Thursday, December 20, 2007

five ways to improve your vocabulary - part 2

What's the word for the instrument you use to open a bottle of wine? It's a corkscrew. We saw this word in the previous post. If you are a native French speaker, you would think that this word is an old anglo-saxon word that has no connection with French. You would be wrong. According to my dictionary 'cork' has come from French 'écorce', the letter Cs having changed to hard 'k' sounds. And I would bet, although I'm not 100% sure, that 'screw' stemmed from 'écrou', although the meaning has changed somewhat.

This knowledge helps you connect something familiar (if you are a French-speaker) to something that was before quite unfamiliar - écorce - écrou - corkscrew. Being aware of the roots of a word can help you enormously in your quest to build your vocabulary. Another thing that will help you is to learn some of the prefixes and suffixes that have come from Latin or Greek. There are some examples here.

five ways to improve your vocabulary - part 1

Many of you write to me saying that you lack vocabulary and would like to know what is the best way to improve. Others say that they need English for a specific purpose, like business, and request lessons on business vocabulary. still others need to travel, so need travel vocabulary.

So everyone has their own reason for learning a language, and this reason is the most important motivation you can have for wanting to learn. If you need English to go on holiday to Las Vegas, there is simply no point in spending time learning Sillicon Valley business idioms.

I'm going to give you five ways to help you retain the new words that you learn during your study periods. Be aware, however, that all of these techniques need lots of revision for them to be effective, and like it or not, repetition is still the best way to fix a word or expression in your head.

Number One:

Link words that go together and review often. I started the mind map below based on the theme of wine, a favourite subject amongst my French students. I test their vocabulary by asking them what the English word is for the instrument they use to open the bottle. Usually they don't know the word 'corkscrew', and it is a difficult word for them to retain as it doesn't bear any immediate similarity to any word in French. By linking familiar words to less familiar ones, we have a better chance of understanding and, eventually, retaining them for later use. So on the mind-map we have 'bottle' which is recognisable as coming from 'bouteille' in French, and next to it the word 'cork'. If I link the verb 'to open' with 'cork' and then add 'corkscrew', you could probably guess that it is the French word for 'tirebouchon' (if you're a French-speaker, of course, as most of my readers are).

Try this technique with a group of vocabulary that you need to learn. Each branch of the mind map should have words that relate to each other - so 'living room' would link to 'sofa' 'coffee table' 'television' and other things that are found in a living room. Do a personal 'brainstorming' with a dictionary to see how many words you can come up for a given subect.

Some months ago I signed up to receive teaching tips from a site called Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied by other things, I never really read them. This week however, they sent me a gem of a teaching idea that I think I will use a lot in the future. If you are a language teacher, this is a good site to visit and will give you other ideas than the ones you're probably already using from or the not very good

Anyway, this week's tip was about using the latest trend of making lists of everything, like Amazon's listmania. This can be an interesting variation on the usual ranking exercises - students have to agree on a list of the world's most important inventions or the greatest citizens of whatever country they come from. If you have a list like this from a magazine, students can agree or disagree with the choices given, and suggest alternatives.

It's a great idea, so pop along to and subscribe to the newsletter, it won't be the worst teaching information you get in your inbox every week.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Curiosity killed the cat

We got a kitten this summer for our daughter. Like all cats, he just can't control his curiosity. He can't see an open door without going through it (and thus getting locked in cupboards, the cellar etc) and he can't see a box without jumping in it.

This typical cat behaviour gave rise to the expression 'curiosity killed the cat', probably from a time when inquisitive cats would fall down wells or get mangled in farm machinery. It is used as a warning, especially to children, not to pry into things that are not their business.

My advice: be very curious about words, word origins and expressions, but when trying to understand difficult grammar, remember - curiosity killed the cat!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Learn this if you dare!

As you probably know from reading this blog, I'm a fan of using nursery rhymes to practise your intonation and pronunciation, as well as picking up more vocabulary and interesting things about the history and traditions of a country.

Well here's one that's just great for getting to grips with those 'swallowed' little words. I'll get around to recording it one day so you can listen to it. Remember that you should stress only the important words - nouns, verbs and adjectives, not the 'grammatical' words like articles, prepositions or determiners.

The House that Jack Built

This is the house that Jack built

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the farmer sowing his corn that kept the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the horse and the hound and the horn that belonged to the farmer sowing his corn that kept the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

Friday, December 07, 2007

English word of the day

While surfing the net looking for things to write about learning English, I often come across ESL sites that have a 'word of the day' or 'word of the week' box. Some online dictionaries put up free word of the day scripts that you can put on your own site or blog. I did once think about doing it, thinking that it would be a good way for you to improve your vocabulary.

The only problem, however, was that most, if not all, the words that came up were ones that I'd never heard of. This is great for me - as a native English speaker they help me to expand my knowledge of English. But how useful would these words be to a foreign learner of English? Even if you have an extremely advanced level, these words have limited usefulness because no-one ever uses them.

Michael Lewis makes this point in his book 'The Lexical Approach'. He noted that books aimed at proficiency level concentrate on words that even native speakers never use. I have trouble completing the exercises in these books because these words don't figure in my vocabulary. Since when have 'advanced' or 'proficient' been synonyms with 'obscure' or 'useless'?

Having an advanced level in a foreign language doesn't mean knowing a lot of words that even the natives don't know, rather, it means using the same language that the natives use, including slang, idioms and word-plays. And yes, in English that means understanding that awful corrupted, vulgar version of English called 'American'!

I've had hate mail from outraged teachers accusing me of discrediting the profession by teaching things like 'gonna' and 'watcha', but that's another story for another day.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

big bang

Now I've decided that 'that' is my number one important word, I need to think what other words would make up my four-word vocabulary. I've been thinking about the differences between how a baby would develop a vocabulary and an adult. A baby will certainly add words to his central 'that' based on his immediate environment, and a mind map might look like this:

baby's first words

Of course, the baby won't know the 'category' words - food, object, person, thing - just the things themselves, but a lot more essential words could be added to those two main branches and the following sub-branches. An adult, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of categorising crucial vocabulary in order to make a logical sequence of related words. The starting point of an adult's 'big bang' (I call it this because everything 'explodes' from a central point) could be simply his name.

We can keep adding to this essential vocabulary - which are key words, not grammatical ones like do you/are you/my name is/how old are you etc.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

English- your most important words part 2

Way back in May I wrote about an exercise that involved choosing your four most important words. I had some interesting feedback, especially from a fellow teacher in England who said that her students chose words like boring, Macdonalds, want amongst others.

I suggested that verbs probably wouldn't be a priority if you could only use four words. This is because verbs are action or doing words, as we are taught in primary school. So that means that you can use a gesture to indicate most of them. How many of you teachers have never done a lesson on the present progressive using miming and the question "what I am doing?". The students have to answer, "you're riding a bike", you're having a shower" etc. You get the point.

If you were travelling in Mongolia and nobody around spoke a word of English and you couldn't speak a word of Mongolian, what would be your word number one to learn? I think we can learn a valuable lesson from babies. Generally a baby's first word is mama or papa - not that useful for travelling adults!

But what comes next? Baby wants something that he can see, but doesn't have any vocabulary - so very quickly he learns an incredibly useful word that he can use in conjunction with pointing - THAT!

Now there might ten different translations for the word 'that' in Mongolian, I have no idea. Even so, if you choose one of them that relates to objects or things in general, then you can go into a shop and ask for something to eat - something essential for your survival.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

choosing your most important words

There's an interesting exercise in the book Keep Talking by Friederike Klippel (Cambridge) called 'word wizard'. Each student is to choose the four words they consider to be the most important if no other words could be used. Which four words would you choose? The aim of the exercise is to try have a conversation with other students, thereby learning their four words a building a vocabulary of up to sixty-four words, assuming that there are sixteen students and no-one chooses the same words.

In reality, people have very similar ideas about which words they would choose. Verbs are very popular. So time and again we get choices like be, have, go, want. If had to choose four verbs, maybe eat, drink, sleep, do would be the best for basic survival.

Are these really the most useful words? Which ones would you choose?

In my next post, I'll tell you why I don't think choosing verbs as your most important words is a good idea.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

learning words that are relevant to you

If you really want to make the most of your English lessons, it's your responsiblity to learn as many words as you can in your own time. If your average lesson is made up of different people continually asking, "how do say ..... in English?" then you are losing valuable time that could be spent making conversation - real communication.

Don't treat your teacher as a walking dictionary. As I've said before, you should be learning word groups that are important to you so that you have something relevant to say in class.

You can do this by making mind-maps
or by using flash cards to memorise key words and expressions.

Don't expect your teacher to know what words are important to you. If you are serious about your language learning, take the responsibility of building your own vocabulary and then your teacher will have time to work on your pronunciation and sentence structure, as well as the all-important fluency.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

apostrophe misuse

In France, in order to make words look more anglo-saxon, there is the habit of sticking an apostrophe and an 's' at the end of words. A shop selling English furniture is thus called 'Interior's'.

I would like to inform my French readers, however, that the situation is not better, perhaps even worse, back home in England. Which is even more pathetic, given that in a country where English is the native language, a large proportion of the population has absolutely no idea when and how to use the apostrophe.

's is known as the anglo-saxon genitive and is used to denote possession - the 's goes at the end of the possessor, not the possessed:

The manager's car = the car that belongs to the manager

When a word is already a plural, you put just an apostrophe after the final s, without adding a second s:

the managers' cars = the cars that belong to the managers

There are even websites that try to combat the misuse of the apostrophe. Take a look at the following for example:

There are some exceptions to the apostrophe rule, however. These would be in situations where adding an 's' to make a plural would be confusing. For example, we often talk about a list of do's and don'ts(a list of things to do and not to do).
If we simply added an 's' to 'do' to make it a plural you would get 'dos' which looks like an incorrect spelling of the third person, 'does' or the abbreviation of 'disk operating system'.
Also, initials can take an apostrophe in order to avoid making the plural 's' look like one of the intials. For example, it would be OK to write the plural of CD, CD's. If there were no apostrophe, it would look like three initials, CDS.

I don't know if my exceptions here are officially recognised, so if you strongly disagree, let me know!

T-shirt talk

If you walk down mainstreet in any French town, just about every other person you pass will be wearing a t-shirt with a slogan in English on it. Most of the wearers are oblivious to the fact that the message they are sharing with the world is either nonsense, full of mistakes or downright obscene.

One girl I saw recently had a top that read, 'young hot mistress for erotic massage' followed by a telephone number. There's no excuse for not knowing what it meant, for 'erotic' and 'massage' are both words that exist in French. It seems that the fact it was written in English makes it acceptable, even though the slogan is in effect really saying 'I'm a prostitute'.

I mention this because it reminds of the time back in the eighties when everyone was wearing t-shirts with Japanese writing on them. I shudder to think now what I might have been broadcasting to anyone who could understand Japanese. Perhaps a Japanese person could read on my t-shirt, 'stay away from this jerk, he's a complete loser' or worse!

After seeing the stupid slogans in english that people wear in France, I will always think twice before buying a T-shirt with anything written in a language I don't understand

Why I've become a YouTuber

If you are a regular visitor to my site,, you will have noticed that I have started making videos and uploading them on to Youtube is just fantastic for learning English, you can watch video blogs in order to hear all kinds of English accents, you can listen to your favourite songs in English and learn so much about what's going on in popular culture, and now you can even watch me as I try to answer questions that have been sent in by you, my dear readers.

I use Youtube because it's free! I would have to upgrade my site if I wanted to put all that video on it, and that would be expensive. Also, I haven't got a clue about how to put video on a web page, so I use youtube's technology. All I need to do is make a video with my webcam, upload it to youtube and then paste the link code into my site.

Anyway, I hope you like the videos, some of them are admittedly pretty boring, but it's probably better that you can watch and listen as well as read.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

learning everyday words

When I first arrived in France, the first thing I had to do was build a kitchen in the apartment where we were living. It was at this time that I realised just how many everyday words I hadn't learned whilst trying to study French in England. I would find myself in some hardware store gazing around wondering how to say "emulsion paint" or "sealant" or "washers". Even a simple word like "paint" can generate dozens of possiblities: vinyl, matt, eggshell, gloss, paintbrush, roller, paint tray, dilute, stir, drying time, undercoat, sandpaper, filler, finish, washable, etc.

If you are planning to go live in an foreign country, then start thinking about the possible word groups you are likely to encounter. Have a look around your kitchen and see what words you may need when abroad - not just the obvious ones like names of food items, but others. I know a lot of French people who have an excellent level in English but have never learned words like "sweep" "broom" "mop up" or "do the hoovering"!

If you are going to collect word groups like housework or DIY, then you could try making mindmaps. Go to my mind map pages for more information.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Understanding / Using Divide

Something really interesting happened during a lesson last week. I played a cassette to a student to test his understanding of spoken English. On the cassette, a lady said, "I won't be back until eight O'clock". I stopped the cassette, and asked the student what she said. Quite confidently, he replied, "she said she will return home at eight O'clock."

He had by and large understood the message. But he couldn't recall the words used. This is because an expression like "I won't be back until eight" doesn't figure in his active vocabulary, and can't be translated literally into French. He nevertheless got the gist.

This shows the gap between what we understand and what we are able to produce. I don't know how teachers could accelerate the process of transforming passive understanding into active usage. After all, that should be our job. It seems to me that massive exposure to language along with lots of practice is the only solution, but someone studying two hours a week with little time for homework is surely not going to make rapid progress.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The stormy history of English and French

All my students have heard me talk about a book that I think everyone learning English or French should read. It's called "honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense" by a great linguist, Henriette Walter.

It's the history of the two languages and how they developed in relation to each other. I've been criticised in the past for saying that English is just a dialect of French, it isn't, I know, but French has had such a profound impact on English that it is important to be aware of it. You will find it so much easier to retain and recall words if you know that they are simply modified French words.

Walter's attitude is refreshing - nowhere does she complain about the amount of English words used in French today, rather, she celebrates the cultural and linguistic exchange that has taken place for over a thousand years.

I don't really like it when I hear French people say "sur-booké" or "faire un meeting", but that's life - just like in English we still say "coup d'état" or "chic". Our ability to communicate ideas can only improve by having so many more words to use!

If you are French and want to know more about your language and English, buy this book. It's a pity it doesn't exist in English, but even if your French is not so good, you will find tons of interesting stuff about word origins etc.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Thoughts on "The Lexical Approach"

When I studied to become an English teacher, one of my instructors talked about a book that had had a considerable impact on the world of EFL. Called "The Lexical Approach", this book by Michael Lewis challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom in English language teaching.
Lewis summarises the book himself with the statement that "language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar." What does this rather obscure sentence mean? Basically that the language came first, and grammar is our attempt to find order in language. If this is the case, then it is wrong to start with grammar and expect our students to "fill the gaps" by adding vocabulary.
Think of it: if you did stupid exercises in your French class like "où est le singe?" - "le singe est dans l'arbre" (where is the monkey? - the monkey is in the tree) you will see that Lewis is right - we don't need possible sentences, but probable ones.
In class I still hear students say "my tailor is rich". Why? Because they learned it in school, and never having found an opportunity to use it a real context, they just say it to me like it's part of an interesting conversation.
The Lexical Approach can make depressing reading if you are really gung-ho on grammar bashing - but never fear - he does recommend drilling, lexical drilling, that is, which can be rather fun with the right groups.
I bought the book just after my CELTA course, which wasn't the best time - it left me a bit confused about what makes a good EFL teacher. But if you have been teaching for a while, it's well worth a look.