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Resurrection

Just over two years ago, I put this site/blog to one side. My career as an English teacher in Mexico had ended. What more did I have to say on the subject? I had new projects to explore and develop. But life often works in circles and very soon I will be returning to Mexico, resuming my interrupted career as a TEFLing toe rag in Tacolandia. So it’s time to breathe new life into this corner of the web and continue where I left off.

I have a number of plans for this blog. Shortly, I will be placing it with a new host, with a brand new sparkling template and its own proper domain name. I shall expand it – I have lots of ideas including lesson plans, online lessons and plenty of useful resources for students and teachers alike. Bits and pieces on TELFing and life abroad teaching English. I also aim to be a little more Latin America centric, although Mexico will remain the prime focus. A Facebook Page to accompany it? Maybe. But most of all, I’m looking forward to posting regular articles, exploring and poking fun at language. The English language in particular.

Did you previously read this blog? Was the RSS feed still in your Google Reader list? Welcome back. A first time reader? Just a plain old welcome for you.

Farewell

Alas, it is time to say goodbye. It’s been a fabulous six years, living and working in Mexico City, but all good things must come to an end. Home is calling, and I shall be returning across the Atlantic from whence I came. This does, sadly, mean that I will no longer be able to provide English courses, nor employ teachers for the same purpose.

But if you are need, don’t hesitate to send me an email and I can quickly put you in touch with the teachers/students I will be leaving behind. I hope you all have as much fun as I did. And that when you finally depart, you’re spoiled as much as I was with breakfasts and chocolate cakes.

The TEFL Blunder

As I wind up my career as an English teacher in Mexico City, I can reflect and assess the last five and a half years or so. Were there any big blunders along the way? Oh yes. One stands out in particular. I’ll come to that in a moment. I became an English teacher in Mexico City because I wanted to live in Mexico City. Not necessarily because I wanted to be an English teacher, although that did have its appeal. And if it wasn’t something I enjoyed, I dare say I wouldn’t have spent all this time doing it.

But that’s why most people become English teachers abroad. The desire to travel, and plant roots somewhere different.It’s something that any native English speaker can do. Almost. I’m getting closer to my point – the big blunder. The truth of the matter is that the TEFL industry isn’t a world full of regulations, standards or qualifications. There are some recognised courses and certificates, but the most rigorous of those are one month intensive teacher training courses. If you don’t have one? No problem, you’ll still find work. I did take a course, by the by. But  how many other educational jobs for teachers from the developed world can be walked into with such ease?

Because the fact is, if you are a native English speaker, you can be a TEFL teacher. Some of those who’ve made a real career from real qualifications might disagree with me. They might say that not everyone can be an English teacher. But they’re wrong. What they mean to say is that not everybody can be a good English teacher. I remember my first class, back in 2005. How to judge myself?

By the standards of the professional teacher, I wasn’t ‘brilliant’. I didn’t know a relative clause from my elbow. The subjunctive was something that needed the attention of a doctor. But I’m a quick learner, and I’ve worked in industries where I have been required to coach people for most of my working life. I knew if a sentence was wrong or not, and could rapidly work out why, and share the information in an easy to digest manner. And over the years, I’ve developed a very thorough understanding of grammar, vocabulary and context. So I might not have been brilliant from day one, but I was learning the ropes in the same way 95% of TEFL teachers learn the ropes. I survived. So, for the most part, did my students.

A couple of years ago I received an email from someone I know from the digital world. Could he be an English teacher? What steps should he take to make it in Mexico City? I get asked the question a lot. Few ever actually make the jump. My response had become automated. Sure you can. Take a course with this teacher-training company. Get a few jobs, and away you go. That was my big blunder. I knew the chap only from his posting on the internet. Had I thought he might really, actually, whole heartedly go for the jump, then maybe I’d have given him alternative advice.

Perhaps I’d have suggested that his inability to write a coherent, grammatically correct sentence with half decent spelling might hold him back. Might make life difficult for him. There might be better career paths for him to take. I didn’t. I blundered. The truth might hurt, but the enormous amount of time and money that was subsequently wasted hurt more, I’m sure. Prospective TEFL teachers do need to be honest with themselves. You’ve don’t need to be the next Shakespeare. You might not even really understand what ‘grammar’ actually means. But you should at the very least have a decent grasp of the language. At the very least.

The chap failed his course. Miserably. Despite an extension and extra tuition. He did, however, find some classes anyway. Proving my point – anyone can become a TEFL teacher. But it was all too much hard work, and he soon returned from whence he came. Proving that while anyone can become an English teacher, not everyone should become an English teacher.

Imaginary Accents

In six years of teaching English in Mexico I have been asked only once to specifically teach a British accent. Most of the time my accent is simply mocked. In good humour though. I think. Teaching an accent is difficult. Especially a British one. Which British accent, for a start? Well one lady in the US thinks she knows what a British accent is. Oh dear. Garaaaaage? Really??  She really doesn’t. It’s almost tragic. Could I use this as a teaching tool? Possibly. In a lesson entitled ‘Why you shouldn’t try to fake a British accent’.

Oh Dear

I have a number of course books that I use to teach English, but one is particular favourite. It’s an advanced book and is quite old – old enough to have pictures of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in it. And a detailed chapter on letter writing. There’s some useful stuff in that section. When to use Miss, Mrs or Ms, for example. Ms often takes some explaining. Once a bit of a rarity, and made famous by Martina Navratilova, it used to leave a question mark with regards the lady’s sexuality. These days it’s not nearly so uncommon, and the implication it once carried has largely disappeared.

But this section does deal with something of a lost art. Letter writing was long ago replaced by email. When did you last pen or type a letter that was delivered in physical form, rather than by the organisation of bits and bytes on a computer screen? For me, it was in January 2005 – a letter of complaint to National Express coaches in the UK. There is something far more formal about letter writing in comparison to drafting up an email. So how has the format and formality of letter writing changed? I came across a very interesting article today on the BBC website about this very topic…

It’s time we ditched “Dear…” from work e-mails, according to a US political figure, who says it’s too intimate. So what is the most appropriate way to greet someone in an e-mail – hi, hey or just get straight to the point?…..

….”‘Dear…’ is a bit too intimate and connotes a personal relationship,” Ms Barry told the paper. And as she strives to maintain what she calls “the utmost and highest level of professionalism”, she sees no need for old-fashioned graces….

…”I’m fed up with people writing ‘Hi Jean’ when they’ve never met me,” says etiquette guru Jean Broke-Smith. “If you’re sending a business e-mail you should begin ‘Dear…’ – like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential….

…But if introductions are a dilemma, sign-offs are a social networking minefield. “Yours faithfully” can’t be trusted. “Sincerely” feels insincere. And your “kindest regards” sound like anything but.

Where once there was correct protocol and certainty about how to address someone when writing a letter, there is now a minefield. It’s all too easy to give the wrong impression. So how to teach this tricky subject? I take a fairly simple approach. On many occasions, my students will be writing to people they have corresponded with before. They are often people who work for the same company in different countries. What format are they using? Play it safe and copy them.

What if they are writing to someone for the first time? If it is someone of their level within the company, and there is a format that is in general use within the company, then use that. This might be “Hello Juanita”. On the other hand, if the recipient is somebody senior, or an person not working within the company I always suggest using “Dear…”. It is possible that it might be viewed as being ‘too formal’ or even ‘overly polite’. I can’t see that ever upsetting someone though. And it’s far better than being perceived as being ‘too chummy’ or ‘overly familiar’.

iTranslate

Translation has moved on quite some way from the old fashioned paper dictionary. Blessed be the internet! Google Translate can still give some iffy translations, especially when the passages are a creatively written, but it’s improving all the time. But those paper dictionaries and phrase books still come in useful when you’re out and about, pounding the streets and out of range of a PC or WiFi connection. They are cumbersome, slow to produce results and are limited to one alternative language to your own, but there’s no other practical solution.

Or there wasn’t, until now. The video below describes a new iPhone app that translates what it sees in real time. Pure genius. So ingenious indeed, that were today April 1st, I think I’d have assumed it’s a joke. But apparently it’s the real deal. Of course, it only translates what it sees. But how long before iPhones translate what they hear, and Star Trek movies are transferred from the science fiction shelf to the non-fiction shelf? And that, of course, will spell the end of the TEFL teacher!

Of course, this is no substitute for learning a language, and if you happen to be coming to Mexico City and wanting to pick up some Spanish, then this blog post by the Go Mexico Guide has all the info you need to get yourself enrolled in a class.