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Learning English

English as a foreign language, efl, esl, teaching English, using mind-maps, vocabulary, opinions, an esl blog, - English for French speakers

Updated: 2016-11-27T19:09:54.578+01:00


Sentence Auctions - fun but not without pitfalls!


My last post described how to play 'sentence auction' with your students. It's a fun way to review grammar points, and students are more likely to remember which errors to avoid if they got burned trying to buy incorrect sentences.

I do this activity quite a lot with my learners at the moment, one reason is that I have to teach the same group for seven hours a day, four days running, and it's a nice way to break up the afternoon session, when the urge to take a nap kicks in. The more I do it, however, the more I realise that some of the sentences I choose for the game could be interpreted in many different ways - sometimes they are not grammatically incorrect after all.

Here's an example:

Im working here for 2 months.

A French speaker would say this instead of 'I've worked here for 2 months', so in the game it's incorrect. But I could interpret the above sentence as meaning, 'I've recently started working here, and I will here for 2 months before going somewhere else'.

In every sentence we utter, there's a ton of meaning that isn't explicitly stated, leaving the hearer to derive whatever meaning they consider to be the most appropriate. Compared to the complexity of the world around us, we will never have enough words or enough time to spell out exactly what we mean, and so we often talk in vague generalities. (I'm getting all philosophical here).

If you were revising 'some' and 'any' would this be right or wrong:

Do you have some money?

If you've taught them that 'some' for positive statements, while 'any' is for questions and negative statements, then it must be wrong. But one might hear this kind of construction all the time among native speakers. If I ask the question, 'so you have any money?', my listener understands that it really is a question, I don't know whether he or she has any money or not. But if I ask, 'do you have some money?', what I'm really saying is, 'could you give me some of it if the answer is yes?'.

On the other hand, 'do you have any bread?' would be correct, but completely stupid if the question was being asked in a bakery. Context is everything, so good judgement is definitely required.

Sentence Auction


If you don't know this activity, you really should give it a try. It can be great fun and it has quite a lot of pedagogical value because your students are more likely to remember grammmatical pitfalls to avoid after having invested time and (make-believe) money in them. "Once bitten, twice shy" might be an appropriate idiom to explain the learning process.

How to do a sentence auction in your ESL class.

Prepare a handout, or write up on the board twelve sentences. These sentences should have some connection with something that you've been studying recently. In half the sentences, slip in some of the mistakes that your students often make.

If you have done much, many, some, any recently, mix in some sentences like:

*I don't have some money
I have no idea
*I have much baggage

You can lead in to this activity by asking your students if they know what an auction is and if they have ever bought anything at an auction. One easy way to explain what an auction is is to mention the online auction site, ebay. Someone is sure to have an anecdote about buying or selling something on ebay.

Tell your students that you're going to hold an auction, not for works of art or vintage cars, but for English sentences. Explain that some of the sentences are 'genuine', that is, are grammatically correct, and that others are 'fakes'.

Give them a budget, say, 4000€, and tell them that there is a reserve price of 100 and bidding must go up by at least 100€. By the way, you'll probably need to pre-teach this vocabulary.

Put them into pairs and give them ten minutes to decide which sentences they would like to buy. You will then play the role of the auctioneer, reading out each sentence and taking bids. If you are convincing enough when you read them out, some of your students who weren't going to bid will suddenly start having doubts and offering large amounts of money.

Keep a record on the board of which pair buys which sentences and how much was paid.
Only at the end of the auction should you tell them which ones were right and which ones were wrong. The winners are the pair who have bought the most correct sentences without losing money on incorrect sentences. Money lost on unwise purchases could be used as a tie-break.

Play 'number tennis'!


Here is an exercise in using numbers in English that I learned from a book on improving your mental skills. It's pretty hard for native speakers, so it's a real challenge for your learners. I've seen people with a good level in English and an even better level in mathematics struggle with this exercise.

To introduce the game of number tennis I write an incredibly easy equation on the board:

23 + X = 100

At this point the members of my group normally roll their eyes and look at me in a way that suggests that they think I think they're idiots.

Sometimes I ask them if they did the sum in their own language first and then translated the result. Most people do, and I have to admit that I do the same in French!

When you have the correct answer (77, as if you didn't know) give another number between one and ninety-nine and ask them what number they need to make a total of one hundred.

Playing 'tennis' then, involves putting your learners into pairs and getting one of them to 'serve' numbers to the other person who after giving the right (hopefully) answer returns another number. I referee the game by deciding that a player has taken too long - I shout "out" (how long is too long depends on the level) or if the answer is wrong I just shout no and give the score "15 - love" etc.

You'd be surprised just how hard this is for a learner of English - if the level is low you could start with a total of twenty and then move up by tens. On the other hand, if this exercise doesn't present too much of a challenge, try a more difficult total, say, 250, or if you want to be really sadistic, 573! Mind you, you'll have to be really good yourself in order to referee (umpire?) the matches...

Teaching word origins


some time ago, I recommended a site called and told you that their weekly email tips were worth reading. Sign up, I'm sure you'll find something interesting to do with your students.

This week's tip, although a good one, could have been developed more fully, especially for those of us who teach English to speakers of Romance languages. We aren't all in Thailand and Japan, you know!

The teaching tip makes the valid point that learning vocabulary can be more interesting for learners if they know something about the origin of the word. I couldn't agree more, as etymology is some that I love - I could spend hours just flicking through a dictionary or my copy of Brewer's Phrase and Fable. The email goes on to give an A to Z of some interesting words and their origins.

My concern is that although word origins are interesting, they won't necessarily help a learner to recall new vocabulary if they don't create a spark that ignites a chain of thoughts leading to the actual word being summoned up.

For example, the first word on the list is 'avocado'. If my French student was looking for this word in English, he might well remember that the origin of this word was 'testicle' in some south American language, but would that help him to remember the word 'avocado' itself?

When I was a child there was a very famous series of television commercials for a type of Vermouth (fortified wine) featuring the British comedian Leonard Rossiter and the even more well-known Joan Collins (of Dynasty). Research showed that although everyone who had seen the commercial could remember how funny it was, even the exact lines of the two actors, very few could remember which drink it was promoting: was it Martini or Cinzano?

The advertisers had neglected the product in favour of a very funny ad. This could happen to a word with a memorable history.

Going back to example of avocado, if your learners are speakers of Romance languages, they will probably recognise that it's also the Spanish word for 'lawyer'. The Spanish colonialists heard an indigenous word that sounded a bit like 'avocado' (not very much like it in reality) and started to use it. When the fruit travelled the Atlantic to Europe, the French heard the Spanish using the word 'avocado' - (lawyer) and translated it to French: 'avocat' (just like English, 'advocate').

Another word on the list was 'umbrella'. Here is the definition:

Umbrella, appeared in English as early as 1609 (in a letter by
John Donne). In the middle of the 18th century the device was
adopted by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway as a protection
against the London rain.

There is no etymology here, just the date that it entered the English language. It would have been more pertinant, perhaps, to mention that umbrella comes from Italian 'ombrello' which relates to 'shade' not rain, and in fact was used to protect against the sun, not the rain. A French speaker would quickly recognise the word 'ombre' (shade or shadow) in his own language from the word umbrella, in fact, an old word for 'parasol' is 'ombrelle'.

The last word that I find could have been exploited more - at least for Europeans - is 'walnut'. I was surprised to discover that it means 'foreign nut'. But I did know that 'Wales' and 'Wallonie', a region in Belgium, are from a word that the Romans used to describe non-Latin speakers, hence foreigners. These words are also related to the French 'Gaul', as the Norman invaders of Britain had a strange way of pronouncing the letter G, it sounded to them like a W.

Hearing Pidgin English


Going back to the exercise, 'word wizard' in the book Keep Talking, I was discussing in class the other day which words they would choose that they consider to be the most important. I started writing them up, and added a few words that would make communicating easier:

that thing
what/where/when/how/who (not why - it can be too abstract)

The learners contributed things like:

family etc.

So we had about 35 words on the board, and we started trying to make conversation using 'pidgin English'. The conversation went like this:

What work you do?

I do big work: thing go up: thing go down (they make helicopters!)

Where you go weekend?
I go there: do love woman: go eat drink family.

Doing this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in class : lower our level of English to that of the learner, ie speaking pidgin English. But it teaches valuable lessons about English:

1. English is essentially quite a simple, monosyllabic language. With just thirty words, I can something like, 'I do no work', which my learners are surprised to discover is grammatically correct, and certainly not pidgin English.

2. We communicate much more with our gestures, facial expressions and intonation than with words themselves (according to some, only 7% of communication is verbal)

3. Perhaps the most important, that English intonation forces the listener to hear pidgin English, that is, as we 'swallow' almost all 'grammatical' words, like prepositions and articles, the listener only hears the 'meaning' words, like verbs, nouns, adjectives.

To demonstrate this last point, I give the learners some sentences to analyse, for example:

do you want to know what he's going to give me?

which could be pronounced (I never do, of course):

jerwanna know wha(t) izgonna gimme?

Or a little more sensible:

On a clear day, you can see the mountains on the horizon.

I point out that in the real world, the prepositions, articles and auxiliaries are so softly pronounced that one only hears:

clear day see mountains horizon

thus turning a perfectly good sentence into pidgin English.

Go to the pronunciation pages at for more information about intonation and articulation in English.

Text messages


Many people are horrified by abbreviations used in text messages, such as 'U R L8', meaning 'you are late'. Is there any justification in the beliefs that our literary tradition is being corrupted and that young people are going to be disadvantaged by their ignorance of correct spelling?

While in no way advocating that this kind of writing should replace the system we have in place today, let me explain why I think that it is not reasonable to be overly-concerned by this phenomenon. There may even be some positive sides to it!

Firstly, the English language is a big mess when it comes to spelling. There are few rules, and even the ones that exist have too many exceptions. Teaching children to read using the phonics method can only help them to read a small number of words, the majority need to be learned by sight. The same for foreign learners of English. Few of my students, including those at intermediate and advanced level can pronounce properly the word 'women'.

Another good example would be words that contain the letters 'ough'- ought, though, through, rough, bough, and thorough are all pronounced differently.

The writer George Bernard Shaw wanted the English alphabet to be revised so that each sound had its own character. He famously argued that 'ghoti' could be pronounced 'fish' in current English, the 'gh' as in 'enough', the 'o' like 'women' [WIMIN] and the 'ti' as in 'station'. His proposed 'Shavian' alphabet was never taken seriously.

Secondly, simplification of spelling has already begun in the United States, largely due to the work of their great lexicographer, Noah Webster. He argued that superfluous (that is, unpronounced) letters could be deleted, like the 'u' in 'colour', 'favour' and the 'ough' in 'through' which is now written 'thru'.

Thirdly, what is so scandalous about using symbols for words anyway? We gape in awe at the complex hieroglyphics of the Egytptians and languages like Chinese only have characters that represent words or ideas, not a phonetic alphabet like ours. Also,the idea of dropping vowels is not new. There are some languages that have an alphabet of only consonants, the reader knows how to pronounce the word from his oral learning of that word. Let's face it, the way I say certain vowels is very different to the way, for example, a New Zealander would say them, so why not drop them altogether?

If we were serious about preserving the written tradition of our language, rather than complaining about the pitiful state of teenagers' writing we should seriously consider revising the ridiculous way we spell our words so that spelling more accurately reflects pronunciation. By so doing, text language would remain in its place where it is useful, and not spill over into other areas of written language.

Oscar Winner - Marion Cotillard


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just a couple of mistakes in the speech, can you spot them?

thank you so much.

Olivier, what are you did to me

maestro Olivier Dahan

you rocked my life
you truly rocked my life

Thank you so much to picture house for your passion

members of the academy thank you so so much

and well, well , I'm speechless now

I, I

thank you life

thank you love

it is true that there is some angels in this city

thank you so, so much

My job description


I’m an English Teacher. I teach English to adults in Marseille, in the south of France.
I work with small groups of students, some of whom would like to learn English in order to find a job. English is necessary for jobs in tourism, education and international trade, like Import/Export.

During the day, I prepare lessons by doing research on the internet and using the coursebooks in the centre's library. I prefer doing communication activities rather than grammar.

I sometimes have to attend meetings, which are about planning the courses and discussing new contracts. I have been on training courses in Paris. I take the train early in the morning and stay in a hotel.

I am also an examiner for the diplôme de compétences en langues. I interview candidates and assess them on their linguistic abilities and how they accomplished their tasks.

What's your job? Send me your job description in English and I will correct it before publishing it on my site!

Who wants to be a millionaire?


I love the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Do you have it your country?
It's actually great for learning English because the first few questions are really easy - if you are a native speaker. If you're not a native speaker, you might find the first five or so questions quite hard because they are often about local culture or other things that only the natives would know. Proverbs and nursery rhymes feature heavily in those early questions. I've learnt quite a lot about French life and culture by watching WWTBAM in French.

If you are a contestant on the programme, you can imagine how humiliating it would be to get the first question wrong. Well it does happen sometimes as the youtube clip below shows. I'v transcribed the introduction for you, it's good practice to understand American accents.

Notice "word whiskers" like "pretty much" and "I guess" very common in American English

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Joining me now is Chase Sampson, a college junior in Nashville Tennessee, and I understand Chase that you flew in last night, you didn’t get here till three in the morning and that you havent slept a wink, huh ?

I pretty much have coffee flowing through my veins right now.

Do you really, but as a college student I think that maybe thats not so rare

Yeah I’m up pretty late mostly i’m kind of er insomniac I guess, but I’m feeling good, I’m feeling good

Good ,good! as long as you’re feeling good and you know the rules and the lifelines, and you’re ready to play , we’re gonna play.

I’m ready

OK, then let’s play !

Jasper Carrot - Brummie Comedian


If any of you were wondering what my accent is like, here is clip of a famous comedian called Jasper Carrot, who like me is from Birmingham and so has a similar accent (I talk a bit posher, cause I'm a teacher!)

You will learn something about two very well-known stores in Britain, Argos and Woolworths, and what people in the regions think of London.

By the way, pick'n'mix is the self service sweet counter.

'innit' is an even more contracted version of 'isn't it?'

'bloke' is like 'guy' in British English

'nicked' is a slang word for 'stole' or 'stolen'

'spud' is slang for 'potato' but here is used as an insult for an Irishman (they eat a lot of potatoes in Ireland).

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Is it possible to comb your teeth? Personally, I brush my teeth, but comb my hair (sometimes). But I recently read an advertising e-mail (not spam, I did request it) urging me to go over the document with a "toothcomb"! Duh!

The English expression that means to examine something very closely, to look at the little details is 'to go over (something) with a fine-tooth comb', that is, a comb with fine teeth, not a comb for your teeth!

I'm not immune to these types of mistakes, so I won't do any more Mickey-taking. Just to say that while looking for examples of 'tooth-comb', I stumbled on this marvelous site by an American professor. Have a look sometime, it's got some great stuff: errors in English.

Improve your vocabulary part 3


Use crazy associations.

I have been writing quite a lot recently about the linkword method, which involves associating something memorable in your own language to something that sounds similar in the language you are learning. Somebody came up with a great list of French phrases that could be converted in into English. The list appears on a lot of 'joke' websites, but it is in fact the basis of having a great memory, not just for foreign words, but for anything else too. Here are a few examples:

Canaille (rogue, rascal) - can I?
ail ou radis? (garlic or radish?) - are you ready?
six tonnes de chair (six tons of flesh) - sit on the chair
guy vomit sur mon nez (guy vomits on my nose) - give me some money
oeuf corse (Corsican egg) - of course

Now the trick here is to create a funny scene in your head that will make it impossible to forget. So a French speaker would imagine a huge six-ton elephant trying to sit on a chair, because to him 'sit on the chair' sounds like 'six tons of flesh' in his language.

You can read more about linkword here

Moses Supposes (again)


A while ago I suggested learning 'Moses Supposes' to practice the vowel sound 'o'. Well here is the clip of Gene Kelly and co performing it in the classic movie 'Singing in the Rain'. Enjoy!

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If you want to learn it, take it slowly and increase the speed only when you have memorised it completely.

five ways to improve your vocabulary - part 2


What's the word for the instrument you use to open a bottle of wine? It's a corkscrew. We saw this word in the previous post. If you are a native French speaker, you would think that this word is an old anglo-saxon word that has no connection with French. You would be wrong. According to my dictionary 'cork' has come from French 'écorce', the letter Cs having changed to hard 'k' sounds. And I would bet, although I'm not 100% sure, that 'screw' stemmed from 'écrou', although the meaning has changed somewhat.

This knowledge helps you connect something familiar (if you are a French-speaker) to something that was before quite unfamiliar - écorce - écrou - corkscrew. Being aware of the roots of a word can help you enormously in your quest to build your vocabulary. Another thing that will help you is to learn some of the prefixes and suffixes that have come from Latin or Greek. There are some examples here.

five ways to improve your vocabulary - part 1


Many of you write to me saying that you lack vocabulary and would like to know what is the best way to improve. Others say that they need English for a specific purpose, like business, and request lessons on business vocabulary. still others need to travel, so need travel vocabulary.

So everyone has their own reason for learning a language, and this reason is the most important motivation you can have for wanting to learn. If you need English to go on holiday to Las Vegas, there is simply no point in spending time learning Sillicon Valley business idioms.

I'm going to give you five ways to help you retain the new words that you learn during your study periods. Be aware, however, that all of these techniques need lots of revision for them to be effective, and like it or not, repetition is still the best way to fix a word or expression in your head.

Number One:

Link words that go together and review often. I started the mind map below based on the theme of wine, a favourite subject amongst my French students. I test their vocabulary by asking them what the English word is for the instrument they use to open the bottle. Usually they don't know the word 'corkscrew', and it is a difficult word for them to retain as it doesn't bear any immediate similarity to any word in French. By linking familiar words to less familiar ones, we have a better chance of understanding and, eventually, retaining them for later use. So on the mind-map we have 'bottle' which is recognisable as coming from 'bouteille' in French, and next to it the word 'cork'. If I link the verb 'to open' with 'cork' and then add 'corkscrew', you could probably guess that it is the French word for 'tirebouchon' (if you're a French-speaker, of course, as most of my readers are).


Try this technique with a group of vocabulary that you need to learn. Each branch of the mind map should have words that relate to each other - so 'living room' would link to 'sofa' 'coffee table' 'television' and other things that are found in a living room. Do a personal 'brainstorming' with a dictionary to see how many words you can come up for a given subect.


Some months ago I signed up to receive teaching tips from a site called Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied by other things, I never really read them. This week however, they sent me a gem of a teaching idea that I think I will use a lot in the future. If you are a language teacher, this is a good site to visit and will give you other ideas than the ones you're probably already using from or the not very good

Anyway, this week's tip was about using the latest trend of making lists of everything, like Amazon's listmania. This can be an interesting variation on the usual ranking exercises - students have to agree on a list of the world's most important inventions or the greatest citizens of whatever country they come from. If you have a list like this from a magazine, students can agree or disagree with the choices given, and suggest alternatives.

It's a great idea, so pop along to and subscribe to the newsletter, it won't be the worst teaching information you get in your inbox every week.

Curiosity killed the cat


We got a kitten this summer for our daughter. Like all cats, he just can't control his curiosity. He can't see an open door without going through it (and thus getting locked in cupboards, the cellar etc) and he can't see a box without jumping in it.

This typical cat behaviour gave rise to the expression 'curiosity killed the cat', probably from a time when inquisitive cats would fall down wells or get mangled in farm machinery. It is used as a warning, especially to children, not to pry into things that are not their business.

My advice: be very curious about words, word origins and expressions, but when trying to understand difficult grammar, remember - curiosity killed the cat!

Learn this if you dare!


As you probably know from reading this blog, I'm a fan of using nursery rhymes to practise your intonation and pronunciation, as well as picking up more vocabulary and interesting things about the history and traditions of a country.

Well here's one that's just great for getting to grips with those 'swallowed' little words. I'll get around to recording it one day so you can listen to it. Remember that you should stress only the important words - nouns, verbs and adjectives, not the 'grammatical' words like articles, prepositions or determiners.

The House that Jack Built

This is the house that Jack built

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the farmer sowing his corn that kept the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

this is the horse and the hound and the horn that belonged to the farmer sowing his corn that kept the cock that crowed in the morn that waked the priest all shaven and shorn that married the man all tattered and torn that kissed the maiden all forlorn that milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built

English word of the day


While surfing the net looking for things to write about learning English, I often come across ESL sites that have a 'word of the day' or 'word of the week' box. Some online dictionaries put up free word of the day scripts that you can put on your own site or blog. I did once think about doing it, thinking that it would be a good way for you to improve your vocabulary.

The only problem, however, was that most, if not all, the words that came up were ones that I'd never heard of. This is great for me - as a native English speaker they help me to expand my knowledge of English. But how useful would these words be to a foreign learner of English? Even if you have an extremely advanced level, these words have limited usefulness because no-one ever uses them.

Michael Lewis makes this point in his book 'The Lexical Approach'. He noted that books aimed at proficiency level concentrate on words that even native speakers never use. I have trouble completing the exercises in these books because these words don't figure in my vocabulary. Since when have 'advanced' or 'proficient' been synonyms with 'obscure' or 'useless'?

Having an advanced level in a foreign language doesn't mean knowing a lot of words that even the natives don't know, rather, it means using the same language that the natives use, including slang, idioms and word-plays. And yes, in English that means understanding that awful corrupted, vulgar version of English called 'American'!

I've had hate mail from outraged teachers accusing me of discrediting the profession by teaching things like 'gonna' and 'watcha', but that's another story for another day.

big bang


Now I've decided that 'that' is my number one important word, I need to think what other words would make up my four-word vocabulary. I've been thinking about the differences between how a baby would develop a vocabulary and an adult. A baby will certainly add words to his central 'that' based on his immediate environment, and a mind map might look like this:


Of course, the baby won't know the 'category' words - food, object, person, thing - just the things themselves, but a lot more essential words could be added to those two main branches and the following sub-branches. An adult, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of categorising crucial vocabulary in order to make a logical sequence of related words. The starting point of an adult's 'big bang' (I call it this because everything 'explodes' from a central point) could be simply his name.


We can keep adding to this essential vocabulary - which are key words, not grammatical ones like do you/are you/my name is/how old are you etc.

English- your most important words part 2


Way back in May I wrote about an exercise that involved choosing your four most important words. I had some interesting feedback, especially from a fellow teacher in England who said that her students chose words like boring, Macdonalds, want amongst others.

I suggested that verbs probably wouldn't be a priority if you could only use four words. This is because verbs are action or doing words, as we are taught in primary school. So that means that you can use a gesture to indicate most of them. How many of you teachers have never done a lesson on the present progressive using miming and the question "what I am doing?". The students have to answer, "you're riding a bike", you're having a shower" etc. You get the point.

If you were travelling in Mongolia and nobody around spoke a word of English and you couldn't speak a word of Mongolian, what would be your word number one to learn? I think we can learn a valuable lesson from babies. Generally a baby's first word is mama or papa - not that useful for travelling adults!

But what comes next? Baby wants something that he can see, but doesn't have any vocabulary - so very quickly he learns an incredibly useful word that he can use in conjunction with pointing - THAT!

Now there might ten different translations for the word 'that' in Mongolian, I have no idea. Even so, if you choose one of them that relates to objects or things in general, then you can go into a shop and ask for something to eat - something essential for your survival.

choosing your most important words


There's an interesting exercise in the book Keep Talking by Friederike Klippel (Cambridge) called 'word wizard'. Each student is to choose the four words they consider to be the most important if no other words could be used. Which four words would you choose? The aim of the exercise is to try have a conversation with other students, thereby learning their four words a building a vocabulary of up to sixty-four words, assuming that there are sixteen students and no-one chooses the same words.

In reality, people have very similar ideas about which words they would choose. Verbs are very popular. So time and again we get choices like be, have, go, want. If had to choose four verbs, maybe eat, drink, sleep, do would be the best for basic survival.

Are these really the most useful words? Which ones would you choose?

In my next post, I'll tell you why I don't think choosing verbs as your most important words is a good idea.

learning words that are relevant to you


If you really want to make the most of your English lessons, it's your responsiblity to learn as many words as you can in your own time. If your average lesson is made up of different people continually asking, "how do say ..... in English?" then you are losing valuable time that could be spent making conversation - real communication.

Don't treat your teacher as a walking dictionary. As I've said before, you should be learning word groups that are important to you so that you have something relevant to say in class.

You can do this by making mind-maps
or by using flash cards to memorise key words and expressions.

Don't expect your teacher to know what words are important to you. If you are serious about your language learning, take the responsibility of building your own vocabulary and then your teacher will have time to work on your pronunciation and sentence structure, as well as the all-important fluency.

apostrophe misuse


In France, in order to make words look more anglo-saxon, there is the habit of sticking an apostrophe and an 's' at the end of words. A shop selling English furniture is thus called 'Interior's'.

I would like to inform my French readers, however, that the situation is not better, perhaps even worse, back home in England. Which is even more pathetic, given that in a country where English is the native language, a large proportion of the population has absolutely no idea when and how to use the apostrophe.

's is known as the anglo-saxon genitive and is used to denote possession - the 's goes at the end of the possessor, not the possessed:

The manager's car = the car that belongs to the manager

When a word is already a plural, you put just an apostrophe after the final s, without adding a second s:

the managers' cars = the cars that belong to the managers

There are even websites that try to combat the misuse of the apostrophe. Take a look at the following for example:

There are some exceptions to the apostrophe rule, however. These would be in situations where adding an 's' to make a plural would be confusing. For example, we often talk about a list of do's and don'ts(a list of things to do and not to do).
If we simply added an 's' to 'do' to make it a plural you would get 'dos' which looks like an incorrect spelling of the third person, 'does' or the abbreviation of 'disk operating system'.
Also, initials can take an apostrophe in order to avoid making the plural 's' look like one of the intials. For example, it would be OK to write the plural of CD, CD's. If there were no apostrophe, it would look like three initials, CDS.

I don't know if my exceptions here are officially recognised, so if you strongly disagree, let me know!

T-shirt talk


If you walk down mainstreet in any French town, just about every other person you pass will be wearing a t-shirt with a slogan in English on it. Most of the wearers are oblivious to the fact that the message they are sharing with the world is either nonsense, full of mistakes or downright obscene.

One girl I saw recently had a top that read, 'young hot mistress for erotic massage' followed by a telephone number. There's no excuse for not knowing what it meant, for 'erotic' and 'massage' are both words that exist in French. It seems that the fact it was written in English makes it acceptable, even though the slogan is in effect really saying 'I'm a prostitute'.

I mention this because it reminds of the time back in the eighties when everyone was wearing t-shirts with Japanese writing on them. I shudder to think now what I might have been broadcasting to anyone who could understand Japanese. Perhaps a Japanese person could read on my t-shirt, 'stay away from this jerk, he's a complete loser' or worse!

After seeing the stupid slogans in english that people wear in France, I will always think twice before buying a T-shirt with anything written in a language I don't understand