ESL Christmas Madness

November and December are traditionally grueling months. Work builds up, reports must be written, goals and targets reached, assessments prepared, Christmas shopping (usually if you are a woman), the roller coaster of activities keeps on mercilessly gaining speed, office parties, client parties, luncheons with friends, clients, ex-friends, and the list goes on. And I’m only talking about the students’ lives. Even Santa Claus drinks too much this time of year (and I’m not talking only about cider) – with all due respect, not sidetracking too much – a friend of ours drank a 750ml bottle of Pinot Noir in less than an hour, alone – and she said: “That’s nothing. I’m used to that. Hiccup”. But we did realize she was slurring  her speech a little and laughing a little louder. Enough said.

No wonder that at this time of year, students are tired, worn out even. Consequently, they can’t produce a better English level – even sometimes their thinkinscreaming-woman-with-headacheg process is slowed down. Take today’s only class for instance. Dear student R is a sweetheart but it’s still hard to imagine that after let’s say, 20 plus years taking English lessons – she still asks – ‘is raining today, teacher?” – I encourage her to repeat the question and notice what’s missing and good-humouredly say: “is raining’ or it’s raining’ require the same energy. Use the right one”. And R just says: “Ahhh teacher, I’m tired (or sick, or sleepy).”

During our lesson today correcting last week’s homework on the Chocolate Conundrum, a quite interesting story in the Guardian listing the problems farmers, processors and manufacturers are facing with falling production and growing demand for chocolate. The article mentioned an example in Indonesia, of course, R mispronounced it, I corrected her and expected to move on, but she got stuck in that nation (chuckles) – and tried to say it again and again while asking me to repeat the word. Until I blurted out: “Forget it! No point in spending energy in learning how to say “Indonesia”. How many times in your life are you going to say this word?” WOO-WOO-WOO (danger alarm) http://youtu.be/PowGPSdAxTI. ATTENTION. Don’t go down that lane. Take a deep breath, Mo.

The class ends with my dear student pronouncing “CEREAL” as “SURREAL” – but that’s ok. I’m sure she’ll be better rested come January.

Cheers,

Mo

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ESL Ghosts of Christmas Past

I’ve always been divided about the Christmas Season. On the one hand I love the religious side as a reminder of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  I love singing carols and even though you’re sweating buckets in muggy 31 degree Celsius in late spring, I kind of enjoy setting up the Christmas tree and ornaments.

When I was a child, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church generally frowned upon the celebration of Christmas saying it was a Pagan sun-worshiping tradition. Christmas trees were symbols of Satan worship and the Nativity scene, crib, or the sweet French sounding crènativity sceneche would be a Catholic tradition with the worship of idols. Imagine if it had camels and sheep as well. Animal worship! Horror of Horrors!! Ok, I confess I’m exaggerating a little (not much). I don’t remember how old I was, probably in my early 20s when I broke the “commandment” and bought a clay nativity scene wondering if my parents would object to it. As expected, they just shrugged – whatever – they were mostly easy-going on most things.

As a teacher I always tried to teach my students one or two traditional carols – not in order to proselytize or anything like that, first as a cultural point of sharing with them words that English native speakers know by heart across the world. I’d choose “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” or “Silent Night”  and mostly they would show little or no interest in learning by heart a single verse or refrain. Of course, “Hark” and “Herald” are little used words and students would be always questioning my “wisdom” in teaching them such “useless” words.

I also try to use a simple translation of the gospel story of Jesus’ birth – even using a Charlie Brown Christmas, as found in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 2 verses 1-20:

 

The Birth of Jesus

1-5 About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

6-7 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.

An Event for Everyone

8-12 There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

13-14 At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:

Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

15-18 As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying??????????????????????????????? in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

19-20 Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!

But, here come the ESL ghosts of Christmas past, most students are in such a rush and busyness that they simply cancel their classes in December or say “I can come to class but stay for only 30 minutes” or something like that, so my ideas of a Christmas lesson fall along the way in tiny little pieces.

Should that discourage me? Yes, but next year let’s try it all again.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Mo

English as Lingua Franca

This week I celebrated my 49th birthday at a Mexican bar here in São Paulo. Talk about globalization. Even more interesting because the bar is called “Los 3 Amigos” and their motto is Tacos, Tequila & Rock. In that alone we can see the ubiquitous presence of English through its music. But how did English become so ubiquitous?

No question that the British colonialism responded for the spread of their language around the globe but only after the rise of the U.S. as a multiple superpower – cultural, political, economic, scientific,etc., did English become so  widespread. Let’s not forget that other European nations exerted their colonial power and French was the language of diplomacy well into the first half of the 20th century. But I have no question that the military presence of the US in Asia along with their cultural industry represented by Hollywood and Music, were key to the making of a global language.

I have my reservations whether students should study a standard and simplified global English or different regional Englishes depending on their location and business interests, because while in written form they may be similar in vocabulary and grammar, when spoken depending on the accent the Speaker may be unintelligible. In today’s world, technology allows for a greater standardization of English as observed in the US, Canada and Australia, where regional accents are becoming less and less accentuated. As learners of English, most students have their own preferences on which “English” they’ll learn but they’d rarely pick a global or “generic” version, they’d much rather choose a standard American or British version.

I don’t like the term “killer” language ref. to English. Even Greek or Latin during the hegemony of their empires tended to coexist with local languages and amalgamated with local groups. English has suffered the same amalgamation in India and African countries for instance, where English became a tool of unification. While millions spoke different languages and dialects they could use English to communicate with each other. In countries settled by British immigration – US, Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa to some extent, other “tribal” languages were either eliminated or pushed into reservations. But not because of the language per se but because of the authorities who spoke it and saw local languages as inferior consequently they would be doing them a favor by pushing until oblivion those local languages.

There is no other contender today to the Lingua Franca Throne. Mandarin Chinese spoken by nearly 1 billion is complex and geographically restricted while Made in China products play no part in encouraging people to say: “wow, I’m going to study Chinese so I’ll be able to understand this manual or label”. During the Cold War, Russian playing a linguistic counterpart to English – being taught in Eastern Europe and in many Latin American universities. I remember my days at the University of São Paulo many students would be taking Russian language course as a form of protest against American Imperialism – that was the time of “Take your hands off Nicaragua” – or planning to apply for a scholarship to study in Russia. With the end of the Iron Curtain, Russian interest declined even faster than that country’s population.

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English is the world’s default language

English will be well into this 21st century the language of communication across social, economic and political lines.  Better get back to your grammar, pal.

Cheers,

Mo

Native-Speakerism

This morning I woke up early as usual – around 5.30 am,  but being Sunday I wanted to enjoy our bed a little longer – therefore decided to listen to some podcasts, the episode of the Teflologists had two interviews conducted at the second international symposium on native-speakerism held at Saga University, Japan. The interviewees were Stephanie Ann Houghton and Enric Llurda about native-speakerism, non-native speakers in language teaching, English as a lingua franca, and intercultural communication. You can find their podcast series clicking on this link: http://teflology.libsyn.com/

As a non-native teacher of English I know of the existence of this so-called “favoritism” or bias towards native English speakers – allegedly they know ALL the idioms and ALL the words of the English language, which they don’t, by the way. They can give in-depth information about the culture of America, the UK, Ireland or wherever they may hail from, which quite often can be narrowed down to their own individual experiences and not as the perfect stereotype of their nation. Fortunately, I’ve never been “discriminated” against based on my nationality. It’s true that to non-English speakers’ ears my accent may lead them to believe I come from somewhere in America or Australia (go figure) as it happened to me with a  group of Chinese students in York, Ontario.

Okay, some students say “I want a teacher with a British accent” – which of the 3,400 different accents found in the British Isles would you prefer? Or they say: “I wanna a teacher with an American accent” – from Alabama, California or Vermont?

Truth be told, nativewhen I was starting my teaching career in the early 1990s working for a language consultancy firm in São Paulo, there were one or two cases when a corporate client would call for English lessons and adamantly request a native speaker, otherwise, no need to bother. The school sent them a Swedish (yes, you read it right)! A Swedish teacher of English – male, tall, blond, blue eyes, and quite fluent in Swedish English. They loved him. He who has eyes, read between the lines.

Native English speakers in developing countries tend to be young, college graduate, jumping into some traveling adventure before settling down. Nothing wrong with that. But quite often they are NOT qualified to be teachers let alone English teachers. The fact one can speak one’s mother tongue doesn’t make one a teacher of that language.

What to look for in a language teacher? Knowledge. Passion. Fluency. Commitment. Reliability. Professionalism (yes such a poorly regarded word). Fair Price. When we consider these points the national origin of the teacher becomes irrelevant.

Cheers,

Mo

Teaching phonetics

After spending a few days in Ireland, my students always show their true feelings. Glad when I’m leaving, sad when I’m returning. That is, after all these years I still haven’t been able to show them that English is not a task but a tool to reach their goals. Well, so be it. LET’S WORK!!!

Some students have a real hard time with pronunciation. At first glance, English spelling is totally irregular, making it impossible to guess or read aloud any text or words if you haven’t heard them before.

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Phonetic Chart
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Phonetics exercise

That’s when I try to show them the phonetic chart. Initially the sounds/letters are weird and confusing but by introducing them in little bits: 3 sounds and symbols at a time, they usually manage to grasp at least some of the concepts on pronunciation.

A strategy that does help is having students read words written in phonetic characters. I also show them the chart and dictate a few words and ask them to write them phonetically. Children will get it fast, while adults will see learning the phonetics system as a gargantuan task to a pointless end. They claim: “Why am I going to learn this “alphabet” if I’m not going to see it ever again?”

From my experience young learners must be introduced to phonetics even before learning the alphabet, if not, when adults the barriers will be too big to be overcome.

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Phonetics Paragraph

I’ve already seen some exercises with phonetics paragraphs, but they’re an unnecessary burden on students, just demotivating them to read a simple sentence. I prefer to work on isolated problem words or sounds.

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Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

I show them that Dictionaries, after the entry of a word, present the phonetic pronunciation even if they can just click a button and listen to it.

Phonetics will help students identify the distinct sounds in English from their mother tongue and improve on their pronunciation – not to be able to speak as natives but to be clear and fluent.

Real Virtual Teaching?

Can students really learn online?

Very few students do reach an A (Advanced) English level. Many reach an I (Intermediate) level and most never pass the M (Messy) English level. By using a combination of realt-ime classes and prerecorded videos, students can practice and strengthen points that would challenge the patience of any teacher, but that requires discipline. Most students are not gifted with “self-study” skills, therefore, the presence of a teacher motivator is key to their development and progress.blended-learning

I teach students both online and face-to-face. Those who started online via FaceTime or Skype enjoy the classes and have no complaints about the flexibility and activities. Those students whom I teach face-to-face are rather resistant to online classes, finding it hard to focus. Psychologically it seems it’s not a real class to them if they can’t smell the teacher’s “sweet perfume”. I do notice that online classes do seem to demand more concentration from students than traditional F2F classes which last 90 minutes  and had to be shortened to 60 minutes for online usage. Students get tired more quickly while looking at a screen. One of the great benefits of online teaching is flexibility. Since I have to travel quite often, my journeys won’t affect my students’ learning process. Now, prerecorded online classes do seem a reinforcement of a regular class, not really replacing the presence – either physically or virtually, of a teacher.

Thanksgiving at Sabbath School

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Eduardo telling the missionary report from Belize

Yesterday we had our Thanksgiving Celebration at our English Sabbath School. The Sabbath School Class did not have any “stars” playing or singing but we had a fantastic program with members doing their best to give thanks to the Lord for the blessings this year. Even Eduardo who speaks at a pre-intermediate level managed to tell the missionary story from Belize and used the multimedia to complement his words. He checked out word pronunciation and meanings. He stuttered a little when pronouncing long words such as “baptism” or “baptized” but did a great job and by speaking he is building up confidence.

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Mo teaching the Sabbath School Lesson for this week: The Lawgiver and Judge.
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At the Gratitude Tree
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Music is the universal language of the heart.

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