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.