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.


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!!

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!
    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)

October 1, 2010

Sharing diaries – Writing from the heart

This is the 3rd and final part in my series on writing for a wider audience. In this final piece I want to look at diaries and how, although more intimate and certainly very authentic pieces of writing, they can still be shared.


Writing Diaries

From time immemorial diaries have been an obvious genre of writing for use with students. There are many different ways of approaching diary writing from formal work schedules through daily records to very personal commentaries.

A recent development of the diary format can been in the use of Learner Diaries. This is an excellent and personal way for a student to record their learning both in terms of  progress and also personal reaction to the process and results. It can be at once a practical and a reflective piece of writing. As such it is highly personal and allows the freedom to be more creative.

In a classroom situation students will share their learner diaries with the teacher and perhaps with each other too. When students are studying alone, it may seem pointless to keep such a diary as there is no one to read it (this is not necessarily a good reason not to write one) and who is going to correct it?

See Nik Peachey’s piece on Learner Diaries

I think there are two things to say here.

  • Firstly, keeping a learner diary just for yourself is a valuable thing to do. You will develop a record of your learning which can be very revealing about your journey through the process and it will help you to develop and progress your skills in the future.
  • Secondly, taking into account my previous suggestion in posts 1 and 2 about joining communities online, you can share your diary if you want to. Being an independent learner does not mean being an isolated learner and finding these groups can be part of the e-learning  process.

A personal experience of sharing a student’s learner diary.

So, I’d like to share a diary with you which was written by my student (face 2 face) after staying here for a week in the summer. I hadn’t actually asked him to do this as part of the learning (although I do often ask my face to face and online e-learners to do this).

The student is a dentist and we  had spent a pretty intensive week on a mix of general English and work on several presentations that he was going to be giving internationally.

When the week was over I realised that I had forgotten to get him to give me an evaluation on the week and some thoughts (which I could publish) on the efficacy of the immersion experience he had spent here in Yorkshire.  However, I felt that we had built a good working relationship and that I could ask him for a sentence or two retrospectively.

Imagine my great surprise when the week after the course I began to receive, via email, instalments of his diary that he had written each evening after the day’s work. I was gobsmacked!

It is an amazing piece of writing, full of life and energy and it really captures the week we shared together. When I asked if I could share this on me site he was delighted! I feel so privileged to have been sent this and I feel even more honoured that I am able to share it with you here.

I have made very few changes (although I did go over it thoroughly with him) as I think it it’s ‘raw’ state it has a great deal of energy that I could only spoil.

This a great learner diary!

Ezio’s Diary

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

I was lucky enough to have others share their experiences in blogs and videos too. Here is a collection of their reflections and another way that students can share their learning experiences with a wider audience.

More reflections on learning experiences



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

Part two of the series Getting your voice heard – authentic writing for English language students

 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 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!


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.


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 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!!

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 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)


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 19, 2010

Preparing for language exams

I’ve just been helping my 11 year-old daughter prepare for an end of term French test. I was ironing and she was at her books. We practised some short dialogues about the weather, transport, time etc.. did some drilling on pronunciation, new words and word order and then the usual recitation of irregular verbs. Two weeks ago another daughter took her GCSE French oral exam. This was a little more involved, we practised dialogues on given topics and I sent her a couple of questions in French during the day as text messages and she responded. Our big area of grammar was tenses.

My reason for describing this is not to give you an insight into domestic bliss in our household or to boast about my dedication to my children’s education. In fact I have two older daughters, now working, neither of whom speak any language other than English (cobblers’ children and all that). No, in fact it got me thinking about language exams and approaches to language exams and what activities might be most productive when facing a language exam.

I’d like to explore first what language exams are. In my opinion, they are simply benchmarks showing staging posts along a journey of developing and enhancing skills. They show that at some stage a particular level of skill was reached. That doesn’t mean to say that someone is still able to demonstrate that level and herein lies the rub! Skills can get rusty if you don’t keep practising them. I don’t see a language as an academic pursuit (the literature and other studies around language such as linguistics, philology etc.. are excluded here). To me it is akin to learning to drive, or playing a musical instrument or even achieving a certain level of physical fitness.  Language development starts small and then grows. See how any baby develops language and you will see this. It is ‘additive’ in its nature. You cannot enter at Upper Intermediate level and expect to perform well (let me know if this has happened!). We start with a foundation (however you choose to learn) and then build on this. The more you build the better you get just the like the more you drive the better you become.

(see my post ‘Are some people better at learning languages than others?‘)

OK  so how is this important for exams? It is important because language exams in my opinion need a different approach – I don’t believe you can ‘revise’ for a language exam in the same way that you would revise for a history or a medical exam. You need to practise for a language exam and the more practice you get the better you will be. OK this is trite stuff you may think – it’s obvious.  If so, then why do I see time and time again students going over and over practice tests instead of getting out and about in the language! Practice tests are more about exam technique than they are about language proficiency. Why do students have a slot in their revision timetable for ‘English’/’French’/’German’ revision? Why do my students, when I return their corrected writing to them, put it carefully in their folders where it never sees the light of day again and why am I told when I set about the present perfect tense for the umpteenth time, ‘we’ve already learned this!’ – been there, done that. The truth is you need to keep going there and doing that and each time you do, push your usage a bit further forwards. If you are guilty of some of these then take heed – you could be making the process far more difficult than it needs to be!

So, some top tips for preparing for language exams:

  1. Don’t make the exam the be all and end all of your language learning.  In fact, I think you should be thinking something like “I’ve really made good progress here, perhaps I’ll consider taking an exam.” –  rather than -“I need to get FCE, CPE etc.. when can I take the exam!”
  2. Don’t leave your exam preparation until the last minute – make sure you go over areas that you are not sure about immediately after your lesson/online session.
  3. Make sure you do something each day (it’s like learning the piano or improving your fitness level – 10 minutes per day is better than 30 minutes once a week). Try something like Gapfillers word of the day or daily practice.
  4. Do things you enjoy – all language learned is relevant it really doesn’t matter if it didn’t come up as an IELTS topic last year! In your speaking and writing tests YOU ARE IN CHARGE  use any language you like as long as you address the topic (and remember it doesn’t have to be true!)
  5. Be critical of yourself – don’t accept mediocre, if you are not sure ask or test it out.
  6. Jump in and try using phrases, words and new grammar the feedback will tell you if you’re on the right track – best to find out now before you use it in your exam!
  7. Use the internet – no excuses now for not having enough exposure. Listen to videos on your favourite subjects (that way you’ll be involved in something you enjoy too). Read, watch, listen, find grammar and vocabulary exercises – bookmark the ones you find useful so you can come back again.
  8. Try and think in your target language – do this during your short daily practice (see my post on Thinking in English – how to make it happen)
  9. Make sure you are a bit better than the exam requires you to be that way you’ll be more relaxed when you take it.
  10. You should use the exam to demonstrate your ability – make sure you have things to say/write. Make sure you learn language that can be adapted to different topics and scenarios

With as much exposure to and practice in the language as possible and an approach to your study that is both systematic and enjoyable, you should pass the exam with flying colours!

March 2, 2010

How to keep motivated in language learning.

How can you keep motivated when learning a language? This is a million dollar question! If everybody was highly motivated then we would all be multi-lingual! Whenever I attend an event and we do the round robin exercise of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’  the discussion following my ‘bit’  inevitably moves on to the number of ‘tapes in the car for Italian, Spanish French etc., the number of course books at home, how many online course started and not finished and even, how many evening classes started and not finished!’ It is very clear that there is a desire for language learning but what happens to all those good intentions?

I have to come clean myself, I’m learning Chinese and I am not being a very good student! I did two lessons and then stopped for two weeks and haven’t done my homework! In fact the thought of writing this post has made me book up my next 4 lessons IN ADVANCE!!

Why did I need this external motivation? I enjoy languages, it’s my field, I know what to expect and I really do want to learn this. Here are my excuses:

  • It was half term, kids at home and I had a busy week (first miss)
  • Actually I was ill which accounted for the second miss but I could have done my own study
  • I haven’t had much time
  • As a beginner it is quite hard!

I’ve heard them all from students and they are valid and understandable.

I hope that I am now back on track and won’t need to write another confession on this blog!! But…..

What is it that makes some people motivated to keep going and others fail at the first hurdle?

I think there are 4 main factors in this.

  • Expectation
  • Approach
  • Curiosity
  • Reward


Learning a language takes time, patience and perseverance (rather like learning a musical instrument). There are no quick fixes or magic bullets. You are in it for the long haul. I think this has to be accepted.

Some examples: of unrealistic expectations

  • I once had a student wanting to learn a new language before he left to take up a new post in that country. It turned out that he had 4 days before departure plus all that a move of this nature entailed to organise! He had pencilled in one afternoon for language training.
  • A second student wanted to learn French, Italian and German all at once having never studied a language before!

Making sure expectations are realistic is a key factor in success. If you don’t know what you are in for you’ll be disappointed.


One of the problems I have with my Chinese is I’m not organised yet. I haven’t got a folder where I can keep my crib sheets etc. I don’t have a notebook or dictionary and I haven’t got my head around a personal study schedule.

Some common problems:

  • Students turn up to lessons without paper, notebook or even a pen!
  • Each lesson is seen in isolation and no reference is made to past activity or future study.

Learning a language involves a lot of recycling! When I taught French in a primary school I was teaching colours ‘We’ve already done this.’ the children refrained. Languages don’t work like that, learning is more cyclical.

The basic toolkit for a language learner is a notebook/folder organised by skill type (reading, writing etc..) or date to enable revision or referencing, a dictionary, a grammar book and whatever coursebook or materials are being used. It is possible to have ‘off the cuff’ and impromptu lessons – these can wonderful but unless you are at a quite advanced level, they will be ephemeral if you don’t have some sort of record to refer to. (see my post on choosing books)


For me this is a key factor in any learning. It is the ‘What if…’ and ‘How about…’ questions that lead you beyond the classroom and into your own learning which will move you further towards your goal and provide the incentive to learn more.

If you have this curiosity factor it will help to keep you motivated. You will want to re-work sentences and find other synonyms. You’ll be interested in how everyday notions and functions work in the target language. You’ll look for patterns and use these to build and test new sentences and you’ll want ultimately to get out there and use what you’ve learned.

When this curiosity is lacking or absent you may hear:

  • I’ve been through all the practice books for the exam, when is the next one going to be available?
  • I haven’t got time to read that poem, listen to that discussion… I have to learn more vocabulary.

Without curiosity learning a language can become a very dull and dry exercise. Languages aren’t academic subjects they are living, breathing entities and only there by virtue of the people who speak and write them.


Rewards in learning are very important and take many different guises, from small personal rewards for mastering irregular verbs for example, to success in examinations. Rewards are motivating but the level and nature of the motivation differs with level and nature of the reward.

  • External rewards such as exam grades, promotion, even a potential love interest make the language learning a vehicle for something else. While this can be very motivating indeed, it is often short-lived. How many people learnt a language at school which is now long forgotten?
  • Internal rewards – those we set ourselves are more effective and last longer. How many things are we good at and remember because of the sheer love we have of learning and doing it?

This may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’ or ‘wishy-washy’ I’m not suggesting you have to fall in love with your English learning in order to make progress. What I am saying, though, is that with some committment you will come to enjoy it and become expert in it so that your language skill may, in turn, become the vehicle for the things you really do love!

An extension to this in a learning sense is that when we are immersed in a task or topic we are really interested in we often absorb the language without realising it. So, don’t eschew literature, jokes, songs or other ‘frivolous’ activities,  throw yourself into them and enjoy them – the language development often happens by osmosis!

Some jokes to conjur with!

Here are some other posts with similar topics:

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

Making progress as an advanced learner

Thinking in English – how to make it happen

February 22, 2010

What is it that you need?

I’ve been looking over the posts I’ve made on this blog with a critical eye and trying to see which ones seemed to give the most value to those who are reading them. 

I checked out the most popular posts – I’ve listed the top 6 here:

  1. English verbs that confuse!
  2. 10 ways to increase your vocabulary
  3. 7 great virtues to help you write well in English
  4. 7 deadly sins to avoid in your writing
  5. 10 goofy ways to practice speaking skills
  6. Countable and uncountable nouns now you get it, now you don’t!

Are these your favourite posts?

From this I deduce that what you want/need is: (in no particular order):

  • Practical ideas for improving language skills
  • Advice on dealing with certain areas – such as writing
  • Help with some of the more ephemeral areas of grammar
  • Short lists of ideas that are easily absorbed and incorporated into your practice

What I really would like to know now is:

  • Am I right?
  • Are there other areas that I can look at to give help and advice?
  • How do you feel about learning and practising English in general?

So, if you can help me out here with your ideas, requests, suggestions and opinions I can make sure that I give value in upcoming posts.

You can leave comments below.

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