Whenever I’m talking to a prospective student, he or she says:
“My listening is not as good as it should be”, or “I just can’t understand what’s being said”. “Give me the text of what’s being said and I’ll understand everything.”
Well … life doesn’t come with subtitles so, … what should you do if you want to improve your listening skills in the language you’re trying to learn?
Here are 3 simple steps – which if followed will most certainly help you out:
Listen everyday – and I mean it. It’s way easier said than done. Especially if you’re not living in the country where your second language is spoken, you will have to go an extra mile to listen to it. A little and often will work wonders. You may ask how much is a little – well it will depend on your time availability. But I’d say that anyone can squeeze 15 minutes of their BUSY day to listen to some of the language their learning.
How to listen – podcasts are a great idea – available anytime, anywhere. You do not necessarily need to use podcasts on learning Spanish or French or English but podcasts produced in that language. Of course, if your L2 level is below intermediate you will have to choose podcasts where the audio quality is good and the content is appropriate to your level. Moreover, if the speakers are way too fast you can slow down their speech by just pressing a button. Isn’t technology something wonderful? It is my own experience listening to podcasts for nearly 10 years that when you have 2 people chatting the listening becomes more entertaining and pleasant. Monologues tend to be sooooo boring. More than 2 people can get confusing on identifying all the speakers especially if some don’t have a clear voice.
Read and listen – many audio / video broadcasts have a transcript choice. For example, CNN and NPR provide tons of transcripts of different shows and you can listen to them whenever / wherever you wish and read the transcript to check the parts you didn’t get. Also, many kindle e-books have an additional feature that is the professional recorded audio version available – on Audible or equivalent. So you can listen and read the text – alternating. Or read first and then listen. And then go to another section and first listen and then read.
He who has ears listen to what the teacher has to say to the learner.
This past week I had the opportunity to attend a summer conference on bilingual education in São Paulo under the theme: “Education is our passport to the future”. One of the guest speakers, Vinicius Nobre, Academic Manager at Associação Cultura Inglesa, presented a great talk on the matter of the Future of Language and Bilingual education.
Nobre initially highlighted some of the myths in learning a second language (English, in his more specific case):
you can learn English in 3 months
you work for a month at Disney World and you’ll return fluent
Only native speakers can properly teach the language
You can learn that language only if you travel abroad
Living in a monolingual country makes it impossible / or too hard to learn a second language
The list could go on indefinitely but the point about Brazil being a monolingual country and that being a myth – just blew my mind. There are around 210 languages spoken in Brazil – including indigenous languages and around 30 languages through immigration from Europe and Asia (not counting those from Africa and Latin America). Studies show that only 5% of Brazilians consider themselves proficient in English. You can see that as an opportunity or a tragedy.
By dispelling those myths, Nobre went on to his next question:
“For decades millions have been invested in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language in Brazil. So why is it so low?”
And I repeat: Why is the foreign language proficiency level in Brazil still so low? Considering that the teaching of English as a Foreign Language has been mandatory in Brazil for all public and private schools since the mid-1970), we could add that this problem happens in many other countries around the world where the teaching of a foreign language is treated as just another school subject).
Instead of being a means to an end, the teaching of a foreign language is seen as an end unto itself. Also, the informality of the profession doesn’t help it at all. Bilingual schools can call themselves so without any regulation from education authorities. They can offer English classes one hour a day or teach many different subjects in English and Portuguese and fall under the same category of “bilingual education”. Teachers can be hired literally off the street or even worse, schoools can hire those who have a teaching degree and are absolutely underqualified.
So, what can be done?
Teachers must learn to take more advantage of our business and make it more relevant;
2. The teaching of English is a kaleidoscope of subjects – and the study of language teaching is relatively speaking a very recent discipline;
3. To learn another language – interaction and the ability to listen to others is essential: you must learn to listen actively;
4. The language is not the end but a means of communication;
The language classroom is an environment of high creativity – challenged to be more innovative and more critical.
A good language class will be a means of communication – “I’m not studying English I’m learning to communicate”
Is it possible to change this paradigm?
We are now experiencing an anti-globalization mood – with mediocrity as king – but even in such times as these, or maybe more so, to be able to speak another language will be even more valuable.
Until the first half of the 20th century, language had been pegged to national identity – it was deeply political. – in some instances to speak another language was considered a betrayal of your country – this happened in Brazil during World War II when any speakers of German, Italian or Japanese were seen with suspicion and regarded as likely traitors or informers.
Add to that the false belief that all the stress of learning another language could harm you and be bad to your mind.
“See all those language teachers? They’re a little “weird” wouldn’t you say? They’ve got a screw loose.”
Fortunately there is hope. Teachers must become more aware of their role and importance in society:
Socially you are ahead if you speak another language;
A teacher won’t have great salaries but he won’t be unemployed;
The career of a teacher – is a threatened species – threatened by government policies and dwindling investments in teacher education and infrastructure. Sooner or later they’ll wake up to the reality that teachers are important;
And based on so many studies just to know the fact that learning another language wards off mental diseases… in case of doubt you have at least learned a language.
And NO! I won’t apologize for having taken the time and effort to learn another language.
Who is the language teacher who’s never heard their students say:
“I don’t know why, but I can understand everything my teacher says but when somebody else speaks I can’t understand a word.”
The reason is that teachers develop their own “Teaching English” language – let us call it Teacherese – we simplify our explanation, translate, mime, draw, look up a better explanation/ word definition in a learners’ dictionary – so that students will be able to grasp whatever we’re trying to teach. We tend to speak way more slowly with a clear intonation while also projecting our voice. No wonder students can understand “everything” we say.
The Bible in the Book of James chapter 3 verse 10 implies that our tongue has the power to bless and also the power to curse”. Could it be that in our desire to help our students we end up hampering their language learning skills?
Yes and no. We do help them better understand the language and help students to get a positive and clear example on pronunciation. Teachers could avoid too much of a grammar load – we love saying “that’s an adverbial clause” and expect students to know what we’re talking about, on the other hand so grammatical terms distinguishing an adverb from an adjective will be quite useful when students need to produce language.
Considering the importance of the teacher, it would be advisable he introduced a segment in his class for “mumble time” when he would speak at a more natural way Or introduce to students other English speakers ( if not in person, at least via audio) where they’d be able to identify and assimilate different sounds and accents.
So fellow teacher warriors, use your skills to bless and not curse your students.
With the ubiquitous presence of the internet there are tons of resources online for people willing to learn a foreign language to study for free. So why would anyone be willing to pay a teacher for lessons?
There are some people who can really learn on their own – I am one of them. Regarding how I learned English, I never paid a private teacher or language school. A big factor was money and lack thereof – there simply wasn’t any funding to hire a teacher no matter how low his or her fee. I compensated that with lots of passion for the language being daily in contact with it by listening to the radio and reading books and magazines. Moreover, some people find it easier to learn a language than others.
But as I developed my career as a teacher I had to attend teaching training courses and programs where I could identify and fix many of my faults and lack of knowledge which had been preventing my full development.
Here are some reasons why professional help can make the difference in your learning:
A teacher will help you identify your language level and develop strategies to make progress to the next level;
A good teacher (emphasis on good) will equip you with relevant up-to-date material appropriate to your level. A teacher will provide you with quality material and practice. Many online videos and materials are outdated and with a very low quality;
A teacher will highlight some important points you must correct and avoid some mistakes. The teacher will provide a reference for the student on his language intelligibly, pronunciation, vocabulary collocation, etc;
You will be able to find answers to your questions;
Even if you’re dating or married to a native speaker of the language you’re learning quite often they will not be very patient with your learning process. They won’t know how to correct you and even worse they may end up mocking you and dismissing you as a “silly Brazilian“. (Of course, it’s a whole new story if you’re dating your English teacher 😜)
To sum it all up, to have a private instructor will be an invaluable tool, but it will not discard your active role in the learning process.
But the problem with making resolutions is that they don’t tend to stick. They slip away and melt as if under the tropical sun.
But if you follow these steps (not in any necessary order and at least some of them) you will make progress and then you will feel you can continue to learn English (or any other language for that matter)
Watch movies and TV in your target language (the internet makes it accessible) – even if you don’t understand what’s going on you’ll get familiar to the sounds of that language. (I particularly love commercials)
Read a book you know well. Preferably a book you liked reading in your mother tongue. When my wife was learning French she bought a copy of the Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) so she could enjoy the book and learn in her new language.
Keep a notebook – scribble down new words you learn – especially creating word collocation and usage sections. Revisit the notebook once a week.
Use mnemonic devices. It won’t work for everyone but it does work. When learning about the coordinating conjunctions, for instance, you can use the word FANBOYS to help remember the list. Can you name them? I’m pretty sure you can, because of FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So). That is a mnemonic device. Creating a funny mental picture that you’ll remember is another way to use a mnemonic device. The sillier the picture is, the better it will stick in your head.
Listen to podcasts – not only about English learning – but podcasts of other subjects of your interest produced in English or target language.
Get a grammar book and do the exercises. Need I say more?
Be mindful. Notice language. How it’s used. How it sounds.Create a routine, Stick to it.
Read aloud – small texts and paragraphs but that will improve your pronunciation, intonation and fluency.
Test yourself – after a month – review the points you’ve learned and test your progress.
This morning, around 4am, my eyes popped open and refused to shut again, so with 2 more hours before the alarm clock went off I started reminiscing about a summer immersion program I was invited to participate nearly 20 years ago. When I calculated how long it had been I couldn’t believe my own synapses.
It was January 1997, and I was a partner director at ICS Intercultura – a language assistance firm struggling to make ends meet. A person in charge of the English language program on the campus of a University in São Paulo contacted me – knowing I was an English teacher and said that their language center would be very happy if I would help them in that year’s English Immersion program. It was a 2-week program from 9am to 5pm five days a week where students would attend language lessons and other activities in English.
I jumped at the idea of getting to know their program and they were also going to pay me for teaching in the program.
The first meeting already pulled down my castle of dreams – the director, dr. James – a US born teacher with “light-years” of experience in teaching – thanked me for accepting the invitation and told me I would be working along with another young teacher, Alison (son of another teacher who’d already taught at the language center) in developing extra-class activities and games with the students.
I explained that I would be more comfortable in teaching grammar or reading, for example, but Dr. James was adamant that HE WOULD TEACH THAT. Another teacher would be in charge of writing. Another one, listening and so on and so forth. And the only spot would be for games: meaning – keep the students entertained and happy and we couldn’t find any other sucker to do that so we found you. I had never worked with those kinds of class activities and without any instruction or training I was thrown into the lion’s den for 2-3 hours a day. There were about 15 students at different levels. The challenge was to come up with games, drama, arts, whatever. Fortunately, the other teacher, Alison, had already taught in the previous year and he (yes, Alison is a man’s name in Brazil) could give me some support. The language center had a few books about class activities and games along with some movies on tape and that was our salvation.
My session went on with highs and lows, with increasingly longer coffee breaks, but we made it. At the end of the program we went on a day trip to visit the Museum of Brazil’s Independence in São Paulo – when the students would be exposed to the language with information about the museum, the city , etc given in their target language. Needless to say, the language center made no arrangements for an English-speaking guide and for leaflets or any useful info in English – so the students had a day trip in Portuguese alone.
Since then, that university campus no longer has had a summer language immersion program but I can tell you that nothing much has changed in other language immersion programs. Improvisation and let’s-make-do-with-whatever-resources-we-have-on-the-shelf prevail.
Oh, do I need to tell you that after the program the school took quite a while to honor my payment? But that’s a theme for another blog.
My advice to people looking for immersion courses is to choose a subject taught in their target language and travel abroad.
A difficult task is to help students improve their pronunciation not only of words but sentences as well. I’m not talking about accents but how intelligible the student is when speaking. Considering that all my students have smartphones and quite a few use iPhones, a simple activity that they could do by themselves over and over again is asking Siri questions.
Example: Can you tell me where the nearest bank is?
where can I find an Italian restaurant around here/ in this neighbourhood?
What English course do you recommend? ( many students will pronounce it as “curse”) getting hilarious results.
Eat / it – they’ll say: “I love skating – where can I do it?” They’ll say “eat” – and get tips on restaurants.
Chances are Siri won’t understand them at first and it will give crazy results or simply say I don’t understand.
So students will have to learn to enunciate well the words, intonation and not just isolated sounds. Some students resist this idea and won’t do it but those who are willing to give it a try will develop a much better speech, after the initial challenges and frustrations.
Last week a friend contacted me saying that Wisdom, recently arrived from Nigeria was looking for a job as an English teacher. Here’s my piece of advice to him:
“Ok. I’d advise you to pursue teacher training programs in more than one English language school. There are different options to teaching Business, individuals, groups, adults and teenagers. Good language schools will give you some sort of training which may last from a couple of hours to one or two weeks on average up to a month – (depending on the school’s professionalism and desperation to get new teachers). The training will allow you to get familiar with the courses and textbooks and teaching method. Employment will vary from total informality to following all the labor requirements in Brazil. There will be pros and cons in any situation but usually informal employment allows the school to pay the teacher better hourly rates.
These are the main standard language schools in São Paulo:
This school is focused on conversation and the practical use of language. It’s one of the oldest language schools in Brazil with 500 schools around the country. My wife’s first serious contact with the language was in one of their schools and her experience was great.
Founded in 1961 sponsored by the US Government to develop language and educational programs between Brazil and the US. Responsible for the TOEFL and TOEIC certifications among others. This institution is really dear to my heart because it gave me my Translator and Interpreter Certificate.
The EducationUSA Fair, annually organized by Alumni with the participation of over 80 US universities.
It is among the oldest and most traditional schools in Brazil with 1,200 schools around the country. The courses are divided by ages, both face-to-face or online, including international certifications, business and university preparatory exams (vestibular). Yázigi focuses on both grammar and communication.
Very traditional and respected institution focused on British English through the British Council, considered by many as one of the best English courses around. Classes both online and on site, including international student exchange programs.
Founded in São Paulo in 1987.
Founded by Richard Fisk in 1950 using its own method
The school focuses on adults and especially those who need to learn English quickly.
It is the official examination center of the Cambridge English Language Assessment
Preparatory for TOEFL among other courses.
Check out this school based on conversation classes located near you at Centro Empresarial SP – they always need native teachers
Yes, I know it’s a cliché but it has lots of truth to me: a picture’s worth a thousand words. When teaching English, Spanish or French quite often students come across words that even if not abstract, they’re hard for them to grasp the meaning by just looking up the word in the dictionary, unless it’s a bilingual dictionary.
Let’s consider for example the word “groom”. The student asks the meaning of the word and passively receives the information.
The teacher:” well, … you know when you get married the woman is the bride and the man is the groom or bridegroom”.
By telling the student to look up in google images he will be actively learning the word and visualizing it, without even having to think about the word in L1.
Take the word “STAMINA”, for instance, which Trump said Hillary Clinton doesn’t have ( or the looks). Many Brazilian students get the sound of the word but not the meaning.
By just showing a picture of someone running, the teacher tells students that that person has stamina and asks them to guess the meaning. Chances are they will say, power, energy, and bingo got the word without having even translated the word into L1.
The word “GAP” – which can be abstract but can also be easily visualized and understood based on the pictures and context. In the past I used to doodle on paper trying to convey the image, but it wouldn’t solve the student’s passivity. Now having the student look it up makes them an active agent in their learning.
You may say, “that’s exactly what students do when using a dictionary” – yes, but… the trick is that by using a monolingual dictionaryoften times they can’t understand the definition or there are too many definitions to go through. In a bilingual dictionarythey will be still focusing on L1 memory and will most likely forget the L2 corresponding word.
As a long-standing reader of the Economist, I’ve encouraged my students to read this magazine (even though the publishers insist on calling it a newspaper). The quality of the text and the “high-brow” language have always been its benchmark. But the strengths of the Economist can also be its weaknesses.
When presented with a text the teacher will present the first description and the students will always feel the second:
In-depth texts = too long texts
Carefully chosen vocabulary = too difficult vocabulary
A sober text = very few pictures
But the challenge students face will be rewarded by being exposed to excellent writing (and when using the app they can also listen to the news stories).
When using authentic material I always try to employ all 4 main skills
(not necessarily in this order)
The possibilities to explore the text are huge but, please note that I won’t try to milk this cow until it’s bone dry. The activities are suggestions and I don’t see why keep on beating on a dead cow. Please forgive the pun (I’m not referring to the impeached President – heaven forbid).
So what did I do with this article?
Brazil has acquired some unique distinctions. For example, in Soccer? (students talk that it’s the only country to have won the football World Cup five times)
In natural resources? (students may talk about the country with the largest rainforest, etc)
And now, what is another distinction? (2 presidents impeached in 20 years)
a. Scanning for main ideas: What do you understand from the title and subtitle?
b.Read the first paragraph – what differences does the article present between Brazil’s 2 impeachments?
c. What lessons can be learned from the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff?
3. LISTENING –
students may listen to the whole text or the first and last paragraphs, for example. Have students read a few sentences out loud. Check vocabulary and pronunciation.
4. WRITING –
it can be as simple as writing sentences using keywords previously highlighted in the text to writing an essay defining in their own words the pros and cons of the current political and economic scenarios in Brazil.
As regarding vocabulary I’ve chosen 7 words in the text to focus on meaning and use (trying to include their context and word collocation). Why seven, you may ask – because it’s the symbol of perfection (or more accurately, because those were the words I thought worth checking with students in this specific article– choose one). The teacher may decide to highlight fewer or more words (my suggestion no more than 10). Regarding vocabulary, some students lack the practice of reading for gist and consequently try to understand and look up every single word they don’t know or aren’t sure about. Limiting the number of words the teacher will encourage students to do their own word searches on their own and learn to read on a more dynamic and productive pace.
Please find below the text. Have fun and let me know if these ideas helped and other ideas you may have used.
THE IMPEACHMENT COUNTRY
Does the ousting of Dilma Rousseff weaken or strengthen Brazil’s democracy?
AS WELL as its five football World Cup victories and the world’s largest rainforest, Brazil has just acquired another unique distinction. It is the only country to have impeached two presidents in just 24 years. In the first case, that of Fernando Collor, who resigned in 1992 on the brink of being condemned for corruption, impeachment commanded near-universal support, and could be read as a sign of democratic vigour. In the case of Dilma Rousseff, ousted by the Senate by 61 votes to 20 on August 31st, judgments are far more mixed. Even some who did not sympathise with Ms Rousseff think her oustingsulliesdemocracy. They worry that Brazil has devalued impeachment, turning it into a means to dump an unpopular ruler—and, in this case, replace her with her unequally unpopular vice-president, Michel Temer.
Some of the arguments Ms Rousseff deployed in two days of evidence before the Senate were mere propaganda. No, her impeachment was not a coup, of any description. It took place over nine months, in strict accordance with the constitution and supervised by the supreme court, a majority of whose members were nominated by Ms Rousseff or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and the founding leader of her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT).
The offence Ms Rousseff was accused of—using credits from public banks to swell the budget without the permission of Congress—is a “crime of responsibility” under Brazil’s impeachment law of 1950. But there the difficulties start. Her defenders are right that this charge was a relatively minor, technical matter. The lawyers who filed the impeachment petition hit upon it because there is no evidence that Ms Rousseff was personally corrupt. That is not true of Eduardo Cunha, the former Speaker of the lower house of congress. He accepted the petition, she plausibly claims, as an act of vengeance because she refused to help him evade expulsion over corruption allegations. It is troubling, too, that many of those who voted to oust her are accused of misdeeds. And Mr Temer, a 75-year-old political insider, hardly embodies the regeneration his country’s rotten politics need.
Yet that is not enough to turn the moral tables in Ms Rousseff’s favour: many of the “coup-plotters” had been for a decade allies (and several were ministers) of the president and her predecessor. Their corruption, if proved, is venal and personal. More sinister is that of the PT, which organised a vast kickback scheme centred on Petrobras as part of a “hegemonic project that involved growing control of parliament, of the judges and…of the media”, as Fernando Gabeira, a left-leaning former congressman, wrote in O Globo, a newspaper. Ms Rousseff chaired Petrobras’s board (in 2003-10) and then ruled the country while this scheme flourished. Her claim to know nothing of it, nor that her campaign guru in the election in 2014 was paid with bribe money, smacks of negligence.
On its own, the Petrobras scandal didn’t doom her. When Mr Cunha launched the impeachment last December, most political analysts expected it to fail. The subsequent stampede against the president owed everything to her own incompetence and to public opinion, which was enraged, too, by her catastrophic mishandling of the economy. Above all, she failed to build alliances in Congress, which need not always involve back-scratching. The crisis of governability in Brasília intolerably prolonged the economic slump, undermining some of the social progress made under Lula. It would have been resolved less divisively by Ms Rousseff resigning or by a fresh election. But she refused to step down, and an early election is constitutionally difficult.
So Brazil is where it is. And it offers some lessons. One is that Ms Rousseff has paid the ultimate price for her fiscal irresponsibility (which went far wider than those disputed credits). That ought to be a salutary warning to Latin America’s more spendthrift politicians. Second, Brazilians want to hold their governments to account. Mr Temer will lose all legitimacy if he yields to pressure from his friends to rein in the Petrobras investigation or helps Mr Cunha avoid justice.
The third lesson is that in Brazil, with its strong parliamentary tradition, no president can govern against Congress. When Ms Rousseff brandishes her 54m votes in the presidential election of 2014 as a defence, she forgets that they were for Mr Temer too, and that the senators have an equally valid democratic mandate. Brazil has thus offered a tutorial in constitutional theory to the likes of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictatorial president. The legacy of a divisive impeachment is not all bad.