Monday, 14 April 2014

SORRY NO COMPRENDO

SORRY, NO COMPRENDO

I’m sure you’ve all experienced this situation. You come home from work, plonk yourself down in front of the TV, and watch the news. Then your significant other walks in and asks, “What’s on the news today?” You reflect on it for a moment, then realize that not one word of the half-hour broadcast has registered on your brain. You heard the words, you understood the words, but your brain had not absorbed them. Your mind had switched itself off. Gone into hibernation.

It’s the same for our students, only doubly so, because it’s not their language they’re listening to.
“OK, now we’re going to do some writing, so take out your notebooks.” One third of the class does so, the rest sit motionless, staring blankly ahead. You repeat the instruction, only this time a little louder, and at the same time wave a notebook in the air. Two more students comply. If you want 100% of the class to comply, you have to stand in front of each student, say “notebook” several times, while tapping a finger on their bags. Arousing a hibernating mind doesn’t come easily.

Adult students’ minds will go blank and unreceptive from time to time, teenagers do it a lot, young children hardly ever. With adults, it’s understandable. Like you or I, they have other concerns – money worries, family issues, kids’ problems, work problems – that occupy the mind far more compellingly than a grammar lesson ever could. With teenagers, it’s even more understandable. Their preoccupations are teen angst, and school. Asian kids’ school schedules are demanding; fourteen different subjects a week, tons of stuff to be memorized. Sure, most of it’s rote-learning, but even that can tire you out.

Here’s another barrier to understanding. There are some taxi drivers, shop-keepers and students who see a white face before them, see the lips moving, and think “Oh my God. He’s speaking to me in a foreign tongue! I’m not going to understand a word!” Consequently, they don’t understand a word, even if you’re saying it in their own language, and regardless of whether it’s clear, accent-free, and fluent. Sorry, the mind’s in neutral today.

And now for something completely different. Songs. Or to be more explicit, songs and their role in language learning. Students learn language faster if it’s taught in song form, there’s no doubt about it. Kids who are currently studying “What’s this?” and “Is this a pencil?” can be taught to sing the words of songs like “Clementine” and “If you’re happy and you know it” confidently and with obvious enjoyment. Especially if they’re action songs. “This is the way I wash my face”, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “Bingo” come to mind. If you can’t sing a note, buy one of the many kids’ songs CDs to present the song. Teenagers love love songs. Explain the poignant love story behind the song and they’ll appreciate it even more. “Now let me tell you about John. John is in love with Bonnie, but there’s a problem. John lives in America, but Bonnie lives in Vietnam (or Thailand, or Indonesia, or Adis Abba.) And so he sings this song to her: ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie…’. “

When I worked in Korea, my school had a series of tapes called ‘Mr Monday’. These tapes contained songs – quite catchy, many of them – each of which practiced specific vocabulary or a grammar point. One song covered days of the week, one did months or the weather, others consisted solely of present perfect sentences, or conditional clauses. Brilliant, it was. I wish I’d made a copy, as I’ve never seen ‘Mr Monday’ before or since then.

I have experimented with writing my own songs to practice certain language. It’s easier than it sounds. Take ‘Frere Jacques’ or ‘John Brown’s Body’ and put your own words to them. So far I’ve done the treatment on ‘Frere Jacques’, substituting the words: “We learn English, we learn English, yes we do, yes we do, but it isn’t easy, but it isn’t easy, no, no. no, no, no. no.” I do “John Brown” to the words: “I like ice cream and I eat it every day (X3), but my Mom says I’m gonna get fat. Mama, Mama give me ice cream (X3) I don’t care if I get fat.” Subsequent verses feature chocolate, hamburgers, and so on. Here’s another one I put to the tune ‘Frere Jacques’. “Today is Saturday, Yes that’s right, Tomorrow must be Sunday, That’s right too.” Rogers and Hammerstein it ain’t, but it does the trick, and the kids seem to enjoy it. Try doing your own song. It’s fun.

I remember one time passing by a class of eight- to ten-year olds singing the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’. I’ve heard the song many times before, but the words from the mouths of these young kids gave the song an entirely new perspective, and an entirely new meaning. The Beatles obviously wrote it as a nonsense song; the children imbued it with a depth of meaning Lennon and McCartney had never dreamed of. The purity and innocence of their voices had me choking back tears.

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

HOW NOT TO TEACH ENGLISH



HOW NOT TO TEACH ENGLISH.  
(Or maybe I’m wrong...)

When you’re working in EFL, you learn something new every day. Or at least I do, anyway. My latest revelation took place over the past two weeks. I’m at a new school. It’s called Speak Naturally. I was informed on Day One that in order to speak naturally (and it must be done with an American accent, mind you – very important) you need to spend nine tenths of every lesson doing unison drilling. No games, no breaks, no light relief; no nuthin except unison drill, unison drill, unison drill. And don’t let that American accent drop for one second. The line-up of expat teachers charged with the task of teaching natural American English is two Brits, two Filippinos, one Ukranian, one guy whose accent is so bad I can’t make out where he’s from, and me. Now the expats aren’t required to actually conduct a lesson. Oh no, they are co-teachers, which means that their role consists of standing up front listening to the Vietnamese teacher doing his or her unison drilling, and, on command, saying a word or sentence here or there. Much like a performing seal. Sitting in on one of these sessions is excruciatingly boring, and time drags.

Now, being a writer engaged in writing a book about English teaching, I was very interested in this new method. It presented me with the perfect input for a chapter pouring scorn on misguided EFL methodology. Thus every night after my co-teaching stints I would hurry home to write furiously about how ineffective and unsuitable this particular method was. 

Before I continue, let me describe a typical lesson I have suffered through. This particular 90-minute session for an adult Elementary class is intended to teach 20 expressions, and train the students to say them exactly as a Milwaukee factory worker would. Some of the expressions are useful language – ‘my sister, my grandchild, my grandson, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law,’ and some are a trifle odd – ‘a plump boss, a weak housewife, an old actor, a strong farmer.’ No full sentences, note. The words are projected onto a screen. Cue in the expat co-teacher (that’s me, Folks) who says the words twice and has the students repeat in unison. OK, that’s my bit done for the meantime. Siddown, and let the Vietnamese teacher take control.

Word number one.
T: Sister. Repeat.
Ss: Sitter.
T: No. SiSSter.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.

As the students speak, the teacher raps a bamboo stick against the screen in time with each syllable, and at the same time stamps his or her foot.
T: Again. Once more. Again.

By this time I am taking surreptitious looks at my watch. When in the hell is the real teaching going to begin?

T: Right, second word. Brother-in-law. Repeat. Repeat. Again. Again.
What with the tapping and stamping, the teacher is already beginning to work up a sweat.
T: Again. Once more. Again.
Once the family relationships have been taken care of, it’s time for the odd expressions.
T: A bored housewife.
Ss: A bored housewie.
T: No. HousewiFe. Repeat. Again. Again. [Tap-tap-stamp-stamp.]
By this time I’m bored out of my tree. Even more bored than the housewife in question. So too are the students, surely.

The choral repetition of the twenty expressions takes up the first hour. God, what’s next? Uh oh, it’s my turn to add a contribution to the lesson. “Mr Don, who is the housewife?” “Um… she’s a bored housewife.”
T: Yes. Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No. Listen to Mr Don! Mr Don, who is the housewife?
Me: She’s a bored housewife.
T: Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No! She’S. Repeat. Again. Again. HouSewife. Repeat. Again. Again.

What seems like three days later, the 90-minute comes to an end. “What do you think?” the Vietnamese teacher asks me. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting teaching method,” I say. So interesting I can’t wait to get home and record my thoughts on how not to teach.

Every rule of effective language teaching has been disregarded. For one thing, drilling for 90 minutes is tiring and stultifyingly boring for the students. The language drilled has been of doubtful usefulness. The students were not asked to speak in complete sentences. There have been no changes of focus, no periods of light relief. The language practiced was as unnatural as you could dream up. In short, a disastrous sham of a lesson.

Now I’ve often extolled the virtues of unison drilling. It allows the students to familiarize themselves with the sentence patterns, the vocab, and the pronunciation in near anonymity. Any mistakes they make will pass unnoticed, and hopefully in the next repetition they’ll get it right. But unison repetitions for 90 minutes straight? Madness.

But. And this is a big but. As I am winding up my critical, almost vitriolic condemnation of the technique I’d observed and been engaged intermittently in over the past two weeks, I cast my mind back on how the students had reacted to this madness.

Not one of them had spoken Vietnamese during any of the sessions. Not one had nodded off or lapsed into the nether-world of daydreams. All had responded promptly to the teacher’s cues, and with an obvious desire to get their utterances right. And they had given their undivided attention to every minute of the lesson. Which kind of describes the perfect class, don’tcha think?

Why is that, I wonder? Maybe because the rote learning method is one they’re familiar and comfortable with; the method by which they’ve learnt everything from maths to science at school. Maybe because they haven’t been asked to contribute their own input at any time in the past hour and a half. Maybe because they haven’t once been asked to think for themselves. Maybe….

Like I said, you learn something new every day in EFL.

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Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

VARIETIES OF ENGLISH



LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

O
NCE upon a time, there was a little girl named Little Red Riding Hood. One day her mother said to her, “Little Red, grandmother is sick today, so I want you to take this basket of goodies to her. But be careful, there’s a big bad wolf in the forest”.
And so Little Red Riding Hood set off through the forest, whistling a happy little tune to herself as she went…

Thus didst this trusting young child roam freely through the forest, marveling at the verdant riches therein; the rich hues of the foliage, the succulence of the new shoots emerging from the forest floor, the beauty of the newly-bloomed flowers, and the colorful plumage of the birds that wheeled in the skies above. Verily, I say unto you, Brethren, this parable is a testament to the bounteous riches that the Good Lord….

Cor Blimey, I mean, this story is a load of old cobblers, innit. Wot mother in her right bleedin mind would let her kid wander in the forest all on her tod, when she knows bleedin well there’s a big bad wolf lurking about? No, it’s all piffle if you ask me.

The behavior of the animal under discussion, namely the wolf, raises a number of questions. One cannot help asking what motivated this individual wolf to behave in such a manner? What lay behind its inclination to devour solitary minors of the female gender? Could it have simply been a depleted supply of its customary food source? Or was there some other deep, underlying cause for such behavior? A history of childhood abuse perhaps? Bed-wetting? The implications are endless.

Strewth, the mother lets a young Sheila go wandering in the forest all by herself? Mum’s got to be a few prawns short of a Barbie. 

Notice is hereby served upon Mr B. B. Wolf (the Second Party) that if his behavior (to wit: the preying upon unaccompanied minors in a public domain) does not cease and desist forthwith, legal proceedings will be instituted against him without further notice.

WOLF SLAIN IN 
FOREST INCIDENT
Thursday. A 34-year old woodcutter, James
 (“Woodie”) Smith of Massachusetts, yester-
day killed a 95-kilogram black bear, thereby
saving the life of 84-year-old grandmother
Mrs K.M. Hood Snr of Connecticut. Smith
declined to be interviewed, protesting, “I’m
no hero. I just did what anyone else would do
when happening upon a grandmother strug-
gling for her life inside a wolf’s intestines.”

Upon arriving at the scene at 3:49 pm, I saw the body of a large animal, black in color, and distinctly wolf-shaped. This I concluded was the alleged perpetrator. Also in attendance at the crime scene were…. 

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If you only read one book this year, read 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. But if you’re casting around for a second book, EFL minus the B.S. is a good read.

Friday, 14 March 2014

A YEAR TEACHING ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA



A YEAR TEACHING ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA

I hit Korea with feet running, only to find that my timing was as wrong as it could be. I’d just spent a decade teaching in Indonesia and Thailand, and had forgotten what cold weather was. South Korea brought me up to speed on the subject in short order. Korea was cold. Frigging cold. Mind-numbingly cold. Newspaper reports said it was Korea’s coldest winter in years. Biting, cold winds swept down from Siberia, bringing rain, sleet and snow with them. Snow deposited on the streets during the day had turned to ice by next morning. My lightweight Teflon clothes from Indonesia afforded me as much protection from the cold as a band-aid.

My second misjudgement: I arrived in Seoul in a month when English schools weren’t recruiting. Job opportunities were nil, nowt, non-existent. Thus I was reduced to sitting in my tiny, windowless yogwan room with an eiderdown wrapped around my shoulders, rueing the day I ever decided to move to this god-forsaken country. Then, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. Or on the Armed Forces radio network to be more exact. Extras were required to appear in the movie “Inchon”, currently being filmed in and around Seoul. Twenty-five dollars a day, plus transport, plus lunch. And, while they didn’t mention it, plus the opportunity to break into the movie industry, and inexorably rise to become a leading box-office name. In “Inchon” my co-stars would be Richard Roundtree, Jacqueline Bisset, David Janssen, Ben Gazarra, Omar Sharif, and Sir Laurence Olivier (“Larry” to me, now that we’ve appeared in a film together.) I would be in good company.
I reported to the hotel the movie company had commandeered early next morning. A harried American guy announced over a megaphone that today they were filming civilian refugees at Seoul railway station, so would you please go to the wardrobe department in the basement of the hotel and get fitted out. The basement proved to be half an acre of clothes racks containing GI’s uniforms (new, used, and battle-scarred) and civilian clothes (new, used, and tatty). I was directed to the tatty end, and handed a pair of baggy trousers complete with a piece of string as a belt, a nondescript brown coat, and a stained hat. Then back up to the convention room to wait. And wait. And then wait some more. Lunch was handed out (three ham sandwiches and an apple) and we were told to get ready to be bussed to the station anytime now.

At the station we were ordered to wait yet again, but at least now there was something interesting going on. They were filming a street scene just outside the station. Driver Richard Roundtree was driving a jeep carrying a military big-wig, then swinging into the station entrance at speed. They filmed the scene time after time, but it was not quite up to the director’s expectations. “Cut. Let’s try that again. Take thirteen.” Richard Roundtree then alighted from the jeep, a Korean worker reversed the jeep back to its starting point, Roundtree got back into the driver’s seat, and did the scene all over again. To actually reverse the jeep was not in Roundtree’s contract; that was the task of a scenery-shifter.

I spent the next few weekends working on ‘my film’. One day I was part of a crowd of GIs listening to General MacArthur (Sir Lawrence Olivier) as he delivered a speech from the town-hall balcony. Olivier was not actually on hand; instead there was a lackey holding up placards that read “Applaud”, “Laugh”, and “Shout ‘Hurrah’ .” On another day I was in a landing craft (just a few seats away from David Janssen) and spent most of the time waiting as walkie-talkie equipped assistants coordinated the helicopters flying overhead and the explosive charges buried in the sand.

After three weeks, my movie career ground to a halt, as by then I had picked up a couple of teaching jobs. I never did get to view “Inchon”, but I did read the review in Time magazine. “Inchon would have to be one of the worst films ever made…” it read.

My teaching year started off with a situation that is the bugbear of all new teachers. I couldn’t find a job that offered a sizeable chunk of hours, so I was reduced to teaching an hour here, two hours there (in a hole-in-the-wall apology for a school), then one and a half hours on the other side of town….
It was well over four months before I landed a job at Language Teaching Research Center, working full afternoons and evenings. LTRC was a non-profit making school run by Encyclopedia Britannica, and its mandate was to try out new teaching methodologies and assess their effectiveness. The year I was there, the Silent Way was the focus of their attention. This method, invented by Caleb Gattegno in the nineteen sixties, is based on reducing Teacher Talking Time to a bare minimum, and instead eliciting the language by various visual cues and body language. I started off full of cynicism and scorn at this off-the-wall teaching technique, but ended up a convert. In the Silent Way, students are challenged by the fact that they are responsible for their own learning. They also know that if they do not speak, no-one else is going to, and no-one is going to come to their aid. The teacher’s role is to cue them on the target language, then accept or reject the students’ utterances. It all sounds dry and humorless, but in practice it isn’t. I still use Silent Way techniques every lesson. If you spoon-feed new language to students, they’ll have forgotten it by next day. If you force them to sweat over it, they’ll retain it. Elicit, elicit, elicit. 

Korean students are hard-working, and demanding of themselves and their teachers. “Driven” wouldn’t be too strong a word for it; a legacy of parents’ pressure to push their children to the top rung of the ladder at all costs.

I am in two minds about my year’s employment in Korea. On the one hand I did learn how to teach. I did get to write a fortnightly column in The Korea Times. On the other hand I never really warmed to the Korean people. Nor, I must add, to the weather. My time in South Korea was an interesting experience, but I can’t see myself going back there in the foreseeable future.

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My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) puts the English teaching game under the spotlight. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

SIX REASONS NOT TO GET INTO EFL



SIX REASONS NOT TO GET INTO EFL
(and one reason to do so)

I remember my expectations when I first decided to become an English teacher 40 long years ago. “Ah hah,” I thought, “this job will provide the solution to a number of nagging dissatisfactions I have with my current status in life. First, it’ll provide a passport to international travel. The world will be my oyster. Whatsmore, I’ll be getting paid to escape my humdrum life back home. Two, I’ll be able to meet and befriend interesting overseas residents – perhaps even form a romantic liason with one (or two, or three) of them. Three, the job will give me the opportunity to pass on the intracies of my native language to the grateful populace, enabling them to better their station in life and prospects for the future. Four, the cost of living in Asia is a fraction of what it is back home. Wow, bring it on!”

Another compelling attraction of EFL was that there was nothing I needed to do beforehand to prepare myself for my dramatic career change. I was a native English speaker, after all. My grammar was up to scratch, my vocabulary adequate, my people-skills satisfactory. All I needed to do was present myself at an English school overseas, and say “Here I am, and when do I start?”

I forget exactly when the disillusionment set in. Three, maybe four months later.
Disillusionment number one. I had joined a school in Jakarta where disorganization ruled the day. The management didn’t know what it was doing, the students’ needs were ignored, and teachers were treated as tiresome yet necessary evils. Was this just bad luck on my part, that my first school was of mickey mouse quality? Um, no… I was later to find that anywhere in Asia, badly run schools outnumber well-run ones by a ratio of 3:1.

Disillusionment number two. My expectation that I’d be paid well for my contribution to the nation’s development was dashed by payday one. My pay was, in a word, peanuts. And therein lies a lesson for all newbies to the Asian EFL game. When you’re living in a country with a gross national product far lower than your own country’s, don’t expect to be paid at anywhere near the rates you’d get back home. No, no, no, no, no. Squash that thought right off.

Disillusionment number three. OK, so I’m being paid crap money, but look on the bright side: the cost of living is so low over here, I won’t need all that much money to get by. Well… yes and no. For one thing, the local shop-keepers, landlords and suppliers will see you as easy game; a foreigner, obviously loaded, possibly verging on millionaire, and ripe for over-charging. Your accommodation, your purchases, even down to that packet of ciggies you bought ten minutes ago, have all been price-adjusted accordingly in view of your foreigness. Call it a white-skin tax. Call it sliding-scale exchange-rate calibrations. Call it… ok, call it over-charging if you will, but there’s little point in getting hot under the collar about it. It’s a fact of overseas life. Welcome to Asia.

Disillusionment number four. Romantic liaisons? Yes… sure. Not so difficult to come by. Being a foreign teacher, you’re looked up to as a rather desirable commodity: well-heeled, well-qualified, well-educated, well-spoken…. Most of all well-heeled. But romantic liaisons come at a price. There’s the small matter of your girl’s rent, due the day before yesterday, and her landlord has already started complaining loudly about the late payment. And this cell phone of hers… I mean, look at it! Last year’s model. And all of her friends have already upgraded to the latest smart phone with touch-screen, mega-pixel, Bluetooth, android, dual processer. It’s so embarrassing when I haul out this antiquated old model and my friends smile pityingly at me. And, by the way, Baby Brother is starting school next week and he doesn’t have shoes, uniform, or text books yet. Could you possibly…?

Disillusionment number five. I’ll be passing on the Queen’s English to a grateful populace hungry for the opportunity to better their job prospects and their station in life. OK, yes, maybe you do have three or four students who would qualify for that description. But what about the other 98%? Kids who don’t want to be stuck in an EFL classroom, and who would far rather be at home playing video games. Teenagers bored out of their trees with English lessons. Corporate class students, dog-tired after a full day’s work, forced by their bosses to attend English class. Adult learners who’ve been studying English for three years and who still can’t utter one grammatically correct sentence.

Disillusionment number six. You don’t need any training to become an English teacher, providing you’re a native speaker with OK grammar. You’re hot to trot. No, not exactly. There’s a bit more to it than that. Keeping a class occupied and interested for two hours at a stretch does require more than a good command of the language and an impressive vocabulary. It requires a number of teaching techniques, strategies, ploys, and tricks of the trade which can only be acquired with time, experience and – dare I say it – training.

So, all things considered, if you’re contemplating a life in EFL, don’t. Take up a postman’s job, take up selling life insurance, or flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.

But, hold on a sec! Before you completely dismiss the EFL career notion from your head, let me add a post script here. In spite of the crap pay, the pathetic school management, and the venal bosses, there is one compensation. Your students. Sure, some can be pains in the butt, but the majority are well-meaning, likeable people who look upon you to help them learn English and thereby move on up in the world. You’ll sometimes see this demonstrated when you walk into a class and find the students squirming in their seats and tittering behind their hands. What the–? You turn around and find the reason for their mirth. There on the whiteboard someone has written “Mr John, we love you.” Complete with a drawing of a heart.

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EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form. The book will be of interest to (a) people contemplating a job in EFL, (b) newbies wondering just what their EFL course trainers left out, and (c) battle-hardened veterans of the classroom. Buy your copy today.