Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alanis Morissette: Language Sell-Out

Every Canadian knows that the word "flavour" is spelled with a "u." Just as labour, humour, colour and a host of other words differentiate themselves from the American versions. The "our" ending isn't the only contrast between Canadian and American spelling though it's probably the most common.

But I should qualify the opening sentence. Most Canadians over the age of 30 should know the difference. As time passes, that number will further dwindle though there will always be a core of Canuck purists who continue to write the way they were taught. After all, language is as much a part of national identity as many other things. But with default settings on most computer programs deferring to the U.S. brand of spelling (and a general erosion regarding language precision), more of the younger generations will begin to see that as the "right " way.

Of course, even before the onslaught of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of computers, Canadian spelling was always a bit confusing and varied from person to person. More similar to British than American, it nonetheless shares some of the alternate spellings with the yank rule book.

"Kerb," is distinctly British; only a rare Canadian would spell the word this way and probably then only as an affectation. On the other hand, "grey" is the British rendering also widely used by Canadians while the American "gray" is adopted only by those who are clueless to the difference or are one of many self-loathers from the great white north. Then there are relatively neutral examples such as "travelled" and "traveled" which are probably used in equal measures by Canadians.

For learners of English as a second language outside of Canada, the no-man's land option barely rates a mention. I normally advise students to choose between British and American spelling and then stick with it.

But the "our" ending is significant because, unlike many of the words with variant spellings, it has somehow remained one that Canadians have kept in the face of American media, pop-culture and Microsoft (OK, there are a few exceptions.) To be a Canadian and spell "labour" without the "u" is to announce that such matters are insignificant and petty.

Alanis Morissette Flavors of EntanglementStill, I've no doubt that something will twig for many Canadians when they see the title of Alanis Morissette's new CD, Flavors of Entanglement.

Hipsters in the local music industry who interview the singer likely won't go near a question like "So what's up with the U.S. spelling?" for fear it would label them as anal and pedantic. But they too will recognize the shameless pander.

And who can blame Morissette and her record company? Her most important market will be in the U.S.

The inclusion of the "u" would be meaningless to many Americans while others would think something was amiss but be fully unaware of the British/U.S. variations. For those who had a notion of the separate spellings, it would invoke a vague sense of foreignness and annoyance.

All very symbolic of the fuzzy sense of culture in the massive frigid wasteland we call Canada. Proximity to the U.S. means resisting their influence is nearly impossible though many continue to make the effort. At the same time, a nostalgia for the more reserved, traditional and nuanced Brits still has an effect on who we are.

It's only fitting that Morissette, one of Canada's many musical exports, has created a small, thriving industry out of advancing her similarly contradictory and confused public persona. And her prior recording success has already proven that language isn't necessarily her strongest suit. Thanks to her, an entire generation of angry young faux feminists has no idea what the word "irony" truly means.

It would be a nice surprise if there were different releases of the CD depending on location but I have seen no evidence of this so far.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

TEFL Games and Activities: Past Simple

red diceJust as a pack of playing cards can be useful when teaching English, a pair of dice also comes in handy, especially when you are teaching small classes.

They can be used to play games at the beginning of the class. "Warmers" really do help get the students in a good frame of mind before moving on to the (potentially) more serious aspects of the study session. Also, if you have a few minutes left, a dice game (not craps!) can be a great way to end off and leave the students with a positive memory of the class.

Here is a simple game using a pair of dice. The grammar point is the past simple verb tense. Draw two tables on the board, each with 12 squares, and with all the squares numbered. Label one table as "Verbs" and the other "Nouns."

game grids
On a piece of paper, write 2 columns of numbers, with each set corresponding to one of the tables. This will be the list that you refer to when you are conducting the activity. The students, of course, should not see the list. For the first set, write a verb next to each number. For the second set, write a noun next to each number:

list nouns verbs
The nouns in column number 2 can be of any category though I find that animals work well.

Before starting, model a sentence on the board. For example:

“Last week I chased a dog.

It is always good to give students a chance to change the verb tense (conjugate) when playing a game like this.

Now, have one student from the first team roll the dice. If they roll a 4 and 5, they can choose box 4, 5, or 9 (the two numbers added together) from the grid marked "Verbs."

Have the same student roll the dice again and follow the same procedure for the grid marked "Nouns." Then, you (the teacher) will write in the words in the box that correspond to the numbers the student has chosen. Finally, the "contestant" has to form a sentence with the words that have been revealed. You can decide whether to allow consultation with the rest of the team.

As you can see from the list of words I have here, there are some amusing possibilities that pop up. As soon as the words are revealed, the laughter will begin before the sentence has even been formed. Once a correct sentence has been created and spoken out loud by the student, erase the words so that both grids contain only the numbers. With only 12 choices in each grid, it doesn't take long for the class to remember which words are "hidden" behind each box.

For this game you can divide the class into two teams. Each sentence can be rated by the class as to grammar and logic. Of course the other team will be shouting “No point!” but you will be the final judge. There really isn't much choice when the word pairs are revealed and there aren't likely to be many errors. The real benefit is in practicing the pattern and learning the past tense form of different verbs. Encourage students to change up the time reference used at the beginning of the sentences as well.

Take into account different cultural and religious sensitivities when deciding on the options. While some hilarious combinations can result, awkward ones can pop up as well if you’re not careful.

You can also use other verb tenses and could probably come up with countless variations using the same basic premise. It's a simple but fun game that takes the place of otherwise monotonous drilling.

Unlike many of the games and activities I post here, I can claim this one as an original. I have had good success with it though it probably maxes out at about twenty minutes.

Though this game uses dice, it is also one type of a whole classification of games I call “grid games.” In the coming weeks I will be posting more of them here.

Interested in more classroom games and activities? Try the following:

Present Perfect

Modal Verbs

The Passive Voice

Likes and Dislikes

Reading Activities: Writing on the Wall

Friday, May 16, 2008

TEFL: Innovative Methods and Approaches

The world of TEFL has been inundated with some inane ideas over the years. Desperate attempts to jump-start new fads in the English teaching profession are a monthly occurrence.

For example, you may not remember the “back-to-nature approach” which advocated teaching students outdoors. Not just taking the occasional class outside to waste a period or two. Every self-respecting teacher does that once in a while. The back-to-nature approach went much further.

Teachers instructed students while they were nestled in beds of straw, perched in tree houses or crouching in fields of tall grass. This was all meant to better facilitate the English instruction that took place. In the most authentic practice of these techniques, animals grazed nearby. Where this wasn’t possible, the teacher mimicked various sounds such as the munching of grass, yapping of dogs and clucking of chickens.

Here is an article regarding the intriguing and innovative style of teaching that appeared in a well-respected TEFL journal back in 1987.

The Back to Nature Approach to Teaching English

Near the village of Mae Sot in north-western Thailand, Somchai Prenpriporn practices the back-to-nature approach to teaching English. Somchai studied at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970’s. After he completed his degree in linguistics he spent numerous years living as a recluse in Burma, Cambodia and Mongolia.

During long hours of meditation and reflection he formulated this approach to language instruction. More than simple teaching, the connection with nature is supposed to create a holistic and symbiotic energy flow that allows the new language to be absorbed by students.

“All languages are connected to the natural environment. The earliest people in any society lived close to nature. The particular type of climate and landscape infused their very elemental existence. From this came the earliest grunts, which gradually flowed into language. To immerse students in the environment from which language sprung forth is to subconsciously provide them with a truly…fertile atmosphere in which to learn.”

Somchai provides this explanation in a quiet soothing tone as the musky smell of oxen lingers in the air of his rudimentary office which is located next to what he calls the “learning stables.”

Resembling horse stables, they are where some of the more structured practice takes place. Beyond the stables is a field with clusters of trees and bushes here and there. Amongst the trees are well-worn patches of earth, some straw for bedding and a few troughs. Some of the traditional tools of teaching are also evident. Blackboards on easels, chalk, erasers, a few rubber balls and oddly, a mallet.

The bulk of Somchai’s students are Burmese refugees who stream in from the border a few kilometres from this dusty town. He receives help from Pookie, his Thai assistant, and a steady flow of western backpackers passing through and looking for a unique cultural experience. They are usually not disappointed. It is far removed from the world of standard English teaching that exists hundreds of miles to the south in Bangkok.

“I usually put up the travellers in one of the stalls and offer them what food I can. We’re not doing this for the money and frankly there isn’t much coming our way.”

The occasional donation from local NGO’s and contributions from overseas help Somchai in pursuit of his passion.

On a recent afternoon, we were given the privilege of watching the back-to-nature approach in action.

Students are instructed to get themselves comfortable in the straw bedding in a small grove of trees in the field (Somchai previously told us that the tree house lessons are for advanced students—today’s group are beginners.) Somchai is at intervals animated, soothing and gentle in his repetition of instructions.

What is being said is only in English with no Thai translation. These groups of words are interspersed with barks and growls. There is also a lot of gesturing, pointing, and animal-like movements by Somchai. The students are burrowing into the straw, getting on all fours, now curling into the fetal position.

It all seems a bit surreal. But something is happening. It’s almost like the students are in a hypnotic trance as their eyes glaze over. Some utterances are taking place. Like guttural animal sounds. But wait, there are English words and phrases amongst the sounds. Here is a large beefy young girl mashing her body up against a tree, almost as if she is trying to leave her scent behind for future classes.

Somchai’s methods have created a kind of myth-like aura around the whole spectacle that involves his unique teaching. Like all mavericks who take a different route, the tales about Somchai have developed and spread and taken on lives of their own. There are unconfirmed rumours of incidents involving an electric cattle prod and late-night nude baying at the moon. Is any of it true? If it is, Somchai isn’t saying as he gazes with reverence out across this otherwise nondescript patch of dusty field in north-west Thailand.

Twenty Years Later

There are still a few copies of the issue kicking around but no one at the "respectable" journal has ever commented on the article. That it could even appear in such a publication is evidence of some of the hare-brained ideas that people come up with and the willingness of others to give them an audience. Perhaps it's due to the monotony that can become part of a teacher's life or more likely because of the wackos the industry attracts.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

EFL Teaching: Stigma and Perception

A certain stigma surrounds the entire TEFL industry and those who become English language teachers. This less than pristine reputation exists for a number of reasons.


The main reason is the ease with which any native speaker can become a teacher and gain employment in numerous countries overseas. The great demand results in extremely low standards.

Quality of Teachers

This is directly related to the first point. Because the standards are so low for gaining admittance to the TEFL fraternity, many charlatans, frauds, layabouts and other riff-raff from the west enter the profession for the ease of lifestyle and possibilities for travel it provides.

There are few regulations that govern the industry in most countries and educational requirements for potential teachers are marginal. In some locations, a high school graduate can gain employment with few difficulties.


I like to use the construction industry analogy here. Years ago, after graduating from university, I worked at numerous different menial jobs before doing anything relevant to the degree I had completed. I worked for a number of years on building sites and discovered a simple truism that allows many unscrupulous bastards to prosper in countless different fields.

The greater the level of special knowledge required for the task in question compared to the relative ignorance of that same subject on the part of the recipient/customer, the easier it is to pull a scam.

Significant errors in the construction of houses are glossed over because the builders know the ability of the customer to detect such screw-ups is limited. This applies in other areas such as plumbing, car repairs and yes, even teaching English as a foreign language.

While knowledge of the English language is hardly equivalent to the technical expertise required in the other trades mentioned, the fact that most students are clueless as to what is right or wrong or whether the teacher in questions is an expert, allows many who lack the basic knowledge to continue teaching. The whole art/science of teaching is nebulous enough in its own right that this factor gets further exaggerated.

And the inability to gauge competence is further compounded by cultural confusion. Mannerisms, speech patterns and physical characteristics that expose drunks, wackos or other high risk individuals are hard to spot by those from different countries.

The TEFL Industry is a Racket

Yes, this is a huge generalization but it applies to a large segment of school owners and others profiting from the business of language teaching. They are in it simply for the money and don't give a damn about the quality of education being delivered. Many teachers and students who have been through the system recognize this and pass on the information to countless others and the reputation of all involved is further tarnished.


Regardless of how well a teacher was treated or how professional the school owners were, some people just get a kick out of maligning and belittling the whole profession. Of course, a negative opinion may be genuinely and strongly held. Just as some will rate hip hop music as a nuanced art form created by geniuses while others see it as tripe produced by thugs. Some class a filet mignon as a prime cut of meat cooked to perfection and some consider it a rotting piece of flesh heated up by an oaf in a white hat.

Negative views of the TEFL industry may prevail due to the fact that unprofessional circumstances and colleagues abound. And some of those feelings are probably because of self-doubt on the part of the individuals making the claims and as a way for them to explain away the fact that they never quite got their heads around any effective teaching methodology.

This psychology can best be explained by the famous Groucho Marx quote:

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. "

People Who Will Never be EFL Teachers

Many people will never be EFL teachers, just as they will never be many other things. Their view of others who head overseas to teach in foreign countries is instructed by many of the previous points discussed. Everyone likes having certain paths in life that can be labeled and dismissed as it validates their own choices to a certain degree.

I'm not saying all those who have never taught English abroad hold a negative view of it. However, I have heard enough stories of those returning home and having trouble with potential employers giving little credibility to their experience to know that it's not considered the best career move by many people.

And that isn't a totally unfair assessment. Pulling up roots and heading off to teach half way around the world is a thought that never enters most people's minds. But the negatives act as a deterrence for at least some who might have pondered the possibility.

And that's not a bad thing as it keeps the numbers relatively small and the demand high for those who turn it into a life-long profession.