This should really be two entries but... whatever. Read half and come back later.
Teaching English in an EFL context (in the student's home country) vs. an ESL context (in a country where the new language is spoken) presents very new challenges. I face a constant problem here that I rarely had when I taught English in the US. I think it's particularly prevalent in the city I'm in, because it's a relatively small town (relative to São Paulo, at least), and many people who live here can't afford to travel around Brazil, let alone to another country. The result is that these people have had little experience with cultures that are different from their own sub-culture of the "Brazilian interior."
How does this relate to language? I think this factor of being well-traveled and culturally aware has a huge impact on someone's ability to learn a language. The problem that many of my students have is that they constantly want EXACT, DIRECT translations for cultural terms and phrases. Many, many times, there is no word in English that I know, because the given cultural element doesn't exist in American culture. These students get very, very frustrated when I can't give them a single word for things like "lanchonete" or "pastel" or "vestibular." Here's what I always have to tell them:
Lanchonete: These are not common in the US. If you're speaking English with an American, you can say something like, "a lanchonete is like a big hot dog stand, but for hamburgers and sandwiches. Sometimes they have tables around them, and you can stay and hang out with your friends."
Pastel: [note to Spanish speakers: it's a false cognate-- it doesn't mean "cake." I was so confused at first!] We don't eat pastels in the US. If you're speaking English with an American, you can say something like, "a pastel is like a fried piece of thin dough that usually has ground beef and cheese inside, but you can get other ingredients, too." (Actually wikipedia has a nice explanation in English.)
Vestibular: School systems are different in every country. If you're speaking to an American in English, tell them that vestibular is a year or two of school between high school and college. Explain that Brazilian students have to pass a very difficult test to get accepted into free public universities, so some students spend a year or two after high school in prep classes to study for the test.
Just because I don't have words for these things, it doesn't mean I don't understand the concept, nor does it mean that I'm culturally enept ("But TEACHER! Where do you eat lanches?!?" sigh.). Sometimes I feel like I spend more time teaching culture than teaching language. I spend more time explaining that it's possible for things to be done in a different way than they are done in one city in one state of Brazil. I know it's not necessarily the fault of these students that they can't "think outside of the box," I guess you could say. But just because you live in a small town, it doesn't mean you can't have a general cultural awareness.
It would seem like this doesn't have to be that important, but there's a very high correlation (like, almost 1) between the students who are stuck in this small-town box and the students who have a hard time speaking English. Why? These students are continually translating directly from Portuguese, even when I correct them numerous times. These are the students that have had English classes for a year or two or more, and who still say "good night" for "good evening." (It's logical-- Portuguese uses "boa noite" -- good night-- for both "good night" and "good evening." But some students can't grasp the concept that one is to say hello, and one is to say goodbye.) These are the same students that say "have a shopping my neighborhood" when they want to say "there's a mall in my neighborhood," or at least "my neighborhood has a mall." The Portuguese phrase looks exactly like that: "tem um shopping meu bairro." I tell them over and over with lots of creative practice, that when "tem" is used like this, it means "there are," because no one "has" it.
These are the same students that have difficulty building fluency. When they don't know the exact word that they want from Portuguese, they simply stop speaking in English. They don't try to express themselves using a different phrase or different grammar in order to avoid the word they don't know. They panic, because, again, they believe there's only one way to do things! Especially in private classes, I sometimes have to tell the students to pretend I don't speak any Portuguese so that they can practice explaining themselves in a different English.
My Portuguese is still pretty bad. I know I make a lot of mistakes. There are some words that I have a really hard time pronouncing. The subjunctive is different from Spanish, and that took me long enough. But I can give the impression that I speak Portuguese well because I can think on my feet. I still think in English/Spanish. That's not going to change anytime soon. But when I don't know the word I want, I find some other way to say it, even if it's simplified or not exactly the meaning I want. I use metaphors and lots of quotation fingers. I avoid subjuntive like the plague. But more importantly, I listen, and I'm flexible. I translate based on context. I do my best not to be embarassed, even when people (like students) make fun of my pronunciation or when people (like store employees) brush me off and walk away with "you don't make any sense." (Impatience: another consequence of a small-town mindset with a lack of cultural awareness. I know this is the same in the US, and I apologize to any readers that have had this experience in the US.)
I realize I'm coming off as totally self-righteous and impatient myself. I'm not saying that learning a langauge is the easiest thing in the world. Know that I save this frustration for Alexandre and the blog. I'm patient with my students to their faces. It's just really annoying that I have to exude so much patience with people learning my language-- both here, as a teacher, and in the US, as a citizen in a country of immigration-- and I rarely receive the same patience from native speakers of my new language.
Today, I decided to try to take the bus home from work. (Alexandre gave me a ride there.) We talked and decided that I should try out the bus system. Now that almost all of my work hours are at the far-away job, and not the one I can walk to, I often rob him of his car for hours at a time. Also, driving here is terrifying, so I welcome a possible way to avoid it. Plus, I believe in public transportation (it's techincally private transportation here, since it's not paid for by the government, but you get the point). I asked a couple of students for ideas about lines to use, and then Alexandre called the company for me to ask them for ideas. The woman told us a street that I could get a bus from. It was about 3/4 mile from my work, but do-able. Plus, I didn't have to transfer buses. With this combined knowledge and taxi money just in case, I made my way to the bus street after work. Bus stops are often not clearly marked here, so once I got to the street, I started asking poeple where the stop was. One person ignored me. -1 point for him. An old man told me that the terminal was at the end of the street, and that he didn't know where other stops were. okay. +1 point for him for telling me what he knew. I figured I'd just walk down the street until I saw a stop, or, worst case scenario, until I got to the terminal.
Before the terminal, I came to a giant swap meet building. There was a window that said "informação." I went to it. (I hate talking through windows.) I explained to the girl that I was looking for a bus stop. She was young and full of attitude. Her response was ":: looks away:: I don't know. Ask her." ugh! -1 point! A nice older woman came over with a smile and explained slowly that the swap meet was actually attached to the terminal, that I could just go in and ask a driver for the bus I wanted. +1 point. (I wanted to say to the girl, "was that so hard? You could have earned a point on my completey useless and arbitrary point system." but I let it go.)
So that's what I did. There were a few different entrances, but I found the people with the shirts that had the name of the bus company (rocket science), and went in through their turnstyles. I immediately saw the bus name that I recognized from our street. I ran to it and asked the driver if he did, in fact, go on my street. He said "yes, but... "and the something including the word "behind." I thought he was saying that there was a bus behind him. So I asked again, "but can I use your bus?" and then he said "yes, but you have to ENTER in the back." Oh! Important part. I wasn't expecting that. I smiled and apologized and thanked him. When I got onto the bus, he asked where I was from, and gave the common "how cool!"response. +1 point for being patient and nice.
The bus was HOT, but efficient, and cheap, and quiet. The majority of the riders were old women. There are two employees on the bus: the guy who drives, and the guy you pay. I figured out the bus's route, and that I had gone onto the wrong street to look for it. So next time, I don't have to walk a mile or 2 to the terminal. But the important thing is that I did it! Eu consegui! I survived! +1 point for me!
Now, if I could only master nasalized vowels, I'd really be on my way. Until then, I'll just keep avoiding the word for bread (pão), because without the nasalized vowel, it means penis.