Friday, October 22, 2010

Comments are open to all

A reader sent me an e-mail recently and said he tried to post a comment but couldn't.  So, I've opened the comments to full blast, even anonymous, with moderation.  Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3 mantras for a new life in Vietnam

My goodness, this place is cruel and awesome. I am missing my beloved greatly, as she visits her countryside, but the people that we've befriended are taking care of us.  Hospitality is alive and well, my friends: there is death and disease here (agent orange, mines, poverty, corruption), but also communion of a high order that promises a good future.

I invite all my talented, passionate compadres to come here and prosper. 3 points:

1: Commit to being or becoming a good teacher. Process all of your decisions based on your staying here, learning the ropes, offering a valuable service, and hopefully eventually buying a house by the beach while taking 3 vacations per year to places your parents can't fathom in the depths of their souls. 

2. Don't let anything in your words, countenance, or dreams sway you from prospering. When the Vietnamese people understand that you have planted your flag, many of the negative discussions that expats engage in will fall to the floor, dry up, and blow away.

3. People here are seeking all the same stuff you are.  If you're with them, they will join and support you.  If not, you're a target.  Just like anywhere.

It's that simple.

Are you ready?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Teach Pronunciation and Listening in Vietnam

After 2 years of teaching pronunciation and listening (P & L), both in Texas and here in Vietnam, I'm headed back into international school teaching where the kids are basically immersed in English from a young age and this particular skill isn't as key as it is in ESL (though I'll certainly use it).  So, as sort of a professional reflective practice as I move on, I offer my insights into teaching pronunciation and listening with some special attention to Vietnamese learners.

First, it's a valuable skill.  Students may study grammar for a year or two in high school or university, and they may go out to the park to try and get some practice, but a good pronunciation course is pure gold to them.  What separates casual "conversation practice" buddies from skilled pronunciation and listening teachers is a series of concepts, techniques, and psychological habits.  If you learn this skill, you'll be known as a good teacher and will be able to earn your bread anywhere on the planet confident that you offer a truly effective service.  However, there are certain peculiarities to every first language (L1).  What I offer you here is a basic introduction into becoming a good pronunciation and listening teacher with particular focus on a Vietnamese audience.  Perhaps by reading this, you'll arrive better prepared.  If you're already here, you'll get ramped up to speed faster on the peculiarities of teaching this highly sought-after skill here.  Cha ching!

Second, it's not entertainment (though good instruction should be entertaining). I've heard enough people complaining that "all ESL teaching is is being a clown blah blah."  I want to take this moment to say emphatically that this is patently false.  If you catch yourself saying this, you need to dig deeper and take informed, authoritative control of your practice.  That said, some of the most valuable teaching classes I ever took were actually improvisation and acting classes.  If you can take an improv class before coming here, before doing your CELTA, before your next kegger, take the improv class.  The ability to be creative on your feet , to stimulate and orchestrate creativity around you, will make you a better teacher.  In fact, I'd hope that basic improv technique would become part of teaching curricula, be that at the university level or the certificate level.  Good improv techniques + good pedagogy = awesome. While I can't offer such training here, my point is that you can learn some basic concepts and techniques that your students will enjoy and benefit from.  And you won't feel like an idiot; you'll feel like, and be, a bona fide teacher.

Lip position for a proper schwa.
1. The psychological aspect is paramount.  There are many textbooks and programs out there to follow, but you cannot escape yourself.  You create an emotional climate in your class that can either create or destroy students' confidence.  Vietnamese people know how crucial pronunciation is to their success and they typically put a lot of pressure on themselves.  Conversely, they are very happy when they get it right.

2. Pacing.  Your students want more repetition than you may be comfortable with.  Go slow and steady.  You will think, in the back of your mind, that "this is easy."  Actually, English is an extremely difficult language and the rudimentary basics of its pronunciation are paramount.  Introduce them in very simple terms and build on them.  To you, you may feel like you're teaching kindergarten, but to them, you'll be doing rocket science.  Avoid complexity.  Seek profound simplicity.

3. You are not teaching English.  You are teaching people how to communicate using English as a medium.  This principal will guide you while you select and execute activities.  Pair practice is the most important element of the course.  Here is what I mean:

First, demonstrate the difference between b and p.  
  • Write 2 words on the board: 1. bot  2. pot.
  • Student a says one of the words and student b holds up either 1 or 2 fingers, depending on what he or she hears.
Now write 1. top and 2. tob on the board.  Demonstrate.  Repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. pop and 2. bob on the board.  Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. bop and 2. pob on the board. Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.

This example activity illustrates that pair work forces people to communicate sounds clearly and to listen intently.  Any good pronunciation and listening book will include a lot of these activities, so this is not about instructional design; it's about you, the teacher, understanding how important this pair work really is.  You'll see the excitement and frustration on their faces. Walk around and troubleshoot.  Avail yourself to the students rather than forcefully correct them.  Give them a lot of time and keep it simple.  This pair work is a core activity -- THE core activity -- in your classroom and forms the basis of both simple and complex lessons (and by complex I mean activities that combine the fruits of past simple activities).

4. Communicate that this course is a music course and math course.  Each activity builds on prior activities into ever-increasing skill building.  Recognize this and confirm it often.

5. This course is valuable.  They know, you know it, but you need to recognize this and confirm it often.

6. Tell them on the first days and remind that "You will not understand everything I say.  Do the activities and listen to how I talk." 

7.  It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Pronunciation is necessary but not sufficient.  English is a musical language.  It is an emotional language.  How you say things matters.  They know it, you know it, but they don't know how to do it.  It's a massive obstacle to good communication and relationship building.

Point to a student and ask him "What are you doing?!", as if you know what he's doing but that you are surprised that he is doing it.  Now ask "What are you doing" as if pleasantly curious.  In the first case, your students should be kind of shocked; in the second, feeling the warmth of the question.  "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."  By the 8th hour of instruction, your class should be able to finish this mantra when prompted by you as you say "It's not what you say...(pause for them to finish it)."

In fact, the course is literally a music course in many ways.   You'll understand this once you begin teaching it, but I want to drive home the point itself here.  Approach it like a music course, teach it like a music course, and it will bear fruit, imho.

8. The Vietnamese language is for all intents and purposes here, a mono-syllabic language.  Point this out in vivid detail. Take syllable work seriously. The word "banana" is rich in syllables, schwas, and stress.  I offer this word as the most important word in my course.  You can use it, too. 

9. Like syllables, the concept of stopped and continuing final consonants is foreign to your students.  I mean, even though they've watched movies and sing English karoke, they're not cognizant of producing these nor registering them in their minds while listening.  A level 1 student will say this sentence

"I like to read books because they make me smart"

like this

"I lie to ree boo(k) becaw day may me smar."

I put the k in () because they will use a stop sound which is a cross between a k and b.

Your job at the beginner level (maybe a year or two of study in high school or whatever, but no actual pronunciation and listening training, is to bring them to be able to say this sentence, and similarly complex sentences, clearly.  At an intermediate level, your job will be to have them stressing and intoning short, simple dialogues in a way that emphasizes meaning.  In fact, at the conclusion of the class, they, at both levels, should be prepared to be able to teach aspects of the class. 

At about 18 hours into the class, be it beginner or intermediate (if the intermediate group never took P & L before [you may be surprised at how much some people can learn on their own]) I like to introduce the following lesson and pair-work activity:

1. lie 2. lied 3. lies 4. lice 5. like 6. liked 7. likes 8. light 9. lights

This really drives home how important final sounds are in English.  Every word begins "lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie" (I say pointing to each word in rapid succession) but the end sound completely changes it's meaning.

Believe me when I say pronunciation and listening is highly valued here.
10. Though some people thing teaching pronunciation is a highly technical, difficult, and laborious task, I'm here to tell you that it is a simple, creative, and fun class to teach.  Your students will thank you dearly for this class and will always remember you for being their teacher.  Again, if you've emphasized the concepts and have a done a lot of good pair-work activities, they should be able to share this skill with their cousin, friend, or sibling relatively effectively, thus reinforcing they're learning even further.

Further reading and resources:

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding teaching English pronunciation and listening.  Some favor phonics, which is awesome; others a technical International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) approach, which is necessary only if you're training a class of linguists (which you are probably not).  This modified musical, communicative approach I introduced here works.  I've had the privilege of using it to teach engineers who MUST show gains in their work, unlike at some language schools where leveling up is sometimes a matter of time and money more than actual learning.  Using this method I've helped many people gain a verbal level in as little as 10 hours of instruction (though 20 + is better) and feel like, yes, they can actually be fluent in this crazy language and, more importantly, be able to communicate using it. You can do this too.


Here is a link to the theory and a good explanation of it.  I strongly encourage anyone teaching or planning to teach pronunciation and listening to read this booklet (free download from Cambridge).

Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid - Judy B. Gilbert Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid
by Judy B. Gilbert
Download PDF (2.1 MB)

And here are the textbooks and teacher guides and resources at amazon.   The American accent is highly prized here.  It is the most sought after accent.  These books are geared toward teaching it. You can get the student books here in Vietnam (though they're more expensive) but you can't get the teacher resources (though you can order them; it takes weeks for them to get here).  I suggest putting them in your personal arsenal now; you can travel the world with these and teach anywhere confidently.  Rock and roll, compadres.



Monday, October 11, 2010

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 3: the third eye

Continued from Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2

She points to her eye, I nod and say "yea."

Just the thought of what will happen next may make you squeamish.  And that's ok.  Squirming is part of the experience.

She drops some sort of peppermint eyedrop into my left eye.  I blink hard a couple of times and look around and think "ok, what happens next."  She taps me on the should and closes her eyes slightly dramatically.  I get the picture.  I close my eyes.

The next thing I know, she is gently tracing my lower eyelid -- I mean the moist part from which the eyelashes grow, just next to the eyeball -- with a metallic instrument.  I don't know what the instrument is, exactly.  My eyes are closed.  I can only feel an extremely intense tickle as she moves the tool back and forth across the fragile frame that houses my eyeballs. 

I don't know much about chakras, but the third eye is one of them.  What is so weird about this eye cleaning is that you observe your eyes being cleaned while your eyes are closed.  I don't think that this is actually some path to this chakra so much as it is a partial, obscure, spine tingling reflection of it.

I haven't found any info about this practice online.  Friends say that it sounds too weird or that it's useless.  Factually, I might agree.  But sitting in that chair and feeling like I was going to rocket out of it at any second makes me question the facts.  Back to past tense.

I honestly can't describe how thorough she was with the left eye.  I felt the instrument moving all around the upper and lower eyelids, even moving along the inner eyelid. It was sensational.  Thorough.  As fun as riding a roller coaster.

My right eye was another story.  What was really pleasant -- dare I say exciting or even blissful -- became a trial of sorts.  My right eye has always been a bit twitchy.  When I'm tired or whatever it will flutter a bit -- nothing even noticeable.  But there in the chair, peppermint drop administered and little metal thing gliding around -- the experience became more a battle with my reactive self to try and calm an automatic jerking around.  I mean, I didn't want her to have any accidents.  I struggle to keep it closed, even opening a couple of times to see her intent face looking at the task at hand and something moving around my eye.  Wild.

Would not be cool. 

More a testimony to her skills than to my controlling my autonomic reflexes, she didn't stop but instead continued through all the twitching, expertly clearing away the city's dust and the optigoop from my eye.

Finished.  A sigh. It's over.  My face, head, body, ears, and even my eyes reverberating, I stand, look at myself in the mirror (the word "fresh" came to mind). I collect my stuff, go next door and pick up my sparkly clean motorbike and head back to work.  How's that for a lunch break? Final cost -- about $5, including the bike wash.

Alot of people say that Vietnam is a great value.  I agree.  But I also think that the typical experience of it differs both in cost and quality than that which can be had by trying out some out of the way places.  There are plenty of salons and spas for men and women all over the city and especially around Ben Than market.  I'm not knocking those.  I am saying, though, that the smaller full-service men's barbers can be interesting, if not a bit enlightening.  Contra to local tradition, tip.  Your tips will be appreciated, remembered, and will pay off in better service, usually.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2

Continued from Part 1

My head soaked, fingers start moving around my head, soaping and scratching and massaging.  This is where I am especially thankful to sport a buzz.  Full contact.  The shampooing is thorough: for the next 15 minutes every millimeter of  my scalp and forehead is shampooed, rinsed, splashed,  rubbed, tickled, and kneaded into mush.  I remind myself, "this is legal."

My head sparkling and calm, perhaps like the head of Siddhartha under the bodi tree as he opened his eyes and his extended the hand of the Buddha, the jello is lifted from my face.  The fingers return bearing splashes of cool water to rinse my face.  But they do not stop once all the goo is removed; instead they continue tickling and splashing and kneading until any signs of age or emotional duress are melted away.  Here, this is considered a shampoo.  Back home, this would be considered a facial massage

She finishes the massage and wipes my face clean with an ice cold cloth. I am serene.  I am the jello king.

Then she waterboards my eyes.

She drapes the cloth over my eyes and runs cool water over it, actually waterboarding my eyes.  I believe that in this moment that I can, very, very vaguely, understand what waterboarding must be like.  It feels like being plunged into a stream of rushing mountain water.  But I don't gasp and sputter.  Big difference.  Instead my eyes do a perfect swan dive into clear waters.  I can just imagine someone looking at the guy on the table -- so still, so calm -- but inside I am doing laps in Barton Springs pool.

She pats my face dry.  A finger taps me on the cheek.  I open my eyes and let the light back in.  For a moment, I am sorry that it is over.  I come back to awareness that I am vulnerable to the vagueries of the contingent world. Some sort of contemporary-yet-traditional Vietnamese music is playing. Before my eyes could even focus, she says "massa?" and I nod and say "yea."  She gestures for me to sit up, I do, and she arranges a new towel where I will place my head, then I lay back down.  I close my eyes.  Then I hear the snap of electrical power followed by a bzzzzzzzz... 

Imagine a hand touching your forehead.  Now imagine that hand with 120 volts of jiggling energy pulsing through it and into your skull.  Now imagine that hand moving around, it's fingers moving tugging at the bridge of your nose.  Your head shutters awake as though it had been sleeping (yes, even after being waterboarded).  The hand moves over head, neck, shoulders, melting the butter of stress away.  It moves over ribs and stomach.  I am ticklish.  This is serious.  And, then, avoiding the crotch (sorry, guys, this isn't that kind of massage), it grabs and kneads the thighs.  I am about to jump off the table and bounce like Tigger down the street, but I stay.  I endure.

High 5!
Then, with a word I don't know and a gesture, I flip over.  The surge of power coursing through the fingers melts away the worries of my work, the deadlines, the pending job change -- that have accumulated in my shoulders.  I sit, cross-legged and serene on a vibrating lotus blossom.  Finally, the click of the stop of the bzzz signals that it is over.  It is over, I think.
Then she gestures for me to sit up.  Then she begins working my shoulders and neck with practiced hands.  She must have sensed some tension that only muscle can reach. "Good" I say to my self, to my newly acquired third eye perhaps. This is awesome.

Another 5 minutes, if time matters at this point.  

Alright, then. That was just fine. Work is the last thing on my mind. I'm about to say "bao nhiêu" (how much?) and she points at her ear and says something I don't know and I nod and say "yea."  She gestures for me to take a seat on a barber's chair that she reclines to nearly full horizontal position.  I do, and she fetches a spotlight and some instruments. This is a good example of how I felt for the next 15 minutes.

edit: I don't know what happened to the youtube video I put here.  It was a dog loving getting his ears cleaned.  Anyway, enjoy the video below.

Though, this is technically more accurate (and a lot cuter than either myself or the dog in the video above).

Now, you think that's about it.  What could I experience that is legal, time-honored, and even more intense than anything I have described here.  Well, in retrospect, so far I've spent about $4.00 and have pushed the envelop of what I can tolerate.  The next $1 I spend is going to pretty much put me over the edge.  Stay tuned.  Read part 3 -- the third eye.

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 1

Now, here's something Lonely Planet doesn't cover: the barber. I mean the full service men's barber shop. They're scattered everywhere around the city, but you typically don't notice them. Instead, expats sometimes and tourists always opt for the swanky mini day-spas around pham ngu lao. And that's cool. They're clean, speak enough English to get an accurate estimation of what kind of cut you want, and are typically populated with very cute girls who will guide you to spaliday nirvana. However, if you just want a buzz or want to cast your fate to the wind, go to the little out of the way shops. I did. Here is my story.

I went to a barber shop on Phan Xich Long yesterday. I won't disclose the exact location because, besides my buddy who introduced me to the place, I am the only expat who goes there, to my knowledge.  It's mine.  There are many like it, but this one is mine. Anyway, I left my motorbike at the motorbike wash next door, then went in to the barber shop and sat down on a stool by the front door and picked up a paper to stare at and try to identify some words. This is where the story shifts into present tense.

The place looks just like your average barber shop but with a few differences. One big difference being that there are two hair washing stations in the corner, but not like the ones with reclining seats like in beauty shops: these are tables -- half massage table and half shampooing station. We'll get back to those momentarily.

Anyway, a guy motions me over to an open chair. I sit down and wave my hand over my head and say "everything. bzzzzzzzt." He puts the standard barber cape around me, turns on a fan above, and fires up the buzzer. Since you can't jack the chair up and down, I scoot down in the chair to give him better access to my towering head.

He starts to buzz, just around the edges, but he's being too careful. I conclude that he is going to give me sort of a "fade" but I don't want a fade, I want a buzz, so I say "khong" and wave my hand over my head in a bigger, slightly more dramatic, circle and say "bzzzzzt" again and he gets the picture. He proceeds to mow, which is what I wanted. He finishes the Bruce Willis then he sprays a myst of water around my head and breaks out the straight razor for a thorough trim -- ears, neck, edge of the brow, everything. A quick sponge off and a few towel snaps later and I'm dusted off. Perfect. He's paying attention to detail. I like that.

He puts his hand over his own head and does a squeezing motion, like an octopus or something. I nod and say "yea" (which actually means "yea" in Vietnamese too, thank god). Onto the shampoo station.

An average-but-skilled-looking woman is sitting on a stool next to one of the shampoo tables. The barber says something to her and does the octopus gesture on his head.  She puts down her magazine and gestures for me to lie down. I do this. I have to do it just right to get my head over the sink correctly, but I fail. I'm about 5 inches too long. I sort of lay there for a moment awkwardly trying to reposition my feet against the wall and contemplate just drooping my legs down on the floor to basically straddle the whole table. But she intercedes and adjusts the shampoo station to accommodate the extra centimeters.  Towel wrapped around my neck and shoulders, comfortably positioned, and ready to go.

This is where the fun begins.

I am lying there briefly looking around and then feel a tap on the shoulder. It is my wash maiden, pointing at a package with a picture of an aloe plant on it. I nod and say "yea" and close my eyes. I hear the package crinkling as it's ripped open and put away. A moment later I feel a cool jelly-like substance being draped over my face. It does smell like aloe, actually. Cool. My grandmother used to put that on my burns, and it worked, so I figure it's good stuff. But then I hear another package being ripped open. The next thing I know, she is gooping my face with peppermint goo, smearing it around and distributing it evenly, avoiding eyes and orifices, expertly catching and re-directing any stray goo, waking up my skin cells.  I didn't know they were asleep.

Artist's rendering of my skin cells at this point.  Note: may not be to scale.

I am lying on a table, fully clothed, eyes closed, my face under a mask of aloe-peppermint jello. I am relaxed yet invigorated. I feel like I have discovered a secret that has been kept from me. I start to fade away into a peppermint aloe jello bliss.  Then I hear running water next to my head.

So far I've spent about $2 and change.  Read Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2 to see how I spent the next $1.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jeremy Jackson Top Gear vid about Vietnam

This is well worth a watch if you're interested in Vietnam and especially about how things were here between 1975 and about 1990 -- back when the Honda Dream ruled the road and the laws were even more like "suggestions" than they are now. 

A lot of the country's aspirations mentioned in this video have come true, for better or for worse.

State shipbuilder makes a Vespa knock off

So, evidently in response to the WTOs concerns about piracy, the state-run ship-building company partners with a Chinese company to make a Vespa knock-off and claims that Honda is making the motor -- a claim that Honda Vietnam denies.

I'll try and snap a pic of one of these if I come across it.  Evidently they're pretty much perfect duplicates of this popular bike here, visually speaking.  I can't say much for the motor, though.  Chinese motors don't get a whole lot of respect here, just a waggle of the handle and the words "no good."  Why the ship builder wouldn't go ahead and produce a home-grown Vietnamese motorbike is beyond me.

Warning: May contain a naughty word. Awesome, simple, little site.

Press the "more advice" button for more advice.  I'm curious what people think about this advice.

Good job, anonymous web guy, whoever you are.