On a warm summer night, December 09, 1965, a baby boy was born. Hopefully bringing joy to his parents, family, friends, and students.
Needless to say, many things have happened over the past half century. Things that as a little boy in Brazil I would not even have dared to dream. But God has been good all the time.
Now – 50 years old – 32 of which, working as a language teacher. Yes, I’ve been a program director, teacher trainer, etc, but never forsook the calling to be a teacher with all the simplicity and complexity that career choice entails.
Time to stop and ponder what I would have done differently and I can confidently say, nothing, both professionally and personally. I consider myself extremely happy or blessed (yes, now I don’t have to be afraid to say that word) and grateful for the many blessings the good Lord has poured down on me.
Retire? As long as I have breath and mental and physical conditions I intend to continue sharing a little of the experience of learning a language with whomever is willing to work with me.
What lies ahead? Only the good Lord knows but he’s promised each one of us that “his plans are to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
I don’t see myself getting a red convertible in a middle age crisis. Streaking across a football field? Well…, maybe, but whatever comes my way, may the Lord help me to appreciate each day as a unique gift.
As John Lennon wisely said:
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.”
I’d say most of my English Language students are upper intermediate or advanced which would lead us to believe that they are comfortable enough to speak using their Second Language.
However, living in a gigantic monolingual country as Brazil, and not working in a
company that requires international contacts, language learners can find themselves stranded on a single-language island or continent (Portuguese).
Today one of these students – whose class lasts only 90 minutes once a week – when she doesn’t cancel or must finish earlier – became frustrated when trying to say something in English and blurted out in Portuguese – “tá ficando cada vez mais difícil falar inglês”(it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to speak English). Didn’t she know any of those words or the necessary grammar to say that? Yes, she knew all the words and the structure but CHOSEthe easiest way – spitting it out in her mother tongue.
Dear students, I’ve got news for you. If you don’t practice your target language you will NEVER feel comfortable using it. No matter what academic level you’ve reached. And here comes my point:
My student in question likes to play tennis – 2 or 3 times a week – how about English? Once a week, sometimes. I rest my case.
So how can you feel more comfortable speaking in English?
No one to talk to? Talk to yourself. I’m sure you do that in your mother tongue. Do it in English or whatever language you are learning.
Read aloud a paragraph or a page. Everyday. It can be a transcript, an interview, a news story, a cake recipe… . It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re listening and producing sounds in your target language.
To speak you must learn to listen. Focus on a poem, a song, etc and listen to it. Then read it aloud. YouTube has thousands of videos with poems and songs+lyrics for you to practice.
Look for opportunities to use your target language. Can’t travel abroad? Look for a friend or co-worker who’s also learning and practice with them. Look for a place where that language is spoken. For example, São Paulo has a few English language religious services – visit them – it’s a FREE and enriching experience. My favorite English Bible class website (www.believes.com.br) meets every Saturday in the morning. Also Calvary International Church is a great diverse and inclusive community (www.calvary.org.br) and Sampa Community Church (http://sampacommunity.com/1/
Now my students will be saying: “Come on, teacher. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for all that. It takes too much effort.”
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.
This morning I received an email from an acquaintance that put my thinking cap to work – here’s a rough translation of what he wrote me:
We met there in the (Sabbath School) class, It's been a long time
since I last showed up in class because I moved to a new neighborhood.
Please, do you remember once u mentioned that you had a friend
who had an English school in New York?
Could you please pass me his contact?
Thanks in advance.
My reply was the following:
“Hello Mario, where have you been?
Listen… it must really be a long time it happened because I cannot even remember I had a friend who owned a school in New York. I’m familiar with Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT – about an 1 hour by train from Manhattan. I was a teacher and program director there for a year.
Now, are you looking for an English language school for you? Or for your daughter? I wouldn’t recommend New York to someone interested in studying English. There are too many foreigners there and the cost of living is pretty high. Actually, I’d tell you to look for a more “hidden state” such as Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, etc, where you would be more likely to be in touch with Americans who speak some sort of English. Danbury could be a choice but there’s a swarm of Brazilians around and you might learn Portuguese with a different accent faster than learn much English (I’m not exaggerating that much).
The best choice would be to take up a cooking class or photography course, for example, in English. From my experience and what I have observed, to study only English in the US (or any other country for that matter) will offer you the same textbooks and material you could access in Brazil and honestly, with many better qualified and certified teachers. And to add insult to injury you would be paying in dollars while your savings are in Brazilian Reais.
An ideal condition would be to take an either professional or just a hobby course in English. I wouldn’t advise people at beginner or intermediate level to go abroad in order to study.
First consolidate your language in your home country and once you’ve reached an Upper-Intermediate /Advanced Level then you’ll be ready to jump into deeper waters. And believe me, you’ll realize how much more you still need to learn (don’t tell anyone, but you can spend the rest of your life studying a language and still have room to grow). It might be tough initially but you would reap better rewards at the end.
Interestingly enough, in all my 25 plus years of teaching I’ve just come across a blind student once. It was back in 1993 and we were a group of young teachers trying to make our language consultancy firm take off. Our office was very well located near the financial center of São Paulo and in the building where we rented 2 office rooms, there were several mid-sized companies and consultancies. One day my partner told me that Roberto Carlos’s son had an office in our building and asked if I could be his teacher. In case you don’t know, Roberto Carlos has been the king of Brazil’s pop romantic music for over 50 years. I said “of course, I’d love to”, jumping at the opportunity of meeting someone related to someone famous. Got my book, notes and also a magazine with lots of pictures to start off the class.
After the initial greetings, I asked him to look at a picture and describe it to me, as a warm-up activity. He said: “Sorry, I can’t. I’m blind.” Wah-wah-waaaaaahhhh.…. How could I have missed it? The blind one had actually been me.
And this morning it got me thinking about the lack of materials and articles for teachers to work with special needs students. Could I teach a blind or deaf person? I don’t think I’d have any problems with a person unable to walk or someone with no arms. Even though considering my thick skull I’d probably ask them to go to the blackboard and write something. (Chuckles).
“Take the example of Carlos (age 15), a refugee from Central America. He is not learning English as quickly as his teachers think he should be. He has been in Canada for two years and is falling far behind in his studies.
Is it because he:
has a language disorder?
is depressed over his brother’s death?
is developmentally delayed?
does not want to be in Canada?
is finding it difficult to learn English?
has limited literacy skills in his first language?
left school in his native country when he was 10 years old?
has a learning disability?
has not made the adjustment to living in Canada?
Or is it a combination of the above?
Students like Carlos raise questions about how we identify,
assess, and provide program support for ESL students with
special needs. There are no ready-made answers. There is no
single professional who can answer all of these questions.”*
I believe these questions will help any teacher identify his students’ needs and seek help whenever necessary.
*Excerpted from ESL Learners With Special Needs In British Columbia:
Identification, Assessment, and Programming Prepared for
The British Columbia Ministry of Education, Skills, and Training
The claim is that today’s digital technology with Twitter, emojis et al, make it very hard for us to concentrate.
Imagine when you are a teacher trying to grab the attention of kids or adults for 60 minutes. Many students of mine come to class with not one but 2 mobile phones – and during class those little evil creatures (the phones not the students) keep on vibrating, ringing, dinging, lightening up or doing whatever to get the attention of their owners (should I say servants?)- the students not the phones.
A hot trend nowadays is gamification – aiming to fight this ever-shrinking attention span – making workers or students to adhere to a series of games where they’ll be competing against each other, against time or against themselves. Ok, but is it feasible to be ever introducing new games? Sooner or later they’ll get tired of that formula and then?
An article by the Medical Daily website presented 3 easy steps (easier said than done) for people to improve their physical and mental ability to concentrate:
1. Drink fluids – nothing more simple – but it’s unbelievable the number of people who don’t drink enough liquid to prevent mild dehydration. Coffee, tea (other than herbal) sodas and alcoholic beverages , even though liquid, cause more liquid loss.
2. Exercise – nothing like a walk around the block if nothing else, to clear up your mind. Yeah, you have a deadline but you’ll be better equipped with a better oxygenated brain.
3. Avoid electronic devices – adding insult to injury – set a timer for you not to touch or look into your smartphone, tablet of notebook (30 minutes of freedom during the day, for example, or switch them off for good at night).
The article ended with a simple question:
“So how many of you got through this article without checking your electronic devices”?
The funny thing is that I read this article with a student who really avoids even taking her cellphone out of her bag but, needless to say, even she failed in the test. During class her phone rang and she had to answer it.
In class the teacher will have to be creative in the activities provided and reduce the time allotted per activity. The challenge will be to keep every activity connected to the previous one so that learning will be continuing spiraling up and not in fits and starts. Cheers and great concentration
I know you’re shy and sometimes feel out of place and time. But listen to me: your choice of a teaching career was not by chance. Your Secondary School English teacher saw in you a great potential for languages, in his case – English – and dear old Mr. Santiago – the green cab driver at church, saw your potential as a teacher; and God led the way.
Yes, you will be scared sometimes. At times some students will seem to know more than you. And more mature as well (Chuckles). But you will inspire them to keep on learning and you will learn to get them to contribute to your lessons with what they already know.
Yes, teaching 8th graders will not be easy and due to your lack of experience and support you will feel as if you’ve failed and want to quit. But years later you will come across some of your former students who will thank you for the lessons and for the inspiration.
You will have to wake up really early in the morning (5:30am) in order to get to your in-company classes in time and your last class will finish at 10:30pm. Hard work will not make you sick, though, just keep focused and do your best. Those crazy hours will also pass.
Remember to stay professional at all times with your students. Yes, you may socialize with them – but remember your job is to teach them not to simply be their friends.
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are “simply” a teacher, or because you are a language teacher who has never been able to travel abroad and who lacks international exposure.
In a few more years you will have had the privilege to visit and even teach in different countries. You will preach in English at a church in Cape Town, South Africa. You will be a teacher of English in the US, Canada and Ireland. You will speak English and Spanish in China. Hard to believe? Yes, but God has amazing things in store for us all. Just wait and see.
In 27 years you will have reached the top of your career as a self-employed teacher but there will not be time to rest in your laurels, you will have to be continuously reinventing yourself and selling your services, training new teachers, presenting conferences on ELT – yes, I know it’s hard to believe me since you don’t even own a landline phone at home or a car but some day you will be teaching via FaceTime video (better than via satellite) across the globe. Don’t ask me for details, not even I know how it works today.
Keep on learning, growing, doing your best and you will reap the rewards. I know.