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.
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.
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.
I have been a fan of the Headway series since 1991 when I started teaching private students in São Paulo, Brazil, and that was the book assigned me by the school I was working for at the time (where I would become a partner a few years later). It was the Headway Advanced first edition (Oxford University Press), I believe. I was amazed at how advanced the book really was. Even native speakers would encounter vocabulary challenges in it.
Since then I have used the New Headway series and the American Headway (which is mostly an adaptation of the UK edition with more of a north American vocabulary and audio, which is a great strategy used by the publishers while meeting a demand).
Usually US publishers do not invest much in textbooks for ESL/EFL learners while the UK is always introducing new titles. Considering the demand especially in Latin America and Asia for US-based language materials, nothing better than produce the same book with minor changes for all markets.
Also the new editions tend to add just minor changes – enough to justify the need for a new book by both teacher and students and also force the teacher to discard the older book as “obsolete”. This year I was planning on using the 3rd edition which I already owned, but unsurprisingly, it was not not to be found by the students at the bookstores. Only the “new and improved” 4th edition. Talk about marketing strategies. There goes the teacher having to purchase all the set – workbook, teacher’s book and student’s book plus the CDs and DVDs. Nice, ain’t it?
The latest edition I have in my hands is the New Headway Elementary 4th edition (2011) by Liz and John Soars (the authors of the original edition). When compared to the New Headway Elementary 3rd edition (2000) – the changes were not that significant – the audio has new recordings and the texts are also new.. . but the grammar syllabus and vocabulary for instance are quite similar, even considering the way the thematic content is distributed in the units.
A big change I’ve observed is that the 4th Edition is way too heavy on content – the books still have long units (around 8 pages each) – 12 units in the 4th edition compared with 14 units in the 3rd edition – against other trends for shorter units observed in other textbooks where each section consists of 2 pages (New English File, for example).
Let’s consider unit 7: Dates to remember – the syllabus includes
Past Simple (2)
Questions and Negatives
Adverbs (regular and irregular)
The load of content feels like crushing against the learner’s skull. Too much vocabulary and grammar to be absorbed in a few hours. Much better would be to have shorter units and introduce each point gradually, while revisiting points previously learned.
Would I still recommend Headway to other students and teachers? Yes, if the teacher can decode and adapt the textbook to the student’s needs.
As a coursebook it would be a really big challenge to have effective teaching in a classroom with 25 or 30 students.
By the way, I am impressed by the fact that the publishers haven’t still embraced the e-book format (fear of piracy? cost?). But it would make the life of teachers and students much easier. Imagine: For one elementary student I have to carry the teacher’s book, workbook and coursebook. On a day when I’m teaching different levels how many pounds/kilos of books am I supposed to be carrying? Hellooo.
Yeah, yeah, I know, Virginia. I live in the Southern Hemisphere therefore I should have had winter vacations this July, but considering my wife and I traveled to the US – let’s agree to keep it as a summer vacation.
I’ve succeeded in convincing my sweetheart that I need to recycle my English and inhale some American oxygen every year ( don’t forget I’m an Americanoid) , so we always make an effort and try to travel to America at least once a year.
This time we traveled to Orlando, Florida and Dallas, Texas. In Orlando we met up with our “stepfamily” – Liz and Ray, their 15-year-
old son, Jared, and the matriarch, Helen. We spent two intense days and although I had some idea about visiting a theme park – namely Universal Studios – we actually ended up visiting only The Holy Land Experience, which was quite surprising.
At the entrance you just see a bunch of fake rocks and buildings but once inside the staff and the people attending generate a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere. There are no “rides”, just some exhibition areas where you can see, for example, a life-size replica of the tabernacle in the desert, the Via Dolorosa (way cleaner and brighter than the real thing, I dare say), the Lord’s supper where you partake of the bread and the wine with Jesus himself (well, OK, every Jesus is an ordained minister – but it’s still a moving experience). You can visit a sort of wax museum where you can see scenes of Jesus’ life: birth, ministry, Garden of Gethsemane, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension).
The highest point was the series of dramatizations taking place at the auditorium of he Church of the Nations. Stories about the four women who had a life-changing encounter with Jesus; the crucifixion; a modern-day parable about Angels, the moments of praise and worship all designed to successfully move you to tears. And I must say they powerfully succeeded with us. The day ends with a musical show of the fountains. I had
thought the experience would take us 2-3 hours, but we spent the whole day there and were the last guests to leave.
We flew to Dallas and despite the toasty, roasty temperatures we had a wonderful 4th of July weekend there. With a patriotic concert of Larnelle Harris, barbecue at sister-in-law’s home and a fantastic fireworks display at the Dallas Athletic Club. We returned to Brazil on the 5th of July and I was very saddened by the news of the sniper killing and wounding police officers in Dallas.
Thinking allowed after the latest crises in America
In Orlando we had the opportunity to visit the memorial for the victims of the Pulse nightclub and every time the subject came up people would be extremely touched and saddened by that ignominious attack. But one thing that called my attention was that some people (let’s assume they were unaware of that) made some comments that bordered on racism such as:
“I don’t know why we bought a home in Apopka. There are too many black people in the area. At least, we bought it on the white side.” (Come again, ma?)
In Dallas, we stayed at the Comfort Suites in the northern part of the city because people had warned us the south side was too violent and dangerous (should I have heard “too many black people”?), but our hotel would lock its doors after 9 pm, because it’s not a very safe area. Hmmm… .
We went to the Larnelle Harris concert at the First Baptist church in Lewisville – and considering that Larnelle is a wonderful African-American gospel singer – his was the only dark face we could see in the whole church – sadly still confirming the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement who once said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” And apparently little has changed.
It still boggles my mind that the organization of my dear Seventh-Day Adventist Church – still maintains separate conferences for whites and African-Americans.
On a brighter note, we had the privilege to meet our nephew’s husband for the first time. And YES, he is gay and black. Does it mean that he will have to die twice?
From what I understand he didn’t choose to be gay or black but I can choose to accept them and love them despite the differences. I cannot control the hatred and prejudice that permeate our world but I can choose how to deal with people’s differences.
As you know I’ve been teaching private students, mostly one on one for over 25 years so I can’t say I’ve been in touch with what goes on in classrooms all over Brazil. Last time I taught English as a regular subject at school was back in 1986, so do your math, because I can’t. I’m an English teacher after all.
So I decided to talk (via Twitter) to a dear friend and fellow teacher, Iara Will, who teaches at state public schools in São Paulo. Here’s what she had to say:
Do you use technology in your classes?
“Well…at my school in Sorocaba (Humberto de Campos) we have an IT room with 12 computers working.
But my classes have around 30 students… a tight room with broken air conditioning…, so I use computers in class only when a few students show up. The São Paulo state government has an online English Course program open to public school students who even receive a conclusion certificate. The online course presents everyday situations, videos and exercises even allowing for some interactivity. The course goes up to the Intermediate Level.
In class I allow them to use their cellphones, although it’s forbidden by law.
Reason: we have no dictionaries at the school’s library. So.. they look up words online. I try to give them activities that don’t have an easily found answer online, I encourage memorization and I make up many activities.
From the textbooks I only use some texts for reading comprehension.
I also use songs some old and some brand new ones.
I’ve learned that English is more of a decorative subject than really Language Arts. It’s just a complement not a real subject.
I cannot hold back any student. Don’t tell it to my dear students (it’s state secret. LOL)
By the way no one fails any subject nowadays at our schools. But even so, I make my opinion heard at school board and council, especially in disciplinary matters, because I’m one of the few who listens to the students.
My workload is low so I have some free time. Most teachers survive teaching at least 32 classes a week. It would be writing 18 class reports for English alone. Many teachers teach 54 classes a week. I don’t know how???!!!!
What sort of activities do you use with students?
Reading Activities with current issues from texts I find online or from the textbook.
I use songs and films subtitled in English when I know they’ve seen it 20 times, like Finding Nemo. I give them a handout to fill in the blanks and other activities varying according to their grade.
They love it, if I may say so.
I take my own tv, speakers, I have to make my own copies.
The school says they have everything I need, until I really need something.
Some students ask if they may go to the restroom in English, even during other classes, just to be funny, or to be the first to go.
We have more writing activities than conversation. It’s only 2 classes a week, I try hard to follow a program.
2 classes of 45 minutes each?
Wow! Such a short time. How do you divide the time in class? Roll call? Homework? Do you have any warm up activities?
They answer Roll Call in English – Hi, hello, present, I’m here or here. I use up to 10 minutes just for roll call.
When they return from the restroom they have to say “excuse me”
For warm-up I can use an object, a quiz or a previous activity.
They don’t have homework 😦
Sometimes we talk about special holidays, such as Thanksgiving – we have a little party – they bring some foodstuff, name it in English.
Occasionally we even pray in English taking advantage of some special celebrations.
There are cameras in the classrooms. I cannot induce them to anything.
And do the cameras work?
Yes, vice-principals, mediators and school inspectors constantly monitor them
What do your students think of studying English?
It’s hard, cool, boring, Now that I can understand it I like it… things I’ve heard this year.
What’s their social-economic status?
Many of them live in slums. I earn a little more because the school is located in areas of risk.
Thank you so much, Iara for sharing with us this wonderful experience as a caring teacher.
This morning, my student Alice arrived all upset because she’d been stuck in traffic for nearly two hours and had missed 90% of her class. But despite all the rush she brought up a very pertinent question:
She asked: “How can I improve my listening?”
She’s just returned from a week’s vacation in New York City and told me she had not had any significant listening problems – of course most of the time she’d been meeting up with fellow Brazilian friends and speaking Portuguese – but when she is watching her favorite TV series – Homeland or Scandal, for example, she misses much of what they say. Even the subtitles are too fast. So, how can she improve her listening to better understand native natural speech?
Firstly, in some cases, the dialogues in TV series are not THAT natural. A quick search on the speech speed used in TV series brought me this info:
*Fans of writer-producer Shonda Rhimes are already used to the blazing speed with which her characters must deliver their lines, but her prime time dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” have nothing on “Scandal” when it comes to the sheer volume of words spoken per second.
Just ask lead actress Kerry Washington.
“In some ways I feel like doing David Mamet on Broadway was the perfect training for doing television with Shonda Rhimes, because they’re two immensely talented, prolific writers who value the English language, who require a real commitment to language,” she says. “Their work is so athletic – in film and in television. The physical requirements are so great.”
Asked why she demands that her “Scandal” cast rapid-fire their lines, Rhimes said the approach serves several purposes.
“Part of ‘Scandal’s’ pace was born of me not wanting actors to linger in the moments, in the sense of it’s a world in which everyone is really incredibly busy, and there’s no time to feel your feelings,” said Rhimes. “So part of it was that. Part of it was that I wrote a pilot that was, like, 75 pages long.”
Her co-producer Betsy Beers says: “It’s funny how much you can get in if you talk really, really fast.”
Adds co-star Columbus Short: “The amazing thing about this show is really, speaking that fast in the dialogue, it’s remarkable how the emotion hasn’t gotten lost.”
So how could my students improve their listening comprehension?
It’s an easy-peasy answer: by listening lots and lots of English.
I notice in my own self-taught French lessons – I’m on a pre-intermediate level in Voltaire’s language – when I listen to tv shows, news, series and/or podcasts in French on a more regular basis, let us say, Monday through Friday for at least 15 minutes – my listening improves for the next time I’ll be listening to something in that language.
So my advice pearls would be:
Make listening a fun daily habit – no point in torturing yourself listening to things you find boring. Documentaries have a slower paced narration but if you don’t like watching them try a cartoon, a soap, a movie, whatever appeals to you.
Take advantage of “convenient” moments. Stuck in traffic? what’s the point in listening to the traffic reporter hovering over your head saying that there is a huge traffic congestion. Listen to your new target language.
Listen to native English speakers (or any other native speakers of the language you want to learn). Use podcasts – tonnes of different ideas and interests. Try Online radio.
Listen to non-native English speakers. Yes, that’s right. In today’s world you’ll come across people from around the around using English to communicate. That’s what you need, isn’t it?
Since you are so excited about developing your listening skills please find below some more podcasts developed with the English language learner in mind
1. 6 Minute English podcast – produced by the BBC with 2 hosts always asking some challenging question found in the news
2. All Ears English podcast – 2 chicks always teaching some cultural and language point in the English spoken in the US. Beware: one of them slurs and speakstoofastasifshecouldntbotherwhethershesunderstoodornot. http://allearsenglish.com/
3. Aprende Inglés con la Mansión del Inglés – 2 dudes (one from Belfast and another from London) host the show with good humor and focus on a teaching point. Emphasis on Spanish speakers http://www.inglespodcast.com
4. Business English Q&A – US-born Ryan now living and working in Germany develops a great series of interviews with successful English language learners from different parts of the world trying to discover the common traits, tips and techniques to assist in learning a foreign language more effectively.
6. Real Life English podcast – a group of young teachers from the US, Australia and some other beaches I can’t remember they try to encourage students (female students, mostly) to learn and practice English. First produced in Belo Horizonte, Brazil now they’ve spread to Chile. Oh, yeahhh. http://reallifeeng.libsyn.com/
9. Luke’s English Podcast – produced and hosted by Luke from England – it’s a very good way to expose yourself to British English. But it requires a little patience usually no shorter than 45 minutes. http://teacherluke.co.uk/
10. Richard Vaughan Live podcast – controversial Texas-born Richard Vaughan has painstakingly been trying to teach English to Spaniards. His ramblings are quite entertaining. I love the episodes when he loses his temper with some of his on-air students.
11. VOA’s Learning English Podcast – dating back to their shortwave transmissions even before the Internet, VOA has been my companion with good quality of listening content on American history, words and news.
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.”
“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice)
b) in sufficient number
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.”
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.