Like Al Pacino in Scarface (part 2).

The brain is the most powerful organ of our body, it can do things that you could never imagine you could do, if you train it well. When we talk about language, the brain, logically, plays a significant role in it. In fact, it is the responsible for us to be able to communicate, it is was differentiates us from the rest of the animals.

The scientific explanation of how we learn languages it’s complicated but I am going to try to explain it in a simple way.

When we are born we have nothing in our brains except for the information about the mechanical functions of our body, but it has no knowledge, no memories, no experience, and no language. We acquire that through time and, in that time, our brain changes.

Imagine that, when you are born, your brain is like an open field of soil full of nutrients ready for its first crop. Imagine rain is information you receive from the outside world, each raindrop is new information for your brain. It’s what the soil needs to grow its crop.

When we are babies we learn to talk by listening everything we hear around us. Nobody teaches us the meaning of words, or the grammatical structure of sentences when we are babies. We learn by imitating. This would mean that each raindrop, at the beginning of our lives, is a phoneme. We start to hear a’s and b’s and c’s etc. Those raindrops (phonemes) start making channels in our field, one channel for each phoneme, and the more we hear a phoneme the deeper the channel gets.

Rain after rain the brain forms the channels it needs to communicate and starts to unite them one another in order to form words that have a meaning and then sentences and so on. The older we get the deeper the channels get and the least space remains to make new channels. So, when we are adults, the empty soil field is no longer empty and it’s no longer a field, it’s a jungle full of trees and little rivers and animals, insects, etc., etc.

At this moment, being already an adult, when it rains new information the raindrops can’t even pass through the leaves of the tall trees of your jungle and, if they pass, they don’t have enough space to make new channels and they are not enough to make one either. Here, what the brain does is to put that new raindrop in the most similar channel that it already has. That is why Spanish speakers say b instead of v. They don’t have the channel v because they never receive v rain drops in their normal lives and the brain is so full with information that it can’t even recognize it as a new sound. This means that the Spanish speaker can’t even hear that sound v, it hears it as b and drops it into the b channel. That is the reason why adult Spanish speakers learning English can’t say “very” with v and say “bery” with b. The same happens with the voiced th, the sh, many vowel sound and consonant clusters.

The result of all those new raindrops falling in the wrong channels is talking English like Tony Montana. If you are Latin American and you want to be taken seriously when doing business, or anything else, with English speakers, you really don’t want to sound like Tony Montana.

Unfortunately, Al Pacino played an excellent role in Scarface and that is the image people get when Spanish speakers talk English with bad pronunciation, no matter where they are from, who they are and what they do, there is a negative stereotype, as unfair as it is.

Fortunately, there are ways to fix this. Remember that the human brain is powerful and wonderful and it can do whatever you want it to do.  If you have this little problem, don’t get discouraged, there is a solution for everything, you just have to do a little extra (but fun) work. For now, think of stretching your brain bigger (some scientists and linguists have discovered that bilingual -or multilingual- people have bigger and heavier brains). Be elastic.


Things I like and things I dislike about teaching Business English

Let’s start with the dislikes:
1. Most business people overestimate themselves, specially men.
2. Most business people care only about themselves, their time and their money.
3. Most of them don’t show nor feel any appreciation for what the teacher does for them.
4. Most of them put their English classes at the last place of their priority list even if they know they need to learn and practice to keep their job.
5. Most of them don’t do homework nor practice at home.
6. Most of them cancel their classes at the last minute.
7. Most of them think that they don’t need English classes because they already know how to recite from memory the presentation of the company where they work.
8. Most of them don’t forgive if one day the teacher arrives late to class because of traffic or any other situation that the teacher can’t handle.
9. Most of them don’t realize that the teacher takes hours of his/her time to prepare their classes.
10. Most of them make the teacher drive (or walk, or take the bus, or a taxi or whatever) from one end of the city to the other.
11. Most of them don’t like to do roll plays.
12. Most of them think that it doesn’t matter that they never do their homework but it matters a lot if the teacher, one day, feels to tired to prepare a class and makes a relaxed activity (that he/she knows from memory because she/he has done it a thousand times) that seems improvised.
13. Most of them are really ungrateful

1. They pay a little bit more than other students.
2. The teacher can learn a lot about economy, finance, technology, and other themes about the students’ jobs.
3. They pay attention in class.
4. They ask good questions.
5. They offer you coffee or tea or whatever you want to drink.
6. Some of them work in really nice places.
7. The teacher can use technology in class because the offices are equipped with everything.
8. Usually the conversations are interesting.
9. You can talk about adult stuff (like politics and things that).
10. Some of them, only a few, mostly women, take the teacher’s advice, study hard and make a lot of effort to learn more and better.
I think that’s it.

Like Al Pacino in Scarface!

I don’t know about you, but I find that both teaching and learning English pronunciation is quite difficult for Spanish speakers.  In my short experience as an English teacher I have noticed that institutes and teachers rarely focus on phonics and pronunciation. I am not a native English teacher, my L1 is Spanish but I started learning English since I was five years old so I can say that I know both languages pretty well even if everyday I find and learn something new about the English language.

What I have learnt and studied the most as a not native English teacher, almost to the point of obsession, is phonics and pronunciation and not grammar or vocabulary as many not native teachers do. There are many reasons for this.

The first one is because when I started teaching adults I noticed how badly they pronounce and how horrible the English language sounds when it is pronounced incorrectly. It doesn’t matter if learners use their grammar and vocabulary skills perfectly, their bad pronunciation kills everything. Adult learners don’t realize that having bad pronunciation make them sound like Al Pacino in Scarface!! Sometimes I wonder how on earth my students, who are top-level executives, work in big multinational companies and earn a hundred times more than me, manage to actually make business talking English like Scarface! Of course I never tell them that even if sometimes I feel very tempted to do so.

Another reason for my obsession is because learners believe that pronunciation is the same as accent. They think that if they say “estuden” instead of “student” is because of their colombian accent. No! Everyone has an accent, people from the US speak with a different accent from people in UK, and that’s a very general example because you can have different accents within a single city or town. But saying “estuden” is not some kind of accent for the word “SSStudenTTT”, or “bery” for “vvvvvery” or “fy” (fai) for “fivvvvvvve”, that is simply bad pronunciation.

The third reason is the thought that when you go to an English-speaking country you will acquire the pronunciation by osmosis but that rarely happens when you are an adult.

Last but not least, I’m obsessed with pronunciation because of the belief that you can learn pronunciation just by having a native English teacher and being a not native English teacher challenges me to prove that this belief is not quite true.

Maybe I am wrong, but what I have seen is that many native English teachers fail to teach pronunciation effectively to adult learners because they are not aware of the difficulties that learners have when they associate their L1 with the target language. I think that to teach pronunciation effectively the teacher has to dominate the learner’s L1 in order to identify the differences between this and the target language, in this case English.

I have seen that, no matter how many times native and not native English teachers correct the same mistake, like “bery” instead of “very”, the next day learners will still pronounce “bery” (this is just one of many pronunciation difficulties that Spanish speakers have in learning English). In the end teachers just get used to hear “bery” and they give up correcting these kinds of little but very important mistakes. Something that I completely understand.

As a teacher I want my students to speak good English and not sound like Scarface! I want them to speak beautiful elegant and proper English no matter if they keep their Colombian accent (I myself have an accent, but I never say ‘bery’!!!). The issue here is not about correcting, it is about teaching the students how to create the auditory channels that they don’t have in their brains because of their L1. Creating new auditory channels will help them start pronouncing properly.

If you are interested in knowing how to create these channels in learners’ brains don’t miss my next post.

Thank you for reading me (I’m a newbie in this blogging things !)