Task Repetition?!

Until very recently, I was not too keen on repetition. Any kind of repetition. And that was probably due to my own lack of connection with what was being discussed in the ELT community.

I had bigger fish to fry, in a sense. I was the DOS of a large language school in Toronto, I had to manage 20 academic staff members, over 150 teachers and 3 thousand students spread across 5 campuses. Saying that my plate was full was an understatement and, even though I longed to be more involved in the academic part of the academic department, a large component of my workload was to handle the business side of the learning.

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It wasn’t until I left my job with the school and began – again – my own journey of self-discovery as a teacher, as an ELT professional – not just as a manager – that I was able to start learning again. And one of the things that I have learned is that task repetition IS effective.

Hear me out.

Whenever surveyed, learners of English tend to name speaking as their biggest hurdle in achieving so-called fluency – or even some level of independence when communicating English. But why is that so? Why is it that speaking remains as one of the most elusive skills to attain?

I’ve spent quite some time trying to find a possible answer to the question and, honestly, there might be tens or hundreds of different possibilities. However, what struck me was the fact that we, as teachers, might not be creating enough opportunities for our learners to use language in a ‘language-using situation’ as opposed to ‘language-learning situations’ (Bygate, 1987).

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What it means is that although there are plenty of speaking opportunities in the classroom, most of this speaking is geared towards learning the language rather than using the language in a way that resembles the real-world. Granted, task repetition is generally not a feature of real life – after all, how many second chances do we get? But what if we could, at least, give learners purpose?

I’ve come across the teaching-speaking cycle (Got and Burns, 2012) and have had the chance to test it. It is, indeed, quite helpful in getting learners to test using the language, to notice the gap between what they can do and what they need to do, and to build on it to improve their own performances during task repetition.

My initial fears that repeating a task would be boring were unfounded and performance as a whole did improve from the first to the second run of the task. Not only did learners’ output become more accurate, it also became more complex and more fluent.

What I am saying is that, yes, I get it, it is not always possible to work on speaking as a stand-alone skill, but sometimes we can step outside of our comfort zone and try something new. If you do find yourself at this place, I strongly recommend giving this framework a go. It is fun, it is student-centred and it is empowering (for the students).


Reference:

Bygate, M. (1987) Speaking. Oxford University Press.

Goh, C.C.M. and Burns, A. (2012) Teaching speaking: a holistic approach. Cambridge University Press.

Giving [good] feedback

– not yet another formula –

There is much discussion around how to deliver feedback. Some talk about the sandwich approach, others believe in going straight to the point, and a few dress cruelty up as honesty and have lots of fun making mean comments on other people’s work or performance.

When somebody is receiving feedback, they likely feel vulnerable, unsure of how well they performed. Of course there are exceptions to every rule and some people might believe themselves above feedback and beyond reproach.

Assuming you are giving feedback to the former, not the latter, it is a good idea to keep that person’s feelings in mind. Being empathetic is always a good policy in my books. But it doesn’t mean there’s poetic license to flout the truth. I guess good feedback lies in the intersection of honesty and empathy.

feedback

For any kind of feedback to be effective, it has to be clear. When things need improving, well, there is no sugarcoating that: they need to be improved. On the other hand, it is also important to acknowledge the positive points and offer support and encouragement.

As someone who appreciates receiving feedback, I can say that clarity is essential. Always make sure to pinpoint exactly what needs improvement, how it can be achieved and why it is needed.

Giving feedback doesn’t necessarily require a magic formula. It just needs three ingredients:

  empathy     honesty           clarity

My journey to distinction

The title might sound a bit conceited; however, I promise the content you are about to read is not. I have recently received my Delta Module One (M1) test results and thought the journey that led me to it might be worth sharing.

When I first started the 14-week online course, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Yes, I expected Delta to be difficult. I expected to have to put in the work. But I really did not start on the right foot: I hadn’t done my research.

I knew M1 was a knowledge test and I knew there were two papers. And, yet, for some reason, I didn’t see the preparation course as a test prep course – at least not at first. The amount of content we were expected to cover weekly was overwhelming, especially since I didn’t have time to properly digest it, bounce ideas off anyone, or even test my assumptions. It was quite a lonely process.

Two weeks in, we started having live test prep sessions. That’s when I began to fully grasp the magnitude of it all. That’s when I realized that passing the test was not a given. Still, I seemed to not have woken up to the fact that I should be preparing for the test, not simply acquiring knowledge. And, honestly, there was no way I would be able to absorb the sheer amount of information I was being presented with in meager three months.

I also fell off the wagon when a trip kind of set me back two weeks – my doing, honestly, and very irresponsible of me. Suddenly I found myself having to study twice as hard simply to cover the content – let alone make sense of any of it.

I must have seemed very out of my depth to my peers at times. And I was. I was having trouble finding my tone in the test prep and the first two mock tests resulted in disappointing performances. I felt like a fraud and began to prepare myself for having to retake the test in the following year.

Okay, I am sort of a drama queen. But halfway through the course I really was convinced it would be a mighty accomplishment to simply meet the 50% mark in order to pass the exam and be able to forget how stressful prepping for it had been.

That’s when I realized I might be doing it all wrong – or partly wrong. The first thing I did was to begin a “lexical notebook” of sorts with the terminology I would be quizzed on in Paper 1 tasks 1 and 2. In order to accomplish this, I strongly recommend reading The New A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury even before the start of the course.

Another mighty read is About Language, also by Scott Thornbury. It offers an overview of English as a language taught all over the world and how we, as teachers, approach it. Of course there is a lot more to read and these two books only scratch the surface of it. But they are, indeed, essential.

Apart from all the knowledge I needed to acquire if I wanted to pass the test, I also needed test-taking strategies. And this is, I think, what really made the difference when it came to writing the test.

Cambridge seems to be very particular regarding what they expect from a teacher at the Delta level. In order to be successful, thus, it is imperative to understand what those requirements are and how to meet them. Check all available test reports – apparently they don’t go beyond 2015, but there may be other ways of getting more recent ones (ask your tech savvy friend) – and take note of how candidates phrased their answers.

Take mock tests. Do and redo them. As a teacher, I would probably avoid having my students do the same exam practice task over and over again. As a student, that’s exactly what I did: I redid the mock tests a couple of times, at least. This helped me feel confident in phrasing my answers the way Cambridge expected. It also helped me recall terminology and recognize patterns.

Last, but not least, do your own analysis of textbooks. One of the tasks is to take a look at a chapter of a textbook and analyze purpose of the task, author’s assumptions, application to the student, reasons, and the relationship between tasks considering the level of the students. This is one of the tasks that holds most marks in Paper 2.

Finally, as in any test, the Module 1 knowledge test will focus on a fraction of all the ELT content you are required to know. So there is definitely an amount of luck involved in the sense that the test might ask the questions to which you know the answers. The more answers you have, the better your chances to perform well.

I hope this helps. And feel free to drop me a line if you think I might be able to help you in any way.

Good luck!

Teaching in Canada when English is your L2

As you may know, teaching a foreign language is no small feat. It involves deeper knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, phonology, discourse and functions. It also involves methodology, training, practice, experience and vocation – though teaching anything also requires these.

Now imagine teaching a language that is foreign to you in a country where that very language is the official one. Yep, I guess you get my drift.

So this has been my reality for the past 8 years. And this blog is about what it felt like to me in particular. It may feel differently to different people.

Language Proficiency and Certifications

As part of teacher knowledge, it is probably a good idea to have a proficient level of English if you are teaching English, regardless of your place of birth. While you might not need to prove it, it is always easier to make a point if you have evidence to back it up.

Another box to check is the ‘certification’ one. Again, this has nothing to do with which language one speaks: everyone is required to have a TESL certificate to be able to teach ESL in Canada.

Preconceptions and Misconceptions

Native-speakerism is alive and well, sadly. It is the (mis)conception that native speakers of a language make better teachers. You can read more about it here.

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It would be naive to think that such “ideology” would have no place in Canada, although I must admit it is a very inclusive country. Still, regardless of my qualifications, certifications and experience, I ended up feeling that there was that extra bit to prove.

Fortunately, there were only two instances where my knowledge or ability as a teacher was questioned by students. The first was right when I first started and it had more to do with the fact that the student didn’t want to do any work than my ability to deliver. I did go to my DOS when I felt something wasn’t going well and had his support 100% through the process.

The second one was quite interesting. It was a more mature student from my home country. We had been having classes for a week and she was quite happy with it all until she learnt that we were both from the same place. She requested to change classes to a “native teacher” immediately and explained to me it was nothing personal. The funny thing was that a couple of other students took offence and were quick to let me know what they really thought about that other student.

Being a good teacher has nothing to do with the place where you were born. I’ve previously discussed whether being a native speaker has any bearing on being a good teacher here.

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My fellow teachers, for the most part, were welcoming and tended to take it for granted that I was exactly where I should be. That, of course, apart from the couple of times that the second question they’d ask me – after “how are you” – was “where are you from?”. I’ve also discussed the impact of this seemingly innocuous question here.

Accents and names

People sometimes equate accent to knowledge (or lack thereof) and this is extremely unfair – to say the least. First off, everybody has an accent: Australians do, Neo Zealanders do, South Africans do, Canadians do, the Welsh do, the Irish and the Scottish do, North Americans do and so do the English (and all others who speak English as L1).

Accents indicate identity. Accents make you unique. Accents have nothing to do with knowledge.

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Now, incorrect pronunciation may be a different story; however, not every slip means lack of knowledge or lack of proficiency. Newsflash: native speakers may mispronounce words too. Nobody is infallible.

Even more appalling is the way that teachers with anglicized names may be preferred over others. Hundreds of years have passed and little have we learnt from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Opportunities

Canada is a country that welcomes and incentivizes immigration; it is a place where speaking a second language is almost a given. This means the workplace is made up of people of different backgrounds.

Canadians and new Canadians share the workplace in pretty much any industry that there is. There are plenty of Canadian trained teachers as well as internationally trained teachers. Nationality is not (or should not be) a determining factor in the hiring process. And I can say for a fact that where I used to work, teachers were hired based on their training, experience and knowledge regardless of their place of birth.

In the end, in spite of the hurdles, in spite of my grappling with an impostor syndrome (anyone else?), in spite of working extra hard, the message I want to convey is that it is possible to be successful as an ESL teacher in an English-speaking country regardless of your place of birth. Just don’t give up and don’t give in.


Melissa has been working in ELT for nearly 20 years and holds an IELTS, a CPE, a CELTA and a Delta M1.

Teaching in Canada: what to expect

Before we get started, please note that this blog reflects my personal experience and may not reflect the current world situation – pandemic.


There are basically two types of (adult) learners in a country such as Canada: those who need the language in order to live there (English as a Second Language – ESL) and those who travel for an immersive experience in language learning (international students). We will talk about the latter in this article.

Language schools abound in Canada, especially in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. This means there is constant demand for qualified ESL teachers.

Language schools abound in Canada, especially in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. This means there is constant demand for qualified ESL teachers, which is a quite positive prospect if you are considering a move to the “True North”.

Not every school works the same; however, these are the important aspects to keep in mind:

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  • The students – international students have different reasons for coming to Canada to study English: some wish to start college or university, some need to brush up their skills, others want to experience live abroad and so forth. Your students may be young adults or even much more mature. At times, they may even share the same classroom, the same groups.
  • The nationality mix – variety is the spice of life and it is particularly true in the international language school setting. Some schools receive student from as many as 80 different countries around the world.
  • Cultural diversity – sometimes cultural beliefs clash and teachers need to manage a lot more than the pace and flow of a class. Being culturally sensitive is paramount to the successful ESL teacher.
  • The class cycle – in countries like Brazil, English classes are usually held twice a week for 90 minutes at a time. Surely it varies, but it is safe to say it is pretty much the norm. In Canada, classes may last up to 4.5 hours five times a week. The implication is that the teacher who would have to prepare for 3 hours of class per week (with the same group – and has different groups simultaneously), now has to prepare for over 22 hours per week. Yep, this is quite intensive!
  • The curriculum – as students have more class time per week, they also burn through textbooks and materials at a much faster pace. In certain schools, a textbook would be covered from beginning to end in 4 months.
  • The courses – main classes, that is, the core courses – usually go from General English, Test Preparation and Business English to English for Academic Purposes, which is a highly sought after course often part of a program called ‘University Pathways’.
  • Vacations – in Canada, employees have the right to take 10 vacation days per calendar year. This number does not include weekends and holidays. So if you are thinking about living in Canada, you’d better brace yourself for the much less generous vacation time.
  • Sick days – it varies from employer to employer, but some schools offer up to 5 paid sick days per year. Unlike countries such as Brazil where you need to prove to your employer that you were sick and required to stay at home (with a doctor’s note), in Canada you don’t have to. However, you likely won’t be paid for a sixth or seventh day off due to illness.
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This, of course, is a brief overview of what it is like to work as an ESL teacher in a language school in Toronto. Feel free to contact me if you would like any details on the subject.


Coming up:

Being a non-native English teacher in an English-speaking country.


Looking for a job? A good place to start is checking which schools are members of Languages Canada and contacting them directly. You can find this list here.

Teaching Abroad: Requirements

While I can’t talk about the requirements to teach in every corner of the world, I can talk about what’s needed to teach ESL in Canada.

When I first landed in Canada, 8 years ago, I got a job teaching ESL right away. Honestly, when I started my job search, I didn’t really know whether my training and certifications would be enough to land me a job teaching, let alone the need to completely revamp my resume.

Personal File Photo – previously shared on social media

After spending 3 years as a teacher in that school, I took the role of Director of Studies, which helped me better understand what the requirements for teaching ESL in Canada were.

Requirements to teach ESL in Canada

Work Permit

The first thing you need is the right to work. Although I know it might deflate some of you, it is extremely unlikely that any language school in Canada should extend a job offer to someone who doesn’t yet have the right to work.

There are different types of work permits and, if you are interested in learning more about them, your best bet is either to consult with a registered immigration consultant or to check the Immigration Canada website.

I know there are many consultants out there, so choosing one might seem a bit daunting. If it helps, my friends Carol and Leo from Dreamies do an excellent job. Check them out.

Bachelor’s Degree

One of the requirements to be able to teach ESL in Canada is to hold a Bachelor’s Degree. And it doesn’t matter whether you graduated in Political Science, Applied Linguistics or Engineering: it’s all good.

Now, the catch is that, if your diploma was issued by an institution outside of Canada, you need to make sure to provide a Canadian Equivalency Report to your employer.

One of the places where you can get it done is the World Education Services (WES). They offer a quick check for free – to make sure your University and your program qualify. Some language schools in Canada may accept that as proof of equivalency but others may not.

Training

TESL Canada and Languages Canada are two associations that seek to promote excellence in teaching and service in the field of Language Teaching in Canada. Both organizations uphold similar requirements for ESL teachers: completion of a recognized TESL training program which must be:

  • externally validated by a reputable examination body (usually a university or recognized examination board)
  • contain at least 10 hours of supervised teaching practice (ie teaching practice where a qualified and standardized assessor observes the trainee teacher teaching real students and gives feedback on his or her performance)
  • and 10 hours of observation of professional teachers
  • at least 100 hours of ELT/TESOL instruction

Examples: CELTA, Trinity CertTESOL, Certificates issued by Canadian Universities or Colleges, TESOL, TEFL

Now that you know the requirements to land a job teaching ESL in Canada, is it something you would consider?


Coming up:

What it’s like to teach ESL in Canada: places of employment, teaching schedules, classroom, students, materials and more.


Links:

Immigration Canada

TESL Canada

Languages Canada

Dreamies – Immigration and Education Services

World Education Services

CELTA

CertTESOL

Teaching Abroad

When I first started teaching English as a foreign language in the early 2000s, it never occurred to me it could take me to different places in the world. Now I know it is not only possible, it is quite common.

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Teaching abroad means different things to different people. My take on it is based on my personal experience as someone who has been living and teaching abroad for the past 8 years.

Where is abroad?

While we all agree that abroad is any country other than your own, for the purpose of this article, abroad will be used to refer to either of the following:

  1. countries whose first language is not English
  2. countries whose first language is English

The reason for the distinction is that requirements, workload, students, cultures do differ from country to country and, while it might seem obvious, it is not.

Teaching in Asia, Europe (except the UK and Malta) and Latin America

English is taught as a foreign language (EFL) in countries where English is not an official language. This means students’ contact with the target language might be restricted to a few of hours a week within the classroom setting.

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Usually, English is an extra-curricular activity and learners might frequent classes before or after work, for example. Evening and weekend classes are quite popular among adult students. Practice, like I said, may be restricted to the classroom only, which might not rate high on the motivation scale.

Another thing to consider is that learners likely belong to the same cultural group and to share the same mother tongue. In such contexts, translation or the use of the students’ L1 is not uncommon.

Teaching in English-speaking countries

In English speaking countries, English is taught to speakers of other languages as a second language (ESL) rather than a foreign one. This means the language spoken outside of the classroom is English.

The learner profile may also vary in these countries: from immigrants to international students. And this translates into a multicultural classroom with speakers of different languages whose common denominator is English. In this context, translation or the use of the students’ L1 is less common and, likely, impractical.

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On the flip side, practice is constant and it may be highly motivating, as students can put their learning to the test simply by doing everyday activities, such as grocery shopping, asking and giving instructions, taking public transport, watching TV and so forth.


Now that we know where abroad is and who the students are, we can discuss the minimum requirements for anyone who’d like to teach abroad.

Stay tuned…

Who’s afraid of Online Learning?

Intro

Go ahead to read pros and cons of online learning

It may seem like a novelty, but distance learning and, more specifically, online learning have been around for a while. The first fully online course was offered by the University of Toronto (UofT) in 1984. The University of Phoenix became the first to offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees online in 1989.

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My first contact with the Internet was in 1996 in Australia. It was kind of flimsy as there were not many other people in the world with access to the world wide web and there wasn’t much out there in terms of content.

In the past 25 years much has changed, so much so that it is almost impossible to imagine a world where information isn’t at our fingertips. And yet, in spite of our familiarity with the Internet, online education had never seemed to be in the centre of the debate. Online shopping? Absolutely. Entertainment? Definitely. The future of music, literature and dating has been widely discussed. And still, learning seemed to be relegated to the fringes of the discussion.

The world today

Skip to what you need to know before choosing an online course

Faced with the Coronavirus pandemic, schools were forced to close their doors and all classes were transposed to online platforms. While it is true that online learning did not need to be invented in 2020, it was still all but an afterthought to many learners and educators.

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Now that most of us have dipped our toes in the waters of online learning, what should we expect from it?

Well, it definitely is here to stay and here is why:

  • It costs less – as students (and schools) don’t have to bear the brunt of property rental, maintenance, taxes and so on.
  • It saves time – as it cuts on the commute time. Need I say more?
  • It allows you to study anywhere – as you are no longer bound by your geographical location. If you wish to take a course that would otherwise require you to travel to another country, well, now you can do that without the added cost (and stress) of visas, insurance, airfare, accommodation, etc.
  • It is safe – social distancing and all.
  • It is more flexible – you can actually set your own pace.

However, online learning is no bed of roses. Firstly, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it is absolutely fine. Secondly, it comes with its own hurdles along the way:

  • It requires Internet access – with good bandwidth.
  • It requires access to a computer – which can run the softwares needed for class.
  • It needs some level of digital literacy – enough tool usage and troubleshooting when needed.
  • It demands self-discipline – as there will be nobody to push and motivate you.
  • It needs organization – as you are the one in charge of your studying schedule.
  • It may be lonely – which may be a problem for the social butterflies.

What you need to know before you choose

If you are thinking about giving Online Learning a go, here are a couple of things you might want to keep in mind:

  • Is it a ‘prefabricated’ course?

Cost wise it might be a good option as these ‘ready-to-go’ online courses and platforms serve a great number of people, but they are, usually, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of thing. Some examples are Duolingo, italki, Lingoda, Busuu, etc.

  • Do I get to meet my tutor?
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Sometimes there is no interaction between learner and tutor at all. Sometimes learners only interaction with a tutor will be in the form of feedback. Sometimes each class is taught a different tutor. Before committing to a course, make sure you know and are comfortable with the learner-teacher relationship.

  • Are there tests?

Different types of tests provide different views on learning and performance. It is important to understand how, why and when you are writing tests. But it is even more important to have access to feedback.

  • Does the course match my needs?

A general English course will not cover test preparation needs nor will it prepare you to communicate in a business environment. Before choosing a course, it is important to have it clear how it will help you achieve your goals.

Now, should you opt for a private tutor, a number of different aspects must be considered – besides the ones above:

  • How will classes be delivered?

Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Google Classroom, FaceTime, YouTube… There are many tools available nowadays so it is important to determine which will be used and make sure you have access to it.

  • What kinds of materials will we use?

Am I required to purchase a textbook? Will I be provided with any materials? Do I need a PDF reader?

  • What are the teacher’s qualifications?

What kind of training does the teacher have? What kind of experience? In general, having a teaching certificate such as CELTA or TESOL is a good start.

If you are not sure what you are looking for, there is plenty of free content online that can help you get started. Feel free to browse our blog and check our social media for tips on learning English.

And if you need a hand, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

___________________

References:

Dudeney, G., & Hockly, N. (2019). How to teach English with technology. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Communication breakdown – why is that?

When there is a break in communication, what is to blame? Is it one’s accent? Or pronunciation? Or even vocabulary or grammar choices?

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Although making appropriate vocabulary and grammar choices can definitely aid – or hinder – communication, most learners of English tend to blame their accent for any communication mishaps they come to face.

In today’s world, where we have access to a ton of information at our fingertips, it’s no secret that there are multiple varieties of English spoken by native and non-native speakers alike.

Go straight to the culprit

My experience

My teacher in Middle School used a British English textbook in class – even though she rarely spoke a word in the Queen’s language herself.

In High School, I suspect the version we studied was the North-American English. Again, I wouldn’t really know, as this teacher also taught us in her native Portuguese.

In both cases we were being taught using some version of the grammar-translation method, where focus was given to grammatical structures and meaning was conveyed through translation. And even though I can appreciate that this method has helped many to learn a foreign language, it did not help me. 

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However, through movies and TV series with subtitles, I was sort of aware of the melody of Hollywood; not that I would have been able to discern between different regional accents within the USA, but I knew when something sounded American or English.

My seeming ignorance of accents and dialects – allied to my ignorance of the English language itself – was what made it really easy for me to decode the infamous Australian English accent. Needless to say that there’s more to the down-under accent than Crocodile Dundee. Since I didn’t really have any assumptions of what English should sound like, it made perfect sense to say things like ‘mate’ /maɪt/ instead of /meɪt/, or ‘day’ /daɪ/ instead of /deɪ/. It was also only natural to drop the last /r/ of words such as ‘brother’ and ‘chair’.

Australian English was clear as day and soon other variations of English were too: New Zealand’s, South Africa’s, Britain’s, Canadian’s, North-American’s… all very obviously different from one another. And why not add German’s, Dutch’s, French’s, Spanish’s and Brazilian’s to the mix?

The accent I used to have most trouble with was that from Scotland. When I first saw Braveheart I am sure I missed half of the movie because I had no idea what Mel Gibson was saying and – since it was in Australia – there were no subtitles available. It took me a rewatch to begin to understand it.

The “culprit”

So while accents do play a part in explaining why people might have issues communicating with others, it is not a phenomenon restricted to learners of English. It is not even restricted to English at all. You can ask anyone: Canandian French and French bear great differences, Spanish from Latin America is different from that of Spain, and even within South America the Spanish spoken varies country by country.

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But, for proficient speakers of English, different accents – while they may demand closer attention – do not necessarily impede communication. What most frequently does is pronunciation.

‘Tomato’ may be /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ or /təˈmɑːtəʊ/, but it can’t be any different than that. It can’t be TOmato. Nor can it be tomaTO. If one says /təʊmeɪˌtə/ or /təʊmɑːtə/, the result is equally unsuccessful. Yes, it is true that there are variations in pronunciation within isolated sounds, words and even sentences, but there is only so much that can actually vary.

  1. Stressed syllables and stressed words
  2. Phonemes
  3. Connected speech

Though we are not going to delve into each of these categories in this text, let’s examine the examples I’ve provided and “label” them:

  1. Saying TOmato or toMAto or tomaTO is a shift in stress within the word – syllable stress.
  2. Saying /təʊmeɪˌtə/ instead of /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ (tomato) is an error in a phoneme, that is, a sound.
  3. In the song “I say tomato and you say tomato”, what we hear is /wənjə/ or /wənʤjə/, not ‘and you’. This is a feature of connected speech.

You might be wondering which of the three is the ‘real issue’ and, truth be told, a little bit of each one of them. In terms of speaking, definitely stress and phoneme. In terms of listening, connected speech.

Maybe next time, before we automatically blame our communication breakdown on our ‘accents’, we should stop and really consider whether we are saying what we think we’re saying. Because the difference between ‘think’ and ‘sink’ could be sink or swim. *wink*

What living in Australia, Canada and England has taught me about English

Lesson one – pronunciation does matter

People may try and convince you that pronunciation has a minor place in learning a language, but I can assure you that it’s not the case. I will never forget that hot summer day in the school canteen (in Australia it is canteen, not cafeteria) when a 17-year-old me relentlessly tried to order a Magnum – yes, the ice-cream, with no success. 

I kept asking for a /mɑːgi’nun/ instead of a /ˈmægnəm/. A random kid from school – God bless her soul – intervened and helped me place my order. Needless to say I felt ashamed and grateful, and decided to really work towards making myself understood.

I also learnt that there are other – different from North American – ways to say the letters O, A, R in different words. Fast /fæst/ became /fɑːst/, last /læst/ became /lɑːst/, and past /pæst/ became /pɑːst/. A simple hello /həˈloʊ/ started to sound more like /həˈləʊ/. Oh, and, of course, all the Rs that came after vowels were not pronounced.

And one more thing: pronunciation does not mean accent. There are many different accents in English: Londoner, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, all variations within the USA, South African… and the list goes on. Everyone has an accent.

Lesson two – vocabulary is regional

By now we should know that languages are alive and, therefore, constantly changing and evolving. Words used in Australia are different from those used in the UK, which are different from those in Canada.

Jumper is a sweater in Australia and England. Not quite the same thing in Canada. Beanie describes a knitted hat in Australia and in England; however, in Canada, it’s called tuque (or toque).

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Mobile phones – in Canada and England – are cell phones in the USA. The pronunciation of mobile, by the way, is different, too. And wireless, in Canada, refers to the mobile phone service, while in the UK it’s simply mobile.

Soda – you know, Coke, Sprite, Canada Dry – is pop in Canada and fizzy drink in the UK. Takeout food becomes takeaway in England. The question “for here or to go?”, so popular in Canada, is replaced with “dine in or takeaway?” in England. If memory serves me well, in Australia it is also called takeaway.

Lesson three – what’s standard?

Standard English, or the English we learn (or used to learn) at school, doesn’t really exist. Real people use language as their own and, therefore, change it to suit their personalities, moods, places of origin and so forth.

I had always been told that there is no plural word for you. You is you, be it singular or plural. Then, at school, in Australia, one of the kids asked me, “What did ‘yous’ do last night?” and I had the hardest time to understand it for two reasons: first, it sounded like “use” and made no sense. Second, I knew “yous” to be wrong and could not conceive of a native speaker making such a “beginner’s” mistake.

Turns out people actually say “yous” in some places to differentiate singular from plural. In some areas of the US, people say “y’all” instead. Of course both forms are informal and – what a surprise – not standard.

In  much the same way, the quite famous BBC English – that is, received pronunciation (RP) – isn’t quite the norm in the streets of England.

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Lesson four – everyone makes mistakes

As learners of a second language, we tend to think that native speakers never make any mistakes because they are fluent in their mother tongue. The truth is that we all make mistakes – even in our native language.

Just because someone was born speaking a language, it doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. And it doesn’t make them less fluent. So why should we believe that mistakes equal lack of fluency?

Some of the most common mistakes among speakers of English are:

  • Using affect for effect and vice-versa.
  • Confusing your and you’re.
  • Confusing principle and principal.
  • Saying (and writing) should of instead of should’ve.
  • Using past simple after have instead of using past participle – should have went instead of should have gone.

In no way am I advocating for an end in seeking accuracy in English – or any other language. All I am saying is that we should expect natives to make mistakes. And we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process.

Lesson five – bottomless coffee

I’ve come to appreciate a good Sunday brunch – totally a Canadian thing – with bottomless coffee: who doesn’t love endless refills of the dark brew?

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Unfortunately, here in London, Sunday brunch is not as popular as the Sunday roast – which I also love, don’t get me wrong. But I do miss a good brunch. If you happen to know any good place (and affordable) here in London, please let me know.

But the analogy I was hoping to make – before I got all carried away thinking about food (lol) – is that learning a language is like bottomless coffee: it has no end. There won’t be a point where you think to yourself, “Yep, I’m done. Learning is over”.

So keep a curious mind. Keep your eyes open. See the fun in discovering new things. Expand your horizon.

Lesson for life – stay humble

Finally, stay humble. It doesn’t matter how much English you know or how well you speak; just stay humble. Nobody knows everything. We are all learners.

This is my bottomless coffee.