EFL 2.0 Teacher Talk

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Angel vs Devil Debate

angel-vs-devilDebate is a great focus for the English language classroom. Students produce a lot of language but they also must internalize that language and “think” as they process the language. It really makes the English language they use, their own.

My favorite “warmer” for debate type lessons or courses is “Angel vs Devil”. Students take on the roll of either the angel or the devil and have to list the advantages (angel) or disadvantages (devil) of a topic.

Here is a handout for organizing this and providing the topics. But first do a few against the class. Write 3 statements on the board and as the “Devil”, state 3 disadvantages and why it’s a bad idea. Then get students to be the angel and elicit responses from them. After they’ve got the idea, provide the handout and in pairs they can play Angel vs Devil.

EFL Classroom members can loads of great debate materials: ppts, rubrics, how to debate materials for using debate with in the EFL / ESL Classroom.

point across

Download the Angel vs Devil activity sheet

Gif photos illustrating body language

I really love those short, sweet, “video like” gif photos and I can attest that students do too!

Show GIFs to illustrate a whole number of things and as an living image, they really can be effectively used by teachers to illustrate and teach a large spectrum of language points.

For example, this image.

what gives

Students can:

1. Brainstorm possible language expressions that go with the body language.
2. Practice the same language while making the same expression (It’s fun!)
3. Check with the teacher that their language is correctly used.

It’s not easy to teach body language, its usually something teachers avoid. But these images make it so easy! With the powerpoint (available to EFL Classroom 2.0 members), teachers can first show the image, have students practice. Then, show the correct example of what language expression could be used. Last, have students practice that expression while doing the same/correct body language. It’s fun!

Here’s a video example of what the ppt includes but without the gifs moving (unfortunately slideshare won’t convert them).

A Cowbird Lesson example

cowbirdI’ve long been a member of Cowbird and it’s a sterling example of real, authentic listening/reading/watching for ELLs. Along with several other sites that are truly “authentic”, it is ranked at the top of my list.  Off the top of my head, for students, I’d recommend:   Voicethread, EnglishCentral and Woices.

I’ve  done a few of my own Cowbirds recently and your students can too.  Challenge them!  Here is a nice one, focusing on the Irish accent. I love the Irish “lilt” and the sound of an Irishman/woman makes me dizzy. Really.

First, let the students listen to the whole thing. I think this very important for a listening lesson and especially when using authentic content. But give them a simple task, so they are listening actively. For this one, ask them to listen and finish the sentence, “Sean believes it is good to ………….”.

Second, take up student answers. Ask them where they think the man is from, what do they know about Ireland?

Third, provide the handout with simple listening questions. Listen again and students note the answers. Repeat as necessary. Take up the answers.  Download the Early Mornings listening sheet

That’s it. This type of listening lesson can be used with so many Cowbirds! And as I suggested, you might challenge students to make and share their own.  EFL Classroom 2.0 members can get some great St. Patrick’s Day videos and resources HERE.

This video complements this lesson perfectly. Hat tip to Sylvia Guinan for letting me know about it.

Read more posts about authentic materials. 

Language In Use

Here is a nice presentation of a lot of “functional” language.

Expressions, vocabulary that students can use in certain contexts. They’ll need a teacher’s guidance to help them know the subtlties of using many of them but they are a handy reference available to members of EFL Classroom in a ppt version and also compliments the ebook – Get Talking (which members also receive).

Find more photos like this on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0

Living The Languages

I highly recommend these series of videos. Not just as an anthropologist and a teacher interested in language but as a human being who understands the importance of preserving cultural/ethnic diversity, our cultural genome.

I presently live in Guatemala and this episode makes a great point – our educational systems worldwide are complicit by ignoring and killing/strangling the languages of thousands of peoples in the world. Here in Guatemala, there is not a Mayan language high school or university. Why? They are the majority of people here but we are wiping their world from the sky….

Same in many parts of the world. We need to think harder of our role in this, us language teachers. Also recommend viewing Wade Davis’ passionate TED Talk / speech on this topic, a must. Also see the PBS series “Language Matters“.

True False Cognates


Morning on the terrace

I’m presently enjoying life deep in the highlands of Guatemala. It’s why I haven’t been posting regularly and fanatically. All things at their own time and pace but I’ll be back in the new year – loud, clear, full of posts!

I’m taking Spanish and will post many regular entries about my travails. It is fascinating as I “watch myself” learn a language and sit on the other side of the table, so to speak! All teachers should constantly put themselves mentally in their students’ shoes but this is even better. Lots to report.

Only a small item today, false cognates. Cognates are great for teaching language, especially lower levels. It doesn’t take students much brain power to remember and use these lexically similar or identical items between languages. For example in Spanish, there are many: Terrific/terrifico Casual/casual Basic/Basico Muscular/Muscular Here is a nice list of the main ones.

However beware of false cognates! There are a number for Spanish, the most famous being “embarrassed” which in Spanish is “pregnant”!
Today in my gym, I saw a gem and used my phone to capture it. A great example – here it is for you….

false cognate

If you liked this you might like – Funny Newspaper Mistakes

Stories From The Trenches 2

jana palachaI had the luck to start teaching English at a school where I basically had free reign to teach as I saw fit.  It was just after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic (then still Czechoslovakia), a beautiful spa city, Karlovy Vary.

I taught mornings at Zkladni Skola Jana Palocha and then in the evenings at The English Center – in a class, in the same big, brick school (our class windows in the top floor of the photo).   I touched upon this time briefly in this post – Then and Now.

It was a challenge just being tossed into a classroom without much support of any kind. Fresh out of  teachers’ college, idealistic and energetic, I hit my stride given the opportunity to be in front of eager, intelligent students and the freedom to teach.

One class was a real challenge.  They were a group of 13-14 year olds who spent most of class giggling and playing jokes on each other.  I had to make a pact with them – if they buckled down and got their work done and our agenda completed – they could play games for the time remaining.  A typical teacher tactic!

One day, the boys had plenty of time to play games. All of the boys were eagerly playing a discussion board game – eager to test each other and get their competitive juices flowing.  I was glad that I could have some highly cherished “down time”.

However, one young boy who was also the quietest, the not so bright one and biggest troublemaker wasn’t joining in. He just sat there slumped over his desk, head down.  I went over to him to find out why he wasn’t playing and ask what was up.

When I asked, he just looked up at me, rolled his eyes and said – “Teacher. This is bored game.”   And I looked deep into his eyes and I knew  that he knew that I knew, what he meant.  He was making a pun, using language in the highest order. Wow!  It wasn’t a mistake but pure second language gold and poetry.

I didn’t challenge him further and was smiling for the rest of the class as he remained slumped at his desk.

This taught me something profound early on in my teaching career – that

1.  Don’t assume student fluency is low just because they aren’t speaking a lot.  There is a lot they are learning, a lot ticking on inside their brains even though we teachers might assume they’ve shut off.

2. Language ability  is not directly linked to intelligence. In fact, intelligence and being a star student might be detrimental to ones success as a language learner. (think of how so many Harvard students fail their language requirement – more about this here. ).  Just because one is intelligent and does well in school, does not automatically mean that this student will be a great language learner. Language is not just about the brain’s processing power (intelligence in its gross form) but also about so many other things.

I remember fondly the years I spent in the then, dirty, coal dusted, Cinderella in waiting town of Karlovy Vary. I fondly remember this one boy who in one little statement helped me learn so much.

Strange stories about language learning

Over the years, I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for great “thought experiments” for language. Real examples and events that are so extreme, they really force you to think differently about ones preconceived notions about language learning (and by default teaching it).

Here are the top 5 examples off the top of my head that are indeed “out there” and from the Twilight Zone.  Please tell / share your own!

1.  Daniel Tammet learns to speak fluent Icelandic in one week.

A famous idiot savant, Daniel took on the challenge and bet of learning Icelandic in one week.  He succeeded, going onto national Icelandic television and passing as a fluent speaker.  He even went on to found his own language elearning company Optimnem.

2.  1930, the Leahy Brothers visit the highlands of New Guinea.

First Contact, an amazing film about the first meeting of the tribes in New Guinea and white men.  Fascinating how decades later, the film makers return and everyone laughs about the first contact and shares stories in the now common pidgeon/creole.

3.  Wade Davis writes in The Wayfinders about linguistic exogamy.

A remarkable book where the explorer and thinker writes about cultural diversity, the “ethnosphere” and language death and its consequences. He reports about a fascinating Amazonian tribe, the Barasana, that has a rule whereby you must marry outside your language group. Some extended families have 7 or 8 languages with everyone speaking them all!


4. North Korean man doesn’t speak or hear German for 47 years but after a few days can speak German fluently again.

The true but fascinating case of a N.Korean man who left his German wife and 2 kids in E. Germany in the 1960s.  47 years later, she and her kids reunite in N. Korea and he remembers all his German, no problem!

5.   The Imposter documentary.  How identity is stronger than language.

Amazing documentary and must see. About a young adult in Spain who fakes a story to assume the identity of a boy who disappeared years before in Texas. The family accepts that he is their son despite his heavy accent!


6. Lastly (but not actually true), the Twilight Zone episode “Word Play“.

A man starts his normal day but as the day goes along, all the language changes. Dinosaur becomes “lunch”. Dog becomes “Wednesday”. Asks us to reconsider what is a word and remember it is all arbitrary!

Issues in ELT / Issues in SLA

I haven’t written much about language recently but I’m definitely always thinking about it. It is itself a jailer, something I can’t get away from and like the adage goes “I am language”.

But been thinking about language as it relates to what we teachers do – teaching it.  I think teachers both need to be aware of the issues surrounding the teaching aspect of their profession but at the same time, the issues surrounding how students learn a language.  Lets call them the practical vs the theoretical ( the house (visible) and the foundation (invisible) ).

So here is a list with a few notes I made along the way, outlining off the top of my head, the main issues in English language teaching (the practical) and Second language acquisition (the theoretical).  Please comment and add your own but I think this list will be helpful to a lot of beginning teachers and help them see the breadth of our profession.

Issues in ELT

1.  Native speaking teachers vs Non-native speaking teachers  – pay / power / role?

2.  The backpacking teacher vs the certified teacher.  Is accreditation needed/useful?

3.  The role of technology.  Problems.  Eteaching boon or bane?.  Teacher training – how?.  Digital literacy.

4.  Textbooks.  Are they necessary?  Are any materials necessary (Dogme)?

5.  Edutainment.  Do students learn through games, being entertained? How much is too much?

6.  Edubusiness.  Does the profit motive hurt / hinder student learning? Are there low cost / no cost alternatives?

7.  Prof. Development.  Does it always mean conferences/workshops? Online PLNs, sharing.

8.   Education vs  Applied Linguistics.  Which orientation should drive the profession and be given importance?  Following good pedagogical practices or the research driven findings of linguists?

9. Proficiency.  What is a fluent speaker?  Can a learner attain native fluency? How do we know what a student knows?

10. Methods.  Is methodology important? Is there a magic bullet/pill? What works best?

Issues in SLA

1.  Poverty of stimulus.  How do we produce language in such unique ways (know and use grammar rules ) without very much input. What’s at work here?

2.  Order of Acquisition.  Does this apply to learning a second langauge?  What are the stages of learning a second language – grammar / words?  What are the differences between L1 and L2 learning?   Interlanguage – does it exist?

3.   Age. Critical period hypothesis.  Are young learners better language learners or just different?

4.  Cognitive Issues.  How does the brain store and process language? How are the brain and language linked. Do we think in words? Can we feel language? How is memory related to a second language.  Does the language we speak change the brain (Whorf)?  What mechanisms drive acquisition?  Innate vs learned behavior.

5. Identity and Culture.  Do we become different when we speak another language?  Culture.  Is language culture specific – how? Is it important to save languages and have many languages spoken in the world?

6. Form vs Function   /   Input vs  Output   /     Skills Focus  vs Immersion 

— do we learn a language best through an inductive nature or by deductive explanation and then application? Do we learn the rules informally or formally?  Can be break up language into discrete skills/units to study or is it too messy an affair?

7.  What is a word?  What is the basis of meaning and upon which communication is built? Semiology – how do things have meanings and what is the relationship? Why can’t a wink be as good as a nudge?

8.  Social factors.  The affective filter. How do factors like intelligence, affluence/poverty, peer grouping,  development, motivation affect learning? Are they critical? Personality – how does it effect learning a language (risk taking).

9.  Aptitude.  Why are some people better at learning languages? Why are females better? What factors drive this success – innate /  learned?

10.  Error correction.  How? Should it be done at all?  What makes a self correcting learner?

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy “Insights Into SLA”

Linguistic Chauvinism

I just finished watching my daily hour of PBS news and I’m irate. Sometimes American insularity and small mindedness is cute and amusing (as De Tocqueville imagined) but sometimes it isn’t. Listening to a Republican senator ramble on about how “English First” is what true Americans insist on, just “got my goat” – a policy and mindset that is simply racist and racism to me isn’t very American. I’m speaking about the Republican fantasy of creating an America where everyone speaks English and drinks beer and goes to church – that’s it in a nutshell.

English Only is something I’ve seen as a teacher in our school system. Question.

A teacher has 1.5 hours a day for “English”. In the grade 4 class are many ESL students. The teacher allows students to read for pleasure for 30 minutes of the period. The students can choose their own book. Some of the ESL students choose books in their own language – Tamil, Irdu, Farsi, Somali, Korean. The teacher allows this, no questions asked. Should the teacher be reprimanded?

I’ll give you my answer in a moment but I’ll first take the long route.

There is a very deep misunderstanding of the relationship bwtween literacy in an L1 and literacy in an L2. Most, many teachers too, believe that they are distinct and separate. You gain competence in each separately. If you want to get better at English, read English. If you want to get better at Icelandic, watch Icelandic movies.

This is a very dangerous myth pervading our profession, us English teachers. Literacy is not discrete knowledge. There is only one kind of literacy and it isn’t language specific. It is something deep and beyond a language itself. It is a way of thinking about text, sound and “fury”. As you build literacy in one language, you so build literacy in another….. The best thing you can do for a young second language student especially is to not neglect their own L1 literacy and language skills. These are crucial and make for a successful, intelligent adult. Here’s a presentation that gives a great overview of this topic – a must read. Also, this book is the ideal reference for any serious teacher’s shelf.

Durgunoglu, A. & Goldenberg, C. (Eds.) (2010). Language and literacy development in bilingual settings. New York: Guilford.

Now back to the question. No, certainly not, the teacher shouldn’t be reprimanded but applauded. But the reality is quite different. That example is true and what I used to do in my own ESL classroom. However, I had to do it secretly, in our little portable, with the children sworn to a code of secrecy (no kidding). Otherwise, I’d have been asked to explain and despite research and truth on my side,  power and old perceptions would win the day. We’d all be “English Only”.

And that’s the card Republican’s are playing. No thought about what’s right, what’s researched, what helps a student succeed in the long term. Only subversive thoughts of purity and cleanliness (to borrow Claude Levi Strauss’ term for the most evil and universal archetype. ).

A country is its people. Period. Not its language or the color of its eyes or the money in its bank. Let’s get our students loving language and the learning will arrive. To end my rant – some levity, some comedy. You’ll enjoy this if you’ve read this far….

The benefits benefits benefits of repe repe repetion

hands Over the length of my teaching career, I’ve changed in many ways. I think my journey mimics a lot of ELT teachers.

1. I have slowed down my delivery and instruction considerably. I used to just screech and scream through content. Now, I relax and pause a lot. I take time to enjoy the spaces together. I’ve realized students need things “a lot” slower and this leads to much more effective learning in the classroom.  See this previous post – In Praise of the Slow Classroom

2. I risk more, I try different things more. Yes, that would seem against the grain of time and tradition. Aren’t old teachers supposed to be “old dogs” without “new tricks”? Not teachers that have really kept developing and learning on the job. I now understand more deeply, how each student needs to learn in their own fashion and way. That’s why I have to deliver content in different ways and modify content much more thoroughly. In my beginning years, the whole class was a “glob” and I taught that “glob” in my one way – my way. Now, I use a multi modal approach and am much more conscious of hitting all the skills and allowing students to reach the objectives in their own way.

3. I repeat content more often. Even explicitly (there is usually a groan!). I’ve realized the value of this and where I used to just assume students had masters something, now I assess and if they haven’t we “re-do” in an alternative fashion.

If there are any “old dogs” out there – I’d like to know if your growth curve has been a long the same lines.

But my development as a teacher isn’t what I’d like to write about today. Rather, it is the shadow cast by my own realization that my development is based upon some sound principles. Throughout my years, I’ve become very interested in special needs and how special educators teach. Mostly because I truly and deeply believe that other than with very young children, we are working with “disabled” students when we teach a language. And we can learn a lot by listening to special needs teachers and the instructional techniques and approaches they use.

One of the epiphanies for me came upon reading Kenneth Dinklage, who as a counselor at Harvard, was stunned how many high performing students were atrocious at learning language. He wondered why these brillant A+ students and “brains”, just squeezed by with Ds in their compulsory foreign language courses. So he set out to get to the root of the problem. It wasn’t anxiety or lack of motivation or even study skills. It was the instruction! The students had a deficit in their L1 which caused problems learning a second language. Once Dinklage applied some of the techniques used by special educators – their language learning blossomed.
Ganschow and Sparks extended Dinklage’s research and identified the Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH) stating “that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or more of these linguistic codes in the student’s native language system.” Brown has since labeled it the somewhat generic, SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition Associated Phenomena). I’ve written about this in detail with some practice advice HERE.

To me, what it all meant was that I began to see many of the difficulties my students experienced in learning a language as something that could be overcome if I borrowed many of the ideas from special educators. One of the most important ideas is that of repetition.

Repetition is needed to learn a language and it is a basic remedial technique. Language is NOT a knowledge laden subject but is performance based. We have to do things over and over, listen over and over to achieve mastery. Just like driving a car or learning to pack a parachute. As a child, that’s how we learn too. Here’s a photo of the math notebook of the amazing mathematician, Kurt Godel. Look familiar? Even Godel has to master the basics and we should be doing this with our students. [as an aside, I really do hope one day to write about the implications of his incompleteness theorem to language – it is fascinating ] I’m sure you remember lots of this in your younger days, lots of copying and “mastering”. Godel

But I’m not advocating that teachers set up classrooms like this infamous Chinese way…. full of parroting and useless repetition. No. There are better ways to do this and here are a few of my ideas on how you can best make “repetition” part of your instructional toolkit.

On the Lesson Level

1. Chants and Drills. Yes, don’t do them a lot but do them! The key is to make them so the students have some freedom and personal input. Always allow for students to change the words or omit words (Substitution).

2. Controlled Practice. This is a standard lesson component and should allow students to repeat basic grammatical structures yet “push in” new content. Make sure the structure is always on the board for reference and get students used to repeating it (by rewarding them, ringing a bell etc..). Example. “Yesterday, I went to the ………. and ……….. ” – that’s the target language for use with a set of flashcards of places and things.

3. Repeat student’s phrases often in class. We call this echoing. It allows other students to hear the language again but also gives students a chance to process the language and repeat inside their own heads.

Teacher: “What did you do yesterday Mirka?”
Students: “I went to the mall”.
Teacher: “Oh, you went to the mall!”

Even better if the teacher doesn’t repeat but another student does. Recycle the language during the lesson. For example, in the above exchange, the teacher could ask other students – “What did Mirka do?”
Disappearing dialogs are also a great way to repeat language!

4. Review! Every lesson should at least end with the question – “What did we learn today?” Then, list the vocabulary, structures, ideas covered. Even better if you have time to end in a game, quiz. Even better if the students make the review questions! You could also make it standard to review the previous lesson at the beginning of the next.

5. Lesson Sequencing. Students really, really need to know what will happen each class. Make an agenda and stick to it! Meaning, every class, the students know what will happen the first 5 min. / the next 10 min. etc…. You do the same things EVERY class but with different content. I really, truly think there is too much variety and too much “different” coming at students in our English language classrooms. A predictable lesson sequence is vital and students need this kind of “repetition”. An example lesson sequencing might go like this.

0-5 min: Chit – chat, check student attendance, problems…
5-15 min. Review of the previous lesson.
15-25 min. Elicit background knowledge: Song/Story/Listening/Brainstorming
25-40 min. Controlled practice activity: Flashcards
40-60 min. Performance, presentation

On the Curriculum Level.

1. Recycling. Recycling of content is done by textbook writers but it isn’t always done well. Teachers need to be aware of the need to recycle into new units, the grammar, vocabulary and functions previously covered. Students need to encounter them in new situations, in order to master them.

So for example if the previous unit was about “Telling the time”. In the next unit, “Shopping”, the teacher should make sure to use a lot of “time” references and prepare lessons which insert this. Thus, the dialogue from the textbook could be changed to include times about meeting/opening/closing of shops.

I know I’ve just touched on a few of the ways you can “repeat” and get your students learning more effectively. I think it an important thing for every teacher to think about and this summer might just be the time for such reflection. One site I recommend with all my heart and soul is Gary Bishop’s “Tarheel Reader”. It was created for learning disabled students but is perfect for ELLs because most of the books “repeat” and “repeat” and “repeat”. Here’s an example. It is a good starting point for reflecting on this important facet of teaching languages.


Dinklage, Kenneth T. “The Inability to Learn a Foreign Language.” Emotional Problems of the Student . Ed. G. Blaine and C. McArthur. New York: Appleton, 1971.

Ganschow, Lenore, and Richard Sparks. “Profile of the Learning-Disabled Student Who Experiences Foreign Language Learning Difficulties: Curricular Modifications and Alternatives.” (Revised title: “Impact of the Foreign Language Dilemma on College Bound Students with Specific Learning Disabilities.”) MLA Convention. Chicago, 28 Dec. 1985.

Joking Matters

I’ve spent the weekend reading the Heidegger and a Hippo walk through those Pearly Gates, the sequel to the amazing Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar. Amazing books that combine commentary with jokes.

As I’m reading, I was thinking of how jokes so well inform us teachers. So many times, jokes have framed so well, important questions that I’ve needed to ask myself so that I could be a better teach. Koestler in his Act of Creation defines jokes and especially puns as the “epitome of intelligence” and when the world that is the mind opens up and understanding results. We learn from a joke so well because it kind of short circuits our brain through two clashing ideas. Out of those two opposites is created something new – our understanding.

So today, I’m asking fellow teachers to tell a joke that really says something to them about either language, teaching or learning. A few words in explanation of the joke welcomed. Here’s my own offering from today’s reading.

Three elderly men visit a doctor for a memory test. The doctor asks the first man, “What’s 3 x 3?”
The man says, “285!”
Worried, the doctor asks the next man, “What’s 3 x 3?”
The next says, “Uh, Monday?”
Even more concerned, the doctor motions to the third man. “Well, what do you say? What’s 3 x 3?”
“Nine!” the third man replies.
“Excellent”, the doctor exclaims. “Tell me, how did you get that answer?”
“Oh that was easy” the man says, “I just subtracted 285 from Monday”.

What this speaks to me:

Language is so so so personal. We all have our internal logic and how we order it and arrive at its “meaning” and structure. We call this an interlanguage in second language learning. A language all our own, our own way of organizing the “sound and fury”.  Teachers have to consider this and also consider the other side of this – just maybe the student had a lucky guess!  We have to sometimes look beyond the answer and at something more important, how students arrived at the answer and higher up Bloom’s into process and analysis.

Further, this jokes speaks to the fact that students needn’t know how they know what they know. Language is acquired very unconsciously and the student may indeed be perfectly competent in retelling a story using the simple past but be totally unable to explain how they formed the right  /ed/ endings.

One last joke to share but no explanation given – I’ll let you tell us what it might mean. 

A man and woman enroll in a Chinese language course.

Their instructor begins the first lesson by asking them , “Are you planning on traveling to China?”

They explain, “No, we just adopted a baby Chinese girl. When she gets older and begins speaking, we want to be able to understand what she is saying.”

Learning To Swear

“I am my language.” What a powerful phrase about how language is so wrapped up with identity. Both our own personal identity and our social identity in a larger group.

A language learner aims to get to the moment where they “flow” with the language and “sing” language (Anna Deaver Smith talks about this here). It is the ultimate goal for all second language learners – a moment where they become one with the second language and take on a whole new identity. I remember learning French for many years yet never really identifying with the language, it was kind of something added on to myself. A bag I picked up and used when appropriate. Then, after a few months in France and hanging out with a lot of Corsican friends, I started swearing in French. Just naturally, may I say, beautifully. It was at that moment I became “French” and assumed my French identity.

This begs the question – is learning to swear a way for a student to identify and associate with their second language? For them to get motivated and feel at home in the “second language skin”? Should teachers teach swearing, how to swear?

I’ve written about this previously and at length. But today, I got to thinking about how you might teach swearing or even if you can. Swearing seems much more than the sum of its parts. We usually acquire swearing rather than learn it. We hang out with a social group that swears and we naturally pick it up. We all remember how our parents were concerned about our English getting “bad” if we hung out with the wrong types. I worked as a steel erector a number of years after university and my own family just couldn’t believe the mouth on me!

It would be difficult for any teacher to teach swearing I think. Students would love it but I can see administration, parents etc…. being up in arms. Also, it would depend on the teacher having a certain comfort level with swearing – we have a natural aversion to it unless anger/emotion overcomes it. You also never see it in a coursebook. It is a vital part of the English language but we just assume students will learn it themselves as if by magic. I say, if you can, teach it, use it in class – it will empower your students. But it is for you the teacher to be the judge.

This commercial is a nice way to begin. Here’s a worksheet for it. It also raises the issue of English only workplaces and how the language would exclude many second language speakers (this paper is a great review of this topic). A great read on the topic of swear words is George Carlin’s Seven dirty words. (and video).

But the question remains – would you ever use this in class?

EFL 2.0 gems: Name The Language

This “game” is based upon my first successful game “Who Is Speaking” which used the speech accent archive.

In it, you listen to the 1st Article of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man spoken in a foreign language. Then you guess and see how you did. It’s quite the challenge! There are different versions based on length.

Give it a try or challenge your students.

Read all the “gems of EFL Classroom 2.0″ series, highlighted all this month.

Yes, sir! No, sir. Sorry, sir.

Yesterday at the gym, in sharp succession, was called “Sir” by two young men (probably high school age). One replied, “Yes, sir” when I asked if I was going in the direction of the change rooms. The other banged the door into me and gave me a curt, “Sorry, sir”.

When I’m called Sir, I’m always in shock and it got me thinking – how does it vary around the world, the use of this honorarium?

For me, it is a sign of getting old but also something much more. I get called “Sir” in all sorts of situations where I wouldn’t have thought it would be used. I had really thought that it was going out of fashion and actually remember telling students overseas that it was inappropriate to use. Ha, little I know! Seems well used in my part of the world – Central Canada. What about in your part of the world? Do you teach students that this is a “living form” of English.

I’m curious because forms of politeness are always changing and I had thought this one was being buried, it was supposed to be gone with the decline of the British Empire! Seems however, it has lexical endurance. I work with quite a few Filipinos as part of my tech work and they are always using “Sir”. I’m sure that it isn’t just with me!

Wikipedia curiously enough, says it is a term used with educators.

Sir is an honorific used as a title (see Knight), or as a courtesy title to address- a man without using his given or family name in many English speaking cultures. It is often used in formal correspondence (Dear Sir, Right Reverend Sir).
The term is often reserved for use only towards equals, one of superior rank or status, such as an educator or commanding officer, an elder (especially by a minor), or as a form of address from a merchant to a customer.

But I’m not so sure, how common it is in classrooms or with teachers. I do know though, it is used with anyone where there is a big age difference and a power difference. At least that is my experience.

But it still bothers me when used. Does it bother you? And what about “Ma’am”? How do females feel about that? Is it commonly used, is it “alive and well” in our descriptive lexicon?

Just some “wordy” thoughts this early Sunday morning as I drink my coffee and reflect on getting old……


It is always a delight to read/hear one’s ideas confirmed/supported. It’s the source of so much joy and progress in this world and also the source of so much evil. Such is our nature. Today, over my Friday morning ritual of “the big breakfast” at Twiggs, the local coffee shop – had this experience.

Every Friday, I usually sit and read my New York Review of Books and enjoy an hour of “brain stretching”. This month’s issue had a sterling article “It Does Take A Village” about the incredible life and work of Susan Hrdy.

My background in anthropology coincides with my interest in language and I’ve always been interested in the topic of how human language came to be. It’s a deep riddle that holds some clues that  have a bearing on how we should teach language. If we can discover the origins of our journey, we might know where we are heading and further, based on the experiences of that journey, what makes language tick. It’s an important question that’s had its share of debate.

There are all sorts of theories about how we began this “great code” and started communicating in an abstract fashion. The “bow-wow” theory. The ding-dong theory, the pooh pooh and yo he ho theories (yep, I’m not making this up – google them!). All proposed by great scholars and arm chair grammarians. Even Chomsky is quite radical in this area, with his “asocial” and non-proto-language” theory of origins. Everyone has their own take and its been quite the place to “make your mark” in the world of social anthropology/linguistics.  I’ve always leaned toward the sing-song theory of which I’ve written about previously. Why this theory?

Well, it proposes that music and mother/child bonding are the origins of language. That the spark that led to language wasn’t fear or hunting but rather love, the love and emotion of a mother and baby. It’s a theory that puts emotion as the central impulse and fertilizer that made language grow.  So when I read the following passage this morning, I almost choked on my Canadian bacon.

And in a world where nearly half the population is male—the sex with higher levels of testosterone and its potential for causing aggressive behavior—the female majority, by better translating emotions into words, must have mitigated countless dangerous conflicts. We should not underestimate the role that may have been played by this verbally skilled, moderating majority in the evolution of language itself. Of all the calls, hoots, and screeches issued by our chimpanzee relatives, the only ones that sound a little like human speech are the coos exchanged in quiet moods by mothers with their young; the first language may have been “motherese.”

The term “motherese” is originally credited to Dean Falk (“Prelinguistic Evolution in Early Hominins: Whence Motherese?,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences , Vol. 27, No. 4 (2004).) and to me it makes sense.

Not only does the female sex today have a much better linguistic ability, it makes sense that language developed through a child, an infant. Language most certainly began through the development of “emotional intelligence” and paralinguistics (non-verbal communication). Language is an extension of that and most likely developed through imprinting on the infant of sounds that had meaning (by imprinting, I mean the process whereby infants develop ingrained behaviors regarding the mother – like a duckling will follow the “mother”.).

Language is such a powerful thing. Transcending time and power. It makes so much of what we have possible – almost everything. We owe so much to language. We might in this way – owe it all to “mothers”.

This video will get you thinking. Think a little about the children in this video and how they learn language so easily. Deb Roy’s experiment has important implications. Could it be that thousands of years of looking into a mother’s eyes and face holds the key?

Free “Won’t”

I’ve been thinking a lot about “free will” and the nature of the choices we make – both in teaching and in life.

Recent research, especially since the famous Libert experiment, suggests we make decisions before we even know we make decisions. Meaning, something, a “ghost inside the machine” is controlling us and that free will according to most neuroscientists, is an illusion.

Big claims. Big ideas. And what does this have to do with teaching?

Teaching is very transactional in nature. We make thousands of decisions during the teaching day. This is the “art” of teaching. Some studies suggest we make on average over 3,000 decisions / day – that’s around 7 or so a minute. Up there with stressful jobs like air traffic controllers and athletes on the field. Teachers are “decision beasts”. But what does this research saying to us, your decisions don’t matter, they are all preordained, what does this research mean to a teacher or student?

I think it points to the fact that freedom, free will, is by nature, “negative”. We humans make decisions based on “no” and not “yes”. Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum that, “The true freedom of man rests in the capacity to say no”, rings true.

I remember reading Isiah Berlin, a very underrated philosopher who pointed towards this same kind of negative freedom of will as being primary. (his “The Power of Ideas” is well worth reading). Our freedom is realized through interventions – that we “not” do certain things. This fits well into what a teacher does. They don’t so much make choices as negate certain choices from occurring. They break into the normal routine and outrolling of human social behavior and push it in new directions. Teachers don’t control the water in the river, they can’t decrease this water’s flow. However, they can throw things into the river and effect its direction, speed, course…..

I see the same sort of thing happening in the language student. The student takes in so much input but won’t make progress unless this input is “negated”, unless the student says, “No” to this language form/item. This partners well with the notion that language awareness, “noticing”, is so powerful and not until then, does a student learn from language input. You can spend years in a room listening to seemingly meaningless sounds and babble. But once you have a piece of the puzzle, some foothold of meaning, you can say “No” to the flow of language and begin to direct its course and find the true “flow” and “path” that is fluency.  This is why I’m a big believer in the power of instant feedback through invasive technology – something EnglishCentral does well. Giving the learner an instant comparison of their language pronunciation and form against a model. Based on this, they can express their “Free Won’t” – saying in effect, “I won’t make that mistake again!”.  Noticing.

If this all seems abstract and rambling, it is! I’m jet lagged and using my blog as a sounding board and reflective source of knowing. In any case, it is something to think about – that learning is not saying “yes” to information but rather the ability to discriminate discrete units of information and realize our freedom through the fundamental power of “Free Won’t”.

If you liked this post, you may enjoy “The four keys to language learning: Input, Input, Input, Noticing.”

Sport and Language Learning

I’ve been an athlete most of my life. Also a coach and one who’s thought a lot about how to “develop” one’s talent as an athlete.

This has served me well as a language teacher. Becoming proficient or even excelling at a sport bears most of the same developmental patterns that one should step through to become proficient in a language. There are no short cuts!

Furthermore, we teachers should note that we don’t really “teach” a language – rather we provide the conditions through which a learner might practice the skill that is “speaking a language”. We should focus on performance not product (knowledge of the language itself). In essence, a teacher is a coach, a coach that guides their protege through the various stages of learning a language.

A number of years ago (during my own first TEFL certificate), I read a very powerful essay comparing learning to play football to learning a language, “The 5 Step Performance Based Model of Oral Proficiency” by Rebecca Valet. I recently pulled it out of a box and dusted it off. Even more relevant today,  as I see so much of the “teaching English” realm being ruled by schools and businesses that espouse study methods and approaches that take short cuts and rule by teacher fiat not student proficiency and practice.

Let’s use the metaphor of football and look more closely to see what it says to us about teaching and learning a language. I’ll use some examples using EnglishCentral, the video based site I’m presently helping to build.

How to Become a Great Football Player (or language learner)

Stage 1: Watching

In this stage, there is the dream of fluency. The player watches others and sorts out things in their head. They become motivated and try to figure out the language for themselves. They learn very basic terminology through observation and self study (like a learner would the necessary  vocabulary and grammatical structures to start off). Touchdown, kick off, tackle etc… These and the more tacit features of playing the game are learned through the silent period of intake and simply watching. Key, key, key here is that the student is motivated to spend the time and mental effort to make progress. Without the motivation – the dream and end of success in mind – this stage will show little progress and instead a false sense of progress might develop based on false measures. A second key is comprehensible input. The student should just watch the real game – not play tapes with confusing explanations, not highlight reels with actions out of context. Keep it authentic and simple.

{Students watch videos on EnglishCentral}

Stage 2: Learn The Rules

Without knowing the rules, the football player has no bases or convention to organize observation. In this stage, the player begins playing but in broken practice. The coach explains the rules and corrects players that make errors, as they happen. Rules are explained and corrective feedback is given students on the spot. The game is learned “in situ” – while happening.

{Students begin recording and imitating native speaker speech. Students click on each word and learn definitions. Students use videoclip lists to see how the same words are used differently by speakers}

Stage 3: Skill Practice

Football players will never develop properly if they only practice the game with interruption. (stage 2). They need to focus on many of the skills and master them. These skills will enable them to be complete players. Practice focuses on key skills and the coach gets students to practice them over and over, ad nauseum. This prepares the students for game performance and also ingrains and habituates the skills. They become unconscious so come play day, they are automatic and instant.

{Students on EnglishCentral learn at the correct level. Vocabulary is studied in context and developed as speech is recorded. Corrective feedback of speech is given}

Stage 4: Simulated Performance

Here we have practice games, uninterrupted scrimmages. Students test themselves against friends and peers (so it is controlled in some sense). But there is a focus on getting ready for game day, the real test, so practice is without a lot of support or direct coaching. Everything is “live” and done as a whole. Only afterwards, does the coaching staff debrief the players and offer correction and advice for improvement.

{Students record whole videos in real time and practice, trying to “be” that speaker}

Stage 5: Game Day

The players are all ready. They take to the field and perform. They learn on their own accord, what they need to work on, what they can do well. They do well or they fail. They are in the “real” world and either succeed or fail. In all cases, they return to work on skills, to scrimmage, to practice. There is no perfection for the athlete, just a constant battle to keep up. During the season of many games, there is less practice and focus on skills needed – reality suffices. But once not in the regular season, it is back to the basics again.

{Students stop learning on EnglishCentral and get out there in the real world, speaking English with real people through skype or on the street, by email}

Remember – in football or language, it’s a game of inches. So says Al Pacino in his classic speech!

The Poetic Alphabet

I’m in love with the alphabet! It is for me, a mine where my deep waters run still, until there is nothing left. It is the ultimate organizer, the ultimate trumpet of sound, the operating table of meaning.

My absolutely favorite thread on EFL Classroom 2.0 is the one about the alphabet. A trove of resources and presentations. However today, would like to mention another the part of the alphabet I love the most – the
Dr. Seuss part, the sound and fury part, the part that is poetic.

The Dream Life of Letters (full screen)

Years ago (see the date on the copy below), I was studying the surrealists and chanced upon “The Poetic Alphabet” by Benjamin Blood. Written in the 19th century, he illuminated and wrote in letters what I’ve always felt – that language and sound were not arbitrarily associated but rather, had an intimate connection and development. This is still a radical consideration, even a heretic thought in language circles. Language mavens stick with the party line that words as vessels of sound could mean anything – it is arbitrary and culturally decided – the relationship between the sound (word) and its meaning. Dog could mean “God” in another language.

I’m not so sure and I’m even mostly convinced as a poet, that it ain’t so. Sounds do have almost archetypical meaning to the human psyche and brain. Surveys of languages tell us it is so. Though history/time make this a sloppy and hard piece of detective work. The gutteral “U” for example – is prevalent in many languages as meaning “disgust”.

I finally, at the bottom of my many boxes, found the photocopied essay of Blood. Read and enjoy if you are a language maven. It is fascinating. If into this stuff, you’ll also enjoy my recently published – Idiot’s Dictionary. Along the same lines.

The Poetic Alphabet

The Idiot’s Dictionary II

The Idiot's DictionaryFinally for the moment, finished with this project – The Idiot’s Dictionary. However, dictionaries, like poems, are never finished, merely abandoned…..

Enjoy – get the online copy here.

If you really get into it – think of purchasing the hard cover. But I’ll warn you, they are tough. Think of them like a crossword that needs to be solved. There are proper referents, I do “mean” something. You just have to look deeper, think apart – it’ll come to you, what I meant.