If you have moved to Mexico from the United States or Canada, you will frequently find Mexicans who are delighted for a chance to practice their English with you, and some of them may ask you for regular conversation classes. With that in mind, I have a few ideas on how expats can help Mexicans improve their English.
To some English speakers, the mere thought of playing the role of a teacher produces a queasy feeling in the stomach: “Me teach English? I can barely speak it myself and I had a heck of a time with the subject when I was in high school!”
If that is you, think about this: Even though you may not know the difference between an adverb and an infinitive, you have functioned as an English speaker most of your life and you have a sense of what sounds right and what sounds wrong in English, a sense which non-speakers of the language lack. It is exactly this ability of yours that can immensely benefit a Mexican trying to improve his or her conversational skills.
For example, imagine you hear this sentence: “Yesterday I go to Puerto Vallarta.” You know exactly which word is “wrong.” Now, you could tell the Spanish speaker: “No, no, it should be ‘I went to Puerto Vallarta.’ “
This is a correction, the traditional tactic used by teachers all around the world, but actually not very useful because it does not stimulate the student to think. Instead of doing that, you can really help this person by saying, “Something’s wrong with your sentence. Say that again. What did you do yesterday?”
Ninety percent of the time, the non-native speaker of English—because of his or her previous studies—will correct the mistake without any help and will say: “Yesterday I went to Puerto Vallarta.” This simple technique aims at self-correction. It requires you to pay close attention to the words the student uses, practice self-restraint instead of blurting out corrections and, finally, to stop the students’ flow of speech, indicating where he or she needs to use a different word or perhaps change pronunciation. In time, this Self-Correction Technique will help students form the habit of looking at and working on their own speech, a valuable tool that will enable them to make giant strides in any foreign language they study.
Of course, if the student has no clue as to what is wrong with that sentence, you will have to give him or her the word “went,” which you should immediately jot down on a sheet of paper for later inclusion on the list of expressions this student will need to practice in future sessions.
You can also use writing to help a student correct himself. If he says, “She can to play the piano,” you might write: “She can ______” and ask him to repeat his sentence. Once again, you are indicating where the mistake lies in the sentence and inviting the student to try correcting it.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “What do I care if the student makes mistakes? She is practicing English and that is all that counts.” Well, without feedback, your student will almost certainly end up like Dr. Park, a Korean woman I know who went off to Australia, never got feedback (because she was a medical doctor and no one wanted to offend her) and who eventually became fluent in bad English, massacring the language at high speed for the rest of her life. Her situation, however, can easily be avoided, simply by giving students what they need: feedback.
During the course of a one-hour session, you will probably jot down a lot of expressions the student did not know as well as numerous words he or she mispronounced. Once the session is over, your job is to recopy the most useful of these words onto an ever-growing word list, which you can later use to create word games in which your student will reuse these expressions again and again until they eventually become part of his or her vocabulary.
If you encourage your students to self-correct on a regular basis, you will help them immensely by acting as a mirror and giving them feedback, the single most essential thing they need for conquering a foreign language.
In the course of an hour’s conversation class you will probably discover a good number of words that are totally new to your student as well as mispronunciations and expressions he or she needs to work on. Even if your student is jotting some of these down in a notebook, it is important that you also put them on paper (or in a corner of the white board if you are working with a group). This collection of words is extremely valuable as it is a record of exactly what your student needs to work on.
As soon as the session is over, you can go through the words you have noted down and copy the most useful expressions onto a word list, which will get longer and longer with every class. If you have a single student or a very small group, you can use letter-size paper and a marking pen. If you are dealing with a roomful of people, you will need a much larger sheet of paper and you will have to write in big letters. You might want to write vocabulary words (for example, “screwdriver” and “wrench”) on one list, grammar expressions such as “used to” on another and pronunciation words on a third. You can keep these lists on the wall at all times and you can regularly challenge your student(s) to read the pronunciation words out loud or to play simple games.
“Pick out two words from this list and use them together in one sentence.” This challenge requires the student to be creative. He or she might pick the expressions “people” and “charming,” and make the sentence: “People likes Lake Chapala because it is charming.” This sentence might be written or it might be spoken. If it is written, you might underline the word “likes” to see if the student will change it to “like,” encouraging self-correction. If the sentence is oral, you could hold up four fingers. Point to the first finger and say, “people.” Then point to the last two fingers and say: “Lake Chapala.” Now get the student to repeat his sentence and if he fails to change “likes” you can point to the corresponding finger to indicate that this is where the mistake is.
The simple challenge of making a sentence using one or two words from a list often results in interesting or humorous sentences, so if you have several students, be sure to have all of them read their contributions aloud.
By the way, these techniques work just fine for remote tutoring via Zoom or Facebook Messenger. If your student says, “I am interested in virtual reality,” but pronounces virtual as “vir-too-al” you can immediately type “virtual” into the chat box and ask him or her to pronounce it. If the student cannot guess the correct pronunciation, you can say: “The t is pronounced like ch.” This forces the student to work on the problem, rather than simply repeating the teacher’s correction.
Remember the old saying, “Use it or lose it?” Well, it is particularly true for language learning, so give your students plenty of chances to use expressions they learned in your company and in no time they will make them their own.