Author Archives: Medellin Colombia

Whacky Medellin

Perhaps “whacky” is too strong a word to describe some of the differences that I have observed between Medellin and the culture that I usually experience, and no doubt there are many things that North Americans do that appear whacky to Paisas, but at least the title of this blog post is kind of catchy. (People in this region of Colombia are known as “Paisas,” which is a culture that has a Spanish background, and is traditionally Catholic, entrepreneurial, hard-working, and famously hospitable). In any case, here is the whacky in Medellin:

DRIVER ONLY WELCOME. In larger parking garages, only the driver can enter … everyone else has to exit the vehicle at the entrance.

NO SITTING AT METRO STOP. There are very few seats at metro subway stations, and if you sit on the floor while waiting for a train, a nice policeman will tell you to stand up. I learned that firsthand … and the young man was kind enough to help me up when I extended my hand.

BATHROOMS. I could write entire books about this. As in much of Latin America, the bathrooms here are tiny … and most are not a bathroom, but a stall. I you are sitting on the toilet, you must sit up straight if you don’t want your head resting on the stall door. If you want to stand and pee, you’ll have to carefully slide to the left, or slide to the right of the toilet to execute that peeing maneuver because if you’re standing in front of the toilet your butt will be holding open the door. One day I went to a door marked “Hombres” and found only a urinal inside … I guess that men aren’t permitted to poop there. (I did not check what was behind the “Mujeres” door). Lastly, on several occasions I have peed into an open air urinal that is on the wall on the sidewalk or even in restaurants … but at least there are dividers on each side of the urinal so that those who are eating nearby don’t have to see everything.

SIDEWALKS. I’ve written about this on previous trips – don’t bring your U.S. expectations of sidewalk manners to Latin America because you will go crazy if you do. For example, if two people are standing in the middle of the sidewalk and see you walking toward them, they won’t budge … your job is to walk around them, including into the busy street at times. If someone walking beside you is an inch in front of you, they will cross right in front of you to make their turn instead of hesitating a moment to let you pass by before making their turn. I started writing this post at a local library, and on my way into the library a maintenance man was sitting on a bench taking a break with a rake extended in front of him blocking the sidewalk … and the rake did not move, but I did. Speaking of sidewalks, if you get distracted sight-seeing while walking there are any number of things on, above, below, and near the sidewalk that can put a world of hurt on you … such as crevices, rebar jutting out, tree limbs, utility boxes with no lid (to see how your toes or entire foot will mingle with all the electrical wires down there), poop that has been deposited, and who knows what else is down there … and since I am taller than 99% of the people here, my noggin can meet any number of tree branches, food cart awnings, ceilings, etc. To avoid a trip to the pharmacy for bandages, I’m always looking up and down, up and down, up and down …

PHARMACIES. They are very different here. Everything is behind the counter … if you want aspirin, antacids, cough syrup, vitamin C, and many things that you’ll find on the shelves in U.S. grocery stores, they will be dispensed by a pharmacist here. Moreover, you don’t buy whole bottles … if you only want to buy a sleeve of 10 ibuprofen pills, you can do that. I was offered 3 sore-throat lozenges, and opted for 6 instead. So you walk up to the pharmacist (or whoever it is that dispenses the goods from behind the counter) and you tell them your symptoms, and they will show you the medicines that they think you should take (some of which probably require a doctors prescription in the U.S.). Sometimes you can figure out what medicine you are taking (such as acetaminophen that is spelled similarly in Spanish), but other times you have no idea so you just have to trust the prescriber and go with it.

CROSSWALKS. While we’re talking about sidewalks and medical supplies, we may as well talk about crosswalks. What looks like a crosswalk here (with painted white lines on the roadway) is not actually a safe place, and if you assume that traffic will slow or stop for you while you are in the “crosswalk,” your family will be receiving a call from the local morgue. You have to look left, right, up, down, behind you, and then left and right again quickly before darting across any street here. If the light turns green a block away from where you are strolling across a quiet non-busy street, suddenly cars and trucks and busses and motorcycles will slam on the gas, dart off the line, and shoot out of the blocks to see who can hit you or narrowly miss you first. One maddening thing about Medellin (and probably all of Colombia) is that the plethora of motorcycles are permitted to ride in-between the vehicles that are in the traffic lanes. You can be going 50 MPH down the road, or navigating a 3-lane traffic circle, with motorcycles on each side of your vehicle that seem to be only inches away. And these motorcyclists and scooter drivers have no fear … they will take on cars, trucks, busses, anything, in order to cut in front and get ahead in traffic.

SCOOTER TOUR. Last week I made an appointment to see some apartments that are offered by an apartment rental agency, and a 18-year-old kid on a scooter showed up to give me the tour. He handed me what looked like a little kid toy plastic helmet to wear, complete with the severely scratched plastic eyeball shield that flapped up and down in the wind while obscuring my view. Thank God there was a metal bar behind my butt that I could hold on to for dear life while we zipped and darted and careened through town. After we looked at that first dumpy apartment, I really didn’t want to ride any longer nor see another apartment … but I thought, “what the hell … the worst that could happen is that I lose a limb, be paralyzed, or get killed” … so I went for it. After we looked at that second dumpy apartment, I thanked the young man for his time and told him that I would be walking back to town.

CHILDREN AND THE STREET. They evidently start teaching in kids in utero how to stay out of the street here. Many times I have seen children as young as 4 years old or younger meandering next to a busy street while vehicle traffic is buzzing by; meanwhile, parents are standing nearby seemingly unconcerned while they are checking text messages on their phone, looking for the next bus, ordering food at a street vendor, talking with a friend, whatever. Sometimes I will watch the scene in amazement, but other times I simply cannot watch. Fortunately, the kids seem to know just how far they can go, as if there was some invisible fence that would give them a jolt right at the line that separates the sidewalk from the street. Speaking of the street, when cars are stopped at a traffic light you will often see jugglers and other street performers putting on a show in front of the stopped vehicles in order to earn a few coins … likewise, windshield cleaners will clean your windshield without asking your permission while you are stopped at the traffic light (hoping you will give them money) … and any number of vendors will get on your bus to sell you their products, preach the gospel, promote a social service project, or play an instrument for you in order to earn some money.

FULL-SERVICE GAS PUMPS. Remember those? I suppose that somewhere in the U.S. there are still a few of those around, but no doubt you pay more to have someone pump your gas. I contrast, I have never seen a self-service gas pump here. When you pull into the gas station there is an attendant at literally every pump … you tell them how much gas you want, and after you have paid they will pump your gas.

PASSPORT. Unlike other Latin American countries where I was able to carry a copy of my passport, here you will have to show your actual passport to get into many places and/or make credit card purchases. Every university campus that I have visited here is secured at every entrance with gates and security guards who will check your passport (and sometimes take your picture) before you can enter the campus. Banks, municipal offices, libraries, casinos, high-end retailers of jewelry, appliances, etc., and many other places have armed security guards. Nonetheless, one thing nice about Colombia (in contrast to other countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, etc.) is that the security guards here are not standing around with a scowl on their face and packing what looks like a sawed-off shotgun hanging from their neck while their trigger finger is twitching … the security guards here look quite normal.

COFFEE. Sadly, in what is viewed as the Coffee Capital of the World, I suspect that almost all of the best coffee is exported (as is the case in Guatemala). The only place you’ll find the good stuff here is at very expensive coffee houses that cater to tourists. Everywhere else, when you ask for a cup of coffee you’ll receive a 6-ounce cup of coffee that is half milk. If you want black coffee, you have to specify “tinto” which literally means “tinted” in Spanish. At many of the little snack shops and small restaurants that line the streets, your cup of coffee will be served in a tiny plastic cup which seems not much larger than a cough syrup dispenser. Fortunately, your shot of coffee will only cost about 30 cents … and it comes with 3 packs of sugar.

Posted in #Catholic, #Latino

Is immersion the best way to teach a new language to adults?

Many language schools focus on 100% immersion, and even require their teachers to use the target language exclusively. For example, not long ago I interviewed for a position teaching English to business professionals in Colombia, and I was told that I must not use any Spanish in the classroom … that I must teach the entire time in English. Is this the best way to teach adults?

No it is not, and especially not for beginner students.

So, why do language schools focus on immersion? I suspect that many use full immersion out of necessity and not by design because they simply don’t have teachers that can speak both languages effectively, such as the many Spanish language schools in Latin America that sell their programs to native English speakers; their Spanish teachers cannot speak English, so they sell the benefits of 100% immersion in Spanish. Or, it could be that some language schools who do corporate training are required by their corporate clients to provide 100% immersion in the target language. Finally, it is possible that the majority of language learners insist on full immersion. Whatever the reason(s), full 100% immersion for all students regardless of language level is not the most effective approach to teaching a new language to adults.

I am not a linguist that has studied language acquisition, however I have done a fair amount of research on language learning methods. Also, I began learning Spanish at the age of 48 … and having spent 7 years on this process, I know firsthand at least what works best for me. Moreover, I have been teaching English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) for several years to adults, and it is clear to me that complete immersion can at times be very ineffective and discouraging to students. So, I would like to offer a better and more nuanced approach to teaching a new language to adults.

Language immersion should be tailored to the language level of the adult students. For instance, in a class of beginners with little or no exposure to the English language, it would be counter-productive to speak English the entire time while trying to teach them the alphabet, basic words and verb tenses, etc. If I were to speak English the entire time, most of what I said would not be understood. Some will say that my speaking the entire time in English is a good way to tune the ears of the students to hear English, but I would argue that students can get their ears much more effectively tuned outside of class by listening to English language audio, by watching video on TV and the internet, or by having conversations with native English speakers. Advanced language students, however, would obviously benefit from complete immersion in the classroom, and intermediate students are somewhere in-between. Below is my proposal for the relative level of immersion that should be applied to students at different levels of language acquisition.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a widely used guideline for assessing the aptitude of foreign language students all over the world, and it lists the following 6 levels:

Level A1 – Beginner
Level A2 – Elementary
Level B1 – Intermediate
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate
Level C1 – Advanced
Level C2 – Mastery

Based on my research and personal experience (both teaching English and learning Spanish), I recommend that at each higher level more immersion can be applied in a classroom of adults. The level of immersion that I recommend for adult English language learners at each level is as follows:

Level A1 – Beginner – no more than 60% immersion
Level A2 – Elementary – no more than 70% immersion
Level B1 – Intermediate – no more than 80% immersion
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate – no more than 90% immersion
Level C1 – Advanced – 100% immersion
Level C2 – Mastery – 100% immersion

I have taught English to adult native Spanish speakers for many years, and I have also taught English at universities in the USA to international students to prepare them to pass the TOEFL and IELTS exams and to enter university studies. Based on my experience with these (and other) internationally recognized aptitude tests, adults do not reach the B2 upper intermediate level until they can comfortably use about 50% of the verb tenses effectively (including past, present, future and conditional verb tenses). In English there are 16 verb tenses, and the average native English speaker uses most, if not all of them, on a regular basis. However, in my experience, many adult English language learners plateau at the B1 intermediate level, and stick to using no more than about 4-5 verb tenses on a regular basis … and even then, a B1 level student does not use those 4-5 most common verb tenses accurately and comfortably all the time. So, when I am teaching English to intermediate level native Spanish speakers, I have found it very helpful to clarify grammar points and in particular verb tenses by speaking to them in Spanish when necessary in order to enhance the learning experience. For example, once I show them how a specific English verb tense compares to the same basic tense in Spanish, they understand the lesson much quicker (or perhaps for the first time) and we can move on to practicing the language and to deepening their language aptitude.

The English language school in Colombia that interviewed me has corporate clients that want to improve the English skills of their employees. However, if their employees are anything like most of the adults that I have taught through the years, it would be counter-productive for me to use only English in the classroom (unless, of course, I am given all advanced students). Instead, after I have measured the overall level of the students, I should apply the appropriate level of immersion according to the scale that I have detailed above. If 100% immersion in English is required, it would likely lessen the effectiveness of the language learning environment and reduce a client’s return on investment.

Any thoughts?

Posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachESL, #TEFL, #TESOL

English Teacher hits the pavement in Medellin

Perhaps “madness” is too strong a word to describe my first 10 days in Medellin, but it sure has been action-packed. I was getting nowhere via email and the internet in my search for a position teaching English, and so I decided to just show up. (In Latin America, business is done face-to-face). As a result, I had some pretty cool experiences but still no job offers.

I first went to a nearby smaller university, and the security guard escorted me right to the head of the English department. I was asked to email copies of my passport both to HR and to him, but days later I have heard nothing. Nonetheless, at the time I was thinking, “That first connection was easy – today is going to be my day.” Then I went to a prestigious and very large Catholic university in the center of Medellin, and Security would not let me on the grounds without my passport (the copy I usually carry would not do here as in other countries). Not even Mary Mother Anselm could have got me through that iron gate. So, I went all the way back home to get my passport, and when I returned they did a thorough passport review, took my photo, and entered all this information into their computer. After I passed through the iron gate, I was on this large campus for only a few minutes before asking directions to the language department from a man who was wearing a university shirt (perhaps housekeeping staff), and he looked up and called to another man who was walking by to see if that man knew, and that passerby just happened to be an English teacher in the language department. Then while we were walking, the English teacher told me that he got his degree at Northern Arizona University, and he promptly escorted me through the locked door at the language department directly to the Head of the language department. Wow! After a good interview, I was told that the soonest they could use me is in March, but that I would need a work visa to teach there. I sent a follow-up email to thank him for his time, but I have heard nothing since.

On to EAFIT, not only the largest university in Medellin, but the most prestigious and best paying English teaching position to be had in this town. I had contacted them several times since last June, sent several application materials to them, and sent a direct message via LinkedIn to the department Head. (I know that he viewed my LinkedIn profile because LinkedIn tells you who views your profile). As has happened to me many times in this city, people standing at bus stops helped me find the correct busses, and on the bus that would take me to EAFIT, the person who was sitting beside me made sure that I got off at the right stop. With passport in hand, I was able to get through Security, and the language center just happened to be 10 steps past Security. (We’re talking a campus the size of The Ohio State University). I tugged at the locked door that leads to Administration, and immediately someone buzzed me into the offices without asking who I was. Within 5 minutes I was sitting in front of the Administrator who I had corresponded with several times over the last 6 months. She told me that the soonest they would need me is one year from now.

Since that experience I have heard back from other universities in town who all tell me the same thing – without a work visa, I have little or no chance of teaching English at a university here. A work visa would cost around $500 (including attorney fees), would take about 6 weeks to obtain (provided that the mountain of required documents were all submitted exactly as required the first time), and the process should be started at a consulate office outside the country. The woman in whose house I am staying is an attorney, and one day she offered to give me a ride to various locales because she had business to do … and while she was doing her lawyer thing, I was able to visit different neighborhoods. We started in the morning and finished late at night, and we traipsed all over the metropolitan area and beyond as she followed up on cases that needed this jot fixed or that tittle signed, and she told me that this is the norm in Colombia … if documents are not exactly correct, you have to return to stand in line to wait to fix them, and then you might have to go the next office, and the next office, and perhaps pay fees at each office along the way, and of course everything has to be done face-to-face, and by the time you get your approval weeks or months later you are a little bit numb, surprised, and relieved. (She told me that her new law cases are scheduled to be first heard over a year from now). Of course, I don’t have to believe that all processes are difficult and take a long time here, but that is what almost everyone says.

Believe it or not, there is one local university that does not seem scared by my tourist visa, and a friend of my landlord hooked me up with an interview with the Director of the English program. Once again, my passport got me through Security, and my interview with La Directora went very well. She told me that in the off-chance that they get a surge in enrollment (made less likely by the fact that for the first time in history they are requiring each student to pay a full year of tuition before starting classes this term), they could possibly offer me a few classes to teach in February. Since I am the eternal optimist, I am believing that this will come through.

So I turned my attention to the many private language schools in town, and the reputable ones have told me a similar story – they won’t even look at me without an existing work visa and long-term commitment (and of course a work visa requires a sponsoring organization). Moreover, I have read in expat forums about the many disreputable language schools in town that send you all over town for appointments with people who don’t show up, and that even if they do give you clients, somehow they forget to pay their instructors. Again, I choose what I will believe.

As I write this article, I am sitting in the main local office of SENA, the Colombian Government’s Social Service Agency that (among many other programs) operates the much ballyhooed bilingual country-wide initiative that is supposed to make all Colombian students bilingual in the not too distant future, quite a task since the rate of English language proficiency in Colombia is one of the lowest in all of Central and South America. I’ve been sitting for over an hour together with several others who all seem to be waiting to see people who don’t show up, and so I thought that this would be a good time to turn a lemon into lemonade and write this blog article. But now that I am about to finish this post, I don’t know how much longer that I want to wait in this hot and humid office sweating with all the others waiting to see someone who doesn’t show up. In all honesty, I did not have an appointment here today, but rather than try to move this process along via email and internet, I thought that I might just show up in order to expedite the process … and so I wait.

After waiting over 1.5 hours, someone did show up to tell me to search the Spanish language SENA government website on a nearby computer to get a job code, and that once I submitted a job code and my passport information, someone might show up to meet with me. Instead of spending the rest of the afternoon in that office waiting for someone to show up, I thanked them for the information and walked out.

I never say never … but while plan A and plan B (and C, and D, and ???) are in process, I am already strategizing on next steps. Stay tuned.

Posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachenglish, #teachESL, #TEFL, #TESOL

Medellin and Me

My journey to Medellin has been intense, fun, frustrating, wild, emotional, interesting, and adventurous (and many more adjectives).

When we got in the car to go to the shuttle in Prescott, I was excited, nervous and sad all at once. Sheri and I will be apart for 4-1/2 months, by far the longest stretch since we met in 1998. I was dabbing tears in my eyes as the shuttle driver made his way to Prescott Valley to drop off his coworker. At that point I switched to the front seat, and fortunately the shuttle driver dude was quite chatty, otherwise I might have been tearing-up all the way to Phoenix.

At the airport I was a little nervous about whether my checked bag would come in under 40 lbs. and avoid the Spirit Airlines hefty surcharge, but I was grateful to have a very nice (and chatty) ticket agent who even allowed me to stuff more things in my checked bag. As I awaited for my 1:48 AM departure, I thought more than a few times that this was way past my bedtime.

When the plane landed in Dallas, I got up from my seat and was struck by how ethnically diverse we passengers were … Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Europeans, Texans (who seem to stand out), Indians, a Muslim women in hajib, other folks, and some fellow gringo mutts. This is the USA that I love.

The flights from Texas to Florida and then from Florida to Medellin were uneventful if not a blur, and I arrived at about 2:00 PM. I was hoping that I could convince the customs agent to give me a 6 month tourist stay, but alas I got the normal 3 month pass, which means that in March I get to wait in one of those wonderful Latin American lines to get my visa extended. (Yesterday I waited in line for 15 minutes at the grocery store to buy a bottle of water). Its all part of the fun.

I let myself get frustrated at the airport while waiting for the shuttle bus that would take us on the 45 minute drive from the airport to downtown Medellin. Almost all of the people I meet in Latin America are nice, which is true of everyone I meet everywhere for that matter; but occasionally you’ll meet service agents who think that rich gringos should not push themselves to the front of the line or even be in the line. So when I got to the shuttle bus there appeared to be plenty of room for big me and my big bag, however the driver was unwilling to pack me and my bag, so I stood at the curb and watched for at least 10 minutes while at least 4 other people (and their bags) got on that shuttle. After waiting a long time for the next shuttle to arrive, a new crowd of people surged to the luggage compartment in the back of the bus, and I was in danger of missing that shuttle were it not for a travel agent who saw me get bumped off the last shuttle.

It is also true that some Latin America entrepreneurs see dollar signs when they see a gringo, so if possible it is helpful to know the approximate price before you make a purchase. My host here in Medellin told me that the taxi from downtown to her house should only be 15,000 pesos (which is about $5 USD), but the bag helper and taxi driver told me that I would have to pay what the meter showed upon arrival. So I told the taxi driver what my host said, and on the way I watched as the meter gathered speed … ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-thing … we were at 40,000 Colombian pesos and not even home yet! So I again told the taxi driver that my host said that the fare should only be 15,000 pesos, and that – oh by the way – my host just happens to be an attorney, and thus when we arrived I gave him a 20,000 note and waited for change … and he gave me 5,000 in change.

Yesterday was a wild ride. I’m not sure how many people live here – 2 million, maybe 3 million people – but as you can imagine, this is one big, fast-moving, lots of people, sights, sounds, and smells kind of place. Just a little different than Prescott, Arizona. So I launched myself onto the public transport system, and took a bus from the suburbs to the heart of the city. They let me off at the metro, which is every bit as nice as the metro subway system in Washington, DC. Then I took the metro out and away from the city to a lower income area, then exited the metro train and got on a metro cable car which took us high up the mountain to the fringes of the city. You’ll just have to Google “Medellin Metro Cable” to learn more about it, but what happened is that visionary city leaders years ago worked to dramatically reduce the crime rate in this city by tying all the neighborhoods together. The poorer areas had been isolated, so the city invested millions in infrastructure to build not only the metro system, but also libraries, parks, schools, and other services. One of the promises made and kept by the city was regular trash pickup throughout the city, which obviously was well received especially in the poorer areas that had been regularly neglected in the past. One of the most remarkable comments I read before coming here was made by the former mayor of Medellin, one of the key people who spearheaded the transformation of this city … he said (and I paraphrase), “We must build our most beautiful and expensive buildings in our poorest neighborhoods.” How many people in power think like that anymore? That’s a beautiful thing … and the city has been rewarded for this visionary consciousness through less crime, more civic pride, a booming tourist industry, and much more. The city still has plenty of issues, just like any big city in the good old USA, but many positive changes are complete and still in process.

Back to my wild ride … so after riding the metro cable to the top of the mountain, I watched as thunderstorms moved into the valley and city below. It was pretty awesome to watch lightning bolts flash across the sky, but then it started to rain so people made their way back to the metro cable. However, due to the lightening and rain, the city shut down the system for the night and hundreds of us were stuck up on the mountain in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo. So I took a city bus down the mountain, which was quite the harrowing, wild ride, on wet slippery twisting streets … I was actually sitting in the front seat beside the bus driver, and he was calmly flying down the mountain, singing along to the music, avoiding all the motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, bicycles, taxis, animals, and whatnot that seem to dart from every direction in Latin America while at the same time avoiding collisions … I figured if the bus driver could be calm, then so could I … and I made it back home safely at about 8:00 PM.

I’m not sure what today holds, but I will soon find out as I wander out into the city … Medellin and me.

Posted in #Spanish, #teachenglish