Grammar-talk, how much do I need it?

September 23, 2015
o que será de nozes? - language

o que será de nozes? – language

This week I got an email from a listener of our Portuguese podcast series.  Here is Maria’s question:

Sometimes when you talk about all the different tenses and things related to grammar, I find myself getting totally lost because I don’t even understand a lot of basic English grammar (and I’m a native English speaker). What advice do you have for someone like me? I’ve very motivated to learn Portuguese but learning a language has been such a struggle. I sometimes wonder if I’m just one of these people that  just doesn’t have the brain for it. Also, how do I stop myself from analyzing everything I want to say in Portuguese before I say it? I find that when I speak in Portuguese, I end up speaking so slowly because I’m trying to translate what I want to say in my head from English to Portuguese. I’ve been told that this isn’t good to do. That you have to just have confidence and speak without thinking too much about making mistakes. But I fear if I do that no one will understand anything that I say!

I thought it would be good to answer her question here as a blog post.

First: Grammar Talk.  I once had a student who asked me something like, “Prof. Kelm, does that mean that with the third person plural of the present perfect tense that we need to add an “s” to the past participle?”  I looked back at this student in awe!  Really, I couldn’t process that many grammar words without a gigantic pause to analyze what he was asking.  So, I understand how learners can feel lost in grammar talk.  My answer, no, you don’t need to be a grammar expert and you don’t need to be fluent in grammar talk.  However, romance languages, like Portuguese, have a million verb forms.  Think about it, verbs tells about time (past, present, future), verbs tell us about person (I, you, he, she, we, they), verbs tell as about a thing called “aspect” (when something began and finished), and verbs tell us about a thing called “mood” (factual vs. hypothetical).  Verbs are pretty powerful in Portuguese.  Whatever time you spend to understand all that verbs can do, that time will really help you to memorize and learn all of the verb forms.  So, no, you don’t need to be fluent in grammar talk, but yes, if you spend time to learn all the functions that a verb has, you are going to make the learning of Portuguese that much smoother. My recommendation is that you bite the bullet and take some time to learn the ideas behind verb forms.  Buy one of those “500 verbs” books and crunch on all of verb forms in all the tenses.

Second: Do people have the brain for language learning or not. Easy answer, no, I do not believe that some have a brain for language learning and others do not.  However, I do believe that sometimes a person’s personality does affect language learning. A person who by nature is shy, reserved, perfectionist, will probably have a harder time mustering the courage to speak out loud in another language.  We all have to go through the phase of being slow, limited, and halted in our foreign language.  Little by little things get better.  And that is actually the key element.  My experience is that learners underestimate how much time, effort, and hard work goes into learning a foreign language.  You may be making spectacular progress in your learning of Portuguese, but if you have unrealistic expectations of how soon a person obtains advanced proficiency, you may doubt your progress.  My recommendation is to keep plugging away. The pleasure of speaking to others in their language, and the fun of experiencing a new culture in another language is worth it.

Third: Translating and analyzing in your head, will it every stop?  Here the answer is that every language learner will resort to his or her native language. Initially there is no way around it, simply because every time you come to a word you do not know or a conjugation you cannot say, your brain jumps back to your native language.  You are, in essence, a bilingual person and if your brain has no way of saying something in one language, it will jump to another language. My recommendation, relax about it and realize that as your vocabulary grows, and your experience in using common phrases grows, you will find yourself translating less and less.  Then, all of a sudden one day you are going to consciously realize that you just had a conversation without having to revert back to English.  It will be cool, and it will happen.

Fourth: Fear Factor.  You got it Maria, there is often a fear factor when we speak another language.  There is something almost miraculous when these new sounds come out of our mouth, and people actually respond to them.  Some day you will have the experience of being in Brazil, ordering some food or drink, and then the waiter will ask if you want that with ice, or spicy, or with banana, who know, but the waiter will cause you to modify your memorized line.  And you will then clarify your order, “yes, I would like banana with my açaí.”  At that moment you will realize that all of those strange new sounds that came out of your mouth were actual words, and native speaker reacted to them by bringing you your order.  It will be cool, and it will happen.

Hope that helps Maria, boa sorte!

Photo:  A poster at the movie theater with a fantastic play on words in Portuguese: O que será de nozes? “What will happen to us/nuts?”


“Sorry” – Man, we use ‘sorry’ a lot when speaking English!

July 14, 2015

This week I was reminded again how often native English speakers use the word ‘sorry.’  And most times when I try to say a phrase in another language, where ‘sorry’ is used in English, I simply have to find a new way to say things in the other language. This is what linguists call pragmatics, when we look at how phrases are actually used in everyday exchanges.  You will also hear linguists use the word ‘calque’ which refers to loan words, which sometimes make no sense when we translate things literally word by word.  We have to be careful about which phrases can be translated literally and which ones cannot.

For example, in English, when we find out that someone has died, we may say something like, “I’m sorry that your mother has passed away.” or “I’m sorry to hear that you mother passed away.”  Similarly, when we find out sad news about another person who is sick, we may say, “I’m sorry to hear that your mother is sick.”

However, in Chinese there is a phrase, 节哀顺变 (jie2ai1shun4bian4) which as near as I can tell, means something like, “restrain grief, accept fate.” Of course, as with most Chinese phrases, I rarely understand how the parts add up to the whole, but in this case, in talking with friends and in consulting with dictionaries, they all confirm the idea of “restrain grief, accept fate.”

Somehow the Chinese and English comparisons tell me a lot about cultural norms.  In English, “sorry” is not an apology, it is more of an expression of sorrow.  It is as if we are saying, “It also makes me sad to know that you feel sad.” The problem is that non-native speakers of English will understand are bizarre translation of “sorry” as an apology, and they will be left wondering why we are apologizing for something that we did not do.  The Chinese version comes across, to me anyway, with more of a sense of “buck up and don’t let it get you down because everyone dies eventually and you can’t change fate anyway.”  Not very sympathetic, is it?  So, even though I know what the Chinese version is, it is difficult to image that my proficiency in the language will ever get to the point where it wouldn’t be weird to say to someone,节哀顺变.

In Portuguese, probably my strongest foreign language, when someone dies, a Brazilian will say “meus pêsames.”  This is roughly equivalent to “my condolences.”  However, Brazilians also say, “sinto muito…” which for me closely resembles the English sense of saying that I feel sad too.  “Sinto muito…” means “I feel a lot…” The Brazilian “sinto muito” captures all of the sense of empathy for another’s feelings without using a phrase that can misinterpreted as an apology. Way to go Brazilians, you captured the sentiment perfectly.

So, sorry if this blog posted was boring for you. And sorry if you didn’t understand. But, I’m not sorry that I wrote it. Just be careful when you translate it into another language!

Use of Innovative Technologies in Language Teaching

June 29, 2015

This week I was asked to submit a description of how we can use innovative technologies in the teaching of foreign language.  The write up should appear as part of a handbook for teachers.  Here are the contents of that write-up. Some of the examples are specific to Portuguese language, but I imagine that some readers will find the content useful.  It is a bit longer than my usual blog entries, but hopefully not too much longer.

Language Learning In A Digital World

Orlando R. Kelm, University of Texas at Austin


Language learning is messy, this despite the fact that our pedagogy traditionally strives to clean up the mess. Portuguese is no exception. We try to clean up the messiness by controlling and structuring our courses. For example, teachers generally present gender and agreement before learning the subjunctive, because somehow that is seen as an appropriate built up. If we were to be brutally honest with ourselves, however, much of this control is motivated by our need to manage students and classes, more than our belief on what is really helpful in language learning. A language supervisor at a large university once told me, “Our methodology may not be the best way to learn a language, but it’s an effective way to teach the language to 5,000 students.” A large part of our methodology is centered on convenience and practicality.

Nowadays, we have a new challenge. Our traditional methodology is confronting the reality of our digital age. Instant access to information, video, audio, chats, conversations with people from anywhere at any time, communication and information flows, all of these potentially change our approach to education and learning. It is partly for this reason that we sometimes look at technology and social media as a hindrance to our language learning pedagogy. Why? Because all of our efforts to make language learning less messy seem to crumble as technology exposes learners to hundreds, no thousands, of new ways to communicate with others and access information. The result is that we sometimes feel like we are losing control of the classroom, the students, and the learning environment. Given this, there is a push back. Some forbid students to open their laptops in class, others do not allow mobile devices at school, and others still discourage learners from accessing online resources, because, after all, who knows what kind of incorrect and incomplete information is out there. And this is true without even fanning the flames that suggest that technology will someday replace teachers!

There are additional challenges as well. Even if we want to incorporate more technology and social media into our language learning, these are moving targets. Every day there are new options, new sites, new applications and new programs. How do educators make a decision about how to incorporate technology and social media into foreign language learning when faced with the real issues of cost, quality, scalability, copyrights, time commitments, accuracy and age appropriateness? It becomes overwhelming. Let’s be honest, the school or university is going to make a broad decision to use a specific content management system, and we will go with it. The department is going to make a broad decision to use a specific textbook, which comes with ancillary online materials, and we will go with it.

Still, even if we “go with it,” inevitably there are students, often the self-motivated independent ones, who approach language learning differently. These learners finds ways to read news updates and articles from anywhere in the world. They use translation technologies to enhance their understanding. They find ways to talk, in real time, with native speakers who are thousands of miles away. They download music, talks, lectures, grammar exercises, podcast lessons, movies and videos.

With all of this in mind, the object of this part of the manual is to provide some ideas on how to use technology and social media to enhance the learning of Portuguese. For learners of Portuguese, labeled with the famous acronym LCTL (Less Commonly Taught Language), this is especially important because there are simply fewer published materials for language learning.

The premise and starting point for this essay is the following: Look at how technology is used in society in general, and build on that for pedagogical purposes. If people use a program or application for communication purposes, how can we modify that for language teaching? If people share information with others in a certain way, how can we adjust that for language learning purposes? If in everyday life we access information in certain ways, how can we replicate a part of that in teaching and education? In other words, observe what happens in real life and figure out a way to tweak that when learning a foreign language.

Background Stories To Set The Stage

Let’s begin with two brief examples that illustrate how technology and social media have changed the way we interact with students, and how they learn foreign languages. Recently I introduced our Portuguese language students to HelloTalk, a free app that allows learners to use their mobile device to chat, record, correct, and edit language with native speakers. During class one day I told that students that almost every Brazilian will have heard of the poem, Minha terra tem palmeiras by Gonçalves Dias. At that very instant a student named Kris pulled out is mobile phone and asked his Brazilian contacts on HelloTalk if they had every heard of that poem. It was not even two minutes later when Kris raised his hand to let me know that he had just asked a few Brazilians and indeed they had all heard of the poem, but no, none of them really knew it. It was an amazing, and slightly intimidating experience. First, it was impressive to see how quickly students were able to confirm what I was simultaneously talking about in class. Second, the experience served as a catalyst for lots of new ideas on how I could integrate classroom activities and immediate Brazilian input.

Second example, in another recent course there was a miscommunication with the university bookstore and the textbook did not make it to the bookshelves. Serendipitously, there was an electronic version of that textbook. However, when we tried to access the textbook through our university library, it was not available for our students. As the instructor, I went to the library to see if there was any way to obtain access to the electronic version. The official answer from the library staff was no. However, some of our students clicked on one or two new search options and they found that the electronic version was indeed available, and legitimately so, through a different portal. Not even the staff at the library was aware of the other option. Had it not been for the savvy searching of the students, we would have been without the textbook at the beginning of our semester. Again it was an amazing experience. Students were literally able to use technology to keep our class progressing, even when the library and the teacher did not know what to do.

What Is Out There And How We Can Use It

In this section we will look at some of the “tools of the trade.” These are programs, applications, websites, etc., that can all be used to enhance language learning and foreign language teaching. Please notice the use of the word “enhance.” If a person asks, “What should I do to learn Portuguese?” the answer is never found in just one thing. There is no single best and only way to learn a language. There is no one textbook, or no one podcast lesson that miraculously covers all aspects of language learning at all levels of proficiency. The same is true with everything that I will show here. Some items work well to organize time, others work well for students at beginning levels, some work well to improve reading ability, others work better to improve oral fluency. The point is, there are hundreds of things that we can do to improve our language learning, but each are valid within their own area. It is unfair to criticize, for example, an audio recording because it doesn’t help a learner to spell difficult words correctly. Almost everything that is shown here works as an ancillary, but nothing covers for all aspects of language learning.

  1. Tools To Organize Materials and Sort Presentation

One of the challenges that we face as teachers is the wide assortment of tools we draw from, often in class. Sometimes we move back and forth between text, photos, video, audio, PDF files, URL links, textbooks, handouts, and any other variety of items.

It is easy to get lost. Here are four tools that assist in organizing our materials and our presentation.

  1. Padlet is an online wall, similar to a bulletin board, where individuals or groups can post all sorts of content: images, videos, text, documents, pdf files, URL links, etc. It is easy to customize the wall, control who has access and moderate student interactions. The basic version is free, and the learning curve to learn how to use Padlet is probably less than 30 minutes. It is a powerful tool to post notes, create portfolios, and to add ancillary materials. It is also effective as a tool for students to build their own walls, that also includes their notes, portfolios, and the results of their own search and research.
  2. If you have ever had the frustrating experience where a lesson plan or presentation is difficult because you find yourself bouncing in and out of multiple digital recourses, Blendspace will make your life much easier. Blendspace is a platform were users can gather, sort, annotate, and share almost any digital resource. Blendspace makes it easy to draw anything from google searches, flickr, educreations, upload any media, copy from Dropbox, or add from Gdrive. It simply allows you to sort and organize by a simple click and drag. The learning curve is again something that will take you less than 30 minutes to learn.
  3. Wikispaces, or about any other wiki format works well when you want to create something, especially text related, that results in a finished product. That is to say, if the contents continually change over time, I recommend that a blog format will serve better. However, if the objective is to build something (either individually or as a group) which will then serve as a final product, a wiki works well. Of course it may be that your school or university is using a content management system (like BlackBoard or Canvas) that allows you to create wikis, but for educational purposes, Wikispaces is among the easiest to use, the most flexible in development and presentation, and the most compatible with other online tools. The learning curve takes a little longer, but once you have the concept of the wiki, it is easy to build and modify.
  4. There are many online resources to create polls (e.g., poll everywhere, survey monkey, etc.), but Getkahoot is one of the best for classroom integration. What makes it unique is that the poll questions and multiple-choice answers are show on a central screen. The poll takers (i.e., the students) then use any online device (laptop, tablet, phone) to link to the poll and choose their answer. This creates a group activity where everyone needs to interact with the questions on the central screen and the clicker from each individual. I mainly use Getkahoot as a way to introduce a topic, to get initial opinions about topics, or to be a teaser to generate initial interest. To write the poll, go to To join a poll, users will go to and enter a game pin number.
  5. YouTube Channel You may not think of YouTube as a tool to organize materials, but when a person creates a YouTube channel, that person can then develop playlists of videos. This is a powerful way to sort and organize videos that you refer to often. For example, suppose that you want students to view videos related to Brazilian history, music, movies, politics and art. You could create a playlist for each topic. Then, as students go to your YouTube channel, all of the videos are already sorted by topic in the playlists.

Also, if you want students to record their own videos, those videos can be uploaded to your YouTube channel. (To do so, click on the YouTube account settings and choose “Overview.” Listed in the overview is an address for mobile uploads. Anybody who attaches a video to a message sent to that address will then have access to that video on the YouTube channel.) This feature makes it possible to allow students to post to your YouTube channel, without having to share the password to the channel with others.

Finally, another advantage to YouTube channels is that the Video Manager has a powerful editing feature. This allows users, for example, to enhance any video with additional annotations and subtitles. There are both Brazilian and Continental varieties of Portuguese, and both are surprisingly accurate at speech recognition. Alternatively, if you already have a textual transcription of a video, it is easy to insert that into the video, and with slight modifications in timing, you end up with easy-to-make subtitles. This even supports multiple tracks, to add subtitles in multiple languages.

  1. Facebook Groups and Twitter Feeds It almost goes without saying that both Facebook and Twitter serve and excellent resources for organization. Once a group is created, users can join and share text, photos, links, and video.

Tools to Enhance Individual Language Practice

In the past couple of years there has been an explosion of online options for language learners, both free and by subscription. Of course they are not all created equal, at the same time, do not simply ignore them as an ineffective waste of time. Furthermore, your students know about them, often use them, and will want your opinions about them.

  1. Memrise is a wonderful application to assist in vocabulary memorization. The program uses a log rhythm to recycle vocabulary review. Words that the user already knows are reviewed less frequently and words that the user gets wrong are reviewed more frequently. There are options for multiple languages, including lots of Portuguese language options too.
  2. Mango Language walks students through specific language learning lessons, including Portuguese. Especially interesting is the use of color on the screen (laptop, tablet, or phone). For example, when syntax between English and Portuguese differ, Mango makes it easy to see how the parts fit together. Mango also does a nice job of recycling phrases and vocabulary from one lesson to another. Mango also has a video feature, built as a capstone at the end of lessons.
  3. Chat With Native Speakers This is another area that has exploded with new options:,,,,,,,, etc. Each of these is similar in that users can chat with other native speakers, who can then assist with advice and practice. And each also differs a bit in the actual lesson structure and focus. In most cases, the benefit is found more in the interaction with people and less in the actual lessons. LingQ is unique in its approach to vocabulary and how words are stored in the memory bank. FluentU is unique in the integration of video and subtitles, which allows for a personalized database of vocabulary words. HelloTalk, one of my personal favorites, has an innovative speech to text feature and a correction feature that is also very effective. In the case of HelloTalk, there are many Brazilians in the system, so anyone who wants to practice Portuguese will have lots of options. is where we make our audio Língua da Gente podcast series available as premium content. Their mobile act allows for extended practice, repetition, recordings, and interaction.

Tools to Enhance Classroom Activities

There are a number of digital tools that were not created specifically for foreign language purposes, yet work will in the foreign language arena. Often these tools become excellent resources in the classroom. Let’s look at few examples.

  1. Aurasma is a digital tool to create virtual reality. In simple terms, users create a “trigger image” that works with an “overlay” to create an “aura.” Suppose, for example that as your students walk into a classroom, there is a photo on the wall of Neymar playing soccer. As students hover their tablet or phone over the picture of Neymar, suddenly a video clip begins of Neymar’s most spectacular goals. Or, suppose that the students hover their mobile device over the word “árvore” that is written on a table in the classroom. Suddenly a video clip about trees of Brazil appears on their screen. In other words, a trigger image causes something to happen, which can be a link to a website, a movie, an image, or a host of other things. And it might also be that the students are the ones who recorded the original video clip, which in turn they save as an aura. Subsequently, as others hover over the trigger image, they then view the student video. There are incredible possibilities for language learning in the application of virtual reality, and Aurasma is one of the easiest applications to get started.
  2. Vyclone is a social video platform that allows users to co-create a video from multiple angles. Imagine, for example, that 5 of your students are simultaneously video-recording an event. Later, the students combine the video into one clip, alternating views from each of the five cameras that originally made the recording. If you ever ask students to make video recordings to practice Portuguese, Vyclone gives you a whole new dimension to enhance the experience.
  3. Despite the weird URL, offers a way to make online lists, which are then sorted and ranked by users. Suppose, for example, that you are going to travel with a group of 15 students to Salvador. In preparation for the trip you post 20 photos of different locations in town. The 15 students then view the list and rank the places they most want to see. As each student ranks the list, little by little you will see the group preference. A teacher can also make lists of sentences with grammar features, or vocabulary features, and again the students will rank all of the entries. is free to use and again the learning curve is short.
  4. If you are looking for a digital tool to assist in brain storming, will provide you with easy access, group participation, slick sharing capabilities, and a fast learning curve. Imagine a site where ideas can be shared by simply adding another branch to a tree. I have seen students who used to practice verb conjugations, post pictures from a trip, sort vocabulary by topics, and outline ideas for class presentations. is the ideal example of a digital tool that was not created with foreign language in mind, but at the same time can be adapted to language learning situations.

Open Access Portuguese Language Resources at the University of Texas

Among the National Foreign Language Resource Centers that are funded by the U.S. Department of Education, The University of Texas at Austin is home to The Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL). The mission of COERLL is to disseminate Open Educational Resources, meaning that the Internet public offers foreign language materials freely to anyone. These materials are also available with permission to re-mix, improve, and redistribute under Creative Commons licenses. There are currently a number of Portuguese language materials that are available at COERLL. All of the Portuguese language materials can be viewed at the Brazilpod homepage: Of course, there are many other locations that have digital tools for Portuguese, but as a one-stop shopping site, Brazilpod offer lots of options.

  1. Portuguese Communication Exercises A compilation of nearly 350 brief video clips, together with a complete Portuguese transcription and English translation of native speakers of Portuguese from various locations throughout Brazil (and some Portugal) who talk about 80 different topics. The clips are not scripted. Some talk fast, some slow, some are interesting, some are not, but you have access to real speech from real people. It is an excellent resource to hear how Brazilians really talk. The topics are roughly divided by the level of the difficulty of the task. Beginning level includes topics like introductions and describing what you like to do. Intermediate topics include things like talking about favorite foods, buying items and going to the store. Advanced topics include stories about airplane rides and auto accidents. And the superior topics include ideas about how life would be different without electricity.
  2. ClicaBrasil ClicaBrasil is a series of lessons for intermediate-level students of Portuguese, where you will find topics that highlight aspects of Brazilian culture. The materials include videos of Brazilians from all walks of life as they talk about their lives, their country, and their numerous activities. All of the lessons integrate reading, writing, listening comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, oral communication, and cultural activities, using the videos and PDF files as a point of departure.
  3. Tá Falado The 46 audio podcast lessons cover pronunciation and grammar issues of Portuguese, specifically designed to help those who already speak Spanish. The lessons are built around dialogs performed by Brazilians that are then repeated in Spanish, providing a direct comparison of the two languages. All lessons include downloadable PDF files with the transcripts and notes, mp3 audio files, and blog discussions. Additionally all of the dialogs present cultural scenarios that illustrate differences between North American and Brazilian culture.
  4. Conversa Brasileira Imagine video scenarios where people are interacting with each other. There are dialogs, questions, turn taking exchanges, clarifications, false starts, hugs, laughter, asides, just everything that makes up real conversation. Conversa Brasileira is a compilation of such scenarios, but enhanced by transcriptions, translations, and content analysis. Think of it like a sportscaster’s analysis of a game or the director’s commentary that accompanies movies. The roleplay scenarios provide learners with a view of everyday exchanges, but especially with a way to analyze its parts.

Conversa Brasileira also includes a print on demand textbook that is available via

  1. Língua da Gente This is the newest and ongoing audio podcast series that currently has over 60 lessons, and new ones are introduced each week. The focus is to provide language that people actually use in everyday speech and it does this by presenting brief, slice-of-life dialogs, which focus on some daily situation, scenario, or task that we encounter every day. In addition to the free podcast lessons, COERLL has partnered with, by subscription, to provide a full range of complete online and via tablet language services. Users who subscribe to the full-featured version of Língua da Gente at OpenLanguage receive additional benefits (e.g. lesson exercises, including matching, reordering, dictation, and multiple choice).

Final Observations

Since the object of this manual is to provide practical information for teachers of Portuguese, our recommendation is that we maximize the opportunities to implement innovative use of technology into our language learning. Partly because Portuguese is a less commonly taught language, the people who do want to learn Portuguese usually have a high motivation to do so. They want to learn, and they want the extra practice. This is precisely why we can take advantage of what technology and social media have to offer. There really is no reason to restrict, but to encourage extra practice and increased interaction. Over time, of course, the specific examples that we have shown in this manual will be dated. However the concept behind them will always be valid. Look to see how technology and social media are used in everyday life, and implement a slice of that into our foreign language teaching.

Using HelloTalk to practice language learning

May 20, 2015

IMG_1795jīn yú zài shuì lián yè zi xià biān yóu zhe ne.  And for those of you who do not read pinyin Chinese, “The goldfish are swimming under the lily pad.”  In the past few weeks I have been using an app called HelloTalk, to practice my Chinese with others who use the same app to practice their English. (And there are tons of other languages as well.)  So first of all, a shout out to some of my Chinese language partners (Caroline, Vergil, Renae, June, Jocelyn, and Kimberly). There are lots of ways that we can practice language via social media and apps.  The HelloTalk has been exceptional for me, because of some features that I’ll describe below.

First, the sentence about the goldfish in my backyard pond.  This week I was trying to review how to use adverbs of location in Chinese (next to, to the right of, to the left of, underneath, etc.).  So, I sent my Chinese language partners a picture of my backyard fish pond, together with some comments about where the fish and the water lilies were located.  In the end I got help from a number of my speaking partners, often reinforcing the same conversation with multiple people. First we had to get through the difference between lotus flowers and water lilies.  Then we needed to figure out the difference between lilies and water lilies.  We even touched on the difference between fancy carp and goldfish. And then finally I got hints about how to talk about the relative locations.  Literally dozens of sentences were going back and forth with all of my partners. The point is that I was practicing real language, using actual forms I was hoping to focus on, and with help from native speakers of Chinese all along the way.

Here are some of the features that I most benefit from with HelloTalk.

1.  Audio or Text.  One can send messages either as audio or as text.  For users of WhatsApp, you will recognize the convenience of sending messages either as audio or text.  The lag time between comments gives me enough time to digest the messages, look up words and characters that I do not know, and figure out my next comments too.

2. Conversion options.  The audio files that Chinese speakers send to me, if I do not understand them completely, can be converted in a number of ways: Chinese characters, pinyin pronunciation, English translation.  I often find myself listening to the audio comments, then switching to see the Chinese characters, then switching to pinyin for those characters that I cannot read, and then switching to English translation for those pinyin words that I do not know.  It is easy in HelloTalk to use any of those modalities.

3. Correction Features.  HelloTalk offers a convenient way to correct the previous comments from others, which are similar to the ‘track changes’ and ‘review comments’ that one finds in word processors like Word. It has been an easy way to review mistakes, or focus on grammar, and to provide additional examples.

4. Exceptional Community of Learners.  HelloTalk seems to do a good job of making partners available who want to practice learning.  It hasn’t felt weird or artificial, and people seem to bond quickly.  There is a strong gatekeeping to make sure that people feel safe talking to others.

There are other features as well (group chats, note taking), but these are the four that I find myself taking the most advantage of. I actually use HelloTalk in conjunction with several other online applications, and for me it has been another part of my total language learning package.  Recently I shared HelloTalk with my Portuguese students at the university.  The next day I was teaching a Portuguese grammar class and I mentioned that every Brazilian knows the words to the poem ‘Minha terra tem palmeiras onde canta o sabiá.’ Right in the middle of class one student turns on HelloTalk and asks his Brazilians partners if indeed they had heard of this poem. “Ah, Prof. Kelm, I just asked some Brazilians if they know this poem.  Some said that they had heard of it, but they really don’t know the words all that well.’  Point for my students, and point for HelloTalk, which became an instant resource in the middle of our class.

Check it out,

And here’s the app download link:

The basic service is free, and the premium service is very inexpensive.  I am happy to recommend that ya’ll give HelloTalk a try.

Language Learning and The Mormon connection

March 9, 2015

As I write this blog, I am in Bogotá Colombia. As I often do, yesterday I attended church. Since I am LDS, it is always interesting to attend church in other countries. It is also a great experience in language learning.  I sometimes feel sorry for those of you who are language learners, but who are not LDS. Of course we can talk about you becoming Mormon someday, but that would be a blog for another time.

Mormons go to church every Sunday for three hours. Here in Bogota, that meant three hours of listening to Spanish, talking in Spanish, exchanging ideas in Spanish, expressing opinions in Spanish. We sing songs in Spanish, we hear and give prayers in Spanish, and there is an intensity to the amount of Spanish that is heard and spoken and practiced. And because the Mormon church is a lay church, that means that everybody participates. On one hand, I heard Spanish from very educated, articulate individuals.  But I also heard Spanish from others who were less articulate and less educated.   I heard Spanish from little children, and I heard Spanish from the elderly.  

I have now been in Colombia for two days. The first day I visited a number of different locations, and saw a lot of things, and talked to a lot of people. But I would also say that in the three hours that I was at church, I was exposed to more Spanish than what I had heard the whole previous day.  Clearly, for me, one of the linguistic benefits of yesterday’s church services was the amount of language that I was exposed to.

However another benefit is the context in which language is used.  I am familiar with the way Mormons conduct meetings.  I know the topics that are discussed, I am familiar with the scriptural stories.  I know the agenda of the meetings, I know the way the Sunday school lessons are taught.  I know the protocol of how meetings are conducted.  All of these things provide me with a context for the foreign language experience.  This familiarity automatically enhances my comprehension in a foreign language. If a non-LDS person were to hear a lesson on the duties of a member of the deacon’s quorum, it might be hard to follow.  For me, however, it is a familiar context.

And finally, yesterday’s experience was great for language learning because it was real communication.  Nothing was contrived, there were no fake dialogs, no manipulated phrases to trigger the subjunctive, and no artificial exercises to practice direct object pronouns.  A grammar focus has its time and place, but what I like about real communication is the pace.  Real communication flies by fast, and you need to keep up with it.  I learn a lot by having to keep up with the pace of real communication.  

So for those of you who aren’t LDS, I hope you find a similar context for your foreign language experience.  For me, yesterday was a nice reminder of how great church going can be for language learning.

Foreign movies with subtitles and translations

February 1, 2015

IMG_0930I have heard people debate whether it is good or bad to see subtitles and translations, when watching movies in other languages.  For some, they say never use subtitles and translations, as if it were to stunt our growth.  For others, they depend on subtitles and translations forever.  Myself, I believe that there is a level at which subtitle translations help to understand the foreign language.

Yesterday I watched a movie that was in Mandarin.  Now I have never claimed that my Chinese is very good, elementary and day to day stuff is all I can really do.  And I watched the movie with English translation subtitles.  What was interesting to me, throughout the whole movie, was how much of the Chinese I understood, because of the accompanying translation.  That is to say, if I had not had the visual translation in front of me, I might not have understood some of the phrases.  But, since I had the English phrases in front of me, it was enough to recognize the Chinese words as they flew by. At my elementary level, I was literally able to hear and understand words that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

And sometimes the translations were different enough from the original, that the hints were subtle.  For example, at one point one character was calling for another.  The English translation was “wait, wait” but the original Chinese was “jie jie” (older sister).  Clearly the context was the same, whether shouting “wait, wait” or calling “sister, sister.”  In another instance the English subtitle said “take care” and the Chinese phrase was “xiao xin”.  With my limited Chinese, I had always associated “xiao xin” with “be careful.”  Somehow the phrase “take care” has expanded the situations in which I can now use “xiao xin.”

All this is to say that at my elementary-level Chinese, the English subtitles were not just a lazy way to understand the movie, but they were a catalyst to being able to recognize more Chinese phrases.  At some point I may not need them as much, but for now it was a great help.

Shout out to language teachers, especially those who teach younger students

November 24, 2014

IMG_0300I feel like I’ve just been given a new gift (kind of like the flowers in this picture). I spend most of my day with adult learners of foreign languages.  University students are part of my daily routine, and I love to be with them.  This past weekend I attended the ACTFL Conference, which brings together about 7,000 language learning professionals.  Today’s blog post is a shout out to the language teachers of students in elementary, middle school, and high school.  Ya’ll are heroes, cutting-edge-in-the-trenches-grade-A-awesome fireballs!  Thanks to you, I learned tons about language teaching this past week end.  Thanks to you I now follow Srta. Rodriguez on Pinterest who has over 4,000 pins of Spanish language learning materials.  You gotta check her site out:

And thanks to Shaun Johnson, I now know how to create those shortcut URLs to share my items that are saved on google drive.  You gotta check out his blog posts too:

Others showed me how they are using wevideo, replay, powtoon, memries.  They have third graders using garage band, pixie, google sites, Kahoot, a million other programs.

Truly, I was blown away all weekend long by the number of creative, tech savvy, dedicated, and energy-filled teachers of elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students.  A word of warning to those of us at universities, we’ve got to step it up because when those students hit university studies, they are going to look at us dinosaurs and wonder why we can’t get with the times.

Learning language like babies

September 23, 2014

IMG_1233We hear it all of the time, “little babies learn language effortlessly.” In the academic world there are lively discussions and research about child versus adult language acquisition.  During the supposed “critical period” children learn language automatically, and after that period, language learning becomes mechanical and difficult, etc.

The problem is, I don’t actually believe it all.  The photograph that goes with this post is a fun shot of me with my grandbaby, Adam.  The picture was taken during a recent visit when he was 15 months old.  So, a few thoughts about child and adult language acquisition:

1.  Effortless – No way.  We have to recognize that little children learn languages while they are simultaneously developing cognitive skills.  Everything is new, everything is discover, everything is part of piecing together life.  There is a fantastic curiosity that goes with cognitive development.  When Adam was visiting, he inspected the drawers, pushed every button in the house, looking in every corner, touched everything within his reach.  Everything around him was new and exciting.  He worked hard, and I mean worked and I mean hard.  There was non-stop intensity in all of that curiosity. Little children put gigantic effort into all that is around them.  As to learning languages, I simply do not believe that adults put as much effort into discovering, looking, finding, touching, figuring out, and searching.  When cognitive skills are developed, we stop putting the same effort into discovering what is around us.

2.  Language is easy – No way.  Just think how many times a child hears words before he or she starts to use them.  “Do you see the ball?  Do you want the ball?  Do you like the ball?  Should we play with the ball?  Can you say ball?  Where’s the ball?  Thousands, there are literally thousands of times that children are exposed to words, phrases, and sentences. Notice also that a child’s world is the here and the now.  We may ask the baby if she wants to play with the ball, but we do not ask the baby what she thinks the political ramifications of future US military involvement in the Middle East will mean for conservative republicans. Adult language learners live in a complex world that goes beyond the here and the now.  As adults we simply do not limit our language learning to the hear and now.  How often do we enroll our language learners in courses, ask them read an article in a foreign language, and then ask them analytical questions about what they think of the content.  Really?  And then we wonder why adult language learners aren’t talking as much as little children do.

3.  Language learning happens automatically – No way.  Adam is 15 months old.  Truth told, he can barely say “mom”, “dad”, and when he kisses you he says, “muah.”  After 15 minutes, if you taught me some Korean, I know that I’d be able to say more than three words.  Truth told, little children work hard to even get the most basic of words, and it takes months of attempting, modifying, and trying again.

4.  Babies speak without studying – No way.   Just think of the feedback that we give little children as they learn language.  The first time a baby says “mommy” the whole family breaks out in cheers. Everyone dances around the room, cheering and celebrating.  No wonder the baby decides to say the word “mommy” again.  As children develop, there is a social side to all that they do.  When they learn the word for candy, it is not because they need to perfect their pronunciation or understand the difference between masculine and feminine nouns.  When they learn “candy” it is because everyone is celebrating life with one of our great pleasures, the sensational taste of chocolate.  Bring it on world, candy!  Little children don’t use language to communicate, they use language to socialize.  The problem for adults is that we forget that, and decide to learn language to analyze grammar, or to communicate sentences. As adults we forget that socialization is what language is all about.  Babies don’t fall into that trap.

So next time somebody tells you that little children learn languages automatically without any effort, challenge that person to put as much effort into discovering the world around them, to expose themselves to input as much as children do, to talk about the here and now, and to focus on language for socialization.  And when that person kisses you on the cheek and says “muah” shower him or her with tons of praise and cheer like crazy!

Heritage Speakers and Being Bilingual

July 20, 2014

IMG_4413As I write this post I have just returned from spending 7 weeks in Brazil, mainly in Salvador, Bahia.  I was serving as the faculty director of our UT summer study abroad program.  This year we had 17 undergraduate students from UT who participated in our program, which includes home stay, morning language classes, afternoon excursions, and service learning opportunities.  It was a super experience (and more so because we were in Brazil during the World Cup).

As related to language learning however, I wanted to share some observations about what it is like for Spanish-English bilingual heritage speakers to be able to study Portuguese in a study abroad program, in Brazil.  Among the 17 students that were in Salvador, almost all of them were heritage bilingual speakers of Spanish and English, most of them with ties to Texas and Mexico.

Heritage bilingual speakers find themselves in a very interesting position in that they often switch languages based on the situation.  That is to say, they may use English at school, at church, and at work, but they switch to Spanish when they are at home, or when they visit relatives, hang out with friends, or when watching TV or listening to music.  The interesting factor is that they compartmentalize their language use, based on the situation.  They would almost never, for example, use Spanish at school, but then they would almost never use English when visiting relatives.  Another factor is that their use of Spanish and English lacks any of the meta-awareness of language.  That is to say, they use their language skills, but are less adept at being able to talk about their language use (i.e., they cannot conjugate verbs, describe grammatical features like gender and agreement, etc).

All this is to say that while in Salvador, I starting noticing (and comparing) the way these students were learning and using Portuguese.

1.  Switch to Portuguese.  Similar to the ways that heritage bilingual speakers switch languages based on situation, the 17 students in our program did the same in Salvador.  I would observe them as they spoke English or Spanish to classmates, but then suddenly switch to Portuguese to order food from a vendor, or when speaking to their host family members, or when talking to administrative staff at the school.  The non-heritiage speakers do not switch in the same way.  The non-heritage speakers put themselves in English mode or in Portuguese mode, but they are less adept and switching back and forth. The ease in which the heritage speakers moved from one language to another was impressive, and it seemed to happen unconsciously. It was as if their brain simply followed some cue to move back and forth.

2.  “When in Brazil, try to speak only in Portuguese”  As a general strategy, we often tell students that while they are in Brazil, they should speak only in Portuguese.  We use this as a language learning strategy.  We are telling students that they need to get their brains into Portuguese-speaking mode, and this will enhance their language acquisition.  The problem is that I now question this strategy a bit when dealing with the heritage speakers.  This is not because I don’t believe that we learn more language by practicing it.  However, in the case of the heritage speakers, their whole experience in language choice is based on switching from one to another.  They never artificially stay in only one language.  As a result, I noticed that these students were less likely to stay in Portuguese language mode in Brazil.  But I also do not believe that they were disadvantaged by this.  They seemed to be able to progress in Portuguese just fine, without having to resort to only speaking in Portuguese.  It is as if their brain was saying, “Why would I speak in Portuguese to Daniela, that would be weird?”

3.  Language is real.  My observation here is that heritage speakers already know that communication in both languages is real.  In the case of my students, they already use both Spanish and English is real life situations.  They have real emotions, real feelings, and real experiences.  Mono-lingual speakers study a foreign language without the benefit of knowing that the other language is really used in actual life.  For the mono-lingual learners, there is a bigger transition phase, or discovery phase.  They simply have to resort back to their native language at times.  I believe that it is easier for learners of a third language when they already have experiential knowledge of communicating in other languages.  Knowing that it is possible, makes it just that much easier.  This was also the experience of our 17 learners in Salvador.

So, to my 17 UT students who were with me in Salvador, thank you, thank you for the wonderful experience of being able to hang out with you in Brazil.  I loved your energy, I loved your excitement to be in Brazil, I loved to observe how you maximized your experience abroad.  And for those of you who are heritage speakers of Spanish and English, thank you for showing me once again some of the nuances in language learning.

PS  The photo was taken at the Escola Aberta, where some of my students were working on a service project to add tiles to some of the classrooms at a local community school.


StarTalk Portuguese Teacher Training

June 7, 2014

Dear StarTalk Participants,

Celia Bianconi and Susan Griffin asked if I would be willing to share some of the ideas and materials that we have created for the online teaching of Portuguese.  I figured that perhaps one way to do this was to share these ideas here on my language learning blog.  So here we go!

1.  Brazilpod

Here is our homepage of sorts, where we list all of the Portuguese language projects that have been created with the support of the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL) at the University of Texas.  If you get lost, or want a one stop view of our materials, this is the place to go.  BTW, all of the materials at this site are provided for free, with no password restriction.

2.  Portuguese Communication Exercises

Here is a collection of brief video clips where Brazilians discuss a host of topics, all transcribed and translated.  Our logic was to provide a sample of various tasks, divided by level, where native speakers would model the task.  In the end it is a great resource to see real people who talk about real things.  I love how natural the speech is, and it is extremely difficult to find teaching materials where people are speaking naturally, and it is also reate to find all of that transcribed and translated too.

3.  Tá Falado

We created this series of audio podcasts with the idea of helping learners of Portuguese who are already speakers of Spanish.  It may seem like a strange mix to combine English, Spanish, and Portuguese.  However, for those of us who teach Portuguese in the United States, a large portion of our learners are native speakers of English, who have already studied Spanish.   They may not even have the most polished Spanish, but still these learners draw from this knowledge as part of the Portuguese language learning experience. Tá Falado consists of around 25 pronunciation lessons and 25 grammar lessons, which all provide little hints for learners of Portuguese, using their knowledge of Spanish as a point of departure.  Of all of our materials, this is the one that receives the most online traffic.

4.  Conversa Brasileira

I believe that as educators we are still trying to figure out how to use video for pedagogical purposes.  After we created the Portuguese Communication Tasks, and although I really like them, it was clear that those video clips did not show interactions, turn taking, people responding to questions, or any of the other exchanges that happen in natural speech.  As a consequence of this, we created the Conversa Brasileira series, which is comprised of brief video clips that show typical slice of life scenarios.  These video clips are enhanced with optional transcriptions, translations, commentary, analysis, pdf files, and discussion blogs.  Of all the materials that we have created, in my estimation, this one is the most creative.  Conversa Brasileira also helps advance the way that we can use video in language learning situations.

5:  Língua da Gente:

Our newest project, and one that hasn’t even been officially launched yet, is a new audio podcast series called Língua da Gente.  At some point we hope to literally have hundreds of lessons, subdivided into beginning, elementary, and intermediate levels of difficulty.  The lessons all contain short dialogs, accompanied with explanations and analysis in the audio podcast.  The materials are available for free.  However, as a new twist, we also will offer a subscription for a premium service.  The premium service includes a mobile device app, available through, which offers a gigantic array of new options for practice, including: line by line audio, individualized flash cards, recording features, popup translations, etc.  Over time, I believe that this resource is going to be our largest online contribution to the learning of Portuguese.

In addition to these five materials, I should mention that my UT colleague, Vivian Flanzer, has also created a site called Clica Brazil, which is also available on our BrazilPod site

6.  ClicaBrazil:

Online materials for intermediate-level learners that includes exercises, videos, classroom activities, and a grammar bank.

And finally, although not part of the online materials, you may be interested in seeing the Portuguese course blog that I maintain as part of the my classes at UT

7.  É isso aí

Class notes, study projects, and course assignments that are used in many of my intermediate-level courses in Portuguese.

There you have it.  7 online resources that we provide for the teaching of Portuguese.  Perhaps this is a good moment to thank all those who have gone to our sites, used them, and given us feedback on things.  Indeed, it is a pleasure to do so, and we hope to provide even more materials in the near future.