In this series I am evaluating ChatGPT as a language-learning tool. In this part I’m experimenting with role-play conversations, job interview practice, creating texts and dialogues and seeing if it can help you prepare for Cambridge exams like IELTS or CAE.
This is part 2 of a 3-part episode in which I am playing around with ChatGPT in order to see how it can help you learn English.
ChatGPT is a sophisticated AI chatbot. You can ask it questions and give it commands and it responds instantly. This is the most advanced AI chatbot I have ever used and it is quite impressive how it can do so many different tasks. We’re all finding out how we can use it and how it can be useful as a time-saving tool for many things, including learning and teaching English.
Of course ChatGPT is not without its critics. Some of those criticisms include the fact that ChatGPT will probably encourage cheating and will make it harder for institutions like schools to detect cheating. Noam Chomsky the well-known linguist and intellectual has described it as high-tech plagiarism, because it essentially regurgitates other people’s work and doesn’t provide citations or sources for the information it provides, and also people are suggesting that ChatGPT or AI in general could ultimately lead to a lot of people losing their jobs.
Does that include me, and other English teachers like me? Can ChatGPT replace English teachers, content creators or even the need to practise English with humans at all?
I’m not entirely sure, and we’re all working these things out at the moment, since this is perhaps the first time this kind of technology has been so accessible and now everyone’s using it, learning about it and thinking about it.
There are very interesting debates about this going on, but in this episode I’m focusing mainly on things you can do with ChatGPT, seeing how it works, and evaluating it’s effectiveness as a language learning tool.
This is part 2. In part 1 of this I asked it to create a study plan as if I was an upper-intermediate learner of English, which it instantly wrote for me. The advice was presented very clearly and a lot of it was pretty decent advice at first glance, but was it appropriate advice for the learner profile I wrote? Was the information a bit generic? What experience or research was its advice based on? We don’t really know.
Then I checked its ability to correct English errors and to explain those corrections, which it seemed to do quite well, although it lacked the ability of a human teacher to see the bigger picture and to use emotional intelligence, and then I started testing its ability to have a natural conversation, which it struggled with – mainly because as an AI language model it doesn’t have any feelings or opinions of its own and apparently these things are absolutely vital elements for a good conversation.
But is it possible to persuade ChatGPT to forget that it’s an AI chatbot and to pretend to be someone else, like a celebrity that you’d like to chat to, or your English teacher who can correct your errors while you chat?
This is what we’re looking at in part 2 here.
Also, coming up are these questions:
How well does it handle role plays in order to let you prepare to use English in specific situations?
Can you simulate job interview situations with it?
Can it create useful texts or dialogues for studying with?
Can it help you with exam preparation by providing sample written texts in response to FCE or CAE writing tasks?
Can it give you good advice for doing Cambridge exams?
Can it create reliable, useful exam practice tasks to help you prepare for IELTS?
Well, let’s find out now as we continue to play around with ChatGPT. By the way, there is a PDF script for all the things I am saying in this episode, including all the prompts I am using. You can get it on the page for this episode on my website – link in the description. If you are watching on YouTube you will see the text on the screen and I recommend that you watch this in full screen mode so you can see the text more easily.
OK, so let’s continue and here we go…
Conversation role plays for specific situations
If you need practice of using English in certain specific situations, you can ask it to help you.
I am a hotel receptionist. Can you help me deal with customer complaints?
It just gave me advice, like an article about how to deal with customer complaints.
You can ask it to create sample dialogues for you, for different situations.
Can you make a dialogue between a hotel receptionist and a customer making a complaint about their room?
It creates a pretty good model dialogue. The language you can see is professional, and polite and a good example of the kind of English you would need in that situation.
ChatGPT is good at this kind of thing. But, as a teacher in class, I might want to make sure this dialogue contained certain target language which I want to present and practise.
Again, there isn’t a brain there looking at the bigger picture, guiding you, interpreting your needs and reactions, anticipating and planning as it prepares learning materials and activities for you.
Conversation can be hard to maintain.
You need to give it very specific instructions if you want to converse with it. Otherwise it will just generate a dialogue.
Let’s do a roleplay. You pretend to be a hotel customer with a complaint, and I will be the receptionist. Can you also correct my English errors during the roleplay?
It just created the dialogue, writing lines for both people.
Let’s see what happens if I re-write the prompt more specifically.
Let’s do a roleplay. You pretend to be a hotel customer with a complaint, and I will be the receptionist. I will start by writing “Hello, can I help you”. Then give your response and wait for me to reply before writing the next line.
Can you also correct my English errors during the roleplay?
It’s very difficult to persuade it to do this.
Job interview role plays
Can you interview me for a job as a TEFL teacher at a new language school in Paris?
This worked quite well. It generated questions one after the other. It also responded when I asked for clarification.
Let’s see it it can help you prepare for an interview for a specific position.
Can we do a job interview role play? I’ll input a job advertisement and can you then interview me for the position?
You can input all the details from a job advertisement.
Just paste all the text from an online job advert, like “Marketing manager job advert” or “TEFL teacher France job advert” or “Podcast host job advert”
Inputting a large amount of text can confuse ChatGPT and it tends to just summarise the text. But then you can say “Ask me interview questions based on the job description I gave you”.
It should ask you some pretty good questions, relevant to that job, which will allow you to simulate the interview on your own, or at least prepare some answers. You could type your answers into ChatGPT and ask it for feedback.
But beware of just practising English through typing. Don’t forget that in the real world you have to speak spontaneously and you have to use social skills while doing it including things like body language.
Sample dialogues or texts
Ask it to produce sample texts or sample dialogues which you can then study with.
To be fair, this isn’t really necessary as there are so many texts and resources already available for you, including ones which are specifically created to help you learn English, but yes they are in published books and materials that you might not have immediate access to. Also, it’s simple to just go to ChatGPT and ask it to create any text or dialogue you want, following your specific instructions.
Can you write a 300 word text containing useful phrases for talking about using the toilet?
No speaking: Remember, Chat GPT won’t “say” any of these sentences because it is only in text form.
Can you create a 200 word story to present the use of narrative verb tenses in English?
What I want from this is a range of verb tenses. Past simple, past continuous, past perfect, with good clear examples of how those forms are used and how they are different to each other.
Did it do that?
Was it a good story?
Can it help with Cambridge Exam test preparation?
Let’s see if it can do a Cambridge First Certificate writing task.
Sample answers can help us to practice our writing by providing a model which we can learn from.
Let’s input a task directly into ChatGPT.
CAE Writing Part 1
You have received this email from your English-speaking friend David.
Subject: touring holiday
Some college friends of mine are visiting your area soon for a week’s touring holiday. They would like to travel around and learn about your local area and its history.
Can you tell me about some of the places they could visit? What’s the best way to travel around – car, bike or coach?
Write your email.
Write 140 – 190 words in an appropriate style.
It’s great to hear from you!
I’d be happy to give some recommendations for your college friends’ touring holiday in our area.
There are plenty of places to visit and explore around here. If your friends are interested in history, I would suggest they start with a visit to the local museum, which houses exhibits on the area’s past, including its early settlements and industrial heritage.
Another must-visit is the old castle, which is one of the most famous landmarks in the region. Your friends can take a guided tour of the castle to learn about its history and its role in the area’s development.
As for the best way to travel around, I would recommend a car. There are several car rental agencies available in the area, and it’s an efficient and flexible way to travel and explore. However, if they are more comfortable with public transport, there are several coach tours available that take visitors around to the most popular sites.
I hope your friends enjoy their time here and get to experience everything that the area has to offer.
Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.
Can you give me some advice on how to do a Cambridge FCE writing task, like the one I gave you?
The answer was pretty good but it got some things wrong.
It said that I should use a formal tone, but this isn’t always the case.
The email to David shouldn’t be formal. In fact this advice contradicts what it did in the writing task. It used some informal language there.
It didn’t refer to any assessment criteria.
I’m not sure ChatGPT is consistent or reliable enough to replace proper English language teaching.
Ask it to create IELTS practice tests
I asked it:
Can you create an IELTS reading section 3 practice test?
It created a test which looked good at first glance, but it was not a proper section 3 reading test.
The test format was different and did not follow the true, false, not given format of IELTS part 3.
So this means it is not providing sufficient practice for IELTS reading section 3.
Each part of IELTS is specifically designed to test different reading skills and each reading test is very carefully created to test those skills.
Chat GPT didn’t do this to the same standard as you would find in proper IELTS test preparation materials.
Part 2 ending
That is where we are going to stop part 2.
I hope you’re enjoying these episodes and finding them useful.
Don’t forget to leave your comments in the comment section if you have something to say.
We are going to continue in part 3 of this episode, which will be available soon. In fact it might be available for you now – check the episode description for links.
In part 3 I will be attempting to get answers to these questions:
Can you use ChatGPT like a dictionary?
Can it give us the same information about words that we can find in a good dictionary?
Can it give us correct definitions, information about parts of speech, pronunciation, example sentences, synonyms, antonyms, collocations?
Can it provide information about the etymology of words and phrases?
Can it transcribe things into phonemic script?
Does it accurately transcribe things into British English pronunciation or is it just standard American?
Can it convert between different dialects of English, e.g. will it convert American English into British English, or into specific dialects of British English?
Is it able to help us to use the right sentence stress, word stress, pausing and intonation when reading things out loud?
Can it help us practise grammar by creating quizzes or tests? Are those tests reliable?
Can it help you to remember vocabulary with tests and quizzes?
Can it help you remember words and spelling with mnemonic memory devices?
Can it create text adventure games?
Can it adapt its English to different levels?
What are my overall thoughts and conclusions about ChatGPT?
How do we know when someone’s English is good? Is it just about having the right accent, or speaking with no errors? In fact, there is a lot more to it than that. IELTS can show us how someone’s level of English is properly assessed by looking at a wide range of skills and sub-skills and there is a lot more to it than making no errors while speaking with a “British accent”. This episode should help you consider your own level of English level, get some perspective on what language competence really means, and hopefully cause people to think twice when making snap judgements about other people’s English.
How can IELTS help us to understand what “good English” is?
Why is all of this important anyway?
Here’s an episode which I hope will be really useful as a way of helping you to understand what it really means to be good at English.
We’re going to consider some things about
how English is assessed (how your English level is judged),
the different skills which are involved in using English,
and what aspects of English are the most important.
I hope this episode gives you a bit more perspective on what it means to have a good level of English.
Also there will be a lot of vocabulary for describing English skills and English levels or assessment in English, and that includes a lot of metalanguage – the language we use for talking about language. So try to notice all that vocabulary too.
Hopefully this episode will help you think about
your level of English,
how to assess a person’s level of English
and also how to talk about both of those things.
It’s important for any language learner to get a sense of what they should be aiming for in their learning, so that they don’t spend their time on the wrong things, and that they have the right things prioritised in their learning.
Do you remember the episode I published at the beginning of the year (2023) with Santi from Spain, working in a top job at Oxford University Press?
806. PERSEVERANCE, POSITIVITY & PRACTICE with Santiago Ruiz de Velasco from Oxford University Press
You will find it in the episode archive and if you haven’t heard it, go back and check it out.
This episode follows on from that one. I was inspired to do it after seeing some responses from my audience.
Just as a reminder, Santi learned English mostly as an adult when he moved to London after studying at university in Spain.
He had some very challenging experiences being immersed in the English language and eventually found his way to a top job in the English teaching industry itself – not as a teacher, but in publishing. He ended up as the Managing Director of English Language Teaching at OUP, and he got to that position despite the fact that his English is not “perfect”.
I was pleased with that episode because it allows us to use Santi’s personal experience as a way to consider the importance of motivation and attitude in dealing with challenges in learning English (or any language) and also it raised questions about what “good English” really means.
With Santi, “the proof is in the pudding”, which means that we know his English is good because he uses it successfully every day.
Every single day at work he uses English to successfully perform a number of different communication tasks. I expect he writes emails and reports in English, conducts interviews in English, does presentations, has meetings, probably does negotiations, sells products and services in English, and builds relationships with people in English – no doubt both professional relationships but also meaningful personal relationships too.
I’m assuming a lot of that because I don’t know every single thing he does in his job every day – but I’m pretty sure that he does all of those things. They’re just totally normal communication tasks at work. And it’s not just at work for Santi. I’m sure he also socialises in English.
So, I think the fact that he does all those things, seemingly successfully, this is proof of his competence in English, right?
I think it would be very hard to be the Managing Director of the ELT Dept of Oxford University Press without those kinds of communication skills in English.
But, as I mentioned, his English is certainly not “perfect” by any means (and he says this himself too), and a number of listeners in the comment section on YouTube pointed this out, saying things like “He clearly has a Spanish accent” or “He made mistakes which made me surprised that he is in that position” and “I expected someone with RP English.” etc. I am paraphrasing there, but that’s the gist of it.
What does it actually mean to have a “bad accent”?
Maybe he could use some different fillers, just to avoid repeating the same thing. But why did this person focus only on that when there were so many other positive things to take away from the episode?
What is wrong with saying “you know” ?
It doesn’t stop us understanding him. It doesn’t stop him expressing himself.
It’s just an aesthetic issue, not a functional issue.
It’s just annoying for some people, but it doesn’t actually change the message or cause anyone misunderstandings.
Perspective here – it’s not such a big deal, unless you’re really focused on it. Sure, Santi could work on this, but we all have things to work on.
Fair enough, that one is quite funny.
I shouldn’t focus on the negative comments. The vast majority were positive, I must say. But I notice that whenever I feature someone on this podcast who is not a native speaker, and even some guests who are native speakers but have accents that are not RP, some listeners have to comment or criticise what they are hearing. I don’t think this is really the right attitude to have.
It’s not a competition, is it?
But, the fact that Santi has that job, has achieved that and continues to do that in English is something that can’t be taken away from him. I mean, people can point out errors in his English, but ultimately, the fact remains that he uses English very successfully on a daily basis. That’s important – the fact that he uses English “successully”.
Because this is the point of language. It is functional and it should be judged first and foremost on that – whether it works as a communication tool.
Sure, aesthetics are important too. The absolute best communicators also have English which is a pleasure to listen to, which is easy on the ears and is rich, pleasant and entertaining. But that stuff is also a matter of opinion and taste, and is really just the cherry on the top of the cake most of the time. Why focus on the cherry? You need to have a cake first, before you can have the cherry. You need something for the cherry to go on, right?
Priorities – focus in the really important things first – the cake – and then work on the aesthetics – the cherry on the top.
I’m getting a bit lost in this metaphor now, but I hope you get what I mean.
Common attitudes and assumptions about “good English”
The point is that these comments are indicative of certain attitudes about English proficiency. They show us what a lot of people think makes someone “good at English”, namely:
Accuracy (using English without making errors) especially grammatical accuracy is the most important thing and speaking with zero errors is what makes you good at English. No mistakes.
All learners of English should have RP as their target in terms of pronunciation, and if you speak with a different accent or with obvious traces of your first language then this is a problem. And hearing someone use English with an accent is somehow “shocking” or even “unpleasant”.
You’re good at English if you use complex English, meaning longer words, formal words, idioms and convoluted sentence structure.
So, basically, you need to make no “pronunciation errors” or “grammar mistakes” and use complex “impressive” language.
That short list of assumptions is based on the things I’ve heard and read from learners of English during my teaching career. I’ve met thousands of learners of English and also read thousands of online comments from learners of English too and I often notice those attitudes.
I suppose it is understandable really, that some people think like that.
Not everyone has thought about this subject a lot because they don’t work in language teaching, people have been taught that English is all about correct grammar and correct pronunciation, and these things are obvious “low hanging fruit” in terms of English assessment.
It’s not everyone’s job to think about how to assess someone’s language level, and to be honest I only learned about this from doing professional training, reading academic books, teaching IELTS courses and working out the assessment criteria for Cambridge Exams and stuff.
And we’re going to look at that official assessment criteria for judging someone’s language level later in this episode in order to find out that it’s not just about grammar and pronunciation errors and that there are other important factors. Obviously, being “correct” in pronunciation and grammar are important things, but only to a certain extent.
Like with the example of Santi. I feel like some of those comments are trying to take away Santi’s achievements, but you can’t, can you?
The fact remains that although he makes a few mistakes in grammar, and clearly has a Spanish accent when he speaks English – despite those things, he is a very successful user of the English language and you can’t take that away from him. So how does he manage it, without being “perfect”?
What makes someone good at English then? What else is important?
What I’d like to do now is to talk about actually what makes someone good at English and to show that there is a lot more involved than just accuracy (making no errors) and also complexity (using big impressive, rare words that nobody else knows).
Defining what makes someone good at English should be an important thing for us all to consider and remember.
For you, if you are a learner of English, this is all about how you can get a sense of what you should be focusing on and what you should be trying to achieve. Also it can help you get out of a negative frame of mind when learning English. If you’re afraid that your pronunciation is not perfect or that you know you make errors, it might help to know that those things are not the be-all and end-all in this English speaking game.
Also, if you are a teacher of English, like me, thinking about this can help us to guide our students and provide the right kind of teaching to help them to achieve things in English.
How do you assess someone’s English level?
Let’s use IELTS as a way of helping us to answer this question. By looking at how IELTS measures someone’s English level, we can work out what “good English” actually means.
What is IELTS?
The International English Language Testing System, is an international standardized test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers. It is jointly managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English, and was established in 1989. (Wikipedia)
Basically it is probably the standard international test for assessing someone’s level of English as a foreign or other language.
Working out someone’s level of English accuractely and reliably is not easy. Sure, I could speak with a learner of English for 10 minutes and get a good idea of their level, but to get a fully detailed assessment including different reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, a longer and more rigorous test is needed.
This is why the IELTS test is quite long and quite complex. It takes a few hours to do the test and it’s divided into lots of different parts. It’s all done in a serious and thorough way.
IELTS is a test that has been developed over a very long time, by experts in English language teaching and testing, based on a lot of academic research and professional experience into how people learn and use the English language.
IELTS was developed by academics, teachers and examiners from Cambridge University and The British Council. These people know what they’re doing when it comes to finding out someone’s level of English. They want to do it properly, because this is important.
Universities and employers want to get a reliable sense of the level of English of potential students or employees so they can be sure that those people will be able to use English to study or work successfully. A reliable test is vital for this, and that’s what IELTS is for.
It might not be a perfect test. There’s probably room for improvement. In fact, it probably could be even longer and even more thorough, but that might just be impractical.
Anyway, let’s look at the way IELTS works, and we’ll see if we can draw from it some conclusions about the whole question of what it means to be good at English.
IELTS is in 4 sections – Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing.
Already this shows that there are 4 skills involved in someone’s English ability, and of course this reflects the type of things that you might need to do in English.
You have to speak to people, listen to people speaking in various situations, you have to read English in different forms, and you have to be able to write in English. OK.
So it’s not just speaking skills. That’s just one part of the picture.
Of course speaking is often considered as the most important skill. It’s the obvious skill. This is what we notice in people. As well as being vital for functional social communication, speaking is very closely connected to our identity and the way we express who we are to the world.
Naturally, it is often the way your English is judged. Because people meet you, talk to you and then immediately get a sense your English level from that conversation. Fair enough. Speaking is important, but in IELTS it is only 25% of the test. It represents 25% of your final IELTS score. And as we will see, speaking can be divided into different sections too – and pronunciation is only one of those sections.
This is underestimated in terms of its importance. I’ve talked before about how, perhaps surprisingly, we spend more time listening than doing any of the other skills.
Also, it is absolutely vital that we understand the people we are talking to. If not, everything breaks down.
One way that I judge someone’s language level when I’m talking to them, is the amount of effort I have to make for me to be understood by that person. This is a way for me to judge their listening skills in conversation.
If I just talk normally, without having to adapt my English or pay close attention to make sure the other person is following me, if I can just talk normally and be myself, it means their English is great.
I have met people who have had good English on paper and who were capable of producing sophisticated spoken English, but they were simply bad at having a conversation because their listening skills were not so great. They didn’t seem to be listening or just did not pick up on a lot of the things I was saying.
For example, while listening to me talk, they didn’t seem to realise how I felt about certain things we were talking about, they didn’t notice little jokes I was making, they didn’t react to certain points I made and did not respond to my efforts to talk about certain things, and it wasn’t because they were just bad communicators even in their own language. It’s because their listening just wasn’t good enough and they were not able to follow what I was saying, and in fact didn’t even realise it.
Listening also relates to being able to deal with different accents. English is a diverse language and people speak it slightly differently all over the world, and this is a good thing and a beautiful thing, so being good at English means being able to understand English in all its diversity.
Only a very small percentage of people speak English like me, with my accent (let’s call it standard modern English RP). If you hear someone from, well, anywhere, and they have an accent which is in any way different from my standard British English, or whatever accent you consider to be neutral, and you don’t understand it then I’m afraid that is not the fault of the accent or the person speaking it.
It’s because your listening skills are still not good enough. You are still not familiar with spoken English. Don’t feel bad about it though, that’s not the point.
The point is, listening skills are a huge part of the puzzle. Think of Santi. He described struggling so much every day when working in London as a waiter. He did not understand what people were saying to him.
People were asking for a coke and he was bring them their coat. His first arrived in London and actually heard real English being spoken and he freaked out. It wasn’t like in the text books at school.
In London I expect he met various English people from different parts of the country. The English he heard was unrecognisable to him at the beginning, because he simply had never heard it before.
His English listening skills improved dramatically while living in the UK. When I spoke to him I felt he was completely on my wavelength and I didn’t have to struggle or make a lot of effort to kind of adapt my English or myself during the conversation. I could relax and I felt like he would be able to follow my train of thought.
A lot of listening is connected to pronunciation. Good listening skills also relate to an ability to understand the way people produce the oral version of English, and this means being familiar with things like connected speech, elision, sentence stress, word stress, weak forms and all of those things. It’s about knowing the oral version of the language, which is often very very different to the written version. This doesn’t just mean knowing it academically (understanding the phonology), but knowing it through familiarity – having heard a lot of English from diverse sources so that you have kind of trained your ears to it, so it’s not a huge shock or surprise when you actually hear it being used in the normal way.
I don’t have so much to say about this except that reading is not just about knowing the words that you are seeing, and knowing which grammatical forms are being used. It involves being able to identify the bigger picture – what those words and that grammar are really communicating to you.
Can you identify the opinion or attitude of the person who wrote the text? (What they think, or whether they are being serious or humorous in their writing)
Can you identify their mood, their intentions, the overall purpose of the writing?
Can you identify what kind of text it is – an article in a newspaper, a business report, an advertisement, a formal email, a personal email, an internal email, an external email, a piece of fiction, a humorous true story, a religious text, an old fashioned piece of writing, something modern?
Are you aware of the different stylistic and linguistic conventions of different types of text?
Are you able to read between the lines?
Can you identify specific information as well as more general things?
It’s more than just knowing individual words and grammar forms. It’s also about overall text structure, organisation, and tone.
Again, it’s not just about speaking. In the real world, all of these things come into play, all the time. It’s all a mix of dealing with input, understanding it, and responding to it, while managing the pragmatics of communication – what impact language has on other people.
This relates to reading in the way that’s it’s not just about knowing lots of words or grammar points, but knowing how to put those words and structures together to make a piece of writing that is coherent (easy to understand), cohesive (logical and organised) and which does what it is supposed to do (persuade, inform, request information, entertain, etc).
With writing, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a bit like cooking a good meal. It’s not just the ingredients and the cooking utensils, it’s about having the overall vision for making a delicious meal and then using those ingredients and utensils to produce the intended result, and deliver it at the right time and have your guests say “Mmm, this is delicious” at the end of the process. Writing is a bit like that.
In terms of words that you might use in writing (or speaking) it’s not about knowing a lot of words. That helps of course but some people might judge their English by the number of words they know – like, the higher the number, the better they are at English.
And it’s not about how fancy or obscure those words are. Some people might judge their English by the rarity of the words they know – e.g. knowing some words that even a lot of native English speakers don’t know. That’s not necessarily an indication of being good at English. What’s the use of writing something that most people just can’t understand because you’re using very old or very obscure words?
It’s not about the number or the value of each word on its own, it is about using the right words, in the right combinations, at the right moments, to achieve the right result.
It’s no good writing an email to someone and filling it with loads of complex and literary words than nobody really uses on a daily basis. The effect on the reader will be just to confuse them. That’s failing to communicate.
Watch out for those teaching materials, videos, whatever that say things like “Use these 5 words to get a high score in IELTS”. It’s not just about using certain fancy words. It’s all about whether you are able to achieve certain results in English communication.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
English is not just about what you know, it’s about what you can do.
It’s about your ability to complete tasks in English effectively. To understand other people and then have other people understand you. It’s about knowing when to use simple English and when it is appropriate or necessary to use something more complex, or something more specific. Right words, right form, right order, right time.
So I just talked about the 4 skills in English – speaking & listening, writing & reading.
Speaking & listening are together because they deal with the oral version of the language. The language in the air.
Reading & writing go together because they deal with the written version of English – the language written down.
Now, because I’m referring to my interview with Santi, which was an oral interview, let’s focus our attention for the rest of this episode on the spoken word, on speaking skills.
I did say that speaking is only a quarter of the whole picture, but I think for many of you out there, speaking is what you want to focus on, right?
So let’s consider what makes someone a good speaker of English?
What I’m going to do now is look at IELTS assessment criteria.
Assessment criteria means the specific ways in which English is judged. The specific standards by which English is assessed.
How do IELTS examiners judge someone’s level of English?
When you take an IELTS speaking test you will receive a score.
This score is calculated by the examiner after they have listened to you and then marked you in a few sub-categories. Speaking is broken down into a few sub-categories and you’re given a score for each category, and then those scores are added together and then an average score is worked out.
What are those categories?
Fluency & coherence
Grammatical range & accuracy
Each category is defined further and certain criteria or standards are defined which help the examiners decide what score to give in each category.
In other Cambridge Exams, like FCE and CAE, speaking scores are assessed with similar criteria to IELTS, but there’s also a score for Global Achievement. This is like a score for overall task achievement.
When you do a speaking test, you’re given a few tasks to do (short interview, having a discussion, doing a short monologue or presentation) and global achievement basically means “did the person manage to complete the task effectively”.
Candidate speaking performances are assessed using scales which are linked to the CEFR. The assessor gives 0–5 marks for each of the following criteria:
Grammar and Vocabulary;
and Interactive Communication.
Marks for each of these criteria are doubled.
The interlocutor gives a mark of 0–5 for Global Achievement.
This mark is then multiplied by four.
Basically, this means that “global achievement” is more important than any other single criteria.
What is “global achievement”? For me, this is how well the person succeeded in the communication task.
Your ability to complete a communication task effectively is more important than just your correct pronunciation or grammar. Having a few errors in your English is not the end of the world and what’s more important is task achievement. And that includes all that stuff about getting things done in English and getting the right result from a bit of speaking.
For example, did you work well with your speaking partner in order to achieve the task you were doing – maybe to discuss some travel options before deciding together which one was the best, or having to make another joint decision.
Actually, let’s have a look at a sample part 3 section from a CAE speaking test.
By the way, CAE is another English test, designed by Cambridge English. If you pass the test, you get a certificate which proves that you have advanced level English at C1 level.
CAE is similar to IELTS, is based on the same research and conclusions that have been used in creating IELTS, so it can also help us to understand how English is assessed.
Let’s look at the extracts to see an example of a speaking task that people have to do when taking CAE. In part 3 the examiner is interested in seeing how people use English to achieve something in collaboration with someone else. It’s about interaction and working together for a common goal. Important communication skills, right?
You should see how Global Achievement or Task Achievement is important here. This is about how you were able to use English to complete a communication task and I think that is a really important thing to be included in the exam and for people taking the exam to consider. Remember what language is for – it is for achieving things and completing tasks effectively.
If you can do that, you’ll get a good score for Global Achievement.
So this means that having good English is not only about the individual words being used, the accuracy of the grammar or the accuracy of the pronunciation. It is about those things, but it is also about whether you organised your ideas correctly and clearly, whether you listened carefully to the other person, understood their intentions and responded with relevance to what they said, and that you were both able to complete the task.
It’s not about any one single thing, any one single aspect of English. It’s about all of them, in combination.
Ultimately, communication is a means to an end (a tool for a job). The means (the tool) is the language, but the end result is to actually make an agreement, make someone feel something, make someone understand something, organise something with someone, and successfully complete a specific task.
So, Santi didn’t pronounce some words and sentences “correctly” or in the same way that I would, but in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter.
He might have conjugated some verbs wrongly (like getting a few ED endings wrong, or forgetting 3rd person S or even just using present tenses when he should have used past tenses, sometimes) but in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter.
Now, those things are still important to get right – don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you don’t need to be correct in grammar or pronunciation or that it doesn’t matter which words you’re using. Santi would get more points in an exam if he improved some of those little errors.
Of course those things are important. The point I’m making is that it’s about the bigger picture and there are plenty of other factors involved.
Specific IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors
I’m going to get really specific now. Let’s look at the specific IELTS speaking band descriptors.
What the hell does that mean Luke?
IELTS scores are given in bands.
Band 0, Band 1, Band 2, Band 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
9 is high, 0 is low.
Cambridge English (IELTS.org) publishes a list of “descriptors” for each band score. These describe what the different bands mean in terms of specific speaking skills. This should reveal the ways in which speaking is assessed in IELTS.
You can consider your English as we talk about these “descriptors”.
We’re going to look at them all in a moment, on a PDF from the IELTS website.
How do IELTS examiners assess someone’s spoken English?
I’ve done IELTS training before and I’ve done mock IELTS tests quite a lot of times. I’ve also done the same with FCE, CAE, BEC Vantage, BEC Higher etc. They’re similar.
If I was doing a mock IELTS test with my students and I was the examiner, I would interview the candidate, give them speaking tasks to do and at the same time I would have to work out their score.
On the desk in front of me I would have a script for me to follow, different tasks and questions for the test and some paper and a pen for writing the person’s score.
But it’s not just a single score for speaking.
I wouldn’t just have a single category on that paper called “Speaking” with a space for a number.
Instead, I would have a piece of paper in front of me with at least 4 sub-categories on it.
Overall score / average: _________
I’d give a score in each category and then work out an average across the 4 categories.
I’m not an official IELTS examiner, I’m a teacher who is trained to prepare students for IELTS, so that’s just the way I do it.
But I know for certain that the examiners use at least 4 sub-categories when assessing a candidate’s speaking.
Here are those categories.
Fluency & coherence
Grammatical range & accuracy
Note that accuracy is only half of one of those categories.
What do the categories mean?
Let me talk about what those categories actually mean, and then we will look at the descriptions of different scores for each category. What’s the difference between an IELTS 6 and IELTS 7 for example.
Fluency and coherence refers to the ability to talk with normal levels of continuity, rate and effort and to link ideas and language together to form coherent, connected speech.
The key indicators of fluency are speech rate and speech continuity.
The key indicators of coherence are logical sequencing of sentences; clear marking of stages in a discussion, narration or argument; and the use of cohesive devices (e.g. connectors, pronouns and conjunctions) within and between sentences.
What is “Lexical Resource”?
Lexical resource refers to the range of vocabulary the test taker can use and the precision with which meanings and attitudes can be expressed.
They key indicators are the variety of words used, the adequacy and appropriacy of the words used and the ability to circumlocute (get around a vocabulary gap by using other words) with or without noticeable hestitation.
What are “Grammatical range and accuracy”?
Grammatical range and accuracy refers to the range and the accurate and appropriate use of the test taker’s grammatical resource.
The key indicators of grammatical range are the length and complexity of the spoken sentences, the appropriate use of subordinate clauses, and the range of sentence structures, especially to move elements around for information focus.
The key indicators of grammatical accuracy are the number of grammatical errors in a given amount of speech and communicative effect of error.
What is “pronunciation”?
Pronunciation refers to the ability to produce comprehensible speech to fulfill the Speaking test requirements.
The key indicators will be the amount of strain caused to the listener, the amount of the speech which is unintelligible and the noticeability of influence from the test taker’s first language.
Now let’s have a look at some of those descriptions from IELTS.org
Perhaps use my level of French as an example, also Santi’s English.
We could compare the different levels (maybe the difference between 5 and 7) across each sub-category.
Which categories are the most important?
The 4 categories are of equal importance in the exam, I expect, but if I had to choose, I would say that they go in order of importance from left to right, but of course if any one of those categories is significantly weak, they will drag down the overall level. For example, if you are unintelligible in pronunciation, it sort of doesn’t matter how many words you know or if you don’t pause to think.
Grammatical accuracy is mainly significant if errors cause misunderstandings, but I guess errors can give the wrong impression.
Interestingly, I feel like pronunciation, grammar and lexis all help us to achieve fluency. Fluency is where those three systems combine. Without a wide range of words which we can recall and use instantly, we can’t express ideas quickly, specifically and coherently.
Without grammatical structures, we can’t link ideas together clearly and express complex things without our speech breaking down and falling apart.
Without pronunciation we can’t get our words out fluidly and clearly, with words linked, and yet stressed to give emphasis and impact.
Assessing Santi’s English (I hope you don’t mind Santi!)
I wonder what score Santi would get if he took an IELTS speaking test.
I shouldn’t really speculate about that, but I can say that his weak spot is probably pronunciation, (although this is still at a good level because I was able to understand him and after all he is Spanish and so it’s normal that he has a Spanish accent)
and then perhaps grammatical accuracy (he made a few grammar mistakes which probably stuck out because we were looking for them – I bet a lot of people listening were focusing intently on his English and judging him a lot – and he handled that very well),
but he really makes up for his weak spots by having:
Good grammatical range. He was able to employ a range of structures which allowed him to have control over what he was saying and to express some complex ideas.
Strong Lexical resource. He was able to find just the right words, he used words which were appropriate for the conversation (switching from bits of slang when it was appropriate, to more formal language to describe his work etc) and generally used some very nice, descriptive, idiomatic and frequently used expressions, phrases and words.
Excellent fluency and coherence. He organised his ideas with clarity, he didn’t seem to struggle any more than someone might in their first language, he didn’t pause excessively, he was able to keep going and going, linking one idea to the next.
So there you have it. Some things to think about.
Being good at English is not all about having “a British accent” or never making a grammar mistake. There are plenty of other things involved in being “good at English”.
Of course, it is up to you. If your goal is to have a British accent (which one?) then I’m not going to stop you, but I do want you to put that in perspective and to realise all the many other things which you can focus on.
And finally, at the end here, I just want to give you a message of encouragement, because one of the main lessons learned from my conversation with Santi was that perseverance, positivity and practice are 3 of the most important factors in this game that we call learning English.
So keep your chin up! Keep practising!
Don’t stop, even if it seems difficult!
Don’t let your weaknesses stop you! There are other areas where you can be strong.
Don’t worry about achieving perfection!
Just keep going and do your best and you might find that is enough or more than enough!
And enjoy it! You only get one life and it’s happening right now, so what are you waiting for – go ahead and use English and make some connections with people.
Be curious about others, be keen to connect with them and be kind. Be kind and generous with your time and your attention, to other people you meet and talk to, and be kind to yourself as well.
Don’t judge other people’s English too harshly. It’s not a competition.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode.
If you did, and you found it useful – give me a like or a comment or a review.
Have a nice morning, afternoon, evening or night and I will speak to you soon.
An episode all about studying at university in the UK, with loads of advice about student visas, funding your studies with scholarships, extra-curricular social activities and opportunities at the Students’ Union and more. Features a conversation with a German student currently studying a master’s in clinical neuropsychology at UCL in London. This bonus episode is published in paid partnership with Study UK and the British Council’s GREAT Britain campaign. For more information, follow the links below.
Celebrating episode 800 and responding to lots of questions sent in on social media. Expect questions about my ill-fated music career, grammar, favourite authors, my daughter, life as an English teaching podcaster and plenty more. Video version available.
Here we are. It’s episode 800. It’s a big occasion but the emphasis is on chill in this episode. We’re just going to chill together and celebrate episode 800. So let’s sit back, relax and enjoy podcasting together.
This episode might take absolutely ages – I don’t know how long this is going to be, but we’re not going to worry about that, or anything else in this episode. No concerns, no worries.
For this one I thought I would answer some questions from listeners on social media, YouTube and my website. I recently asked for questions and I got loads. Billions. I got billions of questions.
I’m going to try and answer them almost all of them in this episode.
That might be seriously over ambitious and this could end up being the longest episode ever, we’ll see. If I have to divide it into parts, so be it. We’ve had episode 300 part 1 and 2, as well as several episode 666s, we can have episode 800 in a few parts. But in fact that does prove that I’ve already done more than 800 episodes. In fact I reckon it’s over 1000 if you include premium ones, bonus ones, app-only ones, phrasal verb ones.
In any case, I’m going to go through the questions and try to answer as many as possible. This is bound to take bloody ages. I mean, hours.
I’ve chosen nearly all the questions which came to me, except for world cup ones because I’ll talk about that in another episode.
They’re presented here in no particular order, from various social media platforms.
And I’m going to correct errors if and when I find them.
So this will be a sort of error correction episode too, I expect.
We will start in a minute, but first I just want to take this moment to celebrate getting to 800 episodes!
What does this really mean to me?
A long term professional project which has been a success and continues to be. No mean feat!
It’s a nice big number
800 is a large amount of anything – name a thing and imagine 800 of it. It’s always a lot!
Satisfying to reach a milestone, but I have my sights on 1000 now.
No need to dwell on it too long…
Thank you for continuing to listen to this podcast, allowing me to keep doing this all these years.
Recently the podcast hit 100,000,000 downloads since it started.
I love doing this podcast and I hope you love listening to it too.
I love the fact that I can do this – spend most of my working time on making content for learners of English, doing it my own way, being my own boss. It’s all thanks to the podcast, which means it’s all thanks to you, and the way it works is that those people who can afford it can become premium subscribers, which keeps the show completely free for those people who can’t afford it, and I get to keep making the episodes.
Let’s get on with the listener questions.
By the way, I’ve removed all World Cup questions because I think I’m going to talk about that in a separate episode.
Hi Luke, thanks for this mini episode :) Congratulations on the 800 episodes. My question is if you are considering doing more rambling episodes because they are fun and I think it is an excellent way to learn how to speak naturally and talk about daily life. Looking forward to seeing more rambling episodes.
800 is a long way, congratulations Tr Luke. I would like to suggest that it would be great if you could upload one story telling episode per week (is it too much?) because as a lazy learner, your story telling can carry me to the end of the episode.
Hey Luuuke! I really like what you do and I’m a fan of your sense humor. I was wondering as a kid at school were you this type of guy who bravely says a joke loudly so that the whole class hears and giggles afterwards?
And do you feel that via humor you make the atmosphere (any place: job, school, family pre Christmas hassle, etc.) more amicable and lighthearted?
Hey Luke, what’s cracking!?Thanks for your fantastic podcast, IMHO for the time being it’s one of the most fascinating podcasts in terms of immersing in British English/humor (or at least I would like to think like that) that I’ve come across. My question is, do you consider moving to somewhere from Paris in particular and from France in general? Cheers.
In your opinion, approximately how many words do you need to have in your vocabulary to be able to speak like you do in your ramble episodes? and is there an efficient method for determining the amount of vocabulary for a non-native speaker?
How does it work? Read the text on the website.
Native speakers know 20,000 – 30,000 words.
I got about 25,000.
Learners of English who get 10,000 can be near-native.
Hello Luke. I really enjoyed your podcasts about comedy TV series, like Alan Partridge. However, I asked you (very politely) quite a long time ago about the possibility of doing an episode (likely more then one) about Peep show. I believe that we could all learn from Peep show loads of useful British expressions/phrases which never occur in textbooks for students. Is there any chance that some comedy episodes are in the pipeline? Respect and best wishes from Poland 🇵🇱️
Hi, Luke! I’m really into your podcasts and watch every single episode no matter what length it is. My favorite videos are about detective and horror quizzes/stories. Are you planning to make a podcast on this topic? If so, I’m looking forward to seeing new episodes soon.
Hi Luke, how is it going? First of all, thank you for teaching us. My question is : is it possible to speak like you, if I only listen to your podcast, I mean your intonation and your pronunciation. You speak very clearly. I like your speech that is why I usually listen to your podcast
My name is Berdiyev Azamat from Khiva in Uzbekistan
Talking to Christian again about some of the themes and controversial opinions he talks about in his YouTube videos, plus some bits about men wearing thongs on the beach, an obsession with rabbits and if Christian was the Donald Trump of English teaching. Video version available.
How are you today? You are now listening to episode 732, and in this one I am talking again to Christian Saunders from Canguro English.
This is the second time I’m talking to him on the podcast. I previously interviewed Christian in episode 686 last year and got to know him a bit, but I wanted to talk to him again after having seen some of his most recent videos on YouTube about language and language learning.
In his videos Christian often challenges certain assumptions and myths about language learning, and so I thought it might be interesting to talk to him about those things, so I came up with some questions about language, learning language and teaching English on the internet.
There is a video version of this conversation on my YouTube channel too, so don’t forget to check it out and of course to like and subscribe while you’re there.
There’s no more for me to add here in the introduction. I hope you enjoy this conversation and get some good things from it. Once again, Christian’s YouTube channel is called Canguro English and his website is canguroenglish.com
Let’s get started.
So that was Christian from Canguro English. Thanks again to Christian.
And here we are, at the end of yet another episode. I wonder what you thought of the points which came up in that conversation? Feel free to let us know in the comment section or perhaps under the YouTUbe version of this. Where do you stand on things like comprehensible input, workbooks and clickbait titles? Let us know.
For me, this is one of the last episodes I’m recording before officially starting my summer holiday. As usual I have loads of stuff to record and publish before I go away, and I might end up recording some of it while I am back in the UK. But here’s a little overview of what’s in the pipeline right now.
A Summer Ramble
War of the Worlds
So I have my work cut out.
In terms of holiday – we’re going back to the UK to stay at my parents’ place and we will have to deal with the whole quarantine thing, and the day 2 and day 8 testing process and all that. It’s quite annoying. But after we quarantine we will be going to a posh camp site for some “glamping” and generally spending a couple of weeks in the UK.
Meanwhile our new flat in Paris is being demolished (on the inside) and remade to our specifications. Let’s hope that all goes according to plan.
I’ll talk more about this stuff in that rambling episode which is coming up.
Hello listeners, here is an episode about English Tests like TOEFL and the Duolingo English Test which I hope will still be an interesting episode even for those who have no plans to take one of these tests. I’m joined by online English teacher Josh MacPherson. I guess you have heard of TOEFL, and the Duolingo English Test is a test made by Duolingo, that company which helps you learn languages on your phone, and which seems to be managed by a green cartoon owl, who is some kind of master of learning English. They make a test now, and it’s getting really big.
Some time is spent describing the tests but we don’t just spend an hour describing TOEFL. Most of the time we are doing samples from the test, commenting on my performance in a TOEFL speaking task, discussing testing methods in general and giving comments on ways to perform well, particularly in the speaking parts of a test like TOEFL and IELTS.
Also, tests should be reliable and having genuinely good English skills should (of course) cause you to get decent results, so a lot of the tips relating to getting a better score are also generally good tips for improving your level of English, so even if you’re not planning to take one of these tests, the tips and advice here should be applicable to your English anyway.
There is a video version of this episode on YouTube and you can see Josh’s screen and can observe our conversation as if you are taking part in a Zoom call with us. You can find the video on the page for this episode or on my YouTube channel.
Again, the audio is not tip top this time round and that was caused by things like microphone echo, which I have managed to fix, but in any case I think you can still hear everything clearly.
That’s it, I hope you enjoy it and you will find all the links you need on the page for this episode on my website.
Let’s get started
I am joined today by Josh MacPherson from TSTPrep.com and the TST Prep YouTube channel.
Josh is an English teacher who specialises in helping learners of English prepare for English tests, particularly TOEFL and also the fairly new DuoLingo English Test.
I thought I’d interview Josh to find out more about these tests and to get some tips from him about how to get the best result that you can.
Also, we’re going to do some test questions during this interview, so we can see how well I perform in these tests too.
How to think or reasons for your opinion document – https://drive.google.com/file/d/1NpEhd9BLNVKOuOO08LpJ6lA2NSLOZgJO/view?usp=sharing
Duolingo English practice test – https://englishtest.duolingo.com/home
Duolingo English test list of institutions – https://englishtest.duolingo.com/institutions
Duolingo Research articles – https://englishtest.duolingo.com/research
Thanks again to Josh for his contribution to this episode.
Don’t forget, links are available on the page for this episode for all the things Josh mentioned there including test practice, sample answers, tips and videos.
Thank you as ever for listening all the way up to this point.
There’s not much more for me to add here. I haven’t played the guitar on the podcast lately, but I will be coming back to that soon, but for now I will just wish you a fond farewell and until next time, good bye bye bye bye bye
Hello and welcome to Luke’s English Podcast. This episode is number 669 and it’s called How To Learn English.
That’s quite a bold title but this really is a lot of what I have to say about learning English. If you really want to learn this language, this is my advice.
I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, podcasting for over 11 years now and I keep finding out more about learning a language through teaching it, getting feedback from listeners and also through my experiences of trying to learn French.
This episode is a distillation of many of my thoughts and advice on how to learn English. It’s not going to cover absolutely every aspect of it, because language learning is a huge subject that encompasses so many different things and you could talk about it all day, but I have decided to talk about learning English, breaking it down into the 4 skills, and giving you as much advice as I can in this single podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
For those of you who are not so familiar with me and my work. My name is Luke Thompson, I think I am the 4th most famous Luke Thompson in the world. I’m an English teacher, a podcaster, a comedian, a husband and a dad. I am from England but these days I live in France. My podcast is free and is downloaded all over the world. I also have a premium subscription in which I focus specifically on improving your vocab, grammar and pronunciation. To find out more about that go to teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo
I expect you want to learn English, right? That’s the main reason you’re listening to this I expect. You want to learn English.
Well, good news! It’s definitely possible. You can learn English and you will if you put in the time and the effort. It’s important to remember that.
What do I mean by “learn English”, though? I mean that you can learn to speak English fluently, clearly and with confidence, expressing yourself with shades of meaning, adapting your English for the situation both in speaking and in writing, knowing and being able to use a wide variety of vocabulary and accurate grammar and ultimately being yourself in the language and developing beneficial relationships with others based on effective communication. Yes, you can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
That’s it, just a positive and encouraging message at the start. It’s important to always remember that making progress in your learning is a realistic prospect and will happen when you put in the time and effort, and more good news: the more you enjoy it, the easier it is.
I hope this podcast helps you to enjoy getting English into your life on a regular basis, which is a key part of learning the language effectively.
But what else should you be doing in order to improve your English overall?
In this episode I’d like to talk in some detail about learning English and how you can do it.
This episode is a sort of “come to Jesus moment”, which I feel I should do regularly, just to remind everyone listening that there is a method or approach at work here and that it’s not just you listening to people talking.
A “come to Jesus moment” in the world of business is when someone does a passionate speech or event in which fundamental priorities and/or beliefs are reassessed, or reaffirmed. It’s like when Jesus gathers his disciples around him in order to reaffirm their belief in what he’s preaching or to say some deep stuff which strengthens their faith.
This is a come to Jesus moment for me.
Not that I’m comparing myself to Jesus. No, not at all. Not even a little bit, and anyway that’s not for me to say, that’s for other people to point out isn’t it, not me. Anyway…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is a method to the madness.
In my podcast episodes, I’m always teaching you, using my particular set of professional skills, but rather than presenting it all as a lesson I usually try to present it more like a radio show or a comedy show even.
So, amidst the episodes about music, comedy, interviews and so on, I thought it would be worth restating the core values of LEP, which I seem to do about once every 6 months or so.
I’m going to give loads of advice here, and this is all based on what I’ve learned from:
Teaching for about 20 years
Meeting thousands of learners of English, some of them successful, some of them not, working directly with them as their teacher and listening to them talk about their studying habits and experiences
The academic studies I’ve done, especially the DELTA which involved extensive reading and writing on various aspects of how people learn and teach English
Doing my podcast and getting testimonies over the years from many listeners who told me about how they’ve used it to improve their English
There’s also my own personal experience of working on my French
Anyway, the plan is to talk about learning English with a focus on the 4 skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
I have talked about these points quite a few times before on this podcast, and have given tons of specific advice about working on your English, including in episodes like 174 (and others)
So I will probably repeat myself a bit. But I still get asked to talk about “how to learn English” very regularly and I think it’s important for me to talk about learning English on this podcast on a regular basis. Obviously, that is what this podcast is about, first and foremost, even though a lot of the time in my episodes you’ll hear me and my guests talking about all sorts of other things.
Learning English is the main aim of this podcast
Essentially the thinking is that you should listen to natural conversation on a variety of topics and it’s simply listening to things in English (not just listening to things about English) that’s going to help you learn this language, especially if you enjoy the content.
I’ll probably talk about this again in a bit, but let’s say that ultimately the plan with the free episodes is to help you listen to English regularly, for longer periods of time, long term. The more, the better. If the content is enjoyable, that should just make it easier for you to achieve that. In fact, if you’re really into what you’re listening to, you don’t really even notice the time passing.
Then there’s the premium content, which is an effort to push your learning beyond the gains you get from all the exposure and input you get from just listening. The premium content is designed to let you get the benefit of my experience and teaching skills in order to cut out a lot of work that you would otherwise have to do yourself, so I can essentially take you by the hand and lead you through some intensive practice to work on your English more directly.
So that’s my content, but let’s talk now about learning English as a whole then.
Learning English is a holistic thing. It encompasses many aspects and skills that are connected as a whole.
There are receptive skills like listening and reading, productive skills like speaking and writing, language systems like grammar, spelling, vocabulary and phonology, social and psychological factors that come into play when we use language when interacting with others, then there are other factors that come into play like identity issues, body language, culture, literature, pragmatics and all sorts of other things. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about it.
You need to learn it to the point where you don’t even think about it any more.
The more you talk and think about it, the more it starts to sound like the force from Star Wars.
Stretch out with your feelings.
Do or do not, there is no try.
Do not think, feel.
Let go, let the English flow through you.
I am your father (oh wait)
It’s about learning how to do something which goes right to the core of who you are in fact.
It’s a holistic thing. It incorporates many aspects as part of a whole process and so it’s quite tricky to know where to start.
Let’s put it like this. Language goes in, and language comes out. (I told you it sounds like The Force)
Language is within you and language is without you. It flows through you. It binds the galaxy together.
There are receptive skills (this is how language goes in)
And there are productive skills (this is how language goes out)
There’s the written language
And there’s the spoken language
This is our system.
Think of it like a table with two categories on the horizontal axis and two on the vertical axis, so it’s like a grid with 4 squares in it.
On the horizontal access we have receptive and productive skills.
On the vertical we have written and spoken English.
Within the table we have 4 skills – the 4 squares.
So in the box marked “written” and “receptive” we have reading.
Below that in the “spoken” and “receptive” categoriy we have listening.
On the right in the “written” and “productive” side we have writing.
And then in the “spoken” and “productive” side we have speaking.
Those are your four skills. Reading, writing, listening and speaking.
The 4 skills are connected in various ways.
Reading and writing deal with the written word of course.
Reading helps you to write. It helps you to see how the language is built, how words are spelled and how sentences, paragraphs and texts are put together with grammar and textual conventions.
Listening and speaking deal with the spoken word.
Listening helps you to learn how English actually sounds, how words join together in sentences or longer utterances, it helps you get familiar with the speed, rhythm, flow and intonation of the language. It helps you get used to natural pronunciation which in turn helps you produce English in the same way.
Words exist in visual form, and in spoken form.
But reading and listening are connected too because they’re both receptive skills. They provide us with input which is the essential foundation of language learning.
And speaking and writing are connected because they’re productive skills.
These are the skills you need to use when using language for various purposes. This is where you are more active in the sense that you are constructing language and putting it down visually in the form of writing, or using your body to produce it orally.
Let’s talk about those receptive skills and input.
The reading thing there is something we’ll come back to in the section about reading.
This is the academic who is always mentioned in this context, when talking about how to learn English these days. Krashen was one in a long line of linguists who came up with theories about how language is learned and should be taught.
Arguably, we still don’t really know how people learn languages, but various academics over the years have put forward different hypotheses to explain it and these have been the backbone of our understanding of language learning that has informed the way we all learn and teach languages over the years.
Krashen though is the one that people often talk about today, including all the many YouTubers who regularly post videos about the best ways to learn, the only ways to learn, the secrets of learning and all that sort of thing. Krashen is usually brought up because his ideas fit in quite nicely to a model of language learning for today. I mean, it involves a lot of consumption of content in English – plenty of listening and reading and that sort of content is in plentiful supply online, like for example episodes of Luke’s English Podcast.
In his input hypothesis in which he makes the case for the importance of comprehensible input for language learning, he states that in fact the only way we can successfully increase our underlying linguistic competence. This is our system of linguistic knowledge or let’s say that “language instinct” that you have, which even subconsciously gives us a sense of when language is right or wrong. I suppose it could be active in that you know a certain grammar rule and can see when it’s been broken, or passive in that you just feel that something is right or wrong but can’t necessarily explain it.
I would say the passive knowledge is the vital one because ultimately you just want to be able to feel that language is right or wrong without thinking about it.
But that being said, your active knowledge can be really useful when doing things like avoiding common errors as a result of your first language, or consciously pushing yourself to create language which is normal.
Anyway, Krashen says the only way to increase your linguistic competence is through comprehensible input, meaning reading and listening to things that we mostly understand and that with the context of what you do understand, you are able to work out the bits that you don’t know. This is how we acquire new languages.
So basically, we learn a language when we understand it. So, naturally, according to Krashen, the receptive skills come first.
I think this makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s bound to be true that we learn language by listening to it and reading it. But what about those moments when you have to speak or write, what about learning the grammar and all the rest of it?
Krashen would say that we learn the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of a language by listening to it or reading it, and that it’s a natural process and part of how we decode language through comprehensible input.
So, don’t worry about grammar rules and all the rest of it, just listen and do your best to keep up and work out what’s going on, and do it regularly.
Again, I am sure this is true but I also think it’s worth studying the language a bit too, breaking it down a bit, seeing how it works, actively trying to learn more vocabulary, checking up on the rules of grammar and doing some controlled practice. Working on your pronunciation by copying and training your mouth and brain to cooperate with each other, like the way we practise certain movements in sport or musical parts on an instrument.
I do believe that controlled practice and conscious learning like that must also be beneficial because I’ve seen it happen. Doing some active studying can be like a fast track of English learning. It can cut out a lot of time by helping you realise certain things about the language quickly, and I think if you then notice it again while listening and reading that only reinforces what you’ve learned.
Of course, you shouldn’t get blinded by grammar or pronunciation rules and so on, to the point that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Try not to get hung up on grammar, because it can make you process language in an unnatural and contrived way. It can get stuck in your head and block you a bit. Instead, try to notice patterns and incorporate them into your use of English. Try to see grammar study as a way of confirming things you’ve already noticed, or a way of consulting with a reference book as you also just absorb English more naturally. If you only study English with the grammar, it’s going to be a weird abstract process for learning the language. It’s better to focus on consuming English in the form of messages which you are trying to understand, and then perhaps check your grammar later to straighten things out.
The premium subscription is where I help you with that sort of thing, hopefully combining with the free content to give you all the stuff you need to attack English from several angles.
How can you learn this language if you haven’t heard it and read it a lot?
Read and listen to things that are slightly above your level, so you can understand 60-80%. You need to be able to understand that much for your brain to work out the remaining 20-40% that you don’t know. Meaningful context is vital.
Basically, listen x5 and read x5.
It’s largely a question of finding the right stuff to listen to.
There’s this podcast of course. Others are available.
Watch TV and films with and without subtitles.
Hopefully you’ll find content that you actually want to listen to, not just for studying English. So if you do get addicted to a Netflix series and you can’t wait to find out what happens next, that’s good! That means you will get more comprehensible input and you will be much more focused and involved in it, which is great for your English. Or maybe you want to hear another stupid and funny conversation with my friends just because it makes you laugh and you feel some sort of connection to it. All of that is great because it will help you listen more, listen longer and listen long term.
This one is also a pleasure to talk about because it’s a pleasure to do and there are lots of great things to read.
Let’s hear from Krashen again as he is the master of the whole input model.
This is again from Wikipedia, which I think is fine usually for the basics like this.
Extensive reading, free reading, book flood, or reading for pleasure is a way of language learning, including foreign language learning, through large amounts of reading. As well as facilitating acquisition of vocabulary, it is believed to increase motivation through positive affective benefits. It is believed that extensive reading is an important factor in education. Proponents such as Stephen Krashen (1989) claim that reading alone will increase encounters with unknown words, bringing learning opportunities by inferencing. The learner’s encounters with unknown words in specific contexts will allow the learner to infer and thus learn those words’ meanings.
Of course that system is disputed because this is the academic arena we’re dealing with and people are always putting forward ideas, defending them, disputing them and so on. It’s how we move forwards and learn about this stuff.
So this is extensive reading which is different to the sort of intensive reading you do in English lessons, where you spend ages on just one page of text, break it down into tiny chunks, understanding every single morsel. With extensive reading it’s all about just getting as much English into your head as you can by reading as much as you can, and you focus on reading enjoyable things, especially stories and you don’t stop too much to analyse the language or even check words, you just keep trying to follow what you’re reading. The more involved in it you are, the better.
Again, this point about input is that it feeds your instinct for the language. You get a subconscious sense of what is right or wrong, which comes in very handy for when you’re doing those nasty sentence transformations and use of English tasks in a Cambridge exam like CAE. What you really want in those situations is to know exactly which preposition or auxiliary verb is missing, or to be able to manipulate sentences in a variety of forms. I reckon it helps to do a bit of language practice as well, with a few controlled exercises but the idea is that it should all go in naturally giving you this sense of language competence.
It’s important though to choose texts which are not too difficult for you. You need to be able to understand enough to be able to get a grip on the rest of the language.
So which books do you choose?
We’ve talked about the importance of choosing stuff that’s interesting to you, that reflects the type of English you might need.
Genre isn’t an issue. People assume you need to read or listen to the news but as we’ve already established they don’t really talk like normal people on the news, and they also write in a certain “newsy” style. Funnily enough it might be more useful to read the tabloid papers as they write in a more conversational style, but I think it’s worthwhile looking beyond the news.
Basically, read whatever you want.
Even comic books or graphic novels as they’re known for adults.
Graphic novels can be brilliant because they support your understanding with the images and often the English is in the form of speech so you learn really directly how to apply that stuff to real life. I love graphic novels in French. It’s my favourite way to work on the language.
You could consider the current bestsellers. If other people like the books then why shouldn’t you? Look in the fiction and non-fiction categories.
Or try graded readers, which are an excellent and underused resource. I really recommend them if you’re not a strong reader. They’re previously published books, and often some of the great classics and modern classics in English, but they’re republished with English that is graded for certain levels. The number of words is reduced, it’s truncated and essentially it’s a way to increase the percentage you do understand, and decrease the amount you don’t understand, getting to that 80/20 spot where you can maximise your language learning.
There are lots of titles to choose from and various publishers. Check these ones out
But your English may well be good enough now to have a go at a book for native speakers. So go for it. You have loads of options. Just make sure you enjoy reading on a regular basis.
I would also add that it’s important to choose texts which are written in modern style and perhaps about an area that you are particularly interested in. Perhaps think of it like this – what is the kind of English you want printed on the back of your head (on the inside)? Odd question, but I mean, what is your target English. Perhaps it’s the involving and descriptive storytelling of fiction, or it’s the matter-of-fact world of non-fiction. I reckon non-fiction is probably better because it reflects the kind of English you are more likely to be writing, especially if it’s things like academic work or reports at work, because they’re all about presenting you with information, data, commenting on what’s going on, describing how to do things and that’s probably the sort of thing you’ll need to use English for, especially in writing.
This might be a bit dry but it will really show you loads of examples of emails with full explanations, so you can read and learn.
The Story of English in 100 Words
Anything by David Crystal is fantastic, but this non-fiction book will teach you the entire story of the English language through 100 words and there are some great words in there like
Loaf, Street, Riddle, Arse, Jail, Wicked, Matrix and Skunk, to name but a few.
So you’re bound to learn tons from that.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny By Nile Rodgers
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
The writing is a bit old fashioned. I have to be honest, but it’s mostly modern in style and I think it’s worth it because the story is amazing and it’s not too long. It’s wonderfully descriptive and much better than any movie version could be. Definitely one of my favourite books of all time.
Productive skills / output
This is where we get to the more nebulous world of productive skills. It’s like an alien land where monsters roam, a bit like war of the worlds maybe.
OK I’m exaggerating here but I mean that productive skills are a bit harder to pin down because even more psychological and social factors come into play. You have the public aspect of it, the fact that you’re trying to manipulate the language and get your ideas across in the right way, being coherent and cohesive and in the right style with the right level of politeness with the correct conventional replies and requests and on and on it goes!
Again, I’m making it sound tricky, but I mean that you are involved so much more because you’re making the language and actually using it. This is exciting because you get to express yourself which is the most wonderful and gratifying thing you can do in another language, and when it slides out quite fluidly and you’re not too blocked by who knows what, then it’s all gravy. But sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work out that way and you get mixed up and it doesn’t come out right at all. There’s a sense of performance in productive skills, and a sense that you have to be aware of the right way to conduct yourself, and to be able to utter things in English instantly, following what the other person is saying, it’s all done in a sort of unconscious blur and thinking about grammar in that situation is a killer.
So it’s about getting a level of ease, a level of comfort, a platform from which you can bob and weave your way through the conversation, finding other ways to say things and switching correctly between tenses and situations. I think you get what I mean.
So how do you work on these things?
Ease – a voice, fluency
Control – grammar, vocab, pronunciation
Range – a wide range of language for a wide range of things
Coherence – does it all make sense? Can people follow you easily?
Cohesion – particularly in writing, how does the whole text make sense as a whole?
Social factors – knowing how to put things and how to manage relationships through language
Again, the idea is that this language is just built into you from all that exposure and input.
I would say that there’s a great deal of other stuff you can do to improve your productive skills beyond reading and listening a lot, of course.
In both writing and speaking the first thing to remember is you need to engage in it as much as possible. Real writing and real speaking.
Ultimately this means trying to use language to communicate a message in some way and that’s what you should be focusing on. Meaningful interactions, especially ones in which you have something to offer or something to gain, such as negotiations or even information gap situations in which you’re telling someone something they don’t know. Also social interactions involving being polite or building relations with people. Ultimately, doing it for real is the best workshop in which you can work, rolling with the punches and trying to keep track of what you’re learning.
This is why people learn English best when they’re forced to do it because of their surroundings. They learn by being a waiter in London for a year or working in an office with native speakers, or being plunged into a foreign university for a year, or moving to a new country and having to cope with all the challenges that brings and in a second language. I suppose this is immersion, but it;s more than that. I recommend actually conversing with people to just practise. It’s the 5 Ps.
It’s like going to the gym. Fluency is like physical fitness in your mind and also in your body because you’re using your mouth, your breathing and your head and hands to communicate too.
It applies to writing too. You can observe the way other people write their emails and kind of copy their style, you have to really think about what you’re saying and doubtless you will end up writing emails with requests, with information, with questions and with complaints and so on, so you will have to learn on the job. Being thrown in at the deep end, or if you just have to use English at work it could either be a big stress for you or a huge opportunity to just go for it.
Anyway, let’s talk about specific productive skills – writing and reading, and how to work on them.
Let’s say you’re not actually in a situation where you can talk to people or have correspondence with people, or have to write things which other people will ultimately have to read. Unless you find a tutor on italki for example then that person could be your practice point for speaking and writing, giving you feedback as you go. But let’s say for the purposes of this episode, it’s just you and the English language, facing each other off in a kind of wild west fashion.
How can you practise on your own?
Obviously you need to write. But what are you going to write and who is going to read it?
Firstly – just write, write regularly, write meaningfully and write with a reader in mind, even if nobody reads it. This is important because it will help you get used to simply putting your ideas into words. It’s a creative process and also a mechanical process to an extent. Building sentences is a sort of art or a craft. You have to practise it in order to get some level of comfort with it. Let’s imagine there’s a muscle in your head (this is not scientific at all) which, if you never exercise it, will be quite weak and underdeveloped. But if you exercise that muscle regularly it will be strong, reactive and quick. I expect there is a part of the brain responsible for creating written language, and a sub-section for creating written English. Keep that part of your brain fresh by writing English as much as you can. That’s as scientific as I can get here.
So, here are some things you could write
What to write
Email an imaginary person (spooky?) or yourself (think outside the box here ok?)
Academic writing – text types
Emails – email types and conventions
Reports – same!
Formal and informal letters – same!
Applications – same same!
Basically – Whatever you have to write, you should try to find some samples of these texts and aim to copy them. Copy the style, the arrangement, the language they use and reproduce it yourself. Texts that you write will invariably be very practical so it’s about reporting information and asking questions. Look at the sample texts and copy them.
It helps if you have a specific workbook. I recommend Email English by Paul Emmerson. It’s a simple workbook that helps you work on almost all those things and I’m not even sponsored by Macmillan or anything, it’s genuinely a great book.
They also have downloadable email writing tasks on the Macmillan website or here
Ideally you’ll have a teacher to proofread your work, correct you and give you feedback.
If this isn’t possible, it’s still a good idea to write.
A diary (just describe things that happened, or make it more personal and really explore your thoughts and feelings. If the words don’t come, just use basic words. If you feel unable to express yourself perfectly, express yourself imperfectly but try to express yourself.
Writing is not just sentences, it’s paragraphs and pages. The thing you are writing will define how you write it. This means – conventions of certain texts, formality level of the language.
Specific exam tasks → IELTS, FCE, CAE, CPE, BEC higher and vantage
These will often push you to learn the conventions of different types of text, so it could be a good idea to take a Cambridge exam if you want to work on your writing.
You might write some notes on vocab and I would recommend here that you take a more extensive approach to doing this. Don’t just have one word per line. I want to see one word or phrase at the top of the page, and then loads of text underneath full of examples and your own examples with the language. You can then come back and cover up some of the words and try to remember. Alternatively you can use my PDFs with the notes and memory tests if you’re a premium subscriber. Little plug there for my other podcast.
But making more extensive vocabulary notes with plenty of examples means that not only are you recording vocabulary, you’re practising using it in writing too.
I mentioned italki before and you can find tutors, teachers and conversation partners there for regular practice and I do recommend doing that.
Otherwise, let’s look at some ways you can work on your speaking other than in actual spoken practice with others. Developing your speaking on your own.
This is quite a tricky thing to do because normally speaking is an instantly interactive form of communication. It also involves a lot of listening and then being able to produce English instantly and without hesitating too much.
It’s also quite physical as it involves using your mouth to produce words and sentences in the right way.
And of course there are all those cultural things to think about too.
But really speaking should just be your attempt to find your own voice in English, with fluency and with a specific tone. Of course it comes through a lot of practice, of having conversations in which you’re not really thinking about what you’re saying on a grammatical level but it’s pouring out of you due to necessity and not being able to really think a lot. Doing that regularly helps your brain map out the extent of the English you have and increase it, keeping it sort of fresh. That’s not scientific but more a metaphor of what I think speaking can do. It activates something in you that you have to maintain and keep active or those parts of the brain go dull.
So practice x5
But with who?
The fact is, it just helps to talk to other people and that’s the best and most basic advice I can give. Outside of that, you have to manipulate your surroundings and use your imagination to practise speaking on your own.
Talking on your own (and even in your head)
This might sound a bit odd, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to activate English that is in your head. You essentially talk to yourself, out loud, in English, describing what’s going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, say it all in English. Alternatively you can just do it in your own head and just think the sentences. This also keeps that system of language production in your head fresh.
Listen and repeat
You can use certain audio and play a bit, pause, repeat what you heard, rewind, repeat again and keep going until you’ve got it, and then check the transcript or subtitles to see if you’re correct, check any new words and carry on. Always find ways to vocalise the things you are learning and that means saying them out loud even to yourself.
You can also practise different speaking scenarios.
Preparing for a Cambridge exam you can find past papers with speaking part preparation and practise. Find out what’s required in the different parts, watch videos of people taking the speaking part on YouTube, practise answering common questions about yourself, practise speaking on a topic for a minute or two, practise discussing your opinion on the issues of the day. Those are all specific speaking skills that you can practise on your own. I particularly recommend listen and repeat, especially when you have to take quite a long utterance in English, hold it in your head and repeat it like it’s one word? It’s like going to the gym in English. It involves a lot of things: Understanding the clip, identifying the words and grammar, being able to remember it all, being able to produce it in a similar way. That’s a whole punch of different kinds of practice. And if you repeat the sentence straight away, and again, you might notice certain little errors you’re making and correct them. So repeat over and over again, a bit like practising boxing combinations in the ring before the big fight.
In reality, the 4 skills are often mashed up together and you find you are doing things like listening and speaking at the same time, while also taking notes, looking at visuals and so on. It all gets very messy when language is actually applied to real communication in the real world.
A little note about pronunciation and a sort of disclaimer.
I think there are probably plenty of other things I have not mentioned in this episode, such as not talking about specific memory techniques (done that) or specific features of pronunciation (done that) or exactly how to read a book to learn English (done) or plenty of other things probably. To be honest this is just a podcast episode that I wanted to make about the 4 skills and it expanded into an episode all about learning English as a holistic process.
Anyway, the note about pronunciation
It is worth learning the phonemic script
It is worth getting the sounds app on your phone
It is worth doing drills and practising different features
It’s worth getting a book called Ship or Sheep or other books of that nature.
It’s worth remembering that if you have an accent when you speak that is fine and it’s part of who you are, the main thing is that you speak clearly, not which regional accent you have. Clarity is the thing to achieve. Also, it’s extremely difficult to “lose” your accent in English. Hardly anyone does it. But you can still be fine with your accent. English is quite open like that. Everyone’s welcome.
But there you have it. That was quite a comprehensive look at how I think learning English is best when you combine two things: comprehensible input, and a clever studying routine.
I think it can work wonders for your English.
And that’s what I try to do with this podcast. Give you all the input in the free episodes and then do some more focused studying in the premium content. Hopefully, together those two channels can boost your English to the max.
Thanks for listening.
To sign up to lep premium go to https://www.teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo for all the details.
A chat with Jessica Beck from the IELTS Energy Podcast about the new computer-based IELTS test, plus some funny stories about doing things for the first time, motivation in language learning, dealing with the stress of public speaking and seeing “The Fonz” on a ski slope. Get a $50 discount on Jessica’s new IELTS online course by going to www.teacherluke.co.uk/3keys
Hello listeners, how are you? I hope you’re alright. How are you all coping? I hope you’re all doing ok out there in podcastland.
Here is a new podcast episode to listen to and this time I am joined by IELTS teacher Jessica Beck who you might know from the IELTS Energy Podcast and All Ears English.
Jessica has been on LEP a couple of times before as you may remember. She is a specialist in IELTS preparation, having taught IELTS courses for many years now both in classrooms and online.
Just in case you don’t know, IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System. It’s a proficiency test which reveals a person’s English level, and it’s fiendishly difficult, requiring a lot of preparation in order to make sure that you get a result that reflects your English at its best. I recently talked about the speaking part of the test with Keith O’Hare in episode 640.
Jessica recently invited me onto an episode of her podcast – the IELTS Energy Podcast, and we talked about differences between American and British English (because the IELTS test features both versions so it’s interesting to compare them and look at some common vocabulary differences).
That is #850 of The IELTS Energy Podcast, called “What’s a Zebra Crossing? Luke Will Tell You!” There’s a link on the page for this episode if you’d like to hear it.
And now Jessica Beck is back on my podcast again in this episode.
Here’s a little overview of what’s coming up, in order to help you follow the whole thing.
First you will hear some chat about the weather where we live. I’m in Paris and she’s in Portland up in the North West of the USA near Seattle. This smalltalk should give you a chance to get used to the speed of the conversation, before we move on to talk about the computer-based IELTS test.
Planning to take IELTS? You’ll need to prepare properly.
Some of you will be planning to take the IELTS test in the future and you might be wondering about the best way to prepare, especially if you’re studying at home. If that is you, then you could check out the 3 Keys IELTS course which Jessica and the other girls at All Ears English have created. It’s a really solid and complete package which includes pretty much everything you need to get success in this course, including video lessons, test practice and 90 minutes of one-to-one counselling with one of the girls over skype.
I suggest you check out the Personal Coach course for the computer based test. And listeners to my podcast can get a 50$ discount on that, which is nice.
So there’s some chat about the weather and then some chat about taking the computer based version of the test, but it’s not all about IELTS. I think we just talk about IELTS for the first 10 minutes in fact and then you will hear us sharing a couple of personal stories about doing things for the first time, one involving the importance of not giving up even when it hurts, and the other story is about how to deal with the stress of public speaking. We reflect on the lessons learned from those experiences and their relevance to the challenge of learning a language.
Also, listening to this you will be able to notice differences between Jessica’s American English and my British English, not necessarily in terms of vocabulary used but more just in terms of our intonation patterns or the tone of our speaking in general. It will probably seem really obvious at the beginning, especially if you are very used to hearing me speak.
Listening back to this conversation myself and during I somehow felt extra British (a bit awkward, perhaps a bit posh and quite wordy) and that Jessica was being extra American (super enthusiastic, energetic, positive). Actually, we end up making fun of each other’s speaking style at one point as we do impressions of each other presenting our podcasts. It’s a bit of a laugh and you should enjoy it.
Anyway, I will now stop rambling now so you can listen to this conversation with Jessica about IELTS and about what we learned from the challenge of doing some things for the first time and I’ll talk to you again briefly at the end of the episode.
Not sure who “Fonzie” is? Have a look… (he’s the guy in the leather jacket on the motorbike)
Thanks again to Jessica for coming on the podcast again and sharing that story. I can’t believe she saw The Fonz on a ski slope. That doesn’t happen every day, does it?
I’m genuinely curious to see if any of you actually know who The Fonz is. He is mentioned in the film Pulp Fiction, if you remember. The scene in the diner with Samuel L Jackson, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer and John Travolta. There’s a kind of Mexican stand-off (of course there is, it’s a Quentin Tarantino film!) and if you don’t know what a Mexican stand-off is, it’s when loads of people point guns at each other in a film (and maybe in real life I don’t know).
Anyway, Samuel L Jackson manages to make Amanda Plummer’s character calm down by saying “We’re going to be like 3 little Fonzies here, alright? And what’s Fonzie like?” and she’s like “What? Wh…” “WHAT’S FONZIE LIKE???” “He’s cool.” “That’s right he’s cool. So we’re going to be like three little Fonzies here ok” etc. It’s a memorable moment, if you remember it that is.
Anyway, if you are considering preparing for IELTS and you have, say, 30 or 60 days available ahead of you, then you might consider the 3 Keys IELTS Personal Coach course for the computer test, and if you’re interested go to teacherluke.co.uk/3keys to get a $50 discount.
It’s a tough and weird time, there’s no doubt about it. As I’ve said before, this virus isn’t just a threat to your physical health. Obviously you need to take steps to avoid catching it, but also to avoid spreading it too, but at the same time please do look after your mental health. Keep yourself busy, find a routine in your daily life, do some indoor exercise like Yoga. Read books. Don’t spend the whole day staring at social media or watching 24 hour news. Use this as a chance to get some things done that you’ve been putting off for a while. Keep in touch with friends and family. Just a few ideas. I mean, what do I know? In any case, do take care of yourselves out there and I hope that this podcast can keep you company just a little bit during this weird time.
Luke wishes you a Happy New year and rambles about recent podcast statistics, new year in the UK, welcoming new listeners to the podcast, and some stories about travelling to the UK with a toddler by plane. Transcript available below.
Hello there and welcome back to Luke’s English Podcast. I hope you’re doing fine wherever you are in the world. I’m back from my holiday and am now ready to record a new episode for you, and here it is – this is it right now, it’s actually happening and you are actually listening to it with your actual ears which should be connected to your actual head which contains your very real brain which is now processing sentences in English as you are hearing them. Welcome back to the podcast!
I have listeners all over the world. Let’s have a look at my top ten countries for 2019 to get a sample of where my audience is located.
In this one I’m going to do a few things, including welcoming any new listeners that I have here at the beginning of this new decade. I’m going to give a reminder about the aims and methods of this podcast for learning English. I’m going to talk about what I did during the Christmas holiday, give an update on my daughter’s English progress, give some news about the podcast and upcoming episodes, new year’s resolutions, a comment about one of my heroes who died on 29 December, and a few other bits and pieces. This might get long so it could be a double-ramble. We’ll see.
How are you?
Where are you?
What are you doing?
What’s the weather like?
How are you listening to this?
How long have you been listening to the podcast?
How’s your English coming along?
New Year – New Decade – New Start → here’s to fresh new challenges for the 2020s and to another decade of listening to English with this podcast. I am looking forward to making more and more episodes this year and into the future, and I can’t wait to actually take ideas that are swimming around in my head and make them happen in upcoming episodes of this podcast. So many things to talk about, so many things to do, so much English to teach you.
Transcript / Notes on the website
By the way, I am reading most of this from a script that I’ve been writing for a couple of weeks. 90% of the episode is transcribed in advance, and the rest is being read from notes.
I haven’t been able to podcast during the last 3 weeks or so, but in spare moments I’ve been writing notes in a google document on my computer and my phone and I’ve put them together to make a sort of transcript for this episode. You can find the transcript on the page for this episode in the archive at teacherluke.co.uk You’re listening to episode 634.
Happy New Year!
Happy new year! I hope you had a good celebration. I expect new year is a bigger celebration around the world than Christmas. Certainly, in my experience living in other countries I’ve noticed that new year’s eve is recognised all over the world as the big event, with fireworks in all the major cities and so on. It’s pretty cool.
I wonder what you did out there in podcastland. What are the typical things that happen on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day in your country?
In the UK it sort of depends on your age.
When I was younger it was sort of mandatory to go out to a party or a club or something and when you get back to college or work everyone’s asking each other what they did for New Year’s. I remember many occasions when I went out in the centre of town with some mates for a nightmare evening of loud music, too much drinking, singing, hugging and shaking hands and an impossible mission of getting back home to bed when all the public transport is closed and the taxis are all taken.
I actually had a very quiet New Year’s Eve this year. I generally don’t really like to do much on new years eve these days, maybe because I’m so boring now, or perhaps it’s because I just like the company of friends or family at home to see out the old decade and see in the new one, in some comfort. Also the fact that we’ve got a 2 year old daughter can make it a little bit more tricky to go out and party like I used to.
Anyway, this year I was in, my wife had gone back to Paris a bit early, I was at my parents’ house. My mum went to bed to get her energy back and so Dad and I sat up and from about 11pm we started podcasting, recording a conversation about some of his favourite aspects of Britain, which will be coming in an episode soon. We were actually podcasting while Big Ben counted down to midnight and you’ll be able to hear it soon.
Welcoming New Listeners
First of all I’d like to welcome any new listeners that I have. Welcome! My name is Luke and this is my podcast for learners of English. I expect you’ve found the podcast by searching things like iTunes or Spotify for podcasts for learning English, or maybe a friend recommended it for you or something – leave a comment in the comment section (my website is the best place for that) saying how you found the podcast.
So I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now and I’ve been teaching English for nearly 20 years now. This podcast has won awards, don’t you know. Yep, 4 awards based on audience votes, a British Council Elton nomination, and I came third in the British Podcast Awards in 2017 – not bad!
In these episodes I talk about all sorts of things, but the main aim is to help you improve your English through listening. The principle is twofold. Firstly, we all know that doing plenty of listening in the target language is a vital part of developing your English. You can’t expect to learn a language unless you actually listen to it, get to know how it sounds, the rhythms of English and also the typical ways in which it is structured. You need to do plenty of listening, regularly, long term – and hopefully this podcast can help you achieve just that.
In each episode you have to just follow what I’m saying or follow a conversation with someone else and just try to keep up. I try to make my episodes entertaining as well as educational. I talk about learning English, give tips and advice, but also talk about loads of other topics in some depth to give you a chance to hear a range of different vocabulary.
The second part of the principle here is that you can develop your vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation a lot through listening. The grammar and vocab come from both trying to notice new language while you’re listening, and from the episodes in which I am specifically teaching or explaining new language to you.
The pronunciation part comes from copying me, shadowing me, and doing the pronunciation drills that I also publish. I also have a premium subscription in which I specifically teach language and give you plenty of pronunciation practice.
So if you keep up with my episodes, follow the advice I give, enjoy the different topics and conversations and follow my instructions for working on your English, you should find that your English improves accordingly.
Of course, this podcast is best consumed as part of a balanced diet. I mean, it’s also necessary to practise your speaking, your reading and your writing too in active ways. You could check out my sponsor italki for the speaking practice and check out my episode archive for plenty of other episodes in which I give specific advice about other areas of your English and also for specific things like the IELTS test.
The best way to listen to my podcast is through the LEP app which is available free in the app store. With the app you have the whole archive, some app-only episodes and access to the premium content. When you listen with a podcast app on your phone, the app will remember where you stopped listening (like at the end of your morning commute to work) and when you press play again (like at the end of your working day) the episode will continue where you left off.
Also on YouTube you can check most of my episodes (just audio but some videos) and there you can find the automatic subtitles which are 99% accurate.
I also have a transcription project done through my website in which a team of keen LEPsters (listeners to this podcast) transcribe my episodes by dividing each one into 3 minute chunks, then each member of the team transcribes his or her chunk and the whole episode is then completed. After that the more high-level listeners proofread the scripts, the end goal being for me to eventually publish them on the website or turn them into an ebook perhaps. Transcribing 3 minute chunks of my episodes is an excellent way to work on your skills as it requires a lot of things – being able to listen intensely for every single word, being able to recognise different words and phrases and how they are actually said by native speakers, being able to write with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, being able to reproduce exactly what you hear. It’s great training for your English.
Check my website for the entire episode archive and loads of other things. The episode archive on the website also contains loads of other content, like episodes of other people’s podcasts that I’ve been invited on, YouTube interviews with me and so on.
Sometimes I’m featured on other people’s shows and I usually will add a post in the archive so you can listen to it or watch it.
IELTS Speaking with Keith O’Hare
For example, recently I was featured in a video with a YouTube English teacher called Keith O’Hare. He specialises in helping people prepare for the IELTS speaking exam and he’s been doing a series in which he asks other online teachers to take a speaking test on video so you can learn how it is done.
He interviewed me in December and it’s now available on YouTube (link below). So, watch the video in order to see me taking an IELTS speaking test, to learn some of the language I used and also to get feedback from Keith on my performance. I also give some tips for learning English. I’ll be having Keith on the podcast at some point to interview him about IELTS speaking.
So if you are new to the podcast – a hearty welcome to you. I hope you stick around and listen to the other episodes too, and consider becoming part of my online community by putting your comments in the comment section and maybe taking part in the transcription project. You can find the details for that on my website.
A New Year Ramble, meaning that I’m talking about all the stuff that has been building up in my brain over the holiday period.
Obviously, it has been very busy, with looking after the little one, travelling to London, Birmingham, other parts of the country, dealing with the stress of Christmas, but also having an amazing time catching up with the family, exchanging presents, eating delicious food cooked by my mum and walking in the park to get some fresh air.
Normally I am podcasting quite a lot during any given week, pouring out ideas or teaching content into my podcast feed. Then I go on holiday and things start backing up a bit – I mean it feels a bit like a traffic jam with things that want to come out but the road is closed. So I’ve been imagining doing this episode and planning the next few episodes ahead.
And this episode is going to be me pouring those things out onto the podcast..
Let me talk you through what I’ve been thinking at certain quiet moments when my mind has been able to think about the podcast a little bit. Sometimes, like when my daughter is having a nap and I sort of have a nap too, or just before I go to sleep or something, my mind drifts to what I’m going to do on the podcast when I come back in January. I think about what my audience seems to like, what excites me about doing this, what things I think would be fun or useful for you to listen to and I turn it all over in my head, planning and thinking about the next episodes and waiting for some kind of inspiration to strike. Normally I keep thinking like this until I get a tangible idea of what the episode is going to be like, then it’s just a case of preparing for it and recording it. But once I know basically where the thing is going to go, the rest is just a case of trying to make the vision in my head into some kind of reality.
So during the holiday, I didn’t have many chances to record things, but plenty of chances to just think about it all.
Order of upcoming episodes and thoughts about previous ones
Whenever I go away on holiday and leave the podcast for a couple of weeks, the most recently uploaded episode gets loads of downloads. It stands to reason. The top episode in the list is going to be listened to more because it’s there. And so if you upload one episode and another one straight after it, the first one gets fewer downloads because they don’t know it’s there. It gets hidden behind the next one, which should be an argument for spacing out your episodes a bit more to give them time to breathe and for the audience to catch up. But then again, you want to keep uploading regularly to keep the interest up. For me, I tend to just upload whatever I make, and I try to give enough time for people to notice and listen to all the episodes, and there are those times when I go away on holiday and everyone can catch up.
But I do have to consider which episode I will be leaving at the top of the list when I go on holiday. This will be the episode that everyone will notice for the next 2 or 3 weeks, and if that’s the new year period it is especially important because a lot of people choose to start listening to podcasts as a resolution, and so they’ll be looking and new people will be finding Luke’s English Podcast, so the first impression is important.
So, sometimes I was worrying a bit, because the last two episodes I uploaded (except for some premium ones) were about Star Wars episode 9 and that’s not really a fair representation of what I do on this podcast. Also, I was stressing because I think the last episode, number 633 is not that great because I couldn’t remember the plot of the film and I was umming and ahhing.
So I wasn’t completely pleased with that episode and also not too pleased it was the episode at the top of the list for all those new listeners.
But I still wasn’t done with Star Wars, because it has become something of a tradition that at Christmas time, James, Dad and I go to see the new Star Wars film and this is the 4th time it has happened. The Force Awakens in 2015, Rogue One in 2016, The Last Jedi in 2017 and then The Rise of Skywalker in 2019 and the tradition also includes a long rambling podcast to dissect the film afterwards, so James and I duly went off to Birmingham on the train to see the film, had a beer afterwards and chose to discuss it all on the podcast. The result I think is very funny and quite interesting, and I’m much more pleased with it than my previous spoiler review. Anyway, I thought “I can’t wait all that time and then upload yet another Star Wars episode, which is nearly 2 hours long!!”
So I’ve decided to record this episode first, which is why it has taken so long. I have already edited and prepared the James & Luke Star Wars Discussion which will go up quite soon after this episode appears. So, it will be there so all you Star Wars fans can check it out and then we will continue with podcasting as usual. More about that later.
Christmas / New Year Holiday? What did you do?
What have you been up to during the break then Luke?
My wife, my daughter and I travelled to the UK -first to London and then to the midlands where my parents live. We spent just over 2 weeks away.
On new year’s eve I was actually with my dad and we decided to do a podcast from 11pm until midnight when the year ended. I’ll mention that again later.
Travelling with a toddler – describe what it’s like taking a child on a plane journey
Years of helping drunk friends in nightclubs to get home has really prepared me for this. Little kids or babies are a lot like drunk friends on a Friday night. They fall over a lot and might hurt themselves. They’re liable to suddenly run into the street. They sing like hooligans. They might break down and start crying, and could easily piss themselves, shit themselves and puke on themselves all at the same time. And they’re quite rowdy, annoying and loud too, which makes them a liability in things like queues and the confines of a seat on a plane, surrounded by other passengers.
Describe taking a toddler on a flight with just one person. With two it’s better, even though you have more bags, but with one adult it’s tricky.
This is what I described to Paul recently, because he basically can’t imagine flying with his daughter because she cries all the time and thinks it would be a huge operation to travel somewhere with all the equipment and baggage that you need for a child, with the travel cot, the car seat, the pram, the bottles and devices, the cleaning stuff and nappies, spare clothes and then all your stuff too! Paul can’t imagine it, and he listened sort of wide eyed as I explained it to him, like this.
I take: One large suitcase (really big) with all our clothes, bottles, powdered milk, powdered cereal, washbag, thermometer, doliprane (paracetamol), books, toys, pacifier, doodoo (teddy bear or comforter), sleeping bag, my computer, my podcast stuff, leads, microphones, recorders, the pram, the waterproof cover for the pram (we’re going to England), A bag with food, drink, snacks, a bag with nappies, wipes and a towel, a change of clothes, some cartoons downloaded on netflix as a last line of defence, colouring books, pencil, sticker book, story book, maybe a farm animal, a book for me which I will never read, passports and my daughter.
So a pram (foldable) a huge suitcase, a backpack and my daughter and me.
Taxi to the airport. It’s expensive, but it’s just a much much smoother and efficient way to get this show on the road and get to the airport. Otherwise it’s taking a metro, walking a lot, then onto the RER, many many lifts and corridors and horrible air. The taxi option is amazing as they drop you right at arrivals.
Cruise through the terminal like a sort of huge articulated lorry, with the pram in front, my daughter probably sitting forwards and taking it all in, then me with my backpack and my other arm dragging the huge suitcase behind on its little wheels. A huge articulated truck moving through the airport.
Straight to the display, then probably to area C to queue up and check in the massive suitcase which could easily be overweight.
At this point JNR (my daughter) is sitting in the pram and probably demanding to be given the passports to be held. This could be her outstretching her hand, pointing at your pocket and saying “hand hand!” or even some mangled version of “passport”.
She’s being very insistent and we’re surrounded by silent queueing zombies so I give her the passports and just hope that she doesn’t drop them. She’s normally pretty good at holding onto them because she knows they’re important, which is why she wants to hold them.
But she has dropped things in airports before. Maybe the last time we were going through the airport and she was holding her doodoo (a teddy bear) . After walking for a while I noticed that bear was not with us any more and I went to JNR, where’s bear? And she looked around herself and then just went “huh!?” like, “Oh my god, where’s bear!?” This is like, worse than losing your phone for her.
So we wheel backwards and retrace our steps, both of us scanning the floor for bear, and I see him on the floor in the distance, lying next to a wall, slumped, and a woman is picking him up and having a look, she’s a member of staff and other people are gathering around. I just get there in time and explain that the bear belongs to my daughter and they are reunited and all’s well that ends well. Everyone sort of laughs and maybe waves at JNR and she says “bye bye “ and maybe “Aassiii” which is a combination of “thank you” and “merci”.
By the way, her languages are coming along quite well. She spends most of her time in French during the day at creche, but at home it’s mostly English. Her French has come on quicker than her English as she has certain standard phrases like “encore” and “oui” and “Cel-la” but the last two weeks she was in the UK really boosted her English.
First we spent some time with my cousin Oli and his family. He’s got three kids, one of whom is a couple of years older than my daughter, and another is the same age as her and they speak English so it was a real boost for her there.
Then with my parents and my brother it was all English for quite a long time, and her English really improved. She was saying things like “and that?” , which is quite a big step I think, and “please” “thank you” “bread” “Nice!” “Happy” “bird” “TV” “Farm” and “Beatles!”
Also a few other sentences that I can’t really remember now. She also babbles a great deal in a weird alien language and makes up songs with nonsense words and sometimes sings like a hooligan while standing on a chair.
Anyway, I give my daughter the passports and she can give them to the woman behind the counter, which is quite cute and a good way to ingratiate myself with the Air France woman, so I can try to get a better seat, maybe with nobody next to us.
She does her best and finds one for me. Air France are pretty awesome. Also, my bag is 26kg and the limit is 23kg but she says she can see it’s for both of us so she lets me off too. Nice.
Then it’s “Operation Get to the Gate” and also “Operation Energy Cancel”.
Operation Get to the Gate basically means getting through all the stuff like passport control, security and duty free and then being able to set up a base from which you can send out the child on exploratory missions to research and discover everything in the general area. That can be difficult because you have to deal with another queue, and then go through x-ray security, which means taking everything out of my backpack, separating all the baby food and water for the milk, take JNR out of the pram, fold it up and put it through as well, then coax my daughter to walk through and pretty much command her to stand in one spot while you get everything off the trays and your belt on and keys in your pocket and everything.
Then there’s a fight because I want her to get back in the pram but she’s not having it. I eventually decide that sometimes there’s no point struggling with a kid who doesn’t want to do something so we agree to walk, I push the pram and she sort of follows along and I have to constantly give her pointers like “this way” and “come on” “we’ve got to get to the gate” and she goes “GATE” and I say “Yes”. And there’s plenty of “no” “stop” Don’t do that, don’t touch. No hands. No, No No. Etc.
I try not to say no too much and to always explain to her what we’re doing and involve her somehow too.
So we keep going and I get her to push the pram, but it gets a bit tricky when we get to the big hall with all the gates because there are loads of distractions and also large open spaces. There are the arcade games and she always wanders in among the games of street fighter, fifa and pac man. I have to go and grab her, pick her up even though she doesn’t want to go and carry her, explaining that we have to get to the gate, then find some water for her and sandwiches for me.
So we get in the queue at Pret a Manger, leaving the pram over there, keeping one eye on it, while my daughter is wandering along the sandwich fridge, picking up salads and I’m telling her to put them back and come here. She wanders around but generally is quite cute and nice so people don’t get too annoyed. She wants to use the card machine and hold my credit card, anything that means she’s involved in what’s happening.
Normally it’s pretty good but sometimes it can be quite difficult following her around and picking her up as she kicks and screams if she doesn’t want to go, but usually it’s fine because I’ve explained exactly what’s happening and she likes that. I explain a day or so before that we’re going to the airport (she has an airport book) and do the motion of a plane in the sky and she knows what that is and she does it too and she goes “fly , fly” and maybe “plane!” or “avion!”. So she knows what’s going on and I’ve tried to explain that she needs her seatbelt, so the seatbelt is always in the story. Now she’s ok with seatbelts and says “seatbelt”.
Then there’s some running around after we’ve found our base of operations at one of the chairs next to our gate, and it’s “Operation Energy Cancel” or energy drain or something. The main aim here is to burn off as much of her energy as possible, and usually this involves running along side her going “run run run run run run run” and she gets really excited and giggly and runs along with you, looking like super mario. Run run run run run run. We do that up and down until she’s pretty tired or we have to queue up for the plane.
This bit might also involve lunch depending on how much time you have, and sometimes lunch is done on the plane. In any case lunch is always more like a drug that you give to your child than an actual meal! You know that when you’ve given them lunch, they’ll probably fall asleep about an hour later, so lunch is more like a sleep drug that you apply to your child so you can have a break. In fact all meals, milk, food are more like drugs that you give to your children.
The aim is to make her tired on the plane. At this point it is difficult to keep everything under control because I have a heavy backpack on my back full of podcasting equipment and kid stuff, a folded pram over my shoulder and my slightly hyper daughter investigating everything and kind of giggling or pointing at things.
When people start queuing for the plane I like to hang back until almost everyone is on board. Why would you want to get on board early and spend even more time sitting in that cramped little seat. I prefer to wait until all the stressed out people have struggled with their bags before sliding in at the end while everyone else watches you get on board and my daughter walks along the aisle looking at everyone. I have a huge backpack and a pram over my shoulder so I’m probably bumping people in the arm or in the head if I turn quickly. I have to shove some bags out of the way to push the folded pram in the overhead locker.
Then it’s operation distraction, subtitled “I hope she goes to sleep”.
There are basically six levels of “kid on a plane”
Distracted by something quite wholesome, like drawing, stickers, reading a book. She’s quite happy to sit on your lap and try to pick up stickers and put them in places. I also don’t care at all if she puts stickers all over the seat or the magazine. Not a problem, if my daughter isn’t making a fuss, it’s all good. I might have to try and ingratiate myself with the person next to us, like a smile or just by talking to my daughter and hoping she does something cute, which usually works. So level 1 is – doing an activity.
Walking up and down. This one is vital for when level 1 just doesn’t work and your child has some pent up energy. I walk her up and down the plane and also let her hang around at the end near the weird little shelves and kitchen area at the end of the plane. That tends to use up some energy and stop her kicking the chair in front or complaining or making a police siren noise.
Changing the nappy. This can be quite a big operation depending on whether it is a #1 or a #2 and if there has been some kind of “leak”.
Obviously the worst possible one is a leaked #2 which can be a sort of Armageddon in the underpants, and can be really tricky to deal with in a plane toilet. You hope to hell that there’s a baby changing table, and if there is my daughter hardly even fits on it. She’s tall for her age. Anyway, I put her on the table and she’s a bit freaked out but very curious about everything in this grotty plane toilet. Then you change the nappy making sure she doesn’t touch it and you use loads of wipes to clean everything up, meanwhile your arse is pressed against the unit behind you, your left shin is pressed against the edge of the toilet and your head might be pressed against the curved ceiling on some planes. It might also be necessary to change her clothes, which is why it is vital to bring the other outfit. So that’s level 3.
Watching a video on your phone. This is a sort of fallback position which might help you to get to Level 5. It’s not ideal because you don’t really want your child to be watching a phone for any length of time, and sometimes she tries to play with the phone and ends up going into your emails or photos or something. But it can be a great way to pacify a child who is being boisterous.
We tend to show her Babar The Elephant, which is basically like Downton Abbey for kids. They’re exactly the same thing. In fact it’s the other way round, Downton Abbey is like Babar The Elephant for grown ups.
It’s very cute and they have adorable Canadian accents.
Blissful sleep when you can just take a break and even have a nap yourself which is the thing you’ve been craving all this time, ever since you were woken up at 6AM by her crying, then you take her in bed with you and she sort of kicks you and falls asleep until 7AM when she starts wailing for milk like a heroin addict and then after she downs it in about 2 minutes, she spends the next half an hour sort of rolling around and kicking in a half asleep trance, maybe in a bad mood, before sort of waking up and immediately giggling and playing around. So, getting the chance for a nap is just sensational.
…is meltdown. There are different stages of meltdown of course, but this is what you are trying to prevent at all times. Wrestling in your arms Refusing to cooperate Pushing your hands away so you end up doing some weird Chinese gung fu together Wailing and crying loudly Police sirens Car alarms Going red, tears Sometimes this develops into a full on raging demonic possession but that has only ever happened once on the Eurostar in the evening when she was really tired but didn’t want to sleep or go in the pram, and it was like The Exorcist or something.
Anyway, normally it is a mix of levels 1-4 which is basically ok. Then there are more queues, more giving her passports and then fighting with her to get her in the pram and possibly failing, waiting for the huge bag and then going to meet my dad, get her in the back of the car and drive, and she always falls asleep within the first 2 minutes of the ride.
I’ll talk a bit more about my daughter later, including some details about her English and her bilingualism.
I don’t normally talk about her this much but I did spend loads of time with her this holiday so it’s pretty fresh in my mind.
That’s it for part 1. Part 2 will be available soon!
Recently I was reading a book about listening and learning English. This episode is a summary of what I read, including details of how listening fits in with learning English, some considerations of the importance of listening and also some tips for how to improve your English with audio.
This episode is all about the importance of listening in the learning of English. It’s full of various thoughts and reflections about this topic and my aim to a large extent is to give you ideas and inspiration to help you keep learning through listening and to keep doing it more effectively, also to consider some things we know about learning through listening, to encourage you to reflect and form some metacognitive strategies towards your listening and also to give you some practical tips to help you learn English through listening and to improve your listening skills. I suppose ultimately I’d like to develop your process of understanding the place of listening in your learning so that you can take more and more responsibility for that learning. So that’s what this episode is all about. It’s quite appropriate I suppose considering this is an audio podcast for learners of English and you’re listening to this as a way to improve your English through listening, it’s worth taking time to think about the academic points on this subject.
Before we start I just want to say to any premium subscribers that I’ve got a series of episodes probably coming out next week all about grammar, focusing on tenses. We’ll be looking mainly at present perfect, but also comparing it to other tenses. So it’ll be a sort of tense review, focusing mainly on present perfect. There’s also going to be a series about the language which came up in my conversation with James that you heard on the podcast earlier in the year. So, grammar stuff coming next week and vocabulary later. If you want to get access to that stuff and all the other premium content go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium
Recently I was thumbing through some books at work. One of the books was a copy of Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom by Tricia Hedge, which is something of a bible for English teachers. A lot of teachers use this book during their DELTA and CELTA courses as it is absolutely filled with insights about language teaching and learning, all based on academic studies done over the years. It is a great book and covers most aspects of the work of an English teacher, including how people learn English and how, accordingly, English teachers should adapt their teaching methods.
I remember reading the book intensely while taking my DELTA. You heard me talking about the DELTA course with Zdenek earlier this year.
So I remember reading the book very thoroughly when I was doing my DELTA. Can you believe it, that was 13 years ago! It stuns me to imagine that it was so long ago. Anyway, during that time, when I was taking the DELTA and I had nothing else going on in my life – I used to work, come home from work, make myself tea and then retire to my bedroom where I would listen to ambient music and desperately try to focus on my work without getting distracted by absolutely everything in the universe! Because, somehow, when you’re working – everything becomes a major distraction. Anyway, one of the books I used to pour over was this one. I had loads of post-it notes marking various important pages.
Anyway, the other day I was at work and I noticed the very same book on the shelf, so I picked it up and started thumbing through it. 13 years later my situation has changed a bit. These days I’m doing this podcast and the majority of the people I am essentially teaching English to are not in the same room as me, they’re not even in the same country and in fact the only way I can communicate with them is through the medium of audio. I can also write things and post pics and videos on the website, but most of my audience don’t check the website – only about 10% actually go to the page.
Anyway, the point is – it’s now all about listening, which is amazing.
One of my aims in the beginning was to get people listening more, and it’s working. I have always thought listening to English must be an essential way to learn the language. It’s got to be a vital part of the learning process, surely. It’s like music – there’s music theory, music technique and all that, but for most musicians the best way to learn how to play well is to listen to plenty of music, and to practise every day. Listening probably comes first, right? Then it’s a question of practice x 5 and trying to replicate what you’re hearing. But first you have to get to know what music can sound like and to hear the way it is produced. When I first learned to play the drums I became obsessed with listening to my favourite drummers, who were: Mitch Mitchell, Stuart Copeland and Ringo Starr. Playing the drums at the beginning gave me a sense of how the music was produced, so I could listen to those songs and hear what the drummers were doing. I knew how they were doing it – which parts of the kit they were hitting, how those sounds were made. It was all a question of practising until I could do it too. In most cases I couldn’t replicate what they were doing (except in the case of Ringo!) but in practising like that I developed my own style, my own ease, my own technique and ultimately I was able to do things on the drums, play the kinds of beats I wanted to play, fit in with a band in the way I wanted. Obviously, listening was vital. It sounds ridiculous, obvious, right? To learn music, you must listen to it a lot – pay attention to how it all works. It’s the same thing with learning a language.
Obviously there are differences – the thing about music is that you understand it from birth without having to learn it first, right? It’s just something you feel. But anyway, I think the point still stands – that listening is a vital part of the learning process, just like it is with music.
So, back to the book. Now I’m interested in listening and I’m interested in what Tricia Hedge has to say on the subject of listening. So when I had the book in my hands, I flicked straight to the sections about listening and I made a note of what I found there.
In this episode I’m going to explain some of the things I’ve read and reflect on them.
Academics often write that listening is overlooked in ELT
Think about the average English lesson. Most of the time is spent on other language skills and language systems.
Listening is one of the 4 Skills
It is one of the 4 skills and it is a very important part of Cambridge Exams such as FCE, CAE and IELTS. Those exams give equal weight to the 4 skills, so listening is 25% of the whole exam. Is 25% of your study time in class devoted to listening?
We don’t do much listening in class
The majority of classroom work is devoted to other things, probably speaking and writing skills, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. I totally understand why. I wouldn’t spend all my time doing listening in my English classes. It wouldn’t make sense to get a bunch of learners of English together and just make them do only listening. Class time should be spent on other things, like communication skills, speaking and remedial work by the teacher.
We often listen to scripted listenings in class
Listening is in a lot of course books but the focus still seems to be on scripted dialogues which are designed specifically to present certain language, such as vocab or grammar. There just isn’t time to do extended listening, using unscripted dialogues that don’t follow a pre-planned agenda, but this is the sort of thing people need to practise listening to. Normal speech, which is a bit random, contains things like sentences that don’t end, false starts, moments when people talk over each other, moments of humour or spontaneous reactions and tangents in the conversation. So, real listening is overlooked.
Listening is vitally important in everyday life
The majority of interactions you will have will involve you speaking to a person, and it’s so important to be reactive to what they’re saying, and this relies on your ability to quickly follow what’s being said. It’s like fluency in a way – being able to follow fluid speech without thinking about it too much. That’s very important, of course.
Listening is linked to pronunciation and speaking
Raising your listening skills means raising your awareness of the connection between the written word and the spoken word – meaning that a good listener is able to recognise English as an oral language and this means being able to decode connected speech, elision of sounds, weak forms, how meaning is expressed through intonation and sentence stress. Getting good at listening means getting to know English as a spoken language. This in turn should help you make your English more natural, rather than just a version of the written language which comes out of your mouth, and that is a big problem. When I listen to learners of English (and I have met many thousands of them over the years) it’s amazing how often their mistakes are a consequence of them essentially speaking English as it looks when it’s written down. So many learners of English got to know English as a written language, to the point that the spoken version is so foreign to them that it’s almost like another language.
How much communication time do we spend on listening?
How much time do we spend on listening, when we communicate, compared to the other 3 skills? Research has been done into communication in English, focusing on the average time spent on the different skills of writing, reading, speaking and listening. How much time, on average, do we spend writing, reading, speaking and listening when we are communicating? The research shows that 9 per cent of communication time is devoted to writing, 16 per cent to reading, 30 per cent to speaking and 45 per cent to listening. (Rivers & Temperley 1978, Oxford 1993, Celce-Murcia 1995). There’s no doubt then that listening is really important and is perhaps the first thing you must master when you’re learning the language, followed by speaking. That’s if we decide that time spent during communication is the most important factor. Of course it depends on your situation. Maybe you work in an office and you have to write a lot of emails in English but you never speak it. I guess for you, writing would be the most important thing. But anyway, the numbers speak for themselves. We seem to spend most of our time listening. But we don’t spend most of our learning time on listening. The result is that when we are learning, we focus on learning words, learning structures and so on, but when we actually interact with the spoken version of the language, it all seems totally weird because the way we deliver those words and structures with our mouths often bears no relation to the English we have become familiar with during our studies.
Listening will be more and more important
Listening will only get more important. It’s almost definitely true that society in general is moving away from print media towards sound, so listening has become and continues to become more and more important as we move forward. Much more of our information comes through audio than ever before. With the internet a lot of the news we’re exposed to on social media is small video clips, we send each other audio messages, talk via Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp, there are frequent audio and video conferences at work, we have a plethora of podcasts available to us and much more than ever we are tapping into entertainment on a global level with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime where there are loads of English language TV programmes in the original language version, perhaps with subtitles in your language. The internet has allowed us to use listening as the primary source of information transfer today. So, listening is more and more important all the time.
How do people learn English through listening?
But what do we know about how people can learn English from listening? How does this affect the way I can produce LEP and how my listeners can consume LEP?
Input vs intake
This is part of the theory of language acquisition which is very popular. The principle is that if learners listen to English which is understandable but slightly higher than their level, and they focus on understanding the message within a meaningful context, that they can then pick up the language as a by-product of the process. This is good news for LEPsters. It means that you can pick up the language from my episodes by listening carefully to the main message being communicated. By interacting with English like this, you’re just naturally exposed to language and learn the functions of phrases and grammar through context. The argument is that you learn a language when you can understand it, and the process of getting to fluent speech comes first through a lot of exposure to the language, at the right level. It’s important that you understand most of what you hear, and that allows you to learn the new things you are hearing.
This is the principle that people only learn from the bits which are genuinely important to them. Learners won’t learn everything they hear. They’ll be selective, based on their own personal motivations. For whatever reason, each person will value certain parts of the listening content more than others. This is the stuff they’ll really learn. This means, there are certain things that will make the listeners prick up their ears, and a lot of that is based on the preconceptions of the listeners, their values and so on. For example, learners might believe that they can only learn from an authority figure like a teacher, and therefore their words will carry more value and will become part of the intake. On the other hand, words spoken by someone they don’t respect will just go in one ear and out the other side. It’s not just respect of course. It could be other things. E.g. if a listener is an engineer, they’re naturally going to be more motivated towards the language of engineering. What this means for my podcast is that I have to constantly think of ways to keep you engaged in order to turn most of the listening input into intake. It also means trying to cover a wide range of topics, which I try to do. But I also think it’s something to do with being personable, real and relatable while talking. I try to always address my listeners and think about what it’s like for you and hopefully this keeps you focused, which is good for your English.
The point is that the language should be understandable yet not without challenge, and the content should be presented as valuable but with the understanding that you can’t please everyone all the time – that each individual brings their own personal motivation to the listening experience, which means that different parts are valuable to different people. Each person will focus their attention on slightly different parts based on their feelings and attitudes.
What can I do on LEP?
What I can try to do is make each individual feel personally involved, in any way I can. I believe this is done best when I address the listener directly and sometimes avoid speaking from a script. It’s more human and engaging to talk ‘off the cuff’. Also I should keep the topics varied and also have a variety of people on the podcast.
Why listening is more difficult than reading
The language is transient – I mean, the words are only audible for a moment before they disappear. You can’t normally go back and listen again, unlike when reading when you can simply read the sentence again or scan the text to find something again. Listening comes and goes into the ether very quickly. You need to learn to think in a slightly different way and get used to interacting with the listening text by remembering what is being said, predicting what’s going to come next, and so on.
The written word has a standardised spelling system which everyone more or less follows. Also there are gaps between words on the page, and punctuation to show when one sentence begins and ends etc. With listening you don’t get any of these things. It’s not standardised like writing. You’re dealing with a lot of diversity in terms of accent and different ways the language can sound (and English is an extremely diverse language in which there are many, equally valid, versions of the spoken word).
What can you do?
It’s important to bridge the gap between the spoken version of the language and the written version. One way to do this is to do plenty of listening and reading, so that you’re familiar with the conventions of both versions of the language, but also there are other things you can do.
Listen and read at the same time
Dictation or listen + repeat dictations (use audio with a script)
This allows you to turn an interconnected stream of sounds into sentences, words, syllables, phonemes.
I’ve talked about this on the podcast before and I will no doubt talk about it again because I think it’s a great technique and in fact I’ve been working on some content which is designed specifically for this technique. Basically, listen to some audio, repeat what you hear bit by bit, then compare it to the script. You can then do things like use a pen to mark emphasis, intonation, connected speech, pauses on the script, then record yourself reading out the script, then try and replicate the main ideas without reading (it doesn’t matter if you say it differently – it’s not a memory test, you just have to communicate the main ideas in your own voice – and you might find that you remember some of the lines that you repeated before. You can also try writing down what you’re hearing and comparing that to the script as well. All of it can help you turn fluent speech into individual words, phrases and sentences, helping you work on pronunciation and speaking skills too.
Engage with the subject, not just the language. We know that we tend to understand what we hear more when we are engaged in the subject. This means that you should think about the topic being talked about and perhaps predict some of the things we’re going to hear. Basically, before you listen to something, just take a moment to make sure you are intellectually and perhaps emotionally engaged in that subject. Find some way to relate it to yourself personally. Use your imagination to picture the whole subject, issues relating to it and the things which might be said. We know that this helps you to listen more accurately, rather than just going straight into the listening, cold.
Learn the phonetic chart and practise it. Get an app, like Sounds or Sounds Right by the British Council. Do all the exercises, learn the phonetic alphabet. These are the basic building blocks of English and can really help you to break down, recognise and replicate sounds, words and so on.
When you’re repeating, pay attention to the emphasis. Which word in a sentence is being emphasised? Why? When you repeat, try to say the whole sentence like a word with the emphasis on the same part that you heard it. This can help you not only learn good sentence stress (which arguably is the most important factor in pronunciation) but also can help you identify the key information when you are listening.
Listen to a variety of things. Different genres of audio tend to follow their own “macro-script”, meaning that they follow the same kinds of conventions. For example, listening to the news you’ll notice certain things they always say, certain things that they only do on the news. Sports reports have their own characteristics, political speeches have their own style, a radio drama sounds unmistakably like a radio drama, an academic lecture sounds like an academic lecture, etc. You’ve got to get used to recognising certain conventions of different types of audio recording. So listen to a variety of audio.
But also, listen to the same thing again and again. Listen to your favourite English podcast every day for a month. You should wait about a month before you make a judgement. Listening to just one episode isn’t going to make a huge difference. Listening to many episodes, regularly, over a longer period – this is what makes the difference. It is a compound effect and to an extent it’s not even noticeable, but keep it up! This is one of the main issues today. People want instant, measurable results, but the reality is that language learning occurs over time and is sometimes not noticable. It sort of happens under the surface. But you have to be in it to win it. If you don’t use it you lose it. So keep listening every day for at least a month, then you’ll see that suddenly you can understand more and more and a whole new world of English can open up for you.
Listen to things you enjoy and are really motivated to hear. This helps turn input into intake.
Listen several times.
Don’t assume that movies and TV series are the best things to listen to. They tend to focus on visuals first. There’s music and other sound effects which actually get in the way. Sometimes dialogue is so naturalistic that it’s kind of impossible to follow. Often I can’t actually hear what’s being said in movies. Audio podcasts are probably better because they’re made for you, and you can just focus on the English exclusively. But, of course, if you like watching films in English don’t let me stop you. If you’re a big fan of the MCU for example – go ahead and watch Avengers: Endgame in English, twice!
Watch out for subtitles. Watching Netflix with English subtitles is something that everyone assumes is a great idea, and it is good. You can read what you’re hearing, notice the way the written language is expressed in speaking, you can pick up new words and phrases and so on. But for working on listening skills alone, it’s important to try some other ideas. For example, try to spend time listening without subtitles, then rewind and listen to that section again with subtitles and see what you’ve understood. Use subtitles or scripts after you’ve listened, in order to identify which bits you got and which bits you didn’t. But don’t get too used to always having subtitles when you listen, because this means you don’t develop proper listening skills. Also, don’t feel you always have to have the subtitles on or off. Switch between having them on, having them off, watching scenes several times with and without subtitles. Good learners of English actively use TV and films and think outside of the box a bit. It’s not just a case of switching Netflix to English and then just relaxing on your sofa.
Another thing is this – if you listen to podcasts a lot, then you’re immediately pushing yourself ahead of your peers who don’t do this. Think of the advantage you’re getting over other people who just don’t do any listening.
Motivation, reducing anxiety and building confidence. Listening a lot can really help you with these things, because you become friends with the spoken word. Imagine if you’re a regular and long term LEPster and you have to do a listening test. While other people are probably panicking because listening is a nightmare for them, for you it’s like you’re entering your comfort zone. Make listening your friend. Get to know the spoken version of the language and get a leg up on the competition.
So finally, the points are…
Listen a lot! Yey! This is probably good news because if you’re a regular listener to this podcast you just need to keep going! Keep it up!
Listen to various things. I’ll try and keep it varied here, but consider checking out some other things. Check out BBC podcasts on different subjects and shop around a bit.
Use some techniques, like listening and repeating audio that has a script and learning the phonemic script.
But ultimately, just relax and enjoy the process! Take time to reflect personally on what you’re listening to and enjoy yourselves!
I am sure that many of you have some interesting things to add here – either stories of how you’ve improved your English through listening, or specific things that you do relating to learning through listening. So please, add your comments under this episode. Your input is extremely valuable because as well as all these academic studies that underpin many of the things in this episode, it’s the testimony and personal experience of people who have learned English to a decent level that is what counts. So, please, tell us your stories, give us your thoughts regarding learning through listening.
And thank you for listening to this!
LEP Premium – www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium
Mailing list – Subscribe in the top right corner of this page
Follow me on Twitter @EnglishPodcast (You can check my Twitter feed below)