Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Silver Spoon

Being one of the 7 metals of antiquity, silver has long been valued as a precious metal. As currency, a conductor or as decoration, it has been used by humans since prehistoric times.

And you may recall that we use the word ‘silver’ as our reference point for a particular vowel sound. In primary school they called this sound the ‘short i’ (as opposed to the ‘long i’ that you hear in white). But the sound is not always represented by the letter ‘i’ as in business, build and women.

And to make matters worse, you probably don’t have this sound in your first language, so you have to learn it. So, today I have a special treat for you. I asked my dear friend and colleague, pronunciation expert Peggy Tharpe, to give us some tips on how we can master this sound. Here is what she explains:

The first thing we have to be aware of is that in the place of the silver sound, you are using the ‘green’ sound. Say /Ey/ (the vowel sound in ‘green’). Your tongue moves up diagonally from the bottom of your mouth, coming to touch your bottom teeth. The lips and jaw are tensed. Repeat a few times until you can identify where your tongue is.

From this sound, Peggy takes us to what is called the schwa, or as I like to call it, ‘mustard.’ This sound is easy to make … imagine you arrive home from a long day at work, you plop down on the sofa and you say ‘uh.’ This is the mustard sound. Practice this sound a few times. The lips and jaw are totally relaxed and your tongue rests at the bottom of your mouth.

Now we can try the silver sound. Your jaw and lips are relaxed. Your tongue moves up to touch your top teeth. To help your tongue learn this new trick, try standing in front of a mirror and as you say the first syllable of the word ‘silver’ bring your shoulders up towards your ears. This action is what Peggy calls a ‘Body Buddy:’ a large muscle movement that coaches it’s little brother, the tongue muscle.

Peggy describes the tongue as a rebellious teenager who doesn’t listen to its parents … the brain. Intellectually, you can understand the concept, but the tongue itself resists cooperation. But for some reason, the tongue does listen to a bigger sibling. This is why the Body Buddy will help you.

Peggy’s website is chockfull of pronunciation solutions for speakers of many different languages so I guarantee you’ll find the answers you’re looking for:

Every cloud has a silver lining,

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

5 Tips to Push Your English to the Next Level

How long has it been since you read ‘Speak English Once and for All?’ How are you coming along? Are you happy with your progress? Perhaps you feel like you are on a learning plateau ... a flatline in the learning curve. Today I have a 5 tips on how to push yourself up to the next level.

Be optimistic. This doesn’t mean being happy all the time, optimistic people get sad just as often as pessimists. But whereas a pessimist sees failure as, well … failure, an optimist sees it as a wonderful learning opportunity. Thomas Edison, the man who didn’t invent the lightbulb over 10,000 times said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Apply the Pareto Principle. Otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule, it suggests that 80% of production, ownership or frequency comes from 20% of the sources. So if you have 100 apple trees in your orchard, 20 of them will produce 80% of the total fruit. The average native English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. That same speaker uses only 5% of those words 80% of the time. Remember, I keep telling you about those 1000 Most Common Words? Concentrate on those.

Use your kinetic intelligence. Do you remember how you learned to ride a bike? I’m 100% sure you didn’t read a book about it. Same goes for your fluency training. Talk to your plant, write your shopping list in English and dance while you’re listening to music. This physical activity helps internalise our learning and reach a better understanding.

Ask questions. When I started out teaching ESL, the majority of my clientele was under 6 years old. Wow, are they quick learners! What makes them that way? Small children don’t try to appear ‘clever.’ They are not the least bit embarrassed when they don’t know the meaning of a word and they are certainly not afraid to ask the same question 100 times if necessary. They experiment with words to know exactly when and where each one is appropriate. They do not stop until they feel secure that they have reached a full and deep understanding.

Reward yourself. When I was a kid I used to compete in Speech Arts competitions. Win or lose, my parents would take me out for an ice cream just to say ‘good job for getting up on that stage, Jen.’ Learning a second language can be as scary as getting in front of an auditorium full of people, so give yourself a treat for your efforts. You could take yourself out to breakfast, watch a funny cat video on youtube (or any other ‘useless waste of time’ that makes you smile), visit a museum or art gallery, spend a small amount of money on something you want but don’t need or buy yourself some flowers. But don’t do any of these things on the spur of the moment. Tell yourself on Monday what your reward will be at the end of the week. Research indicates that anticipation is the bigger part of happiness.

Perhaps now is a good time to check your progress. Click the button to take the Fluency Questionnaire:

You are awesome!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Silver vs. Green

By now you must know that I’m a big fan of sound. I married a music promoter. My whole family either sings or plays a musical instrument (we have guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas, a piano, diverse percussion instruments … ) I even have my own radio station!

Perhaps it’s part of my culture … have you ever noticed that anglos can’t stand silence? We even have music for a 10 second elevator trip!

Now, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you and I hear some of the same sounds differently. For example, to me the word ‘silver’ sounds like /sil-vEr/. To a Spanish speaking ear it sounds like /sEyl-vEr/, the same sound that’s in the word ‘green’. This is completely unintelligible to a native English speaker because the tonic (the vowel sound of the important syllable) isn’t correctly pronounced. It is not a question of accent reduction, but rather accent neutralisation. This involves learning to hear the sounds so that you can reproduce them correctly.

We learn to distinguish between the different sounds our mothers make when we are still in the womb. Those sounds are ingrained in our brain like a statue carved in stone. This makes learning a new sound as an adult so challenging. I remember trying to learn the Catalan ‘ll.’ My tongue did all kinds of weird tricks until it figured out where it was supposed to be.

Reading and writing won’t help you with this. You need to listen and speak. I’ve put together a collection of videos for you to watch that are perfect for your level. Just go to my youtube channel:

There are different playlists according to what you’re looking for. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive notifications of new videos!

To the Silver Tongue,


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Chewing the Fat

If you made a list of your top ten things to do, I bet ‘chewing the fat with friends’ would be on it. And although this may seem like a trivial endeavor, social capital is responsible for our health, happiness and longevity. Harvard’s Robert Putnam says that by joining a social group, you will cut your chances of dying this year by half.

That’s a pretty startling statement!

Here’s another: Speaking with someone in English for 1 hour will improve your fluency level more than 100 hours of studying grammar books. So put those books away and get out there and be social! You will improve your English and live longer for it!

Who can you talk to? An experienced and empathetic professional is a good place to build the confidence you need to go out and speak with strangers. Most cities have conversation groups that meet in a cafĂ© or restaurant on a weekly basis. And of course the internet provides a plethora of possibilities to communicate with other people … perhaps there is someone in the ‘Speak English Once and for All’ facebook group that you can connect with. Just take a look at the thread ‘Wanna Chew the Fat?

Happy chatting,

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Daily Bread

"A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said, 'is what we chiefly need.”
Lewis Carroll

Bread is a pretty important part of western culture. Breaking bread with someone (having a meal together) often leads to friendship, builds a solid base for a good business relationship or smooths over disputes with a rival.

Your occupation provides with with a regular income. You may have other projects on the go, but your salary is your bread and butter. And to know which side your bread is buttered on is knowing who’s the boss.

“Hey man, I’m flat, can you shoot me some bread?” Means, “Hello friend, I don’t have any money. Can I borrow some?”

It is said however that, ’man cannot live on bread alone.’ in addition to the bare essentials in life, we need art and friends and love.

And perhaps you are hooked on a new fad, or there’s a new product out on the market that just knocks your socks off. It’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Just like the English Laboratory Fluency Questionnaire! It will tell you what level you're at and how long it will take you to reach fluency:

May your bread basket be plentiful,

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Shhh ... Secret Message

There are very few absolute rules in English. But one that you can count on is that the present participle and the gerund will always be ‘ing.’ Never irregular, there are almost two dozen different situations where you can use it, so it’s pretty handy. Now, I’m sure you know it as a verb (you’re reading this blog), as a noun (let’s go shopping) and as an adjective (that was an amazing movie!). But do you know about the secret message it conveys?

We use the ‘ing’ to convey our level of empathy towards our listener or the emotion involved in what the speaker is saying. Imagine that you have to catch a train at 5pm. On the way to the train station you stop into a shop to buy some gum. There is a huge line-up. If you wait in line you will miss your train ... but you really want that gum! You approach the first person in line. You could say:

“Would you mind if I butted in, my train leaves in 15 minutes.”


“Would you mind if I butted in, my train is leaving in 15 minutes.”

Which do you think is more appropriate? Why? What does the second sentence convey that the first sentence does not?

“My train leaves in 15 minutes” is a bland piece of information.“My train is leaving in 15 minutes” communicates a sense of urgency … that deadline is coming up fast!

Now, do you remember we talked about Distancing? We speak in the present when we are talking to close friends or equals and move the construction further into the past as the relationship becomes more formal and especially when we are speaking to a superior.

In the above example, the speaker asks ‘would you mind if I butted in’ as opposed to ‘do you mind if I but in.’ The latter option (being in the present tense) implies familiarity or friendship. Since the speaker has never met the listener before, s/he moves back to the past to express regard. The ‘ing’ expresses their feelings of apology (for causing an inconvenience) and friendliness (in the hope of it being reciprocated).

More than proper grammar and an extensive vocabulary, understanding these abstract concepts in communication in English will bring you closer to fluency. You can take a step in that direction by clicking this button:

Looking forward to next week,

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Are You Resourceful?

What’s your primary resource for improving your English fluency? How much would you say you use that resource?

I recently conducted a poll asking these same questions and although the answer to the first one varied widely, the answer to the second question was consistently upwards of 80% of the time.

Whoa! That’s way too much time to spend on one aspect of the language. Think about listening, speaking, reading and writing as your children. Would you spend 80% of your time with one of them, leaving only 20% of your time to spread thin between the other three? No way, they are each their own person and require their own special attention, but you have an equally bottomless well of love for each one. Likewise, you should dedicate equal time to the four main fluency skills.

Now, I’m not saying you do less of what you obviously enjoy very much. Rather, I’m suggesting that you do more of those things that have not been getting so much of your attention. If you’re at a loss for what you can do, you can visit the facebook group. Please read through other people’s tips and tricks in the ‘Action!’ thread and feel free to add your own. I’m always excited to the hear about the creative ways you think up to reach your fluency goal.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein

Have fun!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

At Last!

Everyone should have a few fancy words in their vocabulary, like everyone should have a fancy pair of shoes in their closet. You may not wear them often, but when the occasion is right, they’re the only ones that will do.

Most days however, we’re not going to fancy balls and the opera, so we wear our everyday clothes. We can mix and match tops and trousers to make combinations for work or the weekend. These clothes are our basics.

Likewise, 80% of what a native English speaker says are the same words used over and over in different combinations and contexts. The other 20% is just for special occasions.

I just love four-letter words, so today let’s look at ‘last’ and a few of its multiple meanings.

Final: That's the last thing I want to do!
Latest: What did you do last weekend?
Previous: Did you see the last presentation?
Continue: How long did the presentation last?

You can see that last can be a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb. Cool, eh? And each one of these definitions has its own little variants. Take a look at your favorite online dictionary and research a few more and write sentences using the word last in different contexts.

The Daily Training Program (DTP) is a great way to keep on top of your vocabulary-building efforts and it’s included in every package. Right now I’ve got a special 7 day trial offer on the Private Lessons Package ... only 0.99€! This offer not only includes the DTP but also 3 private lessons with a native speaker so click the button to reserve your first class:

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Listen Up!

Here is how you learned your first language:

listening > speaking > reading > writing > grammar

If you learned English as a second language in school, you probably did the exact opposite. You started with the grammar, you copied meaningless words and phrases, you read textbooks, your speech was unintelligible to a native speaker and it was likely quite difficult for you to understand what anybody was saying.

Your ears are the very first part of your body you should be using to learn to speak English fluently. Remember, your mouth only does half of the work in your first language too. The rest of a conversation is spent listening. Otherwise, how would you know what to say?

And believe it or not, the actual words are of relative unimportance. I’ve mentioned before that only 20% of our communication is what we say. The rest is gestures, facial expressions and tone. For example, I know when a native English speaker is asking me a question ... even if the structure of the sentence is not in the interrogative form, there are no question words and including if the speaker uses only one word ... because their tone goes up at the very end. This change in the sound tells me how to respond.

Sound, that’s the important thing. There are 40 sounds in English, 24 consonant sounds and 16 vowel sounds. Without a doubt, the vowel sounds are the most important and are also the sounds you likely find more challenging. I encourage you to practice them with this three-minute ESL Vowel Sounds Yoga workout video:

As with the other 'homework' I recommend, it's in your best interest to practice with this video every day: perhaps in the morning to start the day off by centering yourself or as a break in the middle of the day, or in the evening to end the day with a nice relaxing exercise. Either way, work it into your daily agenda and you will find that you dominate these 16 essential sounds in no time!

Have a great week!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Just this week a new student signed up with me and she said something I’d like to share with you,

“I will never be fluent in English.”

Ouch! She continued by saying she’s been studying for a very long time and feels like she’s been running around in circles getting nowhere.

When I moved from Canada to Spain almost a quarter of a century ago I knew four words in Spanish: Dos cervezas por favor. And I couldn’t even say those right. So how did I get from zero to being fluent (TV and radio appearances, magazine articles)? I chunked.

What is that? Chunking is breaking a big thing down into smaller pieces. The process involves understanding the smaller tasks and putting them on a timeline. Reaching these mini goals is rewarding and keeps you focused, making you hungry for more victories.

I discovered this method while studying Theatre Direction at university. Think about your fluency as opening night. What has to be done in the weeks and months prior to the big show? The actors have to learn their lines, the costumes have to be made, the set has to be built, posters and programs have to be designed and printed … and as you can imagine, all these tasks have to be executed in a specific order. It’s so much easier to do this by working backwards.

Perhaps the best way to start is with a good, old-fashioned pencil and a piece of paper. Brainstorm all the things you have to do to reach fluency. Here are a few things that may be on your list:

  • Look for a good teacher
  • Learn the irregular verbs
  • Master the sounds in English (the sounds are the building blocks)
  • Amass vocabulary
  • Learn what the different verb tenses are for (we use the tenses to express more than just time)
  • Join a conversation group

This list has very general concepts on it but you should make yours as specific as possible. For example, ‘amass vocabulary’ could be ‘learn 5 new words every day.’

Next draw a line on your piece of paper and write ‘FLUENCY’ at the far right end. Now put all the points on your list in chronological order along the timeline. The following step is to determine the regularity with which you will be performing these tasks. For example, if you do your research, you will only have to look for a good teacher once, but you will have to learn some new words every day to keep up the momentum. So now go to your agenda (the one you use for work) and load all your tasks onto it. When that little bell goes off … do it!

Directing a play is a lot like learning a language. You start out with a few words, you go through a process and then you amaze your audience. It’s tempting to dream about the great reviews while you’re still rehearsing, but in reality this only distracts you from your goal. By focusing on each step, the work gets done in a logical sequence ... and I emphasise ‘gets done.’

Start brainstorming your list right now. Just grab any old scrap of paper and write down the first things that come to your head. Stuck for ideas? Why not check out the ‘Speak English Once and for All’ facebook group?

Break a leg!

ps: ‘break a leg’ is a theatre expression that means ‘good luck.’ It’s considered bad luck to say ‘good luck!’

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Pronunciation of the Final 'ed'

Oooh! I’m excited because I have a really cool tip to share with you today. It’s about pronunciation … a subject I know is of great interest to you!

I talked a bit about the pronunciation of the final ‘ed’ of regular verbs in the past simple and in the participle forms in my book (Speak English Once and for All), but today I have a graphic for you that I think is going to make the patterns a whole lot clearer. (Drum roll, please …)

As the number ‘1’ indicates, start at the top of the diagram. Answer the questions and you will be pronouncing the regular verbs in the Past Simple perfectly in no time! I know it takes a little getting used to, but then again, so did driving a car and now it’s second nature to you.

I’ve got lots of info-bites like this in my courses, so why don’t you have a look at them. There is a package available to suit your budget, schedule and level. Don’t be shy! Click the button and take a peek, there’s no obligation to buy:

Best regards,

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Out of Hand!

Hands are handy to have. When my children were born I wished I’d had an extra pair grow from my knees to pick things up from the floor.

That little stick on your wall clock that spins around at a relative speed is called a hand. You can give a hand to someone in a couple ways: as in helping or applause. A person’s calligraphy is known as their hand. You can give someone something by handing it to them. You have a big hand in the direction your life takes.

A person who performs manual labor is known as a hand. The playing cards you are dealt are a hand. Something that is not produced by a machine is hand-made. You can hand something over (usually reluctantly!) to somebody. Hands-down, this is one of my favorite all-terrain words.

Whew … that’s a lot of information. On the other hand, I know you enjoy a challenge! There are even more meanings and collocations for the word hand out there. You can discover more about collocations (and a lot more stuff too!) in Judy Thompson's book English is Stupid, Students are Not. It's available as a gift here.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

3 Solid Reasons to Watch

Today I wanted to check up on you. Are you watching videos and/or TV in English? Maybe you’ve given it a try but you’ve found it frustrating not being able to understand everything. Honestly, like I mention in my book (Speak English Once and for All), I don’t understand everything either. Thank goodness for Netflix. You can rewind and watch it again until it becomes clear. Just in case you were thinking of eliminating this activity from your Training Program, let me give you three really good reasons to stick with it.

  1. Authentic Material
The problem with material designed for learners is that real people don’t talk like that. Watching the TV that native speakers watch opens the door to their world of communication: alternative vocabulary, new catch phrases and collocations.

     2. Context
Remember the multiple meanings of words? So you’ve been diligently writing your sentences using the words from the 1000 Most Common Words list. And you’ve been investigating the different uses on forums and online dictionaries. Now it’s time to hear those words in action! It’s time to discover the ‘where’ (before the verb? After the subject?) and the ‘when’ (with friends, with a client … ).

   3. Words are Only 20% of what we Say
That’s right! The rest of our communication comes from gestures, facial expressions and the tone of our voice. Three little words like ‘I love you’ can have a myriad of meanings depending on how we say it. If I throw my arms around you and say it with a song in my voice, you know that I cherish you. I could say it sarcastically, which of course would mean the exact opposite. When watching, don’t limit yourself to the vocabulary, watch out for body language too.

One little word of advice: start out small with this project. Watch 5-10 minute videos to begin with and then work your way up to a 20-minute series. If you’d like some suggestions about what to watch, please visit my youtube channel. Don’t forget to subscribe!

Happy watching!