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

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.

english-lingua-franca
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