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.

DevelopingTeachers.com

Some months ago I signed up to receive teaching tips from a site called developingteachers.com. 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 onestopenglish.com or the not very good englishtogo.com.

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 developingteachers.com 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.