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.



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,




(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.

Language Teachers’ Continuing Professional Development – CPD

We live in a world of increasingly faster changes. Jobs that existed a few years ago are no longer around … although in Brazil and other developing countries the change may take a little longer but it will come.

Extinct jobs like the gas lamplighter

Yes, in most developed countries, gas stations haven’t had attendants for years, only a cashier. Buses have no conductors to get payment and give change. Elevators don’t need a lever operator to open and close doors on the right floor… .

Elevator operator – a job still found in some places but going the way of the dodo

Many jobs have been made extinct and others need to change and adapt.

In Brazil due to a wrongly defined protective labor market, large metropolitan areas like São Paulo still have conductors – “cobradores” working on buses. They have been protected by their unions and other interests for years, but they know their days are numbered. Some will qualify to become bus drivers, others will have to find their own ways to get by.

The bus conductor is as useful as a toothache – they usually can’t give information on directions or give change.

How about teachers? When talking about public school teachers – they might self implode into extinction due to misguided public policies and lack of incentives to renew and empower younger professionals. Technology may provide some relief to the poor qualification of teachers and lack of resources.

Public school teachers are threatened both from inside and by outside forces

How about language teachers? Based on our ability to adapt to different We and forms of literacy we must be continually improving. What?

  1. Orality – speaking and listening
  2. Reading and writing
  3. Linguistic and grammatical knowledge
  4. Psychological and pedagogical skills

I’m not talking only about academic development, which has its value but about the teacher taking charge of his or her own growth. not being afraid of experimenting with new methods and tools. This continuous growth will feed into his or her motivation in a vibrant virtuous cycle.

Happy CPD,



The Secrets of Learning a New Language

For some people to speak one language is already a challenge. Two languages and some already feel on the top of the mountain. Can you imagine speaking 3, 4 or more languages? Being a polyglot?!

Not everyone needs to speak more than one language but there is no question how useful a second or more languages can be… even for the shiest person who never plans to leave his hometown.

But … how can you achieve that?

Let me cut to the chase or the cheese (as some of my students understand it) and tell you that there is no single way to learn a language. It depends on several factors, especially motivation, time and skills the learner may have. Despite that, there are some good pieces of advice any language learner can use:

1. Start speaking from day one – some methods encourage hours of listening before the student utters his first sound… but my advice is: start mumbling those new sounds as soon as you can. if you have someone to talk to, a teacher, a tutor or your cat, great. If not, no worries, talk to yourself.

Speak even if to yourself from day one

2. Start listening to natives of the language you’re learning – YouTube, internet radio, get familiar with the sounds of the language even if not understanding it.

3. Imitate the sounds – yes… learning a language works wonders on those self conscious people… break down your walls of fear of shame or embarrassment…

4. Start learning the language by reading its grammar

5. Memorize key words of the target language (until you reach 500 key words, for example) use paper or digital flashcards for instance.

6. Find ways to enjoy the learning process. Every learner will have unique ways. Even if you’re a genius, you’ll see there are no shortcuts to language learning. Do something pleasant with the target language EVERY DAY.

7. Be patient.

This short list is not comprehensive and not all items apply to everyone… pick and choose and start learning your dream Language today.



You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn another language. The world is your classroom

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.


“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, 🙂


Image result for i hate english

Waiting is hard

Yes, yes, I know… I could say that again… Waiting is HARD. “We twiddle our thumbs, we shuffle our feet, we stifle our yawns, we heave long sighs, we fret inwardly in frustration”.

That’s how a language learner feels… progress is slow. So instead of just moaning, we teachers must encourage our students to actively be in charge of their linguistic progress.

Are they on social media? Great. Encourage them to access accounts on Twitter, or instagram or Facebook …. using the language they’re learning.

As a teacher I know I must help my students develop a positive relationship with the language they’re learning. I must show them the value of that language, increase their interest in the learning process. Stress the relevance of they’re doing and failure is not an option. Signify to them what is done in the language they pursue and what they can do if they commit themselves to learning.

My students are my greatest asset, so I won’t treat them as morons (isn’t it a great new year’s resolution?) They’re my partners not only by paying for their lessons but also by allowing me my professional and personal development with and through them.

May the new year help us all take off to new heights.