Present not so Perfect

A feature of the English language that many Brazilian students find hard to use is the Present Perfect Tense – students usually grasp the concept: it uses the auxiliary HAVE or HAS and the main verb in the PAST PARTICIPLE. In Brazilian Portuguese, this tense can be used but most of the time we use  either the simple past or the simple present to refer to a situation. Examples: Faz tempo que ele mora aqui. “He’s lived here for a long time”. Ele saiu agorinha mesmo. “He’s just left.” So, in order to get them used to the new tense I have them practice it in Affirmative, Interrogative and Negative Sentences Example: I have been a teacher since 1986. Have I been a teacher since 1971? I haven’t been a teacher since 1971. Usually the students grasp the idea of duration – since 1989 / for 26 years, etc. Something that started in the past and comes to the present. Something that’s not over yet,present-perfect or that’s been finished recently. Let’s say that’s the basic usage of the Present Perfect. So we explain that usually with key words like since, for, yet, Present Perfect will be used. Is it a prescription? Yes. Does it work? Theoretically, yes. The students do the exercises fine. But when they’re in open conversation they drop these pearls: “I didn’t have a vacation, yet” or “I didn’t went to Poland, yet”. Bear in mind I’m talking about Advanced Students. Despite the bad rep grammar drills have nowadays, until someone comes up with a US$ 30,000 language pill, there will always be the necessity to practice until your Present is Perfect.

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Lost and Found in Translation

This morning while I was listening to Richard Vaughan’s Podcast recorded in Madrid, Spain (http://www.ivoox.com/podcast-richard-vaughan-live_sq_f180769_1.html),  he mentioned an incident decades ago at a company where he was teaching. He was having lunch with a fellow American and when that “Puritan” American saw that every table had a bottle of “Agua Sin Gas” – chapitas-tapas-corona-sin-uso-agua-de-mesa-con-y-sin-gas-13606-MLA75273278_3475-Ohe was in shock at the level of sinfulness in a Catholic country. Yes, Virginia; you know “agua sin gas” simply means “still water” not the opposite of “holy water”. Another teacher started his lesson asking his students very tongue in cheek: “Today we’re going to be talking about Great Tits. Do you know what tits are? And one Spanish student shyly translated: “tetas”. After all laughed the teacher explained that he was going to be talking about birds and GreatTit002vocabulary related. In the UK many people know lots of birds species- it’s a national pastime, while most people in Iberian countries, for example, know very few bird species.

Translation activities in class were swept under the carpet for many years in favor of total immersion in Language 2. However, the knowledge the student has of their own mother tongue and culture can and should be used to help them tread around the traps of the language they’re now learning.

A simple exercise that I enjoy giving my students is getting them a hFound_in_Translationeadline and first paragraph of the day’s newspaper in their language and ask them to tell me the gist of the story in English. Then they’ll try to translate the sentence. Finally they will write it down (it could be assigned as homework if they ever had to do it).

I remember years ago a teacher of French (of course he HAD to be French) told my wife that a foreigner would NEVER learn to write as a native speaker. That statement is open to interpretation since many people can’t write well in their OWN languages. But I raise another point: does the average learner of a second language need to write like a native speaker or simply be able to write in a clear and objective way?

That leads us to what happened in France this week – all my students saw, heard and read something about the cowardly terrorist attacks in Paris and other areas. So many words came up for translation – Muslim, Censorship, Threat, Grey Area, etc.

As we could see this week some things never get lost in translation.

#JeSuisCharlie

Mo

Teaching Down Memory Lane

Distance and time make the heart grow fonder, they say. And that’s quite true. Today I remembered out of the blue a time back in the late 80s and early 90s, yimagees, not even cellphones were around back then. Which meant that I had to call in the school every day (at the time we didn’t have a landline at home – they were expensive and distributed in a very limited area. You could wait for years until the state phone company – Telesp – installed your phone or buy it on the black market). So I’d go to a pay phone some 4 blocks up my street to make a call and if the school wanted to contact me there was my next door neighbor’s phone who graciously would take down any messages. And if a student cancelled the class some 2 or 3 hours before the set time, I would have wasted my trip to that company. No flowers on the way, huh?

I was teaching for 2 language schools in São Paulo specialized in In-House Teaching. They’d hire a teacher, “train” them for 1 week and place them in different companies – usually multinationals like Unilever, DuPont, etc and the teacher would work with small groups of 4 to 5 people or 1-1 lessons. Little has changed in this industry regarding how teachers are selected – 1st – can you speak English? … 31st – can you teach?image

One of the schools, I can’t remember their name, let’s call it “Hello Brazil”, was located on Vanderlei street in Perdizes, a rather hilly area of São Paulo. Since I didn’t have a car at that time, I can assure you I was in very good shape going up and down those hills.

The school followed the “communicative approach” – a typical mantra in language teaching for the past 30 years – just talk and if possible throw in some grammar points. But with a twist: since teacher turnover was and still is pretty high in the language industry – many people choose teaching because they’re between jobs (if Brazilians), or need to fund their travels (if foreigners)- the school had come up with an interesting method – The students would keep a folder for the teacher in their office and teachers would be assigned to specific students on a daily basis – so that students would not be attached to any single teacher (the reason given was that in that way, students would be exposed to different accents, really?). Of course the system had its holes, some students liked my classes more and demanded I should be their regular teacher. They could tell the difference between a TEACHER and a person who teaches. The teacher at the end of every class would write a brief comment on what had been covered that day so the next teacher would have an idea. Of course, some teachers, need I say that?,  would forget to jot down any input or wrote in a secret code no one could understand.

Sao Paulo was already a gigantic city at that time and the offices of many corporations were based in the southern part of the city. Centro Empresarial de São Paulo – was oimagene of those office complexes located far from the school office or my home. Classes started at 12 noon so in order not to be late I’d make plans to arrive at least 30 minutes early. When the winds were in my favor I could even get there 1 hour earlier but what would I do while waiting? The “ground floor” contains stores and restaurants and some couches where I’d sit for a while and doze off. Security was already an issue back then. I guess it’s always been a biggie in São Paulo, it’s just gotten worse. So they had security guards walking around the corridors and hallways keeping an eye on anything or anyone suspicious. More than once they would wake me up asking if I was feeling ok. I don’t recall any drooling nor nightmare fits in my sleep (which doesn’t exclude their occurrence). The fact is that the guards were instructed not to allow any “loitering” in the premises. Basically you had to keep walking or they’d invite you to leave. At the right time I’d go upstairs to meet the students for their class and immediately vacate the building as soon as classes had finished.

Those days helped me build  and improve my teaching skills which no university would have been able to do.

Cheers and Teach well,

Mo

Prêt-à-porter lessons rock

new-years-resolutions

The New Year is finally here and getting old by the second. Preparing my first set of lessons for this coming week. The Idealistic Teacher (or dreamer) will make a resolution to prepare individual lessons customized to every single student. The Awful Teacher will teach whatever the textbook he has been told to use presents. The Realistic Teacher will create some lessons but will also take advantage of the abundance of material available online and adapt to his or her students’ needs. Ready-to-use lessons are a real blessing for every busy and tired teacher.

Take for example the lesson on New Year’s Resolutions from BreakingNewsEnglish.com (http://breakingnewsenglish.com/). The lessons always present excellent material for my classes. And they’re always free. Ok, sometimes students complain the audio recording is a little flat and monotonous but for this price… . As I said yesterday to another student – I was giving away some 200 CDs I’d had in my car which I don’t use any more thanks to bluetooth. (Spring cleaning fever in the middle of summer, go figure). And I told the students – feel free to get as many CDs as you wish. Then a student came up to me and asked – “but is it music or lessons? what sort of music? Will I like the songs?” I turned to him and replied: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. No CDs for you”. I instantly became a CD Nazi. Doh.

For this lesson on New Year’s Resolution I’d start with the picture above (a picture’s worth 1000 words) as a warmer:

Do you have any resolutions for the new year? Then I could share with the students a list of the top new year’s resolutions for 2015. What’s the point in making resolutions? From previous years students are 50/50 – yes / no to resolutions.

Even though the lesson contains 26 pages I usually only print pages 4 and 7 (let’s be environmentally aware) and I can give them the listening activity from Breaking News English as a dictation (I can use the British or American/Canadian recording) and also have students fill in the gaps.

Comprehension Questions or True & False are also great tools to make students speak. Of course when a sentence is false – they must explain why.

Synonym Match is a good vocabulary practice and the Phrase Match is great for matching sentences that make sentence even if they’re not the same as in the original text.

To wrap up I give students some answers about the text and have them ask me the question. It’s my favorite exercise – because questions are a big challenge to most students. They forget word order, auxiliaries, etc. I call this exercise “Yes, No, Maybe so”, I tell them “45%” for example and they have to come up with a question based on the text. Some samples of what they would ask:

How much per cent of people make a New Year’s Resolution? There we have a good opportunity to clarify the difference between HOW MUCH and HOW MANY, for instance.

What I think is missing in the Breaking News English activities is a grammar point, if necessary I can quickly develop some activity related to the text, be it verb tenses, prepositions, phrasal verbs, etc.

As a final activity, if time allows, I can ask them questions on the matter studied and their own opinion. There. Now the teacher has a well-rounded lesson plan that will last at least 60 to 90 minutes and which mostly took him the time just to read the article. (Of course, some teachers will go to class without even having done that. Don’t get me started).

How about me? Will I make New Year’s Resolutions?

Well… I’ll try to be less anxious or afraid of new challenges or opportunities. Secondly, I’ll try not to lose my temper when I have to correct my students for the 10th time within a 10-minute frame.

Cheers and Teach Well,

Mo

Between the Old and the New

This time of the year usually leaves us with a taste of expectation. Christmas is gone and the New Year is not here yet. Classes are out. Many restaurants are closed. Beaches are crowded (we’re talking about December in Brazil, after all) and you find yourself wondering what to do. Prepare classes? Check. Prepare schedule? Check. Grocery shopping? Check. This morning the supermarket was empty, by the way, there were more members of the staff than actual shoppers. Believe you me. That’s not usual in the multiple anthills that form Streesão Paulo.

Last night we had a severe thunderstorm with strong winds – about 100km an hour.  Consequence:  more than 200 trees toppled in the city (a record) and more than 30 traffic lights down and out. Even Ibirapuera Park was closed today because of the after-storm cleanup.

This afternoon, my Student R emailed me checking if she could resume classes in the second week of January – I asked her if bie-57302_-_back_to_school_metallic_fringeMondays at 8am would be good for her and she said “Yes, that would be fine”. Now notice that her classes will be at her office. Previously she had classes at home and she managed to be late for classes and oversleep. Can you believe she’ll make it in time at her office? Let’s just hope this New Year’s Resolution will stick.

I whatsapped  my student A to confirm whether she’d resume classes Friday January 2nd or the following week. Her literal reply: “Nop (sic)! I’d like to schedule for next week – give me a brake (sic)!!!zzzzz” Sure, darling, with the English level you’ve got now you have all the time in the world.

Considering that all, but one, are upper intermediate or higher, usually for my first class in the new year I like to give them some article from the Economist or another newspaper about resolutions in order to explore vocabulary and encourage students to make their own resolutions regarding their language learning progress.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know most resolutions don’t stick but one can hope, right?

You see, I’ve created a folder for holidays in my computer with subfolders for the different holidays of the year.  Under the New Year heading I can find listening activities from Voice of America or BBC, such as the use of calendars, resolutions for the physical exercise challenged, New Year’s Celebrations around the world, crossword puzzles with New Year’s related vocabulary. As for grammar, I often lead my students to Future Tense practice – going to / will/ Present Continuous, etc. A good activity that can be used as a warmer to get students talking is this one:

Future Tense
There are many ways to talk about the future. Here are some patterns that you can use. Write two sentences after each pattern.

I’m going to ~
I’m going to visit my Grandmother on the weekend.
_______________________________________________________
_______________________________________________________

I’ve decided to~
I’ve decided to buy a new computer.
I intend to~
I intend to move to Ireland.
I’m planning to ~
I’m planning on getting a part-time job.
I’m thinking of ~ ing.
I’m thinking of learning Japanese .
I might ~
I might go fishing.

future2

A cartoon is always a good icebreaker as well – the teacher may also erase the text and have students come up with their own captions. Then you may show them the original version.

You see… tons of things to do before the year comes to an end.

Cheers,

Mo

The Elephant in the Manger

Well, … the long-awaited, dreaded, expected Christmas has come and it’s almost gone; already getting ready for 2015. This late afternoon while I’m listening to Christmas carols on Ireland’s RTE1 http://www.rte.ie/radio1 I’m taking a quick balance of this year’s Christmas in Brazil for our families of course. Oh by the way, this morning we listened to a great African Christmas song on RTE1 – you gotta check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY_7RBn00Es

Well, Christmas eve started off even better than I expected – this year, my brother and sister-in-law decided to join her family in her sister’s home – so there were just the 4 of us – silence and opportunity to talk despite the continuous mumble of the TV (always on – see previous blog on Christmas). The latest news was that a burglar or burglars had climbed up their upstairs front window last Sunday afternoon – while everybody was gathered downstairs, my brother lives in a 2-story house. But thank God neither the burglars came downstairs nor the family went upstairs while they were stealing with their filthy hairy hands any fake or real jewellery, watches, notebook and anything else they thought of value.  Unfortunately their traditionally quiet neighborhood in São Paulo’s Ipiranga area has become a magnet to low-burning crime. IMG_1142

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But I had said that Christmas is all about family in Brazil – I should correct myself – Christmas in Brazil is all about FOOD. My sister-in-law had prepared a wonderful Christmas dinner for us. Lovely!

After dinner, we left at around 9.30pm – as scheduled – to go to my mother-in-law’s where my wife’s family would get together around the Elephant in the manger. Yes, let elephant-in-the-room-audialtempartemme explain: one of her brothers, Paul*, has quite often been cheating on Marilou*, his wife – she knows about it, but is always willing to forgive him. Detail, Paul* has never held a steady job so Marilou* has always been their family’s breadwinner.

This time, Paul has said that he has finally found a woman who understands him and he has decided to leave Marilou. Of course, he has not said it outloud, but whispered the idea to one of his sisters. However, Paul* does not have a place to stay IF and WHEN he leaves home, his dad has already told him he can’t check in at his home. So… last night, did I mention it was Christmas eve? – we got to my mother-in-law’s and Marilou* was there with their son, Tiny Mark*. Where was Paul? “Making company to his divorced dad who was alone” – actually, spending time with his new witch with a capital B. And the elephant continued sitting there right in front of the TV. Of course, Brazilians love their soap opera so Marilou* had to push the elephant a little aside so she could watch the latest episode of the 9pm soap. Presents were exchanged and we left at midnight.

Today we went back for lunch – at my mother-in-law’s – who was there among the family? Paul* – cooking a roastbeef and turkey, Marilou* – sitting with a little drool in the corner of her mouth and Tiny Mark – as a “happy family” – and the elephant? As the main decoration on the table, naturally.

Marilou* had prepared a delicious chocolate and coconut pudding for dessert – but my wife and I decided to pass – even though it looked delicious. But one never knows what one can get out of food prepared in anger, tears, grief, desperation, and a tad of madness.

Anyways, we left at 4pm and returned to our peaceful corner.

Hope you had a great holiday. And ready for the New Year’s celebrations?

Cheers,

Mo

*All names have been changed to protect the elephant in the manger

Christmas in Brazil

Saundz.com asked me to describe Christmas in Brazil. Where can I start? Brazil is such a vast and diverse country – clichés apart, we could say that different regions celebrate Christmas in their own way. What I can say is that Christmas in Brazil has always been brazil_map_christmas_tree_ornaments-rf43a682d77f340e2a9e1544683de46ab_x7s2y_8byvr_512the family holiday of the year. In the Brazilian North and Northeast regions I’m aware that some centuries-old traditions, with singers and religious processions looking for the baby Jesus on the streets of the village, etc. In Gramado, southern Brazil, there is a very beautiful Christmas production by the lake with classical soloists and choir.

But here in São Paulo, at least in our family everything is very simple.

Traditionally families get together on Christmas eve, those who are religious go to church for the midnight mass and, then eat supper with lots of turkey, couscous (a Brazilian interpretation can be ceiafound here – http://authenticbraziliancuisine.blogspot.com.br/2011/07/cuscuz-brazilian-interpretations-of.html), rice with vegetables or raisins, salpicão de frango (cold chicken salad – for a quick recipe see http://www.food.com/recipe/salpic-o-de-frango-brazilian-cold-chicken-salad-456992 ). My mother used to love to prepare ONLY for Christmas and New Year’s – what we called pickles  (pronounced

picpicleskreys),and consisting of boiled hot dogs, cucumber, carrots, turnips and some cauliflower buds – they’re tough to stick with a toothpick.

For dessert we can have coconut and pineapple cake, prune pudding, condensed milk pudding, and other attractions that won’t disappoint any sweet tooth.manjar-coco-calda-ameixa

Since I don’t drink any alcohol, my Christmas consists of fruit juice – watermelon and ginger is my latest favorite. Ok, ok, I confess: I might go crazy and have 2 glasses of Coke. melancia

Traditionally, my wife and I go first to my brother’s home where we usually plan to get there around sunset (around 7:30pm). A secret Santa would be ideal, but considering that we see each other twice in a good year, we’d better buy  a little something for everyone – my nephew and niece are grownups now but not very talkative but that’s ok. Sometimes if I try really hard I manage to hear my nephew and niece mumble something that can be construed as “Merry Christmas” or “Hare Krishna” – whatever might suit their mood. We sit down to eat and by 9.30pm we’re leaving to go to my mother-in-law’s home in another part of town, where there will be the grandchildren… now great-grandchildren – who will bring some innocence and joy to the evening. Take the children away, nothing stays. By the way, One thing I can’t understand – at my brother’s and mother-in-law’s the TV is always on during that time – generating some background noise and light – as if they were saying, I’m not that interested in what you’ve got to tell me so let’s watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in silence. Weird!

Around midnight or even before that (if I’m lucky), we wish them all merry Christmas and head home. This year it will be a little different because we have adopted Luther, a black cat, and he will most definitely be waiting for us to return home.

This year, my wife was able to see daddy again after 5 years they’ d grown apart because of alcohol (his not hers) and terrible character (again, his not hers). But God can soften our hearts and this year after his diagnosis of throat cancer, my wife was able to approach her dad again. Believe it or not, that man is no cat but he’s got at least 9 lives. After surviving prostate cancer, bladder cancer, and throat cancer – he’s survived this challenge again and as a present from her heart my Sweetheart took daddy to Rio de Janeiro by plane – first time he visited that city and got on an airplane. The amazing power that God’s love allows us to forgive blows my mind. (Update – unfortunately my wife’s dad, Paulo, passed away on Mother’s Day 2015, talk about irony, may his ashes rest in peace).

So it’s not a bad Christmas at all.

Looking forward to Christmas. (Who am I kidding?)

Ho ho ho,

Mo