Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tefl News: Teflguardian to Monitor Schools, Provide Forum

Some of the most popular discussion forums for EFL teachers shy away from allowing posters to complain about or criticize specific schools. Advertising dollars and threats of lawsuits are reasons that make it much simpler to impose strict "no naming and shaming" policies. With the anonymity of the internet and all the potential headaches involved, it's easy to see their logic.

There have been attempts in the past to set up a specific site to deal with the myriad problems that arise regarding English teachers abroad and their dealings with employers. So far, none have lasted beyond a few years and/or limited popularity.

There's a new online player in the school watchdog game willing to give it a shot: Teflguardian.com

I recently conducted an e-mail interview with the site's owner and administrator, James.

Tefl Spin: Thanks for talking (writing) to me. Can you tell us something about yourself? Background, teaching experience? Remain as anonymous as you feel necessary. I would think that keeping a low profile would almost be a requirement with the kind of site you are launching but at least give us some idea of the person or people behind teflguardian.com


James: Hi and thanks for this opportunity to be heard. My background is one of diversity ranging from law to teaching. I have been a TEFL teacher for 7 years starting in France and moving through Asia. The TEFL profession has opened my eyes to many things and allowed me to travel and live in different cultures.

TS: What is your motivation for starting this site? Will it be commercial at some point in the future and if so, how will you generate revenue?

James: The main motivation for TEFLGUARDIAN was to have a central place with school information. The site is set up and designed for both positive and negative ratings of schools. When a person is looking for a job there is no single place to get views from former and present employees. I hope this site will change that.

My grandiose thinking about any future income from the site would be in the form of a 5 star badge schools can put on their site. This will take many years, I think, to achieve, but who knows.

refereeTS: As a self-appointed watchdog of schools and a moderator of disputes between owners and teachers, give us some reasons why we should accept teflguardian as credible and fair? Or, if I have misrepresented what you stand for, please clarify.

James: It is a hard question to answer. I don’t know many people who believe everything they see on the internet. The school review section of TEFLGUARDIAN is rated from teachers who have worked there or are working there now. There will be no interference from TEFLGUARDIAN related to the school review section. If people adapt to this new format there should always be fresh information available about any school. Ultimately, it is always up to the reader to make their own decision.

TS: How will you avoid attracting the inevitable grudge holders who want to unfairly criticize schools? Or worse yet, mischief makers who get a kick out of stirring up trouble online? What sort of vetting process, if any, do you have before allowing posters to cut loose with their complaints?

James: Well that is and will always be a problem. The truth is, you can’t stop it. In the beginning we may have that, but as time passes things will normalize and each school will get a fair and just rating.

TS: How will your site differ from others who have tried and failed to create an online location for EFL teachers to share information about schools?

James: My site is not set up for negative purposes only. The other sites that have done this always seem to have a negative slant to them. TEFLGUARDIAN is different and will remain different.

TS: Fair enough. However, it's a truism that conflict and negativity sell. And people are less likely to seek out a place where they can discuss positive experiences (in fact, some might like to keep their good school a secret so as to avoid attracting the riff raff.) Won't the focus end up being negative in the long run?

James: True, negativity sells. It may in the beginning have disgruntled employees posting which would bring a school's rating down. But I don’t see that happening over the long run. When teachers see the benefit of a site like this it will become a positive experience.

TS: Have you been connected with any previous school watchdog sites?

James: No.

TS: How long has this idea been in the planning stage? Or, is it in direct response to the vacuum created by the collapse of another site?

James: The idea has been there for about 6 months. It took a long time to find a format that would be suitable without using the old forum method. The launch of TEFLGUARDIAN was a pure coincidence with the loss of the other site.

online libelTS: The days of "anything goes" online are coming to an end. People are more willing to take legal action and there have been cases of large settlements related to libel on websites.

How are you going to avoid such a situation? If and when the first lawsuit comes down the pipe (spurious or not), will that be the end of teflguardian? Have you already sought legal advice?

James: Things are a bit less wild west now on the net. Without showing my trump card, I have taken all steps to insure the protection of TEFLGUARDIAN and its owner(s). Legal advice was sought and that is why we have this new format. TEFLGUARDIAN is not going anywhere, unless I can’t pay my hosting bill.

TS: It's been my observation that start-up forums take a good while to become established and attract a steady following. Without content being churned out by those in charge, it takes much longer to grow a discussion board.

Will you be actively creating threads and contributing to the discussion? Will you use multiple user names to do this? Is the practice disingenuous or just something that is necessary to draw in readers?

James: My only involvement in the school rating section is to put the information on the site. That includes school name, location and some general information about the place. I will not falsely rate any school that I have no knowledge of, under any name. It is up to the teachers to supply any rating information and comments about the school.

The forum is the only place I will be posting information. The forum will not have any school information only general talk about living and working in that country.

I have 2 names on the site. The first is TEFLGUARDIAN admin and the second is baker. I use the second to test and make sure things are working like they should for other users. Baker has no admin privilege only normal user status. That’s it, no reason to create false names. If the site is going to be successful it can’t start with lies.

TS: Any plans to expand the site beyond school reviews and the discussion forum?

James: At this stage it is hard to tell. I can’t say I have no plans, but I don’t know what they are yet.

TS: What is it about this industry that seems to result in a fairly large number of disputes between teachers and owners?

James: Speaking only from personal experience. Communication between employee and employer is poor. Things are not laid out in advance or stated before a person flies 8000 miles for a job. This results in hard feelings and a bad situation for the employee. I have heard of less than honorable employers, but have not experienced that. So, I can’t really comment on those situations.

TS: What has your personal experience been as a teacher? Does a professional and responsible approach limit the potential for mistreatment from employers ? Or is there simply a group of unscrupulous owners out there bent on cheating and abusing foreign teachers?

James: My experience as a teacher has been mostly positive. No horror stories from me to tell. I have always tried to be professional and responsible in any job I do. It is not always enough if you have employers that value only the $. My advice for anyone looking for a job is to trust your senses. If it feels bad, walk away.

TS: What is your opinion of the TEFL industry as a whole? What are the current trends? Is it a credible career for those who decide to acquire further degrees, training and certificates? Where do you see things ten years from now?

James: My opinion of the TEFL industry is one of change and no clear direction. There seems to be no standard and all depends on where you live. It makes it very difficult to establish a valued pool of teachers. If a person is serious about this career, get a Masters Degree.

TS: Do you have any final comments you would like to share with teachers/potential readers of your new site?

James: The format of TEFLGUARDIAN is different from sites of old. It will take a little adjustment, but in the end will prove to be a valuable resource.

TS: Good luck and thanks for taking the time to respond to these questions.

James: Thanks for the opportunity.

TEFLGUARDIAN: The TEFL School Monitor

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Using Patterns and Routine in the Classroom

Organization, order and patterns. We all crave the familiarity that they provide in everything we do. The music we listen to, the movies we watch and the books we read all contain recognizable features and conventions. An ostensibly chaotic world when examined more closely shows patterns and logic in nature and is an indication that the tendency to seek out routine is hard-wired into us at birth.

Simple and repetitive methods of presentation don't prevent us from enjoying a television drama or a performance at the theatre. As long as the content packaged within those frameworks is well-written and engaging, the sense that we've seen it all before with a different twist rarely reduces the enjoyment. In fact, experimental forms of artistic endeavors are probably held to a higher standard to offset the audience's feeling that they're in strange territory.

TV Series HouseThe popular American television drama House, which follows the life of a doctor and his interns at a teaching hospital, offers up a weekly episode that rarely strays from a predictable formula. Each show begins with a "cold open"--the term used to describe a TV show that jumps directly into the action before the opening credits--that depicts a patient suffering the onset of their condition. The focus then shifts to the hospital where the acerbic Dr. Gregory House berates, insults and pushes the doctors under his watch to correctly identify the sickness.

At least one mis-diagnosis occurs, the patient has a seizure, and a dilemma arises in which a potential life-saving treatment could also result in death if the doctors are missing something. The young physicians are usually sent to break into the house of the sick person to search for clues that will help them fill holes in the patient's history. This fits in with the running theme that, according to Dr. House, all people lie, especially those suffering from an illness. One or two lighthearted scenes in which House sees a new patient often provide him with a revelation that helps to solve the puzzle related to the main case.

These elements are present, almost without fail, during every single episode of the show. But it doesn't matter that you have some idea of what is coming. Because the dialogue is clever, the characters are interesting, the action creates tension and it all contributes to an enjoyable viewing experience.

Patterns and routines are important in the classroom as well. That statement may elicit images of mind-numbing drills and rote methods overseen by a strict disciplinarian. But the reality is that establishing familiar practices in the educational environment is a critical part of effective learning.

Recognizing commonalities and distilling concepts into their component parts is an essential part of being a teacher. Even if you are relying on exercises and explanations from textbooks, you develop an eye for those that are best at breaking things down before building them up layer by layer.

Language learning particularly provides numerous opportunities for teachers to highlight tendencies. Being aware of the differences in the language being taught and the student's native tongue is an obvious focal point likely to present the most problems. It's natural for any student to apply the rules of Thai to English and come up with understandable but mistake-riddled sentences.

A simple activity involves having students take what they know about English and apply it to Thai as if their first language were English. They can create nonsense past-tense verbs in Thai, switch the adjective/noun order and try to speak in a monotone. The really clued in students will imitate some of the common errors they have heard foreigners make when trying to speak Thai. It all results in some fun with the aim of making students aware of how languages differ.

Pointing students towards discernible characteristics of concepts that are being taught is not the only time that patterns come into play. Day-to-day classroom routine is one of the most useful tools that a teacher can utilize. This doesn't discount the teacher's need for preparation, knowledge and energetic delivery. And it doesn't mean that there must be a dry and unimaginative handful of activities that repeatedly take place without any variation.

It can be as simple as the organizational style in which the instructor presents information on the board. Or the standard arc that each session follows, with the most free-flowing and independent time for practicing specific language functions taking place near the end of the period.

Sometimes the conventions that become part of every teacher's modus operandi are practical and meant to strengthen habits that will carry beyond graduation. Thus, one of the most important lessons for pupils regarding habits is understanding what the teacher, and one day society, expects from them. The standard procedure for submitting assignments is one example. This could include the insistence that all submissions be typed, the deadline be adhered to and the expected length followed.

Some routines, such as the board work style of each teacher, are self-explanatory and become familiar over time. Others, such as assignment guidelines should always include the rationale.

Introducing the notion of patterns as a specific topic worth discussing is beneficial as well. Directing students towards organization and self-discipline in preparing for the real-world is one good way to do this. Successful people in life are not always the most intelligent nor are they necessarily the individuals with the most years of schooling. Those who can recognize patterns no one else sees often go the furthest in a particular field. Whether in personal interactions, customer behaviour or a myriad of science related industries, the art of analysis as learned in the classroom can be transferred to the real world.

The explicit discussion of different styles of organization becomes another routine that students get accustomed to. And it makes those instances when you try something different resonate all the more because of the contrast. Similarly, it allows you to encourage your students to take the customs that exist in any subject area and learn to add to, refine and ultimately innovate so that they might create new patterns and become the leaders of tomorrow.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Tefl Tales: To Live and Die in a Strange Land

The early stages of living in a foreign country are full of surprise and wonder. But as the months turn into years and you start to put down some roots, you begin to form a more realistic image of your adopted home. The realization hits home that their ideas of interpersonal relationships and right and wrong are fundamentally different from what you grew up with.

Together with this awareness comes some culpability as well. You can no longer hold yourself above the less appealing aspects of your host nation. Being a long-term stayer in a country where egalitarian notions are almost unknown makes you complicit to a degree in the ongoing exploitation.

You rationalize, focus on the positives and carry on as best you can. Until something comes along that hammers you in a way you never thought possible. A combination of your good-nature and trust in people (you even knew before it was somehow naive) sets you up for a life-altering bit of nastiness. And that's when the earth truly opens up around you. All you previously thought winsome, quaint and enchanting becomes sinister and loathsome. You enter territory previously unknown. At best you can classify it as a nervous breakdown; at worst a period of temporary insanity. With no support and nowhere to turn, things become dire in a short period of time.

The only saving grace may be if you crawl down into the slime in which you find yourself and see it as a learning experience. Unfortunately, many of the lessons only further darken what has become your corrupted and hopeless outlook on the world. You know with all certainty that the ability of humans to empathize is almost non-existent and is only a pathetic narrative we have created over time in order to convince ourselves that understanding the pain of others is actually possible. It isn't.

You may find some solace in knowing that you are one of the damaged and can never return to the place you were before. It's a twisted brotherhood that holds no meetings, has no support groups and provides no comfort beyond the knowledge that there are inevitably others somewhere who have suffered far worse than you have.

It's not all bad, of course. You still have life.

Facing your own death is of course the worst possible scenario you can encounter in a strange land. Anyone teaching English in a foreign country and with even a mild interest in online activities related to the industry will be familiar with the tragic case of an American teacher in Korea named Bill Kapoun. He was severely burned in a fire in his apartment in Seoul on February 28th, 2008 and passed away about two weeks after that.

Despite the outpouring of grief and donations from family, friends and complete strangers, was he crushed by the weight of knowing that no one could truly know what his final days and moments were like? Or was he too far gone from the pain and medication to really know in the end?

There have been other cases of English teachers passing away under various circumstances while teaching overseas. Another recent tragedy involved a British teacher named Paul Hollen, who fell from the 19th floor of his condominium in Bangkok. The standard response from police was that it was a suicide. That well may be the case.

The death of Hollen rated nothing beyond a few lines in the local newspaper and a handful of threads on various discussion boards for expats in Thailand. There was little outpouring of emotions on those online communities due to the hazy circumstances. Some individuals even used the lack of clear-cut details to form conclusions and belittle him. Whether it was his own personal demons or the reptilian covetousness of some inhuman filth that led to his death is not as important as hoping that he didn't suffer.

I have been teaching in Thailand for six years and entered this game later than most. Still, I never let down my guard nor convince myself that I have this place completely figured out. Then I consider the first-time teachers fresh out of university heading half way across the globe to teach at the age of 22 or 23 and I think about how much more vulnerable they are.

I know that talk of crime, death and potential danger can be tiresome and the vast majority of those working overseas never have any trouble. But it's still important to remember that there are as many, or more, nasty characters and corrupt officials in most of the places you might travel to as compared to where you come from. In many situations that involve crime or treachery directed against you, keep in mind that you will not be given the benefit of the doubt and may for the first time in your life experience the helpless and sickening realization that you are being done over.

Your ability to recognize danger and warning signs given off by others is reduced and may never reach a level that you possess when in your home country. You absolutely have to be willing to do anything in a sudden situation or one that develops over time in a work or living arrangement.

While you are living and enjoying what will no doubt be the adventure of a lifetime free from any tragic or horrible situations, please keep in mind that believing nothing bad can happen because it hasn't yet, is a very misleading and dangerous mindset.

Good luck while teaching English in a foreign country. Trust your instincts and develop new ones.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Language Software Review: LearnItLists Language Learning Widget

Vocabulary lists are the type of thing that make students' eyes glaze over. Without context or practice related to proper usage, their effectiveness is limited. Still, I have always tried to convince my students that there can be a great deal of benefit from incorporating some memorization into the overall language learning process. This may not fit in with the most common teaching practices of the day but I have personally used some rote learning with success in my attempts to acquire other languages.

I make this appeal to students as part of my overall campaign to convince them that language learning is a skill and only the most motivated will achieve the best results. I also give them a practical demonstration of the power of memorization by learning all their names in the first class of the semester.

We go through the usual introductions and I write all the pupils' nick-names (I could never manage the full Thai names in one day) on the board. I then move onto other first-day administrative duties such as advising them of exam dates, drop dates etc.

There is always time for an ice-breaker activity. This takes about 30 minutes. I instruct them what to do and then they mingle and ask each other questions.

It's during this time that I memorize the names that I had written down earlier. After we have discussed the answers from the ice-breaker, I wipe clean the white board and ask them if they believe that I can remember all their names.

I've managed to pull off this little feat without fail over the past six years with as many as 60 students in the class. It is limited in its benefit of course and can only be done with all students in the same seats. My retention for the following class isn't perfect but it is a great start and I'm certain I truly learn their names and faces much faster than other teachers who don't make the same kind of effort early on. And it usually has the desired effect of impressing them as well.

Learnitlists.com has developed a clever program that combines language learning, routine and memorization. The end result is a downloadable widget that can be used on various social networking sites, google home pages and blogs.

You sign-up and enter the language you wish to learn and then you are taken to a page with the day's first list of ten words. Their English equivalents are in the opposite column. You can uncover each word as you go or see the word for the target language in the upper left corner as its English translation is highlighted in the list below. Another important feature gives you the part of speech for each word when you hover over it with your cursor.

They currently have 22 options that are loaded with 1000 of the most common words for each respective language.

The main benefit I see for language learners is that this could help them to build up a routine. With any task that increases a skill over time, the most important requirement is that daily practice takes place. In the first few weeks of any attempt to acquire a new ability or improve an existing one, it is incredibly easy to be knocked off stride. Establishing that pattern and seeing early results can convince a person that it really is doable. As part of a combined effort, Learnitlists has a lot of potential.

However, there are a few glitches. When I registered, I was advised that a message could not be sent to my e-mail address. I don't know if this will affect my ability to access subsequent sets of words. The convenience of having the new list there every day, whether you had thought of it or not, is what will make such a program work.

Another drawback is that it is somewhat limited in terms of the number of social networking sites you can download the widget to. They are apparently working on this. It would be ideal if a person could attach it to their browser's toolbar somehow.

The program is currently free to download, though there are certainly more than a few requests for donations and offers to buy shares in their company. Also, I had wanted to attach the widget to the sidebar of this blog for a few weeks but I was put off by the fact that it is bundled with advertising. I would encourage the developers to forego these ads until they have some more visibility and have taken it beyond the beta stage.

The success of something like this will largely depend on the distribution and marketing by the developers. I don't believe the software is especially advanced and I've no doubt that it will spark imitators (in fact, don't I know if this is the first of its kind.) The idea has many possibilities beyond language learning though that is definitely a logical starting point.

I urge those interested in learning a language to take a look. I will be utilizing learnitlists in the coming weeks and will report back on any improvements to functionality and whether I have made any progress in my language of choice.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Review: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne TrussPunctuation seems to be something that is glossed over by a large number of English teachers. Perhaps one reason is that, aside from periods (full stops for Brits) and apostrophes, most other marks are governed by rules that are misunderstood by native speakers. Even the criteria for apostrophes, which are straight forward and easy to follow, are regularly disregarded and abused. Many languages have none of these dots, dashes and symbols that are meant to bring order and rhythm to the words we write and read. We have them in English, yet a woeful number of us overlook these tools which can add precision, flow and nuance to our words.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss addresses the declining standards of punctuation use in society, offers a lighthearted (though fully accurate) introduction on its history and provides memorable and succinct instruction on the most common marks.

Surely, only a tiresome pedant would write or read a book on such an ostensibly soporific subject matter? But then, just as a sub-par writer would self-censor and convince themselves that certain topics could never provide enough material or angles, lazy readers would also be put off by particular issues and content. Thankfully, Truss is clearly energized and enthusiastic about punctuation and the result is enjoyable and entertaining.

She does, however, recognize the fact that the image of those obsessed with precise punctuation is worth addressing. Amongst those with at least some concern for correct usage, that stereotype or its mirror image is regularly invoked to describe others and highlights an interesting truism. Truss quotes Evelyn Waugh, who said, "Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic." With the insinuation being that, of course, each individual rates their own approach as the best one.

Truss places herself firmly on the side of the stickler and asks you as the reader to come along for the ride. Whether or not you share her obsessiveness on the matter, with the exception of the true mouth-breathers and semi-literates, you will probably be happy that you did.

The book is light and highly informative. It is also well-researched and full of the progression of various rules and trends throughout history. While you may rail against the corner grocer and his ignorance regarding the use of apostrophes (for example, "banana's,) you also learn that at one point an apostrophe was used to pluralize foreign words ending in vowels.

The opening chapter lays down a template for the rest of the book. A collection of laughable misuses of punctuation by shop owners, newspapers and government institutions, together with historical references as to where certain conventions arose and why they changed over time.

The heart of the book is broken down into chapters that each cover a specific punctuation mark. Starting with her own personal favourite, the apostrophe, Truss cycles through all the major devices, including commas, periods (full stops,) semi-colons, colons, exclamation points, questions marks, ellipsis (...), quotation marks, brackets, dashes, hyphens and italics.

She goes over the usage of each type using conversational language laced with plenty of humour. The playing-with-words type of quips are the ones that work best, though her self-deprecating comments on being part of the militant punctuation crowd also hits the mark fairly often. Only the "Let's unite, take action and put an end to these atrocities!" schtick that she tries out early on is a bit too contrived.

The book works best when Truss is spinning factoids and explaining simple concepts that many people may already recognize but have never been able to name nor been aware of their back-stories.

I finally get to put a name to the comma that comes after the final word in a list before an "and" (example: I like birds, dogs, and guns; the comma that appears after "guns.") It's called an "Oxford comma" and has been optional for years depending on whose wisdom you ascribe to (I personally don't use it.)

I also realize that I use the American rules regarding punctuation and quotation marks for no other reason than it is "tidier." In fact, the British rules (only punctuate inside quotation marks when it applies to the words inside) make more sense.

Truss marshals an interesting selection of quotes for each chapter as well, the best ones providing analogies or metaphors for each cherished symbol she is analyzing at the moment. This one, for example, from H.W. Fowler who was describing the use of the colon, which, "delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words."

Truss also articulates the kind of statements regarding punctuation usage that only someone who has spent so much time thinking about the topic could:

"As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a 'separator' (punctuation marks are traditionally either 'separators' or 'terminators') that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory 'woof' to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don't whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job."
There are also plenty of clever examples included which every teacher should have in their arsenal. The humorous kind that are double entendres just waiting to be sprung by misplaced or different applications of punctuation. This one regarding comma placement:

"What is this thing called love? What is this thing called, love?"


Or, regarding the use of hyphens:

"extra-marital sex vs. extra marital sex."

As you can see, Truss also employs that tittering British habit of lacing conversation or text with sexual innuendo or risqué comments.

The equivalent of an historical novel that includes real dates and factual happenings within the narrative, this is a far more enjoyable way to brush up on points of usage than would be offered in some musty grammar book that happens to have a chapter on punctuation. Does it go beyond an audience of those who are teachers or have an obsessive interest in punctuation and language? I would say yes; at least to some degree.

No book on the musical notes that we use to add timing and rhythm to our written words would be complete without a lamentation on the decline and abuse of those guiding symbols. While acknowledging the normal evolution of language, Truss decries the sad state of affairs as evidenced by English online and in e-mails.

Anyone who similarly cringes at the decline in general grammar usage will empathize with these statements. Despite the effort and attention to detail of those who refuse to become sloppy, will the day arrive when there are not enough people to care or even recognize the difference?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tefl Tales: Write What You Know

An oft-repeated line but one that has merit. Beyond the dry minutiae of sentence analysis, writing exercises, and lessons about paragraph organization, at some point you have to cut students loose and provide them with the opportunity to write about interesting and appealing subjects.

Individuals obviously have their own personal hobbies, interests and ambitions that they will want to write about. But certain cultural aspects will crop up when you are reading the scribblings of a group of students. There has been a regular topic that has shown up time and again in the assignments and exams written by Thai students. It's one that similarly plays out before my eyes in the classroom.

After arriving in Thailand, it doesn't take long to realize that notions of personal safety are sorely lacking compared to many first world countries. Horrific road carnage is the most obvious example. Lack of awareness of oneself and others when moving around in public places is another characteristic that leads to potentially dangerous situations.

As a teacher you see a steady procession of the walking wounded. The sight of students with broken limbs, road rash and nasty scars can be a bit startling at first. Your incredulity amuses them. When you ask your students what scares them the most, their guaranteed response is "ghosts." That they don't answer with the more logical "Having my guts smeared across the road by a driver with his head up his ass," doesn't amuse you so much as it leaves you shaking your head.

The ranks of the classroom infirmary increase after the holidays, as the number of drunks on the roads rises and reckless students on motorcycles are hammered into the concrete sans helmets. Perhaps my stern lecture on safety leading up to each Songkran festival (the Thai/Buddhist New Year celebrations that take place in the second week of April) has some kind of effect though it is unlikely.

And so each subsequent school term begins and I hope this isn't the year that the ultimate tragedy strikes one of my students. Surprisingly and thankfully, this hasn't occurred yet. But it's obvious from what they write about that their lives have been shaped and altered by the recklessness and lack of safety that is the reality in third world and developing countries.

Gut-wrenching tales of killed and maimed relatives and friends, somehow made all the more moving by the grammar mistakes and butchered syntax, are a regular feature of the assignments that are handed in. Regardless of the topic, students find a way to make their stories relevant, an indication of how much they have been affected by these tragedies.

A few recent examples:

"It's a main reason for me to decide that I should be a doctor. It related about a painful memory of my family in the past. 5 years ago, my best friend--Bank and I were playing football the yard in front of my house. While we were sending the ball to each other, the ball was kicked out to the road and Bank ran to catch it. Unfortunately, the car came fast and ran into him. Then I hurried to go to him and shouted my parents for help. After that we sent him to the hospital immediately but it's too late to help him. He left us forever. We all are so sad. Since then I promise that I will be the doctor to help persons that I love and all humans."
and:
"I got well supporting by my parent but it cause my mother almost dread. Since in the time that we walked across the road to have dinner and to prepare equipment for camping, my mother was hard crashed by motorcycle. Her head bumped whih the road on the other hand it was lucky that her head hadn't problem, that's all right."
Other tales related to genetic disorders and early death due to lifestyle are commonplace as well:
"I rather closed with my father very much because He always brought me travel on the other places that I'd never gone before and taught me in everything that I don't know. One day when I came back from school, I did homework downstairs of my home. My father was on upstairs of my home. He wrote a report to his commissioned officer. Suddenly he has heart attack and died later."
It's a fine line between pushing students to write about subjects they may not be comfortable with as opposed to simply allowing those who feel the need to do so the environment where it is accepted. Many, of course, have thankfully not undergone any trying ordeals and still enjoy that relatively unburdened existence of the young and carefree.

For those students who have known adversity and chosen to share very personal accounts that have had a profound influence on their lives, it seems to have a positive result. In the process, they have learned something about the language of expressing pain and perhaps the cathartic effect of sharing difficult memories. It's also a reminder for the teacher that every student has their own experiences, hardships, obstacles and dreams that have brought them to the place they are in life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Learning to Read Languages with Different Alphabets

When learning a language with a different alphabet (as opposed to the Roman alphabet we use in English) many people make the mistake of thinking that reading will be some kind of daunting challenge. They decide to concentrate on listening and speaking and leave the "more difficult" tasks of reading and writing for some point in the future.

This is a big mistake.

For one reason, you are shortchanging yourself of a true understanding of the language and culture. More importantly, it's not hard to learn a new alphabet. In fact, I believe that learning to read is the easiest of the four language skills.

The initial wall that some people throw up is because of the double mystery presented by these incomprehensible symbols that are part of the new language. While we can sound out words in other languages that share the Roman alphabet, when learning Thai or Arabic, for example, we are presented with shapes that provide no clear starting point.

However, if you actually consider this premise, you will realize that it is false. Any shape or symbol that we look at does provide us with our own internal conversation and series of images that rise up in curiosity in an attempt to understand and classify. And this is what a person can use to quickly memorize all the phonetic sounds associated with a foreign alphabet.

Let's take a look at the Thai letter gaw gai:

When I started learning Thai, I looked at this letter and the first idea that came to mind was that it looked like a bird (and the letter name "gai" means chicken, so obviously Thais had the same idea.) Then I located the phonetic sound of the letter, which is "g" as in "go," (this is when it appears at the beginning of a word--in other locations it can have a different sound, but let's keep things simple for this example!)

The trick now, is to connect the image in your mind with the phonetic sound. This letter became known as "grouse" to me. Every time thereafter as I was learning to read Thai, I saw that letter and thought "grouse" and the phonetic "g" sound was instantly there.

And I did this with every letter. It works remarkably well.

Obviously, after a period of time the letters will become ingrained in your mind and the initial memory aid will no longer be necessary. I believe this method works best if you worry about learning the actual names of the letters at a later date. Some teachers may frown on this but I feel the extra task of first memorizing all the letter names will hinder your ability to quickly acquire the phonetic sounds.

This system can be a bit trickier when learning a language with many letters that look similar to letters from the Roman alphabet (such as the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian) and some confusion is possible. But I believe it is still the best strategy in those cases as well.

A few hours of practice a night and I guarantee you can have all the sounds of a new alphabet memorized within a week or even less. Will you be looking at a sentence and blazing through it fluently? No, of course not. You will blunder and pause but you will be able to sound out the words. Of course, many of the words you will not yet understand. But that's part of the fun.

Everywhere you are (assuming you are in a country where the language is spoken) becomes your classroom. As you are sitting on the bus you can sound out traffic and business signs outside. Keep a notepad and write down the words for later reference or carry around a pocket dictionary.

This is by no means an original method for learning to read languages with different alphabets. In fact, a few years ago I downloaded a book whose copyright had long since expired. It was written in the early part of the 20th century by a Brit colonialist who had traveled far and wide and had learned a number of foreign languages. He explains the system above but in far more detail and with much more background. It's written in that slightly antiquated style of someone who lived at that time. There's also a muted but clear enthusiasm that indicates he couldn't have been happier at having chosen the life he had.

It was quite an interesting little book. However, I can't locate it in the jumble of unorganized files on my computer. I'll make an effort to find it in the next few weeks and will hopefully be able to post some excerpts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tefl Tales: Homosexual, Transvestite and Trans-gendered Students in the Classroom

First-time travelers to Thailand often comment on the apparently large number of homosexuals in the south-east Asian nation. Swishing effeminate men, shameless cross-dressers and angry young lesbians seem to be everywhere.

For anyone with a shred of tolerance this all becomes quite pedestrian rather quickly. But with a constant stream of bug-eyed, naive individuals outside their hick towns for the very first time, the impression develops amongst a fair number of the ostentatious and over the top transvestites that foreigners are a great source for mining attention and interaction.

Shouted comments and wretch-inducing leers from the legions of gender benders can be annoying at times. Unfortunately, this attention-seeking behaviour does not always stop at the classroom door. While the sight of Thai men prancing about on the city streets in skirts and make-up is an everyday occurrence, there is something about the university atmosphere that makes the appearance of a male student in the full female school uniform a bit jarring at first.

This is compounded by the fact that the decision to wear women's clothes is apparently commensurate with how large, awkward and hideously ugly the young man is.

If there is any illusion out there that the desire to dress up as a woman is the domain of dainty, small-boned individuals with a natural ability to pull off a convincing act, think again. Call it a massive attempt at over-compensation.

Other gay male students who don't tower above their classmates nor have fists like picnic hams, generally avoid the skirts. They choose instead to dress in a camp style while still mincing around and occasionally making a spectacle of themselves.

There may be a tendency by outsiders to proclaim all of this as evidence of a tolerant, open society that is streets ahead of the west when it comes to accepting differences and making everyone feel welcome despite their sexual orientation. There's probably some truth in that. But I've come to realize that superficial, feel-good observations made during two week holidays rarely provide accurate insight.

Thailand is a society where fitting in is highly important to most people. To be different in any way requires you to latch onto one of the many roles that exist and can be occupied in an attempt to smooth over discomfort and make things easier for everyone involved. Within that ready-made persona, you can follow a stereotypical set of rules, act out a well-tested play book of lines and mannerisms and feel like you fit in after all. There is also pre-determined etiquette on how your specific group interacts with society at large.

Though perhaps not fully able to partake in all the opportunities in society, "katooeys" (the Thai word for transvestite) can benefit from the unspoken agreement that allows them to be harmless clowns. In exchange they are allowed the freedom to do most jobs, though certainly not anything deemed official or "important." And apparently most crucial to them, they can carry on their lives acting and dressing as they like with relatively few hassles. Discrimination does of course exist, though it may manifest itself in more subtle and insidious ways in a country where outward confrontation is frowned upon more than in the west.

This brings us back to the classroom setting. Unfortunately, many katooeys and other over-the-top homosexuals engage in disruptive and flat out rude behaviour while a lesson is being conducted. All Thai students come a bit unhinged with a foreign teacher as they know the usual rules don't apply. For the flamboyant trans-gendered set, this can result in very inappropriate comments and pushing the boundaries towards the lewd and unacceptable.

The only way you can deal with this is by completely blanking it and refusing to take the bait. Once it becomes clear that their attempts at grabbing the spotlight have failed and that you will treat them exactly as every other student and not discriminate against them (though their rudeness would often make such a response completely understandable) they settle in and demonstrate whether or not they are capable of achieving a good grade in the class.

There are, of course, a good many gay students, both male and female, who don't engage in this kind of acting out and are usually no more or less remarkable than any other pupil. I go out of my way with these students in an attempt to make it clear to them that the only thing that matters to me is the effort they make.

And then there are the instances that you realize you may be taking everything a bit too seriously. I have learned the hard way that if I'm ever unsure about a student, it is best to skip the use of gender specific pronouns. Failure to do this can lead to an acute sense of embarrassment.

During the first day of the semester a number of months ago, I was getting to know the students of an "English for Economics" class, when I asked a question of "the gentleman in the back row." The result was an instant and spontaneous eruption from the entire group as they shouted out "Not gentleman, LADY!!! BWAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!"

I momentarily blanched as images of reprimands, human rights commissions, newspaper headlines and "outrage" flashed before my eyes. Until I remembered where I was and my students (including the young ..er ..lady in question, who smiled and nodded knowingly) did their collective best to release the pressure of what could have been a cringe-worthy situation for the ages.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Language Learning Software Review: Rosetta Stone Thai Level 1

Rosetta Stone Thai
Interactive software programs are becoming a popular way for people to improve their language skills. The appeal of using a computer program is that you can go at any speed you wish, repeat relevant sections as many times as you want and are not held back by dull-witted or uninterested classmates. Self-motivated students are the most successful in any context and no doubt they will benefit most from these language learning tools.

Rosetta Stone is probably one of the most well-known computer-based programs for learning a language. There has obviously been a great deal of investment in not only designing and producing their product but in advertising and marketing. I purchased their Thai Level One last year and have since worked my way through the entire course.

The appearance is slick and professional while functionality is smooth and easy to learn. The course is broken down into four skill sections: listening and reading, listening, reading, and speaking. There are four units, each with 11 chapters or levels. And each level contains four separate exercises. The presentation of the information may vary slightly from each use with a different ordering of pictures and questions to keep revision and practice somewhat fresh.

There is a great deal of content here. Working steadily, say an hour or so per evening, would take most people at least three months to effectively work through all the material.

Within each module, there is a tutorial and test section. Most learners will likely be drawn to the test section as it provides instant feedback as to whether you are progressing.

And what is actually taking place on your computer monitor and how do you interact with the program?

Most of the learning takes place by attempting to correctly match audio clips to pictures on the monitor. Four pictures appear and one voice clip is heard. In the reading section, of course, there are no audio clips. At first glimpse this may sound a bit simplistic to some people and I have heard just that criticism from others I have talked to.

However, there is an obvious logic to the progression. The intervals at which new vocabulary is repeated is based on proven research related to short- and long-term memory and language acquisition.

The speaking section was the most appealing for me. Thai is a tonal language and it can be very hard for foreigners to get the five pitches just right. The speaking section requires you to have a microphone, which you use to repeat back audio clips. Your voice is recorded and represented by a sound wave and you can see where you succeeded or failed in attaining the correct tone. Very impressive! I imagine the speaking practice for other language courses (for example, English) from Rosetta Stone would focus on aspects such as stress and word endings.

So, does the Rosetta Stone actually work?

Yes, to some degree. Obviously results will vary depending on the individual and the effort expended. I found myself coming to grips with some Thai grammar structure in most of the levels. It is all inductive here, with repeated and slightly varied forms offered up as each level proceeds. I started the course after I had been in Thailand for a few years and this obviously helped me a lot in making certain connections.

However, while a wide variety of topics were covered, I found the language selection somewhat archaic. Many of the words and types of sentences used on the program are ones I have never heard in everyday life in Thailand.

The price tag may be a bit off-putting as well. The last time I checked, Rosetta Stone Thai was selling for just under 200 dollars US on Amazon. Though when you break that down into the amount of usage you will get out of this program, it really isn't such a bad deal.

The novelty of using such a professional and well-designed course is a motivating factor in itself (at least in the early going.) As with any serious attempt to learn a new language, you should use this software in conjunction with a good "teach yourself Thai" book, a dictionary and as much practice as possible with native speakers. But for a good starting point, you could do a lot worse than Rosetta Stone.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tefl Tales: The Passive Voice

After a number of years in the classroom, you develop a trick bag full of effective, polished performances. You've distilled the awkward flounderings of your early attempts into a series of lean presentations free of all hesitations and rough edges. Naturally, you enjoy some more than others.

I've always liked when the passive voice class (a verb "to be" such as "is" or "was" is combined with a past participle such as "eaten" or "killed") rolls around. It means that you are with a group of learners who should be close to the pre-intermediate stage. They can converse naturally to some degree and you can finally begin to engage in interesting conversations that aren't marked by wild gesturing and pidgin English.

We spend a class cycling through the grammar and sentence construction and go through a series of activities to strengthen the students' understanding. At some point I silence the class, sit down, steeple my fingers like a pretentious arse and ask for reminders of when we use the passive voice. A few voices inevitably shout out the types of situations that we have already discussed.

Then I ask ominously if anyone can guess another context that lends itself to this newly learned grammar point.

"It's a good way to shift blame. And who in society dislikes admitting mistakes or accepting responsibility for what they have done?"

After some prodding and the mention of a few of the most recent scoundrels, I usually elicit the answer I've been looking for; "Government!"

No politician will ever say "We made mistakes," or "We killed someone yesterday," when they can more easily offer up "Mistakes were made and people were killed."

It's a subtle and practiced way that governments use to avoid stating the obvious in such a self-incriminating way. Journalists and editors will rarely shift the wording to the active voice when reporting or writing headlines. A good argument that the media is probably less biased than most people like to think (in this case no doubt, many would say they are complicit..they lose either way.)

And not only in English is this practice common. In the December 2007 edition of Harper's magazine, an article entitled "The Atrocity Files" details the uncovering and archiving of official documents related to Guatamala's three-and-a-half decades long civil war:

"Other methods of concealment were more subtle. Anyone perusing the police documents quickly perceives a habit of writing that sounds strange to the ear--the persistent use of the passive voice to describe everything. Police do not kidnap suspects; a suspect 'is kidnapped' (se secuestro). Security forces do not assassinate: the victim 'is shot and killed' (se disparo y se murio). A police report from November 1983 reveals that this grammatical tic was a matter not of dialect but of deliberate choice when one agent, describing his surveillance outside the home of a suspect, slips uncharacteristically into the first person. 'Approaching the house, I was able to observe a young woman,' he writes, 'who, when she noticed my presence, jumped up and looked at me suspiciously, so I decided to retreat.' This section of the report is cordoned off in red in and a note is written in the margin; 'Never personify--the third person must always be used.' "
I try not to finish classes on such a heavy note however. We usually end up having some fun together after I have directed the students to make some excuses in the passive voice.

"The homework was not completed. The car was damaged. My father's money was taken," etc.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tefl Jobs: Top 10 Locations in the World for Teaching English

What does someone heading out into the world to teach in a foreign country consider before leaving? How do they decide upon their first (and for many, their only) port of call?

There are a number of different factors. Many of them will depend on the type of person you are and what kind of experience you are seeking. But I believe there are a few considerations that are important to every English teacher looking for work abroad.

  • Potential salary: relative to the local economy and how much you can save.
  • Availability of jobs.
  • Living conditions: is accommodation included and if not, what is available and how much are rents as a percentage of your salary?
  • Bureaucracy and red tape: how many hoops are you expected to jump through before setting foot in a classroom?
  • Education system and employer professionalism
  • Free-time considerations.
  • Fellow teachers and expat community.
  • Safety and well-being: newbies spend too much time thinking about possible hassles and danger for most locations but still worth including.
I've looked at a number of countries and using the above criteria, have assigned a maximum of 10 points for each and come up with a top 10 list for best locations to teach English world-wide.

This is mainly for newcomers to the world of TEFL. Obviously, a 15 year veteran with a Masters degree and a university job in Japan will have different considerations than a greenhorn.

I have not worked in most of these locations. My opinions are based on anecdotal accounts from friends and colleagues I have worked with and regular information from a wide variety of discussion boards and other online sources.

1. South Korea
South Korea in 2008 is what Japan was to English teaching in the 1980's. Plenty of well paid jobs, accommodation provided by employers, opportunity to save a bundle and local night-life and restaurants to keep you busy. OK, the analogy isn't perfect but when all the categories are tallied up, the land of kimchi weighs in with a solid score of 62 out of 80. Tales of dodgy employers and recent hassles over background checks brought the score down slightly.

2. China
Such a big place that any tale you could spin about working conditions, housing or relations with employers would be true somewhere in the country. Overall, there are so many positive teaching stories coming out of the world's most populous and economically surging nation, that it had to come in at number two. The size makes it hard to arrive at an acceptable number for many of the criteria but at the same time serves as a positive. For example, free-time considerations. If it's boring and conservative in one place there are a thousand better locations in the same country. 60 points.

3. Japan
Not the place it used to be in terms of potential for savings and availability of jobs but still a location that most teachers rave about for total experience. In comparison to most Asian countries, the red tape here isn't as involved or likely to leave you shaking your head due to its sheer idiocy. Salaries over the past 10 years seem to be stagnant at best or even declining in real terms and together with the high cost of living, the financial cushion necessary for some in those early "getting set up" months may be a bit off-putting. Still a great choice for many. 59 points.

4. Mexico
This might strike some people as an odd pick for fourth in the world. However, I base the ranking on a few different aspects. Climate, relative ease of travel to and from the country (especially for Canadians and Americans) and a fairly welcoming and lively culture. Oh, and the jobs and wages seem to be improving with time as well. There are a pretty good range of varying experiences available, from the big city job postings to the more rural and "authentic" opportunities many are looking for. 53 points.

5. Taiwan
Decent wages and relative ease in getting sorted out regarding visas are offset somewhat by fewer options for spending free time. Smaller and less intimidating for some newbies, the lack of distractions may in fact be a bonus for those who want to get their head around the teaching game before moving on to greener pastures. 50 points.

6. United Arab Emirates
The Middle East isn't for everyone but when all factors are weighed, the UAE is probably one of the more moderate locations while still providing very good salaries and possibilities for doing activities in your free time. Another plus is that work for females isn't as restricted as in some other parts of the region. But it is harder to break into than Asian countries and the best employers will normally require you to hold a Master's degree. 48 points.

7. Thailand
Many would rank Thailand higher, especially for novices who want to get that first teaching job under their belts. Some teachers are literally hired right off the streets here with no prior experience and that is also appealing to first-timers. Because of my intimate familiarity with this country I can't place it any higher in the list, however. Stagnant wages in 80% of the industry, unscrupulous employers, increasing paper-work hassles and the fact that arranged accommodation is almost non-existent here all bring down the total. On the up side, good infrastructure compared to the general region, great travel options, fantastic cuisine and numerous choices for spending your time and money make Thailand a logical choice for many. 45 points.

8. Vietnam
Quite a few teachers who have worked in both Thailand and Vietnam rate the latter as better in many categories. I'm guessing that that opinion may have a lot to do with simply being part of something that fewer have discovered. Still, wages can be higher and there are fewer foreigners, which appeals to some people. 42 points.

9. Saudi Arabia
Reputations often die hard, especially in the TEFL game. Long known as the country with the highest salaries for TEFLers anywhere in the world, the title may still hold but with fewer job options and less wage discrepancy compared to some other locations. A wave of terrorist attacks in the early oughties sent many people packing and with them at least some of the underground partying scene that served as an antidote for the hardships of life in the most conservative country in the Middle East. Word is that things have started to pick up again on that front (partying, not terrorist attacks.) A rare few opportunities in SA for women. For those teachers who do head there, some can't handle the restrictions on public entertainment, gender segregation and the strong contrast to western countries. For others it seems to have a calming effect and they stay for years on end. An MA is still almost essential for the best jobs. 38 points.

10. Czech Republic
The lone European country I have included on the list. The main reason there are no other entries is that most EU nations specifically want those already allowed by law to be employed there. In western European countries, this seems to be a fairly strict requirement. However, it appears as though there is at least some leeway in the Czech Republic for non-Europeans to teach English. The number of jobs is only moderate though and there are certainly few tales of teachers making big money. My bias here is that I spent a considerable amount of time there many years ago and it is simply an incredible location full of history, hospitality and great beer. 32 points.

And those are the top 10 countries in the world for teaching English.

As you can see, there are a disproportionate number of Asian countries. This is in line with the stated aim of the list, which is to give those first entering the English teaching industry an idea of the best places to begin their careers. With all factors considered, I believe that Asia still offers some of the most favourable conditions for those starting out.

There are of course gems in every country where TEFLing has some kind of foothold. And many may strongly disagree with a lot of what I have written here. Please feel free to add to or criticize anything already mentioned.

Above all, good luck in your job search and may your choice result in a positive and rewarding experience.