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.