Immersion Course – the Return

Today, one of my students, Isabella, returned after a 2-month-long trip to the US – one month she spent studying English at Kaplan International English School in Chicago and one month traveling across the US – a few days in Seattle, then on to San Francisco and ending her tour in Miami, Fl. “The best city by far was Chicago. It’s vibrant, culturally diverse with amazing restaurants, museums and great music”, she said. Image result for chicago skyline

Well, she had been very anxious about her arrival at the airport and customs and immigration. We practiced what she should say if questioned by the immigration officer, what might happen and she said it all went smoothly. The only drawback was that she arrived at O’Hare’s Terminal 5 and she had to go to Terminal 1 to catch the metro rail to downtown Chicago. The access information was a little difficult and it was a little bit of a hassle for her to get to the other terminal. From downtown she used an Uber driver to take her to her niece’s apartment at the University of Chicago on the South Side. Image result for chicago terminal 1 subway

She told me it was a bus commute of around 25 minutes from where she was staying with her niece to the language school downtown. She could observe the wide diversity of people and nationalities and after one week the regular passengers were already greeting her. And sometimes she would call an Uber Pool so she could meet other passengers and try to practice her English. Image result for bus downtown university of chicago

At the school she was assessed as an A2 student and placed in a classroom with some 15 students from the Arab Emirates, South Korea, China, and Colombia. Her first teacher was a nice man but who spoke way too fast and when she asked for some explanation about a point in the lesson he would not give her an answer. After one week she asked for another teacher – this time it was an Englishman (yes, I know, an Englishman in Chicago – great version for Sting’s song – An Englishman in New York) and he spoke more clearly and pausedly.  Her teacher referred her to listen to Ted Talks and watch episodes of “Friends”. Image result for kaplan school  chicago male teacher

The biggest issue”,  Isabella went on, “that I had with the school was the lack of a good language laboratory”.

Since she was familiar with the language lab concept from her years studying English in Brazil she had been expecting state-of-the-art facilities. She commented: “After 3 hours of classes I thought I would  spend at least 1 hour in a lab listening and recording my speech but it was very small and restricted.” Image result for kaplan school  chicago language lab

“Of course, nothing compares to the experience of being in another country surrounded by the language you’re learning, however, I found out that people were not very patient with me. Many people spoke too fast and when I tried to ask for something, for example, they’d say ‘do you speak Spanish?’ ”  

I asked Isabella if before leaving they’d reassessed her English level at school and she said it was raised to a B1, which she thought was much too soon.

Academically she didn’t have anything more than what she could have had in Brazil. This outcome strengthens my advice: use your time and money to study English in your own home country and then go to an English speaking country for practice, attend a course in photography, art, whatever, in your target language. The return will be much more satisfying.

Cheers,

Mo

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Teaching in the 21st Century – part 2

This is the second and final part of my summary of the book – Psychology for Language Teachers (A Social Constructivist Approach) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (Cambridge University Press)Image result for psychology for language teachers

“This book examines the field of educational psychology and considers various ways in which a deeper understanding of this discipline can help language teachers. Areas considered in the book include approaches to learning, motivation, the role of the individual, attribution, mediation, the teaching of thinking, the cognitive demands of tasks and the learning environment. The book does not assume previous knowledge of psychology.” (Source: https://www.amazon.com.br/Psychology-Language-Teachers-Constructivist-Approach/dp/0521498805)

One of the axioms presented by the authors is that learners LEARN BETTER if they feel in control of what they’re learning, based on the assumption that learning is closely linked to how people feel about themselves.

The idea is that Teachers must motivate Students and persuade them into learning – first of all, a teacher must learn to listen: Yes, it is absolutely conducive to communication but often forgotten and left in the background. The teacher walks in with their agenda for the day, week, semester and  earth and heaven shall pass away but nothing can change it. Sometimes, a change in voice intonation or a contextual misunderstanding could threaten the whole learning session. That shouldn’t be so especially in the language learning environment.

Starting from the premise that teachers are facilitators and mediators with what they do in the classroom will reflect their own beliefs and attitudes, consequently, teachers must show their own interest in the learning process, share their own foibles and mistakes when they were learning that language or the first language the learner speaks. Here we see a great advantage for nonnative teachers of English who can empathize with their learners. Or in the case of English native speakers who have passed through the experience of learning another language.

Image result for the art of teaching

At the end of the day, the teacher must bring forth independent thinkers and learners who after a period of time in class will be able to fly on their own.

Cheers,

Mo

Teaching in the 21st Century – Part 1

Quite often when we think about anything related to the 21st Century, including teaching, we think of the use of technology, gadgets and the internet. We feel we must have Smart boards, tablets, online classes, video sharing, social media, and the list goes on and on. But what every teacher must remember is that his main working material consists of brains inside living organisms labeled as learners, students or pupils.

I’ve just finished studying a book published back in 1997 but with ideas still relevant today for every language teaching professional: Psychology for the Language Teacher (CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden.

Professional Development: Psychology for Language Teachers

Undoubtedly some advances and finds have taken place in psychology and the human science of teaching and pedagogy over the past 20 plus years, but some things never change and must be remembered, reviewed and implemented. Sooner or later we will stop referencing to “21st century” and just say ” Teaching”.

The book presented 10 key points on Language Teaching, this first part of my post will work on the first three items:

1. There’s a difference between learning and education.

Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.

these children experienced difficulties in learning”

Education: the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.

“a new system of public education”

A quick look at these first definitions present a great distinction between both processes, which intersect in many areas … both involve receiving knowledge or instruction, but a key distinction is that learning involves the development of skills through experience.

Joi Ito beautifully summed it up: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself

Here it is graphically represented:

Now that we have the distinction we can move to the second point.

2. Learners learn WHAT is meaningful to them.

I can try ad nauseam to inculcate in my students the state capitals of the US, the beautiful wording of the Declaration of Independence, the Scottish Calvinist values, etc… but they will not profit from that if they don’t see a purpose or meaning in that. I always ask my students at the beginning of their course about their goals, current activities, hobbies and dreams so that the lessons may be geared towards intrinsic motivation resulting in effective learning. I’m not saying that students
who live in the favelas in Rio should only be taught vocabulary about getting water from a well or snorting glue… (yes, yes, it’s just an example, don’t get up in arms about it) They must learn based on their reality and context but also from that point the teacher can and must build a path where learners will be introduced to a better way and a broader world.

3. Learners learn IN WAYS that are meaningful to them.

I love reading but if my student is interested in speaking “only” I must adapt the course so that any reading they do is impregnated with the spoken language – it can be an interview, a novel rich in dialogue, even part of a play … as long it’s language relevant and appropriate to their level. If they like movies, or sports, let them search and learn about what interests them. Here again Language is a tool not an end unto itself.

Writing is really important for learners to process and review their language acquisition but instead of asking them to write a 500-600 word essay (unless they’re preparing for an exam where such activity is required), why not have them write a business related email? Or even a text message including abbreviations, emojis and shortcuts?

Please, bear in mind that my students are adults who have already gone through their academic process and now need English or Spanish mostly for employment purposes and career advancement opportunities. Actual Fluency in English will be a plus for any CV or Résumé in a non-English speaking nation. The point is that it must be true not just wishful thinking; hence the person’s awareness that they are no longer “students”, but “learners”

Cheers. Happy learning.

Mo

Busting Two Myths about Learning Foreign Languages

Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video by Fingtam Languages (sorry dude, you rarely mention your real name)

Becoming Fluent book
Fingtam Languages on YouTube 

and he was talking about this book he’s been reading. Check his YouTube video channel and subscribe, he’s got tonnes of great information about language learning and linguistics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTefVVnFqyI&t=3s )Becoming Fluent book cover

Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). 

I decided to check its kindle version and the first chapter presents some of the fallacies regarding language learning.

I learned English, Spanish and French mostly as an adult – over 18 – yes, as a kid I had been exposed to English classes at school but had been taught mostly in Portuguese – I’d learned the verb to be, some vocabulary and some grammar rules but nothing much. The little Spanish I heard was from my Galician uncle who spoke some curse words at times (and my mom would also say some Spanish expressions such as – “me cago en la madre (I shit on your mother) and other niceties she had probably learned from my uncle (don’t ask me why – some family secrets are better left unturned).  When I was 11 or 12 I came across a French grammar book my older sister or brother had used in primary school (up to the early 70s  in Brazil, French was taught as the default foreign language instead of English). Of course from that exposure to French as a pre-teen I learned – je me lève  and je m’assieds (thank God that book had illustrations)

French conjugation
French conjugation of the verb to sit 

I can comfortably say that I really learned English and Spanish proper in my 20s and French in my 40s. Yes, my spoken French level is lower than my reading but just because I’ve had to use it much less – though I know about the importance of exposing myself to the language I don’t read much in French or listen to podcasts in French – sometimes I read some news stories or watch some TV5. But last year we were in the Côte d’Azur and I could survive and felt comfortable expressing myself in the French I knew.

So it’s time to bust some myths: 

Myth 1 – adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children 

Adults can and will learn, but differently from how children learn. First, ok… the child will acquire a better accent – thanks to their facial elasticity and also their lack of  fear/shame/anxiety of making mistakes in the other language. But… the adult has already gone through the process of learning their own language so they can use that experience in the new language learning process.  Ok, … as an adult you will have an accent, but hey, I’ve got news for you: everybody HAS ONE!. Also, unless you plan to be an undercover secret agent, why would you want to hide the fact that you’re from another country? Actually, that’s a bonus, at least you can speak  one more language.

Myth 2 – when learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

For years I subscribed to that school of thought that L1 would smother L2, therefore the former should be eliminated from the language class environment. Yes, it’s true that some students, if allowed to, will only use the L1 and talk to each other in that language. So the teacher must control its use in class but be mindful not to throw the baby away with the bath water.  Roberts and Kreuz say that the banning of L1 in the classroom “deprives adult  language learners of one of their most important accomplishments – fluency in their native language. Although it is true that one language is not merely a direct translation of another, many aspects of one language are directly transferable to a second language.” (1)

They add “… looking for places where concepts, categories, or patterns are transferable is of great benefit, and also points out another area where adult foreign language learners have an advantage over children. ” (1)

So if your’re trying to teach someone or learn yourself a new language, don’t lose heart. It can be done. Just adjust the methods and tools and be realistic on your goals.

Happy learning,

Cheers,

Mo

 

(1) Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass./ London, England.

Shakespeare in ELT

This post came about after I saw a tweet by Nathan Hall questioning whether Shakespeare should be used in the ELT environment/context. Nathan tweeted the following:

Unpopular opinion: I think using Shakespeare (original text) to teach English is an unproductive use of time in a general classroom. I am open to hearing counter arguments

The premise – original text – would require the student to have a high English level (C1 or higher) and the energy spent in trying to understand the text would not be “well spent”.

Early on as a learning EFL teacher, I wasn’t able, or didn’t know how to prepare independent lessons – I would use coursebooks – and in the early 90s the best coursebook I came across was the Headway series – honestly, I learned a lot about the English language and culture using Headway Advanced and Unit 2 under the theme of Literature and Literary Genres contained a little bit of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Could it get any better? I had to carefully prepare my lessons in advance otherwise I wouldn’t be ready to deal with the grammar and vocabulary points presented in the unit.

Back in 1991, I was teaching for a language school in São Paulo and they sent me to teach a group of three ladies at a sports club where they would have their gym, tennis practice, swimming activities and, of course, English lessons. They were nice, intelligent mature women who had already traveled the world, were advanced English learners and had already read and seen a few Shakespeare plays translated and performed in Portuguese. They did not hesitate to read an excerpt of the “7 ages of man” in modern English (not Elizabethan English as some highbrow pedantic educators would like to say) despite the nebulous vocabulary (some of it) for the advanced language learner there was a ton of conversation to be obtained from that short and brief text.

Image result for headway advanced 1996Headway Advanced published in 1991

headway s
A page from the New Headway Advanced 4th Edition 2014

Yes, I totally get the fact that for many students (no matter their linguistic background and location) Shakespeare would be a drag: representing another time and another place far removed from their contemporary world. Well, … tell them to see The Lion King and they’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s ghost there. Yes, the language evolves but today some of Shakespeare’s quotes are still as relevant as back then even within a different context.

Can’t any B1/B2 English learner understand some of these quotes?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

—Jaques in As You Like It

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

—Escalus in Measure for Measure

 “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yes, Shakespeare’s texts are old but the truths those works convey can be adapted to contemporary English by publishers’ Readers, plays can be re-enacted and adapted etc.

Shakespeare map
This map shows all the different locations and countries described in Shakespeare’s plays. He truly belongs to the world. 

My point is: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. In this day and age, language teaching is still seen as a form of colonialism so the condescending “native teacher” desires the learner to see himself and his values first and only use the language as a literal tool for a very specific purpose. Why shut down the learner from the rest of the world in time and space?

If the learners are Asian should then all the material be Asian related? The same for African or Latino learners? In Brazil why bother teaching them the word “snow” just teach them to say “it’s a scorcher”? That’s the oppression of multiculturalism gone awry when it’s only good if you’re different from me and we have nothing in common and don’t even try to understand me “for I’m marvelous”.

Let the learners dream a Midsummer night’s dream… as teachers we’re supposed to expose them to the world not shelter them from it.

And don’t get me started on the beauty and usefulness of the second person singular – thou/thee. 😜

Is it unproductive to read any Shakespeare in the original text? As a sign of our times: Yes and no. That depends! Who said you can only use the original text? Yes, you may use it, but also adapt it in a myriad of different ways. Dost thou get me?

Mo and Shakespeare.jpg
Mo and his friend, Billy S.

Cheers,

Mo

Self-employment is empowering

Been a 1 on 1 teacher for over 20 years. When I tell people I am a language teacher, they usually ask what school I work for. Then I tell them I’m self employed.

Their reaction varies from ” Wow… oh to be your own boss. That’s a dream for many people”; to “oh… you can’t hold a steady job, can ya?”

There are pros and cons… as in every other professional choice.

1. You control your life.

You can choose your activities. For example you decide when you’ll go on vacation, avoid high season and having more flexibility with all bookings. You save for your future.

2. You get to choose your hours

You establish your working hours – some 8 years ago I decided I wasn’t going to teach after 6pm. A student said I was lazy ( half jokingly half seriously). And I haven’t looked back since. Yes, my income is smaller but my peace of mind and lack of stress not having to face the chaotic traffic in São Paulo during the rush hour more than compensate for that.

3. You get to work with people you like

You can pick and choose your students, in some ways…. I’ve already fibbed saying I didn’t have any available time because I knew that student would be a pain in the neck. There is nothing worse than having a student who doesn’t know what he is doing and why he is doing it. It saps the teacher’s energy, after trying for one or two months you have to break up with him or her, either face to face or via WhatsApp. The latter is better! Just say to the student: “it’s not you. It’s me.”😜 Of course you will lose income by dropping or turning down students.

4. You can make a stand

you lose income by dropping or turning down students, but … A few months ago, two prospective students approached me saying they wanted to have classes together… 2 for the price of one: always trying to cut corners and pay less. I interviewed them and found out that their motivation and language levels were different. It wouldn’t work. Most likely one of them would be absent most of the time. In practice, they would take turns attending class. I would have to repeat the same lesson. Or even worse, teach 2 people separately and get paid for one. No way, Jose. Go waste some other teacher’s time.

5. You can follow your passion

In my case it’s teaching, not correcting and grading hundreds of papers and tests. Or even worse dealing with school politics and red tape.

Self employment is not for everyone. You see that even in the pros you will have a possible money loss phase or a period of financial instability. You will lack any professional support from a company (in case you were working for a decent school – few and far in between). No labor benefits. No health insurance. No sick pay. Zilch. You earn more for your time and spend more but it is liberating. You take charge of your professional life.

Cheers and carry on.

Mo

“I hate English. Now teach me.”

“I hate English. Now teach me.” Yes, Virginia those were the exact words a prospective student said when she contacted me to teach her English at her workplace. She works for an international Bank and English is a “requirement” to continue working (or to be promoted) in that institution.

After I recovered from the shock, – people usually may say that they don’t LIKE English – … but HATE?! that’s quite strong. How can you hate a language which is just a tool for communication and can only bring benefits to those who speak it as a foreign language ?

Digging dipper, I found out, Rachel – (not her real name)

Related image
Rachel hates English

had tried many times to learn English using different methods but had always failed. She’d heard about me from other students and thought it would be different.

Faced with the Gargantuan challenge to make Rachel fall in love with the English Language (and not with me – since I’m irresistible) I prepared the first lesson with basic vocabulary and greetings. I do believe in getting the student speaking from the very first class – there are some methods that encourage the silent approach for a certain period of time… just as babies acquire language… well… considering that she is not a baby and if she doesn’t speak English she’ll be speaking and thinking in Portuguese… let us focus on the second language acquisition.

The first few minutes, things seemed to be going fine… she greeted me in English, learned to identify herself, etc… but less than 10 minutes later (she had said she could have classes only for 1 hour once a week) she said in Portuguese – “Ai… eu fico muito ansiosa. Você me deixa nervosa. Eu não consigo entender o que você está dizendo” (woe is me.. I get too anxious. You make me nervous. I can’t understand what you’re saying). Of course I’d said little more than “Good morning, how are you today?” 

So I started to explain to her in Portuguese what was going to happen, and only after that we would try to produce some English to no avail. I used the whiteboard, flashcards, all the bells and whistles I had within reach.

We tried for 2 more weeks, but after she had collapsed again saying she hated English and couldn’t understand a word, I sat down and said to her: “Listen. I’m sorry. I’m not the right teacher for your needs. First you need therapy to learn to deal with all your anxiety (did I say that aloud or just thought about it? 😉 ). So… all my best wishes to you.”

In conclusion, my classes with Rachel were a failure – I lost a student (and a source of income) and she still couldn’t speak English and maybe, I said, maybe, she hated it a little bit more. But, what could I learn from that experience?

  1. A Teacher can inspire but can’t change a student’s heart/mind
  2. Different methods /approaches/resources sometimes fall short.
  3. Years of experience mean nothing when student isn’t willing to learn
  4. Some people can’t and won’t learn a second language (reasons will vary) but the main reason will be “MOTIVATION!”
  5. Students like Rachel are rare.

Happy teachings, 🙂

Mo

Image result for i hate english