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
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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

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

They can’t take that away from me – Proud to be a Teacher

In Most of the Western World – including developed and developing countries – the career of a teacher is considered worthy of respect, at least theoretically; because in practical terms, teachers are underpaid and overworked most of the time. If you work in the public or private school systems you are always the weakest link between the students and parents and the administrators.

If you are self-employed you must always be running after new clients and professional development. If you teach in companies then you must be subject to their rules and regulations and to the ebb and flow of the mood of human resources.

Mostly, I have been well treated at the companies where I have  taught, but now an International Bank  (let us call it ABC Bank for illustration purposes) with a new HR management at a new headquarters has declared war on all teachers providing services in their offices. Yes, you are just another service provider delivering the next lunch or package. Yes, the company is doing their employees “a favor” allowing them to have classes on the premises. Of course, you are not supposed to be circulating in the building among the different departments, so you should go just to the floor assigned to you and after meeting with your student to have access to a room. But that’s all understandable. What I can’t understand is the requirement that teachers shouldn’t use the toilet. And if absolutely necessary only when accompanied by the student, since the restrooms are locked away in areas to be accessed only by staff. Now… as a teacher to lack the permission to use the toilet when necessary feels like the last drop.

But…

… here’s my “5 cents worth” of advice:

  1. Dress properly – adjust your clothes to the work environment you’ll be teaching in (err in overdressing not underdressing).teacher 1
  2. Be punctual
  3. Set the limits – your students are not your best friends or family – be professional and empathetic.
  4. Prepare your lessons – you can’t go far with just “free conversation” lessons.
  5. Keep improving yourself both as a person and as a professional teacher.

There! No matter what be proud of your chosen career. I ain’t no Whitney Houston but I’ll sing it with her: “they can’t take away my DIGNITY. Because the greatest love of all…”  yeah, yeah, you got my gist.

So keep your head up high and shine on.

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

Teachers Daring to Join the Change

I have just returned from four wonderful days in beautiful Costa Rica. The multitude of things one can do there is amazing – Costa Rica’s strikingly diverse terrain — lush forests, wildlife reserves, and tropical beaches — offers a little something for every traveler. Beach-lovers staying along the Pacific Coast can enjoy a palm-fringed coastline for sun and surf. Nature-seekers staying in the Northern Plains or along the Caribbean coast should pay a visit to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before venturing inland to zip line above Monteverde’s Cloud Rainforest and hike Arenal Volcano. Whether you seek sun, nature or adventure, there’s much to discover in this paradise. IMG_9535

So which of the above took me there?  None. The reason that brought me to lovely Costa Rica was The National Conference for Teachers of English http://www.nctecostarica.or.cr/ – which gathered English teachers from all over the country and speakers from the US, Canada, Mexico and even from Brazil.

OK, I must confess I played truant one afternoon and went sightseeing at the Volcán Poás – up in the Costa Rican Alps. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the crater though, since it is quite regularly covered in heavy fog, but I could most definitely smell it – sulfur and other intriguing aromas. IMG_9428

Who would have “thunk” that a Brazilian Teacher of English would be invited to participate in such an honorable event. Talk about breaking paradigms and stereotypes. “Native Speakers of English” never have and never will have exclusive rights to the teaching of their language, especially when it is to speakers of other languages.

I was invited via twitter by Jonathan Acuña, the program’s organizer, (may God bless technology)  and the theme – Dare to Join the Change – really challenged me to embrace the opportunity and say “Why not?”

First of all, I’d like to congratulate the organizers – I’ve had my share of TESOL conferences and some of them – dare I say it – were rather poorly organized and structured. NCTE Costa Rica did a wonderful job in getting together different speakers and workshops spread all around the “Centro Cultural Costarricence Norteamericano” – with every classroom having support personnel and dedicated staff. Loved it.

I had been warned of the Tico Time issue (which is not exclusive to Costa Rica, by all means), when things tend to follow their “own time” and tardiness is expected and sometimes even embraced. Not this time. Sessions started sharply on time – save some technological glitches. The plenaries also started punctually as scheduled.

The workshops tended to focus on English Learning in the 21st Century: diversity in the classroom, Fluent x Accurate spoken English, natural learning  and so much more. (Stay tuned for coming blogs on particular issues discussed in the conference).

My workshop was titled: “Dogme never fear, Technology is here” followed by the subtitle “How can media and dogme work together”  and was based on the premise that the simplicity in methodology and movement preached by Dogme in ELT can be enriched and empowered via the use of technology (including social media). The key is to reach a balance between effective language reception and production and unplugged learning. You may see my power point presentation following this link:  https://onedrive.live.com/embed?cid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07&resid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07%21835&authkey=ABRDhO-mHMCqr58&em=2

During the training session, the attendees were wonderful – all teachers highly Tech Monstercommitted to growth and improvement. One thing that was pretty common during the workshop was the fact that most teachers still resist to the use of social media. Technology can be really scary if you don’t know what to do with it. And less than 10% (at least in my workshop) were on LinkedIn. I urged them to create their own LinkedIn profile immediately because it is their professional digital card to their careers.IMG_9447

That’s just a brief insight of what happened on 3 days of intense and powerful collaboration. The conference was tuanis (“too nice” in Costa Rican slang).

My advice? Next time you hear about a teachers’ conference dare to join the change.

Never fear.

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

 

 

The NEST v NNEST Conundrum

Lately I’ve come across lots of discussions on the NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) versus NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Even this quarter’s issue of the Braz-Tesol Newsletter dedicates most of its pages to articles written by Brazilian teachers (notorious NNESTS) in defense of language teaching not being limited to the place one was born.

Non-Native English Speaking Teachers
Non-Native English Speaking Teachers

I even found this site defending TEFL equality http://teflequityadvocates.com

Being Brazilian I couldn’t agree more: A good language teacher will have learned the structure of the language and is aware of steps and techniques that will allow learners to overcome hurdles along the way in their language acquisition process.

However, it must be pointed out that many NNESTs also lack enough language skills to teach highly advanced levels, Ilá Coimbra a NNEST wrote  that “In the Brazilian context, the general level of our English language teachers is B2 (or intermediate – high intermediate English)  far from being enough”; which would justify a language learner’s desire to have lessons with a NEST.

In the English teaching world prejudice against NNESTs or those who look like NNESTs is rampant. Many people would object to hiring a Japanese-American teacher simply because he or she looks “Japanese” no matter the language background they have. In China, Korea, and I’m sure other countries, an African-American teacher will find it hard to overcome prejudice no matter how big their NEST egg is (please, forgive me my pun).

Because of my light skin complexion and light brown eyes, I haven’t suffered – as far as I know – much discrimination as a NNEST. But a case that comes to mind was when I was a Program Director at Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT. To become a tutor I had to take their Certification Course (a 4-week program and was the only NNEST in a group of about 15 people). After my certification, I was hired as a part-time Program Director/Teacher Trainer/Tutor and I had to interview many prospective students – many of whom had come from Brazil. I knew that they wouldn’t discredit me for being Brazilian but they would immediately start talking to me in Portuguese. In order to encourage them to speak English I’d just say that my name was Mo and proceed with the testing. I taught many of them and always with the condition that they should use English in the classroom. It came to a point when out of a class of 6 students, 4 were from Brazil and sometimes they would talk among themselves in Portuguese. I’d ask them – “what are you talking about?” and they’d say “It’s not for you to understand“. At their graduation – I  finally came out – I told them I could understand everything they had said and I actually WAS from Brazil.

They were mortified, but that taught them a lesson about the possibilities in learning a language really well.

Literacy Volunteers of America
Literacy Volunteers of America

So NEST or NNEST? it will depend on the students’ needs and teachers’ skills and qualifications.

Good Lessons,

Cheers,

Mo

http://teflequityadvocates.com