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.