Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Can a student learn a Foreign Language (usually English and/or Spanish) attending classes at a regular school in Brazil? This question has surfaced lately here in this country and many reasons lead to a capital “NO, STUDENTS ATTENDING REGULAR SCHOOLS IN BRAZIL CAN’T AND WON’T LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE”.

Some of the reasons are:

“Classes are too heterogeneous.”

“There are up to 50 students in a classroom. Impossible to teach a language.”

“Teachers are underqualified and unprepared to teach.”

“A regular school has more important goals than teaching a foreign language.”

“Teachers don’t care.”

“Students lack motivation and/or clear objectives.”

“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice) 

a) adequate

b) in sufficient number

c) up-to-date

d) interesting

e) all of the above

“Students cannot fail English classes. They are automatically approved to the next grade.”

“English or Spanish taught as foreign languages have been devalued as school subjects. Not as important as Maths, History or Portuguese.”

“It’s impossible to teach a foreign language using the students’ mother tongue 90% of the time.”

English teaching in Brazilian public schools
English teaching in Brazilian public schools
ENglish Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil
English Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil

Phew! The list is long. Should I continue? But I guess you get the gist.

The situation is so bad that some Brazilian congressmen have raised their voices proposing the end of the teaching of foreign languages at public schools due to their failure in reaching any positive results.

Well, let me tell you of my own experience growing up in Brazil and attending public schools from 1st grade to university.

Back in 1976 I was in 5th grade and according to the Ministry of Education, that would be the year for me to start learning a foreign language. Unfortunately, there were few foreign language teachers, and my school didn’t have an English teacher that year. In 6th grade we finally got an English teacher – we would have classes twice a week (each lasting 45 minutes). The teacher very wisely chose not to use a textbook – everything was based on copying from the blackboard and/or dictation. I must say that it was my best contact with English for the next 3 years. In 1978 we moved house and school, in the 7th and 8th grades the new teacher (new to me) used the same basic textbook that her students in 5th grade were using. Needless to say, I had learned more without a textbook. My wife, at roughly the same time – also studying at a state-run school, had her first contact with French (they had no English teachers available, either) but she says that much of the foundation of French grammar she learned in that first year. Both she and myself learned way more than the verb to be or “être”.

The goal and the expectations back then were different from today. Now the emphasis is on oral communication. Back then, we had to learn the grammar and to be able read and write for academic purposes.

But the key factor was that we were lucky to have as our very first foreign language models, teachers who cared, who were motivated and who had a teaching method imperfect as it might have been.

Could I speak English when I started high school? With the exception of isolated words, no, I couldn’t. But I was able to read and interpret basic texts which qualified me to proceed with my studies at university.

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Yes, if both teacher and students reach a consensus on their goals and motivation. And if the Ministry of Education reestablishes the teaching of foreign languages as a relevant discipline and not just one more public policy that looks good on paper but is void of any relevance in real life.

Cheers,

Mo

Study English Abroad. A must?

This morning I received an email from an acquaintance that put my thinking cap to work – here’s a rough translation of what he wrote me:

Dear Moacir,
We met there in the (Sabbath School) class, It's been a long time 
since I last showed up in class because I moved  to a new neighborhood.
Please, do you remember once u mentioned that you had a friend 
who had an English school in New York?
Could you please pass me his contact?
Thanks in advance.

Mario

 My reply was the following:

Where should you go to study English?
Where should you go to study English?
“Hello Mario, where have you been?
Listen… it must really be a long time it happened because I cannot even remember I had a friend who owned a school in New York. I’m familiar with Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT – about an 1 hour by train from Manhattan. I was a teacher and program director there for a year.
Now, are you looking for an English language school for you? Or for your daughter? I wouldn’t recommend New York to someone interested in studying English.  There are too many foreigners there and the cost of living is pretty high. Actually, I’d tell you to look for a more “hidden state” such as Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, etc, where you would be more likely to be in touch with Americans who speak some sort of English. Danbury could be a choice but there’s a swarm of Brazilians around and you might learn Portuguese with a different accent faster than learn much English (I’m not exaggerating that much).
The best choice would be to take up a cooking class or photography course, for example, in English. From my experience and what I have observed, to study only English in the US (or any other country for that matter) will offer you the same textbooks and material you could access in Brazil and honestly, with many better qualified and certified teachers. And to add insult to injury you would be paying in dollars while your savings are in Brazilian Reais.
An ideal condition would be to take an either professional or just a hobby course in English. I wouldn’t advise people at beginner or intermediate level to go abroad in order to study.
First consolidate your language in your home country and once you’ve reached an Upper-Intermediate /Advanced Level then you’ll be ready to jump into deeper waters. And believe me, you’ll realize how much more you still need to learn (don’t tell anyone, but you can spend the rest of your life studying a language and still have room to grow). It might be tough initially but you would reap better rewards at the end.
Any further information, just let me know.
Have a blessed day,
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

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

Is time money? So invest it wisely!

We live in times when it’s almost a status symbol to say we don’t have time. We’re constantly in a rush. Sometimes it feels we’re running like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “I’m late. I’m late. I’m late for a very important date”!

Invest your time wisely
Invest your time wisely

This week, a student of mine, Rodrigo, was saying that to his defense he hadn’t had time to do his homework. He has 2 young daughters and a wife to care for at home. And his work is very demanding.

It sounded as if I gave him homework as a form of punishment. Actually, I couldn’t care less about it. Do it. Don’t do it. I won’t be any wiser because of that.

The only reasons I give students homework is to give them direction to review what was seen in class, to practice reading and writing and to expand vocabulary.

I asked Rodrigo: “Ok, let’s have a math class (incorporating other subjects to English): how many hours do we have in a week?”

After fumbling a little  – 24 hours in a day – 7 days in a week … and spilling some zeros on the floor, we settled at 168 hours a week. He has 1 hour of English class per week.

“Ok,” he said. “But I have to sleep”. “Right”, I said. “So let’s be very optimistic and say you sleep 8 hours a night – in a week? 56 hours – that still leaves you with 112 hours to expose yourself to English”.

In a year? 8760 hours – if he never misses a class he’ll have had 52 hours worth of  English classes. Will that be enough for any student to gain fluency?

You know the answer. So dear students, if you want to learn you will have to devise your own ways to better use your time – be creative, think out of the box.

Rodrigo likes football/soccer – great hobby – listen to podcasts about it. Read a news article online every day about the British League, translate one paragraph from the sports section in his local newspaper into English, etc.

The secret is not setting aside some crumbs of minutes to “STUDY ENGLISH” but to incorporate English in your everyday life.

Cheers,

Mo

Invest your time wisely
Invest your time wisely

How can I say…?

I constantly insist with my students that learning a language shouldn’t be their goal – their raison d’être. They study English or French or Spanish because they hope to use it when traveling, or for professional and personal development, for instance.

Today I’ve been reminded of Alice – a great, hardworking student in her professional life but who refuses to review or practice anything taught in class.

Alice loves to talk and her professional vocabulary is quite good since she is involved in billing international clients and can write quite well, having a good grammar domain. But she’s got a limited vocabulary when outside her professional jargon.

Her favorite question is: “How can I say ___X____ in English?”

One day, in a 20 minute interval, she asked the following list in Portuguese:

Teacher…, How can I say…

1. ócio

2. sovina

3. contestação

4. juventude

5. garra

6 pegadinha

7. sangue frio

8. costurar

9. não pisque!

10. sensível

11. sensato

12. retina

13. estar acordado

14. fábrica de dinheiro

15. medo

16. acompanhante

17. tenho o costume

18. sou banana

19. catarata

20. cicatrizar

21. médico

22. particular

23. meta

24. avental

Knowing that so many words would be gone with the wind as soon as she had walked out of the room, I decided to play a game with her. Instead of being her

Words carried by the wind
Words carried by the wind

human super dictionary faster than google translator, I wrote down the list on a sheet of paper and gave it to her. I told her: “Remember that words must be used in context, so look up the translations of the words but check the meaning in English to see if they fit the context you want to place them in. By looking them up and writing them down you’ll be able to remember them in the future.”

She agreed and left – this was in March – now June 2015 (at least we’re in the same year) she hasn’t done the so-called “homework”. I’ve challenged her a few times but she says she doesn’t like to be pressured. She is hard pressed enough doing her job.

So, for our next class we are going to sit down (or stand up – if based on the latest studies on how standing up is better to your health) and go over the list and see how much she remembers and can use in context.

Keep on trying,

Cheers,

Mo

CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN, THE MONK AND THE TEACHER

Having taught all sorts of students along the years, ranging from athletes and high school students to top executives in Brazil, the US and Ireland I have grown to appreciate the importance of how the teacher dresses himself. Nothing fancy, but a smart casual as they say in the UK and Ireland would be perfectly fitting for most occasions.

Clothes do make the man, the monk and the teacher
Clothes do make the man, the monk and the teacher

Of course, common sense rules, but what I’ve observed along my career with other teachers of English as a second or foreign language is that many don’t care about how they are dressed. They’ve embraced that “raggedy doll look” of torn jeans and a T-shirt although much appealing as a uniform they might be, I don’t think they are the right fit for a meeting room. There’s a case of a teacher who, not satisfied with the piercing and the tattoos, (not there’s anything wrong with them), also wears a bloody cap. DURING CLASS – INDOORS.  hello… has he not had time to comb his braids?

So, my advice to any teacher is:

1. dress properly (not talking about designer clothes)

2. Cleanliness is next to godliness (I kid you not)

3. Take off that bloody cap once indoors.

Good lessons to you all,

Cheers,

Mo

When enough is enough or not

How long should a student stay with the same teacher? That’s a question quite often asked.

Answers may vary – some schools rotate teachers at the end of a stage/level. Others change teachers month. There are schools which rotate teachers every class (which is a strategy to keep students attached to the school not to a particular teacher, given the high turnover in the industry).

My wife started learning English at a language school years ago, which rotated teachers at the end of every stage, but she had a teacher – Wallace* – who had noticed that students were not reaching higher levels at the expected pace. So Wallace tried an experiment staying with the same group of students from beginner to advanced in order to identify where the weakest link was. When reaching the Advanced level -C1 – students were more confident in language production and more fluent. But the experiment  was inconclusive whether the positive outcome was due to the same teacher or whether Wallace was a better teacher than average, or the rotation made students fluctuate and slide back in their progress.

A few weeks ago, my Student Rosie* told me of a dream she’d had that I was in her bedroom answering phone calls on her landline and had asked her not to disturb me. What would have triggered such a bizarre dream?

Well, the night before she’d been talking to her mother saying she’d have to get up a little earlier the next day because she had English class. Her mother asked her if she was still having lessons with that teacher who wore glasses and had a captivating smile (author’s imagination) and Rosie* nodded. Her mother asked how long she’d been having classes with me and she said “nearly 10 years maybe”.

Then I told her that it would be around 19-20 years – on and off of course. I moved to the US for a period and then to Ireland. But it made me wonder what would make someone pay a teacher almost long enough for the latter’s retirement.

For many years she was what we would call a regular student – using textbooks, doing or trying to do homework, etc. But in recent years, we’ve been basically having “communication-based” lessons, sometimes throwing in some work-related material or presentation she would have to go through.

She has achieved a fluent advanced English level – which does not eliminate mistakes. She still confuses he/she  and his/her/your. Sometimes, tenses are a nightmare, but she feels perfectly capable of carrying on a meeting or phone conference, or making a presentation.

Now, am I taking advantage of a situation and should tell her to terminate her classes? or is she still benefiting from those classes?

After a serious and hard analysis, I came to the latter conclusion. Both psychologically and linguistically she still can improve and she does, although slowly and haphazardly.

Sure, most people will benefit from a 3-5 year language program, but the same way that some professionals seek continuous improvement so some language learners require and can afford long-term language assistance.

Cheers,

Moknowingwilling

* all names have been changed to prevent any legal issues.

“You’re just a number”

I’ve been a self-employed teacher for over 20 years and have never looked back. Well, … with the exception of a few times.

Working for yourself, you can “choose” your students and working hours – in a certain way, set your fees and run after Teacher Conferences in order to network (which I rarely do) and get new ideas (which sometimes do come).

Being self-employed one must be constantly updating one’s expertise, getting familiar with latest trends and materials – books, apps, pills, etc.

I’ve always prided myself of my ability – by God’s grace – of never being without a student portfolio – never been unemployed – if you get what I mean.

During all this time one of my main corporate clients has been the Arab Banking Corporation in Brazil – having taught past and present Presidents and a wide array of directors and VPs since 1994.

During this time I’ve been loyal to the bank having translated several of their annual financial reports and enjoyed some perks – had a badge that identified me as an outsourced worker which allowed me access to some areas of the bank. I could also have my parking validated. Well, basically that was all.

Now apparently, Human Resources –  under new management – has decided to wage a war against Language Teachers – alleging that we take up unused meeting rooms during lunch time – that’s when classes take place or after 6pm when most meetings have already ended.

Now they’ve taken my badge away, so every single day I have to identify myself at the reception in the lobby and wait for authorization to go up. They are also requiring that I must wait downstairs for my respective student to come down to “collect” me and if I’m thirsty or need to go “powder my nose” in the gents’, said student should accompany me as well. Adding salt to the wound, if the student is late because of a meeting or any other reason, I must stay downstairs waiting, standing in a seat-free lobby. After all, we can’t tolerate loitering, can we?

So, this is one of the few disadvantages of being a self-employed teacher – I was complaining to my wife and she, the very commonsensical she is, just commented: “That’s the corporate world – you’re just a number”. And after rendering educational services for over 20 years at this fine financial institution I have nothing to show for it – not even a badge.

But I refuse to end this post on a grumpy note – after all these years I’m proud to show many students at that bank who today are fluent and feel comfortable when using English in the toughest business situations.

Cheers,Badge

Mo

NFL in the Tropics

Yes, Virginia, everybody, it seems, was talking about the Super Bowl 49 (those Xs and Ls confuse me – XLIX). I’ve never been into sports in general, sometimes I think the players score a “SHUTDOWN” instead of a “TOUCHDOWN”. What did I tell you?

But for my English classes I MUST at least know what the Super Bowl is, where it’s being played and which teams are participating.

It’s a great class warm-up activity having students Q&A about the championship. Over the past 5 to 10 years, the interest in the NFL has grown exponentially here in Brazil, with both ladies (a few) and gents (majority) buying the jerseys of their favorite teams, footballs and any other imaginable gear.

Well, listen, a teacher’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to pique his students’ interest. We use the statistics to practice numbers and TV commentaries to practice their listening.

So if that’s what it takes for them to learn verbs such as: pulling for, rooting for, cheering, supporting, etc. and use them in correct sentences… Wow. That’s made my day.

We can also see sports terms used in business or everyday life. A simple list can be found here but the teacher can get the students together and make their own lists – gridiron, Hail Mary, game plan, jerseys, etc: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/common-football-terms-to-know.html

NFL

In the past I would mostly complain about this cultural fad imported by the local bourgeoisie and would grunt comments such as “why don’t we import respect for property, a fast legal system, less corrupt police, work ethics, etc…” But now I must say that Doris Day was right when she sang “Que será, será”. “Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que será, será”.  So… let’s take advantage of this passion and learn some English along the way. If I succeed in getting them to improve the pronunciation of some names and positions, I’ll say it’s been worth it.

Touchdown!

Mo