Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan

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This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.

Procedure

  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.

EFL shoes lesson

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The only two people I’ve ever met who have never worn shoes were 1. a stark-raving mad bloke I once met on a beach in Northeast Brazil and 2. my ten-day-old daughter. Everybody else wears shoes and has lots and lots of stories to tell about them. This is a speaking lesson in which students talk about their personal footwear histories: favourite pairs, fashion disasters, biggest wastes of money, etc. A good way to introduce the lesson is to show them the above painting and ask them who painted it (A: Vincent Van Gogh). Then elicit some ideas as to what kind of person the shoes belonged to, what sort of life they lived, etc. Once you’ve done that, tell them about the pair you’re wearing (think in advance of some entertaining detail to share, e.g ‘I bought these Birkenstocks because my wife objected to me buying another pair of Crocs’) and then ask them to tell their partner about the pair they’re wearing. Then they can move onto the worksheet.

Students sometimes find it a bit of an odd topic at first but when they get going they find they have lots to say, because actually it’s just a way to get them to talk about their memories, tastes, aspirations, etc in a fresh way from an unusual angle. Every five or so minutes they can change partners. Make sure they’re not just going down the list of topics from the top – they can choose whatever they want to talk about in any order. Also encourage them to ask follow-up questions and respond to what they hear, using the expressions on the worksheet. The short interview format lends itself very well to their filming the conversations on their phones, so that they have a recording of their English which they can then use for all sorts of purposes – they could write up the interviews for a ‘magazine article’ or edit them together to make an amusing short film of the whole class to stick on YouTube. Or, if you fancy politically enlivening/depressing your students, you could open up the thorny political question of who made their shoes, which country they live in, what kind of shoes they wear, etc, and then get them to research and write about that for homework. One thing that’s not a good idea is to write up the proverb ‘you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’, and then get them to swap shoes and walk around the school. I’ve tried to do that twice and it was not popular in the slightest. Anything that’s not that will work wonders, I promise. If it doesn’t, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a pair of genuine Made-in-Mexico fayuca Crocs.

WORKSHEET TO PRINT OUT/PUT ON BOARD:

Today you’re going to talk about shoes. Ask your partner about:

  • How many pairs of shoes they have
  • How many pairs of shoes they actually need
  • The most expensive pair they’ve ever owned
  • The cheapest pair they’ve ever owned157378
  • A pair they wore even though they hurt like hell
  • The coolest pair they’ve ever owned
  • The oldest pair they still have
  • The newest pair they bought
  • A pair of summer shoes
  • A pair of boots
  • A pair they miss
  • A pair they regret buying
  • A pair they’d love to own
  • A pair they really should throw away, but can’t for some reason
  • A pair they’ve hardly worn
  • A brand of shoe they hate (eg. Crocs)

* by the way if you really want some shoe-related idioms to ‘sell’ the lesson to the students, here are some I can think of the top of my, er, shoe: put yourself in someone’s shoes; big shoes to fill; when you greet a stranger look at his shoes; if the shoe fits, wear it; the shoe’s on the other foot; step into someone’s shoes; bossy boots; get the boot; tough as an old boot, the boot’s on the other foot, put the boot in, let sleeping Crocs lie, etc.

Lesson Plan: Features of a language (int upwards)

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In celebration of my recently having welcomed my 850,000th visitor to this site, I decided to share one of my favourite ready-made lessons. It’s one I’ve done dozens of times and it’s always worked really well. It encourages students to think carefully about the grammatical features of English and how it compares to their own language(s). In the process they have in-depth and important discussions about what the function of a particular form (eg. continuous aspects) actually is.

It’s designed for multilingual classes but it could easily be adapted for monolingual groups by simply asking each group to discuss their opinions as to whether or not their main language has such features. It could end with the students presenting their ‘ideal’ language to the whole class, followed by further discussion of why plurals are necessary in English, what the function of countable nouns is, etc. They could then write a short essay for homework reflecting on what they like and don’t like about English and why.

Features of a language

1. Does your partner’s language have all these features? Find out!

Language feature

Partner 1

Partner 2

Subject-Verb-Object eg: I love you

Articles eg: The weather is terrible! I’d like a coffee

A perfect aspect eg: I have been to China

A continuous aspect eg: I am learning English

Cases: eg: He loves her; She loves him

Prepositions eg: We are at the airport; I am going to Swansea

Auxiliary verbs eg: Does he like coffee? I didn’t go out last night

Tenses eg: I speak Spanish; We spoke Spanish when we were on holiday

Verb conjugation eg: She likes cheese

The passive eg: My bag was stolen

Countable nouns eg: I am looking for some informations

Irregular verbs eg: I am, you are, she is

Modal verbs eg: must, should, can

Capital letters in nationalities and languages eg: Austria, Chinese

Plurals: eg: dogs; cats; people

Fixed word order eg: I like very much chocolate very much

Reversed order in questions eg: You are South American; are you Brazilian?

2. Now, imagine that we were going to invent an entirely new language which was easy to learn. Which features would you need to include and which could you do without?

Language feature

An ideal language (yes/no)

Subject-Verb-Object eg: I love you

Articles eg: The weather is terrible! I’d like a coffee

A perfect aspect eg: I have been to China

A continuous aspect eg: I am learning English

Cases: eg: He loves her; She loves him

Prepositions eg: We are at the airport; I am going to Swansea

Auxiliary verbs eg: Does he like coffee? I didn’t go out last night?

Tenses eg: I speak Spanish; We spoke Spanish when we were on holiday

Verb conjugation eg: She likes cheese

The passive eg: My bag was stolen

Countable nouns eg: I am looking for some informations

Irregular verbs eg: I am, you are, she is

Modal verbs eg: must, should, can

Capital letters in nationalities and languages eg: Austria, Chinese

Plurals: eg: dogs; cats; people

Fixed word order eg: I like very much chocolate very much

Reversed order in questions eg: You are South American; Are you Brazilian?

Learning Metaphors lesson – good fun and very useful

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You’re a teacher. You’re in a classroom, and you’re teaching a class. But where do your students think they are? Do some of them feel like they’re in prison, while others are just hanging out with their mates and having fun? Is there anyone who feels like they’re in a courtroom, or that they’re being experimented upon? This is a great activity for helping your students reflect on their experiences of learning English, and also for you to find out what they really think of your classes. It should take around 30 mins. You can try it with high pre-int upwards, and as you’ll see it can easily be extended into all sorts of other activities.

Procedure

Stage 1: Briefly tell your students about a classroom language learning experience you’ve had. It could be good or bad, but make sure you compare it with something, e.g.: being in the army, being back at primary school, being on trial…put them in pairs and tell them to compare similar experiences. After 3 minutes, gather a couple of experiences, encouraging them to think about what it was like, e.g.: “sounds like being at a party!” or “sounds like a disco!”.

2. Tell your class they’re going to look at some metaphors for learning English (make sure they understand what a metaphor is). Tell them you’re going to start with a memory game: you’re going to show them some photos and you want them to try to remember all the things they see, and then write down all those they can remember.

3. Silently show them this presentation once.

4. On their own, then in pairs, students write down all those they can remember.

5. Show them this and let them write down the ones they missed.

6. Clarify any vocab issues and make sure they’ve all got them written down.

7. Write up on the board:

‘A classroom can be like a ___________ because…’

‘A classroom should be like a ___________ because…’

‘A classroom shouldn’t be like a ___________ because…’

8. Make sure they understand the difference between the three phrases. Give them one example for each. Try to use places which were not in the presentation.

9. Students in pairs write sentences. It works well if they write each one on a post-it note, if you have any. (10 mins)

10. Student stick their sentences up on the wall, walk round reading the others and ticking the ones they like. If they don’t understand one of them, they can seek out the pair who wrote it and ask them what they meant.

HW: If you and they like, they could write a paragraph or short essay on ‘the ideal classroom’, using the ideas they’ve come up with in class.

Çok kolay!

EFL Fake News lesson plan

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This is a plan for a lesson I taught a couple of times before Christmas on the very timely subject of fake news. I did it with Politics and International Relations students on University courses, but it could be very easily adapted to a more conventional EFL context. The lesson develops their reading, writing and discussion skills and is aimed at upper-int and upwards. It should take about 90 minutes. My students really enjoyed the class and produced some interesting responses and some very imaginative pieces of writing.

Procedure

  1. Write the words ‘fake news’ on the board. Get your students to give you some examples. Have a couple to hand if they can’t (if you’re in Italy, like I am, you could always show them this). (5 mins)

  2. Explain you’re going to give them a presentation in which they will look at how to tell the difference between facts and opinions.

  3. Take them through this presentation, doing the practice exercise in pairs and clearing up any confusion at the end. The final slide directs them to where they can do further practice online. (15-20 mins)

  4. Tell them you’re going to read together an article about a ‘fake news sausage factory’. Elicit ideas about what that might be (Ans: it’s a website which produces and distributes fake news stories – don’t tell them that yet). (5 mins)

  5. (If they have internet access) Direct them to the article online or (if they don’t) hand out paper copies of the article. Instruct them to skim the beginning of the article to check if their guesses were correct. Give them two minutes and then get feedback; clarify if they’re confused. (5 mins)

  6. Put these questions up on the board. Students work through them in pairs. Monitor and give the occasional mild hint to those who are struggling. With weaker upper-int students let them use (but not overuse!) a dictionary. (15 mins)

  7. Go through the factual answers, also eliciting the appropriate part of the text. (5 mins)

  8. Make sure you leave time for discussion of the more subjective questions. (5 mins)

  9. If you have time and the students are willing, you can get the students to do a short writing task. Depending on their level, get them (individually or in pairs) to write the first paragraph or more of a fake news article about someone in the news in their country. (15 mins)

  10. Students stick their articles on the wall, read the others and choose their favourite (5-10 mins).

  11. Homework: Get them to redraft and extend their writing.

  12. Additional reading for very strong students: direct them to this.

Bob’s your uncle; Nora’s your aunt :-).

Something I apparently wrote for my students about learning languages

38I don’t remember using or even writing this but I obviously did at some point because it’s here in my My Documents folder on my computer and it’s exactly what I think about learning languages. Hopefully it will be of use to someone.

Up to a certain point, it’s easy to learn a language. Okay, of course you’re sometimes tongue-tied when you don’t know the word, and it can be very embarrassing when you use the wrong one, or completely miss the point of what someone has just said – plus obviously it’s frustrating when things you read and listen to are simply beyond your current level of understanding. However, in all these situations you can go away and think about what went wrong, and work hard on acquiring the words you need and learning how to put them in the right order when talking to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Then, hey presto, you’ll be able to understand about 90% of what you read and hear, and people will be able to understand you pretty much all the time.

And then what? Your language skills are now good enough for you to be able to make friends with people, read what you want to read, do a job, study a new subject, and so on. You’ve finished! Except, er, you haven’t. Not even nearly. Slowly you discover that despite all your hard work and dedication, your careful acquisition of skills, knowledge and the confidence to put them to good use, despite all your careful study of grammar and your acquisition of all the vocabulary you could possibly need, there are still occasions on which you think: I don’t get this. Or: I wish I had exactly the right words in order to say what I want to say. You feel frustrated. Is there some secret classroom in which people are learning all this stuff, and if so how where do you sign up for the course?!

So what do you do? Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a job which stretches your skills and challenges you to learn new things. Or you might have a hobby which stimulates you to acquire lots of nuanced vocabulary expressing very specific things which you don’t need even know how to say in your own language, along with the complex grammar which allows you to express all sorts of very particular meanings. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be living in a country in which the language is widely spoken, in which case you have the opportunity to engage with the local culture: hang out with the locals, follow the local news, become a fully-paid up member of this other society, which will mean learning all sorts of new things, many of which, as I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t know how to express in your own language. You’ll make lots of friends with whom you never speak your own language, and discover new things with and through them. You’ll be using the language as a medium to explore and engage with the wider world, in addition to just your ‘target’ culture.

Does all of this mean that your language skills will inevitably improve? Well, yes, it does. Your vocabulary will expand immeasurably, meaning that you will be able to understand even more of what you see and hear. Some things may get stuck, of course. Most probably you will have developed your own grammar in the language, finding shortcuts which simply seem to make more sense than all those fiddly structural elements which you can never quite see the purpose of. You might be one of those people who finds it easier to use grammar accurately when you write rather than when you speak. In any case, given that you are using the language in order to carry out increasing number of complex and demanding tasks, whether at work or play, the only criticism that anyone might make of your language is that you ‘have a bit of an accent’, which is what people say when they encounter non-standard syntax and word grammar which, although it expresses things in a slightly different way, does the job pretty well pretty much all the time.

But what about that other accent, all those sounds that never come out quite like when the locals say them? What if people ever find out that you’re (shock horror) a foreigner?! Well, your accent might disappear eventually. It might not. Research has discovered countless times that the key issue here is identification with the target language community. If you happen to be learning English, then problem solved: the English language speaking community is one of which you are already a member. Depending on where you live and who you live with, you might end up speaking standard English with a Scottish accent, a South African one, or even a Brazilian accent. Which would clearly be no bad thing, especially if you yourself happen to be Brazilian. The most important thing is that you sound like yourself – after, wasn’t wanting to express yourself the very reason you started out learning a language in the first place?

So what can you do while you’re waiting for all these things to fall into place? Well, if you’re worried about your grammar, try to pay careful attention to how you speak and how your grammar is different from how other people around you express the same thoughts. The same goes for your vocabulary and pronunciation, obviously. Try to copy those around you, and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t copy everybody, of course, otherwise you might end up sounding like someone three times older and two times posher than you. Identify people who you want to speak more like, and copy them. If you’re mixing with people and using the language in a variety of situations this will happen naturally, of course. But it certainly helps to give it a bit of a push if you’re in a hurry.

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

Two fun activities for very high-level classes

In celebration of my having recently welcomed my 2,000th visitor to this now two-month-old site, I decided to share two of my favourite activities for EFL classes.

A rejoinder: these activities are for very high level classes with whom you have an excellent rapport and who are immune to a bit of very bad language (NB do not do the first activity if you might lose your job as a result).

Activity 1: Why?

The first activity is great for getting the students to practise thinking on their feet, quickly applying whatever language they have in order to negotiate subjects they probably haven’t discussed in English before.

Procedure

1. Warmer: Ask the class if they have kids, younger siblings, etc. Elicit any examples of stupid or awkward questions they’ve been asked. Have a couple of your own examples to hand in case they can’t think of any. Tell them they’re going to play a game related to this theme, and you’re going to start by showing them someone demonstrating how the game works.

2. Show them this:

3. Ask them if they liked it and deal with any language issues (this may involve asking them if they want to watch it again – I’ve also made you a transcript and it’s here). Then tell them you’re going to start and then it’ll be their turns.

4. Tell them something random about yourself or the world, eg ‘It’s a nice day today’ or ‘I’m going to get my hair cut after class’ (ie. start with something light. If you begin with ‘I’m worried about Trump’ or ‘I read something about climate change that really scared me’ things will get very, very depressing very, very quickly). Elicit the question ‘Why?’. Try to answer each question in an entertaining way. You need to keep going until the whole thing collapses into absurdity, hopefully in the form of laughter.

5. Choose the most able student in the group to go first. Before they start, explain the rules: they can’t say ‘I don’t know’ and they can’t repeat an answer.

6. Feel free to step in if it seems that they’re being tortured – it needs to be in a spirit of fun.

If it works well (and this depends on your choosing the right class and ‘selling’ the idea to them by being entertaining when demonstrating it), this game can very rapidly lead to extremely profound (and silly) conversations about topics such as philosophy, psychology, history, science, etc. Then, if you (and they) like, you could use the questions that come up as the basis for a writing assignment or (if it is a nice day) prepare a questionnaire with the most impossible-to-answer questions that emerged and send them out onto the street. I’ve done this before and it works well, as people tend, when faced with EFL students with clipboards, to expect questions like ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ rather than ‘What is history?’ or ‘Why do numbers exist?’. You can easily get them to (consensually) film the voxpops they do and then use them in class in multifarious ways. Etc.

Activity 2: Sentence Stress Game

This activity is very easy to set up and huge fun to do.

Procedure

1. Write up on the board:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher. (Make sure you get the right number of ‘hads’ – it’s 11.)

2. Tell them this is a meaningful sentence, but there’s something missing – get them to tell you what it is (A: punctuation). Explain that they will be able to make sense of the sentence if they practise saying it out loud, thinking about which words to stress and where to pause.

3.Put them in pairs and get them to practise. Rotate the pairs every three or so minutes for about ten minutes or so, or until most of them have more or less got it.

4. Elicit the punctuated version (James, while John had had “had had”, had had “had”. “Had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.) and put it on the board. Check their understanding by asking who got the right answer (A: James). Drill it as you go.

5. Write up the following sentence:

The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.

6. Put them in pairs and ask them to rewrite the sentence.

7. Monitor carefully, not offering any specific suggestions. See who ‘gets’ it first.

8. Elicit the correct answer (something along the lines of ‘the dog bit the cat, which chased the rat, but the rat escaped’). Write up the original sentence in the following form and then drill it, moving your hands up and down to demonstrate the right ‘tone’ – encourage them to do the same:

the rat escaped.

the cat chased

the dog bit

9. If you have time and your students seem to be enjoying it, write up the following sentence:

What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?

10. Ask if anyone has seen this sentence before (one or two might have, but tell them not to give the game away). Put them in pairs and ask them to talk about who is speaking, to whom, and when. Give them three minutes or so, rotate them if they’re struggling.

11. Elicit the ‘real’ context (young child talking to parent at bedtime). Drill the sentence.

12. For a final whole-class activity, get them to identify the purpose of each preposition.

Et voilà! Feel free to let me know how it goes (except if you get sacked). And thanks for visiting my site :-).

Mérida: Language learning, native speakers and red phone boxes

untitled-design-13-1170x611One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.
img_4676Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.
img_3197Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name. 
globalhelpswap-a-guide-to-merida-5There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.
mexican-colorful-serapeI myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.
2dd6318a70b4c4c1ae32371699eec48eI would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.

2. Tip number 1. implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.

3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.

4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.

5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

peninsula-de-yucatan-mexico-extreme-tourism-with-outdoor-diving-adventure-29These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admittedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.
590Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That, to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.598434_10151531054831548_111665811_n

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.