Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

May 20, 2011

English language learning tips – my Top 10 posts

I decided to go through my archives today and see which of my posts for English language learners were the most popular and put them all in one space so that they would be easy to find.

So here goes my top 10 posts of all time giving tips for language learners

And the winner at number 1 is…………

10 top tips for improving IELTS Scores

It does what it says on the tin I think.

Coming in a very close 2nd….

10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills.

Another obvious title – I really enjoyed writing this 🙂

Pipped at the post at number 3 ……

10 ways to increase your vocabulary

Mmm, seems the number 10s have it!

And in a respectable 4th place ……..

How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions

Those number 10s really have a certain Je ne c’est quoi!

Half way at number 5…….

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

Well – find out here 🙂

Coming up close behind at number 6……

English Verbs that Confuse!

I was certainly confused – hope it sorts you out!

Getting to the end – in at number 7 ……

7 great virtues to help you write well in English

I think I preferred the 7 Deadly Sins

In 8th place (one fat lady number 8 – think about it – Bingo???)…..

Register – choosing appropriate language for the context

An oldie but popular it seems

Not last nor least ….. at number 9..

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

I wonder what happened to parts 1 and 2 ?

And in 10th place – Wayhey you made the Top 10!!

Countable and uncountable nouns – now you get it, now you don’t!

Wow! What a collection.

So my top 10 most popular posts of all time.

ENJOY.

And just in case you get bored with reading all of these here’s a video of my place where you can come and study all of the above!!

March 9, 2011

Setting SMART goals for your English language learning.

You have a language dream – how can you get there?

Start with your destination. Don’t worry where you are now, how much, or how little you know – where are you planning to go?

Without a destination in sight it is very hard to keep motivated and keep on track. You wouldn’t set off on a journey (at least most of us wouldn’t) not knowing where you were going. Your destination may need to be adjusted on the way and that’s absolutely fine but you really need to be able to plan this learning journey from wherever you are now to where you desire to be and it is this ‘map’ you have made that will help you to develop your skills, keep you focused and help you find the necessary support you need on the way.

One way of keeping yourself focused and motivated is to set targets for your language learning just as you would for any other process that you need to work through to get to your goal. We have all heard about SMART goals in other areas of business so why not set some for your language learning?

Here is a suggestion for how to set such goals to maintain your progress and keep your English language dream in focus.

Watch this overview on what SMART goals are and how to set them

Now let’s have a look at how that can be translated into your English language learning.

GOAL:  this is your overall aim it might be a dream (to use English as well as Pierce Brosnan) or it might be something more concrete (to make sure I get to do all the major marketing presentations next year). In either case it will not happen overnight and you’ll need to work out a strategy to get you there.

So let’s make these goals SMART!

(some of the words differ a bit here)

SPECIFIC

Make them specific and create steps. If you want to be chosen to do the presentations what changes do you need to make to your English in order for that to happen? Here are some things you might need to improve:

  • Get a wider and more varied vocabulary
  • Have better pronunciation
  • Perfect the ability to tell a joke

Whatever you think is stopping you from getting to your desired  level of English write it down. If you are not sure then ask your teacher. If you don’t have a teacher then check with someone else or consider whether you can do this by yourself – should you get professional help?

MEASURABLE

How are you going to monitor your progress?

If we take the specific goals above;

  • You will know if you’ve learned new words.
  • You may be able to find suitable jokes from presentations you’ve heard or by asking colleagues but will you know if you are telling them well?
  • With pronunciation can you really know how to improve it? There are some online tools and you can decide to use these, or use a voice recorder. You may decide that you need some help from a teacher.

The key here is to be honest and really look at the detail. Think carefully about how to measure progress and decide on the best strategy for this. You must be open and balance the reality against the dream. How important is the dream?

ATTAINABLE

Here again you have to be honest with yourself! Could you really ever be just like Pierce Brosnan – no, but you can use him as your model and get closer. Think about what is realistically attainable for you.

  • If you set a goal to learn 10 new words a week in context can you achieve that?
  • Maybe you’ll get a teacher to help with pronunciation and meet once a week face to face or on Skype
  • You can compile a list of jokes from the internet. You could search for ones that are suitable for presentations. You might look for videos so that you  have the audio too and you can copy the speaker.
  • Maybe you can record yourself and then compare with the original. 
  • Could you set aside two sessions per week ?

These are all the kind of questions you must explore.

By breaking the tasks down into smaller chunks you can set yourself an achievable study programme. Small steps that you can achieve well are better than large aims that are too time-consuming.

REALISTIC

In the video the term for ‘R’ is responsible – whose job is it. The answer here is ultimately – yours. However, it is realistic to ask for help if you need it. Then part of the responsibility can be shared with your teacher or the learning group you choose.

More things to consider:

  • How much time can I reasonably spend on studying to make the outcome effective?
  • It’s fine to push yourself but you have to know what you can manage
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help we all study and work better when we have someone to make us accountable

TIME-BOUND

Setting time limits helps us to plan. Maybe you’ve set an overall deadline for being the chosen presenter – say a year. Then you need to break down the tasks you’ve chosen and assign times to those too.

  • Two sessions on vocabulary, one on pronunciation and one on jokes gives you a reasonable study plan for the week – would that work with your schedule?
  • A study programme starts to emerge.
  • The final piece is to add in some assessment – this can be informal but make it regular say every 4 weeks and make sure you are honest about your progress to date.
  • Or better still find an accountability partner – you can keep each other focused and encouraged.

Setting goals that are SMART, being honest with yourself and then sticking to the plan will get you well on your way to reaching your dream.

Two more words – flexibility – if it’s not working re-visit, re-assess – re-plan and – reward– don’t forget to ‘pat yourself on the back’ when things go well – it drives your motivation.

You will get there in the end!

Other posts you might like:

How to be a good language student

When English skills just aren’t good enough

Business English – what is it you really need to learn?

If you would like find out about my English language Mastery programme see here

November 16, 2010

Grammar is dead – Long live grammar!

Grammar seems to have featured a lot recently in discussions on language teaching:

  • Is it important?
  • Should we teach it?
  • Is it better to let it be absorbed?
  • Does it put students off learning?

At first I was quite shocked to see these discussions, as for me as both teacher and learner, grammar had been at the heart of language learning. I was probably the last generation to be taught English grammar formally at primary school and I loved it – it’s what got me hooked on language! I studied English as part of my university degree and grammar lectures were compulsory – at this level I found some of the grammar quite difficult and it was only when I began teaching that I was able to make sense of a lot of it. My training as an English language teacher was also focused on grammar and how to approach the skills, functions and notions of language within a fairly grammatical framework.

Having seen the discussions, looked at more recent course books and read various blogs and commentaries I began to feel that perhaps there had been a revolution which I had missed in language teaching and that my approaches were seriously flawed! The absence of grammar signalled something rather chaotic to me and this is what I began to see in many of the course books – a melee of structures thrown together, not enough (to my mind) practice before moving on to the next thing, a lack of concept checking and an all round failure to be really cohesive. There was, however, a riot of colour and sound, support across a myriad of supplementary books and CDs but alas it made me feel very dizzy!

During this period of doubting I watched and questioned my students very carefully on the matter of grammar. From 16 to 60 they all wanted to include grammar in their lessons. It grounded them in something familiar. Terms like imperatives, present perfect, gerund and participle were familiar to many of them and a good working jargon. Those who had not studied grammar quite so formally in their own language nevertheless expected it and felt that it was part and parcel of their language learning. In fact I think, from my straw poll, that students expect their teachers to be well-versed in grammar and might suspect those who are not.

Grammar lessons

So where does this leave things? During a recent #eltchat many teachers didn’t like the idea of grammar lessons but what exactly are grammar lessons? What is the role of the grammar book in language learning? I hope, it is a reference book and not a bible! For me grammar is a magical toolbox, the ‘hammer’ and ‘chisel’ a teacher (and student) can use to put language together. Once students know how the tools work they can take them out again and again to fix their latest language inventions. Whether they know the terminology for the present simple tense or not they will know to use the structure when they need to talk about habits, or states or facts. If they have a pressing need to tell a story they can take out their set of narrative tenses and combine this with the packet of shiny adverbs of frequency that sit next to the prepositions of place. You get the idea. The terminology is a shorthand which, for those who know it, can save time, but the actual grammar tools can be used by everybody.

So, grammar lessons (banish the thought!) would be no more than naming tools without demonstrating their use. A hammer has no meaning unless it is used to bang in a nail!

Grammar progression

Present simple to present continuous, to past simple, to present perfect simple ….. 

Do we need to start with the tacks before we move on to masonry nails? If you are fixing a chair what good is having a masonry nail? Is the past perfect really more difficult than the present perfect? Is the concept of completed actions in the past more difficult to grasp than that of actions which straddle past, present and future? After all there are ways of  expressing all these concepts in every language.

The idea of a step by step progression is an old one. Underlying it is the belief that there is a homogenous elementary, intermediate or advanced type of student and somehow they all find themselves in the same class! Language is not like that, things come from right, left and centre. Learners are not like that, they come with baggage – linguistic, experiential, emotional and personal! So why not start with the learner and their current requirements – now there is a novel idea! Even in a large class there can be some way of finding a consensus. What is it that this group is going to have to go out there and do first? A grammar toolbox needs to be full of shiny, useful tools not a collection of rusty old keepsakes!

I like grammar. I think it is important. I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of language learning, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!!

See these posts on grammar

Prepositions – pearls of great price

English verbs that confuse!

Countable and uncountable nouns

and on books

Choosing dictionaries and grammar books

September 28, 2010

Getting your voice heard – authentic writing for English language students

This is second post in a 3-part series about how to write for a wider audience than your English teacher.

Last time we looked at blogging, which is a great place to practise and improve writing skills and attract comments. These can be supportive and constructive but they can also be very critical and even hurtful – this is the risk you take. There are, however, gentler and more modest ways of writing for a public audience.

If you are not ready for the level of risk in blogging or don’t feel that your writing skills are developed enough to tackle a blog then there are other ways in which you can write online for a large audience.

Here are some suggestions.

Comments on other people’s blogs

This is a great way to start writing for a large audience. Comments can be any length so you can begin with a sentence or two and build up to longer comments later. As these are short bits of writing then you can check them for errors before you post. Also, because you have chosen to write this (i.e. it isn’t an assignment set by the teacher) then you can be completely free in what you say and use your own creativity!

If you follow a blog and comment regularly then you will also build up some rapport with the other followers and can enter into a written dialogue with them and maybe the author too!

 

 

from ‘Globally Speaking’ 2004 

Message Boards:

Discussions on message boards give you similar opportunities to those above. Here you are taking part in a discussion with like-minded people and there are many available to choose from, from small English language sites to the BBC site – all available to you and all providing great untapped opportunities for you to practice your writing online.

If you choose an English language message board then it’s likely someone will help you with any errors in your writing. If you choose a wider forum then make sure you follow the guidelines above; start short, check your errors and then build up to longer and more content rich messages. You don’t have to restrict yourself to English language sites,  if you have a hobby or a burning passion about a topic then search out a suitable message board and get started.

With these activities it is important to be mindful of your personal digital footprint. With both forums and message boards you should investigate thoroughly to find the one that suits you and is going to be the best for you to explore your writing. Watch them first, look at the kind of messages that are being posted and if you’re not happy with the content or the tone of the forum then look for another one!

Here are some messages on Gapfillers Word of the Day page

Chat rooms:

Although chat rooms may not seem the best place to practise writing they are in a written format and expose you to the same opportunities. Chat rooms are more tolerant about errors as people are generally writing very quickly to get the message over. This does not mean that it is a free for all! There is a certain tolerance level for mistakes and if you don’t take some care other members of the chat may become irritated. Use the same ‘rules’ as we discussed above and if you attend regularly then you will build not only a learning relationship with other members but a confidence which will help improve your writing skills and allow you to post longer messages with more ease.

This is part of a discussion about studying online – a student’s point of view

Social Media sites: 

There are now many of these from the 140 characters of Twitter to longer but equally functional ‘bits and bobs’ of writing on Facebook, LinkedIn etc.. Use these opportunities to comment. Choose a group within the site with whom you can communicate and the opportunities to flex your writing muscles are endless. Always be careful with your postings, be sensitive to others and watch your digital footprint and you will not go wrong. Finally do your homework – check out the sites, the rules and regulations, the norms and etiquettes and the world of online writing and commentary is yours for the taking!!

Here are some students experimenting with Twitter.

Whatever method you decide to use, it’s time to move beyond the classroom with your writing! Start slowly and safely and increase what you write, or jump in at the deep end and have a go. Just remember you are letting it ‘all hang out’ so treat your authentic writing as you would your homework assignments – take care, check and work towards improvement!

Have fun with your writing!!

Part one of the series Using blogs to help your writing skills, the how, the why and the what

 Other posts in writing:

Warning, mistakes cost marks!

7 Deadly sins to avoid in your writing.

7 Great virtues to help you write well in English.

September 10, 2010

Using blogs to help your writing skills, the how, the why and the what

This is the first of a 3-part series about writing and how you can explore ways in which to write for a wider audience than your teacher.

Finding an audience critical enough to help correct and enjoy what you write is not easy. Writing a blog, however, might just be the answer!

Before you leap in and launch your blog to an unsuspecting audience you need to consider three questions:

  • How?
  • Why?
  • Where?

How? that’s easy – just grab a blog site, sign up, throw down the ideas (think of a theme?) and away I go!

Why? – easy again – to practise my English (or another language) and network with people – hopefully someone will help me a bit with corrections?

What? –  no sweat, I’ll just do a kind of stream of consciousness thing with stuff that comes into my head!

Where? – now this is a bit more tricky,  teachers would love to see it and so would other language learners – this could be really cool! 🙂

OK, now steady on a bit!!

Let’s consider these questions and the possible implications they might have on your prospective audience, which you haven’t, as yet, considered by the way!

 Right, let’s rewind!

How/Where:

Blog readers are quite a critical audience. They are looking for good, helpful and inspiring information and have high expectations in terms of language and presentation. If you are planning to launch your blog on to the world at large then you have to be very confident that your level of language and breadth of vocabulary and usage is good enough. It might be better to start more modestly.

  • If you are in a class write for the class blog – what, there isn’t one? See if your teacher will set one up or why not do it yourself? A class blog is an excellent way to write in a controlled environment where your audience will be appreciative and helpful.
  • If you are a self-managed learner then look for a site where you can experiment with your blog and get some feedback. Some English language sites allow this. BBC (but you have to apply for this via email) English Club gives you a personal page where you can set up a blog,  Gapfillers has a blog option in member home (you can register free for this). Sites like these have peer correction and teacher support.
  • Or you could set up your own blog community and correct and comment on each other’s work.

Why:

Making your language real is very powerful and satisfying. While it’s a good idea to write in class or for your teacher and have this corrected so you can improve your skills, it is more of a challenge to write for a real audience. Blogging is a real and growing activity and it’s a good way to network, become part of a community and also practise our English skills.

  • If you are writing a real piece for a potentially large audience you will need to take extra care over it both for reasons of quality of language and personal pride. This in itself is a good learning exercise.
  • It is very exciting to get comments on your blog from people you don’t know and this will help to keep you motivated.
  • The more you do the better you should become. A blog requires commitment – it will do wonders for your writing if you work at it.

What:

What you write about depends on you. What interests you? It will be easier to write about something that you are enthusiastic about. Think about your hobbies or your areas of interest.

  • If you choose to experiment using one of the English sites then see what other people are writing about. Do these themes attract you?
  • Do you follow a particular sports team? You could write about them. See what others are saying about your team and come up with a different angle – something like this would help you to build a following and get comments. You can then build a network with other enthusiasts and use this to develop your English skills further.
  • Above all write about what you know and love this way it won’t become a chore and you will always have something new to say.

 So now do your research. Look at other bloggers see what they are saying. Check out the sites and decide which ones would suit you best. Do a test run if you like – ask your teacher or a friend to check it for you.

Here are some posts you can start with.

 The best kept secrets of Edubloggers part 3  Karenne Sylvester

 Students as writers, teachers as audience  Clay Burell

On the ‘mechanics’ of writing:

7 Deadly sins to avoid in your writing   from this blog

7 glorious virtues to help you write well also from here

Now get going, have fun and improve your skills – I hope to swing by and post a comment one day!!

June 21, 2010

Carl-Henric Svanberg, Fabio Capello – your English skills just haven’t been good enough!

We can feel for both Carl-Henric  Svanberg, the chairman of BP, and England Manager, Fabio Capello, they have been much in the spotlight this past week and have, in their very different ways, been found wanting.  One of the reasons they did not come up to scratch was due to their knowledge of English. Although they can both use English well enough for their respective jobs,  I am not sure that when thrown into the limelight and expected both to speak on behalf of and defend their respective teams, they are quite up to the job.

We all know what it feels like to be ‘put on the spot’, to have to argue the case and discuss and debate issues – this is not an easy task even in your own language. When you get agitated, excited or annoyed, words desert you and sentences struggle to maintain meaning. Imagine having to do this in another language and imagine having to do it to the world’s media who are masters of manipulating language and tying people in linguistic knots.

So what happened?

Carl-Henric Svanberg

His English is good there is no denying this. He speaks in a fairly measured way, taking care over his delivery. It all boils down to two things; his pronunciation – which could be better – it is very deadpan almost to the extent of being dis-interested, then there is that one, disastrous phrase  ‘small people’  made all the worse by repeating it no less than three times! It’s amazing that one small word could cause such a furore – but in language ‘least said, soonest mended’ could just be a maxim to keep in mind!

What would we say – man in the street, ordinary citizens, the US public? Answers on a postcard please! Certainly not ‘small people’. Did anybody check? Did he rehearse? Was this off the cuff? One small phrase caused so much anger and hurt that there was absolutely no consideration of the fact that he wasn’t a native speaker of English!

If you go into the lion’s den – be very prepared!

Fabio Capello

Fabio is now in his third year as England Manager and there are many who worry about his commitment to improving his English skills.  England fans are very passionate about their team and they have, in the past, been very sceptical about having non-English managers. Will a non-English manager have the same passion for England’s football mission?With Capello they are doubtful as to whether he can truly command respect and really communicate his ideas when his language ability is still so poor.

To be fair in this footage he manages very well. He knows the vocabulary he needs, he gets his message across clearly and with some humour. He maintains the gravitas required for his role and, despite his lack of correct word order, his strong accent and his limited vocabulary, we are quite clear about his points.

Fast forward to more recent times.

There was the row with the photographers, then the criticism about his choice of goalkeeper and finally his defence of England’s first two games.

(recent footage wasn’t available to embed so here’s a link)

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/philmcnulty/2010/06/capello_still_well_under_contr.html)

The pressure and the constant barrage of questions puts a lot of strain on language delivery. As emotion takes over so coherent language retreats.

This is natural but if  your work demands that you put yourself in these situations then the need for competency becomes all the more important. You have to maintain decorum, you have to maintain self-respect, you have to avoid controversy and you need to preserve the good name of your company as well as that of yourself. This is important stuff!

When you lose your cool – make sure you can still look cool!

So, my top tips for avoiding situations like the Svanberg/Cappello ones above.

  1. Don’t be complacent – if you are going to be the face of your global/UK/US company make sure you have the language skills to do it – ‘good enough’ might just not be good enough when really tested!
  2. Use models – who are the great speakers in English? Find some whom you admire and study their form, note down some of the expressions they use, how do they deliver, what makes them stand out? Model yourself on them
  3. Practise! – I would never go into a presentation or meeting where I have to represent someone or put forward ideas or proposals without practising. Going in cold is a foolhardy thing to do and you are taking a big risk.
  4. Ask someone to check – don’t try to do too much off the cuff, if you have a presentation ask a native speaker to check it, a friend or teacher – if you can practise in front of them too then this is very valuable – don’t underestimate how useful your teacher can be to you, it’s not all about grammar and vocabulary!!
  5. Check current and cultural sensitivities – when tempers are high people are less likely to be tolerant or understanding. Make sure you are not going to offend anybody culturally or because of a current situation (for example when people are complaining about some work-related issue).
  6. Do not translate! – don’t assume that the way you would do it in your own language is going to translate to another culture or another language (small people). Check and find out!

Now I am going to get someone to check this before I post it – I don’t want to offend anybody either!!

March 2011 – I rest my case!!

Some other posts you might find useful:

Business English -what is it you really need to learn

English verbs that confuse

Advanced students – Case Study 1

May 13, 2010

Business English – what is it you really need to learn?

Many years ago when I first started my own language training business I used to telephone language agents to have them include our courses in their portfolios.

I contacted such an agent in Germany one day about short business English courses and he replied

“What is business English? How is it different from English? Surely English is English and the only difference here is the context in which it is used!”

Being fairly inexperienced at that point I was quite taken aback! I made a feeble attempt to disagree but decided that although he had a point he was largely missing the point that Business English was the latest ‘thing’ and being so, to ignore it seemed a foolish thing to do when operating in this business.

I extracted myself deftly from the conversation and thought no more about it.

Lately,  I’ve been thinking about business English and other types of specialist English and I realise that the words of that German agent have remained with me.

What is Business English?

A few words spring to mind; expensive, elusive, a holy grail almost. The subject often feared by teachers who imagine pages of numbers and statistics, embraced by students who ride on its kudos and certainly put to use by smart, corporate-facing language training companies who reap its rewards.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that this is not a valid way to approach the subject and I’m sure the schools are doing a good job and there are good results to report for ROI. I also offer Business English myself.

So, what is a  business English courses?

Typically (please correct me if I’m wrong and there are of course exceptions to this rule)

  1. It can be a course for novices delivered in English aimed at would-be business professionals. It explains how to do ‘businessy’  things like conduct an interview, make sales calls, or interpret data.
  2. It might be an introduction to the language of business – how to meet and greet, the language of marketing or sales, or business idioms in common parlance.
  3. It could be a real high-flying course in finance and banking, or an exam-based course for a qualification.

I wonder, though, if learning all those business idioms and six stock phrases for interrupting someone at a meeting is going to make anyone better at their job.

I have taught many relocated business professionals over the years and have observed two very significant things:

  • Firstly, almost without exception, their partners and children returned at the end of the posting with much better English skills.
  • Many seem stuck on a  plateau and don’t move very far away from this (it would be around FCE/CAE or B2/C1).

Why is this?

  • Most employees use English primarily at work, at home they speak their own language, they often watch tv and listen to music etc.. in their own langauge. They also socalise often (though not exclusively) with compatriots where they speak their own language. Their partners,on the other hand, have exposure to many different language experiences – school, shops, groups etc. They often get involved more in their neighbourhoods and communities. They study the language because their need is more pressing. The children – well it goes without saying, their need is greatest – fitting in with peers – so they generally thrive linguistically.
  • Business language (as is true of many other discreet lexical sets) is restricted to a number of utterances (comparing course books will show this). Work has become more solitary with computers. People email more and speak less. Speaking is restricted to formalised settings, meetings, presentations. Performance here does improve , it’s bound to but it’s a small pond. In my experience students often manage very well at work but don’t always develop skills beyond the work environment.

So, why is this a problem?

Maybe it isn’t if they are here to work and they are getting the work-related skills they need the rest is neither here nor there.

Although I am not an expert in ‘globish’ I suspect that this is, in fact, the language used by many business professionals.  It is a lingua franca and as such a powerful communication tool but is it English? It has a restricted vocabulary and some tolerance of sub or non-standard grammatical features. ‘Decaffeinated English’ was a term used in a recent article by Robert McCrum to describe ‘globish’. I have some sympathies with this description, though these may seem to be more chauvinistic than practical.

‘Globish’ or ‘International’ English works on a certain, albeit restricted level – but therein lies the rub, it is restricted and for my students who are living and working in the UK this can become all too apparent.

See Robert McCrum’s  article on Globish

Two executive students from France and Belgium respectively took short courses with me here in the UK. In both cases they were very fluent but also very inaccurate. We began to unpick some of the grammar and refine some of the rough edges to their language. They were both horrified and upset.

‘We all speak like this in Europe!’

‘I can’t believe that we all make so many mistakes’

From my past teaching experience I know that the benchmark was First Certificate many young twenty somethings came to London for a term took their FCE and then returned to get a job. This language level seems now to have gone viral across the EU and beyond.

It’s fine, everybody understands one another, the business terms are down pat and people sound fluent even if there are mistakes. But is it enough? Surely business is one field in which linguistic eloquence and the ability to manipulate language well can have great advantages – in presenting?  – in negotiating?

Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy and think that everyone should strive to reach the highest level they can. There is some truth in this (not the fuddy-duddy bit!). All teachers want their students to do as well and go as far as they can.

I realise that there are restrictions on time and language needs practice, but who said that business professionals had to stick to business language? After all native speakers have a range of language from which they pick out the business element when it’s appropriate.

I have to say that some of my very best performing business students simply didn’t want to do business English exercises in class. They were curious about other things and we covered a range of reading listening and vocabulary about diverse topics like films, music (one student from Argentina wanted to know all about opera) poetry and food. These topics are not at all out-of-place in the canteen, during coffee breaks or in other social situations. The confidence to propose and discuss such topics is worth as much, if not more than an in-depth knowledge of business collocations.

I sing in choirs and a good piece of advice for getting those very high notes was to imagine you are landing on them from above – I love this analogy for language competence too – the more you know and can use, the more comfortable you will be in any situation.

To sum up, I don’t think you necessarily need to learn only business English, just get a good exposure to a wide range of English then you too will have a bird’s-eye view!

Some exercises to try to broaden your skills:

Top 10 best films ever – this works well as a discussion topic at lunch or in the office you have to get a consensus

Jokes and humour – very important in a business environment (don’t forget to learn where and when it’s appropriate to use jokes). Try these:

Poetry – don’t dismiss this as a language exercise,  poems often short and easily accessible (and you never know, your next potential client might just be  poetry buff!). Here is an example:

Look at these posts on improving skills:

10 ways to improve your vocabulary

10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills

How to keep motivated in language learning

Do you need help getting to your English goal? Contact me.

January 12, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

In this final post on modal verbs I want to look at how modals can be used to suggest levels of intensity and also how we can employ them to be tactful.

For more on Modals (grammar and lists of verbs)

In my first two posts:

Modal verbs 1 and modal verbs 2 we looked at the  way modal verbs are used for expressing different functions. In this post we will look more at how they express intensity and also the nuance that modal verbs can bring to a sentence. Finally we’ll look at a list of verbs which are very often paired with modal auxiliaries.

Expressing levels of intensity.

Look at these three sentences:

  • You must read the instructions before you begin!
  • You should read the instructions before you begin.
  • You could read the instructions before you begin.

What is the difference?

  • In the first we have no choice (or if we ignore the obligation there may be consequences).
  • In the second it is recommended that we read – but not obligatory – so we have choice.
  • The final sentence is quite neutral, do or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. The speaker might add – but it’s quite straight forward.

Here’s another example of how modal verbs help us to determine the level if intensity in an utterance.

Consider these sentences:

  • Students may not leave the examination room before the end of the exam.
  • You have to remain in the examination room until after the exam.
  • You can’t leave the examination room before the end of the exam.

 What is the difference here?

  • The first sentence is very formal. It expresses an external obligation (rule) and is more likely to be written than spoken.
  • The second also expresses a strong obligation which may be part of the spoken instructions before the exam begins.
  • The final sentence is more neutral and might be spoken between two of the exam candidates.

We see that it isn’t only the meaning of the sentence that is important but also the participants in a conversation and, also the circumstances. Let’s explore these a little more:

Jack and Henry are brothers

  • Henry, lend me your this afternoon car will you?
  • Henry, can I borrow your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, would you lend me your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, might I borrow your car this afternoon?

Some possible reasons for the different modal use:

  1. The car is old, Jack borrows it a lot, he is a good driver.
  2. Henry may want to use it, Jack doesn’t often borrow the car, Henry doesn’t often lend his car.
  3. Jack doesn’t usually borrow the car, the car is quite new, Henry is very proud of his car, it is for an urgent reason, Jack’s driving ability is unknown, Henry may need it.
  4. The car is special, Henry doesn’t lend his car, Jack damaged it last time, Jack isn’t a good driver, Jack needs it urgently, Henry was planning to use it and Jack knows this.

Our choice of verb depends on the relationship of the speakers, the situation and the ease with which the person can do what they are being asked to do. We can also add a further dimension – how easy is it to make the request etc.. (perhaps we have to interrupt the person). All of these factors dictate how intense, formal or polite we need to be.

Using modal verbs to add depth or nuance:

Modal verbs can also be used to express formality, belief and more subtle levels of meaning. Here are a few examples:

If we go back to the first list of sentences – we can here add another to the list.

  • You might want to read the instructions before you begin.

This sentence suggests that we may not have considered reading the instructions and the speaker (tactfully) suggests we do because they have information which tells them we should (this could be that we always do things badly because we fail to follow instructions, or perhaps the speaker has done this task before and had a bad experience as a result of not reading instructions first – they want us to derive benefit from their experience)

Here are some more examples:

  • You might have told me they had got divorced! 

The speaker found themselves in an embarrassing situation and is angry.

  • I might have been a famous singer ! 

We understand that something in the speaker’s past made this a possibility but it was never realised.

  • You really shouldn’t treat her that way.

Here the speaker is taking a moral stance as well as giving advice. What is happening is wrong in the eyes of the speaker.

  • I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think your ideas are a little odd!

Would here is used to express polite disagreement.

  • It would have been a good idea to let us know yesterday that the meeting was cancelled.

Again would is used to make this reprimand more polite.

  • They will keep spelling my name wrongly!

We know from this use of will that the speaker is very irritated.

Modals are the most common way of expressing stance in English especially in conversation.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on modal verbs which show a speaker’s belief or stance (the ex. shows probability).

Check out my post on Register for more on formality.

Finally, here is a list of verbs that most often occur with modal auxiliaries:

abide,  admit,   afford,  appeal, cope, guarantee,  handle,  imagine, interact, resist, survive, tolerate

and some that frequently do:
advise, aid, believe, benefit, claim, continue, contribute, count on, deduce, end up, expect, exit, focus, forgive, get over, grumble, harm, overwhelm, pause, reach, rely, respect, solve, withstand

As ever, check in your grammar book and try these out as soon as you can!

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

December 30, 2009

Using Modal verbs – part one

Modal verbs in English loom large as an area for study. They can be categorised in terms of function, intensity and meaning. Modals can be confusing as individual verbs can be used in many different ways.

The best way to tackle these verbs is to split them up into batches and learn the different usages of these groups of verbs.

Let’s begin with a definition.

What is a modal verb? –  a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb, they can be used to express a certain functions such as possibility, necessity, ability etc.. or make an utterance more polite or tactful.

How are sentences with modal verbs constructed? – the modal verb is the first verb in the verb phrase and is followed by the infinitive (without to) of the main verb.

  • People may (modal verb ‘may’) arrive (main verb – infinitive without ‘to’) late because of the snow.

Modal verbs:

can, could, may, might, shall, should, will would, must, dare, be able to, ought to, need to, have to

Try this Gapfillers exercise on mixed modals to see if you can choose the correct one in each sentence.

In this first post on Modal verbs we will look at the following functions and explore which verbs can be used and how they differ.

  • ability
  • prediction
  • permission
  • deduction

Ability – being able to do something

Can is used to describe ability and can’t/cannot the lack of ability.

  • Joe can help us with this problem but Paula can’t.

We can also use  able to

  • Joe is able to help us with this. (there is a sense of surprise or confirmation when using this form).

NB: don’t use able to with the passive

For the future, present perfect, past, gerunds and infinitives  we use be able to –

  • They will be able to fix the pipes.
  • I wasn’t able to visit them over Christmas.
  • I haven’t been able to get out of the house since Tuesday.
  • I like being able to arrange my own timetable.

Unable to – is used for absence of ability in formal situations – We regret that we are unable to agree to your terms.

Could is used for possessing an ability in the past and in questions, and sentences with adverbs such as hardly or only

  • She could speak before she was a year old.
  • Could the doctor see you? 
  • I could only see the nurse.

Other uses of could for ability are:

  • inability – Even though he was a vet he couldn’t cure his dog.
  • missed opportunity – We could have visited them but we didn’t have enough time.
  • disappointment – You could have told me that they had divorced!

Prediction – making statements about what will happen in the future

Will and won’t are used for prediction in the present tense:

  • You should take warm clothes – it will be cold in December.
  • Maisie won’t be home yet she doesn’t finish work until 6.00.

Would is used for the past:

  • We always knew they would marry eventually!

Must, should and have (got) to can also be used for prediction.

  • That must be Stephen’s brother. (deduced from information you have)
  • That has got to be Stephen’s brother! (He looks just like him)
  • We shouldn’t have a problem recognising Stephen. (We have a very good description)

Try this Gapfillers exercise on prediction

Permission

Can, can’t, could, may and might are usually used for expressing permission or absence thereof. There are degrees of politeness inherent in the choice of verb.

  • Can I borrow your pen? – Yes, you can/Sorry, I’m afraid  you can’t, I’m using it.
  • Could I borrow your pen? (more polite) (answer with can/may or can’t)
  • May I borrow your pen? (more formal) (answer with may/can’t)
  • Might I borrow your pen? (very formal – perhaps the person is a stranger) (answer as before)

Deduction – drawing a conclusions

Can, could, may, might, must, have (got) to, should

  • Take sandwiches as food can be very expensive on the train.
  •  A temperature could be a sign of something more serious.
  • The trains may be running late with all this snow.
  • That might be Jasper he said he would call.
  • He must be on his way.
  • He has got to be at least fifty years old now.
  • We should all get decent bonuses this year judging by the company results.

Remember this is a quick summary to help you test your knowledge of the rules and how to apply them. It is worth checking for more detailed information in your grammar book.  (see my post on choosing dictionaries and grammar books)

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

December 21, 2009

Using narrative tenses

This morning I woke up bright and early. The ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow and everything looked so beautiful outside. I pulled on warm clothes and boots and took my two dogs Duffy and Maguire for a  snowy walk.

At the end of our walk I let them off their respective leads and into a small paddock at the side of our house where they could run freely. As I stood looking at the scenery I thought how marvelous it would be to have more students come to stay and study with us in 2010.  In any season the scenery is wonderful, the place welcoming and the opportunity for making excellent improvement in English language skills assured.

As I was thus looking and contemplating, I heard a loud meow and there, atop the gate was our little black cat, Nip (her brother, Tuck,  has gone walkabout again). I called to her and she came bouncing over the snow towards me. All of a sudden Maguire spotted her and leapt across to join us followed, in a flash, by Duffy.  All three animals began gambolling in the snow – it was a lovely scene and I hadn’t a camera!

Leaving the cat and dogs I flew into the house to get the camera. It hadn’t been put back in its usual place so took a while to track down. After a frantic hunt, I rushed back to the paddock camera in hand to find the animals scattered!

The perfect picture of animals having fun in the snow had gone! I did manage a few shots which you can see here but sadly the original masterpiece will remain forever in my head only!!

OK,  let’s get down to the topic. I’ve highlighted my use of tenses in the piece.

Can you identify them all and consider why each one was used?

I wrote the piece ‘off the cuff’ and completely spontaneously so the tense usage is random.

  • Past simple – you will see that this tense is used far more than any other. This makes sense, the incident is in the past and the ‘story’ mostly relates the events that happened in a sequential way.
  • Present perfect – there is only one use here – in a reference to the missing cat. The cat is missing , we only know this – no other information is provided.  He may return. This is a classic Present perfect use. (see posts on Present perfect  and choosing simple or continuous )
  • Present simple –  again one use when describing the scenery. This is a state and unchanging.
  • Past perfect – two occurences; when referring to the whereabouts of the camera – clearly the camera was used by someone else before the events of this story took place and on returning to the paddock – the frolicking of the animals in the snow is now relegated to the past.
  • Future tense – this is the final tense used referring to a missed chance to capture the scene and preserve it for the future.

When relating stories and events we tend to use mostly the past simple,  present perfect and past perfect tenses as a frame work and hang on the other tenses where required. It is important to sequence the events in order to choose the correct tense.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on narrative tense use.

This post is the second of six on English verbs and tenses.

More information on English courses at Fleetham Lodge  and see here on the blog Fleetham Life

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