That’s a common complaint by language teachers everywhere: after a weekend, long weekend, and heaven forbid, after 20 days of vacation, students return rusty and despondent. Allow 2 to 3 weeks for students to get up to speed, depending on their language class frequency, which in my case, most students have classes only once a week.
So… they return to class, I’m talking about adult students, but the same applies to children, with their ears and tongues hardened by lack of exercise in the target language, even if they’ve done their “assigned homework.”
Bear in mind that our brains also need some rest, and that’s ok. But language-wise, I’m not talking about reviewing grammar rules and prepositions or phrasal verbs, which can bore both teachers and students to death. I’m talkingincorporating language to their routine via give and take.
When learning a language we must be receptors – take Language from different sources. Listen to a podcast, or internet radio, watch a movie or TVs series, read all sorts of texts, etc. Take in as much language as you can… but, you must also become a giver.
Start producing the language. Be a transmitter of English or any other language you are learning. How? By trying to speak that language even if to yourself. Another great way to transition from a simple receptor into a transmitter is by taking small pieces of text – books, newspapers, magazines or online, and reading them aloud. Nowadays, there are many text to audio resources which you may use to check your pronunciation. Otherwise just listening to your own voice and working on the sounds you produce will work wonders in your language process.
Many English language students find listening comprehension a daunting task, even those more outgoing and who manage to communicate their ideas, despite poor pronunciation and grammar, find it daunting to understand native speakers of English.
Students say that they can more easily understand other foreigners speaking English. Well… in a world where English is increasingly the lingua franca and most English speakers today use it as a second language, that is not so bad. But it’s understandable their frustration when trying to understand what somebody in the US, Canada, the UK or New Zealand is telling them.
Why is it that when they hear fɵˈɡɛɾəˌbæʊɾɨ they feel they might as well be listening Chinese or Martian? But when they read – “forget about it” they totally get the idea and message?
Firstly, listening comprehension is a skill which can be acquired.
For decades, English Language Teaching manuals have been presenting the following steps:
A. Set the scene – look at the pictures if available
B. Get students excited about what they’re going to listen to.
C. Pre-teach any key words and new vocabulary
D. Ask them some pre-questions to focus onto during their listening
E. Repeat the previous steps.
That approach has been tested millions of times and with some success, otherwise it wouldn’t have been around for so long. However, students still often get frustrated because they couldn’t understand part of it or even most of it. What should we do as teachers?
We must help students decode the sounds they will hear – practice the linking and Schwa sounds that so often block their comprehension.
They’ll try to hear “dwa challenge” not “do a challenge” – “lookintwit” not “look into it” – “igwout” not “I go out” “dijeet yet” not “did you eat yet?”
By practicing those “micro-listening” skills and sounds they will be better prepared to understand the spoken word, even if not able to spell it out.
Whenever I’m talking to a prospective student, he or she says:
“My listening is not as good as it should be”, or “I just can’t understand what’s being said”. “Give me the text of what’s being said and I’ll understand everything.”
Well … life doesn’t come with subtitles so, … what should you do if you want to improve your listening skills in the language you’re trying to learn?
Here are 3 simple steps – which if followed will most certainly help you out:
- Listen everyday – and I mean it. It’s way easier said than done. Especially if you’re not living in the country where your second language is spoken, you will have to go an extra mile to listen to it. A little and often will work wonders. You may ask how much is a little – well it will depend on your time availability. But I’d say that anyone can squeeze 15 minutes of their BUSY day to listen to some of the language their learning.
- How to listen – podcasts are a great idea – available anytime, anywhere. You do not necessarily need to use podcasts on learning Spanish or French or English but podcasts produced in that language. Of course, if your L2 level is below intermediate you will have to choose podcasts where the audio quality is good and the content is appropriate to your level. Moreover, if the speakers are way too fast you can slow down their speech by just pressing a button. Isn’t technology something wonderful? It is my own experience listening to podcasts for nearly 10 years that when you have 2 people chatting the listening becomes more entertaining and pleasant. Monologues tend to be sooooo boring. More than 2 people can get confusing on identifying all the speakers especially if some don’t have a clear voice.
- Read and listen – many audio / video broadcasts have a transcript choice. For example, CNN and NPR provide tons of transcripts of different shows and you can listen to them whenever / wherever you wish and read the transcript to check the parts you didn’t get. Also, many kindle e-books have an additional feature that is the professional recorded audio version available – on Audible or equivalent. So you can listen and read the text – alternating. Or read first and then listen. And then go to another section and first listen and then read.
He who has ears listen to what the teacher has to say to the learner.
As a long-standing reader of the Economist, I’ve encouraged my students to read this magazine (even though the publishers insist on calling it a newspaper). The quality of the text and the “high-brow” language have always been its benchmark. But the strengths of the Economist can also be its weaknesses.
When presented with a text the teacher will present the first description and the students will always feel the second:
In-depth texts = too long texts
Carefully chosen vocabulary = too difficult vocabulary
A sober text = very few pictures
But the challenge students face will be rewarded by being exposed to excellent writing (and when using the app they can also listen to the news stories).
When using authentic material I always try to employ all 4 main skills
(not necessarily in this order)
The possibilities to explore the text are huge but, please note that I won’t try to milk this cow until it’s bone dry. The activities are suggestions and I don’t see why keep on beating on a dead cow. Please forgive the pun (I’m not referring to the impeached President – heaven forbid).
So what did I do with this article?
Brazil has acquired some unique distinctions. For example, in Soccer? (students talk that it’s the only country to have won the football World Cup five times)
In natural resources? (students may talk about the country with the largest rainforest, etc)
And now, what is another distinction? (2 presidents impeached in 20 years)
a. Scanning for main ideas: What do you understand from the title and subtitle?
b.Read the first paragraph – what differences does the article present between Brazil’s 2 impeachments?
c. What lessons can be learned from the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff?
3. LISTENING –
students may listen to the whole text or the first and last paragraphs, for example. Have students read a few sentences out loud. Check vocabulary and pronunciation.
4. WRITING –
it can be as simple as writing sentences using keywords previously highlighted in the text to writing an essay defining in their own words the pros and cons of the current political and economic scenarios in Brazil.
As regarding vocabulary I’ve chosen 7 words in the text to focus on meaning and use (trying to include their context and word collocation). Why seven, you may ask – because it’s the symbol of perfection (or more accurately, because those were the words I thought worth checking with students in this specific article – choose one). The teacher may decide to highlight fewer or more words (my suggestion no more than 10). Regarding vocabulary, some students lack the practice of reading for gist and consequently try to understand and look up every single word they don’t know or aren’t sure about. Limiting the number of words the teacher will encourage students to do their own word searches on their own and learn to read on a more dynamic and productive pace.
Please find below the text. Have fun and let me know if these ideas helped and other ideas you may have used.
THE IMPEACHMENT COUNTRY
Does the ousting of Dilma Rousseff weaken or strengthen Brazil’s democracy?
Sep 10th 2016 | From the print edition
AS WELL as its five football World Cup victories and the world’s largest rainforest, Brazil has just acquired another unique distinction. It is the only country to have impeached two presidents in just 24 years. In the first case, that of Fernando Collor, who resigned in 1992 on the brink of being condemned for corruption, impeachment commanded near-universal support, and could be read as a sign of democratic vigour. In the case of Dilma Rousseff, ousted by the Senate by 61 votes to 20 on August 31st, judgments are far more mixed. Even some who did not sympathise with Ms Rousseff think her ousting sullies democracy. They worry that Brazil has devalued impeachment, turning it into a means to dump an unpopular ruler—and, in this case, replace her with her unequally unpopular vice-president, Michel Temer.
Some of the arguments Ms Rousseff deployed in two days of evidence before the Senate were mere propaganda. No, her impeachment was not a coup, of any description. It took place over nine months, in strict accordance with the constitution and supervised by the supreme court, a majority of whose members were nominated by Ms Rousseff or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and the founding leader of her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT).
The offence Ms Rousseff was accused of—using credits from public banks to swell the budget without the permission of Congress—is a “crime of responsibility” under Brazil’s impeachment law of 1950. But there the difficulties start. Her defenders are right that this charge was a relatively minor, technical matter. The lawyers who filed the impeachment petition hit upon it because there is no evidence that Ms Rousseff was personally corrupt. That is not true of Eduardo Cunha, the former Speaker of the lower house of congress. He accepted the petition, she plausibly claims, as an act of vengeance because she refused to help him evade expulsion over corruption allegations. It is troubling, too, that many of those who voted to oust her are accused of misdeeds. And Mr Temer, a 75-year-old political insider, hardly embodies the regeneration his country’s rotten politics need.
Yet that is not enough to turn the moral tables in Ms Rousseff’s favour: many of the “coup-plotters” had been for a decade allies (and several were ministers) of the president and her predecessor. Their corruption, if proved, is venal and personal. More sinister is that of the PT, which organised a vast kickback scheme centred on Petrobras as part of a “hegemonic project that involved growing control of parliament, of the judges and…of the media”, as Fernando Gabeira, a left-leaning former congressman, wrote in O Globo, a newspaper. Ms Rousseff chaired Petrobras’s board (in 2003-10) and then ruled the country while this scheme flourished. Her claim to know nothing of it, nor that her campaign guru in the election in 2014 was paid with bribe money, smacks of negligence.
On its own, the Petrobras scandal didn’t doom her. When Mr Cunha launched the impeachment last December, most political analysts expected it to fail. The subsequent stampede against the president owed everything to her own incompetence and to public opinion, which was enraged, too, by her catastrophic mishandling of the economy. Above all, she failed to build alliances in Congress, which need not always involve back-scratching. The crisis of governability in Brasília intolerably prolonged the economic slump, undermining some of the social progress made under Lula. It would have been resolved less divisively by Ms Rousseff resigning or by a fresh election. But she refused to step down, and an early election is constitutionally difficult.
So Brazil is where it is. And it offers some lessons. One is that Ms Rousseff has paid the ultimate price for her fiscal irresponsibility (which went far wider than those disputed credits). That ought to be a salutary warning to Latin America’s more spendthrift politicians. Second, Brazilians want to hold their governments to account. Mr Temer will lose all legitimacy if he yields to pressure from his friends to rein in the Petrobras investigation or helps Mr Cunha avoid justice.
The third lesson is that in Brazil, with its strong parliamentary tradition, no president can govern against Congress. When Ms Rousseff brandishes her 54m votes in the presidential election of 2014 as a defence, she forgets that they were for Mr Temer too, and that the senators have an equally valid democratic mandate. Brazil has thus offered a tutorial in constitutional theory to the likes of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictatorial president. The legacy of a divisive impeachment is not all bad.
From the print edition: The Americas
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 to 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?
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- pronunciation requires not only knowledge but skill – which means loads of practice.
- 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:
So what factors will influence their success?
- Motivation and concern for good pronunciation
- Exposure – amount of time spent in practice. Tons of listening and speaking – in that order. Quality, not just quantity, is important.
- Learner’s natural ability – some students tend to get a better pronunciation than others – however, hard work will get them far.
- 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.
I’d say most of my English Language students are upper intermediate or advanced which would lead us to believe that they are comfortable enough to speak using their Second Language.
However, living in a gigantic monolingual country as Brazil, and not working in a
company that requires international contacts, language learners can find themselves stranded on a single-language island or continent (Portuguese).
Today one of these students – whose class lasts only 90 minutes once a week – when she doesn’t cancel or must finish earlier – became frustrated when trying to say something in English and blurted out in Portuguese – “tá ficando cada vez mais difícil falar inglês” (it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to speak English). Didn’t she know any of those words or the necessary grammar to say that? Yes, she knew all the words and the structure but CHOSE the easiest way – spitting it out in her mother tongue.
Dear students, I’ve got news for you. If you don’t practice your target language you will NEVER feel comfortable using it. No matter what academic level you’ve reached. And here comes my point:
My student in question likes to play tennis – 2 or 3 times a week – how about English? Once a week, sometimes. I rest my case.
So how can you feel more comfortable speaking in English?
- No one to talk to? Talk to yourself. I’m sure you do that in your mother tongue. Do it in English or whatever language you are learning.
- Read aloud a paragraph or a page. Everyday. It can be a transcript, an interview, a news story, a cake recipe… . It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re listening and producing sounds in your target language.
- To speak you must learn to listen. Focus on a poem, a song, etc and listen to it. Then read it aloud. YouTube has thousands of videos with poems and songs+lyrics for you to practice.
- Look for opportunities to use your target language. Can’t travel abroad? Look for a friend or co-worker who’s also learning and practice with them. Look for a place where that language is spoken. For example, São Paulo has a few English language religious services – visit them – it’s a FREE and enriching experience. My favorite English Bible class website (www.believes.com.br) meets every Saturday in the morning. Also Calvary International Church is a great diverse and inclusive community (www.calvary.org.br) and Sampa Community Church (http://sampacommunity.com/1/
Now my students will be saying: “Come on, teacher. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for all that. It takes too much effort.”
Cheers and happy conversations,
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.”
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.
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.
5. English Harmony Podcast – prepared by Robby, a non-native English speaker with tips on how to learn English 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.
7. English Experts Podcast – Produced by non-native English speakers focuses on the common needs of Brazilian English learners.
8. ESL Podcast – The host for the podcast is Dr. Jeff McQuillan, directly from sunny Los Angeles, and he helps read the scripts and provides explanations for them.
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.
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.
Phew, I think that will keep you busy until next year.
I’m sure this will help you out. And if you feel you still need to improve your listening comprehension repeat steps 1-3 as many times as necessary.
Cheers and happy listening.