Monday, November 21, 2011

Phonetic Film Quiz #4

This week’s phonetic quiz is from a film written and directed by one of my favourite directors.  I will tell you which director, but only in phonetics.

So, here it is.  First the director’s name, then the actors’:

/ˈkrɪstəfə ˈnəʊlʌn/
/li:ʌˈnɑ:dəʊ dɪˈkæpri:əʊ/
/ken wætɪ'næbi:/
/'dʒəʊsɪf 'gɔ:dɪn 'levɪt/
/'elɪn peɪdʒ/
/tɒm 'ha:di:/
/'sɪli:yn 'mɜ:fi:/
/'mɑɪkəl keɪn/

There is also one other main actress in the movie but her name is French, which uses different pronunciation rules.  Here is the phonetics but these are not in the English phonetic system.

/maʁjɔ̃ kɔtijaʁ/ (Phonetics for French)

Remember to visit the Macmillan Interactive Phonetic Chart for help as well as this helpful video which explains the chart by Adrian Underhill.

Here are the answers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are you ready for intermediate level English? pt 1

How good do you think your English is?  What level do you put yourself?  One of the scales of language assessment is the CEFR or Common European Framework of Reference.  If you see A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 or C2 on your English textbooks then that's what that means.  Common European Framework of Reference - it’s an awful name but it is a useful system for measuring language ability.  Here is the structure and descriptions.

Click for larger image

What is intermediate level?

Here is how CEFR defines B1: the ability to maintain conversation and the ability to independently deal with problems in day-to-day life.  Let me make this clearer.

Some people like to talk a lot and some people hate talking.  Some people are very social and some people like to be alone most of the time.  This is not important for measuring your level of English.  What is important is your abilityCan you have a conversation of 5 or 10 minutes with somebody in English?  Not, do you like having conversations of 5 or 10 minutes with somebody in English?

Is your English good enough to call the plumber,
explain the problem and arrange for him to fix this?
(Photo from Flickr)
With the problems of day-to-day life, some people can fix washing machines and some people can’t, some people know how to pay their bills on the internet and some people prefer to pay their bills at the bank.  It is not a problem if you cannot do these things, it is a problem if you cannot do these things because your English is not good enough.

A2 vs B1: What's the difference?
There is a big difference between A2 and B1 and it is more than grammar and vocabulary.  B1 learners are independent learners and users.  An intermediate student takes more responsibility for their learning and becomes more autonomous (another word that means ‘independent’).  Let’s look at the description in more detail:

Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
If you travel to another countries are you confident that you can deal with a restaurant?  Book a hotel on the phone?  Deal with a taxi driver who needs directions?  Deal with the police if necessary?  I had to deal with the Mexican police once because I was parked in the wrong place – it was not easy.

Is your English good enough to deal
with a parking ticket if you need to?
(Photo from Flickr)
Would you feel confident going to an English-speaking country and using your English for these things?

Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions...

This is probably the most difficult part of B1.  Can you describe these things and people understand you?  Can you talk about a funny situation that happened last week?  Can you explain what you want to be doing in one year?

... and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Can you explain why you want things like good English, a better English score or a job with an international company?  Can you have a full conversation about these ambitions and plans?

Cambridge ESOL

The CEFR and the Cambridge Exams (Click for large image)
Cambridge identifies the difference between A2 and B1 like this, “Understanding at Level B1 differs in that it goes beyond merely being able to pick out facts and may involve opinions, attitudes, moods and wishes.

Basically this means a few things.

1.  You need to be able to give and support opinions and attitudes.  Compare these two examples:

A2:  I want this chair.  It is comfortable.
B1:  I would prefer this chair because I think it is better for my back.

The B1 example is more polite (“I would prefer”), shows opinion (“I think”) and explains the situation (“better for my back”)

2.  You need to change your vocabulary to help the listener understand your mood or feelings.

A2:  I am not happy because you failed my essay.
A2+:  I’m upset with my essay grade.  I don’t think you were fair.
B1:  I was disappointed that you gave me a low grade.  I think it was better.
B1:  I was surprised that you gave me a low grade.  Could you look at it again?

All of these examples basically give the same information: feeling + reason.  However, the B1 examples are better because they all give the information in a more polite way using vocabulary that is less direct and argumentative.  The A2+ example certainly uses better grammar and vocabulary but it is still direct and argumentative.

B1 users of English needs to understand the context of the situation (a student complaining to a teacher) and understand that argumentative language is not the correct English to use for a positive result.

3.  Another example would be this.

A2:  I need to leave 10 minutes early.  I have an appointment.
B1:  Could I leave 10 minutes early today?  I have an important appointment and I shouldn’t be late.

Again, both of these sentences give the same information.  However, B1 makes a polite request (“Could I...?”) but A2 gives an order (“I need...”).  Also, B1 gives more relevant information (“important appointment” and “shouldn’t be late”).  B1 shows a better attitude and will probably have permission to leave early whereas A2 probably will not.

Some tips for assessing yourself:
  1. Ask yourself, how many times does someone stop me and ask me to repeat?  How many times does someone stop me and want me to explain again?  How many times does a person chatting with me not understand my ideas.  Not the words, the ideas.
  2. How long does it take me to write an email in English?  How much help do I need to use my English in my job?   Can I write a clear email that is easy to understand for users of English?  When I get emails in English, do I always/usually/sometimes need help to understand the meaning?
  3. Do I make phone calls/Skype calls in English for my job or do I get someone else to do it for me?  Do I understand, more or less, voice messages I get on my phone in English?
Useful Links/References

Cambridge ESOL Teacher Support:  This website is for teachers of English but it is useful to clearly explain the types of situations that a learner needs to deal with well to be a B1 learner.

Wikipedia page on the CEFR:  This gives you another description of the different levels.  Unfortunately there is no Simple English Wikipedia page for this.  Read my article about writing Wikipedia articles to improve your English and then perhaps try to write a Simple English page. :-)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Phonetic Film Quiz #3

Here are the actors from a very popular movie that had two sequels. All the movies are from the 2000s.  Can you identify these actors from the phonetic spelling of their names?

/’dʒɔ:dʒ ‘klu:ni:/

/bræd pɪt/

/mæt ‘deɪmən/

/’dʒu:lɪj ‘rɒbɜ:ts/

/’ændɪ ga:si:ə/

Here are the answers.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

English for Academic Purposes (Website Recommendation)

I'm teaching EAP at the moment.  That means 'English for Academic Purposes' and that basically means English for university or college.  It's quite different from IELTS or TOEIC in many ways: the essays are much longer, effective listening needs more vocabulary and better understanding of grammar, and there is a lot about academic 'culture' that needs to be taught such as referencing and citation to avoid plagiarism.  I want to talk about plagiarism in a future post but at the moment this is a small blogpost to direct you to a great website:

Using English for Academic Purposes by Andy Gillett

This is a brilliant website that explains a lot about English for university and college courses.  Thanks, Andy Gillett!

Alternatively, you can visit to mobile site if you are accessing from a smartphone: Using English for Academic Purposes Mobile

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Translating British English (Hilarious!)

This has been on several websites and blogs in the last few days.  Unfortunately, I can't find where it came from originally so I can't really reference it.

I love it because it is SO true!  These translations are completely accurate. :-)



Monday, October 31, 2011

Using Tongue Twisters for Your Pronunciation

Take a look at this tongue twister.

Betty Botter bought some butter,

But,” she said, “this butter’s bitter. 

If I bake this bitter butter

It will make my batter bitter.

But a bit of better butter – 

That would make my batter better.” 

So she bought a bit of butter, 

Better than her bitter butter, 

And she baked it in her batter, 

And the batter was not bitter.

So it was better Betty Botter

Bought a bit of better butter. 

I think tongue twisters are great to help learners of English with their pronunciation. Just like you need to build your muscles to life heavy objects, you need to build the muscles in your mouth to speak a foreign language. Tongue twisters are like taking your mouth to the gym – lots of fun repetition to improve your pronunciation of those difficult sounds.

Here is a video to help you.

I think the Betty Botter tongue twister is great because it practises the most difficult part of English pronunciation – vowel sounds. Here are the similar words and the different pronunciations. Use this interactive phonetic chart to help you. Let me know how it goes.

Big thanks to Inna, who brought this tongue twister to class!

‘Betty’ /’beti:/

‘Botter’ /’bɒtə/

‘bought’ /’bɔ:t/

‘butter’ /’bətə/

‘bitter’ /’bɪtə/

‘batter’ /’bætə/

‘But a’ /’bətə/ (the same pronunciation as ‘butter’ when it is said quickly)

‘bit of’ /’bɪtə/ (the same pronunciation as ‘bitter’ when it is said quickly)

‘better’ /’betə/

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Phonetic Film Quiz #2

Here is the second quiz. 5 actors from a film about a bank robbery and that’s the only help I will give you. ;-)

/'denzel 'wɒʃɪŋtɪn/

/klɑɪv 'əʊwɪn/ 

/dʒəʊdi: 'fɒstə/

/wɪləm də'fəʊ/ 

/'krɪstəfə 'plʌmə/

If you want some help, use this interactive phonetic chart that will pronounce the sounds for you.  Also remember that this video might help you as well.

Here are the answers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Speaking Preparation for IELTS

I love, LOVE these videos from the British Council about IELTS Speaking.  They are funny and informative.  They provide excellent advice for the IELTS speaking exam as well as being entertaining.

To read what they are saying (the transcript) click here.

To read the transcript of this video click here.

To read the transcript when you listen a second time click here.

Click here for the transcript.

Hopefully, this will give you some useful information for you when you are doing your IELTS or any other Cambridge speaking exam. Big thanks to Andy Lewis and The British Council: English Online website for such great videos. Take a look at other great stuff on their website!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Phonetic Film Quiz #1

I am continuing my topic of phonetics and movies with a film quiz. Here is a list of actors' surnames from a film I enjoy. From these surnames in phonetics, can you tell me what the movie is?








So, do you know?  Here are the answers and I'll post another one next week.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Phonetics - Maggie Gyllenhaal, how do you pronounce that?

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo from Wikipedia)
One of my favourite actresses is Maggie Gyllenhaal.  She chooses some really interesting movies to be in and characters to play.

I was visiting my parents recently and they like her movies as well and during a conversation we had a question, “Actually, how do you pronounce her surname?”  We see it all the time in movies, on DVD boxes, etc... but we didn’t really know how to pronounce it.

My solution – Wikipedia!  The article displays the phonetic spelling of her surname: /ˈdʒɪlənhɔːl/

The /dʒ/ like the beginning of the word ‘jeans’.

The /ɪl / like we say the word ‘ill’, a synonym for sick.

The /ən/ with the /ə/ sound, the neutral sound that is everywhere in the English language.  Often in literature you will see this work ‘Uh’ which is just a sound that we use to show that we are thinking and need more time to think in a conversation.

The /hɔːl/ like the word ‘hall’ or similar to /hɔːs/ like the word ‘horse’.

So there is her surname.  Gyllenhaal = /ˈdʒɪlənhɔːl/.  I'm a native English speaker and the fastest way I found to get the pronunciation was by using the phonetics.  They can be useful for everyone.

Take a look at this interactive phonetic chart from Macmillan publishing to help you understand phonetics better.  I also recommend taking another look at this excellent short video that explains the phonetic chart.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Learning and Forgetting Vocabulary

Do you see the link on the top bar?  The one that says 1000 Challenge.  It goes to a page that talks about a language learning challenge I did earlier this year.  Learning 1000 new words in a foreign language.  I was quite successful – in one month I memorized 869 new words and phrases.  However, that was in July and now it is October.  After the challenge finished, I had a holiday, I was busy with other projects and I was lazy – I didn’t continue studying and now I probably remember about 200/300 words. :-(

This is not surprising and it is explained very well in this article, 'Do not forget The Forgetting Curve'.  I highly recommend reading the article.  It talks about spaced repetition.  This means, learning something and then going back (meaning ‘returning’) to it a day later, a week later, a month later.  I did not review the words I learned after July 1st and that is why I do not remember all 869 of my words.  However, I still remember 200/300 new words and phrases - and that is not bad!

How I originally learned all those words and phrases in one month was with note cards.  Aaron Myers wrote a short blog post, 'The Stack', about using note cards to help you put language learning in more parts of your life; on the bus, waiting in a line.  These are perfect moments to continue your language learning.

So I did my challenge to inspire people and to raise money for charity.  Giving my money and time to charity is one of the most enjoyable things I do.  It makes me feel really good about myself and it motivates me to do more things because I am doing those things to help other people, not just me.

So have I convinced any of you to do something similar?  I know that I have one friend who is going to do a similar challenge to improve his Japanese.  However, if you are a learner of English and you are reading this, can I convince you to do your own 1000 Challenge?

Please say yes.  Choose a learning goal, choose a month, choose a charity and then get started.  If you are on Twitter then tell people about your challenge using the hashtags: #educharity and #ellchar.  Have I inspired you to push yourself, to challenge yourself, to do something that will help you and an organization that needs support?

Please say yes.  If you like the idea then suggest it to a friend or suggest it to a family member and give them help.  Suggest it to your teacher, suggest it to your students, suggest it to your boss or whoever.  The idea is do language learning and to help charity.

Please say yes. :-)

Monday, October 3, 2011

People you should be following, pt 3 (YouTube)

I don’t have lots of knowledge ‘when it comes to’ YouTube. When it comes to Twitter or blogs I feel much more confident but when it comes to YouTube, I still feel that I’m not really using that resource as much as I could be. By the way, the previous sentence is not very good because it has too much repetition of the phrase ‘when it comes to...’ but hopefully my repetition (see my earlier blogpost) will help you remember this phrase for you to use in the future! ;-)

A big, big thank you to Marcelo Mendes for recommending most of these channels! I highly recommend you explore his website. He is very generous with his time and obviously enjoys learning and helping other people to learn as well.

Two Great YouTube Channels

The Daily English Show amazes me – there is obviously a lot of work that makes this channel! On their blog, they say they are the world’s first daily online English language show. These videos come from New Zealand, which is great because it is very important to get used to listening to lots of different accents in English. This channel has been producing videos for over 5 years! What I really love about this channel is that the videos are about interesting things – I’m watching and learning from their New Zealand Summer Tour. Also, the English is clear and you can read the transcript of every video on the blog.

Try this video, and see the transcript here.

Next, is a huge resource for English learners and teachers but EnglishClub is also on YouTube and there is one specific series that I find very interesting – The Learning English Video Project. This project visits school and language institutes to ask learners and teachers about their experiences, goals, problems, solutions and achievements as well as getting tips and advice from them.

Like the Daily English Show, I love these videos because they are really interesting. Again, visit the website for the transcripts and lots of other things to help you when you are listening to the videos.  The project covers the UK, Brazil, China, Spain, America, Romania and Morocco.

Try this first video from Granada, Spain.

A Couple of Other Useful Channels

Daily Dose of English is a channel that provides short videos describing a few English phrases (usually with a common word or topic). There are now enough ‘doses’ (or videos) for one every day for 5 months. However, it is a good idea to watch one or two, take notes, write some example sentences to help you remember and then watch the same video again a week later. How much do you remember?

You can go to the website for transcripts and to download the mp3s. Unfortunately there are advertisements on the website but this is still a good resource.

By the way, a “dose” of something, refers to ‘a small amount of something that you take regularly’. This word is usually used to talk about medicine but we use it for metaphors and other phrases sometimes as well.

Use Phrasal Verbs is another channel of short videos by Linguaspectrum (who makes the Daily Dose of English videos as well). Each video talks about one specific phrasal verb. There is a website as well but I think it is quite confusing to navigate (meaning that it is not easy to understand where to find the information you want).

I like these two channels, Daily Dose of English and Use Phrasal Verbs, because you learn useful vocabulary and phrases but more important than that, you will get at least 5 or 10 minutes of listening practice (actually more than 10 minutes if you watch the videos more than once, which you should do if you really want to remember anything),

Next time I will look at websites you should be following with RSS – and if you don’t know what RSS is, I’ll explain it!

RSS - We see this sign on many websites, but
what does it mean and how can we use it?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Improve Your English, Edit a Wikipedia Page!

A few months ago I gave my students in Argentina a project and I think it worked very well.  We took the English Wikipedia page of the local city, Gualeguaychú, and we improved it.

How did the students do this?

My students looked at the Wikipedia article in the original language (Spanish) and then used this information to improve the English version.  Here is a comparison between the original Spanish and the English article before the students started the project.  As you can see the English article is MUCH smaller.

We copied the English article into Google Docs, shared the document with everybody and then the students started to work on building and improving the article.

Here is what they achieved.

As you can see, the English article is still shorter than the Spanish but it has significantly more information than it had.  This is okay, the English article doesn’t need to be as big as the original Spanish.

Click here to get higher resolution pictures of the Spanish, the old English article and the new English article.

What has this project done?
  • The students worked together, learning from each other and improving each other’s English.
  • The students have improved their vocabulary and their translation skills.
  • The students have helped to advertise their home town.
See the Wikipedia pages here: Gualeguaychú (English) and Gualeguaychú (Spanish)

The Rules

If you want to improve your English with some friends or classmates then I think this type of project is a great way to do it.  However, if you want a project to succeed then you need to have rules.  These are the rules that we had.
  1. Try to use the original Wikipedia article (if it exists) as a guide to help you build the English article but don’t worry if they are not exact translations.  Remember, good translations are often not exact translations.
  2. Very Important - Don’t be afraid to make corrections of paragraphs that other people have written.  This is a collaborative piece of work.
  3. Don’t invent information - everything in the article must be fact, not fiction.
  4. You are not allowed to talk about personal opinions - these will be removed by Wikipedia.
  5. Only do as much work as you want to do.  When it stops being fun, take a break!
  6. If you are going to add photos, they need to be your photos or photos which are not copyright.  Copyrighted images cannot be used on Wikipedia.
  7. Set a deadline and stick to it!  Give the project a week or a month.  Any more time than this will cause people to lose motivation.  At the end of the project deadline, take your work in Google Docs and update the Wikipedia page.  The article doesn't need to be perfect at the end - you can always continue to edit and improve it on Wikipedia.

Writing about your hometown is a good topic.  Other topics you could work on might be famous local people (actors, authors, poets) or famous local people from history (inventors, military people, authors, etc.), maybe events in local history, or local buildings of historic significance.  If you don’t like history then you could important areas in the area (parks, theatres, museums, etc.).  Wikipedia doesn’t need to be your only source of information for your English article, if you do start doing some research you might learn something new about where you live.

Let me know how it goes!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Beg Your Pardon? a.k.a. What? (The Importance of Intonation)

Learning a language is not just about the words we say, it’s also about how we say them. Listen to the different ways that this question is asked, “Is that your car?

Did you hear the differences? Each of these questions has a different purpose and a different meaning.  We understand these differences from context and from intonation.

Intonation is very important.

Look at the different focus of each of these sentences in the slides.

Did you understand the slides? If we stress that ‘David wanted to buy a red shirt.’ that means we are focused on David, not someone else (meaning another person). Take a look at the sentences again, can you complete the sentences based on the stressed word?

As well as understanding, it is important to focus on intonation for reasons of politeness. Some languages change the words used based on who you are talking to – there is a formal form and an informal form. In fact, I know that in some languages it is even more complicated than that! In English, we don’t change the verb form to show formal respect (like in Spanish, for example) but we do have polite phrases and we depend on polite intonation.

Would you mind helping me for a moment?” is a polite request for help but if I speak with my friends I will probably say “Can you give me a hand for a sec?” (where ‘give me a hand’ means help, and ‘sec’ can mean ‘second’ but often just means a short period of time, not an actual second).

There are other examples that are much shorter. “What?”, for instance (‘for instance’ being another way to say ‘for example’). ‘What’ is a great word and ‘What?’ an easy way to get more information. BUT be careful, because how you say it will give your audience a lot of extra information. Look at this video about all the different ways one man can say “What?

In these examples you can identify confusion, frustration, anger, disbelief and amazement. Sometimes he asks this to mean ‘Repeat what you said, I didn’t hear you.’ and this is a different “What?” than ‘Explain what you said, I didn’t understand you.” and these are both different from “What?” to ask ‘Why are you unhappy/angry with me?’  Watch again and see if you can identify these specific differences.

Obviously, when you are talking with friends intonation and polite phrases are not so important because you all know each other but if you are talking to someone you don’t know or you don’t know them very well (meaning you aren’t close friends) then this is important.

Try practising the different ways you can ask the same question. Try practising the different ways you can ask “What?” However, sometimes it is safer to not use “What?” and to use another, more polite phrase.

How many alternative phrases to “What?” can you find in this short video?

Many thanks to Kevin Cuckow for inspiring this post by sharing the Horrible Histories video, and thank you to Martin Sketchley for his wonderful blog and the example sentence for intonation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Do I Like English? - A Guest Post by Maru Talavera

This is a very special post and the first of many, I hope. This is a guest post - this article has not been written by me but by one of my students, Maru Talavera. Maru has been a student of English for a number of years now and recently got the opportunity to use her language skills on a trip to England this summer. I was very interested to know her story about what motivates her in her English studies, so I asked her to write this article to share with all of you. I was very happy when she said yes and this is what she provided. Thank you very much, Maru!

Anyway, here are her opinions and her analysis on her passion and enjoyment of English. There are a couple of her ideas that I thought were so good that I highlighted them!  Please feel free to give Maru your comments.

Why I like English

While being a student you find many people that ask you “Why do you like English?” However, I think the answer to this question only gets complicated when you ask yourself, “Why do I like English?” As an advanced student I guess I should have figured it out much earlier but considering I’m seventeen it (kind of) makes sense that I haven’t yet.

I took up English because my parents thought I would need it at some point in my life.  They were aware of the importance of knowing another language to not only broaden your mind but also push your limits.  However difficult the start was I instantly felt comfortable.  The atmosphere was wonderful, and by atmosphere I mean the warmth of teachers who – I bet – knew how difficult it can be for a little child to start something new.  They made English look like an easy game to play since, as we all know, if you enjoy what you do you give your best.

English also has opened my mind to new perspectives because by reading books or listening to music I realize distances are nothing, we’re all part of the world which turns out to be pretty small as we can feel something similar no matter where we are.  For me, English is that bridge that can lead you to see that there are a lot of people who have felt or are feeling in the same way you feel.

Further to the points I highlighted before, English is considered to be the lingua franca (language people use to communicate when they have different first languages) and companies which are trying to make it to worldwide success are looking for people that have English among their various skills since it’s a great way to enter other markets.

Photo from Wikipedia
Nowadays, English doesn't belong to one place, it’s everybody’s world language.  And I think it would be great if it were taught to children as they’re little because it’s the best time to learn as it’s easy.

Having English as a lingua franca doesn’t mean we have to have an English lifestyle as well.  This is the best of it, we can have a mixture... making our culture evolve in a different way, acquiring new things but preserving out essence.  It’s all about opening our minds and trying to see that others are not that different and that we can get to know them better if we share a common language.

Other ways of learning English

As I grow up (Yes! I’m still at it!) I discover that it’s not always easy to keep on working on my English as I have less time to study but in a way this has helped me realize there are fantastic ways to learn, improve and use your English.
  • Watching series or films online: the Internet can be something more than just a way to gossip or keep up with Hollywood trends, it can also be a place to catch up with your favourite series or movie.  At times it’s hard to understand the dialogues so I suggest starting with series you are familiar with, and it’s great when you add the subtitles so that you know exactly what they’re saying.  Free online films and series are available online and you don’t need to be registered.  (Gordon's NoteI agree with this idea and I know there are some free films online but also remember that iTunes is a great and legal way to do this get movies and TV shows.)
  • Reading from books to magazines, you will find a wide range of useful vocabulary and phrases.  Although sometimes it seems difficult to get an English book in a country like Argentina it is not impossible, indeed there are several bookshops where you can get them.  There’s also the possibility to download the book you want from the net. (Gordon's Note: I love my Amazon Kindle and you can also get Kindle apps for computers and smartphones.)
  • Music: I think this is my favourite way of learning English.  There’s nothing better than listening to a good album with meaningful lyrics.
To sum up, I would say English has a very important place in my life.  Indeed, I can’t imagine my life without it and I think the world helps that.  I like having it in my life since I have developed a kind of love for English because it has made me discover a whole new world that has always been there but I didn’t have the key to enter.  This tool also leads me to independence and sharing my knowledge, feelings and ideas with people from all over the world.  When I went to London this July,  English also helped me to make friends with people who were foreigners just like me, who were also still unsure and adjusting in a different country and we ended up creating a bond which I hope will continue to grow day by day.

During my life I’ve encountered people who encourage me every day to go on in this way, learning around the things I enjoy is certainly the easiest way to progress.  On the other hand, I also find people who try to bring me down, saying that no matter how hard I try it is pointless to try to acquire another culture that’s not mine.  However, as with many things in life, it is important to follow the way you think will make you happy, because none of the people who discouraged you will come to repair the damage of having made a bad choice.  People that think English is boring, unnecessary or just a waste of time is because they don’t know, they have no idea of the vast world that hides beyond their ignorance.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sharing Understanding How We Learn

Thank you! We did it! This blog reached 50 fans on Facebook just over a week ago! That means a lot to me, thank you.

I would love more people to know about this blog so I’d like you to 'do me a favour' (phrase meaning do something that will help me): I want you to ask one of your friends to join us! If everybody does that then I’m sure I will be sending you another message soon to say we have 100 fans! :-)

Meanwhile, keep reading, keep commenting and keep learning. Have a great day!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Interview with Lewis Richards, teacher and co-author of IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills

Mr Lewis Richards!
Two good friends of mine have just published a book to help students improve their writing skills for the IELTS.  The book is called IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills and the authors are Richard Brown and Lewis Richards.

Lewis kindly agreed to a small interview, answering a few questions about himself and the book.

If your students were to describe you with 3 adjectives, what would they be?  I hope they would say: fun, hard-working and passionate about teaching.  But some would say 'strict' as well, I think!

You’ve just finished writing a book together.  Why did you write it?  We've been teaching IELTS for about 15 years between us, and there are lots of good IELTS books available, but we couldn't find one book that had everything students need to pass the writing part of IELTS.  So we started writing our own exercises, and over the last few years we've written hundreds of exercises that we use in class to help our students get a good writing score.  We decided to put all our ideas into a book, and hopefully it will help lots of students to get at least 6.5 in writing.

Who is the book for?  Well, the idea of the book is to show students step-by-step how to get a good writing score, in particular 6.5 or above.  We wrote the book so that you can use it as a self-study book, or with a teacher in class.  We know that lots of people don't have time to go to a language school to study an IELTS course, so the book is designed so that you can study it by yourself if you want to.  For example, many nurses or doctors who want to work abroad need to get a 7.0 in IELTS, but maybe don't have time to go to a school because of their jobs.  This kind of student can use the book at home.  We think it's clear and easy to read, and helps you improve your writing step-by-step.   Of course, you can also use the book in a class with a teacher, and in fact this is one of the best things about the book - every exercise in it has been tried out in class by us many times, so we know that it works.  Hundreds of students in our classes have got high scores using our material, so we feel confident it can help many other students as well.

If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?  It's hard to say, I've been a teacher for 13 years, and I love it, I can't imagine doing another job, but I really enjoy writing, so maybe journalism.

What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?  At the moment I'm reading a book called 'Solar' by Ian McEwan, which is fantastic, but the book I re-read all the time is 'Catch 22' by Joseph Heller.  It's the funniest book I've ever read.  If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

What do you like to do to unwind (relax)?  I play tennis a lot, which helps get rid of stress.  Drinking beer helps too!

Why are you an English language teacher?  I think learning a foreign language is a really beautiful thing, which helps you to understand other cultures and ideas, and also of course to be successful in your studies or job.   When I was 23, I lived in France for a year, and the experience of learning to speak in French was wonderful.  Also, I really enjoy working with people from different countries, and I feel really proud when my students improve their English, and do really well in IELTS, for example.

Final Questions

If there were one thing you could remove from the English language to make it easier for learners of English, what would it be?  Articles.  Most languages don't have articles, and you don't really need to use articles - people will understand you whether you use articles or not.

Where will students be able to buy your book?  In September it will be on and in all good bookshops, or you can look at the website of our publishers for more information about how to buy it in your country.

Thank you for the interview, Lewis.  I’m sure the book will be a great success and help many students around the world.  Here are the links to the various Amazon sites where the book is available now:

For more information from Lewis about the book, watch this video:

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Remember, English for exams is NOT authentic!

Basically, good English is not always good for exams. However, this is not a bad thing. Let me explain.  (Also, if you are not preparing for an exam, keep reading because not all of this post is about English for exams.)

What is authentic language?

Authentic language is real language. Authentic English language is unplanned and unchanged language from native speakers. It’s the language that is used between two fluent speakers in a natural conversation.

What is the purpose of an exam?

The purpose of an exam is to test and assess language ability. You have to show how much you can do with your English in short period of time for the speaking (11 minutes for IELTS, 14 minutes for FCE, 15 minutes for CAE, 20 minutes for the TOEFL speaking test) and a limited number of words in your writing (400 words for IELTS, 330 words for FCE, 480 words for CAE, 525 words for TOEFL).

So within this short period of time you really have to show off (meaning to demonstrate) your English and use all the different forms you know as well as a good variety of vocabulary.  Remember, if you don’t use the language during the speaking test then the examiner won’t know that you have it.

Good English does not always pass!

Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister
of Britain (1940-45, 1951-55)
(Picture from Wikipedia)
Here is part of a very important speech in British history.  This speech by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain during most of World War 2, was incredibly important in motivating the people of Britain to continue fighting during a time when Britain was losing the war.  I don’t want to give you a history lesson but this speech was possibly the most important speech in Britain in the 20th century.

However, this speech recently failed an English assessment!  Read and listen to the most famous part of the speech here.

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, 
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds, 
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, 
we shall fight in the hills; 
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The computer system that marked the speech didn’t like the repetition. The speech uses the phrase “We shall...” at least 12 times. The repetition was a very important and useful part of the speech, but for an English exam it is not good. Repetition is a tool that we use in spoken and written English to emphasise a point and it is used a lot in speech writing, especially by politicians. However, for English exams, it does not help you because it only shows a small part of your language knowledge.

Have a mental checklist

Make checklist in your mind for
your speaking and writing.
(Photo from Flickr)
So it is a good idea to have mental checklist.  A list in your head of things you should try to include when you are speaking and writing in the exam.  Here is a short list for you to start with (there are plenty of other things to add):

  • Conditionals (e.g. If you learn how to use these different forms of English, you’ll have no problems in your speaking and written exams.)
  • Passive Voice (e.g. This blog post was written to help learners of English understand and prepare for their English exams.)
  • Relative Clauses (e.g. This blog, which started in February 2011, exists to help learners of English.)
  • Adverbs (e.g. Both the teacher and the students were 'terribly pleased'* when everyone passed the exam.)
  • Comparatives/Superlatives (e.g. The CAE test is definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE is certainly the hardest test of them all.)
  • Reported Speech (Gordon said that the CAE test was definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE was certainly the hardest test of them all.)
So all of these are useful parts of English to use in your speaking and writing to show the examiner what you can do.

If you are not taking an exam, this is still useful

Yes, even if you are not doing an exam, focusing on these parts of English is still very important.  It is important for your accuracy to practise these parts of English separately sometimes.

Here are some videos to explain.  The first video shows a martial arts drill.  A drill is an exercise of repetition, where only one action is practised and repeated again and again so that the student can focus and improve on one specific area.  This is not an authentic fight but it is an important part of martial arts training.

You can see that this action alone would not be very useful in a fight.  However, when you put this action together with other actions then you can get something like this! (One of the most exciting martial arts fights I’ve ever seen! - Just click on play, it will start at the exciting part.)

So from this martial arts example, it is easy to see that the same rules apply to language learning. You've got to do the drills, practising your conditionals 'over and over and over' (meaning again and again and again), practising your use of passive voice over and over and over, practising your comparatives and superlatives over and over and over. This way they become better and better, you use them with more accuracy and fewer mistakes.

Then when you put them all together you get a grammatically accurate piece of writing or a grammatically great conversation.

* "terribly pleased" - Although 'terrible' is a negative word, we can use the adverb 'terribly' to mean 'very' in a positive way.  So this actually means "very pleased" and it is a positive sentence.  You can see the same use with 'awfully'.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Marcia Lima's "secret" to language learning

I just read this on Marcia Lima's blog and just had to share it with you:

"My secret to language learning was perspiration, really!"

Perspiration = sweating = hard work!

An excellent way to improve listening and writing skills and, as Marcia says, song lyrics are a fun option.

Memorization, memorization, memorization!  It's not the only thing you need to learn a language, but it would be impossible to learn a language without it.

Thanks Marcia, great advice!  Go visit her blog and leave a comment or send her a tweet!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Daily Writing Tips (Blog Recommendation #5)

I think most of us have a secret desire to write novel.  If you think about it, a lot of our lives and conversations are spent telling stories: what you did last night, a funny incident when you were 8 years old, how you met your husband/wife, saying what you bought at the supermarket.  They are not all good or interesting stories but they are all stories.  So I think that most of us have the desire to write a whole novel, a big long story that we hope will become world famous.

If you are one of these people, then the next time you decide to try and do some writing you should take a look at this website.

Oh, and if you want to know how to start and complete a novel then you might want to try Matt Cutts's suggestion.  I showed this video in a previous post but I've put it here again, in case you missed it the first time.

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