Tag Archives: fluency

The KISS Principle applied to the ANAC Test

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start giving away romantic advice, far from that! In fact, the KISS principle is everything but romantic.

It is an acronym said to have been used for the first time by Kelly Johnson, an engineer at Lockheed in charge of designing spy planes during the Cold War. The acronym K.I.S.S. stands for “Keep It Simple Stupid“, and he meant that even an average mechanic should be able to repair  the aircraft they were designing, they shouldn’t  require an expert with sophisticated tools. This principle is still used nowadays by project managers and software developers, among other professionals.

I usually advise my students to apply this principle when taking the ANAC Test. That doesn’t mean that you should follow your “friends'” advice and answer just “yes”/ “no”/ “never happened to me” to every question the examiner asks. It just means that you should adjust the amount of information you give, for a few reasons:

1) You should use the structures and vocabulary you feel comfortable with. Of course, we’re all trying to achieve level 4 or higher, but everyone has an inner “examiner” that tells them how deep they can dive into their English pool. During the exam itself is not the time to test new vocabulary or structures, that should be done in class.

2) Examiners can give up to four tests a day. Can you imagine what it’s like to hear practically the same things over and over again? I’m sure your life is very interesting and you’ve had hardships and joy in your career as a pilot, but that’s much more information than the examiners need to assess your English proficiency.

3) Excessively precise information may be detrimental to your fluency. Whenever you stop to remember exactly when you had that engine failure, or what was your destination when that passenger fainted during the flight, you will have to pause for a few seconds (maybe more than a few), and this silence, or even worse – the hesitation sounds you will probably produce while trying to remember that piece of information (erm, hm, or plain “é….”, which by the way is a hesitation sound in Portuguese, not in English) – will come off as lack of fluency.

My point is: think quality, not quantity. If you have the markers for level 4 and you know the test format inside out , you will certainly pass without problem, even if you stay a short time in front of the examiner. On the other hand, a long test doesn’t necessarily mean a good result.

So here go some tips:

a) Tell the truth, nothing but the truth, but NOT THE WHOLE truth.

b) Give prompt and informative answers, using the words and grammar you feel comfortable with.

c) If you forget some vocabulary (you will forget some terms, trust me), don’t try to remember it,  just explain it in other words.

d) If you don’t understand a question, negotiate with the examiner until you are able to answer it appropriately. Don’t answer any questions you haven’t understood.

e) If you realize you’ve made a mistake, correct yourself. Self-correction is a sign that the speaker is confident in their English, not the contrary.

Other than that, what can I say? Keep studying so you can achieve your level 4 – and keep it!



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How do you say “ano bissexto” in English?

FEBRUARY 29, 2012

I wish I’d had time to post this earlier, but my day has been hectic (nothing new there) and the sizzling heatwave that has stricken us paulistanos just makes any task painstakingly hard to accomplish…

ANYWAY, enough with the excuses and let’s skip straight to the point. Actually, let’s LEAP to the point, as today is LEAP DAY!

That’s right, every four years or so we have an extra day added to our calendar, in order to adjust our man-made timekeeping system to the natural movement of our planet, which takes a little longer then 365 days to go around the sun: 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds to be more precise.

So if you’ve ever wondered how to say it in English, here it goes: 2012 is a leap year. And today is leap day! Leap is a kind of jump, so it makes sense to call this special year “leap year”, as you leap over 4 years to have one.

Apparently there’s a tradition in Ireland that on this day women are allowed to propose to men, instead of waiting for them to get down on one knee. I’m not sure it’s still observed, but it’s a neat tradition, don’t you think?

What about you? How have you spent your extra day?

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If she can do it, so can you!

Here’s some encouragement to you, pilots, who are aprehensive towards your ANAC English test. If this girl has been able to fly a plane, with a little effort, you too will be able to pass the test.

Just think outside the shoe!


Se ela consegue, você também consegue!

Eis um incentivo para vocês, pilotos, que estão apreensivos em relação à prova da ANAC. Se essa garota consegue pilotar um avião, com um pouquinho de esforço, você com certeza conseguirá passar na prova!


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Don’t Let the Words Get in The Way

People who talk to me nowadays may think I’ve always been talkative. I’m sure they sometimes are smiling and nodding at me while I go on and on, thinking “won’t she ever stop talking”? Little do they know that it hasn’t always been like this.

When you learned to ride a bike (assuming that you have), your parents didn’t give you an instructions manual for the bike, let alone a theoretical course on how to ride it. At the most, they told you the names of the parts and told you what you should do. Even so, I’m pretty sure you fell a couple of times (or more, depending on your coordination) before you were able to go 100 meters on a stright line. With languages, the process is very similar.

If you just study a language, learn all its grammar rules, broaden your vocabulary by reading, improve your listening comprehension by watching thousands of TV shows, you still won’t be able to speak the language. And let’s be honest, why else would anyone learn a language, if not to speak it? So, what do you have to do to learn how to speak a language? Speak it. Go ahead and fall off that bike until your knees are hard enough to stand the fall. Eventually, you will have developed enough skill to ride happily around town.

But to get back to the subject, I may be a babbler today, but it wasn’t always so. When I was about 18, already an English teacher, although a beginning one, I already held a Certificate of Proficiency in English issued by Cambridge. I was also a member of the Cultura Inglesa Theatre Group, which had helped me overcome my extreme shyness and made me a more assertive person. One day, the whole group was invited to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company perform (“Measure for Measure“, if I’m not mistaken) at Sergio Cardoso Theater, in São Paulo. I was absolutely mesmerized by their performance.

Afterwards, we went backstage to talk to the actors, and then we had dinner with them! What do you think I asked them? Nothing. Not a whisper came out of my mouth. I spent about 3 hours in the company of the actors who play Shakespeare for the Queen, nothing less, and I just couldn’t utter a single word.

What was the problem? Didn’t I have enough English to talk to them? Didn’t I understand what they were saying? Didn’t I want to know more about them and their wonderful work? Yes, yes and yes. The problem was that I didn’t believe my English was good enough. I was sure if I opened my mouth I would make a mistake and embarrass myself. And you know what? I was probably right. If I had talked to those actors that night I would probably have made a bunch of mistakes and they might have had a hard time understanding me. But I would have LIVED that experience. I would have LEARNT from it. And I definitely would have been able to communicate.

They day after the performance, I realized what a dork I had been, and I swore never to let words get in the way again. So that’s how I became the chatterbox I am today. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I’ll leave it to you to decide. But I can tell you that I’ve never lost another chance to practice English after that.


Quem fala comigo hoje em dia deve achar que eu sempre fui uma pessoa falante. Tenho certeza que às vezes a pessoa está sorrindo e balançando a cabeça para mim enquanto eu falo sem parar, pensando “Será que ela nunca vai parar de falar”? Mal eles sabem que nem sempre foi assim.

Quando você aprendeu a andar de bicicleta (supondo que você aprendeu), seus pais não lhe deram um manual de instruções, muito menos um curso teórico de como andar na bicicleta. No máximo, disseram os nomes das partes, e explicaram o que você deveria fazer. Mesmo assim, tenho certeza de que você caiu algumas vezes (ou muitas, dependendo da sua coordenação motora) antes de ser capaz de andar 100 metros em linha reta. Com idiomas, o processo é bem semelhante.

Se você apenas estudar um idioma, aprender todas as regras gramaticais, ampliar seu vocabulário através da leitura, melhorar sua compreensão oral assistindo milhares de programas de TV, você ainda não conseguirá falar aquela língua. E convenhamos, qual outro motivo para aprender uma língua, senão falar? Então, o que é preciso fazer para aprender a falar uma língua? Falar. Vá em frente e caia da bicicleta até que seus joelhos engrossem o suficiente para aguentar a queda. No final, você terá habilidade suficiente para passear alegrementge pela cidade.

Mas voltando à vaca fria, eu posso ser uma matraca hoje, mas nem sempre fui assim. Quando eu tinha meus 18 anos, já era professora de inglês, embora principiante, e já tinha o Certificado de Proficiência em Inglês de Cambridge. Eu também fazia parte do Grupo de Teatro da Cultura Inglesa, o que me ajudou a superar minha timidez extrema e me tornou uma pessoa mais assertiva. Um belo dia, o grupo todo foi convidado para assistir a uma apresentação da peça “Medida por Medida” (se não me falha a memória), de Shakespeare, encenada pela Royal Shakespeare Company no Teatro Sergio Cardoso, em São Paulo. Eu fiquei absolutamente embasbacada com a atuação deles.

Depois, fomos aos bastidores falar com os atores, e então saímos para jantar com eles! O que vocês acham que eu perguntei a eles? Nada. Nadica de nada. Passei umas 3 horas na companhia dos atores que encenam Shakespeare para a Rainha, ninguém menos, e eu simplesmente não consegui falar uma palavra sequer.

Qual era o problema? Eu não tinha inglês suficiente para falar com eles? Eu não estava entendo o que eles falavam? Eu não queria saber mais sobre eles e seu trabalho maravilhoso? Sim, sim e sim. O problema era que eu achava que meu inglês não era bom o suficiente. Eu tinha certeza de que se abrisse a boca, cometeria um erro e morreria de vergonha. E quer saber? Provavelmente eu estava certa. Se eu tivesse falado com aqueles atores aquela noite, eu provavelmente teria feito um monte de erros e eles teriam alguma dificuldade para me entender. Mas eu teria VIVENCIADO aquela experiência. Eu teria APRENDIDO com ela. E eu certamente teria sido capaz de me comunicar.

No dia seguinte, eu me toquei de como eu tinha sido idiota, e jurei nunca mais deixar as palavras me atrapalharem. Então foi assim que eu virei a tagarela que sou hoje em dia. Se isso é bom ou ruim, vou deixar vocês decidirem. Mas só digo uma coisa: depois desse dia, eu nunca mais perdi outra oportunidade de praticar inglês.


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English training x just training

When learning a new language, right in the beginning of the process we have to learn vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation. It’s also important to learn something about the culture of the native speakers of the language, so we can better understand the way they express their ideas, and therefore be able to speak this new language well. But there’s more to learning a language than just learning and practicing its structure and vocabulary.

Sometimes what we need is just training, not language training. We need to train those skills we naturally have when using our mother tongue, but that need to be developed when applied to a second or third language. And this is necessary especially in those moments when we feel like we should be able to communicate better than we actually do. For example, when you know –  and your teacher tells you – you have a good range of vocabulary, but the words seem to disappear whenever you need them. Or when you can understand most of a movie you watch at home, but find it hard to grasp a listening exercise in class. In these moments, what seems to be missing is just training, more than English training, to boost your confidence and prove to yourself that you are able to use all the language you’ve already learnt to your own advantage.

Let me suggest some training activities to help you enhance your communication skills:

1) Background listening
This activitity aims at improving your listening skills in general, without aiming at any particular vocabulary or topic. Leave the TV on on an English speaking channel, such as CNN or BBC, or even the Discovery Channel or a movie, and go do something else. Stay close enough to the TV set that you can hear it as background ‘noise’. If something you hear happens to catch your attention, by all means, move closer and listen more intently. Don’t try to learn anything, just try to make it part of your routine to listen to English being spoken. This way you’re telling your brain that it’s just as natural for you to hear someone speak English as your own language, and maybe those listening exercises won’t seem so daunting after a while.

2) Paraphrasing
This activity may seem too hard in the beginning, but stick to it, the results are worth it. Its goal is to show your brain there’s always a way out, that means, there’s always another way to say the same thing, or to express the same idea. Get a short, simple text and tell someone (or the mirror!) the exact same information that is in it, but try to make an effort not to use the same words. For example, the sentence “Airlines normally ask you to be at the airport no less than two hours before departure time”  may become “Air transport companies usually require that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before take-off “. It’s not so important to find the ‘perfect’ words, or to learn a lot of new vocabulary, for that matter. Just keep doing it, and hopefully you won’t blank so often when faced with a real challenge, like a test or an interview, because your brain will feel more comfortable looking for alternative words or alternative ways to express the same idea.

3) Self-recording
Sometimes we feel funny when we hear our own voice speaking a foreign language. We may feel silly or shy, and end up not communicating as well as we need professionally or even when we travel. This activity’s objective is to desensitize you and make you feel more at ease with the idea of speaking English, and therefore improve your fluency and assertiveness. Record yourself reading a short text in English. Don’t worry about pronouncing the words correctly, focus more on using your intonation and your voice to convey the general idea of the text. You could also just record your feelings, or your plans for the day. Don’t listen to the recording immediately, save it for a few days later. It will definitely sound strange in the beginning, but after some time you will get used to hearing yourself in English – you may even find that you don’t sound bad at all!

Well, I hope these tips will help you feel more confident in your ability to communicate in English.

If you have any other suggestions, let me know!

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It’s not always your fault

Do you feel frustrated when you can’t understand a few lines in a really interesting movie you’re watching? Or when you miss some words of that cool song everyone’s been listening to lately? How about when you travel abroad and feel like you’re under water because everyone’s accent seems so different from what you expected? Let alone when you try to ask the guide something and he just looks at you like you’re from outer space! Ok. Count to ten, take a deep breath, let it out, and get ready to read something that will make you feel better:

it’s not always your fault.

Yes, my friend, it’s that simple. All those times you felt like the tiniest living being on the face of the Earth, you were just fretting over nothing. Because, the movie? Didn’t you realize that the characters were all speaking at the same time?  Maybe you weren’t even supposed to understand that line clearly. And the song? Do you know how many times the singer had to record that part so it came out correctly? It’s not easy to say that many words in such a short time. And the trip abroad? Are you sure all those people were locals? I’ll tell you, the hardest thing to find in New York is a New Yorker! You may think everybody was born in that area, but you might be talking to people from all over the world, with a wide variety of accents. And the tour guide? Do you have any idea how many questions these guys answer everyday? Maybe he was thinking about the pizza he was going to have with his girlfriend later on and didn’t even hear you, but was embarrassed to ask you to repeat.

Hey, I’m not letting you off the hook here! I’m not saying that you always speak perfect English, with a perfectly clear pronunciation and that you should always be able to understand what everyone’s saying. All I’m saying is: it’s not always your fault. You shouldn’t beat yourself up just because you didn’t get what someone said or someone didn’t get what you said. Just remember all the times this has happened when you were speaking your mother tongue.

How many times have you had to ask someone to repeat what they’ve just said – in Portuguese?! Until fairly recently I thought the lyrics to Rita Lee’s “Lança Perfume” went: Lança menina/ Lança todo esse perfume/De baratinha/ Não dá prá ficar imune. That song came out when I was 8 years old, how could I know what ‘desbaratina’ meant? What does it mean anyway? And don’t get me started on Legião Urbana…

And I always tell my students what happened to me when I was in England for the first time. I was staying at a youth hostel (good old times when I was a youth!) and I wanted to try the typical British breakfast. Call me crazy, but I was excited to eat that heavy food first thing in the morning. The problem was: there was a breakfast buffet, and I wasn’t quite sure what was typical and what wasn’t. We had to order the food from a lady who commanded the buffet, so I asked her in my most perfect International English: “please, I’ll have a typical English breakfast”! For the life of her the girl could not understand what I was saying! After repeating and rephrasing it a few times, I asked the guy beside me to just say the same thing. He did. And she got him perfectly. You know what she told me? “Sorry, love, I don’t speak your language!” (I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a native speaker of English herself, and wasn’t used to accents other than the ones she heard everyday).

So, my point is: if you’re having trouble understanding or being understood, keep trying until you succeed, but even if you don’t, don’t blame yourself. It’s not always your fault!

Please don’t take this as encouragement to stop studying…


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Co-pilots not needed?

What would you say about this? How would you defend the need for two pilots on board? What words would you use to convince someone of your ideas? This is a good practice in terms of structure, vocabulary and fluency.

Controversial Airline Boss Questions Why Planes Need Co-Pilots

The outspoken head of budget carrier Ryanair says co-pilots are not necessary on passenger planes and could be eliminated to save money.

“Why does every plane have two pilots? Really, you only need one pilot,” says Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “Let’s take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it.”

He goes on to say a fight attendant on each plane could be trained to help with landing, in case something goes wrong.

“If the pilot has an emergency, he rings the bell, he calls her in,” O’Leary says. “She could take over.”

O’Leary has previously suggested adding standing room and charging passengers to use toilets on the Irish carrier’s planes. While he says he is serious about both plans, neither has happened.

Jim McAusian, general secretary of the British Pilots’ Association, calls O’Leary’s proposal to eliminate co-pilots a publicity stunt.

“His suggestion is unwise, unsafe and the public will be horrified,” McAusian tells the Telegraph newspaper.

With low fares and added fees in a number of areas, Dublin-based Ryanair is one of the world’s most profitable airlines.

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