Present not so Perfect

A feature of the English language that many Brazilian students find hard to use is the Present Perfect Tense – students usually grasp the concept: it uses the auxiliary HAVE or HAS and the main verb in the PAST PARTICIPLE. In Brazilian Portuguese, this tense can be used but most of the time we use  either the simple past or the simple present to refer to a situation. Examples: Faz tempo que ele mora aqui. “He’s lived here for a long time”. Ele saiu agorinha mesmo. “He’s just left.” So, in order to get them used to the new tense I have them practice it in Affirmative, Interrogative and Negative Sentences Example: I have been a teacher since 1986. Have I been a teacher since 1971? I haven’t been a teacher since 1971. Usually the students grasp the idea of duration – since 1989 / for 26 years, etc. Something that started in the past and comes to the present. Something that’s not over yet,present-perfect or that’s been finished recently. Let’s say that’s the basic usage of the Present Perfect. So we explain that usually with key words like since, for, yet, Present Perfect will be used. Is it a prescription? Yes. Does it work? Theoretically, yes. The students do the exercises fine. But when they’re in open conversation they drop these pearls: “I didn’t have a vacation, yet” or “I didn’t went to Poland, yet”. Bear in mind I’m talking about Advanced Students. Despite the bad rep grammar drills have nowadays, until someone comes up with a US$ 30,000 language pill, there will always be the necessity to practice until your Present is Perfect.

Lost and Found in Translation

This morning while I was listening to Richard Vaughan’s Podcast recorded in Madrid, Spain (,  he mentioned an incident decades ago at a company where he was teaching. He was having lunch with a fellow American and when that “Puritan” American saw that every table had a bottle of “Agua Sin Gas” – chapitas-tapas-corona-sin-uso-agua-de-mesa-con-y-sin-gas-13606-MLA75273278_3475-Ohe was in shock at the level of sinfulness in a Catholic country. Yes, Virginia; you know “agua sin gas” simply means “still water” not the opposite of “holy water”. Another teacher started his lesson asking his students very tongue in cheek: “Today we’re going to be talking about Great Tits. Do you know what tits are? And one Spanish student shyly translated: “tetas”. After all laughed the teacher explained that he was going to be talking about birds and GreatTit002vocabulary related. In the UK many people know lots of birds species- it’s a national pastime, while most people in Iberian countries, for example, know very few bird species.

Translation activities in class were swept under the carpet for many years in favor of total immersion in Language 2. However, the knowledge the student has of their own mother tongue and culture can and should be used to help them tread around the traps of the language they’re now learning.

A simple exercise that I enjoy giving my students is getting them a hFound_in_Translationeadline and first paragraph of the day’s newspaper in their language and ask them to tell me the gist of the story in English. Then they’ll try to translate the sentence. Finally they will write it down (it could be assigned as homework if they ever had to do it).

I remember years ago a teacher of French (of course he HAD to be French) told my wife that a foreigner would NEVER learn to write as a native speaker. That statement is open to interpretation since many people can’t write well in their OWN languages. But I raise another point: does the average learner of a second language need to write like a native speaker or simply be able to write in a clear and objective way?

That leads us to what happened in France this week – all my students saw, heard and read something about the cowardly terrorist attacks in Paris and other areas. So many words came up for translation – Muslim, Censorship, Threat, Grey Area, etc.

As we could see this week some things never get lost in translation.



Teaching Down Memory Lane

Distance and time make the heart grow fonder, they say. And that’s quite true. Today I remembered out of the blue a time back in the late 80s and early 90s, yimagees, not even cellphones were around back then. Which meant that I had to call in the school every day (at the time we didn’t have a landline at home – they were expensive and distributed in a very limited area. You could wait for years until the state phone company – Telesp – installed your phone or buy it on the black market). So I’d go to a pay phone some 4 blocks up my street to make a call and if the school wanted to contact me there was my next door neighbor’s phone who graciously would take down any messages. And if a student cancelled the class some 2 or 3 hours before the set time, I would have wasted my trip to that company. No flowers on the way, huh?

I was teaching for 2 language schools in São Paulo specialized in In-House Teaching. They’d hire a teacher, “train” them for 1 week and place them in different companies – usually multinationals like Unilever, DuPont, etc and the teacher would work with small groups of 4 to 5 people or 1-1 lessons. Little has changed in this industry regarding how teachers are selected – 1st – can you speak English? … 31st – can you teach?image

One of the schools, I can’t remember their name, let’s call it “Hello Brazil”, was located on Vanderlei street in Perdizes, a rather hilly area of São Paulo. Since I didn’t have a car at that time, I can assure you I was in very good shape going up and down those hills.

The school followed the “communicative approach” – a typical mantra in language teaching for the past 30 years – just talk and if possible throw in some grammar points. But with a twist: since teacher turnover was and still is pretty high in the language industry – many people choose teaching because they’re between jobs (if Brazilians), or need to fund their travels (if foreigners)- the school had come up with an interesting method – The students would keep a folder for the teacher in their office and teachers would be assigned to specific students on a daily basis – so that students would not be attached to any single teacher (the reason given was that in that way, students would be exposed to different accents, really?). Of course the system had its holes, some students liked my classes more and demanded I should be their regular teacher. They could tell the difference between a TEACHER and a person who teaches. The teacher at the end of every class would write a brief comment on what had been covered that day so the next teacher would have an idea. Of course, some teachers, need I say that?,  would forget to jot down any input or wrote in a secret code no one could understand.

Sao Paulo was already a gigantic city at that time and the offices of many corporations were based in the southern part of the city. Centro Empresarial de São Paulo – was oimagene of those office complexes located far from the school office or my home. Classes started at 12 noon so in order not to be late I’d make plans to arrive at least 30 minutes early. When the winds were in my favor I could even get there 1 hour earlier but what would I do while waiting? The “ground floor” contains stores and restaurants and some couches where I’d sit for a while and doze off. Security was already an issue back then. I guess it’s always been a biggie in São Paulo, it’s just gotten worse. So they had security guards walking around the corridors and hallways keeping an eye on anything or anyone suspicious. More than once they would wake me up asking if I was feeling ok. I don’t recall any drooling nor nightmare fits in my sleep (which doesn’t exclude their occurrence). The fact is that the guards were instructed not to allow any “loitering” in the premises. Basically you had to keep walking or they’d invite you to leave. At the right time I’d go upstairs to meet the students for their class and immediately vacate the building as soon as classes had finished.

Those days helped me build  and improve my teaching skills which no university would have been able to do.

Cheers and Teach well,