Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

September 9, 2011

Learning English needs a lot of stamina!

Taking your English language skills to great heights requires strength!

  • Strength of character
  • Strength of mind
  • Strength of body

Learning ANY language is not for the faint-hearted, it takes time and dedication. There are ups, downs and plateaux, there’s despair and frustration and seemingly endless lists to learn!  As soon as you reach one peak you see others looming in the distance and you just know that you have to pick up your grammar book and dictionary, put your best foot forward, grit your teeth and plod on.

So why bother?

Why put yourself through all that work? You can muddle through with the English level you have already or you can use an interpreter or a translator, people who are clearly experts in this area and can do a better job than you can.

Or can they?

Notice the word – interpret – this gives room for paraphrase, for interpretation would this still be YOUR message? Interpreters are certainly experts in what is a very difficult job requiring lots of training but if you are presenting YOUR product or service, or conducting YOUR  meeting with a potential client or looking to move higher in YOUR career,  it is YOUR message that is important. Remember, people buy from and relate to YOU, not someone else trying to deliver you!

So is it worth the effort? Yes, of course it is – just as you would spend time on other aspects of your work and career your English has to be part of that mix. If you have a dream for your work and your future and English is a part of that dream then you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the English you really want and this will take stamina and dedication!

How to get English that really shines!

1.  Decide on where you want to be with your English – imagine how it would be if you had really fantastic English skills, make this your ultimate goal.

2.  Decide how far you are away from that goal now and what you need to do to get there – you will probably need to do an assessment for this or find a teacher who can help you.

3.  Decide how much time you can dedicate to improving your skills daily, weekly etc.. and formulate a plan (see my post Setting SMART goals for your English).

4.  Be realistic, if you only have 1 hour a week then it might take some time – doing a bit each day may work better.

5.  Get as much exposure as possible, use the ‘dead’ time during your day to practice (travel time, waiting at the station, before a meeting, in the doctor’s surgery – my Gapfillers site is designed to do exactly that (Gapfillers Latest offers 10/15 minute exercises every day) or read the newspaper, listen to songs, the radio – whatever you are interested in.

6.  Find things that interest you – dedication and graft don’t have to be boring – there is so much English out there and available that you really should choose what is engaging for you.

Doing this alone will not be easy there will be times when you feel like giving up or when you just can’t be bothered or when you feel you can’t make any more progress. It is easier if you have some support from a group of learners with a similar goal or from a mentor or coach. This will spur you on and encourage you to keep moving forwards. A really good coach won’t let you give up even when you feel you want to.

Whether you use a language coach, join a study group or soldier on alone, remember that it is not going to be an easy ride but the rewards are great – keep focused on that mountain top – you can do it!

We have a range of Gapfillers programmes

Total immersion, short, residential courses are held at Fleetham Lodge in Yorkshire in the UK (from a weekend to a month)

Find out more about English language coaching with English Language Mastery

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!!

April 1, 2011

Is learning English becoming overwhelming?

Sometimes everything comes to a head and we have so much still to learn and we don’t seem to be making progress. It can be frustrating, we make the same mistakes even though we’ve gone over this point a hundred times. We are working hard and getting nowhere;

” That’s it, that’s the end of it we are not capable for progressing any more  – this is our highest level and this is where we are going to stay, We’ve reached our ceiling and there’s nothing more to do!”

Learning a language ( and this is true of many things) is not an ‘onwards and upwards’ activity. There are peaks and troughs, hills and valleys and worst of all seemingly endless plateaux!

Do you remember learning to ride a bike as a child? How many times did you wobble? How many times did you fall off? How many times did you throw the bike down and stomp off?

In the end though wasn’t it worth getting  back on, trying again and finally succeeding?

How good did it feel when that happened and how thrilled were you to be able to ride off down the road alone!

There is only one way and that is to be patient and persevere.

So back to language. There is a great saying in English ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’  Things of great value take time and burn slowly. Take a deep breath, step back and think hard about what you have really achieved so far. You will probably find that it is much more than you give yourself credit for.

Then analyse your English honestly:

  • What is your goal?
  • Where are you having problems?
  • Where are you feeling frustrated (think of some actual occasions when your English wasn’t good enough – is there a pattern?)

Once you know where the blocks are (or try and get help identifying them if you don’t know) then break everything into manageable chunks and go step by step. For example if you think your vocabulary is letting you down then design some strategies for improving this – read a book a month, or a daily news article or learn 10 new words a week – whatever works for you.

Don’t be too ambitious do as much as you can manage – 10 minutes a day is better than 2 hours once a month – keep it simple. Try and use ‘dead time’ in your day while traveling or waiting for a bus or train, that way your learning won’t be interrupting other activities and vice versa.

So here is the 4P approach to learning English (we came up with this at a Gapfillers forum chat)

Patience:

I’ve said a lot about this already. It is vital – you cannot learn all you need to learn in a day. If you start your study knowing that you must be patient it may stop you from becoming overwhelmed.

Perseverance:

I firmly believe that anything worth having is worth pushing for and unless you persevere even when you don’t seem to be making progress you will NEVER succeed!

Practice:

No skill will improve without practice so unless you dedicate some time to improving and developing your English regularly then you will become frustrated and you will not make progress. Honestly, if you are not prepared to practise you might as well go and find something else to do instead!

Performance: 

This is actually using your English! There is little point in doing all the hard work if you are not going to step up, be brave and actually speak or write. There are opportunities across the web to do this – find some. Make some opportunities for yourself to perform your English!

Finally here are 10 top tips to help you improve your English and stop you getting overwhelmed or frustrated!

  1. Do a bit every day
  2. Plan – an approach or strategy for your learning
  3. Choose something interesting
  4. Consolidate
  5. Choose something with (immediate) feedback
  6. Set a time limit
  7. Follow the tips and advice given on the web-site
  8. Join a forum or chat room and USE IT
  9. Re-visit, repeat and recycle
  10. Smile 🙂 you know more than you did 10 minutes ago!

Some other posts you might like:

 Setting SMART goals for your English Language learning

Grammar is dead – Long live grammar!

Making progress as an advanced learner

Doing a language audit

Still overwhelmed? Maybe I can help you.

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

December 30, 2010

Playing role-play games online – how these can develop language.

Role play games can be fun learning tools for developing language. They give you an opportunity for free expression and great speaking practice. Yet because you are not being yourself, it also allows you to create a completely different character which helps to take away any fear of speaking and lets you perform as someone else! This can be very powerful especially if you are shy or worried about making mistakes.

I often use role-play games in the classroom and as well as practising speaking, we always have a great time! It isn’t surprising then that a role-play game was the first collaborative exercise I wanted to have on my E-learning site Gapfillers. We are currently running our 3rd game and each time there is a lot to learn both as a materials developer and a teacher! Each game is very different and very surprising.

I’d like to explain something about the game, how it works and how it helps with English language learning.

Our Gapfillers murder mystery game – The Art of Murder – revolves around the murder of an Art Gallery owner. The players are all connected with this man in some way and it is their individual relationships with him which form the substance of the story and provide the clues. The investigation is led by a detective and a criminologist acts as moderator. The players are given role cards and other information. The detective will then send out clues and the players have to send each other messages to find the answers and solve the murder. Players can also build relationships with other characters and use these to make it more difficult for other players to get information. We ask that if information is requested it is given out but how this is disseminated depends on the individual group of players. If anybody gets stuck then they can go to either the detective or criminologist for help. These two (they are teachers) are also in the game and will message, encourage and provide a commentary where appropriate.

The game has been written by a writer/poet connected with Gapfillers and not a teacher so the language is not modified or graded. There is a deal of irony and sophisticated language included in the information so the players have a lot to contend with while playing the game. The game is further supported by a series of newspaper articles, a vocabulary and grammar bank of useful language and a weekly blog post which follows the progress of the game.

The very first time we played the game we were expecting players to use the opportunity to practice their reading and writing skills and also to explore topical vocabulary. We also hoped that they would discover some of the nuances in the language of the game and above all have a good time. What surprised us the most about this first game, and also subsequent games, is the way in which the players ‘clothed’ themselves in the personality of their character!

The characters include a countess, thwarted lovers, a journalist, art dealer and artist all of whom have, each time, taken on fully rounded personalities in the hands of our student players. I have collected some of the messages to give you a flavour of this.

These are in no particular order.

  • I have no idea who this ‘guitarman’ is (why can’t he give his ordinary name, like anyone else?), but I find the suggestion we might meet again sinister. Call me hyper-sensitive, but that’s how it strikes me.

 

  • After a good night’s sleep I’m thinkking I’d be glad never to see any of you again in my life…….

  

  • oooooh!
    touchy!
    would that be a good nights sleep… in jail?

  

  • I guess you are right  – i am stressed out

 

  • no i arent accusing them of murder, just that they dont reply to mails

 

  • i shall go have a glass of wine and calm down

  

  • i so wish this was over 😦

  

  • Hello everybody– I am somewhat late with my introduction but hope you don’t mind under the circumstances.

 

  • My name is M T Hart and I am (was?) R T Guy’s girlfiend. We’ve been in a relationship for 3 years now and was hoping something will come out of it:) What now?

  

  • Oh dear! Poor you. You must be feeling very unhappy at the moment we all feel for your sadness.   

 

  • Thank you for your condolences. I’ll try to stay strong

  

  • We all understand.Youwill need take thimgs slowly

  

  • Yes, I have already asked Gugenheim about the cat but he told me that he had never heard about a cat…..So one of you is lying…..I want the truth!!!!!!!! and quickly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’ve just sent an email to him, so if I learn something I’ll let you know…..

  

  • I am shocked! I thought I was trying to help. Why do yiu think I’m lying and not Gugenheim after all he sold you the forged painting. Hasn’t he proved that he is a liar?

  

  • its very strange that i was unaware of this phobia of his, especially as we were so close

  

  • were you working in the office on the night of the murder? 
  • did you LOCK the door? 
  • or worse, did you let someone in?
  • or perhaps you were IN the office with R T?

 

  • well, Trudy, everyone is a suspect!
     
  • many are accusing me of killing him, i dont understand why, i would not benefit from this at all
    i would only benefit from marrying him, which never happened

 

  • strange you mentioned his temper, it got worse and worse leading up to the murder
  • any idea why that would be?

 

  • I´m sorry there must be a mistake, in fact I hate pets.

 

  • Well, well, well!!! Gugenheim finally show he’s capable of keeping information from us. You know who you can trust in this game, don’t you?? Maybe my dear wife Tik would now like to look to her conscience and come clean about her infidelity, and with whom!

 

  • Funny, isn’t it? I worked with so many of you for so long, including Guy, and now discover I didn’t know you at all. Than kgoodness for the friendship of MT Hart; she has been like a breah of fresh air compared with the rest of you rogues, and she’s lost more than the rest of us!

 

  • So, Gugenheim, what ELSE are you keeping from us??

 

  • Shouldn’t you be more interested in publishing your knowlegde than in trying to make moneay out of it – and possibly landing on the murderer’s “unwanted” list???

 

  • So, what do you know, and what is your price?

 

  • Obviously, I’m extremely interested in your extra information.
    I was just wondering what you mean for ‘price’…
    Anyway we can arrange a fair barter…

 

  • I’d be really grateful if you kept my lover’s name secret.

 

  • I’ve just to stop for a moment and think quietly about it.
    I need to collect my evidence. Right now my I’m quite confused.

 

  • I’m waiting for result, too. No one has already found out the killer. Probably they are afraid. In reality, I think we should be careful. At this point, everyone is likely to be involved in this murder.
    Let’s wait and try to find the solution.

 

  • I have come back – any news??? Holidays without my wife were great…

 

  • Haha very funny!
    Hope the hols were good. I thought you’d taken the money and run away!

 

  • Been talking to your lovely wife – she’s as confused as the rest of us!

 

  • People kep going away & then coming back very strange!!

 

  • You are joking – I had thought the murderer had already been found and guillotined…

 

  • Dear Mr Wragg,
    Much as I would like to help you, I´m afraid that I know little more than what you have already published in your newspaper. As far as I know, the Tofts’ relationship with Guy was simply a business one.
    Sorry I can’t be of more help.
  • Dear Mr Wragg,
    I’ve been doing some thinking since my previous message and I think that I MIGHT be able to help you somehow.
    Of course, this will cost you nothing but it could help if I got to know the name of the victim of a certain “incident” in which Gugenheim was involved.
    I’m sure you will understand that, like you, I want to get to the bottom of this hideous affair.

 

  • Thanks for your message. I’m not skipped town. I have been ill with problems about ciatic nerve. I will grateful your offered information. Bye.

 

  • Lies lies lies, I do not know which paintings you’re talking about – surely La Scala knows the paintings she has hanging on her walls!

 

  • It seems that you want to know more about my grandparents…. first you need to know that they are of great importance to me, I love them more than anybody else and I don’t want them to be involved in this scam. So please don’t write anything about them in your articles… They are pretty old and they deserve to live peacefully. I trust you…I hope I’m not mistaken…

I hope that this demonstrates the kind of language that ‘comes out’ when students are playing such games. They become involved and engrossed in the game itself and somehow the language flows more naturally. They also feed off the language of the other players and the language involved in the game itself  which results in very real and sophisticated usage. Admittedly the players here have quite an advanced level of language but the ability to take on a character and then sustain that throughout the game (which lasts about 5/6 weeks) is not an easy thing to do. As everything is written then there is time to consider and correct but the language being used and learned by our players is amazing!

Games, far from being frivolous, allow students to push their own language to its limits but also, and more importantly, give them the opportunity to draw from the language around them (other players and the language used in the game) to develop and enhance their own.

Gapfillers The Art of Murder is played twice a year within the Gapfillers site. It is open to all members. Our next game will be in spring 2011. (register on Gapfillers for free, see our special Christmas offer available until Dec 31st 2010)

December 2, 2010

Sharing your teacher’s life – courses in a teacher’s home

Studying over a cup of coffee!

Having students come and live and study in your home is no mean undertaking for either the student or the teacher but with some careful planning and a lot of give and take, the experience can be very rewarding for both.

As total immersion language learning experiences go living with your teacher has to be one of the best. Not only are you dropped into a full language experience, you are also surrounded by the culture, social life and even the petty goings-on of an English, Scottish, US etc. household – you become part of the life in that house for the period that you are there. You need to be prepared for this – you will have to share your teacher’s life for the duration of your stay.

The great advantage of doing this is that you have, on tap, your own ‘language expert’, not only to teach you, but also as a resource for all your questions and uncertainties.

Far from being mundane, you can find yourself  involved in some interesting events that give you extra chances to practise and learn! A student of mine recently joined us at the family celebration of a 90th birthday! It was a formal, private party in a restaurant in Tunbridge Wells (she was staying with me in Yorkshire) and it gave her the chance to speak with a lot of native speakers (there were over 60 people) and see another part of England. These kinds of occasions provide authentic opportunities for you to use the skills you are developing in your course. They can be challenging but they are also very valuable.

Attending a large function

Not all students can expect to be entertained in such a way but your teacher will make sure that you are included in their daily activities and you must make the most of these chances to use your English in a real and yet unthreatening way. You may think that it would be impossible to manage in such situations but in fact the very fact of it being a real situation and not a classroom exercise helps you to function. The people who are asking you questions about your country, job, family etc.. really do want to know, they are not just role-playing – this is it for real!!
Whatever time of year you choose to come there are interesting places and activities for you to enjoy in addition to the high quality language lessons you will do with your teacher. Teachers want to share their local area, customs, and celebrations with you.
 
 
So how do we manage time on these courses?
Let me give you a run-down of a typical day with my students. Other teachers may do this differently but you can expect a mix of formal lessons, social time and planned activities on most immersion courses done in a teacher’s home.
  1. The day begins with breakfast – which for my students is cereal, bread, sometimes eggs We have this around 8.30
  2. Lessons start at 9.30 and go through to 12.45 with a coffee break in the middle
  3. Lunch at 1.00 soup, sandwiches, salad – sometimes students ask to prepare something – I love this!
  4. Some afternoons we go out, others are spent studying tasks I have assigned or students have chosen. Some of my students need to connect with their offices in the afternoons (it breaks the immersion – but if it’s necessary this can be the time to do it)
  5. We meet again around 4.30 for another hour’s lesson or to chat over a cup of tea and maybe some homemade cake or biscuits!
  6. Most students then like to have some personal time to watch TV or relax – I can prepare dinner.
  7. After dinner (8 – 9 ish) some students want to retire to their rooms, others want to watch TV – we usually have a couple of movie nights together!
  8. Then we start again!

Shopping in Harrogate!

Weekends are a mix of organised trips or free time where students are welcome to hang around the house, go out for walks or catch the bus to the local town.

Who do these courses suit?

Of course this is not for everybody. Some people would run a mile at the thought of living in someone else’s home! That is fine. If you are looking for somewhere to learn a lot of English in a short time, want to find out a bit about the culture in the UK, don’t mind joining in family life, don’t necessarily need an en suite bathroom and are happy to be flexible and adaptable, then this should suit you well. If you are none of these then you may want to consider carefully whether this type of course would work for you.

If you decide to go for it then you should have a really good experience!

Watchwords.

  You need to remember that this is your teacher’s home.
  • Respect their privacy and that of the other members of the family. They must also respect yours.
  • They are your personal English resource for the duration of your stay but if you wear them out they won’t be any good to you so be sensitive to the teacher’s need for personal time.
  • Most teachers want you to be involved with all the activities of the family while you stay with them. Embrace this chance as it gives you real situations in which to use and develop your English but don’t be shy about refusing if you really don’t want to be involved in something.
  • Don’t hide in your room! If you are not sure what to do in-between lessons ask your teacher if you can help with anything – most of my students end up in the kitchen with me! Remember these are the times when you are using English spontaneously and learning language that you will probably never find in a course book!

For the teacher it is a little like ‘going underground’ – the focus is on the student for the duration of the course as they want to give you the best experience they can.

Sharing your teacher’s life is a great way to learn a language and the hidden benefits in terms of culture, meeting new people and really experiencing life in another country are even more valuable!

Some other posts on  immersion courses:

 Total immersion English courses – fast, furious and fun!

Language immersion

Creating a teacher workshop

Fleetham Life

Find out more about my Immersion courses

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

August 27, 2010

How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions

My wonderful teacher workshop group

I have been teaching quite a few students over the summer and was interested to see how they each approached the process of language learning. All of them worked hard and made progress and were delightful to teach and work with but analysing their preparedness and study methods gave me some insights into what sort of things seem to work well.  

Carolina from Italy

 

 

Learning styles  

As teachers and learners we know that different people have different preferences and styles when it comes to studying.  I see, as a teacher, where I need to adapt my choice of material or style to suit different students. Things which work fantastically well with one student might fall completely flat with another.  We read much about learning styles and it is true that we learn differently but I feel it is also true that not all learning is necessarily fun and exciting and it is important to take the rough with the smooth. In terms of language in particular, a certain amount has to be repetitive and recycling, revisiting is very important. Regular practice is also important. Some tried and tested methods do work and it is a case of finding the most suitable way of utilising these. Whether pen and paper, iPhone or laptop is our preferred tool is unimportant as long as students get the results!  

Student behaviour  

Some students are methodical and very organised. They bring a book, stationery, dictionary etc with the to the lessons and they organise their work. Some arrange their book/folder according to the different topics (grammar, reading, vocabulary etc..) and sometimes even colour-code everything for ease of revision. They review the day’s work and come to the next lesson prepared with questions.  

Suzanna from Germany

Others prefer a more ‘learn by osmosis’ approach they like to absorb the language by being immersed in it through the lesson. They don’t record a great deal (perhaps anything they haven’t heard before) and react in a more emotional way with the language. They may not be so systematic in their learning but they like to extend their exposure to language and will be likely to watch TV or read a newspaper or magazine often bringing elements of this experience to the lesson.  

Many students have a half and half approach. The dangers of being only type one is that you may be restricting yourself to a narrow range of language and those taking the second path may be exposed to too much for it to be absorbed. However all approaches are legitimate and in the end it is a matter of ‘horses for courses’. However, whatever your learning style, I do think it is worth considering using some tried and tested methods to enhance your learning experience  

So, from my ‘straw poll’ over this summer, I have extracted 10 things which I observed that I feel all language learners could use to improve their study  

  1. Do make sure you have something to record new items of language (notebook, netbook etc)
  2. Don’t rely solely on your memory.
  3. Do make sure you have access to a dictionary (get one on your phone then you can access it wherever you are).
  4. Don’t miss the opportunity to pick up new words and check their meaning.
  5. Do go over the day’s lesson, make a note of anything you don’t understand ready to ask your teacher at the next lesson.
  6. Don’t  be afraid to ask your teacher to go over things or explain things again – it’s an opportunity to make sure everything is clear before moving on.
  7. Do watch TV in English if you have the chance. If you are in the UK it’s a good way to engage with the culture and make sure you are immersing yourself in the language – TV is an invaluable language resource.
  8. Don’t feel that you have to understand everything. Relax and enjoy the experience, if you can get a good overview of the conversation or TV programme that might be enough (then, as in No 6, ask your teacher the next lesson).
  9.  Do write a learner diary – a few lines after each day’s experience will not only give you a lovely record of your course, but it is also an interesting and personal way to make a record of your learning. This can be useful for language recycling and sharing with teachers and/or classmates.
  10. Do enjoy your learning experience – something you enjoy and are absorbed in will be both successful and valuable.

Thank you to all my students this year who gave me the chance to observe their learning and the opportunity to pass some of their ideas on to you.

For more on learning strategies you might like to look at the following posts.

Creating a teacher workshop

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

An A to Z of effective language practice

How to keep motivated in language learning

Preparing for language exams

June 14, 2010

Prepositions – pearls of great price!

I’ve been doing some work on prepositions lately and it struck me that for such insignificant little words, they have quite a powerful role to play in English language and seem to be a common bête noire at all levels of learning.

I looked up a definition of prepositions, it seems they are a group of words that show relationships between nouns, pronouns, or gerunds and other words in a sentence. They show place, time, direction and other attributes in relation to these words. The good news is that they never change their form. The bad is – it’s not that simple! They can be free or bound (they can depend on other words).  They can be complex too, they come along in pairs or sometimes threes and fours for good measure and take on new meanings. Occasionally they are in disguise – they might look like prepositions but in actual fact they are adverbs or adjectives! It is often when they hook up with verbs that they are at their most demonic! They form phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and horror, phrasal-prepositional verbs!! Is it any wonder that these enfant terribles of the English language learning world put fear into our hearts

So, I thought in this post I’d try to break down the uses, give some examples and see if we can’t engender a little respect for these feared yet very hard-working and versatile little words!

Prepositions pure and simple 🙂

Using prepositions in their simple form is fairly straightforward.

Place – relationships are bound by position  – on, in, under, above etc..

Some to note are:

over and under (rather than above and below)

  • used when something is  covering something else – the spoon fell under the table, the fog drifted over the village
  • for horizontal movement – the birds flew over the trees
  • to show more, less, fewer than – we made just under/over £3,000!

above and below

  • are used for rank or level – Sergeant is below the rank of captain.

in, at, on

  • these are specific – I’ll meet you at the cinema (probably outside) or in the cinema (inside). It’s on the corner (the outside of the corner). It’s in the corner (surrounded, probably a Square or in a room).
  • In with cities, countries etc.- in France but on with streets – I’m on North Street, at with named places – at Oxford Circus.
  • At when people gather together – at a party, at the conference.

towards and up to

  • towards shows the direction of the movement, up to usually indicates a purpose – I went up to her to get directions.

Time – relationships are bound by duration or a point in time

from…to

  • indicate the start and end time – I’ll be here from Monday to Friday. (note American English often uses just through) I’ll be here Monday through Friday. The American usage tells us that Friday is included in the stay the British version is less clear.

Bound prepositions – those with no meaning in life! 😦

Bound prepositions are dependent upon certain words (or the words ‘take’ a certain preposition). These prepositions have no independent meaning as meaning is conveyed by the word/s to which they are bound.

It is important to learn these and commit them to memory as you come across them.

Some general rules exist:

  • Prepositions can follow verbs nouns or adjectives – rely on,  success in, keen on etc… (here is a list)
  • These prepositions always take an object – rely on somebody,  success in his exams, keen on riding horses
  • Where the object is a verb – it is often in the …ing form – They accused him of lying.
  • With adjectives describing emotion then ing form or infinitive with to is possible.  They were angry at seeing animals mistreated. They were angry to see animals mistreated.

Types:

verb + preposition

  • These multi-word combinations are called prepositional verbs.
  • Here are a few examples – complain to, rely on, confide in, part with, look into etc..
  • Another verb + preposition combination is the phrasal verb – these  are different because the meaning is changed completely with addition of the preposition, which is not the case with prepositional verbs.
  • Here are some examples – wear off,  break down, look after, put off, own up etc…
  • A third  multi-word verb using a preposition as a particle is a phrasal-prepositional verb (verb + adverb + preposition)
  • Here are some examples –  look up to, hand over to, get out of, put up with, get back to, come out of etc….

noun + preposition

where a noun and a verb are related both will usually take the same preposition

  • They succeeded in getting the contract
  • Their success in getting the contract was the turning point in the life of the company.

sometimes  a noun takes a preposition where the related verb does not

  • She had always had a fear of spiders.
  • She had feared spiders from childhood.

adjective + preposition

as above, where an adjective is related to a verb or noun taking a specific preposition then the adjective will also take this preposition

  • They were very anxious about the merger.
  • We could sense their anxiety about the merger.

adjectives describing feelings and opinions often have bound/dependent prepositions

  • I’m not keen on the blue one.
  • She’s quite nervous about tomorrow.

Try an exercise

Prepositions with a complex! 😦

Complex prepositions are always free prepositions but need support. Although their meaning combines with that of the other word/s  they rely on these other words, which go in front.

Here are a few examples:

  • for:    as for, except for, save for
  • from:    away from, aside from, apart from
  • to:    close to, due to, on to, next to
  • with:    along with, together with
  • of:    ahead of, out of,  irrespective of
  • on:    depending on

Some have such low self-esteem that they require a larger support team!

  • for:    in exchange for,  in return for
  • of:    by means of, in case of,  in favour of, on top of
  • to:    in addition to, in contrast to, on relation to
  • with:    in contact with, in comparison with, in line with

In this last group they are hardly visible amidst their entourage !

  • for the sake of
  • with the exception of
  • in the light of
  • on the grounds that

Stranded prepositions (who’d be a preposition!) 😦

Our final example in this woeful tale of prepositions is the stranded preposition.  It stands alone at the end of a sentence or clause.

  • In questions – Who are you applying to work with?
  • In the passive –  What percentage can the cost be reduced by?
  • Relative clauses – Yesterday I saw that woman (that/who) you introduced me to!
  • Infinitive clauses – She managed to see the film that it is impossible to get tickets for!

Don’t forget to check your grammar book for more detailed information!

Prepositions strike back! 🙂

Despite their sorry state prepositions can form interesting and very common idioms which you might want to consider adding to your vocabulary.

Useful idioms formed from prepositions

Sometimes we simply pop a couple of prepositions together

Here are a couple of examples – in for, in on, up to (more examples)

Other prepositions hook up with nouns to form handy little phrases (see here)

Here are some examples – on the go, on the case, on the house

Prepositions certainly do need some respect and it is worth spending time to study and learn how to use them well – it is one of those niggling areas of grammar which, if mastered, can make a big difference to your language performance!

Here are some other posts you may like:

How to keep motivated in language learning

English verbs that confuse

Language Immersion

Prepositions Aargh!

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.

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