Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

November 26, 2009

Language Immersion

A short immersion experience can send your language to the next level very quickly.

I thought I’d turn my attention in this post to ways of really giving your language skills a big boost. As with all things life often takes over and our good intentions for daily practice go out of the window. It pays then, from time to time, to try and give your language development some undivided attention.

The very best way of doing this is to go to a country where the language is spoken. You have several options and each of these has their merits:

Go on holiday

  • Will you go alone? If not, then realistically how much language are you likely to use while you are there? If you do go alone then will you use every opportunity to speak? I know I might be more inclined to be anonymous and mooch around in silence! It depends on your personality. If you are likely to take advantage of the chance to develop and improve then  go for it, it is a lovely way to relax, see the country and hone your skills.

Take a language course

  • You could do this in your own country which is still valuable, perhaps find a native speaker teacher to help you. Or, you could choose a course overseas there are many to choose from. Obviously you need to consider the cost of the course and the accommodation.
  • Here are a couple of directories to help you see what is available Study Global  and  English in Britain  which features accredited courses. I have included these as examples. There are many more around. Do your homework and compare and contrast.
  • Don’t just consider capital cities they can be expensive and there are often courses in other parts of a country which are just as good and will allow you to explore a different area. (see my RLI blog  on why not to choose London for your course).
  • The best accommodation is probably with a family so that you can use your language all day. Make sure you tell the school exactly what your needs are on this front. Some schools offer hostels where you can still practise albeit with other non-native students or self catering accommodation. Again do your homework.

Home Tuition courses

  • These courses offer you the opportunity to live in your teacher’s home which gives you a real immersion experience with your own personal guide and mentor. To my mind they offer the best immersion experience. You will receive formal language lessons (usually one to one but some teachers have 2 or 3 students staying at once) These teachers are also wonderful hosts and you will feel very welcome in their homes. (If you scroll down on the blog cited above you will find a posting on these courses).
  • Here are some  sites to have a look at (in no particular order): Home Lingua, Regent, SGI, InTuition  Live and Learn Homestays  RLI  again do your homework and do some research to find what you want. There are others this is just a sample.

If you want to come to Yorkshire for your Home Tuition course then here is a flavour! I’d love to see you there!

November 24, 2009

More English vocabulary on the GO!!

This post is a follow-up to my last one  Ten ways to improve vocabulary. Having outlined some ideas I thought I’d better ‘put my money where my mouth was’ and give a concrete example. So, his morning I spent 15 minutes perusing items on my breakfast table and in my bathroom and came up with the following list of sentences and words which, I think,  are useful. I hope that among them will be some new things but also perhaps some that you may have overlooked and not brought into your own active vocabulary and usage.

There was one new word for me and a couple of phrases that I hadn’t really noticed before.

Here you are, my 15 minute vocabulary accumulator!!

1. Naturally rich in vitamin C, Vitafit (product) orange juice from concentrate is made entirely from specially selected juicy oranges. 

  • Did you notice this wonderful use of inversion of subject? Something I am always asking students to do in their essays! Great style!!

2.  Once opened, store upright in the refrigerator and consume within 3-4 days.

  • Look at this great use of imperatives for instructions – so economical and offering great clarity – next time you have to write a list of instructions remember – less is more!!

3. no artificial anything!

  • I love this!  I hadn’t though about using it before. Great phrase No….. for emphasis and here the use of no + anything gives great impact. 

4. Who’d  have thought such a tasty breakfast could fit so well into a balanced diet!

  • Use of modal verbs, the opening phrase is definitely one to remember for your own writing!

5.  If you’re as mad about X as Jo is then you‘ll love Y!

  • Lovely combination of the first conditional and as….as

6.  Slide finger under centre flap

  • Did you know flap?

7. Insert tab under flap to close

  • Did you know tab? Did you know about this combination of flap and tab for closing boxes?

8.  Multigrain cereal coated with sugar and honey, fortified with vitamins and iron.

  • Have you seen this use of to coat and to fortify before?

9.  This product is packed by weight and not by volume.

  • Did you know that you can use by …… by and add not to make it negative? Another simple phrase I hadn’t thought about much.

10.  This container is fitted with a tamper-evident-seal

  • This is a new word for me. OK perhaps it’s a bit obscure but you never know when you might need to say – “Does that have a tamper-evident-seal?”

11.  Do not exceed the stated dose.

  • Did you know this use of to exceed? Did you know dose? These are actually important words in this context.

12.  Cod Liver Oil provides the recommended daily requirements of Vitamin A & D both of which are necessary for the maintainance of healthy skin, strong bones and teeth.

  • Nice conjunction here to remember. Also use of vitamin in the singular but I think we need and after healthy skin! Use of maintainance makes the sentence very neat.

 13.  A stylish bamboo soap tray to use within any bathroom setting.

  • Did you know that a soap container is called a tray (or dish) and how about the word setting? Very useful this as a synonym to area, place, venue …

14.  Apply a ribbon of toothpaste across the head of the toothbrush.

  • Did you know to use ‘ribbon’ for something squeezed from a tube, did you know that the brush part of a toothbrush was called the head?

15.  For children under 7, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.

  • It might be useful to collect words used to describe amounts and size, shape of items.

16.  Daily rinsing will help combat germs.

  • Have you seen this use of to combat before?

17.  Apply to wet hair, lather, rinse and repeat.

  • Do you know this word (lather)?

18.  Pour under running water and swirl?

  • Can you swirl?

Here are two which are not from my house but which if you visit London and the UK you will learn immediately.

19.  Mind the gap

  • What’s all that about? A strange phrase telling you to be careful when you get off the train as there’s a space between the train step and the platform. It takes 19 words to explain! What a great phrase!!

20.   No trainers

  • Another succinct phrase meaning – Don’t wear tennis shoes, training shoes or sneakers in this place – 11 words!


November 19, 2009

10 ways to increase your vocabulary

Widening vocabulary is always a desire of advanced students (and native speakers too!). There are so many words in English that it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin.

In this post I suggest 10 things you can do to extend your vocabulary. I also recommend two things that I normally tell you NEVER to do!!

  • Get out your bi-lingual dictionary
  • Translate

So, here goes;

 My Top 10 tips!!

  1. Use a bilingual dictionary – look up words you come across but don’t understand and make a note of them or even better use them straight away! (see my post on choosing dictionaries)
  2. Choose one lexical set at a time –  for example animals, can you, hand on heart, say that you know the English word for all the animals? Think of all those you don’t know and look them up in your own language. Do the same for other lexical sets.
  3. Sign up to Gapfillers word of the day it’s free and you can get your word sent by email if you register as a free member, 5 words a week, 20+ per month, that’s 260 a year and you don’t have to do anything! (Gapfillers word of the day)
  4. Play scrabble!- you’re allowed to use your dictionary!
  5. Read and translate – choose a short passage in your own langauge and translate it into good English, oh, and please use your dictionary!!
  6. Use a thesaurus – write down a list of words you like to use and look up 3 synonyms for each in the thesaurus.
  7. Do crosswords – use a dictionary to help you or do interactive ones online (there are a few on Gapfillers)
  8. Listen to the radio and write down any words you don’t know – choose a short piece, you can approximate the spelling and then look them up in your dictionary.
  9. Choose a short, difficult, reading passage and do the same – make a list of the words and look them up.
  10. Look around where you are now – do you know the words for everything you can see? – make a note of the ones you don’t in your own language and then use your dictionary to find out the English word. Do this whenever you have a few spare minutes. Too many words? Give yourself a limit of 6 or 10 etc.. each time.

To do all of this in one place become a Gapfillers! full member. Post a useful comment here for a free full membership!!

November 17, 2009

Do I have to read?

Yes you do if you want to improve and learn!!

Students often say to me that they don’t like or enjoy reading. I find this very difficult to believe as most of our world today with the internet and social networking and email involves a lot of reading (and writing too).

If you want to improve your vocabulary and use of language in both speaking and writing then the more you read the faster this will happen. Inputs (listening and reading) drive outputs (speaking and writing). With language, familiarity, far from ‘breeding contempt’,  fixes words and phrases in your mind. (see my post on improving listening skills). Reading is a very accessible and relaxing way to boost your language skills and learn about other things as well.

Does it matter what I read?

Absolutely not! A language learner is in the unique position of being able to learn and absorb useful information from anything at all that they read. I once took a random selection of bathroom items into an Advanced English class (shampoo, shower gel, cosmetics etc..) and handed them around to the students. They had to write down any words on the products that they hadn’t seen before (even if they could guess the meaning from the context). I was amazed that we had a list of over 20 words from this exercise. This was reading!

I haven’t got time and it takes too long!

The above example illustrates, I think, that reading doesn’t need to take any time out of your day.

Start the day with reading!

  • Read your shampoo bottle or shaving cream tube. Peruse the cereal packets at breakfast, use what is around you. You will find a lot of repetition on these products and the more you see these words and phrases the more they will become part of your own language and you can then use them.

Read on your way to work/college

  • Are there things around you? Adverts on the underground or bus. Instructions at the station or airport? Be curious about everything you see in the target language. (I make an assumption here that you are living in the country where this language is spoken. If not then it is true that you will have to look for examples yourself – the internet can provide some).  

Read at lunch!

  • Does your sandwich packet have writing on it? Anything useful here? Does the cafe or restaurant have information on the walls or the counter? Read what is on the menus other than the list of dishes.

Get the free paper on the way home!

  • Many cities offer these. You can pick them up all over. Pick out one or two short articles or just read the adverts!!

Spend the evening reading.

  • Check out the instructions on your food packets. Use subtitles on your TV programme for a short while.

So what have you learned?  I would be surprised if you hadn’t  picked up at least a couple of words and a great phrase or two to bandy around in the coming days!

What about more in-depth reading?

It is true that the above strategies are more about picking up new words than really honing reading skills and developing sophisticated structures to use. If you are a reader (I’m thinking about books here) in your own language then the transition to a new language will not be difficult. If you are one of those people who don’t really like reading books then start with newspapers, magazines etc or replicate in the target language whatever you enjoy reading in your own language.

Reading is boring, I have to look too many words up in the dictionary!

If you read with a dictionary then this is true. Why are you reading with a dictionary? You need to decide whether your reading is  ‘an exercise’ (in which case it should be a short piece that you can analyse for meaning and vocabulary) or whether you are reading a novel or short story for pleasure and to improve language skills? With the former a dictionary is helpful and it should enhance rather than impede your understanding. With the latter a dictionary will be disastrous! It will force you to concentrate on the minutiae of individual words rather than the big picture of the story. You will lose the flow of events and yes, become frustrated and bored.

Don’t worry about not understanding every word or even everything. If you get the  gist then keep going and you will find that the more you read the more you will understand until the experience becomes a pleasure! After that there will be no stopping you! (see my post about thinking in English – it applies to any language)

Many years ago when I began to learn German I was given a short story to read by my Father. In the beginning I struggled with every page and could only get a handful of words. There were a few cartoon pictures which helped with the story. I persevered and by chapter 3 I was beginning to follow the story. I was only a beginner and the book was short and simple  but I managed to gain a lot from it (though I am not a good German user now having neglected it for many years!)

Different writers have different idioms.

Each time you pick up a book by a new author you need to spend a little time getting into their idiom (their way of writing). For a native speaker this may take a page or two but it is still part of the process, engagement isn’t immediate and you will need patience to tackle novels and short stories. So as with all other aspects of language learning don’t lose heart, gradually and with perseverance you will not only ‘get through’ the book but enjoy it too! If not then choose another book – ‘don’t stick fast’  as my grandmother used to say!!

 Try these reading exercises:

For a ‘quick fix’  British newspaper readers

For greater depth  The Stranger – first Episode 

For a grammar based reading exercise

November 10, 2009

Why has education become so adversarial?

I am diverting  in this post from language per se to express my great concerns for some aspects of education today and how I worry that in some respects we have lost our way.

I have come across the word ‘banned’,  ‘not allowed ‘ ‘must not’ and ‘compulsory’ more and more of late in school newsletters,  teachers comments on school policies on using the internet and education news items in general.

Parents in the UK are cheating to get their children into the best schools. Should we even have best schools?  Are parents ‘cheating’ if they decide to buy or rent a house in a particular school catchment area? Why do they feel the need to do this? And, how has the government got the brass neck to call them cheats and criminals? The cheats and criminals are surely those who allow a situation like this to develop where each and every child does not have the same access to the best education!!

Parents who cheat to get school places will be prosecuted

Schools can fine parents if they take their children out of school for a day. I had to do this recently due to work. My daughter was studying the Egyptians so I arranged for a friend to take her to the British Museum while I conducted my work nearby. I consider the day to have been of great benefit to my daughter and I wasn’t fined because the school disagrees with the scheme – but who came up with this idea? What does this do to the parent/school relationship?

Schools reluctant to fine parents who take children out of class

So much for the parents. How about the teachers? With the current explosion in social media, internet resources and access to information  they should be in seventh heaven!  But no, with blanket bans in many schools, colleges and even universities on sites like YouTube, Facebook  and even email, censorship is alive and well. So is, as a result, not being in touch with where many children, teenagers and young adults spend their time.

YouTube banned in schools

This article tackles a very serious issue and one that schools and teachers have to take very seriously. I think it would be unlikely that  teachers would be using such material in their lessons and students would be more likely to access  material out of school so how does a ban help? Also, surely banning simply makes it more attractive. Shouldn’t we trust teachers to select and use material sensibly and appropriately as they are trained do. The rule nowadays seems to be to punish the masses for the behaviour of the minority.

So, finally, where are the children and students? Emphasis on target setting, league tables of school performance, endless testing (is there, in fact, time to actually teach?) and total central control over the classroom has created an environment where some children/students are stressed, some bewildered, some disillusioned and most on the ‘value-added’ conveyor belt of the educational production line.

In fact the whole concept of ‘value-added’, a manufacturing term, suggests one thing to me;

  • Children and students are having things done to them, they are part of an external process.

So, why have we moved from an arena of collaboration to one of adversary? Isn’t the pursuit of good education by government, parents and teachers a given, like motherhood and apple pie?

My personal feeling is that in the pursuit of so-called excellence we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Education seems now to be about me, my life, my wants and my desires. It is micro and the focus is narrow. This is ironic at a time when the internet has given us such unfettered access to the world of knowledge.

My definition of education would be – to prepare people to take their place in the world.

Here are the skills they need:

  • A knowledge of who they are, where they are and where they have come from – this is history and geography
  • The ability to communicate well – this is language, mother tongue and other languages
  • Knowledge of  their place in the world and universe – this is science
  • The ability to keep themselves fit and healthy – more science
  • Being able to function economically and practically in society – this is maths,
  • The ability to work with others, to compete where needed, take failure on the chin and celebrate success with decorum – this is sport, playing in the playground and cooperating in the classroom
  • The skill to work in a team to produce successful outcomes – this is sport, music and drama
  • The ability to produce and appreciate beauty – art, music, poetry, creative writing, gardening, cooking…
  • Respect for other people, our environment and other creatures – science, RE (and it’s equivalents)
  • Discipline – the school environment but also sport and music

And read, read, read – this is the key that unlocks everything.

I’m sure there are more. With our crowded curriculum placing emphasis on such things well-being, leadership, and now horror of horrors ‘twitter and facebook’!! ( How do you teach those? They are TOOLS!! Fabulous tools, exciting tools and they bring teaching into the 21st century but they are only tools) we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that we have everything we need and innovation is more about presentation and methods of exploration than revolution!

Exit Winston Churchill, enter Twitter … Yes, it’s the new primary school curriculum

OK, enough ranting, where does this fit in with language training? Simply do what you do but find different ways to do it. The possibilities offered by the internet for language learning are incredible. The ability to engage with teachers and native speakers across the world has never been so easy.

The availability of the internet should democratise learning and teaching for all so lets stop the adversary and embrace our brave new world!!

Here are some other thoughts on Education that are worth a look:

Rolling up the odd sleeves

How schools stifle creativity

The state of Now in Education #140conf

So what exactly is a college for?

November 3, 2009

Advanced students – case study 2

Here is my second case study in the series.  As with the previous story,  this is a student I worked with who had a particular goal for his English language.

(These case studies are real stories of success but they also illustrate the trials and tribulations of the journey the student and I took to reach their goal. The experience in each case was as rich and rewarding for me as it was for them.)

One of my teaching hats is that of IELTS coach. Basically, I work with IELTS students who need a specific banding (usually overall 7 / 8 or a 7 in each part) and who have not yet managed to attain that score. Some of my students have taken the test several times. At this stage they cannot really be helped in a class as their needs are very specific to them. (you can contact me via Gapfillers if you are in this position!)

Student 2 – Stepan

The first lesson

Stepan was a highly qualified anesthetist from the Ukraine. He had worked in a senior position and had come to the UK to gain experience in hospitals here. Due to his experience and status he was able to work in a hospital as long as he scored a band 7 in each paper on the IELTS exam. This is not an easy thing to do and Stepan had taken the exam twice and failed to achieve 7 in all parts.

The main problems for Stepan were speaking and writing. At the first lesson we completed an example of each of the papers and I was pleased to see that in the listening and reading sections he was consistently scoring 7. His speaking was, however, quite stilted although he had quite a wide vocabulary and the writing was achieving a band 6 or less.

Although Stepan was living in London, he shared a flat with other Ukrainians and didn’t speak English at home. He had a part-time job at night as a receptionist in a hotel which should have given him the chance to practise speaking but didn’t.  It appeared that he spent a lot of time at his books and didn’t take opportunities to speak to incoming guests.

His writing was mostly conceived in his own language and translated using a bi-lingual dictionary.

I suggested that he make more of his opportunities to speak and write his next essay without the aid of his dictionary. He seemed unconvinced as it was his belief that the language spoken out in the street was not formal enough for an exam. He also felt that his essays should be a showcase for his knowledge of English vocabulary. This, coupled with his rather ancient dictionary, caused his essays to sound rather like Victorian melodramas.

The course

I realised that I could call on Stepan’s application and dedication but I was not sure that he would be willing to take my advice.

I scouted around for old IELTS books that he would not have come across and tried to stretch his listening skills with more demanding examples (not only IELTS stuff). This way he could keep improving these areas and, I hoped, see the correlation between listening and speaking and reading and writing.

To address the speaking I decided to make these segments more ‘chatty’ and get him to talk a bit more about himself and his life.

The writing was the biggest challenge. I put him on a diet of  newspapers for models and said that we would read his essays out loud sentence by sentence and I would challenge everything that wasn’t clear and he would have to justify to me his choice of grammar, vocabulary or idea. I also forbade him to use his old bilingual dictionary.

Breakthrough one

Stepan realised the importance of speaking to people. He thought about moving flats but this wasn’t feasible so we set up some strategies for engaging in conversation with people who arrived at the hotel. Using some simple opening phrases he was able to start conversations and soon his speaking became less stilted. He began to enjoy the conversations themselves and saw them less as an exercise and soon his speaking became more spontaneous and fluent.

Breakthrough two

Although reading Stepan’s work sentence by sentence each lesson was very difficult for us both as I was worried about undermining Stepan’s confidence and he was depressed by the number of sentences that I questioned, we gradually began to get more cohesion into the essays and they became more fluid and meaningful. After a few weeks we were only stumbling over one or two sentences. The newspaper models helped him and gave him more vocabulary and greater agility in his use of structure. Finally he was producing good, well written, essays and now all we needed to do was add a gloss of sophistication in terms of vocabulary and set phrases.  (see my postings on writing for information on this:  7 virtues to help you write well7 deadly sins to avoid in writing and warning: mistakes cost marks)

A set-back

Stepan arrived one day for his lesson and told me that he had booked his IELTS exam. I wasn’t sure he was ready yet but he was keen to go ahead and try. This was in the days where you had to wait for 3 months before you could re-sit! We did as much as we could before the exam and he took it. Unfortunately, although his reading, speaking and listening got the 7,  his writing got 6.5 (better than his previous 5). He was, obviously, disappointed but resolved to apply again immediately and continue studying. It was coming up to Christmas so we agreed that we would meet again in the New Year.


Stepan didn’t contact me in the New Year. He had gone home to visit his family and was arranging for them to come to the UK.  He was also busy working and organising a hospital placement for when he was able to work.

He called me to ask one or two questions and then in February I received a letter telling me he had taken IELTS again and got his 7s (with an 8 in listening!).

Now he could begin work, bring his family to the UK and start a new and exciting phase of his life.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: