Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Authentic Materials

Books, articles, websites, interactive media … there is so much material out there! The question is … how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

When it comes to learning English as a second language (ESL), most students turn to worksheets, study guides, readings with comprehension questions they find on the web and ‘how to speak English’ videos on youtube. Is that you?

No doubt you are interested in learning new words. For me, learning a new word is like finding money on the street. The chances of finding a lucky treasure like that on an ESL page are pretty limited, especially if you are at an intermediate level or above.

Authentic materials (those created for native speakers) are the way to go.

You might be thinking that this kind of material is very difficult … that’s the point! The greater the challenge the sweeter the victory.

When you read, listen or watch it’s important that you develop strategies for managing new vocabulary without panicking. Remember, a native speaker doesn’t understand everything that they hear or read either but they don’t freak out when that happens.

If you came across a word or phrase in your first language that is unfamiliar to you, what would you do? First you would likely try to extrapolate some meaning from the context. If this doesn’t satisfy you, you might consult a dictionary. Or perhaps you jot down the word to investigate later. Whatever your process is, reproduce it when examining authentic second language material.

And with this last piece of what I hope is useful advice, I bid you adeu dear friend. I am going to take a little rest from this blog. Perhaps you will see me again on these pages, or perhaps somewhere else. 

Yours faithfully,

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Who Am I?

Originally hwa ( also hwá, hwone, hwæne, hwæt, hwæs, hwám, hwæm, hwy, or hwon … your guess at pronunciation is as good as mine), the oldest word in the English language is who, reportedly in existence for 20,000 years. Going into the last stretch of the Stone Age and prior to the advent of agriculture, the first English utterance was a question.

Now fast forward to right here and now. After all this time, we really only have three uses for who.

  1. Asking the question ‘what person or people?’
    • Who did you meet at the conference?
  2. To refer to someone or a group of people that have already been mentioned
    • Those are the clients who first trusted in us.
  3. In an old adage that explains what will happen to someone if they do something
    • Good things happen to he who waits.

If we are exceedingly confused, aggravated or incredulous, we often intensify the question with euphemistic blasphemy or a cultural reference: Who - in creation - in the hell - in Sam Hill - in tarnation - in blue blazes - in thunderation - did you meet at the conference?

If we feel that someone is acting out of their station, we say, ‘who do you think you are?’ if you want to question someone’s authority, you can say ‘says who?’ That might show them who’s boss. ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’ tells the listener that you caught them in a lie. ‘Who knows?’ indicates that the answer is a mystery to humankind. ‘Who would’ve thunk …’ is another way to say that you are surprised at the information. And of course, a list of ‘who’s who’ tells us who the important people are.

Now I know you’re just itching to talk to someone to practice speaking, but who? Mosey on over to the facebook group and go to the ‘wanna chew the fat?’ thread. There you will find speaking partners.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Crutch Words

Words vs. Silence. When speaking to a North American, you know the words will win. We just can’t stand silence. It’s unthinkable to enter an elevator without acknowledging the others’ presence with a little small talk. In 1976 anthropologist Edward T. Hall put a name to this familiar face and dubbed it a low-context culture.

In a nutshell, the difference between a high or low context culture is that the latter relies on words to communicate whereas the former leans on the cultural understanding that is shared between the speakers. Fewer words are necessary in a high-context culture (Spanish for example) as the literal meaning of each word is less important than the context.

We anglos don’t, however, always know what to say. Whereas a person from a high-context culture might look up to the ceiling while contemplating their answer (something that, by the way, makes North Americans very nervous), an American, Canadian, British, Australian or New Zealander will fill the gap with what we call crutches.

“I was like, talking to him when he like, all of a sudden told me he was like, being promoted to CFO.”

“I literally called him a thousand times today.”

“So basically, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Crutch words don’t often add meaning to your message and sometimes even subtract veracity from our statement as in literally. If the above example were true, the speaker would have spent over 8 hours on the phone calling one person repeatedly.

I suggest you do not attempt to pick up these tics. Like is considered especially lazy and quite inappropriate in an adult’s speech. I do however invite you to investigate more crutch words that native speakers use and how to interpret them. It’s important because basically, we use them a lot.

With fondness,

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fluency is Just a Stone's Throw Away

‘Away’ comes from an Old English word, onweg,  meaning ‘on one’s way.’ it is broadly defined as ‘at a distance from’ but we can use it to talk about physical space, time and focus, amongst other things.

  1. Physical space We parked about 10 meters away from the entrance.
  2. Time My keynote speech is only a week away!
  3. Focus We shifted our efforts away from traditional marketing and moved towards social media.
  4. To keep in a place Put away your phones and we’ll start the meeting.
  5. To disappear All my fears faded away as I stepped up to the podium.
  6. Not here I’m sorry, Maribel is away this week.
  7. Continuing Sara whistled away as she finished up her day’s work.

And of course ‘away’ has its collocations. If something is a heartbeat away it is very close. If you are unavailable during working hours, your colleagues might tell a caller that you are away from your desk. To separate from the rest is to break away. If someone has a far-away look in their eyes, that means they’re daydreaming, not thinking of the present. If you have a gift for your customers, it’s called a give away. Telling someone to go away will make them leave. You can move away and relocate to another neighbourhood or city. You throw away what you want to discard. I do so hope you come away from this post with a few extra tidbits of information!

Up, up and away!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mind your Ps & Qs

You’ve probably noticed that anglos say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot. If a request is a sandwich, these two words are the bread.

Many moons ago (early 14th century), those of a lesser station (servants and the like) would address their superiors by saying ‘if it pleases you to do this …’ The first known use of ‘please’ as a stand alone is 1667 and there haven’t been many variations since then. It’s an easy way of getting someone to do something for you.

‘Thank’ comes from ‘think’ and originally implied that the speaker would always remember the service or gift that was bestowed upon them.

Of course, once we ask someone to do us a favor, we are now in their debt. Even if the only thing they did was pass the salt, we still owe them something. Luckily a simple ‘thanks’ will suffice to save our pound of flesh.

I will admit, it can get boring saying thank you, thank you, thank you all the time, so here are some alternatives:

much obliged: similar to the Portuguese 'obrigado'
thanks a bunch: ironic
I owe you one: I will return the favor
I owe you big: I will return the favor extravagantly
cheers: very informal
you shouldn't have: used especially when someone gives you a gift

To wrap up the conversation the person being thanked then goes on to say ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘my pleasure’ which translates into ‘I got satisfaction out of passing the salt to you so actually you did me a favor, I invite you to ask me to do it again.’

Know that when anglos use these words they are expressing an ingrained morality ... forgetting your Ps & Qs is an uncivilised travesty.

Of course I can’t end this communiqué without a proper thank you, so please accept this micro e-book, ‘THE’ as a token of my appreciation for your kindness, gentle reader.

Yours faithfully,

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dream On

I remember the magical moment I realized I wasn’t translating from English to Spanish any more. It was in the middle of the night. I was dreaming that I was conversing with my parents. Something seemed strange. ‘Wait a minute,’ I exclaimed to my virtual mom and dad. ‘You people don’t speak Spanish!’

Scientists are hesitant to confirm the theory that dreaming in a target language means acquisition, but it has been suggested that while our bodies rest, the brain is extracting and processing the useful information we have accumulated. Wouldn’t you like to know how to tap into that infinite resource that is your brain? Here are some tips on how to remember your dreams and use that ‘down time’ to your linguistic advantage.

First, get yourself a journal to write your notes. It can be plain or fancy, lined or with blank pages. You’ll need a pencil at least, but you also might get some colored pencils or markers to highlight certain themes or threads. Keep these items on your night table so they are handy in case you wake up in the middle of the night. Having one of those little book lights isn’t a bad idea.

Before turning out the light, write that day’s date on the first blank page and jot down one thing you want to dream about. This one thing could be specific like a word, a phrase or a grammatical structure or more general like having a conversation with someone. Remember, your Dream Journal is your communication channel between your conscious and your subconscious so it’s important to follow this step. If you tell your subconscious what you want it to do, it tends to listen.

You must record your dreams as soon as you wake up, even if it’s in the middle of the night. Otherwise you will forget them. This task can be difficult at first, as at best you may only remember fragments. Write down everything you can remember … colors, textures, feelings, language … with time you will train yourself to remember more complete sequences.

Get enough sleep. It’s just logical that the more you sleep, the more you’ll dream. If you like to fall asleep with the TV on, put the audio in English.

In my own personal experience, it took very little time to be able to intervene in and control my dreams, perhaps a few weeks. Currently I enjoy seeing far away friends and flying.

Jumping into the conscious world, I’d like to recommend a book that outlines a holistic way of using your brain. Written for learners, teachers and decision makers, ‘Brain Power’ by dear friend and colleague Rita Baker illustrates that you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand how the brain works. Take a look inside for free here:

Sweet dreams,

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Recently I was doing a fluency workshop with a group of C level executives. The first thing I asked them to do was to rate their abilities. They were all silent. Nobody seemed to know what to say. Finally one brave soul raised her hand and asked, “what does ‘rate’ mean?”

Out of the 12 highly intelligent women and men in the room, not one of them had any understanding of this common word. When you took the Fluency Questionnaire, you rated your abilities, but this word is not on the page because I know it’s challenging for English as a second language learners to comprehend.

So, as in the example you rated your abilities, the word means to evaluate, calculate, measure. The percentage your bank charges on the money you borrow to buy your home is called your mortgage rate (price). A parking garage charges an hourly rate (price). Your heart rate (speed) indicates to medical personnel if you are well or not. A movie can be well-rated (of a certain quality). You rate (deserve) a gold medal for your efforts. Something that is of high quality is first-rate whereas a second-rate product or service is really terrible.

At any rate, you rate high in my books!

Speaking of books, have you visited the ‘Speak English Once and for All’ facebook group lately? If not, why not drop in to like, share and say hi:

See you there,