Teach English in Colombia: Grappling with Grammar, Gold, Guns, and Guayaba

Americans avoid Colombia for good reasons. A virtual civil war has been waged for nearly 40 years. Rates of crime and violence are among the world’s highest. And then there’s the “drug problem.” Why would anyone consider coming here to teach English?

“I came because a friend who was working in Cali liked it here and recommended it,” says Glenn Yates, a teacher now in his second year at a bilingual school. Tired of Canada’s frigid winters, he fled to a land of year-round warm weather and an even warmer welcome.

Colin Jacobs, weary of gloomy days and drizzle, found his way to teaching English in Cali from his native England more than 20 years ago and hasn’t left since. “I don’t think I could live in London again,” he says. “After adjusting to the near-perfect weather, the food, and the easy-going lifestyle here, I’m not really keen to go back. I’m spoiled for life.”

So am I. Hundreds of varieties of flowers perfume the air, even in winter. Pantries abound with exotic fruits like Guayaba and Carambolo. The year-long growing season allows papayas to reach nearly the size of watermelons; mangoes can weigh up to two pounds each. Colombia’s strong, black coffee, considered the world’s richest, is served everywhere.

But Is It Safe?

There are problems, yes, but not of “run-screaming-to-the-hills” intensity. Most conflicts occur in the countryside. While this can make inter-city travel risky at times, residents inside major cities like Bogota, Cali, and Medellin feel little impact and live quite normally. Adjusting to power failures, phone or water outages, and rainy season flooding is more of a nuisance than life-threatening. Larger cities are reasonably well policed and usually safe, if you’re careful.

Drugs? Most illicit production is for export, so, except for warring drug factions in the coca-growing areas, there’s not much everyday impact. During major holidays the government steps up military patrols of principal highways and vacation resort areas to insure protection and safer travel for vacationers.

Quality of Life

Cali, with two million residents, is known as the “Salsa capital of the world,” rivaling Cuba. The two largest shopping malls house multi-cinema complexes featuring first-run U.S. films in English with Spanish subtitles. English publications are readily available at bookstores and newsstands. Material in English can be borrowed free from the Universidad Santiago de Cali and for a $3 annual fee from the Centro Cultural Colombo Americano. The Municipal Theatre, Tertulia Arts Complex, and Jorge Isaacs Theatre offer regular productions in Spanish. Ethnic restaurants specializing in Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines continually tempt Caleño palettes. Holiday celebrations take place year-round. Check them out online at [http://www.holiday] festival.com/ Colombia.html. You will never be bored in Cali.


Native-speaking English teachers are scarce here. Salaries reflect the high demand. Most teaching positions require an applicant to be a native speaker of English and have a university degree. A teaching certificate and some experience are a definite plus. Work is available at bilingual colegios, language institutes, and universities. Sending out a dozen or so resumes in English should land you half that number of interviews, culminating in several on-the-spot job offers.

No hablas español? Interviews are typically in English, but as a working resident you’ll likely want to pick up more than just tourist Spanish. The Universidad Santiago de Cali and the Pontifica Universitaria Javeriana have Spanish programs for foreigners. Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) has offices in Cali with Spanish classes. A private tutor is fairly easy to come by.

“It hasn’t been a problem to find someone to help me when I need something done in Spanish,” said Glen Yates, who, with his limited Spanish, has found Colombians to be very friendly and sociable.

So, don’t worry needlessly about the news reports. Call, write, or email the schools and institutes to get a feel for their needs and requirements. Check out the web sites. Assemble your diplomas, certificates, and reference letters. Don’t forget to collect materials like maps, postcards, flyers, magazines, and memorabilia from your hometown. These will be invaluable for your conversations with students.

English Grammar Tips: How to Determine When to Use Their, There, or They’re in English Grammar

English Grammar Tips: Homonyms

Teacher, I get confused. How do I know when to use their, there or they’re in English?”

Have you ever been asked this frequent question? It’s but one of many English language teachers worldwide hear from perplexed learners. It’s a fair enough question as these three forms are what we call homonyms. That is, they are words which sound the same but have distinctly different meanings. Fortunately, the differences and applications can be easily clarified. Let’s look at them now.

The Possessive Pronoun “Their”

This first one, “their”, is a possessive pronoun. We use it to show belonging or ownership of a group. It is in the same category with other possessive pronouns which include “our”, “your” also in the plural and “my”, “his”, “her” and “its” in the singular. Two examples of usage are:

Where is their class room?

This is their class room“. Or rather, the class room belongs to them.

The Contraction “They’re”

The second form we’ll consider is the contraction “they’re“. This is a contraction, or shortened form of “they are“. Often in spoken English, a contraction of verbs and pronouns is used when speaking in formally. Two examples of this form include:

They’re in English class right now.”

This the same as: They are in English class right now.”

Please note: Contractions with the verb “to be” are not commonly used in questions.

The Preposition “There”

The third homonym form we’ll consider here is the preposition “there“, which indicates relative position. When indicating a near or close position, we use “here”. When indicating a more distant position we often use “there“. Let’s look at some usage examples to help clarify this preposition.

My keys are here, but my car is there. The sentence indicates that keys are close or nearby, but the car is a distance away.

Also, “there” when used with the verb to be, can indicate possibility or existence.

There is a way to teach English to deaf learners”.

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.”

More English Grammar Practice with Their, They’re and There

How about trying a few examples now? See if you can correctly apply the right homonym to fit each question or sentence which follows.

Hello, is anyone ____________?

They wasted ____________ time going to that meeting.

Next time, ____________ going to call first before leaving the office.

___________ hasn’t been any rain for weeks, so __________ almost out of water.

___________ waiting for English class to start with ___________ new teacher.

Now Check the Correct English Grammar

So, how do you think you did? You can check the correct answers here.

Hello, is anyone there?

They wasted their time going to that meeting.

Next time, they’re going to call first before leaving the office.

There hasn’t been any rain for weeks, so they’re almost out of water.

They’re waiting for English class to start with their new teacher.

Well then, how about a bit more practice with these three homonyms? Now try these, but no peeking ahead at the answers!

Is __________ a way that __________ work can be seen by __________ new teacher before the exam?

__________ studying for __________ next English exam __________ in the library.

__________ textbooks are __________ where __________ sitting.

These were more difficult, so how well did you do this time?

Check the Correct Answers

Is there a way that their work can be seen by their new teacher before the exam?

They’re studying for their next English exam there in the library.

Their textbooks are there where they’re sitting.

Okay then? Great! Now you can determine when to use “their”, “there” and “they’re”. Keep studying and practicing your English.

English Grammar in Use

Correctly applying the homonyms “their”, “there” and “they’re” is just one small aspect of English grammar in use. While many times English may seem to be confusing because of its multiple irregularities, with a little practice and simple explanations any learner can speak better English in a short time.

Grammar Teaching: Implicit or Explicit?

Based on my 15 years of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching experience, the statement “grammar teaching should be implicit, not explicit” could be argued both for and against. Whether to teach grammar as an extracted focus of ELT (English Language Teaching) or more passively as an inductive, integral topic has been the theme of countless debates on the part of institutions, professors, grammarians and language researchers for decades. Grammar is the branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of words or morphology, and their interrelation in sentences, called syntax. The study of grammar reveals how language works, an important aspect in both English acquisition and learning.

In the early 20th century grammarians like the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen began to describe languages and Boas’ work formed the basis of various types of American descriptive grammar study. Jespersen’s work was the fore-runner of such current approaches to linguistic theory such as Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar.

Chomsky, who studied structural linguistics, sought to analyze the syntax of English in a structural grammar. This led him to view grammar as a theory of language structure rather than a description of actual sentences. His idea of grammar is that it is a device for producing the structure, not of a particular language, but of the ability to produce and understand sentences in any and all languages. Since grammar is the means by which we can understand how a language “works”, a definitive study of language grammar is essential to language study.

Strictly explicit grammar study however, and even grammar-focused lessons are often not communicatively based. They can therefore be boring, cumbersome and difficult for students to assimilate. The strict teaching of grammar / structure, except with students of the Logical – Mathematical or Verbal – Linguistic multiple intelligences, can be frustrating and highly ineffective.

Grammar teaching should be implicit

In the early 20th century, Jespersen, like Boas, thought grammar should be studied by examining living speech rather than by analyzing written documents. By providing grammar in context, in an implicit manner, we can expose students to substantial doses of grammar study without alienating them to the learning of English or other foreign language. I also agree with this implicit approach of teaching grammar. The principal manner in which I accomplish this is by teaching short grammar-based sessions immediately followed by additional function-based lessons in which the new grammar / structure is applied in context.

The hypothesis is that adult language students have two distinct ways of developing skills and knowledge in a second language, acquisition and learning. Acquiring a language is “picking it up”, i.e., developing ability in a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. Learning language differs in that it is “knowing the rules” and having a conscious knowledge of grammar / structure. Adults acquire language, although usually not as easily or as well as children. Acquisition, however, is the most important means for gaining linguistic skills. A person’s first language (L1) is primarily learned in this way. This manner of developing language skills typically employs implicit grammar teaching and learning.

Grammar teaching should be explicit

This does not exclude explicit grammar-teaching entirely, however. Some basic features of English language grammar structure are illogical or dissimilar to speakers of other languages and do not readily lend themselves to being well understood, even in context. In cases where features of English grammar are diametrically opposed or in some other way radically different from the manner of expression in the student’s L1, explicit teaching may be required.

Aspects of English language grammar that may offer exceptional challenge to EFL students include use of word order, determiners (this, that, these, those, a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, at, by, for, from, of), auxiliaries (do, be, have), conjunctions (but, so, however, therefore, though, although), interrogatives, intensifiers (some, any, few, more, too) and distinctions between modal verbs (can, could, would, should, may, might, must). Phrasal verbs also present considerable difficulty to Spanish speakers learning communicative English.

Some students also are logical or linguistically-biased thinkers who respond well to structured presentation of new material. Logical-Mathematical and Verbal-Linguistic intelligence learners are prime examples of those that would respond well to explicit grammar teaching in many cases.

Based on my English language teaching and on my second and third foreign language learning (L2, L3) experience, an exclusive approach using either implicit or explicit methodologies is not as effective as utilizing one or the other of these approaches as required. Although it is essential to teach elements of language and develop communicative abilities in our students, there is no one best way to introduce and provide practice in them. Young learners have more natural facility in acquisition, while adults may benefit substantially from more “formal” language learning. Learning styles and intelligence strengths are also a significant factor.

There are many generally accepted ways of introducing the sounds, structure and vocabulary of English, including colloquial forms of conversation and the four basic communication skills. Grammar provides for “communicative economy”. Grammar teaching should be implicit, or explicit, as teaching / learning conditions may dictate helping to minimize the student response teachers fear most, “Teacher, I don’t understand.”

Note: Academic references for this article are available on request.

Related language learning and teaching articles in this series available online include:

“Learning a Language: 6 Effective Ways to Use the Internet”


“Six Quick Tricks for Learning a Language”


“What’s the Strangest Thing you’ve Ever Eaten?”


“What Makes a Person Intelligent?”


Teach English in Colombia: Grappling with Grammar, Gold, Guns, and Guayaba


Try This for Perfecting Past Tense Pronunciation Practice


7 Steps to Better Business English: Choosing a Business English Training Program


English Only in the EFL Classroom: Worth the Hassle?