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Cultural Differences

After a long sabbatical from blog writing and Twitter, I am endeavouring to get back into this rich world of sharing and peer-support.  I’ve just finished my first year of a part time M.A. in Applied Linguistics & TEFL.  This isn’t the purpose of my post but I want to give a quick shout out to a couple of my tutors.  First of all, I have the distinct privilege to have Peter Watkins as one of my tutors.  Through an amazing coincidence, Peter Watkins was the very first ELT name I ever encountered as his book, Learning to Teach English, was core reading during my initial CertTESOL course.  Not only does he write very useful books but he is an inspiration in class.

My other shout out goes to John Naysmith, who was very generous with his time in talking me through my syllabus design module.  I ended up designing a syllabus around English & Culture and this leads me nicely onto the topic of my post today: cultural lessons.

I recently posted on my other blog about the need for correct pronunciation in international business situations, especially when it comes to pronouncing names.  In doing a bit of searching around on this topic, I was reminded of this series of advertisements in Britain from HSBC.

This is a short post so I’ll just leave you with the videos.  You could use them to introduce the broader topic of cultural misunderstanding, or you could simply show them at the end of a class as something fun and informative.  Enjoy.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Phonetizer

I have been away from this blog for a little while now while I get to grips with the additional workload of a Masters degree on top of 25 hours of teaching a week.  Still haven’t come up with a new name for the blog yet but hope that will get rolled out in the coming week as well… not that much of this is concern to any of you fine people reading this.  Just thought I’d get my ‘housekeeping’ out of the way first.🙂

I’ll be publishing a more substantial post soon on a short exam preparation exercise but in the meantime I just wanted to draw people’s attention to this website.

Phonetizer

Quite simply this is Google Translate for phonetics.  Just type (or copy and paste) text into the left box, click transcribe at the top and the English IPA translation will appear on the right-hand side.  Without a doubt, a very useful tool!

If you are following Nik Peachey (and you really should be) then you have probably already seen this website recommended on his blog, Nik’s Quickshout.  I just thought that I would pass along the knowledge to a few more people who might not yet be following him.

P.S.  I was at the English UK conference a couple of weekends ago, in which Nik, Luke Meddings, Sam McCarter and many others were presenting.  The closing plenary was by Professor Mike McCarthy and focused on building on corpus linguistic data to help teachers and assessors understand more about what various English levels actually mean.  His talk was insightful and thought-provoking as he started to map the findings onto the CEFR.  It motivated me to write up this small question to learners on my learners’ blog, “Are you ready for intermediate level English?”  Follow the link and have a read through.  There might be a few useful questions to pose to your own students this week.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Conferences, Recommendations

 

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The New Blog Carnival has been Published!

If you aren’t familiar with a blog carnival then you are in for a treat.  It is a list of blog posts from various people all based around a common topic.

The 25th, yes 25th, ESL/EFL/ELL Blog Carnival has just been published on Berni Wall’s excellent blog.  There is almost too much great content – certainly enough for several days of reading, consideration and commenting (hint, hint – always try to comment on blogs).

The common theme for this edition of the blog carnival was popular posts.  So basically these are the posts from people’s blogs that have already grabbed a lot of attention.

If you are just starting in the blogosphere then the Blog Carnival is the best way to quickly find some great quality bloggers to follow, learn from and share with.  Thanks for hosting, Berni!

Enjoy!

http://rliberni.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/25th-edition-of-efleslell-blog-carnival-here-from-nov-1st/

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Recommendations

 

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David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

Professor David Crystal (Photo from University of Salford on Flickr)

I recently attended a talk by David Crystal in Chichester – ‘Grammar Rules’.  I’d only had the pleasure of seeing Professor Crystal once before and that was online in a very engaging talk he gave a few months ago on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language (follow this link for that talk).  So this was actually the first time I had seen him in person and the topic was grammar.

The purpose of this post isn’t to regurgitate the talk but to give voice to a somewhat random thought I had relating to an analogy Professor Crystal made.  It went more or less like this;

On the topic of grammar we should think about a car mechanic.  A good car mechanic can take a whole car apart and put it back together again.  However, this has little bearing on the mechanic’s ability to drive a car.

I thought this rather apt as it certainly fits with my current view* that covert grammar is a better pedagogic option to go for over explicit grammar in most cases.  In fact, I might go even further and say that this analogy perhaps helps us to understand many of our learners who are obsessed with grammar rules (just as much as some of us might be with teaching them) but at the end of the day are very poor producers of the language.  This is especially in the case of the spoken medium but sometimes in the written one as well: they are training to become car mechanics when they should be focusing on becoming drivers!

However, later in the talk it became very apparent that the audience was quite a mix of professions and academic interests and that lead me to consider how much this analogy could really be applied to ELT.

So I asked myself the question, ‘How does ELT work in this car analogy of Professor Crystal’s?

What assumptions are we making here?  Are we saying that native speakers are given a car whereas non-native learners have to build their own car first?  Surely a non-native learner’s L1 is a car as well… doesn’t that count for something?  Obviously, learners have to learn how to ‘drive’ their new ‘car’ in a different country and clearly language learning is a completely different monster to adapting your driving to the rules of the road of a different country.  The question really becomes, where does the car come from?  In what state is the car presented to the learner; in parts, half assembled, fully assembled?  How necessary is it for a learner to know what is ‘under the hood’?

I suppose in a way, these questions have different answers for each and every learner but where we run into a problem is when we have students who come to us wanting to know how to drive and then insist that we teach them how to become car mechanics.

I’ve already heard disagreement from one of my colleagues about how applicable this analogy is and, as one of my other colleagues in attendance pointed out, the analogy isn’t perfect and perhaps I’ve exhausted this one far beyond its usefulness.

Thoughts?

* I say “my current view” as, having just started a Masters, I’m sure that my opinions and views are going to be thrown this way and that, turned upside down and many of them simply thrown out the window… just as it should be.🙂

ADDITIONAL: I’ve just come upon Professor Crystal’s blog and now I know I’m going to get less sleep because he’s been blogging regularly since 2006!

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in MA Linguistics & TESOL, Reflections

 

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How do my learning experiences colour my teaching?

I’ve just started an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.  I’m doing it part-time and I’ve got to say my decision to get on this course (late) was a rather hasty one but nevertheless one that feels right.  I had my first lecture on Friday (a bit weird being on the student side of the classroom again) and the following questions were asked,

1.  How were you taught?

2.  How has this affected your own teaching?

3.  Is there anything you do that you feel you ought not?  Basically, do you have any guilty secrets?

What astounded me was how difficult I found it to answer the first question and, by extension, the second.

I suppose I had probably repressed it in some cases and had been oblivious in others.  I had to turn to my partner and say, “I have no idea how I was taught at secondary school.”  This is not due to it being so very long ago – 12 years in all honesty – but I guess it comes from distinctly negative experiences.  I took French and German at school and continued them up to Standard Grade (the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs).  I passed relatively well but I couldn’t put a sentence of French or German together now if my life depended on it.*  I do remember one thing though – I remember not liking my classes one little bit.

What was also fascinating during these groups discussion on Friday was the shared experience that many of us on the course had of absolutely dreadful French classes in Britain growing up.

It was only after talking with my classmates for a little while that I started to remember a little more about classes.  I came to a few conclusions.

Image from comedy_nose on Flickr

Audio Resources

I don’t use tapes/CDs/mp3s of conversations that much.  This is due to all those awful tapes of poor quality that I had to listen to in French and German classes.  I think it demotivated me more than anything else, listening and listening and listening and not having a clue what was being said, not really even getting the gist and just generally feeling hopeless about the whole thing.   Even on my worst days, I don’t really want to inflict that on my students so I tend to shy away from using audio resources in the class.  I do recognize their usefulness and I am making myself use them more but I’m still not hugely comfortable with CDs or mp3s and I know that I’m not using them particularly effectively yet.

Photo from florriebassingbourn on Flickr

Dictionaries

I don’t do a lot of dictionary work in class.  Another memory that resurfaced was the supremely boring task of translating a text word by word using a dictionary.  I never asked for help because I always felt that my need to use the dictionary all the time was based on that fact that I was a lazy student and that, had I gone home and properly learned my vocabulary, I wouldn’t have needed the dictionary even half as much.  Of course, my completed translation usually ended up making absolutely NO sense whatsoever and this was for a couple of reasons.

  1. Nobody ever really made it known to me that language doesn’t work in words, it works in chunks.  In trying to translate word by word, I completely missed the important chunks of language which, had I been more aware of them, I wouldn’t have completely obliterated them by dissecting and translating them word by word.  This lack of understanding made my dictionary work slow, inefficient and most of all, absolutely fruitless.
  2. I don’t think enough work was done to show us how a dictionary should be used, how the phrases or phrasal verbs might be listed and where to find what you really wanted.  This basically connects with my lack of awareness with regard to set phrases and expressions (or what Michael Lewis would call polywords) – I didn’t know where the phrases began and ended therefore I didn’t know what to look up.

So at this point I feel the need to admit a guilty pleasure of mine, or not so guilty if you’ve read some of my previous posts.  As a teacher, I like translation (yes, the teacher and student inside of me are in a little bit of conflict here).  I think shying away from translation or saying that we should be trying to get students to think in L2 is just a bit ridiculous.  We all use our L1 to give us hooks to hang our L2 knowledge on.  I tend to feel there is a certain conceptual framework established when we learn our first language that, for most of our L2 learning, we are far better using and adapting that framework instead of throwing it away and starting again.  Apart from this, I think trying to get learners not to translate is an impossible task anyway.

Therefore, I think there is a lot of benefit for learners to translate in both directions.  L1 to L2 is much easier to manage when you are working in a TEFL environment, abroad and with monolingual classes; bringing a local newspaper into your classroom in Spain, for example.  However, L2 to L1, if you have a multi-lingual class is quite possible as well.  If you have a few different language groups; some Arabic speakers, Mandarin, Portuguese, etc, then this is the opportunity to band them together and get some meaningful analytical discussion (in both L1 and L2) that might just enhance some learners’ understanding of a few grammar points.

Well, now that I’m starting a Masters I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog.  I mean “So Where Did It Go Wrong?” seems a bit defeatist now, almost pessimistic in the face of all this research and assessed essays.  Need to give that some thought.  Wish me luck!

* Actually, I do have one sentence in French which I still remember – a testament to the drilling method I suppose – “J’habite a Dumbarton en Ecosse.

 

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Questions for a potential employer and why you should ask them, pt 2 (The ‘Social’ Questions)

Moving to another country is a big decision, even if it is only for a six-month or one-year contract.  We hear about culture shock all the time and in my experience it always hits you when and where you don’t expect it.  The first time I worked abroad was in Mexico but I was so mentally prepared to be lost at sea and confused by everything and anything that it never really happened (I also must credit a great group of teachers I worked with who became dear, dear friends).

No, I got the culture shock when I returned to Britain.  I thought I’d be able to fit back in and suddenly I saw a lot of aspects of the culture that I didn’t like and that depressed me for a little while.  I overcame that, adjusted and had a great couple of years down in Portsmouth on the south coast.

And then I moved again and it was with the job I just finished that I really had problems and this is what prompted this post.  I feel I was unprepared both intellectually and emotionally for this job and I’ll explain why with this list of questions I should have asked with answers I should have based my decision on.

It’s difficult to know what to ask but here are a few suggestions and, as I said in my previous post (Part 1: The ‘Professional’ Questions) my best advice is to get solid answers.  You aren’t stupid if you don’t understand the answers you get and don’t expect them to be any clearer when you arrive.  If your potential employer can’t explain something clearly on the phone, Skype or an email, then you’re unlikely to get a better explanation in person.  Also, if the answer really is that complicated then it probably isn’t the answer you are looking for.

Anyway, following on from the ‘professional’ questions

Part 2: The ‘Social’ Questions

8.  What is there to do where I will be living?

You’ve got to make sure you get specifics here and if the answers are not particularly forthcoming or seem a little bit thin, trust your instincts and your gut and realize that you are probably looking at a job which is in a really boring part of the world.

This is a difficult one to write about because sometimes there doesn’t need to be much happening in a town for it to be a great place to work and live, but things like cinemas, bars, restaurants, etc. all make things easier (at least they do for me).  Sure, everywhere has got bars and restaurants, but would your employer recommend them?  Does your employer have a favourite one?  If not, then you can’t know if these places will be fun or even safe.  (Obviously in Islamic countries this situation is a little different and I should make clear that I’m not writing with any experience of that area of the world.)

9.  What do people do and where do they do it?

This is a very specific question and perhaps similar to my previous question but there are some differences and they are important.  When you ask the first question, “What is there to do where I will be living?” the person you are asking is thinking about what you, the foreigner, can do.  If you follow up with this question, you are forcing an answer which talks more about the natives of that town/city.

If you are told about some big event they have every year, that’s great… but what do people do for the other, 3 seasons, 11 months or even 364 days a year?  If you are told about all these great places that people travel to at the weekend then you have to read between the lines: people don’t stay in that town/city at the weekends because there probably isn’t anything to do there!  So you will need to accept that recreation and fun may need a little bit of travelling and English language teachers usually don’t have the luxury of cars in foreign countries.

10.  How friendly are the people?

This might sound a little direct and maybe even a stupid question but it might be the most important question you ask.  For me and probably for most people, a place is made up of its people.  If you are going to be working somewhere for six months or a year you’ve got to have an idea of the people you’ll be living amongst.

If you have access to a car or a boat or whatever then there might be lots of things to do, but you aren’t going to have a car or boat so you must remember that you’ll likely be far more dependent on invitations from others to join them.  If you are going to be travelling somewhere where the people aren’t so open and friendly then a lot of things which “you” can do won’t really be available to you.

This is a difficult question to get a real answer from but a few questions you might was to ask that are less direct are:

  1. How often do you all (the school staff) meet up for drinks, dinner or a picnic?  (In other words, how sociable is the working environment going to be.)
  2. What bars/restaurants are close to the school that you’d recommend?  What do they serve and how often do you go there?
  3. What clubs/organizations are there for me to join?

If the answers to these questions are not forthcoming, that should be a warning sign that there’s not much to do, or at the very least that your first contacts in this country, your work colleagues, will be unable to help you in this respect.

11.  Take a look on Google Maps and, if available, take a look at Street View.

This is an obvious step to take but here the key is to look at what you are seeing.

12.  How much English can I expect to encounter on the streets?

If you don’t have any of the language (or, like I was, you are a dodgy intermediate) then this is actually a very important question.  Just how isolating is the lack of your native language going to be?  In a lot of countries, the bigger cities are a haven for English-speaking while further out from the conurbations you might find it difficult to meet English speakers.  You don’t want to have to teach every person you encounter when you are living abroad.  Your classes are for teaching English, you then need to have one of the following things:

  1. A similar group of foreign teachers who you can relax with in English.
  2. A group of native friends who are proficient in English and you don’t need to worry about grading your language.
  3. An inexhaustible energy to wear your ‘English teacher’ hat 24/7 making every conversation a mini-English class.
  4. Fluency in the local L1.
  5. A determination to spend every waking moment improving your relevant L2 language skills.
  6. The ability to happily spend your off hours by yourself.

13.  Where can I join language classes?  How often and how much?

This shouldn’t be an optional extra which ‘would be nice’.  See the above interview excerpt from Scott Thornbury to understand what I mean.  I did ask about this before arriving but I accepted a very vague answer which really came to very little.  If you want to learn the language then you should be stubborn about this and get some solid answers.

Are there language classes available at a local college or at the institute I will be working in?  Quite possibly not.  That’s okay, but then you need to ask to be put in contact with someone who will agree to teach you when you arrive.

How many people have they taught before?  What level?  What material do they use?  What qualifications do they have?  Qualifications aren’t a necessity and might be quite difficult to come by, but they can be a useful indicator.

Negotiate a price after you arrive and you have a better idea about the local money but everything else should be as clear as possible before you get on the plane.

And there it is, finishing on 13, unlucky for some.  I hope you see that I’m not warning against travelling or working in other countries – nothing could be further from the truth.  This post is about awareness, mostly my own awareness so that next time I look at a job abroad I’ll refer back to this list and hopefully make more informed decisions.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections

 

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Questions for a potential employer and why you should ask them, pt 1 (The ‘Professional’ Questions)

The first person who should want to read any blog post is the author.  With that in mind, this is probably the best blog post I have ever done because what I have written here was specifically for me.  A way that I could get my thoughts down on paper (well, in Microsoft Word at least) about my professional experiences so far and what I should have learned from them… what I hope I have learned from them.

So what this has ended up becoming is a personal guideline of sorts for me about things to consider and questions to ask before making the final decision to go and teach abroad.  I’ll preface this by saying two things.

  1. I’m a NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) so I’m writing from that perspective.
  2. This post is not reflective of any one job experience I have had and in some cases I’m drawing on tips and stories I’ve heard from colleagues during their travels.

Now from what you are about to read, my only piece of strong advice here is get solid answers.  You are not stupid if you don’t understand the answer you are given, and if the answer is vague, don’t expect it to be any clearer when you arrive.  If your potential employer can’t explain something clearly to you on the phone or Skype or in an email, they probably won’t be any better at explaining it in person.  Also, if the answer really is that complicated then it probably isn’t the answer you are looking for.

Part 1: The ‘Professional’ Questions

1.  How many different classes will I be teaching?

I asked “How many hours…?” and very quickly I saw my mistake.  I am used to teaching 25 hours a week but there is a big, big, BIG difference between teaching two or three class in those 25 hours and teaching 9 different student groups.

2.  How much homework/How many tests do you expect of your students?

Maybe this isn’t true for everyone but I hate giving homework, especially in large volumes and frequently.  It never gets done by everyone and keeping track of what is given, on what day, for what day, and to which classes becomes a really, really complicated endeavour unless you start off with a very organized plan-of-action.  The more homework is expected, the more work it is for you wearing your hat as the ‘enforcer’ and ‘punisher’ when it doesn’t get done.  If you have 9 different classes (like I did) then it can almost become a full time job in itself and not a very fun one at that.

If you are an organized person or at least have time before you start to get organized and sort out a record system that works for you, then you should be alright.  But please, make sure you know what you are getting into long before you start.

3.  Do you have other foreign teachers?  Have you had?  Why?  Why not?

Culture shock goes both ways.  Has the school dealt with foreigners on staff before?  The question is not whether they want foreign teachers; the question is whether they know how to deal with foreign teachers.

If the answer is no, they’ve never had any foreign teachers, then you will be a culture shock to them.  The school and the staff might have a specific way of doing things that they instinctively understand based on culture – they probably won’t appreciate all the things that need to be explained to an ‘outsider’.  For this reason, an institute’s way of doing things; of interacting, of managing classes, their teaching methodologies, their attitudes towards professional development, just about everything could be very different.  What it is to be an English teacher can mean very different things in different countries.  With regard to professional development, even if your new colleagues are eager to learn from you (as you should be from them), bear in mind that change doesn’t come easily, even if people say they want it.

My warning here is to be aware of the energy needed to meet this day-to-day challenge of potential professional culture shock.

If the school has had foreign teachers, when was that?  Recently, a couple of years ago, several years ago?  The biggest questions here are “How long did they stay?” and “Why did they leave?”  These are obvious questions to ask but, again, listen to the answers, especially for the latter question.  If you get a few too many ‘it didn’t work out’ or ‘he was an alcoholic’ or ‘she was missing a lot of classes’ then all that might be true, but consider the common denominator here.  If the management keeps mentioning the faults of lots of the people that don’t work there any more, that should be a big red flag.

If the school has foreign teachers right now, then you should definitely get their contact details and ask a few of these questions to them.  I tend to believe you’ll get the truth.  If all you get from any of your emails are positive reports, then be cautious though.  Even the best schools have some things that could be better or some necessary evils or what-have-you – nowhere is perfect, but if someone is trying to make a place out to be perfect then be weary.  If you don’t get a reply, email them again (politely, of course) and if that doesn’t bear fruit, get back in contact with the school and tell them.  You might have been given a misspelled email address, it does happen.

3a.  Can I get former teachers’ contact details?

This might just be me, but I have generally stayed in contact with the places I’ve worked that I got along with.  If a school says they don’t have the contact details of any former teachers, you might want to consider that a red flag.  As I said before, you’ve got to go with your instinct here and go with whether something feels right.

4.  Don’t make assumptions regarding the wording of the contact.  Question everything.

This again goes back to the point about cultural differences and culture shock.  A written contract may make unnoticed assumptions based on the local or regional work/business culture.  Also bear in mind that some cultures don’t work with contracts as much as others, so you might be getting a contract that has been written up for the sake of having a contract instead of as a document which clearly defines and delineates your role and responsibility in the organisation as well as that organisation’s responsibility to its employee.

I’ll digress here and say that I think contracts are wonderful things.  Sure, I’ve heard lots of people say “Sorry, not part of my job description.”  However, these comments reveal an attitude that would exist regardless of whether that person had no contract, a 10-word contract or a 100-page contract.  What contracts do is reduce stress related to grey areas of responsibility.  More than that, I’m one of those people who like to go the extra mile and don’t mind doing additional work from time to time.  It’s nice to have recognition for a job well done or going above and beyond the call of duty… but if you don’t have a well-written contract defining your ‘call of duty’ then how can anybody, including yourself, recognize when you went above and beyond it!  A weak contract or no contract is ultimately demotivating.

5.  What age group will I be teaching?

Ability group and age group mean two completely different things for classroom management.

6.  What variety of age groups will I be teaching?

Kids’ covers a wide range of ages and so does ‘adolescents’.  From my recent experience I think you’ve got to get this answer down to a 2-3 year age bracket because the enormous difference between 12-14 and 15-17 almost demands a completely different skill set!

7.  Will I be co-teaching?  If so, is this something that is done often at the school?

I love co-teaching… when it is done well, when the school’s infrastructure is set up to support it, when my co-teachers know how to co-teach, when the strengths of this sharing are understood and exploited by educators to benefit themselves, their colleagues and their students.  However, like everything else, it is a skill that sometimes needs some work and definitely needs support.  This issue of support, in particular, is why it is important to ask about what the current set up at the school is.  “We can try this when you arrive.” might sound good and certainly sends a positive message that management will listen to your suggestions and opinions, but the flip side of that coin is, once again “We haven’t done it before, we don’t have experience and you’ll be the guinea pig.”

To be continued…

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections

 

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