Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Here's how to learn English

I discovered a site recently called the linguist. The founder, Steve Kauffman, asserts that he can speak nine languages and now is going to offer you the benefit of his know-how to help you learn English. Although I find his attitude a little smug, his philosophy on learning languages is absolutely right. He criticises traditional language classes based on grammar, just like me. However, he and I are both trying to earn a living from teaching languages, so it would be a little hypocritical to suggest that no language class can be beneficial. I encourage you to visit the site (Mr.Kauffman will thank me for linking to him), and read what he has to say. I confess that I will never learn nine languages like him, in fact I don't find it easy to speak just one foreign language (French). People like Mr.Kauffman are rare. His talent for learning languages is a wonderful ability to have. Alas, it's not something that can be taught. Some people are more gifted than others for learning languages. It's sad but true, and I advise you to set realistic targets. Being bilingual is not only impossible for the majority of learners (myself included), but also unnecessary.

The Linguist site makes one excellent point with which I totally agree is the fact that the more you expose yourself to language, reading, writing, speaking and listening, the more progress you will make. And that learning grammar rules has little or no impact. (see my other posts about Scrivener)

The internet has made listening and reading much easier, you can expose yourself to English all day long while your computer is running. So I had a long think yesterday about what would make a good source of useful, everyday English that you could listen to regularly to build your vocabulary and comprehension skills. And I've found the perfect solution! I found a site that produces everyday English for you to listen to, just like the English I speak, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year, with related articles that discuss the same subjects. Want to know where to find it? It's not on thelinguist.com , it's not even on the wonderful anglais-facile.com! I'll tell you on my next post, so keep visiting...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Other students speak English badly, like me!

This is reason why students complain number 2. If you are studying English in a group, your teacher will often ask you to work with a partner or in a smaller groups to discuss or plan something. "What's the use of that?" you may say. "If I practise speaking English with someone who makes the same mistakes as me, how will I make any progress?"

Well, there are several reasons why talking to another student is often better than the whole group trying to talk with the teacher. First, if there are ten people or more in your group, then the time you spend talking directly to your teacher is going to be very limited (about 10%). Talking one to one with the person sitting next to you means that you are speaking 50% of the time, thereby giving you much more practice time.

Second, in real life, there won't be a qualified English teacher carefully listening and taking notes ready to correct your every mistake. In the big wide world where people of all nationalities use English to communicate, you are going to have get by all by yourself. And making yourself understood is much more important than using the correct preposition, for example.

Yesterday in class I had one student who did not speak a word of French. Why she comes to English classes when she desperately needs to learn French, I don't know. That's not my problem. But for me, her presence in the class was a fantastic help. Why? Because the typical monolingual group tends to forget why they are attending class and do all their exercises in their mother tongue. Stupid? You bet it is. And yet I see this every week. Students get all worked up or excited about the task given so they speak about it in French! I once felt obliged to tell a group that I wasn't actually interested in their opinions, the purpose of the exercise was so they could practise English, which they seemed to have forgotten.

Anyway, having someone in the class that doesn't speak your mother tongue forces you to speak English, and if you can't find the words you wave your arms, pull funny faces, draw pictures, point at things, do anything to make them understand! That's life. I once stayed for a month with someone who didn't speak any English, and I didn't speak any French, but we got on famously, and had some very funny "conversations".

The point is, it doesn't matter if your partner in class makes the same mistakes as you. If you can make him understand, you will make anyone understand. Try to learn by heart as many correct sentences as you can before coming to class, and you will be able to build on your knowledge.
Go to my learning techniques page to see ways of improving your grammar and vocabulary before starting conversation classes.

Monday, December 19, 2005

How to evaluate your teacher

My last post was about the article written by Jim Scrivener where he states that he is not sure sure whether teaching grammar is possible. How would you feel if a doctor said that he didn't really know if his treatments were effective? Or you hire an electrician to change your wiring but he can't guarantee the results? You would certainly want some kind of assurance that you would actually get something for your money. So what makes a good teacher? Results? What results? There are some institutes that offer a guarantee of success. But how do they measure success? If your ability to speak English can be measured from the results of a grammar test, then yes, it is possible to offer a guarantee. But I don't think that there are any schools that guarantee you to be able to have a ten-minute conversation with any anglophone on any subject. That would be a much better indicator of success.
I've taught hundreds of students and the success rate seems to depend on the capabilities and motivation of the student.
The ability to conjugate all the irregular verbs in English counts for nothing. Your brain stores that information in a different place to the part that makes conversation. So the only way to practice conversation, is to converse. I can't guarantee that you will speak English like me, but at least I always have something to say and an opinion on most subjects, and I think that that should be the main criteria for choosing a teacher, as well as some teaching ability and a basic knowledge of grammar(just in case).
Evaluate your teacher on how stimulating the lessons are, not on how much grammar was covered. A boring teacher will put you off learning English for life. But a lively debate will have you coming back for more.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Crisis in the English teaching business

When I did my training to become an English teacher, the school recommended that we all buy a book called "Learning Teaching" by Jim Scrivener. Scrivener is an ESL teaching guru, his book is accepted as being one of the best guides for teachers available, and he writes a column for the English teaching website, onestop english. Personally, I find everything that he writes to be intelligent, realistic and practical. How surprised I was (pleasantly surprised) to read his latest article entitled, "Is it possible to teach grammar?" You can read it here.

So what does Mr.Scrivener say? In a nutshell, that he is not sure whether the grammar lessons we teach have any effect on students. For instance, after giving a lesson on comparatives - bigger than, more interesting than, he was dismayed to find that his students could find nothing wrong with the phrase "*more cheaper than...".
And I have to say that this is my experience too. We have just spent 4 weeks with a group of false beginners teaching and drilling "do you?, does he, I don't, he doesn't". But when I gave them the sentence "John doesn't have a car", they all thought that it was incorrect. A little discouraging, I must say.

This takes me back to a previous post of mine where I wrote that error correction has little or no impact on the student's ability to produce correct phrases. I wonder if Scrivener has read the book "The Lexical Approach" by Michael Lewis. Lewis made this point several years ago, and stated that most of what we teach is ineffective. While this book gives some fascinating insights into the language-learning process, it doesn't really offer any practical alternatives. (You have to fork out another 35 Euros for the sequel). So please read Scrivener's article, it is refreshingly modest for such a senior figure in the world of ESL. Then visit my pages on tips for learning, bons conseils for practical techniques such as mind-maps and songs.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Excuse me, where is the pressing?

Have a look at what a French speaker of English might say:
Pressing? - Yes the pressing. I am staying at the camping and I need to go to the pressing to have clothes cleaned. I took me ages to find a parking and now my wife is at the hairdressers having a brushing. Then we are going footing in the hills and after that we might go and do some fooding with some friends.

Pressing, footing, camping, parking, brushing, footing and fooding are pseudo English that don't exist in English. At least they don't have the same meaning as in French. It seems to me that words that end in ing are popular in French because they can be immediately recognised as being of anglo-saxon origin, and thus a little more exotic.

This trend has led to the wrong word being used, and an English speaker might be confused when listening to what a French person believes to be correct English.Pressing means in English the action of pressing something and could certainly be used in the sense of ironing clothes. But I take my suits to a dry cleaners, not a pressing. A woman goes to the hairdresser's to have a cut and blow-dry, not a brushing. I would go running for exercise, a footing is somewhere to put my feet, if I lose my footing, I fall over. I go camping, and I put my tent up in a campsite. When a shop or hotel informs me that there is plenty of parking, that means that there is a car park. As for "fooding", I'm sorry I have no idea. Could someone explain?

There are a few "bons amis", however, "marketing" and "shopping" are useful words that have more or less the same meaning in English. Shopping is much more general in English, you go shopping at the supermarket as well as the boutiques, and when you have no intention of buying anything, or have no money, you would go window-shopping.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why students complain : reason 1

The first reason students give for not being happy with their class is, "My teacher never corrects our mistakes when we speak. How are we supposed to know if our English is correct if the teacher doesn't tell us?" A good point, you might think, and is not uncommon among my students. Well, I'm gonna tell you a secret. We do correct your mistakes, you just don't realise it! Personally, I hate it when I'm speaking French and the person that I'm talking to keeps interrupting me to tell me that what I just said isn't right. And you know what? Even if I try really hard to make a mental note of my mistake so as not to repeat it, I just go right on and make the same mistake 20 seconds later. What's the lesson here? That error correction is virtually useless. I know, I'm a teacher and I shouldn't say things like that, it will give the profession a bad reputation, but that's how it is.
There's a contradiction here, you may say. Didn't I just say that we do correct your mistakes without you realising it? Yes I did. This is how: we use something called
reformulation and this is how it works-
Teacher: "What did you do last weekend?"
Student: "I go to Paris for see my brother"
Teacher: "That's interesting, you went to Paris to see your brother? What did you do?"
Student: "We go to the cinema."
Teacher: "You went to the cinema, what did you see?"

and so on. This is much better than, "sorry, what did you say?, did you say 'I go'? What tense should we be using here, the present or the past? That's right, the past. And how to we say 'go' in the past? You don't know? It's 'went'. So last weekend I went to Paris..."

After this kind of error correction the student has forgotten what he was talking about, and the conversation dies. In order for you the student to benefit from reformulation, use your ears, and listen to the correct language your teacher is using. You will be correcting your own mistakes slowly, over a period of time, if you pay attention, and in a much more agreeable way.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Why do we say "I'm on the bus"?

I always hearing you students complaining that English is so illogical. Not to me it isn't! Any foreign language is going to seem illogical when we compare it to our own. We grew up with our mother tongue (that's why it's called mother tongue, by the way), so of course it seems natural and logical to us.

You just can't get used to expressions like "on the bus" because it seems stupid. I'm not ON the bus,you say, like sitting on the roof, I'm IN the bus! And then you anglophones go and make it even more complicated by saying that you are IN a car, not on a car. What the hell am I supposed to make of that? OK, calm down, I'll try to explain.

You know that there is a lexical item in English that most people call a phrasal verb. You know, normally a little verb followed by a preposition, like wake up, break down, etc. Well the verb get takes every preposition. And very often, the verb get is used to indicate a change of state:
I was in bed
I get up
Now I am up (ie, not in bed any more)

I was single
I get married
Now I am married. (to get married isn't a phrasal verb, but you get the point, dont you?)

And so it is : I was on the pavement, I get on the bus, so now I am on the bus. So the change of state here is going from the ground to somewhere higher, which you can understand because in French we say monter, like go up or climb.

If you still can't see the logic, that's too bad, but it won't cause you any problems if you take the attitude "that's how it is in English, I can't change it, so I'll have to accept it". The best learners, like children, have this positive, accepting attitude. The poor learner lets these kind of questions stop him or her from making progress. C'est comme ├ža!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

How do you pronounce the letter "I" in English words?

That's a difficult question to answer. English is notoriously bad for keeping to set rules of pronunciation. Some might say that there aren't any rules at all. There are, however,a few guidelines that may help you to guess, so here goes. Basically, there are two sounds for the letter "I" short /I/ like in hit, ship, sick and long /ai/ like in time, smile, wine, white, site. Can you see anything in common in each set of words? Notice that in the first set, the i is followed either by one or two consonants, but no vowels. In the second set, the consonant after the i is followed by a vowel. This vowel softens and lengthens the i to /ai/ (which rhymes with "eye", by the way). The many exceptions to this guideline are normally due to the strong/weak alternation in intonation. A good example would be divide, which is pronounce /dIvaid/, the stress (accent tonique) being on the final syllable. This is complicated stuff, don't worry if you are more confused now than you were before you began reading. Just keep listening to English every day and you will learn to pronounce words naturally.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

English words you didn't know you knew (part 1)

Less than one week, and I'm already running out of things to write. So I've started looking in the dictionary to supply you with words that at first sight you would think are good anglo-saxon words but which are in reality French words, just changed a little to look like anglo-saxon ones.

For example, do you know what a curfew is? It's restriction that government puts on people being out of doors after a certain time at night, and normally happens only during war or times of civil unrest. That's right, curfew is my miserable attempt to pronounce the word couvre-feu in English. There are lots more: jewellery is joaillery, parly is parler, and meager is maigre. You'll get more of these in the days and weeks to come.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

American or British?

Which English do you speak? Many people in France were taught what they believe to be British English, because that's what their teachers studied. That would be logical, as Britain is the nearest English-speaking country to France and thus the most important in terms of travel, trade, etc. However, I hear a lot of people today claiming that they can speak two foreign languages, English and American! That's like me saying I can speak Parisian French and Marseillais. Sure, there are some vocabulary differences, but most English speakers can understand each other, whether they are British, American, Australian or Indian. The pronunciation differences might cause some problems on occasions, just like in any language. When I see people from Quebec being interviewed on French TV, there are usually subtitles!

I am in complete agreement with the American practice of simplifying spelling - as if learning a language isn't hard enough without illogical spellings. So whereas in British we write favour, neighbour, colour the Americans write favor, neighbor, color, and when we write theatre, centre, they write theater, center.

As far as vocabulary goes, you just have to learn two words instead of one. But if you have a British teacher and you watch American movies, you will quickly get used to the differences.

have a look at british/american dictionary for more resources.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why is "I" always written with a capital letter?

The first person subject pronoun, "I", is always written in uppercase (majuscule). In French and most other languages it is written just like all the other pronouns. I spent ages this morning (it's my day off) trying to find a decent explanation, without much success. The most common theory is that when the old English "Ich" (like in German) became reduced to "I" it was thought to be too small and insignificant to be a real word and could easily get attached to the end or beginning of another word. So scribes and later printers took the habit of capitalising it. If you have another explanation, let me know. In emails and text messages the lowercase "i" is now becoming common. Personally, i don't approve!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Have or Have Got?

A colleague showed me a website with grammar exercises based on the difference between "have" and "have got". Apparently, the teacher who wrote the exercises, who is British, thinks that the question, "do you have?" is an Americanism that is not acceptable to speakers of British English. So when presented with a choice between (a)"Do you have a car?" and (b)"have you a got a car?" the exercise will tell that only (b) is correct. It's no surprise that students of English are always obsessed with learning grammar rules when the teachers themselves keep making life unnecessarily complicated. Both are correct. In fact, "do you have" is probably more correct than "have you got" because it follows the standard rule for asking questions - "do you want?", "does he need?", "do they go?", etc.

I used to correct students when they would say 'have you a pen?' thinking that the two options above were the only right ones. But on reflection, this form comes up all the time in Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc, and occasionally today. So why not? It's easy to understand and doesn't break any rules, so if you feel like using it, go ahead.