Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

August 25, 2009

Linkers – using these to best effect.

In writing and formal speaking linking words can create a great impact. It is, however, not always easy to know which ones will be correct, most appropriate or give the best impression.

Have a look at these sentences – can you spot the problems?

  1. At first we found skiing difficult but at the end we became quite good.
  2. Joe caught an early train, because he could get to work early. 
  3. Despite he was a great actor, he didn’t appear in many films.
  4. At first you mix the sugar and butter, then add the eggs and finally the flour.
  5. Even I see your point of view, I cannot agree with it.
  6. Beside your family and mine who else should we invite?
  7. Although we have spoken about this many times, but you still won’t accept my decision.
  8. Because of people spend too much time using computers, they can become overweight.
  9. I am going to cover four main areas of grammar in this section, like tenses, adverbs, gerunds and prepositions.
  10. Our sales figures for 2009 are somewhat disappointing, moreover they are better than last year.

 These are some of the problems I often come across. The answers!

  • At first we found skiing difficult but at the end we became quite good.

              At first (the beginning of the process) …..in the end we became quite good.

  • Joe caught an early train, because he could get to work early. 

            so that he could get to work early.

  • Despite he was a great actor, he didn’t appear in many films.

             Despite the fact that he was a great actor…. (Despite being a great actor…)

  • At first you mix the sugar and butter, then add the eggs and finally the flour.

              First you mix the sugar and butter ………

  • Even I see your point of view, I cannot agree with it.

             Even though I see your point

  • Beside your family and mine who else should we invite?

              Besides your family ….

  • Although we have spoken about this many times, but you still won’t accept my decision.

             Although …………………………., you still  …

  • Because of people spend too much time using computers, they can become overweight.

             Because people spend…..

  • I am going to cover four main areas of grammar in this section, like tenses, adverbs, gerunds and prepositions.

             ……………………………………… namely tenses, adverbs ……………

  • Our sales figures for 2009 are somewhat disappointing, moreover they are better than last year.

               Our sales figures ……………………………., nevertheless they are …..

The ‘rules’.

There are basically 3 types of linking word that we use in English:

  • Conjunctionsbut, while, although, though, even though, even if etc..
  • Prepositions – despite, in spite of, though, etc..
  • Adverbs – however, nevertheless, still, moreover, besides, though etc..

Remembering the part of speech might help you to assess whether you have made the right choice. The linking words have a greater function than simply linking ideas – they also dictate the relationship between the ideas. These relationships can be, for example, contrast, concession, cause/effect, addition, temporal relationships.

Some examples:

If we use the linking words from the above sentences as examples we can see how they should be used and why they are used wrongly here.

  • At first – the beginning of a process – goes with in the end and shows a time-related relationship – the beginning and end of a process
  • First – the first point, item or step – goes with finally – another time-related relationship
  • At the end – denotes the point at which something finishes
  • Because –  explains the reason for an action because of – expresses a consequence
  • So that – explains the outcome of an action
  • Despite expresses contrast and must be used with -ing, a noun, or the phrase ‘Despite the fact that..
  • Even if/though- also expresses contrast and is not used by itself
  • Besides –  don’t confuse this with beside (preposition) it expresses additional information
  • Namely – is specific and mentions all items on a list (compare with such as, or like, which give examples)
  • Moreover/furthermore – add information, nevertheless/nonetheless show a contrast

This is a quick romp through some of the linking words that can be used to add style to your language. It is an area that requires some study but in the long run it will be worth the effort especially if you want to make an impression!

August 20, 2009

Register – choosing appropriate language for the context

Not only do we have to learn the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc.. we also need to make sure that we use it  appropriately and in the right context.

No peace for the wicked – goes the saying, a constant vigilance in language learning is also required to make sure that we become expert and versatile English users. Selecting the right language for the right situation is important to demonstrate our expertise and to keep us out of hot water!

Consider the following sentences:

  • Would you like a cup of coffee?
  • Joe – coffee?
  • Can I get you a coffee?

Formal, informal and neutral. I’m sure that you can imagine the people to whom each of these should be addressed (boss, friend and someone you don’t know very well).

How about the following scenario?

Your brother has a brand new sports car and you’d like to borrow it. Which would you use.

  • Lend me your car will you?
  • I was wondering if I might use your car.
  • Could I borrow your car?

The first (informal) will probably get the answer ‘no’ (or worse) – remember the car is new and special. The last (neutral) sentence might be more appropriate in this situation. If your brother is unlikely to want to lend then you may need to try the second which is the most formal.

The things to consider are:

  • the relationship
  • the nature of the request, offer etc..
  • how difficult it would be for the person to agree, offer, perform etc..

Here the relationship is very close but the nature of the request is difficult and the person may be reluctant – the car is both new and prized.

When using more formal register there are certain aspects of language that should be avoided. Phrasal verbs are generally too informal, as are idioms. We also usually avoid contractions (can’t, isn’t) particularly in writing.  Incomplete sentences are more appropriate in informal settings.

Aspects that do feature in formal language are modal verbs (check out which of these are formal, neutral and informal), passives and latinate words (activate instead of  turn on, arrive for turn up etc..).

Don’t confuse register and formal/informal language they are not synonymous. Register denotes the choice of language, whether that be formal or informal, you make to match a given situation.

Have a look at the following sentences and see if you can see where they might have problems:

  • Dr Phillips I’d like to introduce you to Professor Smithy. He’s the chap who gave the Key Note Speech at last year’s conference.
  • We shall be delighted to accept your invitation and can’t wait to see you on the day.
  • Let’s go to the 8 p.m. showing I’ll accompany you at 7.30.
  • Sue, don’t forget to extinguish the light when you go to bed!
  • Sirs, it is with regret that I write this letter. Last week while shopping in your store, I was dissed by one of your assistants………..
  • Go away! I don’t want to converse with you any more!
  • Delivery time is usually 2 days but we do endeavour to deliver as soon as the goods arrive in the warehouse.

Did you find the anomalies?

  • Dr Phillips I’d like to introduce you to Professor Smithy. He’s the chap who gave the Key Note Speech at last year’s conference.
    • chap is too informal in this context – repeat Professor Smithy gave …
  • We shall be delighted to accept your invitation and can’t wait to see you on the day.
    • can’t wait is too informal – use looking forward to
  • Let’s go to the 8 p.m. showing I’ll accompany you at 7.30.
    • pick you up/collect would be more appropriate than accompany (which sounds very stiff) in this very informal context
  • Sue, don’t forget to extinguish the light when you go to bed!
    • extinguish isn’t really necessary here – turn off would be more natural
  • Sirs, it is with regret that I write this letter. Last week while shopping in your store, I was dissed by one of your assistants………..
    • Dissed is very informal, spoken to rudely or in a rude manner would be better
  • Go away! I don’t want to converse with you any more!
    • converse isn’t a natural choice here – speak to
  • Delivery time is usually 2 days but we do endeavour to deliver as soon as the goods arrive in the warehouse
    • this is a neutral sentence and doesn’t need endeavour, try would be satisfactory

    For more practice try this exercise on formal social phrases

    Of course once you have mastered the concept of register you can turn it on its head and mix registers for special effects and impacts but that’s for another post!

    August 14, 2009

    Choosing dictionaries and grammar books.

    All dictionaries are equal but some are more equal than others – comparing them can be interesting!

    All my students have to have an English to English dictionary and a good grammar book and, if possible, a thesaurus. I insist on it! These are the basic tools of a serious student along with a notebook and er, of course, a pen (you’d be surprised!). I’m often asked which are the best and I feel that, like cars, food and mobile phones there is an element of personal preference here and you should see which ones you are most comfortable using.

    My beloved grammar book is the Thomson and Martinet (I’ve even created a noun out of it!). This was my bible when I began teaching and I still have my battered old copy (probably very out of date now). An other old favourite in my armoury is a book called Meaning and the English Verb by Geoffrey N. Leech (it is particularly good on Future tense usage) this along with the T & M grammar has trotted across the world with me ). My dictionary of choice is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

    For serious grammar contemplation I consult  A Comprehensive Grammar of English Quirk and Greenbaum  (my cherished copy of the University Grammar of English was given away to a German boyfriend in a fit of amour many years ago!) or the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English which is a new friend but becoming a firm one! I also have the large two-volume Oxford Dictionary but you really have to have a good breakfast before attempting to consult it!

    Collins Cobuild English Usage is a great quick fix and a copy of Longmans Advanced Learner’s Grammar Mark Foley & Diane Hall,  obtained at an IATEFL conference is now well-thumbed! This last book I do recommend to advanced students; the diagnostic tests at the beginning really help to highlight areas for further study. Finally, I know I have to mention Murphy  (Essential Grammar in Use Raymond Murphy) – the global grammar of choice. I have a copy and I recommend it to students . I think it has the clearest explanations but I’ve just never really got on with it especially.

    I expect many of you are saying ‘Oh no, how can you use that book!’  Macmillan  (I like this too) is much better, easier, smaller etc.. -I rest my case –  it is a matter of personal choice – however there are some things I think you should look for when making your choice.

    Two years ago I was working with a very advanced student (she was herself an English teacher in Spain) she had a vocabulary exercise to complete and complained to me that the dictionary she was using did not have all the words. I assumed that she had written them down wrongly but when we checked they were indeed missing from her advanced dictionary yet contained in mine (the Longman). We also discovered that my dictionary gave many more definitions and explanations so it’s definitely worth checking before you buy!

    My top tips

    • Don’t rely on a bilingual dictionary unless it is a VERY large tome
    • Be realistic – will you need to carry the book around with you? The very best could become a burden if it’s too big or heavy
    • CD Rom and on-line dictionaries are great – are you going to have access when you need it – use the same criteria to choose
    • See how detailed the dictionary definitions are and get one with as much information as possible
    • With grammar books – can you follow the explanations, is everything well laid out, for advanced level work does it push you a bit further
    • Check any exercises, sometimes they can be very repetitive and so not very challenging
    • Make sure they’re all up to date (I keep my old grammar for reasons of nostalgia) dictionaries and grammars change quite frequently
    • If you can’t decide then borrow from the library first and ‘test drive’ them!

    Note

    My choices may be a little old fashioned. Let me know if you think I should check out something newer and whizzier – I’d be more than happy to ‘test drive’ too!

    August 12, 2009

    Making progress as an Advanced English learner.

    Being an advanced level learner can be frustrating for both student and teacher.

    For the student there is a feeling that you have come so far yet when you find yourself in an English environment you can feel out of your depth.  You now need to contend with all language – ungraded, quick and dirty, with all its foibles and pitfalls. There are strange accents, odd idioms and strange humour. Nobody is making any allowances for the fact that you are not a native speaker.

    If you are working then you will soon find that you can manage the work language but going to the pub or canteen is a very different matter. You may also find that your language becomes quite restricted to your work environment and when you step out if it into a different social situation you might begin to flounder.

    You may become frustrated with your accent. You may have only used your English with people who were teachers or friends/penfriends before and they were sympathetic to your learning and eager to encourage you. They would also have been ‘tuned in’ to your way of speaking and also prepared to make an effort to catch everything you said. Now it’s a different matter your work colleagues will make few allowances and consider you to have ‘problems with your English’. I have had to console many an advanced business English student who’s only crime was to have a boss with a strong regional accent or poor listening skills!

    When it comes to writing it is an altogether different matter. Often there are company related conventions in the way things are presented as well as the actual language itself. The writing experience you have had may not be particularly useful in a work context so there is a steep learning curve.

    If you are studying the issues are similar but you may find the reading and study help you to hone your skills and there should be others in the same boat.

    For those learners who simply want to progress their English the issue is more one of how and where. Schools often have one advanced level class and if you don’t want to take an exam or have already taken all the exams what do you do?

    To an extent the ball is in your court. At lower levels you looked to the teacher to lead you but now you have to make the decisions. Where do you want to go with your English? How can you get there?

    Some tips for improving language skills – learners

    • Try to expose yourself to as many different situations as possible – that way you will be picking up a wider range of language.
    • Use the language around you; radio, TV, the Internet, newspapers just surround yourself with as much language as you can and let it wash over you – you’ll absorb some of it.
    • Go to the theatre, cinema etc.. these can really challenge your language skills.
    • Try to note down things you don’t understand or new words so that you can check them later.
    • Get yourself some one to one lessons to give you a boost.
    • Join a language club or book club or start your own.
    • Read as much as you can – anything and everything!
    • Be prepared to spend time and put in effort.

    For the teacher the problems are materials and what to teach. Often advanced materials are exam related (although in the past couple of years more non-exam books have begun to appear) and this isn’t always suitable. Now that the language is thrown wide open how do you choose topics and items to teach – where to start!

    Advanced students are fluent enough to take part in discussions, debates, in depth conversations and complex role plays.  However they still need some structure to their lessons and it is still important to pin down the areas that need developing. The discussion side can often be over-worked with advanced learners – maintain a balance of skills and a structured approach.

    Advanced students often have their own ideas about what the want/need these are valid and have to be taken on board.  Get consensus, get them involved in drawing up the course content and activities.

    Some tips for improving language skills – teachers

    • Use as much authentic material as you can, newspapers, leaflets, the things that they will come across in an English setting.
    • Try to use authentic listening materials especially and adapt your questions/exercises to them.
    • Don’t be afraid of introducing literature – poems are great as there’s no right or wrong and short stories are good for idioms and vocabulary. Good for learning stamina too!
    • Don’t forget pronunciation – this is the icing on the cake for advanced learners
    • Get them out of the classroom – go to public lectures, the local court house, public meetings (use videos if you’re not in an English country). Challenge their language and you’ll be rewarded.

    August 10, 2009

    Some tips for improving listening skills

    Some years ago a linguistics professor commented that linguists never listen to what people say because they are too interested in how they are saying things. This can be very true. I always find myself trying to pinpoint an accent when I hear someone speaking and as a result I miss what they’re saying. Luckily I have learnt to do this when they are speaking to someone else and not me – or it could be very embarrassing!!

    As a language teacher and previously a language examiner my training does cause me to ‘drill down’ into the minutiae of sentence structure, grammar, pronunciation, language competence etc.. and there is a danger with this that the message gets lost. It does however illustrate the fact that there are many different levels of listening and as an advanced learner of a language it is important to be able to operate on these different levels and acquire the skills to enable you to do this.

    Listening (and reading too which is the other receptive language skill) operates on two planes content and structure. An expert listener will be able to operate at both levels comfortably. As a learner it is helpful to practise both types of listening separately on occasion to refine the skills needed for each.

    Listening for information and meaning

    This is essentially listening comprehension. The information may be superficial or detailed but it is the content of  what we hear that is required.

    Here are some ideas for improving these skills:

    1. If you want to listen to a long piece like a magazine programme or news digest make sure you are familiar with the basic stories (in your own language perhaps) so that you can concentrate on the detail.
    2. With very long pieces break them up, if you can, and listen to sections.
    3. If the listening is a live broadcast then simplify the task to take account of the fact that you can’t re-play. e.g. decide to recall 3 main points from the piece.
    4. Expose yourself to different types of listening, news programmes, plays/drama, stories etc don’t forget phone in programmes and music programmes they often have a great variety of different voices, idiomatic language and accents. Quite often music DJs speak very quickly and this will train your ear to catch key words which will help in understanding.
    5. Going for short pieces requires less listening stamina and you will be less likely to ‘switch off’ and miss things.
    6. Try to expose your self to a variety of different accents and voices, this will keep you on your listening toes, provide a challenge and give you a realistic taste of what you are likely to encounter in the real world of English language.

    Listening for grammar, lexis and other linguistic conventions

    Here we are trying to find out how people say things. What words and phrases do they use. How do they communicate certain types of information (linkers in story telling, introducing jokes, moving from one story to another, engaging their listeners etc..)

    The main thing to be aware of with this kind of listening is that it is very intensive and most effective in short bursts. You are basically analysing blocks of language for their linguistic content which requires quite a lot of concentration. Also, this kind of listening works best when you are detached from the speakers and the content.

    1. Eavesdropping is one of the best ways of practising. Listening to other people’s conversations in a neutral way when you don’t know them and are not particularly interested in what they have to say can give you an excellent way of analysing the words, phrases, pronunciationetc.. Make sure you do it sensitively. Try and memorise or if possible write down useful words and turns of phrase you hear.
    2. Choose a short listening piece on a tape or radio (1 minute or less) and pick out 2 or 3 phrases or words that you haven’t heard before. Find out what they mean.
    3. Choose one element to listen for – vocabulary, grammar, or be more detailed – preposition use, conjunctions etc.. listen and write down all the ones you hear.
    4. Be completely free and simply listen and let one or two phrases or sentences strike you – make a note of these and then try and use them as soon as you can.
    5. Try and find opportunities to listen to different accents and voices. Compare British with American with Australian English what are the differences here?
    6. Songs can be a good source. Listen and then check the lyrics were you right in your understanding? How many contractions were used? Did you figure them out?

    From personal experience advanced level language learning is not only an on-going enterprise, it also mainly takes place ‘in the field’ which means exposing yourself to the language around you and using it to improve you own skills and performance.

    Use the listening opportunities available on the internet and radio. For listening with robust exercises try out Gapfillers where you will find many different types of listening material.

    August 5, 2009

    The correct grammar that students use but native speakers don’t!

    Having spent years learning and practising English grammar, making sure tense usage is correct, spellings are right and pronunciation is as near as it can be, it must be a little dispiriting to arrive in an English speaking country to find that native speakers seem to break a lot of those carefully learnt rules!

    I have no doubt that it is the same for all languages but the dilemma now is whether to abandon what has been learnt and follow what you hear or stick to your English language study guns!

    I think it is fair to say that native speakers rarely make mistakes when speaking (writing can be a different matter) but can be prone to slips of the tongue and errors. Being a native speaker, they can get away with much more than a non-native so do be careful when trying to adopt any non-standard versions of grammar, pronunciation etc.. that you hear.

    Below are six examples of the kind of ‘non-standard’ language usage that you might hear (or see), an explanation of why it is used and some tips on whether to use it or not.

    less vs fewer

    This is a particular bugbear of mine but, alas, the word ‘fewer’ seems to be disappearing from English in favour of  ‘less’. You will hear less people all the time and it has become quite acceptable. Personally I wouldn’t get into the bad habit of using it as it would be bad written style and should you use it in any English language examination it would most likely be marked as incorrect.

    I was/were sat

    We were (or even was sat) sat at the bus stop when we saw the accident. My inclination is that this is regional and also uneducated usage. It is not correct standard English but you will hear it used fairly frequently. In regions of the UK where it is commonly used it is acceptable but would not be correct when written. As a non-native speaker it would probably come across as bad English. (Unless you were in a position where you needed  to accommodate to a group.)

    could/would of

    This is usually written and is wrong. The correct form is could’ve/would’ve but it would appear that the user is confusing ‘ve for of. They would sound very similar when spoken and in some areas (especially northern England) the ‘ve is actually pronounced of.

    me and him are going ….

    This is very commonly heard and there is sometimes much confusion among English speakers about the use of subject and object pronouns. You may also hear ‘This is from John and I’  instead of John and me. Although quite common it is not considered to be good English.

    your/you’re

    Like could of, your and you’re seem to get mixed up increasingly. I suspect it is as a result of text messaging where the two can be interchangeable (this is my theory!) and so now it is very common to see your written everywhere instead of you’re. At present it remains incorrect but watch this space you’re could quite possibly become extinct!

    it’s/its

    The confusion between its and it’s (it is the apostrophe!) has been around for a time and certainly in the UK we have had a bad case of apostropheitis for several years. People are placing apostrophe’s all over the place! A little care will cure this particular usage. A very good book by Lynn Truss called Eats, Shoots and Leaves  gives some excellent insights into our ham-fisted use of punctuation in the UK.

    For more on apostrophes have a look at this article. Vanishing apostrophes

    To test yourself, have a go at this exercise on Gapfillers.

    A final reminder – a native speaker can get away with murdering the language albeit with objections. For a language learner it is not so easy.

    Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

    %d bloggers like this: