Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is English Difficult to Learn?

This post is inspired by a similar post on Warren Ediger’s Successful English blog.

Personally, I always thought English is an easy language for giving information but a difficult language for getting information.  As I continue with my Spanish studies, I think this is probably true of most languages.

For example, a low level learner’s vocabulary in English can be good enough to explain a problem they are having.
“I have very bad stomach-ache.”
But understanding the huge variety of possible replies needs a wider vocabulary (we say “wider” for vocabulary, not “bigger”).
“You should go to the doctor.” 
“You might want to see a doctor then.” 
“You’d best go and see a doctor.” 
“I’d go to the health centre, if I were you.” 
“You’d better make an appointment with the GP then.” 
“Do you reckon you need to see a doctor?” 
“There’s a clinic on the next street if you want to drop in.” 
“It sounds like you could do with an appointment to see the doctor.” 
“It’s probably a good idea to see your GP then.”
Think about all of these different phrases and parts of language you might need to understand the reply. There are modals verbs like ‘should’, ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘might’.  Phrases like “You had better + verb” or “You had best + verb” which we use for suggestions.  Direct questions using phrases like “Do you reckon…” or indirect questions “…if you want to see him.”   The change in title from ‘doctor’ to ‘GP’ or not talking about the ‘doctor’ but about the ‘clinic’ or the ‘health centre’.  The variety of verbs you could use; ‘see a doctor’, ‘make an appointment’ and ‘drop in at the clinic’.

As you can see, there’s a lot of English that you might get from this one simple sentence, “I have very bad stomach-ache.”  For me, this also shows that vocabulary needs to be learned in phrases around topics instead of learning the grammar first.  What I mean is that there are some complicated conditionals in there "I'd go to the health centre, if I were you."  Do you think you should wait until you are Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate before you can understand that and reply to it?  You need a doctor!

But I don’t think this problem is limited to English because I know I have the same problem not understanding replies to what I say in Spanish.

One of my problems in Spanish is anxiety.   My worst skill is conversational listening.  This is very different from passive listening.  I can sit in a café or pub and listen to a group of people speak in Spanish and I will follow the gist of the conversation (gist = the general idea, the main points).  But listening in a one-to-one conversation is more difficult because you have less time to think about the language you are hearing and you need to think about what you want to say as well.

The problem is that worrying and anxiety do not help learning.  So how do we stay calm?  Well, it is good to work together with other people who also want to learn English or other people who want to help you improve your English.

So, is English a difficult language to learn?  Well yes, and no.

The main points I haven’t mentioned here are motivation and opportunity.  Are you motivated to improve your English?  What is your motivation?  Do you have the opportunity to use your English?  These are also important questions to ask if you want an answer to the question, “Is English hard to learn?”

What do you think?  As always I look forward to your opinions.


P.S.  And for a more humorous opinion about why English is so difficult, click here

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


This is not my main post for the week.  I will post that tomorrow.  This is a short post about and for those of you that read this in Turkey.

I'm sorry you can't read this!  Apparently the Turkish courts have banned Blogger in Turkey!

I think this is ridiculous (but I am told that there is a way to get around the block).

Anyway, I posted some more of my opinions about this here.

See you all tomorrow!

Friday, March 25, 2011

RSS, Blogs and My 'New' Internet

Ok, this isn't about learning.  Well, it kind of is.  This is about how my internet experience has changed radically in the last month.  What do I mean by radically... I mean a LOT and in a BIG way.

You have probably seen this little icon (or picture) many, many, many times.

What is it?
Well it is an RSS feed.

What's that?
I don't know... but I know what it can do.

I think I am pretty good at using computers but I have only just started using this facility and now I understand more about the learning opportunities of the internet.

Here is a video that explains it very clearly in a much better way than I can.

So now I can follow many different blogs, websites, podcasts, news sites, etc. Now I can follow all these different places on the internet and I know that I will not miss anything.  Try it and see how much more you can enjoy and learn from the internet... and in less time!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Few Changes

Hello all,

This is a short post to mention a couple of changes to the blog.  You might see that I've changed the name of the blog to "Understanding How We Learn" from "Understanding How to Learn".  This is certainly "we" because I am learning with you here.

I've also added the option to email, blog, tweet or share any posts on Facebook.

The biggest change is that I've set up a Facebook page to promote the blog (you probably received a recommendation on Facebook).  The link at the moment is this ( or this short URL (  After there are more than 25 likes I will change the page address to something better.

Now that this is attached to Facebook, I hope I'll see more of you on the blog.

Look forward to reading your opinions,


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Digital Literacy a.k.a. English Skills for the Internet

First of all, “a.k.a.” means “Also Known As”. So, for example, my father’s name is Geoffrey a.k.a. Geoff. Or my father’s name is Geoff a.k.a. Dad.

Okay, so I was watching a lecture about useful websites for teachers to use in class with young learners. The lecturer, Nik Peachey, talked about “Digital Literacy”, which means the English reading skills we need to use the Internet.

I immediately thought about all of you. Do you feel that you have the skills needed to use the Internet effectively in English? Did you learn these skills in a classroom, or by yourself? How easy is it for you to use the internet in English?

What do I mean by “effectively”? Well, let’s think of a Google search; “teaching” for example. There are 267 million results! How do you decide what is a useful “hit” and what is useless? (A “hit” is like a result.) It should need only a few seconds to skim read the list of results and decide if any might be useful. Can you do this in English?

If you click on a link and go to a page, you need to look at what the subject of the webpage is and decide if it will be useful. Again, this should only take you a few seconds. Can you do this in English?

These are specific skills to skim read a LOT of different summaries and make a quick decision about what is useful to you and what is not. If you spend a lot of time on websites which don’t have the information you want then you are wasting time and you probably lack some good English digital literacy skills.

If you are reading a big article, like on Wikipedia, then it is important to know which links might give you more important information, and which links will give you more useless information.

We spend so many hours on the internet (probably too many). Nevertheless, this is an important part of English reading in today’s world.

What do you think? As always, I look forward to your opinions.


P.S. Why am I looking at things for teaching young learners? Well, my new position in Argentina is completely with teenagers. I’m not teaching ANY adults at the moment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Which skill pair do you use more in English?

I am reading a lot about teaching English at the moment and I am confused.  Some people say that the majority of English communication is spoken.  Then I look at Facebook, Twitter and emails and I think that maybe that isn't true any more.

Welcome... again!

Here is a welcome video I made for the site last month.  I finally managed to upload it a few days ago!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I have a love/hate relationship with tenses. As a learner of Spanish, I feel great when I can use and understand them well, but I hate them when I don’t understand them or misunderstand them. They can REALLY change the meaning of a sentence. 

Consider this example;

"I get so much work from my boss. I will kill him!"

"I got so much work from my boss. I killed him!"

Obviously these are very different sentences but they look similar.

So how do you work on this part of English? Is it a problem for you?

Well, one solution I am starting to think about is reading fiction. I’m reading the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the moment (a brilliant book, by the way!) and I noticed something in the writing. It is very common in English speaking fiction novels that the story is written in the past tense. What people say can be any tense, but when the story is being told, the tenses are in the past.

Here is an example from a short story. (Hotel Says Goodbye to Clean Couple)

When Theodore asked the couple what the problem was, they said that their bedding was filthy and they wanted it replaced. The couple could not identify any specific “filth” on the bedding. The wife just said, “We’re paying good money to stay here. How dare you doubt us? We know the filth is there. That’s all the proof you need.” Theodore called room service, and the bedding was replaced immediately.

Do you see the difference?

Here is the story;

When Theodore asked the couple what the problem was, they said that their bedding was filthy and they wanted it replaced. The couple could not identify any specific “filth” on the bedding. The wife just said, “We’re paying good money to stay here. How dare you doubt us? We know the filth is there. That’s all the proof you need.” Theodore called room service, and the bedding was replaced immediately.

Here is what the characters are saying;

When Theodore asked the couple what the problem was, they said that their bedding was filthy and they wanted it replaced. The couple could not identify any specific “filth” on the bedding. The wife just said, “We’re paying good money to stay here. How dare you doubt us? We know the filth is there. That’s all the proof you need.” Theodore called room service, and the bedding was replaced immediately.

If you are having problems with your tenses, then I don’t think this will fix them, but reading a few short stories in English (maybe from children’s books – that’s what I do for my Spanish) might at least make you notice the tenses a bit more. It will also give you lots of repetition. We need lots of repetition to really learn something, so repeat and repeat and repeat is never a bad thing!

Also, please remember that this rule of past tense in stories is only a general rule and you will find plenty of stories that do not follow this rule. (Even on the same website that I found the first story; Sara went Shopping)

As always, I look forward to your opinions. :-)


P.S. The website I got these stories from is a great website with lots of short stories specifically for English Language Learners. The website has mp3s of all the stories, so you can read and listen to all the stories. It also has exercises related to the stories; crosswords, vocabulary exercises, yes/no questions, etc. Brilliant! Just go to

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reading: The Boring Part of Learning English?

Reading in another language is boring and it takes a lot of time!

Well, that is how I felt at secondary school learning French and German. Using a dictionary to find every word I didn’t understand and trying to translate word for word – at the end, I would understand almost nothing. Now that is exactly how I would NOT teach reading and how I do NOT read or learn Spanish.

So that is why I like this little cartoon I found.  Today we read more than in the past. We have text messages and emails, we are on the internet everyday reading the news or a blog or our wall on Facebook. But I think we also read less. Twitter is limited to 140 characters (characters = letters or numbers), and nearly the same for text messages. My posts on Facebook are usually shorter than a ‘tweet’ (the noun and verb for Twitter). A lot of my emails are only one or two paragraphs.

But I think that is perfect for English learning. Short pieces of reading which are not very difficult, just a little difficult, or we could say, ‘challenging’.

Obviously, some people need reading skills more than others. A lot of people learn a language to communicate by speaking and listening. For them, reading and writing are not very important.

So I have several questions this week.
  • Was your experience of English reading similar to my experiences French and German class?
  • How did you practise English reading in classes and how do you practise it now? 
  • Do you think you got enough reading practice at school/university/language school? 
  • What were your favourite topics to read and what were the most boring? 
  • What were your favourite learning activities connected to reading? 
  • What worked and what didn't work? 
Answer all of the questions or answer just one of the questions. As always, I look forward to your opinions.


P.S. Here’s another couple of cartoons I liked!

P.P.S.  Just so I am clear - I really like reading now - even in Spanish!

A Quick Note about Japan

Just a small note to friends in Japan hoping that you are well and that recovery will be quick.

For everyone else, here is somewhere you can donate money for the relief effort.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Web Browser Dictionary Plugins

I like Google Chrome, I really do.  There are some things about it that annoy me - I think the bookmarks could be done better - but in general I find it the fastest of the four browsers I have on my computer (the others are Internet Explorer 8, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari).

Some of you disagree with me, I know.

But I have found a small plug in which you might find useful.  Just follow this link, install the plug-in, and then you can double click any word on a webpage and get a dictionary definition.

And because I'm a nice guy, here are the links for similar plugins for Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari (just click on the links, I'm not 100% sure about the Internet Explorer plugin).  You usually need the most recent version of the browser.

Let me know if you have any problems.


Pronunciation - Phonetics

Pronunciation in English.  Not very easy, is it?  The problem is that English is not a phonetic language because one letter in English can have more than one sound.

Just as an example; think of “through” and “enough”, both of these words have “-ough” endings but if I write them how they sound they look like this “throo” and “enuf”.

Another example is words with “-ed” endings.  Look at “worked”, “wanted” and “played”.  But a lot of learners are surprised (and annoyed) that the pronunciation is actually “workt”, “wontid" and “playd”.

English is a CRAZY language!  But it is the international language and lots of people NEED it.  So how do we learn about these different pronunciations?  Obviously the spelling doesn’t help.

This is why we have the phonetic alphabet.   /θru/, /ɪˈnʌf/, /wɜrkt/, /wɔntɪd/, /pleɪd/
Those are the five words, “through”, “enough”, “worked”, “wanted” and “played”.

Some of you will know this phonetic alphabet and some of you will not.

Some of you will like it and some of you will not.

Believe me, there is a similar problem with teachers.  Some teachers know the phonetic symbols and some don’t.  Some like to teach with them and some don’t.

One of the normal complaints about the phonetic alphabet (from students and teachers) is that it is another language that needs to be learned and understood.  Learning English is enough work without having another alphabet as well.  I have my own opinions about this but I want to know yours.

What are your opinions about this?  How did you learn English pronunciation?  Did you ever learn the phonetic chart?  How good do you think your English pronunciation is?

As always, I look forward to your opinions.  J


P.S. If you do want to learn more about the phonetic chart, I recommend this little program.

If you follow the page down you will see that it is downloadable and FREE! Always good! Here is the direct link to download the program if you have problems.

P.P.S. If you are really interested in wanting to improve your pronunciation and you want more help to do it, try this website:

It will show you very clearly the shape of the mouth to produce different sounds. You will need to understand the phonetic symbols, but it could really help you.

Comments and Suggestions please...

Do none of you have ANY favourite websites to help you with your listening?  Do none of you focus on improving your listening skills?

I don't believe it.

Like I said, don't be shy - contribute. :-)
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