Monday, December 08, 2008

Teaching word origins

some time ago, I recommended a site called and told you that their weekly email tips were worth reading. Sign up, I'm sure you'll find something interesting to do with your students.

This week's tip, although a good one, could have been developed more fully, especially for those of us who teach English to speakers of Romance languages. We aren't all in Thailand and Japan, you know!

The teaching tip makes the valid point that learning vocabulary can be more interesting for learners if they know something about the origin of the word. I couldn't agree more, as etymology is some that I love - I could spend hours just flicking through a dictionary or my copy of Brewer's Phrase and Fable. The email goes on to give an A to Z of some interesting words and their origins.

My concern is that although word origins are interesting, they won't necessarily help a learner to recall new vocabulary if they don't create a spark that ignites a chain of thoughts leading to the actual word being summoned up.

For example, the first word on the list is 'avocado'. If my French student was looking for this word in English, he might well remember that the origin of this word was 'testicle' in some south American language, but would that help him to remember the word 'avocado' itself?

When I was a child there was a very famous series of television commercials for a type of Vermouth (fortified wine) featuring the British comedian Leonard Rossiter and the even more well-known Joan Collins (of Dynasty). Research showed that although everyone who had seen the commercial could remember how funny it was, even the exact lines of the two actors, very few could remember which drink it was promoting: was it Martini or Cinzano?

The advertisers had neglected the product in favour of a very funny ad. This could happen to a word with a memorable history.

Going back to example of avocado, if your learners are speakers of Romance languages, they will probably recognise that it's also the Spanish word for 'lawyer'. The Spanish colonialists heard an indigenous word that sounded a bit like 'avocado' (not very much like it in reality) and started to use it. When the fruit travelled the Atlantic to Europe, the French heard the Spanish using the word 'avocado' - (lawyer) and translated it to French: 'avocat' (just like English, 'advocate').

Another word on the list was 'umbrella'. Here is the definition:

Umbrella, appeared in English as early as 1609 (in a letter by
John Donne). In the middle of the 18th century the device was
adopted by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway as a protection
against the London rain.

There is no etymology here, just the date that it entered the English language. It would have been more pertinant, perhaps, to mention that umbrella comes from Italian 'ombrello' which relates to 'shade' not rain, and in fact was used to protect against the sun, not the rain. A French speaker would quickly recognise the word 'ombre' (shade or shadow) in his own language from the word umbrella, in fact, an old word for 'parasol' is 'ombrelle'.

The last word that I find could have been exploited more - at least for Europeans - is 'walnut'. I was surprised to discover that it means 'foreign nut'. But I did know that 'Wales' and 'Wallonie', a region in Belgium, are from a word that the Romans used to describe non-Latin speakers, hence foreigners. These words are also related to the French 'Gaul', as the Norman invaders of Britain had a strange way of pronouncing the letter G, it sounded to them like a W.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hearing Pidgin English

Going back to the exercise, 'word wizard' in the book Keep Talking, I was discussing in class the other day which words they would choose that they consider to be the most important. I started writing them up, and added a few words that would make communicating easier:

that thing
what/where/when/how/who (not why - it can be too abstract)

The learners contributed things like:

family etc.

So we had about 35 words on the board, and we started trying to make conversation using 'pidgin English'. The conversation went like this:

What work you do?

I do big work: thing go up: thing go down (they make helicopters!)

Where you go weekend?
I go there: do love woman: go eat drink family.

Doing this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in class : lower our level of English to that of the learner, ie speaking pidgin English. But it teaches valuable lessons about English:

1. English is essentially quite a simple, monosyllabic language. With just thirty words, I can something like, 'I do no work', which my learners are surprised to discover is grammatically correct, and certainly not pidgin English.

2. We communicate much more with our gestures, facial expressions and intonation than with words themselves (according to some, only 7% of communication is verbal)

3. Perhaps the most important, that English intonation forces the listener to hear pidgin English, that is, as we 'swallow' almost all 'grammatical' words, like prepositions and articles, the listener only hears the 'meaning' words, like verbs, nouns, adjectives.

To demonstrate this last point, I give the learners some sentences to analyse, for example:

do you want to know what he's going to give me?

which could be pronounced (I never do, of course):

jerwanna know wha(t) izgonna gimme?

Or a little more sensible:

On a clear day, you can see the mountains on the horizon.

I point out that in the real world, the prepositions, articles and auxiliaries are so softly pronounced that one only hears:

clear day see mountains horizon

thus turning a perfectly good sentence into pidgin English.

Go to the pronunciation pages at for more information about intonation and articulation in English.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Text messages

Many people are horrified by abbreviations used in text messages, such as 'U R L8', meaning 'you are late'. Is there any justification in the beliefs that our literary tradition is being corrupted and that young people are going to be disadvantaged by their ignorance of correct spelling?

While in no way advocating that this kind of writing should replace the system we have in place today, let me explain why I think that it is not reasonable to be overly-concerned by this phenomenon. There may even be some positive sides to it!

Firstly, the English language is a big mess when it comes to spelling. There are few rules, and even the ones that exist have too many exceptions. Teaching children to read using the phonics method can only help them to read a small number of words, the majority need to be learned by sight. The same for foreign learners of English. Few of my students, including those at intermediate and advanced level can pronounce properly the word 'women'.

Another good example would be words that contain the letters 'ough'- ought, though, through, rough, bough, and thorough are all pronounced differently.

The writer George Bernard Shaw wanted the English alphabet to be revised so that each sound had its own character. He famously argued that 'ghoti' could be pronounced 'fish' in current English, the 'gh' as in 'enough', the 'o' like 'women' [WIMIN] and the 'ti' as in 'station'. His proposed 'Shavian' alphabet was never taken seriously.

Secondly, simplification of spelling has already begun in the United States, largely due to the work of their great lexicographer, Noah Webster. He argued that superfluous (that is, unpronounced) letters could be deleted, like the 'u' in 'colour', 'favour' and the 'ough' in 'through' which is now written 'thru'.

Thirdly, what is so scandalous about using symbols for words anyway? We gape in awe at the complex hieroglyphics of the Egytptians and languages like Chinese only have characters that represent words or ideas, not a phonetic alphabet like ours. Also,the idea of dropping vowels is not new. There are some languages that have an alphabet of only consonants, the reader knows how to pronounce the word from his oral learning of that word. Let's face it, the way I say certain vowels is very different to the way, for example, a New Zealander would say them, so why not drop them altogether?

If we were serious about preserving the written tradition of our language, rather than complaining about the pitiful state of teenagers' writing we should seriously consider revising the ridiculous way we spell our words so that spelling more accurately reflects pronunciation. By so doing, text language would remain in its place where it is useful, and not spill over into other areas of written language.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Oscar Winner - Marion Cotillard


just a couple of mistakes in the speech, can you spot them?

thank you so much.

Olivier, what are you did to me

maestro Olivier Dahan

you rocked my life
you truly rocked my life

Thank you so much to picture house for your passion

members of the academy thank you so so much

and well, well , I'm speechless now

I, I

thank you life

thank you love

it is true that there is some angels in this city

thank you so, so much

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My job description

I’m an English Teacher. I teach English to adults in Marseille, in the south of France.
I work with small groups of students, some of whom would like to learn English in order to find a job. English is necessary for jobs in tourism, education and international trade, like Import/Export.

During the day, I prepare lessons by doing research on the internet and using the coursebooks in the centre's library. I prefer doing communication activities rather than grammar.

I sometimes have to attend meetings, which are about planning the courses and discussing new contracts. I have been on training courses in Paris. I take the train early in the morning and stay in a hotel.

I am also an examiner for the diplôme de compétences en langues. I interview candidates and assess them on their linguistic abilities and how they accomplished their tasks.

What's your job? Send me your job description in English and I will correct it before publishing it on my site!

Who wants to be a millionaire?

I love the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Do you have it your country?
It's actually great for learning English because the first few questions are really easy - if you are a native speaker. If you're not a native speaker, you might find the first five or so questions quite hard because they are often about local culture or other things that only the natives would know. Proverbs and nursery rhymes feature heavily in those early questions. I've learnt quite a lot about French life and culture by watching WWTBAM in French.

If you are a contestant on the programme, you can imagine how humiliating it would be to get the first question wrong. Well it does happen sometimes as the youtube clip below shows. I'v transcribed the introduction for you, it's good practice to understand American accents.

Notice "word whiskers" like "pretty much" and "I guess" very common in American English

Joining me now is Chase Sampson, a college junior in Nashville Tennessee, and I understand Chase that you flew in last night, you didn’t get here till three in the morning and that you havent slept a wink, huh ?

I pretty much have coffee flowing through my veins right now.

Do you really, but as a college student I think that maybe thats not so rare

Yeah I’m up pretty late mostly i’m kind of er insomniac I guess, but I’m feeling good, I’m feeling good

Good ,good! as long as you’re feeling good and you know the rules and the lifelines, and you’re ready to play , we’re gonna play.

I’m ready

OK, then let’s play !

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Jasper Carrot - Brummie Comedian

If any of you were wondering what my accent is like, here is clip of a famous comedian called Jasper Carrot, who like me is from Birmingham and so has a similar accent (I talk a bit posher, cause I'm a teacher!)

You will learn something about two very well-known stores in Britain, Argos and Woolworths, and what people in the regions think of London.

By the way, pick'n'mix is the self service sweet counter.

'innit' is an even more contracted version of 'isn't it?'

'bloke' is like 'guy' in British English

'nicked' is a slang word for 'stole' or 'stolen'

'spud' is slang for 'potato' but here is used as an insult for an Irishman (they eat a lot of potatoes in Ireland).

Monday, January 14, 2008


Is it possible to comb your teeth? Personally, I brush my teeth, but comb my hair (sometimes). But I recently read an advertising e-mail (not spam, I did request it) urging me to go over the document with a "toothcomb"! Duh!

The English expression that means to examine something very closely, to look at the little details is 'to go over (something) with a fine-tooth comb', that is, a comb with fine teeth, not a comb for your teeth!

I'm not immune to these types of mistakes, so I won't do any more Mickey-taking. Just to say that while looking for examples of 'tooth-comb', I stumbled on this marvelous site by an American professor. Have a look sometime, it's got some great stuff: errors in English.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Improve your vocabulary part 3

Use crazy associations.

I have been writing quite a lot recently about the linkword method, which involves associating something memorable in your own language to something that sounds similar in the language you are learning. Somebody came up with a great list of French phrases that could be converted in into English. The list appears on a lot of 'joke' websites, but it is in fact the basis of having a great memory, not just for foreign words, but for anything else too. Here are a few examples:

Canaille (rogue, rascal) - can I?
ail ou radis? (garlic or radish?) - are you ready?
six tonnes de chair (six tons of flesh) - sit on the chair
guy vomit sur mon nez (guy vomits on my nose) - give me some money
oeuf corse (Corsican egg) - of course

Now the trick here is to create a funny scene in your head that will make it impossible to forget. So a French speaker would imagine a huge six-ton elephant trying to sit on a chair, because to him 'sit on the chair' sounds like 'six tons of flesh' in his language.

You can read more about linkword here

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Moses Supposes (again)

A while ago I suggested learning 'Moses Supposes' to practice the vowel sound 'o'. Well here is the clip of Gene Kelly and co performing it in the classic movie 'Singing in the Rain'. Enjoy!

If you want to learn it, take it slowly and increase the speed only when you have memorised it completely.