Nativism revisited

Last Saturday we invited a new friend for lunch at home. Ivonne arrived from Bolivia back in February where she had been an English teacher and aesthetics consultant (sic) and had a dream to move to Brazil, where she would have more opportunities.

When she arrived she soon started voluntarily teaching English to a group of senior citizens at an NGO. “The experience was interesting”, she said.”But people don’t value things offered for free”. The students’ attendance was terrible and when they did come they wanted to chitchat and not really “study English”.

I warned Ivonne that getting paying English students in Brazil would be difficult in her case because despite her 5 years of English studies with US missionaries in Bolivia, she still had a very thick Spanish accent, including the infamous “Jew” when she means to say “you“.

She said, “Ay, Moacir, I need a job fast”. I told her she could apply at language institutes and private schools to be a teacher of Spanish as soon as she had her transcripts registered in Brazil. But any teaching at a language academy would take time for training. In the meantime she is selling honey sachets door to door.

But what Ivonne said about language teachers startled me:

“Ay, Moacir, Jew speak like an American and jew’re tall and white” – (anyone is tall to her since her height is less than 150cm /4ft) – I won’t get a teaching job here.” “In Bolivia I always wanted to have only native teachers for me. That’s how jew learn. Jew ask them a question they know the answer. A Brazilian or Bolivian teacher won’t know how to respond”.

“The same thing goes to teaching Spanish,” she went on. “Los brasileños think that Spanish is easy but when they start to see the grammar and the verb tenses they go crazy.”

I tried to reason with her “Come on, Ivonne. I’m not a native speaker of English, but I’m an excellent teacher, as you know (to hell with self deprecation)”. She nodded in deep admiration. “And for over 25 years I’ve been teaching English to high executives and people who’ve travelled around the world and it has never been a disqualifying point. I’ve also taught in Canada, the US and Ireland and it’s never been a problem. Yes, it’s true a native speaker may know more phrasal verbs but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to explain to you how to use them. He’ll pronounce a word his way which can be very different between US and British English, for example. More than once have I seen a native speaker not know how to pronounce a word or what it meant. And in addition to that, if the gringo doesn’t know the local language, he won’t understand why you find it so difficult to say girl, or world, whirlwind”. “Actually, many (not all) native teachers abroad have their own agenda and baggage: either they want to convert somebody, or see the world, or escape from their own world.” Believe you me, I’ve seen some native teachers (mostly from Oceania) that didn’t have a loose screw, they had lost that screw a long time ago. What makes a good teacher will be based on 3 very solid foundations:

1. Language knowledge (yes, you can’t teach English or French or Arabic if you don’t speak that language either), learning one’s own or adoptive language is an ongoing process; but that knowledge must be supported by

2. skills (natural and learned) – how many times have you attended a lecture or lesson by a renowned Professor who knows everything about, let’s say, quantum physics but he can’t teach it?

3. Finally, a good to great teacher will be empathetic. He will try to understand and seek for ways to best transmit his subject.”

Ivonne carefully considered all I’d told her, clapped her hands and cheerfully exclaimed:

Jew don’t need to be a native to teach English. Now I got it. I’ll start applying to be a teacher of Portuguese!”

Sigh.

Good luck, Ivonne,

Cheers,

Mo

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Surviving a meeting in a foreign language

Last week I brought a student to tears. Well, actually, I just happened to be in the same room, and you know what women are like. Wait, wait, y’all supporters of the #MeToo movement (moi aussi/ me too) … women are more emotionally intelligent than men and they know that tears clear the soul. But my point is: My student was so nervous about attending a meeting in English the following week that her vulnerability spilled over in her tears.

One thing she must remember is that a charming and intelligent woman can go monosyllabic during a meeting in English.

Native speakers must remember they may not be seeing all of a person because they are afraid they look ridiculous when speaking English. “I’ve seen people lose a job because of this issue. It’s a real problem.”

So I told my intermediate student to make the effort to speak English clearly. That’s it.

PREPARATION

Secondly, she had to prepare. Practice in front of a mirror, look up words and their pronunciation that might come up during the meeting.

Thirdly, I told her to have a glass of wine 🍷, yes I did. Why? Because if that would help her loosen up and relax that would be a plus. Yoga and other relaxation techniques also help.

In other words, her main concern was not the content of the meeting, not even the language barrier, but the fact that SHE would have to speak in English.

People hate meetings that waste time. Use these tips to be a time saver, not a time stealer.
  1. Research the attendees. … 
  2. Determine clear objectives. … 
  3. Plan a suggested agenda. … 
  4. Consider any obstacles. … 
  5. Remove any roadblocks. … 
  6. Decide on desirable outcomes. … 
  7. Think about follow-up activities.
I’ll let you know later how the meeting did go.
Cheers,
Mo

You don’t understand…Accent Reduction

This week I was watching a lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkQ7lwEWeGA) by a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Center for Teaching Excellence (not Evolution  as I had tried to guess by the abbreviation CTE) and for more than 90 minutes she talked about one thing that grabbed my attention:

Accent Reduction, which is bound to ruffle some feathers – there are those in favor and those against, while claiming that the accent reduction approach humiliates language learners or makes them feel less than second class citizens, while companies just want toaccent reduction 2 make money out of their easy prey.

But … Language learners quite often want to reduce their foreignness by trying to speak more like American or British or whatever local language is predominant in their area. Reasons can range from feeling more like one of us, instead of an outsider; being better understood in the workplace,  etc.

A language learner can feel that a clearer accent  might help people to better understand him. You don’t need to be ashamed of speaking with an accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being understood. Sergey may be a very proud Russian  man and speak with a “wery” shtrong accent. Question: will it prevent people from understanding him? Or will people just see that suspicious-looking Russian man and not hear what he has to say? accent reduction

Silvia is a proud Brazilian who loves finishing every word with a “y”  sound – I thinky we shouldy talky more abouty culturey” – but when that charming accent gets in the way of being understood or getting things done she would be wise to try to reduce her Brazilian voice and raise her American voice.

So students must be coached by their teachers to improve their pronunciation, intonation, rhythm in order to achieve better understanding and intelligibility.

But why do students have poor pronunciation?

  1. It’s usually never taught – as the student gets used to understanding what the teacher says, the teacher can  also get used to the students’ linguistic somersaults and not even realize pronunciation / accent problems.
  2. students need to learn to listen to different sounds – th/s/t  b- v   Z-S etc before producing them. Sounds which might not even exist in their L1.
  3. pronunciation requires not only knowledge but skill – which means loads of practice.
  4. English spelling causes confusion – being literate can interfere with your hearing. I’ve corrected many students so many times for their mispronunciation of words because the words they read tend to sound “different” from the way they’re spelled. – example:
    en·tre·pre·neur

    / ˌäntrəprəˈnər/

    lis·ten
    /ˈlis(ə)n/

So what factors will influence their success?

  1. Motivation and concern for good pronunciation
  2. Exposure – amount of time spent in practice. Tons of listening and speaking – in that order. Quality, not just quantity, is important.
  3. Learner’s natural ability – some students tend to get a better pronunciation than others – however, hard work will get them far.
  4. Sense of identity. The fact they are speaking more American, British, or whatever other accent will not destroy their own self.

So keep your ears pricked and your mouths moving.

Cheers,

Mo

Constructive Feedback

I have just asked this 21st Century Oracle also known as Google about a definition of feedback and here’s what I got:

“information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

synonyms: response, reaction, comments, criticism; More

reception, reviews
“we welcome feedback from the viewers”
 
I’m reading now the feedback from the latest TEFL conference in Costa Rica and  – phew – all of them were very positive. Not that there is anything wrong with negative feedback as long as it can be used to fix or change mistakes in my presentation.  But it does help boost one’s ego to hear good things about your work.
I tried to keep the feedback format very simple and objective. I handed the attendees a Post-it note and asked them to write at the beginning of the session what they expected to learn  from that workshop.  All questions were related to the theme of the workshop “Dogme and Technology – and how to use technology in class – only one attendee expected to learn how to use Linux and http whatever (which I’m clueless about since I’m just a language teacher 😉
After they’d finished the task I asked them to pass the note to the person sitting on their left (of course, the first time I tried it I forgot to give them clear instructions and there was some confusion = cause- effect). At the end of the presentation I asked them to write on the back of the note at least one thing they had learned during the workshop. If they hadn’t learned anything they could just write zilch, zero, nada.Feedback
All answers were very positive – and the best part is not that they all loved the presentation (which doesn’t hurt) but that they felt that they could use technology in their classrooms and not be afraid of using it (exactly the idea of the workshop).
Talk about constructive feedback!
Cheers,
Mo

As Focused as a Goldfish

My wife and I were talking about how hard it is to sometimes focus, to concentrate on a specific task.

I find it hard to dive into a book for more than 2 pages – especially if it’s on a Kindle. My wife can’t watch a TV program for more than 15 minutes without channel surfing.

Yesterday I came across a study sponsored by Microsoft stating that our attention span has shortened to 8 seconds from 12 seconds in a little more than a decade and that the typical goldfish can focus an average of 9 SECONDS. (You can read the whole study by clicking the following link: http://advertising.microsoft.com/en/cl/31966/how-does-digital-affect-canadian-attention-spans

The claim is that today’s digital technology with Twitter, emojis et al, make it very hard for us to concentrate.

Imagine when you are a teacher trying to grab the attention of kids or adults for 60 minutes. Many students of mine come to class with not one but 2 mobile phones – and during class those little evil creatures (the phones not the students) keep on vibrating, ringing, dinging, lightening up or doing whatever to get the attention of their owners (should I say servants?)- the students not the phones.

A hot trend nowadays is gamification – aiming to fight this ever-shrinking attention span – making workers or students to adhere to a series of games where they’ll be competing against each other, against time or against themselves. Ok, but is it feasible to be ever introducing new games?  Sooner or later they’ll get tired of that formula and then?

An article by the Medical Daily website presented 3 easy steps (easier said than done) for people to improve their physical and mental ability to concentrate:

1. Drink fluids – nothing more simple – but it’s unbelievable the number of people who don’t drink enough liquid to prevent mild dehydration. Coffee, tea (other than herbal) sodas and alcoholic beverages , even though liquid, cause more liquid loss.

2. Exercise – nothing like a walk around the block if nothing else, to clear up your mind. Yeah, you have a deadline but you’ll be better equipped with a better oxygenated brain.

3. Avoid electronic devices – adding insult to injury – set a timer for you not to touch or look into your smartphone, tablet of notebook (30 minutes of freedom during the day, for example, or switch them off for good at night).

The article ended with a simple question:

“So how many of you got through this article without checking your electronic devices”?

The funny thing is that I read this article with a student who really avoids even taking her cellphone out of her bag but, needless to say, even she failed in the test. During class her phone rang and she had to answer it.

In class the teacher will have to be creative in the activities provided and reduce the time allotted per activity. The challenge will be to keep every activity connected to the previous one so that learning will be continuing spiraling up and not in fits and starts. 8-seconds-attentionCheers and great concentration

Mo

How to be honest without self-sabotaging

I’ve always been told “Honesty is the best policy” and I’ve always shared this advice. I agree with it and subscribe to it. Need I say more?confused

But here comes the “BUT”. Many times blunt honesty may cause as much damage as lies. Let me explain.

As a self-employed teacher I depend on my students’ regular payments to keep a steady source of income. “No work-O, no pay-O”, as I like to say.

At times, a student will be having classes for many months and years, but “HAVING CLASSES” would be a mild exaggeration.

Let’s go through a check list:

Is the student punctual? ✘
Does the student do her/his homework? ✘
Does the student want to do any sort of exercise in class? ✘
Does the student learn from speech corrections? ✘
Does the student allow the teacher to follow any class plan? ✘

Well, just based on this brief shortlist what would be the right thing to do?

My first instinct is to calmly say:

“STOP WASTING MY TIME. PAY UP AND SHUT UP!”

uh… I guess that wouldn’t be the best approach.

I could give them a self evaluation test saying: “It’ll be good for you to see your language progress along these years. You started with me at an intermediate level. Why don’t find out your level now?

The student’s response: “Ok”. Does it mean he or she will do the test right away? NO. In a week? Nope. And questioned about that they’ll simply reply – “I’m afraid to find out I haven’t made much progress”.

So the students know they haven’t done their part, their progress has been stunted (at best) and they’re spending money to keep a feeling of “I’m studying, at least”.

There have been cases that I’ve implied to the student (both implicitly and explicitly) that they should stop having classes “until they are able to focus a little more on their course”.

Does it work? ‘Fraid not. Some ignore the advice, others may get mad at me and stop the course and there my stipend goes out of the window. And me back to square one looking for a new student.

It makes me wonder that my “honesty” can be an act of self-sabotage where the only loss is actually mine.

That drives me to the conclusion that “as long as they’re paying, there’s hope”.

Good classes and don’t give up.
Cheers,

Mo

The NEST v NNEST Conundrum

Lately I’ve come across lots of discussions on the NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) versus NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Even this quarter’s issue of the Braz-Tesol Newsletter dedicates most of its pages to articles written by Brazilian teachers (notorious NNESTS) in defense of language teaching not being limited to the place one was born.

Non-Native English Speaking Teachers
Non-Native English Speaking Teachers

I even found this site defending TEFL equality http://teflequityadvocates.com

Being Brazilian I couldn’t agree more: A good language teacher will have learned the structure of the language and is aware of steps and techniques that will allow learners to overcome hurdles along the way in their language acquisition process.

However, it must be pointed out that many NNESTs also lack enough language skills to teach highly advanced levels, Ilá Coimbra a NNEST wrote  that “In the Brazilian context, the general level of our English language teachers is B2 (or intermediate – high intermediate English)  far from being enough”; which would justify a language learner’s desire to have lessons with a NEST.

In the English teaching world prejudice against NNESTs or those who look like NNESTs is rampant. Many people would object to hiring a Japanese-American teacher simply because he or she looks “Japanese” no matter the language background they have. In China, Korea, and I’m sure other countries, an African-American teacher will find it hard to overcome prejudice no matter how big their NEST egg is (please, forgive me my pun).

Because of my light skin complexion and light brown eyes, I haven’t suffered – as far as I know – much discrimination as a NNEST. But a case that comes to mind was when I was a Program Director at Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT. To become a tutor I had to take their Certification Course (a 4-week program and was the only NNEST in a group of about 15 people). After my certification, I was hired as a part-time Program Director/Teacher Trainer/Tutor and I had to interview many prospective students – many of whom had come from Brazil. I knew that they wouldn’t discredit me for being Brazilian but they would immediately start talking to me in Portuguese. In order to encourage them to speak English I’d just say that my name was Mo and proceed with the testing. I taught many of them and always with the condition that they should use English in the classroom. It came to a point when out of a class of 6 students, 4 were from Brazil and sometimes they would talk among themselves in Portuguese. I’d ask them – “what are you talking about?” and they’d say “It’s not for you to understand“. At their graduation – I  finally came out – I told them I could understand everything they had said and I actually WAS from Brazil.

They were mortified, but that taught them a lesson about the possibilities in learning a language really well.

Literacy Volunteers of America
Literacy Volunteers of America

So NEST or NNEST? it will depend on the students’ needs and teachers’ skills and qualifications.

Good Lessons,

Cheers,

Mo

http://teflequityadvocates.com