Talking to polyglot Olly Richards about the benefits of listening, reading and using stories to learn English. Full of insights and strategies for effective language learning. Transcripts and notes available.
This episode is packed full of language learning experience and wisdom, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Today I’m talking to Olly Richards, who has been on this podcast before, twice. Long term listeners will remember him. Some of you may also listen to his podcast, which is called I Will Teach You a Language. This is his third appearance on LEP, and I’m very happy to share this two-part episode with you here, today. I must say that I think this episode is full of really valuable insights about language learning and should be essential listening for anyone who is serious about learning a language to fluency.
The basics that you need to know about Olly.
He’s from England.
He speaks 8 languages. English is the only one he learned while growing up as a child. The rest of his languages were learned in adulthood.
I would say that he’s obsessed with language learning. He’s on a mission, basically, to learn languages but also to explore exactly how we learn languages, to find out the best methods, the most effective techniques, to discover the holy grail of language learning.
Olly spends so much time and effort learning languages, practising, reading academic studies, speaking to people about language in various languages, blogging about it, doing his podcast about it, producing books and courses all dedicated to the pursuit of language learning. He’s made language learning his career in fact.
As you’d expect, Olly really knows a thing or two about language learning. He’s got all the qualifications and has done all the academic work, but what I’m interested in is his own subjective experience of being a language learner himself, equipped with all the metacognitive strategies and accepted wisdom about the subject. This is where I think we can really get to the bottom of this topic. This is how we can get to the real truth about learning a language.
The first time Olly was on this podcast, we got to know the basics about how he applies himself to his language learning, but that was about 2 and a half years ago.
That episode was very revealing and still has so much to offer. I highly recommend you go into the archive and listen to that too. It’s episode 332, over 200 episodes ago! His second appearance on LEP was in episode 357.
So, in this conversation today we’re catching up with Olly after about 2 years of him working away on his language learning and teaching projects. So, what new insights does he have to share with us? Has his approach to learning languages changed? What does he now think is the most valuable way to spend your time in order to improve your acquisition of another language?
I think the results are really revealing.
I talked to Olly for nearly two hours – it was very easy and we could have gone on for longer. After having had this conversation I personally feel validated and reassured – why? Because Olly’s conclusions confirm what I’ve also discovered about language learning, and his conclusions confirm many of the principles behind my approach to doing Luke’s English Podcast. It’s a nice reminder that, in fact – yes, there is method to the madness.
Spending time talking to Olly and listening to him talk about learning languages is extremely motivating and I feel like this conversation, which will be presented to you in two parts, I feel like it’s a real shot in the arm for me personally, for the podcast generally, and for you too I hope. This should be a very healthy listening experience for all of you, in terms of your English.
Really – if you’re serious about learning English you will really pay attention. Absorb all of this, think about your own language learning experiences, apply Olly’s approaches to your situation, and see how you can continue to improve your learning of English to an advanced level.
There’s no need to say any more now in the introduction, let’s just hear what Olly Richards has to say about learning a language.
That’s where this part ends, but you’ll be able to continue listening in part 2. Well, I think this is a good one – absolutely chock a block with insights and advice for learning a language.
If you’re a premium subscriber you’ll soon be able to see a video of me reflecting on some of the things Olly said in this episode, summarising the main points and turning them into some bits of advice for those of you out there who are learning English with this podcast.
But for this audio episode, that’s it for part 1.
You’ll be able to hear the rest in part 2 as we discuss how to break the intermediate plateau and the connection between pronunciation and personality issues.
To get the full LEP experience and to get the full benefit of LEP on your English you should become a premium subscriber. For just the price of a coffee or beer per month you can access an ever growing library of lessons from me to you – covering language in more detail – usually explaining, clarifying and demonstrating real English – either because it has come up in specific episodes, or because it’s just stuff you should know and be able to do. I’ve been teaching for about 17 years and you can get the benefit of my particular set of skills by becoming a premium member – the perfect balance between getting loads of input and getting some advice, help, clarification and practice from me. All content in the app and online, .pdfs, full episodes, bonus episodes, videos, phrasal verbs, story lessons and more. teacherluke.co.uk/premium to get started. The app is the best way to get the premium content I expect.
OK that’s it for this episode. I’ll speak to you again in part 2. Thanks for listening.
Responding to more comments and questions from listeners, including some rambling about public holidays in France, why May is like ‘ninja August’, some corrections to what I said about bats and Stephen Hawking on the podcast and the story of an amazing useful cat from Japan.
Transcript (not 100% complete – listen to the episode to hear everything, including improvised moments)
In this episode I’m going to continue going through a list of comments and questions from listeners, while using those comments and questions as a springboard to ramble about this and that. Some of the questions are related to language, others are related to topics I’ve covered on the podcast recently.
I’ve got one hour before I have to go and pick up my daughter from day care, so let’s see what I can do in an hour. Let’s go!
LEP Premium is coming soon, but it’s not ready yet. Please don’t register until I announce it.
LEP Premium is not ready yet – I’ve had a few questions about this. Some listeners have found a sign-up form for it, but there’s not content available yet – so don’t sign up until I have made a proper announcement.
I have not uploaded any premium content yet – I’m working on the first episodes at the moment, but it’s coming soon.
So, wait until I say “GO” before you sign up.
I’ve got loads of work to do and I’m hoping to produce quite a lot of content this month, but it’s proving to be quite hard to get work done so far this month.
Public Holidays in France – “May is like the ninja August”
It’s May and in France and there are loads of public holidays – 4 in total, which is wonderful but it also makes things a bit complicated. It’s hard to get things done.
Doing the bridge, or “Le Pont”.
When public holidays land on a Tuesday or a Thursday it can really break up the week, and you have to squeeze all your work into just a few days. The first 2 weeks of May contain 4 holidays and this year the’ve all landed mid-week.
In the UK all our public holidays are moved to the nearest Monday.
In France they just land on the same dates every year and stay there.
This can work in your favour or against you. It’s a gamble!
In France people are very protective of public holidays and workers’ rights. In the past people had to fight very hard to get public holidays and they hold that right very seriously and protect it. Holidays have become an important part of French life (although people work very hard here too, despite the myth that people are lazy).
But the culture is different to, let’s say Japan, where people are given fewer holidays than France.
For example, it’s pretty normal for many people here to take the entire month of August off.
It’s difficult to get anything done, business wise, unless you’re a tourism company or you run a hotel for tourists or something.
So, in August nothing happens (it feels like). Back in the UK people still work – the kids are on holiday and you might take 2 weeks off during the summer but you still work during August. Things slow down a bit, but in France it’s much more noticeable. Certainly Paris changes a lot.
May in France is like ninja August.
I’m going to carry on responding to some questions and comments from listeners, like I started in the last one and we’ll see where this takes us.
So let’s carry on.
British Podcast Awards
First of all, I’d like to remind you to please consider voting for Luke’s English Podcast in the British Podcast Awards. I need as many votes as I can get if I’m going to stand a chance of competing with some of the big names in UK podcasting. I’ve been a UK podcaster for ages and ages and it would be cool to get some recognition from the UK podcast community. It would also be ace to get a TEFL podcast into a winning position in order to represent the learning English community and the teaching community. So, please vote! www.britishpodcastawards.com/vote or click the vote button on my website :)
Thanks Jack for adding lists of vocab under episodes, including many of the episodes in the archive. Check the comment section for Jack’s lists.
Jack always pesters me for a gift, sometimes for no apparent reason, but I suppose this time he deserves something for adding these useful vocab lists to the pages.
So Jack, on my recent trip back to the UK I picked something up for you. I know you’re into cars, so let me hand you the keys to a 1975 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. This is the ultimate in classic British luxury motoring, at the time it was released this was absolutely the top of the range in terms of comfort, style and quality and remains to this day a symbol of British class and sophistication. It doesn’t get better than this. With its massive V8 engine delivering 190BHP , steel frame, vacuum assisted brakes, power steering, manual 3 speed gearbox and top speed of 106mph this is a precision machine from the golden age of British motoring. Admittedly this 43 year old vehicle is no longer top of the range and can’t compete with modern day equivalents such as the high performance luxury models produced by Bentley, but for a leisurely drive through the British countryside in the most quintessentially British manner this has to be the number 1 choice. They don’t make them like this any more. The engine delivers a powerful, stately and commanding sense of control and the ride is so utterly smooth and poised that you can enjoy afternoon tea and cake with guests in the back without spilling a drop on the leather upholstery. It oozes charm, it breathes refinery, it is the epitome of retro British eccentricity. The Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.
Here are the keys Jack… just the keys I’m afraid. I can’t actually pin down the car itself… It’s somewhere… it’s definitely somewhere…
As Blind as a Bat
In episode 516 with Beatle Paul you explain the following idiom: as blind as a bat = totally blind I’m as blind as a bat without my glasses! (Bats are often thought to be blind, but in fact their eyes are as good as ours – but they use their ears more at night than their eyes.)
That’s not quite true: The following two phrases are from the English Wikipedia and explain the vision of bats 1. The eyes of most microbat species are small and poorly developed, leading to poor visual acuity, but no species is blind. 2. Megabat species often have eyesight as good as, if not better than, human vision. Their eyesight is adapted to both night and daylight vision, including some colour vision.
So what you state is true only for the subspecies megabat, whereas microbats are nearly as blind as a bat, but not quite.
Greetings from good old Germany, Heiner
Ah, thanks for the clarification. In my defence we don’t have many megabats in the UK. The majority of our bats are microbats, so perhaps that explains how the phrase entered common parlance, because in our experience our bats usually have poor eyesight, although to say that they are blind is actually not true.
But the correction still stands.
I said bats actually have good eyesight. But that only applies to megabats, whereas microbats actually do have relatively poor eyesight (although they aren’t actually blind).
Apologies to the microbat or megabat community for getting that one wrong!
No, but seriously, it’s good to get corrections like this in order to prevent the spread of misinformation, which happens every day.
ALSO a correction about Stephen Hawking from FB, probably more important than the bat one to be honest!
Hi, Luke, how are you? How’s your family?
I’m fine, thanks for asking. :) I’m a med student in Brazil and as I was listening to the episode you did on Stephen Hawking, I couldn’t help but clarify some things you said about his disease. I hope you don’t mind, but since I know you are curious about almost anything, I’m sure you won’t. You said that his kind of motor neurone disease affects the brain. It actually affects neurons outside the brain. These neurons are responsible for making our muscles produce movements (that’s why it is called a motor neurone disease). This disease is also known as ALS, which stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. You also said that his disease affected his central nervous system, but it actually affected his peripheral motor system. We have neurons throughout our bodies. Everything in the brain and in the spinal cord is our central nervous systems. Neurons outside these structures belong to the peripheral nervous system. Do you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? It was created to increase the awareness of ALS. And it worked! Donations coming from the challenge helped researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to find out one gene that is involved in the disease. This finding can help in future therapy development. I hope my explanation was useful and not too boring. Thank you so much for all your work in making this podcast.
Useful Japanese Cat
Dear Luke, how are you? This is Yuko, a Japanese expatriate living in New York,
and suffering from an incurable condition – “anglophilia” (Luke: an obsession or fondness for all things English).
In the episode “talking about pets”, your brother repeatedly mentioned the unusefulness of cats as opposed to dogs. (Luke: Yes, I was wondering if people would be bothered by the things that were said in that episode. James seemed to pick on small dog breeds and also vegan dog owners for some reason, and we also suggested that cats were essentially self-interested animals who somehow have managed to make us their slaves, suggesting that dogs perform far more useful roles in society in general… but…)
I just wanted to show you the exceptions.
There are some cats who worked as a station master in a Japanese train station.
I woke up this morning to the news that Stephen Hawking had died and I thought – I really must talk about this. He was a British scientist who must be considered one of the most significant people of recent years – a brilliant mind who contributed so much to our understanding of the nature of reality itself while also struggling against some extreme personal difficulties and for those reasons he’s a great inspiration to many people around the world.
In this episode I’m just going to talk about him, his life, his achievements and how he will continue to be an inspiration to people for many years to come. Let’s learn some English along the way. Vocabulary list & links available below.
Hawking interviewed by John Oliver (Hawking obviously had a sense of humour)
Monty Python – The Galaxy Song
This is a song written by Eric Idle, for Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”.
Hawking agreed to record a version of this song for Monty Python’s recent live shows.
It’s all about how we should remember that in the context of everything, our problems are actually rather small and insignificant, and by extension we should realise that there are no frontiers in our minds and we should realise that many limitations that we feel inside ourselves are actually imposed on us by ourselves.
In this episode you can listen to Amber, Paul and me as we take an online quiz and try to find out what school of philosophical thought we belong to. Are we empiricists, epicurianists, existentialists, hedonists, humanists, platonists, skeptics or stoicists? Listen on to find out more and to hear a full-on discussion of life, the universe and everything.
In this episode you can listen to Amber, Paul and me as we take an online quiz and try to find out what school of philosophical thought we belong to. Are we empiricists, epicurianists, existentialists, hedonists, humanists, platonists, skeptics or stoicists? Listen on to find out more and to hear a full-on discussion of life, the universe and everything.
If all those terms are completely new to you (empiricists, epicurianists, existentialists, hedonists, humanists, platonists, skeptics or stoicists), don’t worry. I don’t expect you to be an expert in philosophy or anything – but this can be a good way to practise listening to a slightly complex discussion in English.
I expect those terms aren’t completely new to you actually, because I’m assuming that you listened to the previous episode of this podcast, although it’s entirely likely that some of you have skipped that episode and jumped straight to this one because you were attracted by the prospect of listening to Amber & Paul on the podcast again.
You might have thought “meh, I’ll skip that one about philosophy and language and I’ll hurl myself towards this new Amber & Paul episode instead.”
Well, allow me to gently guide you back towards episode 509 at this moment because in that episode I explained what those types of philosophy involve, using various examples including how they relate to language learning. So I highly recommend that you listen to the previous episode if you want some explanations and general clarification of some of the concepts involved. It’ll help you to make sense of this episode a bit more, I promise.
And I think the combination of this episode and the last episode should be quite useful for understanding not just the general concepts we’re discussing but also for your English too. So, as you listen watch out for some of the ideas that I was talking about in the last episode.
Often, understanding something you’re listening to is a question of familiarity with the general subject. If you just listen to this conversation without hearing episode 509 (or without having general knowledge of philosophy – which admittedly some of you might have anyway), the topic area might be unfamiliar to you because it’s not every day that we talk about how we understand the meaning of life is it?
So listening to the previous episode could help you get more familiar with the topic and that will make this episode so much more accessible, the things you’ll hear will be a bit easier to understand and it should reinforce some of the language and terms that come up in the conversation and that should all lead to a more effective and satisfying listening and learning experience.
Are you convinced? Yes? You’ve already heard episode 509? Just get on with it? OK then…
So, in this episode you’ll hear Amber, Paul and me discussing the questions in a quiz that I found on Facebook, called “Which Philosophical School of Thought Do You Fall Into?” and generally talking about our approaches to life in general.
You can take the quiz with us if you like. You’ll find the link on the page of course. Click the link and follow the quiz with us. You can read the questions and different options that we’re discussing. You might need to pause the podcast in order to consider your answers on your own before hearing what we say and which options we choose.
Or you can just listen along without looking at the quiz – it’s up to you of course. You have free will don’t you? Or do you? Maybe all of this is predetermined either genetically, socially or as part of some divine plan by an intelligent (or perhaps not so intelligent) creator.
Now, I would like to just share some concerns with you at this point. I have a few concerns, and here they are.
I recorded this a few months ago and I’ve been sitting on it ever since. Not literally. I mean I’ve just been holding on to the recording, and wondering what to do with it. The reason for that is that, the conversation didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned or hoped. What I planned and hoped was that taking this quiz with my mates Amber & Paul could be a fun and clear way to explore some philosophical concepts for you my audience of learners of English. But what actually happened, as you’ll hear, is that we got quite frustrated by the way the quiz was written. These quizzes are always a bit annoying aren’t they? You always notice the flaws in the questioning and you wonder how accurate they will be. This quiz is no exception. Frankly, the questions and options don’t make complete sense – they’re quite vague and conceptual and you’ll hear that we spend quite a lot of time just trying to work out what each question actually means. There’s a lot of us interpreting the quiz itself, rather than discussing the philosophy.
On balance I’ve decided it’s still worth listening to, but I just want you to know that I know that it might be quite a heavy conversation for you to contend with. Of course, abstract stuff is harder to follow than down-to-earth stuff. I’m just saying – if you get overwhelmed by this one, then don’t worry – I am aware of that. I don’t mean to underestimate you, but there it is. Anyway, I’m just saying – I know that this is pretty complicated stuff, but I think you should listen to it anyway because ultimately we do finish the quiz and we do find out what school of philosophy we all belong to. It will really help if you take the quiz with us, so do get your phone out and click the link on the page or just google “which school of philosophy do you fall into?” and if you’re walking along in the street while listening to this and you’re looking at your smartphone please be careful where you are walking because I don’t want you to be doing a different quiz later, called “which hole in the street did you fall into?”
We did this recording at my place and Amber’s young son Hugo was there in the background watching “Andy’s Wild Adventures” which is a CBeebies TV show (BBC for kids). I realise that you can hear the TV in the background a bit. I don’t think it’s too disturbing, but you can hear it a bit. I don’t expect you’ll mind, but remember that I don’t record this podcast in a studio, so sometimes there might be the noise of real life going on around us.
Of course we kept an eye on Hugo during the conversation and every now and then we had to pause the podcast just to check up on him and so Amber could respond to him when he sometimes said “Mummy!”, which you might hear sometimes.
So, I just wanted to explain some of the background noises you might hear while you’re listening to this.
OK then, so get the quiz ready on your phone or computer – the link is on the page for this episode, or just search for “What school of Philosophical Thought Do You Fall In?” – and get ready for some philosophical ramblings from 3 people who quite possibly don’t really know what they’re talking about!
Alright, no more faffing about. Let’s go…!
I told you it was a heavy one didn’t I?
Are you ok? Are you still alive?
If you found that conversation difficult to follow and yet you are still listening, I just want to say “Well done” for staying the distance and sticking with it. Some people didn’t, they didn’t get here, and frankly they are just weak, generally weaker and will probably die out in the next evolutionary stage, so there. I don’t mean to say that you should feel glad that some members of our species just won’t make it, but rather that you can feel good that you’ll survive. I’m talking nonsense here of course.
Please, leave us your comments. What’s up with you? What are you thinking? What’s going on in your brain-head? We would like to know, and when I say “we” I mean the collective consciousness and the entire human race on a metaphysical level, not just me and the other members of the comment section crew.
Basically, write something in the comment section and express yourself in English!
The podcast will be back, doing it to your eardrums soon. Thanks for listening and take it easy out there in pod-land.
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This episode is all about philosophy and how this applies to language learning. Listen to me describing 8 different ‘schools’ of philosophical thought. Are hedonists good language learners? How do rationalists and empiricists disagree about how we learn languages? Is language learning an innate ability or just something that can only happen as a result of things we do after we’re born? And, how does philosophy answer life’s big questions such as, “What’s life all about?” “What are we doing here?” and “What shall we have for dinner?” Transcript Available.
What’s it all about then eh? This is a question that people have been attempting to answer for bloody ages. Nobody seems to be able to agree or decide for certain what the purpose of our existence is, or even what the true nature of reality is, but over the years the things people have said and written in response to this question have influenced our lives in loads of ways, without us even realising it.
Considering the question of “What’s it all about?” is basically the foundation of philosophy and in this episode I’m going to talk about philosophy and define a few of the main types of philosophy that exist.
I’ll also attempt to apply those different types of philosophy to the understanding of language learning if I can. And if I can’t, I’ll just make a jam sandwich or something.
So, with this episode you can learn English relating to lots of things, including abstract ideas, ethics, science, debate, reason, logic, experience and academic thought in general, and also we can consider the process of language learning from a couple of different points of view.
A while ago I found a questionnaire online which was called “Which school of philosophy do you belong to?”
I thought, “that makes a change from the usual stupid quizzes, like ‘Which Star Wars character are you?’ ‘Which type of biscuit are you?’, ‘Which type of fluff are you? The fluff in the corner of the room, the fluff in the tumble dryer, the fluff in your belly button, the fluff that collects in your jacket pocket or the fluff which collects under the strings of a guitar that never gets played?’ (I was the fluff in your jacket pocket by the way).
This one was about philosophy – “Which school of philosophical thought do you belong to?”
And I thought “ooh, I haven’t done an episode about philosophy on the podcast. That might be an interesting, yet fun way to explore a fairly intellectual topic.
I thought it would be an interesting way for Paul, Amber and me to have an intelligent and highbrow discussion (instead of just talking about poo or Russian jokes or having accordions for legs – although they are, of course, perfectly valid topics of conversation).
I haven’t talked directly about philosophy on the podcast before. So I thought it could be an interesting subject for the podpals to discuss.
And we got together a couple of months ago actually, and recorded ourselves going through the quiz in order to find out what school of philosophy each of us belongs to, based on the ways we live our lives and think about the world.
However, the conversation that we recorded ended up being quite heavy. We got a bit bogged down in just trying to understand, interpret and discuss what each question really meant. Not only did we have to try and make sense of the different types of philosophy, we also just had to try and understand the fairly complex questions in the quiz.
It made me think “ooh, this might just be a bit difficult to listen to – a complicated conversation and a complicated topic – it could be a bit of a challenge for the LEPsters.”
I will play you the conversation and you can hear our discussion, and you can also do the quiz with us while you listen, if you like.
But that’s going to be in the next episode because I thought it would be a good idea for me to talk to you about philosophy first, and to define some terms, before you hear our conversation. That should make it a bit easier for you to follow what Paul, Amber and I are going on about, while also making it possible for you to perhaps learn some things about philosophy and also the language we use when talking about philosophy and while tackling the big questions, like “What’s it all about?” and “What shall we have for dinner?” (well, maybe not that one – although it is rather a big question as I’m sure you’ll agree).
Now, I know you might not be philosophers. I have all sorts of people listening to this, from many different backgrounds. Some of you might be academic types, others not. Some of you are the types of people who like complex and abstract discussions, others might be the types of people who would rather listen to us talk about more tangible things, like Amber’s son doing a poo under a table, or something like that.
In any case, I like to present a fairly wide range of topics on this podcast and I think that’s important for your English.
So, let’s talk about 8 different schools of philosophical thought, and then you can listen to Amber, Paul and me taking that quiz, and hopefully it will make a bit more sense to you!
And by the way, if you would rather hear that story of Amber’s son doing a poo under a table in a restaurant (which is a real story) just listen to episode 380 again. You can find it in the archive.
Philosophy is all about how we understand the world and how we make sense of everything around us.
It’s not just “why are we here?” or just “what’s it all about?” it helps us to create the assumptions behind how we understand pretty much everything.
Really, it’s about attempting to answer questions that relate to every aspect of our lives.
Wikipedia: It is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, the mind, and language. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust (if one can get away with it)? Do humans have free will?
So, philosophy is the study of how we understand everything, and the answers to these questions form assumptions about so many things including :
Education (What should children do at school and why are schools important in the first place? How should we organise our universities?)
Health (How do we understand our bodies – how do we know what will make us strong or weak, healthy or sick?)
Politics (What is the best way to run the country?)
Science (What is the nature of reality? How do we measure that? Can science solve the problems we face? What is the scientific method and can it help us to discover the truth about the world?)
Debateandcommunication (What is the most effective way to argue your point in a discussion? What are the most effective ways to present information to people?)
Religion (Who or what is God and does he exist? How does this relate to the choices we make in life? Do we even have choices?)
Language (What is language? How does it work? What does it tell us about us as people? How do we learn it? Should it be controlled? What constitutes “good” and “bad” language?)
Ethics (How do we decide what is the right or wrong thing to do in any situation)
An example of an ethical question is “if your neighbours are having a loud party late at night, is it ok for you to call the police to stop the party?”
Imagine – your neighbours are having a loud party and it’s keeping you awake. What should you do?
Here are some of the reasons for stopping it: it’s annoying for you personally, it’s annoying for everyone in the area, it’s somehow damaging behaviour for them – i.e. because they need sleep and shouldn’t drink, it’s breaking a rule imposed by the government. Or reasons for not stopping the party: everyone has the right to have a party sometimes, it would be rude to interrupt their celebration, the police might be unreasonably aggressive with them and someone might end up being arrested or even physically harmed, or
“if they don’t stop playing that music now I will go round there and murder everyone in the building, especially if they play THAT song again”.
These are the sorts of questions that philosophers might spend a lot of time thinking about, especially if their neighbours were having a noisy party next door. The philosopher might spend ages pondering the question of exactly what to do, even if most people would just bang on the wall and tell the neighbours to “shut up! For god’s sake shut up or I’ll call the police” assuming of course that god exists and that the police have got nothing better to do, other than sit around smoking cigarettes.)
Still on that example of the ethics of “having a loud party in a highly populated area”, one of the big responses might be “it’s unfair for these people to have this party, because it is simply unethical for a small group of people to be happy at the expense of the happiness of the majority of people living in the surrounding area.” which would be a very reasonable thing to say under the circumstances. I imagine most people would just think “Those bastards! Those bastards! Those bloody bastards!!!” (which is not an established philosophical position, I think)
The ethical principle I described there (not the “you bastards position” but the “happiness for the majority of people is the deciding factor” position, is: What benefits the majority of people is the right thing to do. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham might come to mind, when considering this idea, if you know who Jeremy Bentham is. If you don’t know who he is, and have never heard his name before, I’d be very surprised if he comes to your mind, to be honest. You might just be thinking “How can I get my neighbours to turn down the music?” and suddenly – JEREMY BENTHAM! – that would be weird.
Anyway, Bentham said “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people] that is the measure of right and wrong”. This is the foundation of utilitarianism – a system which influenced lots of people and, for example, contributed to the construction of the welfare state – that’s the system in the UK that provides healthcare for everyone, but which is probably paid for mainly by the people with incomes – the people who earn money from their work, and the higher the income the more you pay – as tax. As long as most people are made happy, this is the right way to run a society. People who work should pay tax and a lot of that tax should go towards a healthcare system that is available for everyone, even those people who don’t work and even if it means that some people who earn more money are also paying more.
This is an example of how a philosophical idea – in this case “utilitarianism” has an impact on the political policy of a nation, and how that can affect everything else.
You can see here that philosophy is at the centre of all the big questions that we face in society – both personal and communal. E.g. Should guns be legal? Should I buy a gun? Should drugs be legalised? Am I a bad person if I take drugs? Should we download films from torrenting sites, or buy them from the established distributors? Is it wrong if I watch a pirated film on the internet without paying for it? Does it matter which film it is? What if the film is a big-budget blockbuster like Transformers? What if I wouldn’t have actually paid for it anyway? Should I feel guilty if I listen to episodes of Luke’s English Podcast and yet I never send him a donation for his hard work? (by the way the answers to all those questions, in order, are “It depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, YES)
All these questions are philosophical at their very heart – in most cases here we’re talking about ethics, which is just one branch of philosophy.
Different “Schools of Thought”
There are lots of philosophical schools of thought. Not all of them are completely different. Some are quite similar. They came out of different contexts: different people, different periods of time and different places.
Let me go through some of them. Which one do you agree with? It’s quite possible that you agree with more than just one of these things, because I think most of us probably take a bit from here, a bit from there, and have a complex and diverse way of making decisions and understanding the world. In fact I’m quite sure that the general culture in the world is now a combination of all these different schools of philosophical thought, as well as all sorts of other influences, such as traditional customs and beliefs. But there was a time when many the thinking processes that we consider now to be just part of normal common sense didn’t even exist. A lot of the general assumptions that we have about questions of ethics, politics and even language were not always there. Basically, I mean – people used to be really really stupid – like mind numbingly stupid, and slowly but surely, over decades, centuries and millenia, a complex dialogue about the big questions has been going on, involving people from different countries. Various conclusions have been made and a certain amount of progress has been achieved in general thinking… even though some people in the world still enjoy the music of Rick Astley.
The different schools of thought that have appeared over the years are like different realisations – like different rooms in this big palace of thinking that we now all have access too.
So if you feel like it’s hard to make a distinction between some of these schools of thought, that’s ok – some of them are quite similar and in fact over the years they have combined to an extent, so that today it can be hard to distinguish between them. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Also, there are other positions or ways of looking at the world that might emphasise politics, economics or psychology which aren’t included here. E.g. if you believe that the defining force in your life is your place in the class system or wealth system in society, or how your life is dictated by those in power or by the decisions of your bosses, or the police – you might turn out to be a Marxist, or something like that. Or if you think that your experiences as a child are the most influential factors in how your life has meaning, you might be a Freudian, or simply if you believe that our lives are entirely dictated by some sort of intelligent creator who has designed everything including all existence and everything that happens, has happened or will happen – then you might be a religious person like a Christian or a Muslim or something.
Or perhaps if you believe that your life is given meaning by how you interact with audio content uploaded onto an internet based RSS feed, which you then consume through headphones attached to your ears, you might be a LEPsterian.
But again, it’s most likely that your worldview is some sort of combination of all these different schools of thought and of course a lot of the time we don’t really know which school of thought we belong to, because it’s not football. You don’t need to pick a team or anything. And it’s much more complicated than football, and perhaps less fun than football. Certainly in the UK hardly anyone goes around saying “well, I’m an epicurean so I disagree with what you said” or “Hey, shall we get pizza this evening?” “Well, I’d quite like to have noodles so speaking as a platonist I think we should have a debate about it and then choose our dinner based on the outcome of that argument, perhaps you would like to start by outlining your predicates for why you believe pizza is the best option…” Nobody does that, right? But anyway, here we go – different schools of philosophy, in alphabetical order, not chronological. As you’re listening to this you can just think about these questions:
a) Do I understand what the hell this position is all about?
b) Do I agree with this? Is this a good way to look at the world and make decisions?
The basic ideas of empiricism were probably first established by Persian and Arabic philosophers in the 11th and 12th centuries, and then developed into the more established positions by British and Irish philosophers from the 17th century into the 20th century.
Knowledge can only come from what you see and experience with your own eyes. “I’ll believe it when I see it” or “It’s only true if we can actually observe it.” Observation tells us what is true.
This is often contrasted with rationalism which basically says that you can use logic and reasoning to work something out without observing it – e.g. that there are rules of logic that are always true and that these define what will happen.
Empiricism basically says – I don’t trust any other information than the information I’ve seen and I can only know something after I’ve actually seen it, observed it, measured it. So, knowledge is something that comes after our experience.
Rationalism on the other hand says that there are certain universal laws of logic which will ultimately give you the truth about something. So, knowledge exists before us and it’s a matter of uncovering it.
Empiricism is all about ‘what comes after’ and rationalism is about ‘what comes before’.
The ‘what comes after’ means that the knowledge you have of something comes after you’ve observed it.
The ‘what comes before’ means that the principles of logic that exist before an event – universal laws of logic that everyone is born with the ability to use. These laws of logic are then applied to something in order to help us understand it.
So, for ‘flat earth’ an empiricist would say “Let’s look at the earth. Let’s measure it. If it looks round, we’ll know it’s round”. This is limited because sometimes our senses can be wrong. We might not be able to see things, and our senses might even distort what we’re seeing. E.g. for flat earth we can’t see the curvature of the earth from our current position, even if we’re in a plane, even though the curvature is there, because of our relatively close proximity to the earth. You’d need to travel to the edge of the atmosphere to see the curvature, and not many people can do that. So, a problem with being an empiricist is that you put too much faith in your senses, which can be misleading and can’t cover all aspects of knowledge – e.g. stuff that we can’t actually see – like gravity. I think there’s also an argument that the act of observing something has an effect on it. So, observation is not 100% perfect.
I think that the best approach would probably combine both systems, that to prove that the earth is round you’d observe the earth, measure it but also apply different mathematical laws or physical laws to it.
How does it relate to language?
We can align the rationalism side of things with the idea of ‘language nativism’. Rationalists say that we are all born with the ability to use logic and reason, that it is innate to us – perhaps part of our genes. Language nativists argue that we are born with an innate ability to learn languages. That language learning is in our genes. That all of us learn languages in the same way (regardless of the language) and that it is instinctual.
Language empiricists on the other hand believe that language is something that only happens after we are born – that it is something that we learn, rather than something that is kind of built into us genetically.
This is an ancient school of thought created by a Epicurius from Athens in ancient Greece – around 300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ (307 BC).
This was when people were just trying to work out how to live properly – coming up with approaches to the best way to live your life. These days we are inundated by different methods and approaches to how to live your life. Think of all the lifestyle magazines and articles about dieting and making the right life choices and career moves. Once upon a time, people hadn’t really worked that out, and the philosophers in Ancient Greece really paved the way for this sort of thing. It seems they spent an awful lot of time sitting around trying to work out what human beings should really be doing with their lives beyond just surviving like all the other species on earth.
Epicurius believed that pleasure and pain are the only things that have intrinsic value to beings, and that the goal of life was to maximise pleasure and minimise pain for both yourself and others.
He taught that people thus needed four virtues: prudence (caution – being careful), justice, friendliness and fortitude (courage and the ability to withstand pain and difficulty). Epicurus emphasised that the pleasure from an action must be weighed against the negative side effects, a concept that could be called the ‘pleasure calculation’. For example, you could save up £1000, buy twenty kilograms of chocolate, and eat it all at the same time. In this case though, you need to weigh the pleasure of eating chocolate against the inevitable stomach ache and the weight you’ll gain from eating a third of your body weight in chocolate. Epicurus had a second part of the pleasure calculation that he said to consider: is it worth the momentary benefit of £1000 of chocolate or buying a new bike a bit later for £1100?
The greater pleasure, even if it causes a slight negative effect at the moment, is the greater good. Epicurus also taught that sensual pleasures weren’t all that there was to the world. Epicurus noted that appreciation of art and friendship also count as pleasure. Moreover, Epicurus taught that the enjoyment of life also required old Greek ideals of self-control, temperance, and serenity. Desires need to be curbed, and serenity will help us to endure the pain we may face. Epicurus also preached altruism over self-interest. Said he that friendship “dances around the world, calling all people to a life of happiness.” He taught that the best life for the individual is one that is lived with other people for their benefit in addition to the individual’s own benefit. (RationalWiki)
No idea what he says about language to be honest!
Perhaps that when choosing to learn another language we should measure the benefits of learning that language against the pain we might experience as a result.
I’m pretty sure we can all agree that while learning English can be painful, frustrating, confusing and embarrassing, the benefit of learning this language clearly outweighs those negative things. So, on balance Epicurius would probably say – “Go ahead and learn English! And make friends with people while you’re doing it!”
I imagine a hedonist might be a bit lazy, especially if learning a language from scratch doesn’t involve much bodily pleasure.
But perhaps hedonists might learn language if it meant gaining access to more forms of gratification. E.g. they might learn language in order to seduce people, get access to alcohol, drugs, or other forms of bodily pleasure! I expect a hedonist’s vocabulary would be rather limited to dirty words, useful phrases for drug deals and pillow talk.
It’s pretty confusing, but to boil it down let’s say: Plato basically invented the first university – a place called The Academy which was positioned outside the city limits of Greece. This was where he delivered lectures to his students and engaged in debates. This was the foundation of certain academic principles and methods. Those academic “for and against” essays that you might have to write at university, or for an IELTS Writing part 2 – that all started with Plato and his academy.
He believed highly in the value of debate, argument and discourse as a way of reaching certain eternal “higher truths” – these are truths which are eternal. He thought that ‘ideas’ were more important than ‘matter’ (physical stuff) and that the persuit of knowledge or the process of learning is a question of uncovering universal truths that already exist in our immortal souls.
From a language point of view, Plato believed that ultimate knowledge already exists inside us and it’s just a matter of uncovering it.
Noam Chomsky has applied this idea to his understanding of linguistics – how languages work, specifically in the idea that there is a Universal Grammar that we are all born with.
Basically, the idea is something like this – how do native English speakers know exactly how to use grammatical forms like present perfect tense correctly, without having formally studied it or been taught it?
E.g. my brother James knows when a sentence is right or wrong – e.g when present perfect is being used correctly or not, although he’s never been taught English grammar. How did he learn it? The idea is that James, like all of us, was born with an innate understanding of grammar.
1. Plato’s Problem The writings of Plato stretch all the way back to the beginnings of Western philosophical thought, but Plato was already posing problems critical to modern linguistic discourse. In the nature versus nurture debate, Plato tended to side with nature, believing that knowledge was innate. This was his answer to what has become known as Plato’s Problem, or as Bertrand Russell summarizes it: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?” Being born with this knowledge from the get-go would naturally solve this little quandary and consequently he viewed language as innate.
Personally, I just can’t agree with this. What about people who are rubbish at grammar because they’ve had no exposure to it?
(Note: I’ve changed my mind! I think we must be born with the innate ability to learn grammar – but the whole subject is difficult to fully understand)
Skepticism (or Scepticism in the UK spelling) At its simplest, Skepticism holds that one should refrain from making truth claims, and avoid the postulation of final truths. This is not necessarily quite the same as claiming that truth is impossible (which would itself be a truth claim), but is often also used to cover the position that there is no such thing as certainty in human knowledge (sometimes referred to as Academic Skepticism).
Language Learning & Scepticism
For language learning, you could say that a sceptic would avoid jumping to conclusions about the language being learned. E.g. when you think you’ve learned a rule about the language, avoid saying “this is always true”. E.g. The idea that quantifiers like “some / any” are always used in a certain way. You might learn from an intermediate book that “some” is used in affirmative sentences and “any” is used in questions or negative – but watch out, that so-called rule is often broken. So, a language learning sceptic might avoid thinking “this is always true” or “this is never correct”.
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.
Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.
Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate.
I found this article on Benny Lewis’s website “Fluent in 3 Months” and it’s doing exactly what I’m doing (or trying to do) in this episode – applying certain principles of philosophy to language learning.
This one is written by Jeremy Ginsburg, who describes himself as a writer, entrepreperformer and language learner and you’ll find it on
There are many more types of philosophy than that of course, but that was just a series of 8, based on this online survey that Amber, Paul and I took recently.
If you’re feeling a bit confused
Don’t worry, I totally understand. Honestly, I’m a bit confused too. That’s normal. This stuff isn’t supposed to be easy, that’s why people have been thinking about it and going on about it for thousands of years.
Really, philosophy is all about wisdom and trying to understand things better, make the right decisions and choose the correct way of life.
I wonder what school of philosophy you associate with most?
Also, if you’d like to listen to Amber, Paul and me finding out which school of philosophy we belong to – just wait until the next episode to hear our discussion.
A conversation and vocabulary lesson about childbirth and becoming a father, with Andy Johnson and Ben Butler from The London School of English. Listen to Andy and Ben talking about their experiences of becoming parents, how their babies were born and more. Vocabulary is explained in the second half of the episode. Vocabulary list available.
If you have heard the podcast recently you’ll know that my wife and I are expecting a child… (expecting a child to do what Luke…?) Well, expecting a child to be born… we’re having a baby, well she’s having a baby, as I said before, I will mainly be just standing there, hoping for the best.
“Expecting a child” is just the phrase we use for that – when you’re going to have a baby. We’re going to have a baby daughter in December. Thank you if you have sent me messages saying congratulations, that’s very nice of you.
I don’t plan to talk about children all the time on this podcast. Having a child is a big deal, but I don’t want to sound like a broken record by going on about it all the time, although it’s bound to come into the things I say because it will be major part of my life.
But I thought that it would be worth talking about it in some depth in at least one or two episodes because it is something that a lot of people experience (many of you will have had children, or will go on to have children and if not you then your friends or family – or at least it’s the sort of thing that people talk about a lot) and since this is happening to me I think talking about it could bring some authenticity to an episode, and that can really make it more interesting and therefore more engaging for you to listen to . Also there’s quite a lot of specific vocabulary that will come up that you can learn.
I did record a conversation with Amber nearly 4 years ago when she was pregnant with her son Hugo. She talked about what it was like for her to be pregnant and I did a follow-up episode with vocabulary of the subject too. You can find those two episodes in the episode archive – episodes 161 and 162. That was quite a long time ago, so let’s revisit the subject, and see if any of the same language comes up again.
This time I thought I’d talk to Andy Johnson and Ben Butler about their experiences of becoming parents, to see if they can give me some general advice as I am just about to become a dad for the first time.
They’ve both had several children now, so they’re very experienced at the sort of thing I’m going to start going through in a matter of weeks.
So I’m going to do a lot of listening and learning in this episode, and you can join me too. Let’s see how much we can learn from this.
Watch out for some nice language relating to the whole subject of childbirth, parenting, and so on.
This episode is in two parts – that’s because I’ve decided to spend the second half of each episode explaining some of the vocabulary that comes up in the conversation.
What’s going to happen is that I’ll play you the first part of the conversation in a moment. Just try to follow it. I think it might be difficult for a lot of you. I think that there could be quite a lot of detail that you won’t catch. There are 3 of us, talking on skype, fairly quickly about quite a specific and detailed subject. So, remember, if you don’t understand it all – you should keep listening and hold on because I will be going through a lot of the language and clarifying it afterwards.
That should help you understand more and also turn this into more than just a conversation – it’ll become an English lesson and a chance to learn some natural English expressions. So, don’t worry if you don’t understand it all. I expect to catch a lot of that stuff in the second half.
There’s also a vocabulary list on the page for this episode and the next one.
Now, having children is wonderful and fantastic and all that – but it can also be quite scary – I mean, it’s fairly serious business, especially the moment of birth. I think we’re going to get into some fairly personal details in this conversation, and there will probably be a few descriptions of childbirth experiences which were quite emotional and even frightening at the time so please just bear that in mind if this is a sensitive topic for you for any reason.
Another thing I’m aware of is the fact that there are various cultural differences around childbirth and so the things you will hear about in this conversation might be different to how it is in your country. I’m quite curious to read your comments and to know if things are done at all differently where you are from.
Anyway, let’s now talk to Andy and Ben now and see what they can tell me about becoming a dad, and by the way – this conversation was recorded on Skype. I was at home in Paris and they were in a classroom at the London School of English, which is just next door to where I used to live in my flat in London. In fact, from some of the classrooms there it is possible to see my old flat through the windows. In fact, that’s the first thing that is mentioned in this conversation…
—————————- Part 1 ——————————–
Ok that’s the end of part 1 of the conversation!
What I’m going to do now is go through some of the language you just heard but may have missed. You can hear the rest of the conversation in part 2, which should be available soon.
Now, a lot of the language in this list for this episode is about childbirth and parenting – but not all of this language is about those things. There’s also plenty of vocabulary that you can use to talk about things in general, for example there are a few football analogies that Andy and Ben used as well.
Check out the page for this episode where you’ll see a the word list that I’m going through here. You can take those phrases, put them in your word lists, your flashcard apps, and so on.
Create your own word lists
By the way, it might be a good idea to create a word list of your own. It’s so easy with the internet today. When you find new words online, copy + paste them into a list (maybe on a spreadsheet, a word doc or a google doc or something). Add examples, definitions, pronunciation, even links to podcast episodes or whatever, and also any details that will help you remember the word. That’s so easy to do, right? Just copy + paste and bob’s your uncle. Use an online dictionary like Oxford Dictionary online to get examples and definitions. Then you can keep going back to your list, testing yourself and making sure that you remember these phrases and that you don’t just immediately forget them.
Just a tip there for how you can use word lists, notes or scripts on my website to help expand your active vocabulary with this podcast.
It’s exciting and slightly nerve-wracking
Football expressions (to describe the sequence in which Andy & Ben had kids – as if it was a football match)
Ben, you went first with your baby and then Andy you came next.
Andy: I equalised.
It was 1 – 1.
It was 1 – 0 (one – nil) and then Andy equalised.
Then Ben took the lead again.
Then more recently you drew level again.
We’re both on a hat trick now but it’s more likely that the match has been abandoned now.
It’s full time (no more kids!)
Match abandoned – inclement weather.
We’re going to call it quits at two.
The scans tell us that she’s healthy
How am I going to change a nappy?
Those kinds of things are easy in hindsight.
There was quite a lot of apprehension around the birth.
The midwife is talking about the birth in French.
Whether you want to have a caesareansection.
A natural birth – (in the UK this means a birth in the conventional sense, not a cesarean) but I use it to mean a birth involving no epidural (or pain reducing medication)
So, here in France, when people say “a natural birth” they mean one with no pain killers.
In the UK “a natural birth” just means “not a cesarean”.
So, will it be a c-section?
An epidural – a nerve blocker which goes into the spine
She had an epidural and she said it was a game changer
We conceived on Valentine’s Day
We had IVF so we know exactly when it happened
With the second one we were induced
My wife would certainly advocate having an epidural because it makes things so much easier
A chemical induced state
A numb state
My wife is pretty hardcore, she’s hard as nails
She’s got no qualms about that. She’s happy to just have the epidural.
We tried for 3 years and never fell pregnant again
In the end we went through IVF
They take the eggs out and inseminate them in a test tube and then they go back in
Talk about taking the fun out of it! (Talk about… = a way of emphasising something)
Our friends were plying us with champagne
Did your wives have morning sickness?
It’s the first trimester when they get sick
She was narcoleptic
Her body was generating new cells and it took it out of her
When is your duedate?
You’re almost in the drop zone mate
By the time this has been published the sprog might have even arrived
Think about your social commitments and try and scale those back
The final part of the holiday diary series. This one is about visiting the Navajo Nation, meeting some Navajo people, seeing more natural wonders at Monument Valley and The Grand Canyon, a couple of film recommendations our experience of the solar eclipse and a few more anecdotes about the rest of our road trip.
So here is the final episode in this series about the things I saw and did on my summer holiday this year. I’ve tried to make this more than just a description of a holiday. It’s also been a chance for me to talk about some topics that I hope are as interesting for you as they were for me when I found out about them.
In the last episode I talked to you about our road trip around the so-called Grand Staircase – a huge area of land where about 2 billion years’ worth of rock are exposed by tectonic activity and erosion, creating canyons and rock formations that are awe-inspiring but also revealing of the earth’s geological history.
In this episode I’d like to bring the series to a close by telling you a few more anecdotes and describing the rest of the trip.
Then, after this episode we’ll be back to normal podcasting with some upcoming episodes featuring conversations with guests.
So, after visiting Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah in the last episode, we drove South East and across the state border into Arizona and also crossed into the area known as the Navajo Nation Reservation – an area of land that includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
I already knew a few things about native Americans, or American Indians, or just the Navajo tribe, but I sort of hadn’t realised we would be entering their territory and staying there for a few days.
In fact, I didn’t even really know that the Navajo Nation existed.
I knew a bit about the Navajo. I knew that many Indians were moved from the areas they used to inhabit onto reservations in the 19th century.
I knew that many Indian tribes like the Navajo had been forced, in the late 1800s, by the US army to move onto reservations, which in many cases were basically just prisons on inhospitable land, just because the United States government didn’t really know what else to do with them and which, by today’s standards, would be considered a violation of basic human rights.
I also knew that the Navajo’s population had been decimated by these changes and that this was the same story with many Indian tribes across the country.
But I didn’t realise that the Navajo had been given a whole area of land – much bigger than their original reservation, that they could govern themselves, with their own elected president and other official posts.
It’s worth saying a few things about the Navajo Nation because I learned some stuff I didn’t know before.
They’re a sovereign nation with their own elected President.
The land which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is about 27,000 square KM – and on that land you can find various sites of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Navajo. There are over 300,000 people living there.
So, for a few days we were living on Navajo land and met quite a lot of Navajo people who work in the hotels, restaurants and as tour guides to some of the natural monuments.
These days the Navajo are modern people of course, and they don’t live exactly like their ancestors did but the brief bits of contact I had with some of them was interesting. It was really cool for me to chat with some people, particularly a tour guide we met at Antelope Canyon and just realise that although our ancestors were worlds apart (mine would have been English families raised as Anglican Christians in towns in the North of England, theirs lived on this land and hunted for deer and fish, lived in earthen houses called Hogans, fought with the US army) – so although our great grandparents lived utterly different lives, we shared some surprising things in common.
A Short history of the Navajo
They used to live in the Arizona area – living on and the land in simple wood and earth structures, hunting for animals, performing their rituals, living by their beliefs in the importance of living in harmony with the supernatural powers of nature, but as settlers from Europe began moving west and populating more and more land, they clashed with the Navajo, making life difficult for the settlers and prospectors moving through, so they were forced by the American government and the US army to move 300 miles to the east into New Mexico, and they had to walk there, in winter. Everyone. Hundreds of them died on the way and generally the population was nearly wiped out by the general upheaval – the consequences of the move, and the way their whole way of life became severely limited and impossible, by the way they were treated and their reduction in population is now often referred to as a genocide.
It wasn’t until much later, that the remaining Navajo were not only allowed to go back to their land, and claim it again, but they were allowed to govern themselves.
Essentially, during that period of western expansion, native people were considered less than human and were treated that way. Many Indians were killed or simply left to die.
They were just not included in the grand narrative of western expansion that built the USA of the modern age, despite being the original American people. Usually the American Indians are just represented as savage bad guys in western movies, although this has changed in the last few decades when their stories have been told more respectfully.
Also I learned that the Navajo played a really important part in World War 2. When the US was at war with Japan after Pearl Harbour, one of the most important things for the US navy was being able to communicate secretly. They created loads of codes, but the Japanese codebreakers were so clever and sophisticated that pretty much any code the Americans came up with got broken, and this was costing the US army a lot of lives. In the end, they employed bilingual Navajo people to create a code based on the Navajo language, and it was incredibly effective. The Japanese couldn’t break the code because of the nature of the Navajo language. Many words in Navajo can have multiple meanings but it depends how they are pronounced, using different tones. Some words can mean 4 totally different things depending on the tone used when saying them. I suppose in that way it’s like Mandarin Chinese or other tonal languages.
The Navajo people employed by the government to translate messages into code, based on their language, are known as the Navajo Code Talkers and they have been recognised as heroes and given numerous awards by the US government.
It’s a fascinating story of how this American Indian tribe suddenly became vital to American interests and greatly helped the country win the war.
We met a few native people while we were there and I wondered what life is like for them and how they feel they fit into life in the US.
They seem like nice people (but who knows) with a sense of humour. I mean, they could be vindictive and bitter, but they don’t seem to be. In fact the people we met seemed to be quite level-headed and humourous. I think the fact that they govern themselves helps to give them a sense of pride and independence.
Being in this part of the world, seeing the different landscapes and people, this made me think of some films – these are often my reference points because I’ve watched a lot of films over the years.
The Outlaw Josey Wales – Chief Dan George (not a Navajo but an interesting scene)
One particular film I thought of is The Outlaw Josey Wales – directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It’s about a civil war fugitive who is running from the Union army. At the start of the film he’s a peaceful farmer, but soldiers come and burn his house down, and kill his wife and child. He’s so consumed by revenge that he becomes an outlaw – a sort of avenging ghost (the typical Clint Eastwood western character) and on his way he sort of picks up these odd group of companions and it becomes something of an unconventional family. It was filmed in some of the locations that we visited, and there’s an Indian character in the movie played by an Indian actor called Chief Dan George. The actor isn’t Navajo and neither is his character – his character is a Cherokee – but the Cherokee experienced similar displacement to the Navajo, and they were ordered to walk hundreds of miles away from their land into reservations where and it basically destroyed their whole way of life – a way of life that had developed over many many years and was in harmony with the land, the wildlife and the natural environment in general.
There’s one scene in the film when this character played by Chief Dan George mentions the trail of tears and how him and other members of his tribe actually went to Washington to meet with the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate. They were all proud and wore suits and hats like Abraham Lincoln – because they were naive, but they were simply told to “endeavour to persevere” which basically means “just try to survive”. They were basically told “nope, we’re not going to help you, we’re still moving you into reservations, you’ll just have to try to survive”. The Indian chiefs went away thinking they had achieved something because the language sounded so respectful and important and because they’d been impressed by the posh surroundings in Washington. It wasn’t until later that they thought about those words “Endeavour to persevere” and realised that nothing had changed and they were being left in appalling conditions with nothing other than “try to survive” from Washington – on reservations built on land that wouldn’t yield anything for them. Once they’d thought about it, they declared war on the Union.
I like this scene because Dan George delivers the story with dry humour. It’s funny but also a bit tragic. It’s also a chance to hear English spoken by an American Indian.
Context: Chief Dan George’s character emerges from his home because he thinks someone is approaching. In fact it’s Clint Eastwood’s character just moving through the area. Dan George (Lone Watie) emerges from the house, trying to get an edge (an advantage) on the intruder but Clint’s character manages to sneak up on him. Then he talks about how the white man has been sneaking up on him and his tribe for years. Then he talks about the frock coat he’s wearing – the same coat he wore when he went to Washington, and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln used to wear. Then he tells the story of meeting the Secretary of the Interior and being told to endeavour to persevere.
“Indians vow to ‘Endeavor to Persevere'”
It’s a great performance by Chief Dan George and shows dignity, sadness and humour.
It’s hard not to see the irony when you see Americans today on Twitter complaining about immigrants coming and stealing their land and not assimilating to the culture.
Saw horseshoe bend – a huge natural bend in a river.
Lower Antelope Canyon (more pics at the bottom of the page)
(Not looking directly at the sun, by the way)
Video (below) – an example of a Flash flood – the sort of thing that created Antelope Canyon with erosion (this is a scene from 127 Hours, not actually filmed at Antelope Canyon, but just an example of a flash flood)
The tour company is run by the Navajo.
Examples of their dry sense of humour.
We arrived for our 12.20 tour about 30 minutes early because we thought there would be crowds.
We noticed that quite a lot of the tourists were being quite rude with the staff – just being a bit impolite and demanding, which is a pity.
In fact I noticed that the couple in front of us, who weren’t very nice, were demanding to go on the 11.50 tour when theirs was at 12.20 because there wasn’t an air conditioned waiting room (everyone was waiting in the shade in a covered waiting area) but the girl behind the counter told them that there was no space on the 11.50 tour and they just had to wait.
Sure, there wasn’t an air conditioned room, but this particular bit of land is not supposed to have lots of buildings on it and after all this is the desert, what did you expect, etc etc.
It was our turn and we made an effort to be nice.
“Hello! We’ve got a canyon tour booked”
It’s already gone, sorry.
My wife: What??
The girl just had a straight face.
Then I realised she was joking.
No, I’m just joking, ha ha. You can join the 11.50 one if you want.
I have some time for that attitude. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, shops, lots of customer service positions. You have to have a sense of humour because people can treat you so badly and they feel that they can be so rude to you.
Meeting Brian Yazzie our tour guide
We were joined by a group of about 10 tourists.
I think that people might be at their worst when in tourist groups. I don’t know why, but groups of tourists can act so rudely, pushing in front of each other, showing no respect to the guide, showing no deference to the incredibly significant monument which they are visiting and also doing stupid and dangerous things – like leaning over cliffs to take selfies or wandering off the path to take photos and stepping on a snake or being stung by a scorpion or something.
Brian dealt with all of this by using some seriously dry humour
Brian’s funny jokes
Can’t remember them? He told us 11 people had been bitten by snakes this week, that a woman fell off a ladder and you can still see the bloodstains if you look carefully, and he also said “travelling thousands of miles to walk through some cracks in the ground, kind of crazy right?”
He knew Penn & Teller and even Derren Brown.
Videos of Brian on YouTube
Some sleight of hand card magic inside Antelope Canyon
Brian tries some tricks on a few French tourists
The chimneys you see in the background of that video are the local power station which provides the whole area (and other states) with electricity. It’s part-owned by the Navajo.
As we were walking to the canyon he told us that his Grandmother used to say that you shouldn’t go down there, because it’s “the home of the winds”.
“So this is sacred ground?” I asked him.
“My grandma thought so”.
“Well, I’m sure everyone appreciates the beauty of it.” I said, but I couldn’t help feeling like we shouldn’t be walking there.
But Brian seemed ok with it.
Monument Valley in the film Fort Apache
Hotel is run by the Navajo.
It has views of the valley and the big rock formations.
It’s also a trading post and a place to eat.
It’s quite neatly built into a piece of high ground at the end of the canyon. It doesn’t stand out too much.
Each room has a view of the valley and there’s a big terrace with full views.
Incredible views. Describe the view.
Again, mad abstract shapes on a clear blue and rust coloured background.
Shadows stretching out across hundreds of metres of land. Amazing huge monoliths with faces in them and old names given by the Navajo.
Movie on the wall with view from our room. We sat, ate our packed dinner and watched the film.
It was called Fort Apache – directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda. It features scenes filmed in Monument Valley.
In fact, Monument Valley is famous for being in westerns.
It was amazing to watch the film and then literally turn your head and see the exact same environment just there in front of you.
Also, it was interesting to me that the Navajo chose to screen the film, because usually westerns present rather a bad image of Native Americans as the bad guys.
But this one was different. It was made just after WW2 and the general tone of it is about how foolish leadership and the so-called glory of war usually just leads good young men to die and how the American military misunderstood the complex culture of the native Americans and also underestimated their military strength.
The natives are presented as brave, civilised and great strategists.
All the native American parts (Apache indians) are played to great effect by local Navajo, and the end of the film sees them defeat a garrison of American soldiers.
So it’s pretty clear why the locals like the film. And it’s a really good one. John Ford was a masterful director.
That night, like most nights out in the desert we couldn’t sleep. Not because of jet-lag but I think because we’re quite blown away by all the stimulation. It’s quite hard to take it all in!
So, that night we both lay in our bed trying to sleep, but feeling wide awake, with this incredible and powerful landscape just outside the window.
In the morning we drove down into the valley to see the huge monoliths a bit closer. Again, there were lots of faces and forms seemed to be in the rocks as you look at them. You can imagine how the native Americans must have stared at these rocks and seen all sorts of visions in them.
They are truly inspiring places.
Out of the Navajo Nation and into the national parks again.
The Grand Canyon
We drive there just before sunset and get to see some incredible early sights of the canyon.
It is just the biggest thing I’ve ever seen.
(A small corner of) The Grand Canyon
From you to the horizon, a huge network of different canyons, jutting rocks, cracks diving deep into rivers down below.
Imagine seeing 300 canyons all at the same time, all part of one much larger one which bends around the corner. It’s like that.
Saw the sunset and driving home catch views of elk by the side of the road.
We couldn’t sleep (again).
I felt a million and one thoughts come to me while I was lying there wide awake.
Some thoughts were my fears and my worries. My whole life flashing before my eyes.
You know when you can’t sleep and your mind insists on playing back some memories…
But also thoughts of positivity and joy about the future.
It’s weird how sometimes when you can’t sleep your mind just takes off and you have to hold on for the ride. You know when you can’t sleep and your mind races around to different things, and you just can’t stop it? You really want to just sleep and switch off, but you can’t. Normally you have ordinary things to deal with that occupy, like remembering to iron your shirt in the morning and dealing with little work-related problems and things like that.
But being away from it all, your thoughts become untethered.
Basically, it’s called “taking stock” and this is what we often do on holiday isn’t it?
I reflected and tried to work things out somehow, while also just trying to get a good night’s sleep.
For example, I am trying to stop worrying about small things because they’re just small things…
I can get quite caught up on details and I can blow small concerns out of proportion. I can make mountains out of molehills, just like we all do, and that causes anxiety and so on. We all do it, right?
But we can’t afford to do that. We can’t put significance onto every little thing. It’s best to let some things slide and to focus on the big stuff. You’ve got to prioritise.
I was also thinking about the whole universe and remembering random episodes from my life, and thinking about starting a family and what it means, also thinking about this podcast and how I’m doing it.
Like, what is it that my audience really wants from me and from this podcast? How can I continue to provide the sort of content that will really benefit people while allowing me to pursue the things I want in life?
There were a lot of strands running through my head, man. But I think I worked a few things out.
From the Grand Canyon we drove down into the lower ground of the desert, back towards Las Vegas – where we would take our quick flight back to Los Angeles for the final part of the trip.
We spent a night an unremarkable in a town called Kingman, and the next day set off by car to Vegas.
This day was all about the eclipse.
The Solar Eclipse
I guess you all know what a solar eclipse is.
It’s when the moon passes in front of the sun and fully eclipses it – hiding it for a few moments before the sun reappears again.
Have you ever experienced one?
It’s seriously weird and amazing.
Firstly, seeing these celestial bodies crossing past each other is like a ballet of cosmic proportions.
This is another thing that makes you realise how small you really are in the grand scheme of things.
It’s also extraordinary that this happens.
Some ancient cultures thought they were extremely significant events.
It’s easy to see why. Everything goes dark like it’s night time. The birds stop singing. Animals behave strangely. The sun is like a black dot in the sky with a shining halo around it.
Then everything goes back to normal.
If you didn’t know it was coming, and you already worshipped the sun, you’d undoubtedly read massive significance into it.
It also looks amazing. You’re not supposed to look directly at it of course, because then you’re basically staring right at the sun which will blind you if you do it for long enough. The light will scorch your retinas.
You have to use special filtering glasses to see it, and on the news they were repeatedly telling everyone not to look at the sun because it could blind you.
Trump looked directly at it of course, as we know. I’m not sure why he did that.
Anyway, the eclipse was visible in certain spots along the breadth of the country. On the road to Vegas we didn’t get the full eclipse, just a partial one and we were in the middle of driving to the airport to catch a plane so we didn’t stop to check it out.
But in any case we wouldn’t have been able to see anything because there was cloud cover.
We did experience a murky half light at the time of the eclipse and everything went spooky.
On the journey there were large black clouds collecting in the distance and some lighter cloud cover over our heads. We started fairly early so the sun was quite low in the sky and with the clouds the light was quite dim.
But as the eclipse happened overhead everything went a murky, dark yellow colour, cars put their headlights on. There were freaky flash rainstorms with massive raindrops.
For about 10 minutes there was a strange end of the world type feeling as the darkening sky was lit up by flashes of lightning in the distance and we saw forked lightning striking rock formations up on our left at the top of a shallow canyon.
We came into Vegas and just went straight to the airport. No need to stop there again.
Arriving in LA had a much better car rental experience.
Within minutes we were in the garage choosing our car.
“Which one would you like? A Japanese one? An American? Hatchback or saloon?”
My wife said “The red one”.
That’s her criteria. Colour.
It turned out to be a Chevrolet Cruze and it was a great car. About the size of a Ford Focus and extremely smooth and responsive.
Maybe this is just how it felt after driving a Jeep for a week.
Compared to that this one felt like a sports car.
Topanga is an awesome place.
Along the coastal highway and up into the hills overlooking the coast.
In those hills are leafy little canyons with communities of people who’ve set up their homes on the hillsides. Topanga was a really cool scene to be part of in the early 1970s and lots of musicians hung out in that area writing their songs. This included people like Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
I’m particularly a fan of Neil Young and I’d read his autobiography, so I knew a lot of the stories of the music he wrote and recorded here, and I always thought it sounded amazing. A peaceful retreat among oak trees with sunlight shining through the canopy with wood cabins and cafes serving pie and coffee.
It’s still a lot like that.
We stayed in an AirBnB which was basically a single room wooden cabin with a shower. THe place was extremely well put together. Very tasteful and it felt new. Everything was made of oak with a fantastic and huge stove for cooking. I cooked some food there and drank local beer from bottles. We enjoyed hanging around on the deck outside and lying on the sun lounger looking up at the sky through the leaves and branches of the trees.
We only had a couple of days in this peaceful part of LA so we didn’t do a lot, where you can get lunch and watch people surfing.
Generally it was a pleasure to stay in Topanga and we did not want to leave our cabin and come back to reality.
At night there were coyotes outside the cabin. They make a really strange noise – a kind of whooping, howling and whistling that sounds both ridiculous and scary.
One evening we came back at night and as we drove down the driveway to the cabin there were coyotes hanging around outside the door of the cabin.
These are wild dogs, a bit smaller than wolves.
My wife freaked out a bit so I had to go out of the car, open the door of the cabin and then get her in quickly.
I must admit it was a bit offputting when I heard the coyotes go crazy when they could smell me standing just a few metres away and I heard them all running around in the darkness just beyond my vision making a hell of a racket. I kept telling myself that they were more scared than me, but I didn’t fully convince myself.
I rushed my wife into the house and locked the door! Thankfully we both didn’t get eaten alive by wild dogs because, well, that would have been a pity.
That was a bit scary but we had a good laugh about it!
All in all, this holiday was amazing.
Throughout our trip people were polite, friendly, helpful and often interesting and funny.
We saw some really cool stuff, had a chance to enjoy each other’s company as a couple before the arrival of our child.
The trip also took me by surprise a bit. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the things we saw, particularly out in the desert, at those canyons and in the Navajo Nation.
It was a bit emotional too, watching my wife’s belly get bigger, reflecting on things, not sleeping.
It all felt very real at the time and it was a welcome bit of clarity even if it all happened too quickly.
Now I’m back in Paris amongst all my stuff and all the things that keep me tethered on earth and it’s hard to somehow recreate on a podcast how it really felt to be face to face with the hand of nature creating its mysterious art over billions of years.
I’m not sure it’s possible to, in words, recreate the experience of discovering such beauty, wonder and mystery all through the eyes of people who haven’t slept.
In any case, I hope I’ve managed to communicate to you some of how it felt and that you’ve picked up some more English in the process.
You might have been to the same places as me? What were your thoughts?
Thank you for listening to my Holiday Diary series.
In this episode I’m going to continue telling you stories of my recent holiday and there will be descriptions of impressive rocky landscapes, a sort of geology lesson and a brief history of planet earth. Expect plenty of solid descriptive chunks of vocabulary as this holiday diary continues.
In this episode I’m going to continue telling you stories of my recent holiday and there will be descriptions of impressive rocky landscapes, a sort of geology lesson and a brief history of planet earth. Expect plenty of solid descriptive chunks of vocabulary as this holiday diary continues. I think there will be just one more episode to come in this series, and then it will be back to the usual sorts of episodes I do, including a few conversations with some friends of mine as guests.
The first part of the trip was urban. Now it’s all about earth, wind and fire – not the band, but the elements, earth, wind, fire, rocks, stone, water, ice, wood and time.
We drove from Las Vegas on a road trip tour, a loop, in our Jeep, over about 9 or 10 days stopping at various places to stay a night or two and taking in some of the most impressive spectacles of natural beauty I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know about your country – I’m sure that you have some seriously big and impressive locations too. Places that are famous and that take your breath away when you see them. Places and things that I would love to see with my own eyes one day.
In the UK our countryside is absolutely beautiful, but it is generally on a fairly small scale compared to other places – we have rolling hills and stone bridges over babbling rivers – it all seems quite self-contained or cute or something – a bit like The Shire or Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings. Not all of it – we have impressive spots with mountains and lakes and stuff but it doesn’t quite smash your senses like the things we saw in Arizona and Utah.
Every day or two we would be greeted by ever more stunning views as we toured around the border between Utah and Arizona, from Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park to Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon in the Navajo Nation Territories and finally the Grand Canyon before heading back to Los Angeles via Las Vegas.
America’s National Parks
Think what you like about the USA, I mean, there are plenty of things that aren’t appealing, like.. Pop Tarts – they’re disgusting aren’t they? Say what you like about the country, you can’t deny that it has some truly breathtaking spots of natural beauty.
Thankfully, most of these places were protected by the National Parks project, which was initially set up at the end of the 19th century and then was fully put into force in the early 20th century by the president at the time, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
The whole area that we were driving around and visiting basically features canyons and cliffs that form what is known as The Grand Staircase. Imagine a big staircase made out of rock, but it’s all spread out over hundreds of miles. In different locations you can see different layers of rock that are exposed because the rock layers have been uplifted, tilted, and eroded. It’s a series of colourful cliffs stretching between Bryce Canyon (in the north of that area) and the Grand Canyon (in the south, basically). Zion is sort of between the two.
The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon. So, in terms of the staircase, Bryce is at the top, then Zion in the middle of the staircase and the Grand Canyon at the bottom.
If you were a massive giant, you could start at the riverbed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and go up the stair case (some of the stairs are huge plateaus of course and moving across them you can visit places like Lake Powell or Monument Valley, where there are eroded tables, platforms and columns that stick up all around you) and walk up the cliffs, the stairs, and pass through Zion and keep going until you get up to Bryce Canyon at the top. On your walk you would ascend through about 40 identified layers of rock, and about 2000 million years of history. The oldest sedimentary rock at the bottom of the staircase is 2 billion years old. The rock at the top is about 40-30 million years old.
So, driving around the area we were going up and then back down this staircase, travelling through hundreds and hundreds and million of years worth of time as well as hundreds of miles of distance.
This is one of the only places in the world where this much of the earth’s history is exposed to us, and because of that – because so much old rock is exposed in this area, it is one of the most studied geological areas in the world.
These 40 layers of rock are full of evidence that show us what happened in this area in the past, and that allow us to understand a lot about what happened in history – way before humans even existed. The story is told in the rock, including fossils of many dinosaurs.
As well as that, it’s just amazing to look at. The layers of rock have different colours. Some are rust coloured, some yellow, some pink, some white, some grey, some a deep blood red. The different colours are caused by different chemical reactions in the rock – things like the presence of iron which oxidises and changes colour – a bit like the way an old bicycle will go rusty as the metal reacts with the water.
So our entry point into this grand staircase was Zion National Park. We spent a day and a half there and did a fairly easy hike up the side of the canyon to a viewpoint. We were very careful and cautious of course, this time.
Then we drove in a northerly direction to BRYCE CANYON.
Bryce Canyon is the highest point in the grand staircase. We drove up towards an elevated point on one side of the canyon. The usual thing to do there is to drive to the end of this point and then drive back, stopping at certain viewing points on the way.
So at Rainbow point we stopped the car and walked to the edge, where there are barriers and information points and so on.
Imagine standing on the edge of some cliffs and in front of you there’s a huge canyon – a massive area where the ground goes down quite sharply and there are thousands of bits of rock that stick up on top of huge blocks of rock of different colours and they look a bit like huge statues and there are river beds in there at the bottom and trees growing up from the bottom, and big bits of rock that stretch out into the canyon, and way way over on the other side (almost on the horizon) is the other side of the canyon. So you’re standing on the edge of a plateau, it all goes down, and then the plateau continues again way over on the other side. You can see the layers of rock – all different colours.
Now, this is all caused by erosion and the rocks that stick up in the canyon are all really weird shapes. It’s really stunning and weird too. It’s like an alien landscape. I’ll give you some more details in a moment.
At rainbow point we saw a guide explaining all of it and how it fits into the grand staircase.
He was doing a great job of telling the massive story of the place and enthusiastically putting himself into it.
This helped us understand a lot of the geology of the whole area.
I’ve already told you some stuff about the grand staircase, and it’s pretty difficult to explain but I’d like to try and give you some more details of the story of how all of this happened. This is what I understood from the ranger – this guy employed by the park, wearing a green outfit and a wide brimmed hat.
So this is ancient history and geology.
By geology I mean the study of the Earth’s structure, surface, and origins.
So, we’ve had space, we’ve had belief systems, and now the history of the earth itself. I told you I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest in this series of podcasts!
I’m talking about the history of the earth.
A Short History of the Earth (according to the Big Bang Theory)
How about we start right at the start? The Big Bang theory – not the TV show, but the account of how the universe began, which is based on a lot of study and a lot of analysis of evidence and understandings of the way the universe works – the collaborative work of many people over many years, people analysing the evidence, creating hypotheses, testing them, coming up with theories that get adapted and improved and disproved and further changed. The big bang theory is the best we have at the moment.
So, at one point the universe was all compressed into a space about the size of a pin head. All matter that exists now in the universe, all of it was at one point contained in a tiny little spot, a singularity. An extremely high density and high temperature singularity.
Physicists are undecided whether this means the universe began from a singularity, or that current knowledge is insufficient to describe the universe at that time… Detailed measurements of the expansion rate of the universe place the Big Bang at around 13.8 billion years ago, which is thus considered the age of the universe. After the initial expansion, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity in halos of dark matter, eventually forming the stars and galaxies visible today.(Wikipedia)
This is just what we know today. There’s still a lot we don’t know – like exactly what ‘dark matter’ is. But that’s the point of science – we don’t have to be able to explain it all at once, we’re working it out bit by bit.
So after all that matter came together through gravity and the stars were created (over an incredibly long period of time by the way, and it’s still going on now) earth also formed from matter that was basically left over from when the sun was created – we’re talking about cloud and dust particles containing all the elements that make up the building blocks of everything on earth.
This stuff coalesced into this ball due to the force of gravity. In the early days the earth was very hot and was basically molten lava, and was hit by lots of other lumps of rock that were still flying around the galaxy. A lot of this rock, left over from the sun’s creation still exists in space and is orbiting our sun too. Most of it is in the asteroid belt which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. There are also loads of asteroids which are not in this belt, just flying around our solar system on different orbits around the sun. We’re pretty sure that one or two of them hit the earth in the past and probably wiped out the dinosaurs – because if a huge asteroid hits the earth it creates an explosion which is like loads of nuclear bombs all going off at the same time, and that tends to make life on earth a little bit tricky, like for example when the sun gets blocked out by dust or when the atmosphere is filled with poisonous gas from the explosion.
One might hit us one day too, which would be pretty bad news as I’m sure you can imagine, but if we’re clever we’d be able to prevent it by sending Bruce Willis up there to blow it up before it hits us.
After earth cooled down, the molten rock on the surface cooled down to become the earth’s crust. THat’s a bit like if you leave some soup out for ages and the top becomes a thick layer and if you leave it out for ages (like you go away travelling for a few months and don’t do the washing up before you leave) eventually it’ll dry out and form a hard crust.
So the surface of the earth was this crust, made up of a number of different plates. It’s not all one single crust, because underneath it’s all still molten rock – you know, because as you go deeper underground eventually it get really hot and ooh magma! Lava is the stuff that spews out of the top of volcanoes. It’s amazing but it’s not very friendly.
So the earth’s crust is made up of a number of plates that sit on top of this magma. On top of these plates you have land with different features. Some of it is covered in grass, some of it is covered in water, some of it is just rock, etc etc.
Different types of rock
Igneous rock – this is the stuff that is formed when magma cools down. Sometimes it cools down when it’s in the ground and sometimes it cools down on the surface after being spewed out of volcanoes as lava.
Metamorphic rock – this is the stuff that is formed when magma cools under the ground but in certain conditions, like when there’s massive amounts of pressure or heat and the rock gets compressed and it changes quite drastically – for example it becomes crystal or the rock has layers of crystal in it. It’s often extremely hard rock and it can be shiny, or striped with layers of crystal in it. E.g. diamond is metamorphic rock because it has changed from pure carbon (or coal – a sedimentary rock) into diamond.
Sedimentary rock – this is the stuff that usually forms on or very near the surface. It’s made of particles of sand, shells, pebbles (little stones) and other fragments of material. Imagine you have a fish bowl with some fish in it and you go away travelling for 3 months and you forget about it. Eventually the water in that fish bowl will get dirty.
First there are the little stones at the bottom, then there might be dust from the room that lands in the water and of course there’s the fish poo and the green algae that might build up inside there and the water gets cloudy and dirty and eventually the fish will probably die (I know it’s a sad story) and over time all that stuff in the water will settle on the bottom of the tank – that’s sediment. Imagine that over millions of years. Now imagine it’s the ocean which is washing over the surface of rocks and eroding them, creating more sand, and also think of all the sediment – sand and little stones that get washed into the ocean from rivers. All that stuff is sediment and it finds its way to the bottom of the ocean and gets compressed.
Oceans or lakes don’t last forever and they sometimes dry out, exposing all the compressed sedimentary rock. That might get blown by winds into big sand dunes, which then eventually compress, or at least the sand that was once at the bottom of the ocean or lake dries out and over time it compresses more until it becomes rock.
This is not just useful for describing types of rock. The word ‘sediment’ is used in other situations too, like we get sediment at the bottom of a bottle of wine sometimes, or in fruit juices – any stuff that has settled at the bottom of liquid.
Also ‘metamorphic’ is in the same word family as ‘metamorphosis’ – the process of when something changes into something else.
the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly She had undergone an amazing metamorphosis from awkward schoolgirl to beautiful woman.
Igneous – not useful outside this subject. It’s just for rocks, except that it’s formed from the latin ‘ignus’ which means ‘fire’ and from ‘ignus’ you also get the English word ‘ignite’ and that’s a good word. It means ‘start to burn’ or ‘make something start to burn’.
E.g. “Gas ignites very easily”, or “the hot weather made it much more likely that the forest would ignite.”
It can also be used as a metaphor, especially with words like “controversy” or “debate”.
“Donald Trump’s words ignited controversy for the 2nd time this week…”
So that’s igneous rock, metamorphic rock and sedimentary.
I’ve got a (terrible) pun for you.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on a geology field trip, walking near a lake. Watson spots something interesting and says “Holmes, what kind of rock is this?”
Holmes says “Sedimentary, my dear Watson”.
Rubbish isn’t it. Obviously, it’s because Holmes is famous for saying “Elementary my dear Watson”. It’s a pretty easy joke to adapt.
Holmes and Watson are wondering through a weird alien land where everything is made of chocolate. Watson says “what’s this massive tree with red and yellow sweets on it?”
“M&M tree, my dear Watson.”
I challenge you to come up with a pun for igneous and metamorphic rock…
How do you know what kind of rock is which?
If it’s got little bubbles in it? Igneous
Got some little crystals in it, or some little bits seem shiny? Igneous (e.g. granite – that hard grey rock which is used to build really good quality things – like a really solid good quality wall outside a bank, or an impressive modern monument in the centre of town)
Got some lines or bands in it (not musical bands, unless it’s Dinosaur Jnr, lol) It’s igneous
Has it got fossils in it? Dead animals that got compressed, preserved and petrified? Sedimentary
Sand or pebbles in it? It’s sedimentary
Breaks apart fairly easily? It’s sedimentary
Looks like it was formed in layers? It’s sedimentary
Glassy surface and sharp edges, like flint? ? It’s metamorphic
A big beautiful crystal? It’s metamorphic
Diamonds? It’s mine. It’s fine, just give it to me.
Continuing the story…
The atmosphere in earth is made from gasses that were released from the bubbling cauldron of magma under the surface and which were ejected into the air through volcanoes. All that gas created our atmosphere and we’re lucky in that this combination of gasses is just right for sustaining life.
So all the land and sea and all that stuff is on the surface of these tectonic plates. All the land masses on the top which are exposed above the water layer – these are the continents, countries, islands etc. Now, the tectonic plates under the ground move around all the time – very slowly from our perspective, but they do move over time.
Let’s say that at one point the countries we all live on were in different positions, because the tectonic plates that underpin everything on earth were in different places.
The land on top of those plates is made up of the outpourings of volcanoes and also layers of sedimentary rock which is the result of erosion of different kinds. Rock that is spewed out of volcanoes gets eroded over time and the sediments are carried into the ocean or lakes from glaciers at the top of mountains down through rivers and out into the sea.
The sediments then become sand at the bottom of oceans and lakes.
There was a big ocean over these parts of the USA many many millions of years ago. That ocean dried up in the sun and revealed the sediments at the bottom.
The part of the USA where Bryce Canyon is located now has occupied different points of latitude over the years. Basically, that area in Arizona used to be further south. At one point it was equatorial (on the equator), and as the tectonic plates shifted the continent moved and it went north and became sub-equatorial, which is that part just above or below the equator (above in this case) that tends to be super hot and dry – deserts like the Sahara are sub-equatorial.
As this ocean dried up and the sandy sediment was exposed to the sun in sub-equatorial conditions like that it became a huge desert covered with sand dunes being blown around by the wind.
Those dunes built up and up and over millions of years the pressure of their own weight solidified them into sandstone rock.
The heat of the sun baked it and traces of iron in the stone reacted with moisture causing this rust coloured rock you can see everywhere (like the way rust appears on an old bike).
So, imagine a huge plateau of sandstone rock, baked by the sun. A massive plateau that covers an area of hundreds of square kilometres.
I’m sorry I’m not sure of the time frame here but we’re talking about stuff that happened hundreds of millions of years ago and changes that occurred over that period, give or take a few hundred million years. I can’t even imagine that much time, but it’s a really really long time. Even longer than this episode of the podcast.
By the way, here I am talking to you about geology. I’m just an English teacher remember. There might be some of you out there who are actual geologists and I don’t want you to feel like I’m, what, teaching my grandmother to suck eggs (that’s an old expression which means – teaching something to someone who already knows it).
Anyway, I’m just trying to give some context. About 3.5 billion years of context. Ha!
This is stuff that I read about when I was there because it helped us to understand the significance of the place that we were visiting.
So, tectonic plates are moving under the surface all the time. Sometimes the plates push against each other or rub over each other, causing the land on the surface to rise.
That activity creates mountain ranges and sometimes volcanoes. The mountain ranges then eventually get glaciers forming on top as moisture collects there, it snows and the snow gets ever more compact and turns into lakes of ice – glaciers. Those glaciers slowly move down the mountain because of gravity and they scrape and crush all the rock from the mountains, carving out valleys as they go. As the glaciers get lower and they melt their rivers carry stones and rock sediments out to sea.
These are the sediments needed to make these big sandstone plateaus which are exposed when an ocean dries up. In this case these mountains are the rocky mountains to the north – that’s where all the sediment originally came from.
These tectonic plates move everything on the surface around over millions of years so that Bryce Canyon and the whole Grand Staircase has kind of shifted north from an equatorial zone, to a sub-equatorial zone to its present location.
Also volcanic activity underground can push the land up – not just forming mountains, but whole areas can be lifted up. You might end up with a whole plateau rising up over many years, turning it into high ground – not a sudden mountain, but a gradual swell over hundreds of miles, so that what was once the bed of the ocean becomes a huge plateau that’s at quite a high altitude.
That’s what happened at Bryce and the surrounding areas.
The whole thing that used to be this ocean floor and a lake basin, got pushed upwards to form this high plateau of sandstone. A lot of it is also limestone from deposits of things like shells or animal matter that was in the water. There are loads of fossils in this area and you can track the evolution of animals by comparing evidence from each stage in the staircase. It’s like a time ladder or something – it tells you the story of life.
So this sandstone with a limestone layer on top becomes a high plateau. Like I said before, remember, if you stand on the edge of Bryce Canyon (which is not actually a canyon because there’s no significant river at the bottom – unlike the Grand Canyon which has the Colorado river running through it) If you stand on the edge, like my wife and I did, you can see in the distance, on the horizon the other part of this plateau, but in the middle now there’s a huge series of canyons with massive bits of rock that stick up in ridges, and on the top of each ridge there are tall towers of rock in all sorts of weird shapes, and they have different lines of colour depending on what layer in the staircase they are from.
This whole place was formed from that plateau.
Here’s how that happened.
Basically, cracks formed in the top of the plateau as it rose. A bit like when cracks appear on the top of a cake as it rises.
Over millions of years these cracks were subject to erosion – the movement of things like water or ice and maybe wind.
At the top of the plateau moisture freezes in winter to become ice. The ice sits like a layer on top of everything. During the day it melts a bit and then flows into the cracks. At night it freezes again, and we know that water expands when it freezes (imagine leaving a bottle of beer or wine in the freezer – it cracks the glass because the liquid has expanded as it froze) so as the water trickles into existing cracks in the rock and then freezes again and expands it cracks the rock.
The water/ice works its way down, cracking the rock as it goes. Some of the rock is harder than other parts so not all of it gets cracked – not all of it disintegrates. So these creepy looking towers are left behind by the erosion of the ice and water.
It’s like the ice, the water and just the passage of time have worked on these towers of rock, sculpting them into different shapes that stand like statues above the open space of the canyon below them.
Below that the trickling water and wind smooth out these gullies and creek beds that go down and down into the canyon.
So you can walk down into these little riverbeds, down the sides of the canyon and walk around looking up at the towers of rock.
You commune with the rock formations.
To the native Americans who used to live here, these places were very sacred and special and they believed that spirits lived in the rocks. In fact they saw the faces of loads of different spirits and gods in the stones when they looked at them.
As you see all these abstract shapes your mind attempts to make sense of it and it’s easy to see faces, animals and even little stories in the formations. You know when you see big clouds in the sky and sometimes they look like things – like, “that one looks like a dog!” or “that one looks like a face” or “That one looks like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un kissing” or something, there are hundreds of faces in the rocks. It’s stunning to look at.
Actually, ‘seeing faces or shapes in rocks or clouds’ is a recognised phenomenon called
Pareidolia (/pærɪˈdoʊliə) is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g., in random data).
Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the Man in the Moon, the Moon rabbit, hidden messages within recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds, and hearing indistinct voices in random noise such as that produced by air conditioners or fans. (Wikipedia)
Basically, when your mind is presented with a stimulus – like a pattern or just random sounds, it tries to make sense of it and often will kind of read the stimulus as something familiar. This probably accounts for the way people can see ghosts in swirling mist, or they can see images of Jesus in toast or something. Either that or Jesus is trying to tell us something and putting his face in toast is the only way he can do it.
These towers in Bryce Canyon are called “Hoodoos” (sounds a bit like voodoo doesn’t it) and some of them have very human forms. They look a bit like old Roman statues, worn away be the rain. Or they look like architecture by Gaudi the guy who designed various buildings in Barcelona, like the Sagrada Familia cathedral.
In any case they look like spooky, ghostly statues standing in these huge auditoriums made from the erosion of rocks over millions of years.
It’s incredible and a lot more powerful than any of the art we saw in Los Angeles.
Genuinely breathtaking stuff.
After an afternoon of being wowed by the spectacle of Hoodoos and a big naturally occurring bridge in the rock we did a moderate hike into the canyon. This was late afternoon so the whole place got flooded with this incredible orangey pinkish rust coloured light. It was absolutely amazing.
A MOUNTAIN RANCH
Buffalo in the field (though we can’t see them), chickens running around.
Cows and horses.
Slept in a little wooden cabin.
Absolutely insane stars in the night sky. The milky way is incredible. No light pollution. It’s like someone has poured milk into black coffee.
More thoughts and comments inspired by things that happened during my recent holiday. In this one I’m discussing stories about the Church of Scientology and the claims that it is a cult. Listen to find out what happened in this part of my trip. Check the episode page for the vocabulary.
This episode includes information and claims about Scientology which I saw and heard in various interviews and documentaries. It should be noted that the Church of Scientology disagrees with those claims. They state that critics of the church are seeking to make money or gain attention from their claims and their associations. I am presenting the information in this episode because I believe it makes an interesting episode of my podcast and is therefore an opportunity for my listeners to improve their English.
Here is a list of vocabulary that you can learn from this episode. (definitions are in brackets)
a modern kind of dogma (a belief system that is imposed on people, e.g. through rules or writings which tell you what to do, or not to do)
a self-help system (a set of practices that can help people deal with their problems)
theology (a set of religious beliefs)
to ascend the hierarchy of the church (to rise up through the different levels)
the principles that underpin the religion (support, are the foundations of)
these guys were checking us out (looking at us, observing us)
minding their own business (not paying attention to other people or things, just focusing on their own things)
it’s not subject to scrutiny because Scientology is officially recognised as a religion (careful observation)
hostile behaviour (showing strong disagreement, sometimes aggressively)
to be shunned by your family, or shunned by the church (rejected, ostracised, ignored)
he was suffering from mental illness at the time – he was having a bipolar episode (a period of mental illness symptomatic of bipolar disorder, e.g. a period of mania or psychosis)
conventional psychology, psychiatry or psychotherapeutic practices (psychology = the scientific study of the mind and its processes / psychiatry = medicine and medical care for mental illness / psychotherapy or psychotherapeutic practices = the use of psychological practices and not drugs in the treatment of mental illness)
psychosomatic illness (physical illness caused by the mind, not by the body)
a placebo (a ‘fake drug’, a substance with no effect which is used as part of the testing process for medicines)
the placebo effect (the fact that a person’s health might show improvement after taking a placebo because they believe it to be a genuine drug, a kind of psychosomatic effect)
Freud’s ideas about the ego, super-ego and the id (super-ego = the part of your mind which understands right and wrong and imposes society’s rules on yourself / the id = the primitive instincts which exist in your unconscious mind / the ego = the conscious mind, aware of itself, in balance or conflict between the motivations of the super-ego and id / all concepts developed by Sigmund Freud)
It’s a doctrine written by one man (a set of religious beliefs)
L Ron Hubbard – the founder (the person who set up or founded something)
they rejected it as pseudoscience (fake science)
Some people have called him a visionary (someone with an original and inspiring vision of something new), other people have called him an outright fraud (an open or obvious liar and deceiver)
spirits that were sent to earth by a celestial being (a person, creature or life-form from outer-space)
was he making it all up (creating it) on purpose and developing a sort of cult of personality (a small and strange group devoted to one individual) around himself as anarcissisticpowertrip? (narcissistic = self obsessed and in love with himself / power trip = an obsessive or extreme use or abuse of power)
someone with bipolar disorder (a mental illness, previously called ‘manic depression) suffering a manic episode
the guy was crawling the walls (going crazy). He was delusional (not in touch with reality), hallucinating (seeing things that aren’t there), in the grips of (being severely affected by) a full-on (intense) bipolar manic episode
a device for displaying and/or recording the electrodermalactivity (electrical activity on the skin) (EDA) of a human being
the Church of Scientology now publishes disclaimers in its books and publications declaring that the E-meter “by itself does nothing” and that it is used specifically for spiritual purposes (a statement that they are not responsible for something)
a small arm, like on a watch, that moves or twitches sometimes because of stimulus from the metal tubes (moves quickly or suddenly)
described by some critics as a typical example of a “Bait and switch fraud” (a type of deception in which someone thinks they’re buying one thing but it is replaced for something else)
a term used usually to describe fraud in a retail context (relating to shops)
The court ruling was upheld ( ruling = a decision by a court or judge / upheld = was not changed or overturned, was maintained)
an appeal in a court (a request for another court decision or judgement)
The fraud conviction (when someone is found guilty of a crime in court) criminal was upheld in the appeal court
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath
“Going Clear: The Prison of Belief”
“Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie”
Paul Haggis, Oscar winning Canadian film maker who used to be in the church but left. Also, the story of ‘Xenu’ (from Going Clear)
Longer videos – full conversations about scientology
Louis Theroux – full conversation on Joe Rogan’s podcast
Leah Rimini – full conversation on Joe Rogan’s podcast
Find out what happened two years ago when I first visited the Scientology Centre in Los Angeles
Here’s the next part of my conversation with Andy Johnson, recorded at The London School of English a few days ago.
Andy is an English teacher, a father of 2 kids, and also a regular runner. He’s done at least one marathon and a few half marathons, and I thought since many of you listening to this podcast will also be runners (in fact some people will be running right now while listening to this) that it might be interesting to hear Andy talking about his reasons for running, the way he does it, the benefits, the difficulties and all the rest of it. So here’s a conversation about running.
If you’re not into running I would still recommend that you listen to this. You might be surprised at how personal it gets when Andy explains his reasons for training for the London marathon 10 years ago. It turns out that running has special significance for Andy and that running the London marathon was a key moment in his life as it marked a significant milestone for him – and running acts as a regular reminder of a particularly difficult experience Andy had when he was younger.
So, this episode is about running, but it’s also about much more than that. I’d like to thank Andy again for taking part in another episode of the podcast and for sharing so much of his story.
Vocab hunters: Watch out for vocabulary relating to doing exercise, health, fitness, technique, injuries and medical care.
So, without further ado you can now listen to our conversation about running.
I just want to thank Andy again for coming on the podcast and telling us about his story. It was a very interesting conversation and I think the closest we’ve come to having tears on the podcast – it was a moving story but no tears this time! I wonder if you held it together out there in podcast land, or did you start welling up at any moment?
Don’t forget that Andy would like you to take his survey about self-directed learning. You can find a link to that on the page for this episode. Andy just wants to know about how you learn English on your own, outside of the classroom environment, and that includes how you use LEP to help with your English.
Click the link, the questionnaire will take a couple of minutes and you’ll help Andy with research for his next IATEFL conference talk.
That’s it for this episode. Watch out for some website-only content coming soon. Subscribe to the mailing list to get informed when that is released.
I hope you are continuing to have a good August, if indeed it is August as you listen to this. I’m still on holiday, relaxing and having a lovely time, I hope – I’m actually recording this before I went on holiday, so this is a very weird time situation. Which tense should I be using here, because I’m actually recording right now, in the past, but as I’m talking it’s the future, so my present is your past and your present is my future, so that’s the present past perfect future continuous or something. I am will have been being having a great time and I will have been had been hoped that you will be being having a wonderful time too, in the future.
Thanks for listening to this episode and I’ll speak to you again soon. Bye!