools hire people purely on the basis of their being a native speaker, whether they are qualified or not. These teachers not only give the legitimate teachers a bad name, but it makes a lot of companies [seeking English teachers] sceptical of language schools because they've had bad experiences with supposedly qualified teachers."
"I started my own business because I was tired of being taken advantage of," added Tóth. "The directors of these language schools are likely to have shiny red sports cars, but they don't care how they're getting their money. You start feeling like a prostitute [as a teacher] because the schools don't care if the student is getting a good education, just if they're paying."
Hatcher and McCubbin both said they hoped that backpackers would stay out of the country because, fair or not, the reputation they have won for irresponsibility and laziness also affects the image of hard-working and earnest teachers.
"When I worked for other schools, the students complained a lot about [backpacker teachers]," Hatcher said. "Several students said that the teacher would come in wearing scrungy clothes with no idea of what to do. When you have a negative element like this, people don't remember the good teachers, only the bad ones."
5. Oct 2000 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri