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!