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,

Cheers,

Mo

 

(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.

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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,

Cheers,

Mo

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.

Cheers,

Mo

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

Shakespeare in ELT

This post came about after I saw a tweet by Nathan Hall questioning whether Shakespeare should be used in the ELT environment/context. Nathan tweeted the following:

Unpopular opinion: I think using Shakespeare (original text) to teach English is an unproductive use of time in a general classroom. I am open to hearing counter arguments

The premise – original text – would require the student to have a high English level (C1 or higher) and the energy spent in trying to understand the text would not be “well spent”.

Early on as a learning EFL teacher, I wasn’t able, or didn’t know how to prepare independent lessons – I would use coursebooks – and in the early 90s the best coursebook I came across was the Headway series – honestly, I learned a lot about the English language and culture using Headway Advanced and Unit 2 under the theme of Literature and Literary Genres contained a little bit of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Could it get any better? I had to carefully prepare my lessons in advance otherwise I wouldn’t be ready to deal with the grammar and vocabulary points presented in the unit.

Back in 1991, I was teaching for a language school in São Paulo and they sent me to teach a group of three ladies at a sports club where they would have their gym, tennis practice, swimming activities and, of course, English lessons. They were nice, intelligent mature women who had already traveled the world, were advanced English learners and had already read and seen a few Shakespeare plays translated and performed in Portuguese. They did not hesitate to read an excerpt of the “7 ages of man” in modern English (not Elizabethan English as some highbrow pedantic educators would like to say) despite the nebulous vocabulary (some of it) for the advanced language learner there was a ton of conversation to be obtained from that short and brief text.

Image result for headway advanced 1996Headway Advanced published in 1991

headway s
A page from the New Headway Advanced 4th Edition 2014

Yes, I totally get the fact that for many students (no matter their linguistic background and location) Shakespeare would be a drag: representing another time and another place far removed from their contemporary world. Well, … tell them to see The Lion King and they’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s ghost there. Yes, the language evolves but today some of Shakespeare’s quotes are still as relevant as back then even within a different context.

Can’t any B1/B2 English learner understand some of these quotes?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

—Jaques in As You Like It

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

—Escalus in Measure for Measure

 “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yes, Shakespeare’s texts are old but the truths those works convey can be adapted to contemporary English by publishers’ Readers, plays can be re-enacted and adapted etc.

Shakespeare map
This map shows all the different locations and countries described in Shakespeare’s plays. He truly belongs to the world. 

My point is: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. In this day and age, language teaching is still seen as a form of colonialism so the condescending “native teacher” desires the learner to see himself and his values first and only use the language as a literal tool for a very specific purpose. Why shut down the learner from the rest of the world in time and space?

If the learners are Asian should then all the material be Asian related? The same for African or Latino learners? In Brazil why bother teaching them the word “snow” just teach them to say “it’s a scorcher”? That’s the oppression of multiculturalism gone awry when it’s only good if you’re different from me and we have nothing in common and don’t even try to understand me “for I’m marvelous”.

Let the learners dream a Midsummer night’s dream… as teachers we’re supposed to expose them to the world not shelter them from it.

And don’t get me started on the beauty and usefulness of the second person singular – thou/thee. 😜

Is it unproductive to read any Shakespeare in the original text? As a sign of our times: Yes and no. That depends! Who said you can only use the original text? Yes, you may use it, but also adapt it in a myriad of different ways. Dost thou get me?

Mo and Shakespeare.jpg
Mo and his friend, Billy S.

Cheers,

Mo

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.

Mo

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.

Cheers,

Mo

 

A TEACHER’S DREAM (literally)

Image result for teacher sleeping and dreaming
Last night as I was sleeping…

“Last night as I was sleeping I had a dream so fair…” – wait a minute, those are the words to a New Jerusalem hymn… but seriously, last night I dreamed that I was a teacher/ coordinator (already promoting myself) at a large language center in São Paulo.

The school was having problems in particular with a student, Joelson (I asked his name in the dream) who had finished the last stage and in order to receive his course completion certificate he would have to take an exam. The problem was that although Joelson had reached an advanced English level he got very nervous with tests and he refused to take the test but he still demanded his certificate. The school director asked me to talk to him and try to convince him to take the test.

Image result for english exam a+

“If life is a punishment, one should wish for an end; if life is a test, one should wish it to be short”

Joelson said: “Every time I take a test I get too nervous and I get everything wrong and fail.” “You’re talking to me, you can see my English is good now, why can’t the school just give me a certificate? I paid all the fees and did all the tasks in and outside of class”. “My teachers can certify that my English is excellent.”

Image result for english exam F

“Good tests can help teachers determine how their students are performing and identify the areas in which their students need assistance. Like an X-ray, however, tests can diagnose, but they cannot cure”.
Randi Weingarten

Then I went to talk to the headmaster and told him what Joelson had said, and that I agreed with him. I added: “In my 30 plus years teaching experience I’ve never seen a person get a job because they handed in an English Language proficiency certificate – first, they will be interviewed or tested in the language. If they have a paper certificate is immaterial. And I’m talking about both national and multinational corporations. So give him the certificate without him taking the test. It has no legal value anyway”.

I know… each country’s culture and policies will vary, but to get a job in Brazil, employers are more interested in real-life skills from their candidates than their English certificate. Listen, I’m not talking about University degrees.

Of course, international universities require a TOEFL or IELTS certificate to get the process going and sieve through the numbers of applicants but it is well known that many certificate holders were well-groomed at taking tests and evading tricky questions, but when they start their university courses abroad they need to be enrolled in ESL classes (even before the lectures begin).

So my dream is that people may actually learn English in the coming year, not just for a paper certificate, but to be ready to skydive into new adventures in the world.

Image result for teacher dreaming

Happy Dreams,

Cheers,

Mo