The old cliche never seems to lose its power – Blood is thicker than coffee, or water, or wine, or whatever suits your liking, but the meaning is quickly understood. Family/blood ties trump it all.
This was last brought to my attention by my 9-year old nephew (on my wife’s side) when talking about a “family-only issue” he proclaimed: “Michael (his aunt’s fiancé) is not invited because he’s not part of the family”. Back in January I was the target of this “not-one of us” approach and it still stings.
It’s amazing how this “cosa nostra” feeling permeates the psyche of many people. One of my students planned a trip with her siblings to Italy and loved every single moment and experience with them (all in their 40s and 50s). All spouses were politely excluded because their additions to the family represented only appendices that may come and go. Family stays forever.
Maybe because my family was not very united and a little bit atomically disperse, I never shared this feeling of “only family cardholders allowed”. I’ve always felt ready to embrace people from other families, and even wished, heaven forbid, to belong to some other families when growing up. Who hasn’t?
This extends to some nationalistic feelings. Once you’ve been made a citizen of a country with all the same rights as any person born in that country before the law, you may still find yourself stigmatized by someone who claims that only true red, white and blue American-born people are real Americans. This would extend to any number of countries or flag colors.
But it brings me to the Language learning issue of the day: native speakers of English (or any other language for that matter) like to bask in the fact that they were blessed with a mother tongue that no foreigner will ever be able to perfectly replicate.
Whether that feeling is real, or just perceived as real, is not the heart of the matter. Foreigners who need to learn that new language for a thousand different reasons and who apply themselves, will, to a certain degree, accomplish their goal. If they will speak it with or without an accent or the most accurate triple phrasal verb is immaterial if they succeed in conveying the message and being heard, understood and respected.
This morning, my student Alice arrived all upset because she’d been stuck in traffic for nearly two hours and had missed 90% of her class. But despite all the rush she brought up a very pertinent question:
She asked: “How can I improve my listening?”
She’s just returned from a week’s vacation in New York City and told me she had not had any significant listening problems – of course most of the time she’d been meeting up with fellow Brazilian friends and speaking Portuguese – but when she is watching her favorite TV series – Homeland or Scandal, for example, she misses much of what they say. Even the subtitles are too fast. So, how can she improve her listening to better understand native natural speech?
Firstly, in some cases, the dialogues in TV series are not THAT natural. A quick search on the speech speed used in TV series brought me this info:
*Fans of writer-producer Shonda Rhimes are already used to the blazing speed with which her characters must deliver their lines, but her prime time dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” have nothing on “Scandal” when it comes to the sheer volume of words spoken per second.
Just ask lead actress Kerry Washington.
“In some ways I feel like doing David Mamet on Broadway was the perfect training for doing television with Shonda Rhimes, because they’re two immensely talented, prolific writers who value the English language, who require a real commitment to language,” she says. “Their work is so athletic – in film and in television. The physical requirements are so great.”
Asked why she demands that her “Scandal” cast rapid-fire their lines, Rhimes said the approach serves several purposes.
“Part of ‘Scandal’s’ pace was born of me not wanting actors to linger in the moments, in the sense of it’s a world in which everyone is really incredibly busy, and there’s no time to feel your feelings,” said Rhimes. “So part of it was that. Part of it was that I wrote a pilot that was, like, 75 pages long.”
Her co-producer Betsy Beers says: “It’s funny how much you can get in if you talk really, really fast.”
Adds co-star Columbus Short: “The amazing thing about this show is really, speaking that fast in the dialogue, it’s remarkable how the emotion hasn’t gotten lost.”
So how could my students improve their listening comprehension?
It’s an easy-peasy answer: by listening lots and lots of English.
I notice in my own self-taught French lessons – I’m on a pre-intermediate level in Voltaire’s language – when I listen to tv shows, news, series and/or podcasts in French on a more regular basis, let us say, Monday through Friday for at least 15 minutes – my listening improves for the next time I’ll be listening to something in that language.
So my advice pearls would be:
Make listening a fun daily habit – no point in torturing yourself listening to things you find boring. Documentaries have a slower paced narration but if you don’t like watching them try a cartoon, a soap, a movie, whatever appeals to you.
Take advantage of “convenient” moments. Stuck in traffic? what’s the point in listening to the traffic reporter hovering over your head saying that there is a huge traffic congestion. Listen to your new target language.
Listen to native English speakers (or any other native speakers of the language you want to learn). Use podcasts – tonnes of different ideas and interests. Try Online radio.
Listen to non-native English speakers. Yes, that’s right. In today’s world you’ll come across people from around the around using English to communicate. That’s what you need, isn’t it?
Since you are so excited about developing your listening skills please find below some more podcasts developed with the English language learner in mind
1. 6 Minute English podcast – produced by the BBC with 2 hosts always asking some challenging question found in the news
2. All Ears English podcast – 2 chicks always teaching some cultural and language point in the English spoken in the US. Beware: one of them slurs and speakstoofastasifshecouldntbotherwhethershesunderstoodornot. http://allearsenglish.com/
3. Aprende Inglés con la Mansión del Inglés – 2 dudes (one from Belfast and another from London) host the show with good humor and focus on a teaching point. Emphasis on Spanish speakers http://www.inglespodcast.com
4. Business English Q&A – US-born Ryan now living and working in Germany develops a great series of interviews with successful English language learners from different parts of the world trying to discover the common traits, tips and techniques to assist in learning a foreign language more effectively.
6. Real Life English podcast – a group of young teachers from the US, Australia and some other beaches I can’t remember they try to encourage students (female students, mostly) to learn and practice English. First produced in Belo Horizonte, Brazil now they’ve spread to Chile. Oh, yeahhh. http://reallifeeng.libsyn.com/
9. Luke’s English Podcast – produced and hosted by Luke from England – it’s a very good way to expose yourself to British English. But it requires a little patience usually no shorter than 45 minutes. http://teacherluke.co.uk/
10. Richard Vaughan Live podcast – controversial Texas-born Richard Vaughan has painstakingly been trying to teach English to Spaniards. His ramblings are quite entertaining. I love the episodes when he loses his temper with some of his on-air students.
11. VOA’s Learning English Podcast – dating back to their shortwave transmissions even before the Internet, VOA has been my companion with good quality of listening content on American history, words and news.
Can a student learn a Foreign Language (usually English and/or Spanish) attending classes at a regular school in Brazil? This question has surfaced lately here in this country and many reasons lead to a capital “NO, STUDENTS ATTENDING REGULAR SCHOOLS IN BRAZIL CAN’T AND WON’T LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE”.
Some of the reasons are:
“Classes are too heterogeneous.”
“There are up to 50 students in a classroom. Impossible to teach a language.”
“Teachers are underqualified and unprepared to teach.”
“A regular school has more important goals than teaching a foreign language.”
“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice)
b) in sufficient number
e) all of the above
“Students cannot fail English classes. They are automatically approved to the next grade.”
“English or Spanish taught as foreign languages have been devalued as school subjects. Not as important as Maths, History or Portuguese.”
“It’s impossible to teach a foreign language using the students’ mother tongue 90% of the time.”
Phew! The list is long. Should I continue? But I guess you get the gist.
The situation is so bad that some Brazilian congressmen have raised their voices proposing the end of the teaching of foreign languages at public schools due to their failure in reaching any positive results.
Well, let me tell you of my own experience growing up in Brazil and attending public schools from 1st grade to university.
Back in 1976 I was in 5th grade and according to the Ministry of Education, that would be the year for me to start learning a foreign language. Unfortunately, there were few foreign language teachers, and my school didn’t have an English teacher that year. In 6th grade we finally got an English teacher – we would have classes twice a week (each lasting 45 minutes). The teacher very wisely chose not to use a textbook – everything was based on copying from the blackboard and/or dictation. I must say that it was my best contact with English for the next 3 years. In 1978 we moved house and school, in the 7th and 8th grades the new teacher (new to me) used the same basic textbook that her students in 5th grade were using. Needless to say, I had learned more without a textbook. My wife, at roughly the same time – also studying at a state-run school, had her first contact with French (they had no English teachers available, either) but she says that much of the foundation of French grammar she learned in that first year. Both she and myself learned way more than the verb to be or “être”.
The goal and the expectations back then were different from today. Now the emphasis is on oral communication. Back then, we had to learn the grammar and to be able read and write for academic purposes.
But the key factor was that we were lucky to have as our very first foreign language models, teachers who cared, who were motivated and who had a teaching method imperfect as it might have been.
Could I speak English when I started high school? With the exception of isolated words, no, I couldn’t. But I was able to read and interpret basic texts which qualified me to proceed with my studies at university.
Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?
Yes, if both teacher and students reach a consensus on their goals and motivation. And if the Ministry of Education reestablishes the teaching of foreign languages as a relevant discipline and not just one more public policy that looks good on paper but is void of any relevance in real life.