Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Jonathan's fake word origins

I sometimes like to impress my students by telling them interesting stories about the origins of words. I like to think that a funny story will help learners to retain the word better. Well, I have a confession to make. Some of these etymological adventures are simply the product of my (or others') imagination. For example, it is a commonly believed in England that the word "butterfly" comes from reversing the first letter of "flutter" and "by". It would be lovely if it were true. It's not. Butterfly is a pure Germanic word. Not interesting at all. To see a "butterfly fluttering by" is a much more romantic and effective way of remembering the word. Another one that is completely of my own invention is the word "bee". I decided that because the English word "apron" came from French "naperon", the "n" becoming attached to article -"an apron", that the French word "abeille" could have easily become "a bee". Utterly false. I would like to take tbis opportunity to apologise to my students for all this misleading information. At least I have a vivid imagination! The one about "apron" is true, however.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Are women better than men at learning languages?

What’s the key to success in learning a foreign language? Surely it’s a genuine desire to communicate with other people. I can’t think of another valid reason. That’s why in general women are better than men at learning languages. If you’re a man and you want to learn a language, I’m going to tell you why you will find it more difficult than a woman and what you can do about it.

I’m probably going to be accused of stereotyping men and women here, but time and time again studies have shown that generally, (there are always exceptions) men score higher in maths tests and women score higher in language tests. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t want to bore you with scientific detail, but my experiences as a teacher pretty much confirm the scientists’ view.

When I’m teaching a conversation class, it’s instantly obvious who are going to make the fastest progress because these are the ones who quickly get involved by asking questions. And more often than not, it’s the female members of the group that ask the most questions.

Women are simply more interested in human beings than men. They genuinely mean it when they ask “how are you?” Being wives and mothers may have something to do with it, I mean, they are conditioned by society to be the ones that care. Men, on the other hand, are less interested in people and more interested in things, notably, cars, computers, gadgets, etc.

If you are man reading this article, you have to get out of your macho cave and learn to be more interested in people. And swallow your pride when it comes to making mistakes. Women have fewer complexes about committing errors, because the important thing for them is building relationships. We all learn by making mistakes, it’s a natural part of the process. Learning a language is not a competition – men sometimes see their limitations as a “defeat” so they prefer not to speak at all. Giving up the idea that your are in a competition to see who's the the best would be a good start for a lot of men.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

What made Shakespeare the greatest writer in English literature? His stories were good, for sure - but a lot of them were simply re-workings of historical events or legends. His rhythm and rhyme were good, too - but everyone else was doing the same. What made Shakespeare great, and what can make you great too, was the size of his...

Vocabulary! It is believed that the average person is able to recognise between 10 and 15 thousand words. Shakespeare used 35,000 words in his plays and sonnets, thus making him the ultimate communicator in history.

What are the benefits you can derive from improving your vocabulary?

1 Greater understanding means being better informed. So it's easy to read comic books but a bit more tricky reading "the Times". Want the edge on your colleagues or competitors? You must be at ease with your language, and have a good understanding. it can be embarrassing and even destructive to find yourself in a situation where everyone is using a word that you don't know. Knowledge is power!

2 Add spice to your public speaking. Using the same words over and over gets boring. Having a large vocabulary will always keep your audience keen. Be careful though, using long words just to impress will always have the opposite effect, people will switch off if they think you are being pompous.

3. Get your message across more effectively. Many people believe that the word 'synonym' means 'another word for the same thing'. This is not true. If two words meant exactly the same thing, we wouldn't need them. Synonyms are similar words, but not the same. Having a good range of synonyms can add not only richness to your speech, but also make you communicate more effectively. The nuances that you create in your choice of vocabulary will hit the nail on the head as far as your listeners are concerned. They will go away knowing exactly what the message was, not just some vague idea.

The best way to improve your vocabulary is get a thesaurus and start adding words to your active vocabulary. Using mind maps is great way to organise your ideas: write a word in the middle of blank sheet of paper and use colors and images to build associations. If you've never used mind maps before, now's the time to get started. You can see some examples at my site.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Using Flashcards in language learning

You may be tempted to invest in some language-learning software that you have seen advertised. Don’t be fooled by the advertiser’s claims. All that glitters is not gold – so it may have lots of fancy colours and use all the latest technology, but is it actually more effective than other, more simple methods? In my opinion, no. Here’s why the humble flash card out-performs software every time:

1. They’re cheap
Go to any stationer’s and buy some blank cards, the size of a business card. They cost next to nothing. A language learning CD-ROM will cost you at least 20 dollars, perhaps as much as two hundred!

2. You can use them anywhere
I started learning French when I was living in London and travelling to work by bus. Even if you do have a laptop computer, try getting it out when you’re the last one the bus or train and there’s only standing room left! With a small pile of flash cards in my pocket, I could be learning French anywhere, anytime – even while walking down the street.

3. You won’t get eyestrain
Even while writing this article, my eyes are starting to hurt. I don’t know many people who can honestly say they like reading off a computer screen. With your flash cards you can create the right learning environment for you, whether it’s at your desk, on the sofa, or out in the garden.

4. They don’t break down, and they never go out of date.
I still use mine to remind me of things that I’ve forgotten, even after several years. They have an unconditional lifetime guarantee – just don’t lose them! And you’ll never have any “down time” because your computer’s being repaired.

5. They work!
The first set of flash cards you make should be single words. So you write the word on one side and the translation on the other. Test yourself until you have a good vocabulary of about a hundred words. Then you are ready to use your flash cards to learn complete sentences. Use the words that you have already learned to make sentences to remember. Be sure to ask someone who speaks the language you want to learn to check your flash cards for errors – you don’t want to practise mistakes!

Start learning those words with flash cards and you’ll soon be ready to join a real language class. Once you’ve got a few words and sentences, you’ll really benefit from making conversation with native speakers – it’s up to you to start speaking!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Another form of English is that of Australia, a commonwealth country that still has the Queen of England as its head of state. Australia was at one time the world's biggest open prison, the British would send their unwanted criminals there, many of whom never returned (even after serving their sentence, the chances of surviving the return trip were so slim it was better to stay put).

Many convicts were Londoners or Irish immigrants, and the Australian accent today still has traces of these influences. Other European immigrants later on have made a contribution to the accent and intonation too.

Australian has its own words and expressions, some of which have been exported successfully to the rest of the English speaking world. However, some that are claimed to be Australian are highly doubtful, for example, rhyming slang has certainly come from Cockney London.

Some of my favourite words that are commonly known in Europe and elsewhere are "smoothie" for milkshake, "Sheila" for woman (Sheila was once a very common first name), "tucker" for food, although "tuck shop" exists in English - a kind of snack bar found in schools. A "Matilda" is a sleeping roll, from where the song "waltzing matilda" has its origins. "Walkabout" was first used to describe the lone journey a young aborigine made as part of his initiation into adulthood, but now refers to any kind of absense - "he's gone walkabout".

The first settlers in Australia also used the aborigine words for the new things they discovered: kangaroo, koala, wombat, boomerang, didgeridoo, etc.

Here is a link to a website that lists some common words and expressions in Australian English. Some of the words listed for me can't be sure to be 100% Australian, but don't throw a wobbly, it's just for fun!

Dictionary of Australian slang

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

do you speak Hinglish?

The largest community of English speaking people is not American, as one would believe, but India. English and Hindi have been happily mingling together for a centuries now, just like Fench and English did after the Norman invasions.

The fact that there are more people speaking English in India than Britain, America, Canada and Australia combined raises an important question about the way we teach grammar "rules" to foreign students.

If one billion people find it normal to say "are you liking your meal?", what right do we have to say it's wrong? Grammar is merely an attempt to find order in what we say, it wasn't there before language itself. So the majority rule applies - if most people say it - it must be right.

Even back in England, many people (myself included) say "I was, you was, he was, we was, they was", paying little regard to whether they should use "was" or "were".

English has also benefited from the influence of Indian speakers of English with the many news words that they have given us. There's an interesting article on the BBC about "Hinglish".

Hinglish article

Monday, December 04, 2006

Learning American English

Which English do you want to speak? There isn't one, but several Englishes that people all over the world use to communicate. American English certainly dominates, being the language of Hollywood, computing and aviation. Some would even go as far as calling their language "American", and why not? It has several important differences with my English, British. But for a foreign learner to say that they speak English and American is exaggerating somewhat. The biggest differences between British and American English are vocabulary items, just like there are regional differences in any language.

A French speaker is likely to get confused when there is the added problem of "false friends".
A good example is the British word "chips". Here in the UK, chips are fried potatoes, generally cut a little thicker than their American equivalents, "French Fries", which are not French at all, but Belgian. However, in France we use the word "chips" for thin slices of fried potato that come in a packet and are eaten as apetisers or aperitif.

A French teenager may be very proud of his new "baskets"! I would use a basket to bring home my vegetables from the market (panier). The French word has come from the sport basketball, while the British say "trainers" (shoes for training) while the Americans say "sneakers" (not to be confused with "Snickers", the chocolate bar). "To sneak" means to walk about silently, as if you were somewhere you shouldn't be.

As for grammar, the good news is that Americans use less and less the dreaded present perfect - so you have one less thing to worry about. Words like "just" "ever" and "already" can be used with the past simple, whereas in English it's the present perfect.

British: have you already seen this film?
American: did you already see this film?

The British generally have no problem with American English as they are used to watching American films (or movies if you prefer). The Yanks, on the other hand may have a few difficulties understanding a Briton, especially if he uses slang words.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

More about Nursery Rhymes

Children's songs and nursery rhymes are a great way to discover the history and culture of a country. They are easy to find on the internet and some sites even have midi files so you can hear the melody.

Going back to one of my favourite subjects - that of the influence of Norman French on the English language, I discovered some interesting words in my daughter's book of Nursery Rhymes.

One had two words that rhyme nicely : to apprise and assizes. Both these words have the sound /ai/ that sounds like "eye".

the first word means "to make something known, give information". If you are French speaker you will see that it is derived from the past participle of the verb "apprendre" - to learn/teach.

The second word is still in use in Scotland, and is a legal term that comes from French "assise" which means "seated" or "sitting" and refers to a court of law. The English equivalent, "a sitting" is slightly more general, it can be a legal hearing, but also what someone does when they are posing for a portrait or photograph.

I also found the word "comfit". If I pronounce it, you would find it hard to find its French root. But the context of the nursery rhyme would help you - it talks about different types of food found on board a ship, and is immediately followed by "apples". So it is the anglicised version of "confit" which is a kind caramelised fruit or other sweet. In French it can also be used for meat, in the South West "confit de canard" (duck) is a traditional dish.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Moses Supposes his Toeses are Roses

I discovered this silly rhyme in my daughter's book of nursery rhymes - it's said to be traditional, but was made famous in the film "singing in the rain" with Gene Kelly.

For those of you that have a good level in English, or are teaching English, this
is a very good pronunciation exercise for the diphthong:
It's also a good way to demonstrate stress patterns in English, in this rhyme it is the "o" sound that is stressed, which is normal, for dipthongs are hard to contract, or swallow as my students prefer to say.
Here is the ryhme in full:
Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
for nobody's toeses are posies of roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Throw away your English cassettes

If you want to hear real people speaking real English, use the net to find MP3 or other sound files to download. I've been told that a lot of people have trouble downloading clips from the BBC, that's too bad because there are loads of good video and audio clips. Try CNN for American English.

If you want to hear what my Birmingham accent sounds like, I found this interview with one of Birmaingham's most famous sons, Ozzy Osbourne. Yes Brum is the capital of heavy metal, with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin coming from the region. This will be hard work to understand but give it a try. Click on the link:
Ozzy Osbourne interview

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Getting used to the right accent

If you are attending a class that uses a course like Headway, English File or any other for that matter, the listening material generally uses speakers of British English. Not only British English, but a particular accent called "RP" - "received pronunciation". I'm not sure about the history of the name "received pronunciation" but it certainly isn't the most common accent in Britain - it reflects more a social class - that of the middle to upper class living in the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle. For me, it reminds me of the BBC announcers from the thirties and forties. Who speaks like that these days?

Even more disturbing is the lack of material for American English. I don't know if it's different in the States, but the only courses that are based on American English I've seen are produced by Oxford University Press! Even if I don't like to admit it, American English is the English that dominates the international community.

The English phonemes that are given in the international Phonetic alphabet seem to based on received pronunciation too. I believe this because of the discussions I've had with American colleagues who pronounce a lot of sounds differently to me and agree that some of their sounds are not represented in the IPA.

Admittedly, Headway Intermediate does have a "guess my accent" exercise, where six people describe their capital city. As a native speaker, though, I can tell you that I couldn't recognise the Australian accent, the Irish speaker speaks so slowly it sounds nothing like the Irish people I know, the Scotsman has an incredibly posh Edinburgh accent that wouldn't be understood in Glasgow, and the Londoner has a RP accent that makes him sound more like Tony Blair than a "real" Londoner. I know that Cockney isn't the only London accent, but it would be worth using it in listening materials.

There is a good book for American English called "Great Ideas". Unfortunately it is 25 years old and sounds and looks a little dated. I use the cassette on its own just for listening practice.

Ask your students where they will be using their English skills and you will get a variety of answers. Among the people I'm currently working with, I hear the need to communicate in English with Arabs from the middle east, to attend meetings with Italian colleagues, to negotiate contract with Russians, in fact, just about every nationality except native British or Americans!

Have a look on the net for interviews in MP3 format that you can burn to CD and play to your students. If you can think of a famous person with an accent that your students will need to understand, you should be able to find something to download.
I'll do some research myself and post any useful links to the blog.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Things we should teach our students but don't

Here is an invitation to anyone who might happen to be reading: send me your suggestions for things that we really should be teaching our students, but somehow they just never come up in the syllabus. "Ay up me duck" is certainly one of them if you are considering visiting Nottinghamshire.
On a more serious note, I've never seen the expression, "I could do with..." in a coursebook. Try translating that word for word into your students' language!
Regional variations can also cause problems: The English use the word "uncanny" to describe something unexplainable, "an uncanny knack" or "an uncanny resemblance". But in Scotland and the North East, the opposite "canny" means "good", "pretty", "nice" or just about anything positive.
I have at times caught myself explaining things that really shouldn't be explained, like why we say "once", "twice" but "three times". I've wasted time telling them that in the past people used to say "thrice". Worse still, how about killing a few seconds by telling them that O'clock means "of the clock" or that "you" is a formal address, like "vous" in French and that the intimate form, like "tu" was "thou". Now that's something they are going to use everyday! Maybe this pretentious nonsense comes from being fed up with correcting "I live in Marseille since ten years".

Going back to "ay up me duck" (my Brummy equivalent is "alright our kid?"), "me" is in fact "my". Students really ought to be able to understand crucial survival phrases like, "where's me tea?"

"Tea" is another good example. Only the rich had time on their hands for "teatime", whilst for most working class families "tea" means "evening meal" or "dinner". When I was at school, the women who served the food at lunch time were called "dinner ladies". I bet there isn't a region in Britain that calls them "lunch ladies"!

any more suggestions?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

We're teaching, but are you learning?

I'm always asking questions without really providing any answers, and here's yet another one: a child's acquistion of language is not rapid - he or she spends 18 months only listening, then another couple of years mastering the sounds required, then another 6 to 8 years building a respectable vocabulary. Wouldn't it better for any adult wishing to learn a new language to do the same, rather than joining a language class straight away? Why not set a goal to learn 10 words a day for a year, listen to the radio every day for one hour or more, and start reading children's books in your chosen language? When you eventually did start your lessons, you would already have a "feel" for the language, your ears would be tuned in, and your success more assured, even if you are unlucky enough to get a crap teacher like me!

Personally, I don't really like being treated like a walking dictionary. What job satisfaction do I get from telling people how to say a word in English? If my learners already had a reasonable vocabulary, I could then help them to get their structure right. My own language learning experience backs this up, although we all learn differently. I hated going to class, and hated even more doing grammar exercises from the book I had bought. But I liked watching TV, and I liked reading my daughter's books, and I liked chatting to people I met. And you know what? The biggest compliment I know is when people say to me: "if I could speak English as well you speak French, I would be really happy". I must be doing something right, then...

Friday, November 17, 2006

teaching "real" English

In class, do you slow down your speech and try to articulate a little more precisely than you do when talking to other native speakers? I do, because I know that otherwise my students will have trouble following me. After all, I reason, if they don’t understand anything, they will have accomplished nothing as far as learning is concerned.

By doing this, your students are going to have a big shock if eventually they get to try out their English in real-world situations, that is, outside the classroom. For English speakers who are not EFL professionals are not so considerate toward non-native speakers. They will continue at their normal pace and expect everyone to keep up. So if your students are used to y o u ...s p e a k i n g ...s l o w l y... a n d ... d e l i b e r a t e l y ... l i k e ... t h i s...they won’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of understanding the New York taxi driver or the Scottish barman they meet on their travels.

So is it better to babble on in your normal voice? I thought about this when a student of mine had a fairly typical grammar problem with the “to” infinitive. She would regularly say, “*I want go”, forgetting the particle. I decided that since corrections didn’t seem to work, I would show her what it sounds in “real” English: “I wanna go”. In the real world, native speakers don’t pay any attention to the fact that the little word “to” belongs to the following verb, and routinely attach it to “want” so it becomes “wanna”. If you taught your students “wanna” first, they would simply add the verb they want and forget about the grammar rules. The advantage of this is that they will at the same time be practising spoken English the way natives use it.

I have the advantage as a language teacher to have two small children who are learning my language, English, and their mother’s, French. It is nothing short of miraculous that my daughter can understand, at the age of three, when I say “what are you going to do?”; because what actually comes out of my mouth is more like “watcha gonna do?” Only when she learns to read will she realise that there are actually six words in the question and not three. But that’s of little importance to her while she’s mastering the spoken word, and it should be the same for your students.

Only rarely do adults say that they need writing skills more than speaking, and yet we still put too much emphasis on the written word. It’s time for language teachers to teach English in a way that is best going to serve their students in life, and not treat language as a purely academic exercise.

The All-Blacks are in France

After giving the English a good hiding, the All-Blacks have come to France to demonstrate their current superiority in the Rugby world. I like Rugby, but don't spend a lot of time watching sport,and have no intention of starting writing about it. I did, however, hear an interesting story about how the New Zealand team got the nickname "the All-Blacks". That's easy, you may answer, it's because they always wear black. Not so.

Yes, they are the only team to wear black and so never have to wear away colours, but that's not where the name comes from. Apparently, when they first visited England in the nineteen thirties, everybody thought that this bunch of sheep farmers were going to get slaughtered by the UK teams. To everyone's surprise, they inflicted a humiliating defeat on the English(serves 'em right!).

A journalist for one of the major British newspapers wrote about the match with the headline, "All Backs", meaning that the whole team were "backs", the position that requires all the skills needed in Rugby. Of course, when the article went to be typeset, the person responsible concluded that it must have been an error and inserted an "l" to make it "All-Blacks". And thus the legend was born.

I have no idea if this story is true or not, but a little research on the net should yield either a confirmation or a denial, but whatever the case, it's interesting to see how new words and phrases can develop unintentionally, sometimes just because of a simple typing mistake.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What's your learner style?

Everybody has their own style when it comes to learning. At the most basic level, there are three categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Here is a quick summary:

Images are really important to the visual learner. These learners have trouble paying attention to someone talking - they would rather see a picture or a diagram. If this is you, invest in some coloured pens for note taking and devise a system that works for you. Perhaps negatives in red, questions in blue etc. Mind maps are the ideal way for you to record information. Have a look at my mind map pages to see some examples.

Of course, your ears are the most important asset in language learning, and so everyone needs to cultivate their auditory learning capacities. If you prefer listening to reading, love music and are generally sensitive to the sounds around you, then you are an auditory learner. Get as much listening material as you can, radio, films, CD's etc. The internet is a good source of listening - just look for Radio stations in the language you are learning.


Are you a "touchy-feely" person? Do you like to touch people when you are talking to them? Do you fiddle with objects while talking or thinking, eg, pens, paper, twisting paper clips etc? Then you are probably a kinesthetic learner. Your world is more tactile than others, you like doing things more than talking about them. You would be advised to have some flashcards that you can handle while revising vocabulary, and playing board games in your target language would be useful.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Using the internet

I'm a fan of Google, as I've said before. Their search engine almost always pulls up the results I'm looking for. The internet is a fantastic resource for language learning, as you can find free courses, dictionaries, chat-rooms to help you.

When learning vocabulary and expressions, though, a single dictionary definition can be a bit limited. Here's what I do when I want to fully understand a word or phrase that I've come across, but am little uncertain as to its use:

Simple type the word or phrase into google in speech marks (guillemets ""). Google will pull up not only dictionary definitions but examples of the word or phrase in various contexts - something that is essential in language acqisition. Have a look a five or more of these references and you will have a good idea of how a native speaker uses it.

Try it out: do a search for "brown nosing"; "takes the biscuit" "parrot-fashion" and see what results you get!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

English people learning French

Yesterday I got hold of the BBC series "excuse my French" on DVD. It's a kind of reality TV programme about three "celebrities" (a shamed ex-football manager sacked from his TV job for racist comments, a has-been TV presenter and a young comedian struggling to be actually funny) who have come to France in order to learn French.

It's quite entertaining to watch these people humiliate themselves for the television, while not making any real progress in French. Their attitude is typically English: this is hard, I don't want to do it, why can't everybody just speak English, my teachers are going about it the wrong way, etc.

The football manager was starting as a complete beginner and found it really hard to get to grips with his pronunciation and remembering new vocabulary. In the programme, however, his teacher was quite hard on him for not putting together complete sentences. She keeps telling him to use verbs! On this point, I'm afraid I have to take sides with Big Ron, the football manager. In one scene he attends a local football match to help the team with their tactics. Using the limited vocabulary he has, he succeeds in getting his ideas across, the team adopts his tactics and score a goal.

Big Ron has achieved the ultimate goal in language learning - communicating ideas. He didn't use any verbs, and he didn't make a coherent sentence, but he succeeded nevertheless. As 90% of communication is non-verbal - facial expressions, gestures, body language, intonation - producing a well-formed sentence is of little importance, while a good vocabulary is essential.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The English Only Rule in the Classroom

A new teacher started at the company I work for (for whom I work, if you prefer), and she asked me about the English-only rule that is insisted on here. Her concern was that as she had a class of very low elementary students, how would it be possible to do everything in English?

This is something that has caused me a lot of concern, too. English-only is the ideal, to be sure, but is it really possible? More importantly, is it really beneficial for the students? If your intention is to use a communicative approach in your lessons, how long will you be able to keep up the English-only rule when you have a group of beginners or low elementaries in front of you? I'm afraid that in a lot of classes the English-only rule is only maintained by avoiding real communication and replacing it with grammar exercises or other activities that involve giving the students handouts and telling them to read the instructions. It's a very brave teacher indeed who can go empty-handed into an elementary lesson and try to facilitate learning in a natural, communicative way.

Personally, I believe that translations are necessary and useful for adult learners. while child-like learning has many advantages, there is no risk of first language(L1) interference, it's drawbacks are also numerous:
It's very slow: a lot of time can be spent defining a new word, when a one-word translation would have been sufficient
It could insult your learner's intelligence: I have often drawn pictures, gesticulated wildy, played all kinds of games in order to avoid translating, only to be asked, "so what is it in French?" If the students know you can speak their language, it's hard to pretend that you don't.

If you have a class for an hour and half once a week, it's unrealistic to expect to do everything in English, students need quick, clear explanations before moving on. On the contrary, if you are teaching in an English-speaking country, not only will you have international classes where translation is impossible, but also your learners have the opportunity to put into practice every day new language they acquire, thus accelerating the assimilation process. In no way is it necessary to use L1 in those circumstances.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I used to visit the website to get free materials for my lessons, except recently it has become subscription only at a cost of 24GBP (about 34€). OK, so people like me were downloading the free worksheets without ever for one moment considering actually buying anything from Macmillan publications, but surely that's what the net is for isn't it? If I have to spend that kind of money on materials, I would rather go and buy a nice book from my local English bookshop. Publishing houses like Macmillan have probably lost a lot of money in missed sales by giving away half the content of their books -too bad for them - nobody refuses freebies like that.

If you are a teacher or a learner of English I strongly advise you NOT to pay for anything on the net. The net is all about sharing information - freely. Some of the worksheets on onestop were quite good, but some of them absolutely appalling. Why on Earth would I want to pay for a worksheet that asks students to write in the spaces the past simple of half a dozen irregular verbs. Is that teaching? Why not tell your students to invest in a half-decent dictionary or grammar book, so that you can concentrate on helping them to learn something. I did actually spend money on a site called and was hugely disappointed with the shabby worksheets produced by lovers of Microsoft clip art.

The best feature on onestop English was probably the Guardian Weekly reading lessons. Here again, the net is chock-full of articles that you can use in class. It doesn't take a genius to prepare a reading article like the ones found on You simply choose a few words from your chosen text that you think your students might not be familiar with, write a definition for each one and instruct your learners to match them up. Then ask a few comprehension questions and finish off with a discussion about the rights and wrongs of this particular subjet.

The communication technology available nowadays means that virtually all artificial language teaching resources are obsolete. We now have the marvelous opportunity to use materials that come from the real world and might actually be of interest to our students, unlike the total crap found in bestsellers like "Headway".

More thoughts on teaching the present progressive

When teaching the present progressive, or continuous, tense, we often concentrate on structure: you have a subject, followed by the auxiliary, “be” followed by the “-ing” form of the verb. A lot of teachers have started calling this verb “the –ing verb”, and rightly so, as I am convinced that virtually nobody can say for sure what the correct term for it is.

Would you call it the gerund? No, because the gerund is the noun derived from a verb, not a verb itself. Here we have a completely different discussion, and another lesson to prepare. You probably do a free time/interests lesson where you ask the question “what do you like doing?”. Your students have the opportunity to practise real gerunds, as in sentences like, “I like playing football, going skiing, painting, reading, shopping...”

You, of course, as a serious ESL professional, know that in a sentence like “I am having a shower”, the “-ing” verb is actually the present participle. How sure are you about that?

participles or adjectives?
If I say, “I am tired”, I know that “am” is the verb and that “tired” is obviously an adjective, given that “to be” is a verb of state, and an adjective is used to add detail to a noun, in this case a pronoun, “I”. But tired is also the past participle of the verb “to tire”. Just as past participles can be used as adjectives, so can present participles: The match was tiring, this film is boring” etc. Expressions like “running water” or “travelling salesman” contain “-ing” adjectives.
When saying “I am” we are invariably talking about a present state, so what’s the difference between “I am tired”, and “I am working”? To say “I am working” also indicates my present state, even if technically speaking “working” is the present participle, not an adjective. Interestingly, in French there is no present progressive tense, they use an adjectival phrase which translates, “I am in the process of to work”. A fine line indeed between adjectives and participles!

All these thoughts have led me to believe that they should not discussed with your students, being indeed pointless grammatical debate that will not help them one little bit to communicate more effectively. Instead of trying to have your students build sentences from pre-defined parts, i.e. aux + verb+ing = present progressive = something happening now why not make a mind map of all the possible things we could say starting with “I am”. After all, “I am English” is a present, just like “I am working”. You could brainstorm emotions, physical condition, nationalities, age, jobs, and what is happening now. This way, rather than focussing on meaningless grammatical structure, you are giving your students functional language that they can use outside the classroom.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

teaching using cartoon storyboards

A great way to get students talking to each other is to give them a cartoon storyboard and have them tell the story. Put students in pairs to discuss what they think is happening, one of them writes it down, and finally we compare stories to see which one is closest to real story. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, bad drawings encourage more use of the imagination!

My favourite story is "the choking doberman". It is a very popular urban legend that you can find all over the net. I draw the scenes of the girl finding her dog choking up till the burglar being arrested, with his hand bleeding. It's fun seeing whether the students can guess what happened to the burglar.

You can tell your students to use only present tenses, which are good for storytelling, or in the past as a grammar review. You will find at the end that they will probably need to use difficult grammar like the past perfect, "in the end, the vet realised that the dog had bitten two of the burglar's fingers off"

Look for other urban legends on the net for story ideas.

teaching present tenses

When teaching low level students, we generally try to progressively introduce grammar points as and when we feel that previous points have been mastered. So a typical programme for beginners is to start with the present simple tense, I am, I go, I do, then add adverbs of frequency, I always go shopping on Saturday, I am sometimes late, I never do my homework. Next comes the tricky part: explaining to your students that there are two present tenses, the second one being the progressive tense, for actions happening now, or for fairly certain future events. How do you introduce it?

Perhaps you begin with a miming game: “can you guess what I am doing?” After miming the action, you elicit the form, “I am drinking a cup of tea”. This type of activity is generally a very good way to present this new tense.

My problem, however, is the “modelling” part of the lesson. As we were taught in our ESL training, a good lesson should be structured according using the formula “elicit, model and drill”. I can’t help feeling that as I was never taught that the present progressive is formed using the auxiliary, be, with verb plus –ing ending when I was a child, then there’s really no point in teaching it to adult learners of English.

Once you have started trying to explain structure, you will find yourself getting deeper and deeper into meaningless discussions about grammar. Most of your learners will already have some knowledge of English grammar, not all of it correct, from their school years. As their teachers were probably non-native English speakers, the information given was probably at best incomplete, if not totally misleading. Perhaps the word “gerund” may enter the discussion. As an English teaching professional, do you really know what a gerund is? What is the best way of explaining it to your students? If your lesson is on the present progressive tense, then you have let yourself get way off track, for the –ing verb is not a gerund, it’s the present participle.

As I’ve already said, when I was three years old and getting to grips with my mother tongue, English, I had no idea what a gerund or a present participle was. I just used them. So teachers, give your students a healthy amount of active communication, and keep the grammar as a necessary, but not overwhelming, sideline to your lessons.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Get your intonation right

So you've just finished your 100 hours of English class and you've studied all the English tenses, irregular verbs, comparatives, prepositions and modal verbs. So you can speak English, right? Wrong. You arrive in London for that long-awaited shopping/theatre trip and suddenly you realise that you can't understand a word of what people there are saying!

What went wrong? You had a good teacher. You studied hard and took careful notes of vocabulary items and grammar rules. But the English they speak in England still seems like chinese.

It could be Chinese for all you know because it's not the same English that your teacher spoke. It is normal, even very necessary, for your teacher to speak slowly and clearly so that you understand. I increase the pace of my speech as my students level of understanding improves. But even with high level students my speech isn't the same as the way I speak in England, with my family for example.

More important than pronunciation is intonation. English words have strong stress patterns, unlike French, which can sound a little monotone in comparison. There is a stressed syllable (accent tonique) and a weak syllable in almost every word.

So a word like "manager" is pronounced "MANager" Ooo

but "computer" is pronounced "comPUTer" or oOo.

In your dictionary, the stressed syllable is indicated by an apostrophe ' before the stressed syllable. You don't have to learn phonetics, but it helps to recognise a few of the vowel sounds.
You can find them here: pronunciation guide

You must listen to a lot of spoken English in order to have a good level of comprehension. One good way is to listen to "The Archers" every day. You can find my advice about this (in French) here or in English on this blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Telephone Tips

Even if you are have a good level in English, talking on the telephone can be a difficult task. Why? Because only a small amount of communication is verbal, that is, the actual words we use. The rest, as much as 90%, is non-verbal - our facial expressions, gestures, the intonation in our voice, body language, etc.

Here is my advice if you are feeling nervous about speaking on the phone:
  • Relax. The more stressed you are, the more difficult it will be to understand. Most people are sympathetic when they realise that English is not your mother tongue, so don't be afraid to tell them so, and ask them to repeat if necessary.
  • Summarise what you have been told. By repeating back in your own words what the caller has said, you can confirm whether you have understand correctly. The caller will appreciate this as a sign that you are interested in what he is saying. If you have to write down a telephone number, email or postal address, read it back to the person for confirmation.
  • Use the international phonetic alphabet when spelling. This is used in avaition to avoid potentially catastophic misunderstandings! You can find it at this site:
  • Concentrate. Don't be distracted by your colleagues, and especially don't be reading your emails at the same time. You need to focus, so cut out unnecessary distractions

Friday, June 30, 2006

Using mind maps for concept questions

If you are a language teacher, you probably already use mind maps to help your students learn vocabulary. These mind maps are sometimes referred to as “vocabulary networks” or “word maps”. One popular use of such mind maps is organising vocabulary groups, e.g. your central theme is “food” and your sub-themes are “meat”, “fruit”, “vegetables” etc. Another way might be to associate the various nouns, adjectives and verbs with your central theme, e.g. television, programme, film, switch on, watch, interesting, boring...
But have you considered using mind maps for teaching grammar points? Anyone with a TEFL qualification will be familiar with using concept questions to help students understand a tricky element of grammar in English. For example, when giving advice, an English speaker invariably uses the modal verbs should or ought to. There are likely no equivalent verbs in your students’ language, so you would ask concept questions to check that they have understood:

you should see a doctor
Is it an obligation to see a doctor? – no
Is it a good idea to see a doctor? – yes

By answering these two questions, the learner has a good notion of when to use should. But putting these questions into a mind map will help your learner to both visualise the concepts and retain them for future use. In my classes, I write up two questions side by side and circle them. The questions are, “Is it necessary?” and “Is it allowed?” I then start to make my mind map by writing the only two possible answers, yes or no? I then try to elicit the modal verbs, must, mustn’t, have to, don’t have to, can, can’t, according to the answer, and write them in the appropriate place on the mind map.

Perhaps my explanations here aren’t really clear. That’s exactly why mind-mapping is a better way to help your students visualise the concepts. You can try to explain until you’re blue in the face, but a simple diagram does the trick quickly and effectively. You can see an example of a mind map that I created on my site – really, a picture does paint a thousand words!

Think about what points of grammar you are having trouble teaching and start developing concept questions that you can put into a mind map. For my French students, the present perfect causes no end of confusion, because they use the same construction to talk about completed past actions – yesterday, I have been to the cinema. What concept questions do you think could help them see the difference between “I went” and “I’ve been”? It’s up to you to use your imagination!

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Big Mistake that Stops you Learning

Want to know what’s holding you back from learning a foreign language? It’s the one thing that children NEVER do when learning their mother tongue. You were a child once, and you learned to speak your first language without ever making this mistake. But adults just can’t stop themselves from doing it! What is it? It’s the question “WHY?”

“Why do you say that in French? It just doesn’t make sense”, I would repeatedly ask my wife. This has an incredibly de-motivating effect on the brain’s desire to assimilate new information. Subconsciously, I am saying to myself, “this is really dumb, I don’t want to do this.” I noticed this when trying to conduct conversation classes. A student will invariably ask, “how long you live here?” When I correct the mistake, “how long have you lived here?” they say, “why?” It’s not like that in their language, so they don’t want to believe that it’s like that in English. They even continue to come up with variations that they think sound better and ask me if they can use them. “No”, I say. “Why not?”, they respond. The whole lesson is wasted because they refuse to believe what I, the English teacher, am telling them!

My advice: even if you don’t understand why something is said a particular way, just accept it and move on.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Do you speak Viking?

I talk a lot in class about how English is not so difficult to learn - it's just a dialect of French with all the same words of Latin origin. So when you visit my site you see lists of words that are exactly the same in both languages. It's a great way to begin - knowing that you already have a big vocabulary gives you the confidence you need to start speaking. The words that are more difficult to learn are of course those of Germanic origin. When there is no linguistic link, it is harder to remember.
During a lesson today I was explaining all this and happened to mention that there are a lot of Viking words in English. My student asked me for some examples, and of course I couldn't think of any right there. Here is a site with all the Viking words:

What you must remember when you are studying English vocabulary is that common everyday words are Viking or Anglo-Saxon - sky, home, husband, egg, and that intellectual or cultural words are Latin or Greek - ameliorate, philosophy, annual, precedent...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Do you know this word? Really know it?

I read recently that a good way to improve your memory is to pay more attention to details. Apparently, we go through life not really noticing things and that's why we can never remember what someone was wearing, or where we put our keys, or even what we were talking about 3 minutes ago.
The same could be said for learning words. When we encounter a new word, we briefly think about it then move on to the next thing we want to say. After a couple of minutes, we have already forgotten the word. If you are taking notes during a class, here is good way to review your notes so you can better retain a word. OK, you can look at each new word one after the other in the desperate hope of remembering them in the future, but I think it would be better to look at just a few words in much greater detail.

Let's take the word "book". A simple word that you all know. Did you know that the word comes from the German word for "beech", which is a tree from which tablets were made to write on? What other ways can we use the word book? It's also a verb, "to book", meaning "to reserve" - a hotel, a train ticket etc. When we say "the plane was overbooked", it means that the airline sold more seats than there actually are on the plane to be sure that the plane is full when it leaves. In French, we now say "surbooké", and now you know why.

"Book" as a noun also means "a ledger", or a book where financial records are kept. This has given us the expression, "to cook the books" which means that the financial records have been changed dishonestly to make things look better than they really are.

What about someone who reads a lot? We call them "bookworms". The man who takes your money at the horseraces if you want to bet on a horse? He's a bookmaker. Someone who keeps the financial records? She's a book-keeper.

Now you have begun to really know the word. Do this with just one word every day and you will understand a lot more of what you read or hear in English.

I've discovered a marvellous interactive dictionary that will help you to improve your vocabulary. It's called the Visual Thesaurus and I highly recommend that you try it out today!

Friday, March 17, 2006

To do or not to do, that is the question

When teaching beginners, it is always a difficult task to persuade them that they need to use the auxiliary verb 'do' when asking questions or making negative statements. For my French-speaking students there isn't any logic in this, as there is no equivalent in French. I also explain that we NEVER use 'do' with the verb 'be'. A classic error: *"do you are hungry?" or even no verb at all, just the auxiliary: *"do you married?"
These are normal mistakes, and I'm not laughing at them - I know that asking questions is no easy thing when you are just beginning.

I'm going to make things even worse by telling you when you CAN use 'do' with 'be'.
In the imperative, especially negative: "Don't be stupid" "Don't be late" etc. We sometimes use it in positive sentences to add emphasis: "Do be quiet".

So in fact I'm not right to say never for do and be, but I don't want to confuse beginners any more than they already are. But if you have a good level, it's worth knowing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

English words I didn't know existed

Sometimes I find myself in the embarrassing situation of not knowing an English word a student uses in class. It happened today with the word "dint". The student was summarizing an article he had just read, so I had no reason to believe that it was a product of his imgination or a mis-pronunciation. And there it was in the dictionary. Oops. Well I can't be expected to know every word in the English language, can I? According to Websters online, the Rosetta edition, this word gets used 73 times in a sample of 100 million words, and is thus ranked 73000. As I have a vocabulary of around 12000 words (I've never tried to count them, but that's the average for most people), it's easy to see why I don't know this word.
Compare these statistics for the word I would have used instead of dint: "means". "By means of" is used to express how a result is achieved, the same as "by dint of". Except I've never heard anyone say "by dint of". "Means is ranked 963 as a noun, which is well within my vocabulary limitations!
Try the Webster's website to see for yourself how often a word is used before adding it to your active vocabulary.

Monday, March 13, 2006

What they don't teach you in class - part 3

It's easy to correct grammar. But sometimes in correcting grammar, teachers forget that the student is using vocabulary that is not natural in English. Here is a good example: the verb "to invite". I can say, "I'm not going because I wasn't invited" or "have you been invited?". But if I ask the question, "what are you doing tomorrow?" you might be tempted to answer, "I am invited to my sister's." This doesn't sound right to me. Wouldn't it be more natural to say, "I'm going to my sister's"? The being invited part is understood. My future plans don't include being invited, that already happened. To say, "I've been invited to my sister's" is better than "I am invited" - at least grammatically - but it doesn't answer the question "what are doing tomorrow". Just because you have been invited, that doesn't necessarily mean that you are going - you might decline the invitation.
This kind of communication difficulty is not limited to non-native speakers. We all have a responsibility to express ourselves in a way that can be clearly understood - whatever the language we are speaking.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Stop saying "How do you do" !

I don't know how many of you were taught to say "how do you do" at school, but I'd just like to tell you that virtually nobody says it anymore. If you want to enquire about someone's health, the question is "how are you?" or possibly "how are you doing?" which is more common in American English. Did you notice that I didn't put an exclamation mark after "how do you do" ? That's because it isn't a question. Your teachers mistakenly thought that it is the same as "how are you?", only a little more polite. The reality is, that in "posher" society, the phrase "how do do you do" is used when one is introduced, and the response is, funnily enough, "how do you do".
Strange, eh? Well I don't know anyone who says it these days, if you are being introduced to someone you've never met before, you should say "nice to meet you". Here is another example of misleading teaching from non-native teachers of English. I hear tons of examples of old-fashioned expressions from students who learned English from teachers who learned English thirty or forty years ago. Stay in touch with modern English by reading and listening to the radio.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Use your ears, not your eyes

Here is a conversation I heard in class the other day. I asked a student to use the vocabulary she had learned the previous week to tell another student about her hobby.
She said, "I like sewing". The other student responded, "sewing? How do you spell it?"
- "S-E-W - to sew"
- "OK, to sew, like 'you'"
- "No, like 'go'"
- "Sorry? didn't you say S-E-W?"
- "Yes, I did"
- "But that's "u" like "few"

It took a few minutes to convince her that in fact the correct pronunciation for "sew" ryhmes with "go". She didn't have any problem with the word when she first heard it, but as soon as she saw the way it was spelt, she couldn't pronounce it any more. We just can't help ourselves (I do it too with French words). Have a little trust in you teacher, he or she usually pronounces words correctly! I suggest that you learn the phonetic symbols for at least the vowel sounds. It doesn't take long, and it's a really inexpensive way to master English pronunciation. All you need is a dictionary that uses the international alphabet, and you will know how to pronounce any word in English. Get into the habit of taking notes in phonetic symbols, so you don't confused by all the spelling variations in English.
You can see the phonetic alphabet on my site. There is also a link to a university phonetics lab, which is really good practice. If you're serious about learning English, you have to do it!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

English too difficult? Try Globish

It's the latest thing in international communication. Remember Esperanto? It was supposed to become the world's language so we could all understand each other and be one big happy global family. It didn't work. Nobody wanted to learn an artificial language when there are already thousands of perfectly good languages spoken by real people. Today, most people in the world use English to communicate internationally. But English, just like most languages, is full of idioms, is impossible to know how to pronounce a word from its spelling and has all those fiddly modal verbs that are so difficult master. So one day someone invented the word globish. Just like "brunch" (breakfast + lunch) Globish is derived from "global" and "English".

Globish is refreshingly free of idioms. You just use the words that everybody understands, of which there are only about 1500. You can get the list of these 1500 words at this site:

And the good news for you French speakers is that half of the words you know from French. Here I go again about Latin words in English...
In the first 21 words beginning with "a" I found able, accept, account, accident, act, accuse, activist, actor, add, administration, admit, adult, advertisement(un faux ami mais quand même utile),affect, afraid(effrayé)
; no less than 15 or 66% have the same roots as the equivalent French word.

So globish is the way forward in international communication. If everyone in the world had at least these 1500 words in English, then Globish itself could start to evolve into a real, sophisticated language with all the nuances and subtleties of English, French etc...

Monday, March 06, 2006

A great way to learn English!

After a lot of reflection about the best way to learn English, and after having read the ideas of ESL professionals like Scrivener and Kauffman, I have finally found the perfect solution to all your language learning needs. Most ESL teachers agree that the only way to make to progress is exposure to English as often as possible, real English in real contexts, not artificial classroom English based on grammar practice.

The Archers is the solution! What is it? It's a BBC soap opera that runs every day on radio four. A soap opera by the way is a series based on people's lives, with usually several stories running simultaneously. The Archers is broadcast on the internet so anyone with a good connection can listen everyday, from anywhere in the world.

Listen to the Archers every day, and read the related articles. You will begin to learn real English in real situations. You won't ever need to buy another textbook.

Start listening to the Archers right now by clicking on this link:

Here's some advice:

  • Read the synopsis of the episode first.
  • Listen to the programme.
  • Don't be discouraged if you find it hard to understand, that's normal.
  • Try to listen for the key words used in the synopsis.
  • Listen again and take a note of words or expressions you didn't understand.
  • Use a dictionary to check new words.

good luck and happy listening!

How Google can help you learn English

I love Google. They made a great search engine that almost everyone uses, and have invented lots of great stuff for internet users. I also get my site hosting and internet connection paid for by advertising revenue I receive from Google ads. If you are learning English, Google is a great help. You should definitely download the google toolbar so you can use the translation feature. You simply choose a language you want the English word to be translated into, then when you are surfing, just roll the mouse over the word and you get your translation. So now you can surf the net in English with help from Google. Go to to download the toolbar.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What makes a good teacher?

Do you remember the teachers you had when you were in school? Perhaps you only remember one or two. Why have these ones stuck in your memory, while the others have slipped away? I'll tell you about one teacher who made a big impact on me when I was about eleven. His name was Mr.Wilkes. I loved him because he had endless enthusiasm about the subjects he taught. His lessons were never boring. What made him such a good teacher? For me he was more than a teacher. He was someone who had done other things than working in a school all his life. He had travelled, seen the world, met interesting people. So he had stories to tell. I used to listen to him with awe every time he talked about his experiences. I especially loved doing history and geography, because he was able to make them come alive with his own personal stories.
I hope you will find a language teacher like him, it could radically improve your chances of success.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Learn some idioms

If you read my article on globish, you will know that you can communicate quite effectively with people of any nationality with a limited amount of vocabulary. But what if you want to take your English a little further, to be able to speak like the natives? Then your language needs to become more idiomatic. In some languages the word "idiom" just means "language", but here I'm talking about those expressions that mean something different to the literal meaning of the individual words. Everyone knows the idiom "it's raining cats and dogs". There are no literal cats or dogs, so what we understand is different to the actual words, and we gather that it simply means, "its raining very hard". If English is not your first language, or you are studying another language, these expressions are not easy to learn. In French, if you say, "it's fingers in the nose", you are talking about something very easy to do. How could you know that if you weren't told? To an unsuspecting student, this would sound like a disgusting habit!

I've put some useful English idioms on my site. I'm going to improve the explanations by adding example sentences, so keep checking back. There is a different one every day for a month, so that's thirty to start with. Go here:
English idioms

Friday, February 24, 2006

The one hundred most common words and why you don't need to learn them

It is said that there are only one hundred words that make up 50% of all language. Great! All you have to do is learn these one hundred words and you will be half-way there in your ambition to learn a new language. Here are the top twelve words in the list: a, and, he, I, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was. Now try making a sentence with these words. You can't? Nothing at all? What went wrong? These twelve words make up a quarter of all reading, so you should be able to say something with them, shouldn't you?
The problem with this brilliant idea is that the most common words are only words that don't carry any meaning in themselves, like articles, conjunctions and prepositions etc. And it gets worse - imagine that you decided to learn all these words in French in order to get a head start. The indefinite article, "a" in French could be "un" or "une". "At" could be "à", "au", "aux", but then the word "to" could be one of those words as well. How are you going to know? I can't imagine how difficult it would be in a language like Chinese.
By the way, if these words make up 50% of all language, what about the other 50%? Just another 100 would be easy. But the second 50% is actually tens of thousands of words, which are crucial if you want to say something useful! The one hundred word theory is extremely important when teaching children to read, but not at all helpful to language students. Don't forget that the best way to assimilate these words is to learn correct example sentences. You can read about how to do this using flashcards at bonnes astuces (in French) or learning vocabulary (in English)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Beware of non-English English websites

I mentioned in one of my last articles that there is a website called which has no connection to my site It's a good site if you want to do exercises. But let me ask you something. If you wanted to learn to swim, would you go to a ski instructor? Probably not. So if you want to learn English, why go to a French site? I say this because I spotted a glaring error in one of the grammar lessons presented on It is a lesson on the "auxiliary verb, to be". Yes "be" is an auxiliary verb, sometimes. But the lesson uses example sentences like "I am happy", in which "to be" is not an auxiliary, but a real verb. In the sentence "John is picking his nose", the verb is "to pick", while "is" is the auxiliary. So beware. Don't believe everything you read on the net, especially if it's written by someone whose native language is not English. Let's face it, I don't know that much about English grammar, and I'm British! Why not stop studying grammar and do something worthwhile instead, like actually speaking English with someone?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What's the best way to learn phrasal verbs?

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and a prepostion that makes a different verb to the original one-word version. For example, "get" means "obtenir" in French, "get up" means "se lever" and "get out" means "sortir".
Students often complain that they are difficult to learn because they can never be sure which preposition should be used. Here's my advice: don't learn phrasal verbs, learn vocabulary. You want to say "je me suis levé" in English, it's "I got up". Voilà. The worst thing you can do is try to study phrasal verbs separately from other words. There's no point. Just learn what you need to say. How can you benefit from studying all the variations of "get"? It takes every preposition - up, down, in, out, over, about, through, across, by, on, off; and you will never be able to assimilate all of them if you study them systematically. Even worse- and I've seen this in serious grammar books- is to study them by preposition - get up, break up, wake up, puke up, mess up, etc. Then there are teachers who tell their students to write a story using all the phrasal verbs they have studied in the lesson. "I woke up at 8 and got up. I went to the pub for a booze-up and after I messed up my room because I had puked up. Then I broke up with my girlfriend. When she called, I hung up the phone." I think you can see what a fruitless and un-natural exercise this is.
Want to improve your English? Keep talking! With real people in real situations! And keep reading my blog!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Gap-fill exercises - a complete waste of time

You will find on my site a few gap-fill exercises that I made using borrowed scripts from elsewhere on the net. I have to be honest and say that the only reason I put them up was to entice people to my site. People who had typed "exercices anglais" or something like that into Google. Exercises you want, so exercises you'll get. What do I think about the pedagogical value of such exercises? Not much. The only reason I can think of why they might be useful is perhaps for people who need to take an exam that involves gap-fills, drag and drop, definition matching and the like.
You would get more benefit from reading the ingredients on your cereal box in English at breakfast time. I have used this technique to learn the words for "wheat", "corn", "sugar" etc in Portugese, Greek and Spanish.
I had the misfortune last year to get the job of writing these useless exercises for the ministry of education. And I am ashamed of the results. I admit that I now put "creation of on-line learning materials" on my CV, but at the same time I am happy that the site is password protected, so a potential employer can't see what a pile of crap they are.
The worst are exercises that make you find the correct definition of a given word. These exercises usually take words that no foreign learner of English is likely to know, and probably will never have need for anyway. Why not just look them up in a dictionary? When you think you have a pretty good of idea of the meaning, write ten different sentences using the new word and ask an English-speaking friend if they sound correct.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What they don't teach you in class part 2

Last time I wrote about difficulties understanding spoken English, this time I'm going to tell you about vocabulary items that we almost always forget to teach you in class but are nevertheless essential if you spend any time in an English speaking country.

If you heard someone say, "fancy going for a drink?", what would you reply? The correct answer would be "OK,let's go" or "no thanks, another time perhaps". So now we know that "fancy" means avoir envie and that we should say "do you fancy", but often it's too much effort so we just say "fancy".

That's one vocabulary item. But what about "for a drink"? This might seem strange for a student of English who has learned that "drink" is a verb. But it's also a noun, "une boisson" or in this context, "un verre". No amount of grammar knowledge could help you to produce a sentence like "fancy going for a drink?". You just have to learn them by heart. Try using my cards method to help you assimilate this kind of language. By the way I would translate this question as "Ca te dirais d'aller boire un verre?" (correct me if there are any mistakes!).

You see, when we learn grammar, we learn fixed formulas that are largely ignored by native speakers. A language that had no idioms would be kind of easy to learn. Alas, there aren't any languages like that.

So you learn that the past tense of "ride" is "rode". Great. Now what? Someone asks you what you did last weekend and you proudly answer, "I ride my bike". I'm sorry, but that wasn't the answer I was looking for. It doesn't tell the information I wanted. You told me that you rode you bike. You rode you bike for one minute, you rode your bike to the baker's to buy some bread...what? The correct grammar tells me nothing. So just like "go for a drink", if you want to tell me that you actually spent some time on your bike for pleasure you would say, "I went for a ride on my bike. I tell my students to use this all the time, because no-one has ever told them before.

Here are a few more examples in case anyone should ask you about your weekend, holiday, trip etc:

I went for a swim in the sea
we went for a meal in a posh restaurant (it's stupid to say "we ate in restaurant", what else do you do there?)
I went for a drive in my car
We went for a pizza
We went for a walk in the town centre

Use the gerund for other things:

We went skiing, shopping, horse-riding, rollerskating (don't say "roller") carting, bungee-jumping, hiking, etc.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Some memory techniques

I promised to tell you about how I learned something in Chinese that I'll never forget. It may give you a good idea about how to remember difficult words in English, it's not about learning Chinese! My wife's nephew is actually learning Chinese and when we were visiting in the Summer he showed me his Chinese learning CD-ROM. One exercise involved listening to a sentence and repeating it into a microphone. The computer would tell you if your pronunciation was correct. Now I don't believe for one second that a computer can judge a person's accent - when I try the exercise with the English programs we have at work, I never manage to persuade the computer that my accent is correct. And I'm English, for goodness' sake! Computers obviously aren't trained to recognise my Birmingham accent.

But this exercise proved to be useful for another, unrelated reason. By trying to get the correct pronunciation, I must have repeated the sentence at least thirty times. And after a short while, I realised that it sounded a little like an English word, a vulgar one at that, "bullshitter", which is slang for a person who tells lots of lies or exagerations (mythomane).

So now I have two good ways of remembering the sentences, one, repetition and two, a mnemonic link. This will work for you in English. If you repeat something often enough, you will remember it. And if you can relate it to something you already know, even better. There's a joke website that states that "ail ou radis?" sounds like "are you ready?" in English. Although this site is just for fun, the principles are really effective.
This is the the link:

So learning can be fun, even if repetition is the best way to remember new words.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Do you think in English?

I am always being asked what language I think in. A popular belief is that in order to speak a language well you must think in that language. But the question I'd like the answer to is, "do you need language in order to think?". Consider for a moment: do animals think? What about small babies, do they think? What do they think?

Babies and animals do think, and yet they don't have language. It's true that while we are thinking we "hear" the words in our heads, so our thinking abilities are far more developed than those of animals.

I'm sorry, but I don't think in French. When I'm alone, the only words I hear in my head are English ones. That doesn't mean I can't speak French. Forget this notion that you have to think in your target language - it's really a worthless objective. When you can speak a language fluently, like your mother tongue for example, do you consciously think in advance about every word that you are going to say? Of course not. You simply don't think. It's the same for me.

In your mother tongue you are used to saying the same things every day, hello, how are you, it's a nice day, where have you been, I liked it, I hated it, etc. You have been repeating these words and expressions every day since you began to speak. So you don't need to think about them. This is the right way to proceed in a foreign language.

Next time, I'll tell how I learned one thing in Chinese that I will never be able to forget!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

My teacher doesn't speak my language - good or bad?

Many students of English have teachers who do not do speak the native language of the country in which they work. The English teaching business is largely populated by young graduates who want to see the world before settling down to their chosen career at home. Teaching English is the best way to finance these stays in exotic countries. But if a young person only intends to stay one year in Japan for example, he has little or no motivation to learn Japanese. In addition, the latest trend in language teaching is "immersion", that is, we only use the target language (in our case English).

So what are the advantages or disadvantages of having a teacher who only speaks English? The benefits to you, the student, are numerous. You have no choice but to communicate in English. You therefore maximise your opportunities to speak and actually learn something. This is very good practice for the real world where you may have to make yourself understood with no help from a dictionary or someone to translate.

My big problem with this however, is how competent is your teacher? We have a negative proverb about people who become teachers: those who can, do. those who can't, teach. This is saying those with the ability to do a certain job will do that job, while those who have little or no ability will try to teach others. I don't agree with this of course, being a teacher myself(!), but there is an element of truth to it when it comes to language teachers. Someone who teaches maths should be good at maths, shouldn't he? If someone got fired for being incompetent, would he make a good teacher of his trade? So how can someone teach a foreign language if they are not able to learn one? The least they can do is make an effort.

Sometimes it is quicker and more effective to tell a student what a word means in his own language. This is especially true for basic words. What's the point in spending ages trying to explain that it is an instrument one uses to write with in ink...what's ink?... it's the liquid that goes in this instrument to write with... when you can say "stylo"?

On the other hand, teacher who speaks your first language fluently has to be really discipline to insist on only speaking English in the classroom. But I'm sure you that would rather be taught by someone who has set the right example by showing that he practises what he preaches!