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 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.





This morning I woke up early as usual – around 5.30 am,  but being Sunday I wanted to enjoy our bed a little longer – therefore decided to listen to some podcasts, the episode of the Teflologists had two interviews conducted at the second international symposium on native-speakerism held at Saga University, Japan. The interviewees were Stephanie Ann Houghton and Enric Llurda about native-speakerism, non-native speakers in language teaching, English as a lingua franca, and intercultural communication. You can find their podcast series clicking on this link: http://teflology.libsyn.com/

As a non-native teacher of English I know of the existence of this so-called “favoritism” or bias towards native English speakers – allegedly they know ALL the idioms and ALL the words of the English language, which they don’t, by the way. They can give in-depth information about the culture of America, the UK, Ireland or wherever they may hail from, which quite often can be narrowed down to their own individual experiences and not as the perfect stereotype of their nation. Fortunately, I’ve never been “discriminated” against based on my nationality. It’s true that to non-English speakers’ ears my accent may lead them to believe I come from somewhere in America or Australia (go figure) as it happened to me with a  group of Chinese students in York, Ontario.

Okay, some students say “I want a teacher with a British accent” – which of the 3,400 different accents found in the British Isles would you prefer? Or they say: “I wanna a teacher with an American accent” – from Alabama, California or Vermont?

Truth be told, nativewhen I was starting my teaching career in the early 1990s working for a language consultancy firm in São Paulo, there were one or two cases when a corporate client would call for English lessons and adamantly request a native speaker, otherwise, no need to bother. The school sent them a Swedish (yes, you read it right)! A Swedish teacher of English – male, tall, blond, blue eyes, and quite fluent in Swedish English. They loved him. He who has eyes, read between the lines.

Native English speakers in developing countries tend to be young, college graduate, jumping into some traveling adventure before settling down. Nothing wrong with that. But quite often they are NOT qualified to be teachers let alone English teachers. The fact one can speak one’s mother tongue doesn’t make one a teacher of that language.

What to look for in a language teacher? Knowledge. Passion. Fluency. Commitment. Reliability. Professionalism (yes such a poorly regarded word). Fair Price. When we consider these points the national origin of the teacher becomes irrelevant.



Teaching phonetics

After spending a few days in Ireland, my students always show their true feelings. Glad when I’m leaving, sad when I’m returning. That is, after all these years I still haven’t been able to show them that English is not a task but a tool to reach their goals. Well, so be it. LET’S WORK!!!

Some students have a real hard time with pronunciation. At first glance, English spelling is totally irregular, making it impossible to guess or read aloud any text or words if you haven’t heard them before.

Phonetic Chart
Phonetics exercise

That’s when I try to show them the phonetic chart. Initially the sounds/letters are weird and confusing but by introducing them in little bits: 3 sounds and symbols at a time, they usually manage to grasp at least some of the concepts on pronunciation.

A strategy that does help is having students read words written in phonetic characters. I also show them the chart and dictate a few words and ask them to write them phonetically. Children will get it fast, while adults will see learning the phonetics system as a gargantuan task to a pointless end. They claim: “Why am I going to learn this “alphabet” if I’m not going to see it ever again?”

From my experience young learners must be introduced to phonetics even before learning the alphabet, if not, when adults the barriers will be too big to be overcome.

Phonetics Paragraph

I’ve already seen some exercises with phonetics paragraphs, but they’re an unnecessary burden on students, just demotivating them to read a simple sentence. I prefer to work on isolated problem words or sounds.

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

I show them that Dictionaries, after the entry of a word, present the phonetic pronunciation even if they can just click a button and listen to it.

Phonetics will help students identify the distinct sounds in English from their mother tongue and improve on their pronunciation – not to be able to speak as natives but to be clear and fluent.

Real Virtual Teaching?

Can students really learn online?

Very few students do reach an A (Advanced) English level. Many reach an I (Intermediate) level and most never pass the M (Messy) English level. By using a combination of realt-ime classes and prerecorded videos, students can practice and strengthen points that would challenge the patience of any teacher, but that requires discipline. Most students are not gifted with “self-study” skills, therefore, the presence of a teacher motivator is key to their development and progress.blended-learning

I teach students both online and face-to-face. Those who started online via FaceTime or Skype enjoy the classes and have no complaints about the flexibility and activities. Those students whom I teach face-to-face are rather resistant to online classes, finding it hard to focus. Psychologically it seems it’s not a real class to them if they can’t smell the teacher’s “sweet perfume”. I do notice that online classes do seem to demand more concentration from students than traditional F2F classes which last 90 minutes  and had to be shortened to 60 minutes for online usage. Students get tired more quickly while looking at a screen. One of the great benefits of online teaching is flexibility. Since I have to travel quite often, my journeys won’t affect my students’ learning process. Now, prerecorded online classes do seem a reinforcement of a regular class, not really replacing the presence – either physically or virtually, of a teacher.

Thanksgiving at Sabbath School

Eduardo telling the missionary report from Belize

Yesterday we had our Thanksgiving Celebration at our English Sabbath School. The Sabbath School Class did not have any “stars” playing or singing but we had a fantastic program with members doing their best to give thanks to the Lord for the blessings this year. Even Eduardo who speaks at a pre-intermediate level managed to tell the missionary story from Belize and used the multimedia to complement his words. He checked out word pronunciation and meanings. He stuttered a little when pronouncing long words such as “baptism” or “baptized” but did a great job and by speaking he is building up confidence.

Mo teaching the Sabbath School Lesson for this week: The Lawgiver and Judge.
At the Gratitude Tree
Music is the universal language of the heart.


Today is “Black Fast”!

After spending two weeks in Ireland we’re back to the warm temperatures of São Paulo and to the commercial fever of Black Friday. Interestingly enough, the Atlantic Magazine reported that Black Friday is losing its appeal with more and more shoppers adhering to CyberMonday or any other day of the week going online.

For years, the Black Friday phenomenon had been known in Brazil. But it was something that happened there, in the States, up  North: A 75-inch TV for $100, an iPhone 6 for $ 85, a Lacoste polo shirt for $ 6, etc. But in recent years, shop-owners around the country have adhered to the “Big Sale”, “50% Off” event.

What calls my attention is the adoption of the English term, Black Friday – most Brazilians, Portuguese speakers are unaware of the meaning of the words just maybe daring to guess their meaning. So, as I walked this afternoon into the corner cake shop to buy a delicious and indulgent pudding cake which costs R$ 25, today the attendant cheerfully announced their “Black Fast” promotion: pudding cake for R$ 15. I couldn’t help but smile and the attendant said: well, at the slum where I live we call it “liquidação” so I really don’t know the right way to say it in English.

Yesterday, Americans around the world celebrated Thanksgiving  immersed in myths, traditions, good and bad memories, with mostly families in the center.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we will be celebrating our Thanksgiving at our English Sabbath School Class. We’ll have real turkey, fake turkey (Gluterkey (c), stuffing, gravy, corn on the cob, yes, Virginia, our Thanksgiving has corn on the cob, and of course, Apple Pie and ice cream.Turkey IMG_0555 IMG_0556 extrablackfriday

But most importantly, I’m so grateful to the Lord for the many opportunities and experiences he’s given me and pray that I may be useful to Him.



Tests are Opportunities not Punishment

End-of-Course Test – New English File Advanced

Usually students dread tests. They whimper, they cry, they threaten, they pass out, anything goes in order to escape from a test. For no small reason.

Early on they’re conditioned to fear tests, either they pass with high marks or else. Failure is not an option.

In my whole teaching career I would say that probably only 5% of students know how to deal with a test, which aims to show them what they know and point out areas in grammar, vocabulary speaking, listening, reading, writing, they need to improve.

My Student C is in the 5% crowd. Actually I’d say she is unique among my students, because not only she enjoyed taking the test, but rather, asked for more tests.

She did quite well in the End-of-Course Test obtaining a 90% success rate. Her grammar was excellent and reading skills as well despite the fact she does not enjoy reading books.

However, she daily reads the newspaper which I must use to her benefit thus encouraging her to read more news stories in English.

One point I believe greatly helped Student C  is that every class she takes notes of vocabulary or new grammar, reviewing those points during the week and as first activity of each class.

She has taken control of her learning thus seeing a test as an opportunity to see how much she knows and identify where she should focus next.