Category Archives: Teaching

512. My Experiences of (not) Learning French [Part 2] Learning Language in a Classroom vs Learning On Your Own

Talking more about my experiences as a student of French, this time reading from notes I took during my French lessons (when I should have been focusing on the class!) and some considerations about learning a language in a classroom and learning on your own. Notes & transcript available.


Transcript & Notes

Here’s part 2 of this episode about my experiences of (not) learning French. In the last one I talked about how I learned some French as a child and how I feel I’m not learning it as an adult, despite living in Paris and I made a load of excuses about it, which is exactly what you shouldn’t do of course – because excuses are no substitute for taking action.

In this episode the plan is to talk about some more experiences I had while learning French, specifically some lessons I took at a language school a few years ago in Paris. I wrote some thoughts in a diary while taking those lessons and I’m going to read out those thoughts and then discuss the relative benefits and drawbacks of learning a language in a classroom vs learning on your own using self-guided methods. There will also be some comments and reflections on teaching a foreign language to groups in a classroom environment.

First, some comments from listeners after the previous episode. My listeners are being very kind and understanding, as usual. I received quite a few messages – I can’t read them all out here but this is a selection. On the subject of receiving messages – I’m sorry if you have written to me and I haven’t got back to you. Please know that I do read everything I receive and I appreciate your thoughts and comments very much.


Luke, I find your lack of French disturbing. 😸

Just kidding.

It must be utterly difficult for you if everyone wants to make use of you as the best known English teacher on the Internet. :) Also your head is busy with all these millions of ideas for your podcast, the gigs and so on. There is almost no room in your brain left free for other languages. You are totally absorbed with creating quality content for your audiences. You shouldn’t be judging yourself too hard. You have your priorities and are doing great job. Now with raising your child bilingually you have the task to pass on to her the exquisite English you have. 👍
We should be doing things we enjoy and not do things that other people expect from us. That guy at the party had been downright rude, he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. 😸


C’mon King ! Don’t beat yourself (up) too much. Your French is much better than my English.


I’ve realized after listening to this ep. that I want to see a French beach!

Mj Moreno 
Funny title! 😂 I’m wishing to listen to the episode. [I’m hoping to listen to it / I’m looking forward to listening to it]

Cesar San Vicente Viñez 
Faut pas se décourager (don’t get discouraged)

Hi Luke,
Ne sois pas si dur avec toi !
I’m pretty sure that you can improve it ;)
Bon courage!
From a Parisian girl

Luke from Poland (?)

Hi Luke. Your story about drilling has inspired me to write a poem for you.
What about my neighbour’s drilling?
I have rather mixed feelings.
I know he just needs some holes
in his floor and in his walls
He needs even lots of drilling
In his ceiling.
But the next sound of a drill
makes me fight , makes me kill
and like a bloody beast
with bare hands, with clenched fists
I will enter his own flat
And I kill him with cold blood.
No !!! I’d rather stop this talk
and I am going for a walk….
You may read it on the air and for sure it is going to save some lives of innocent neighbours. :-)

Some words & phrases

  • to beat yourself up
  • don’t be too hard on yourself
  • don’t get discouraged
  • self-flagellation (technically means whipping yourself as an act of self-punishment – but also a way to talk about excessive self criticism)

My experience of learning French in a classroom as an adult

The classroom experiences at Alliance Francaise. It’s a bit like the British Council but for French. They promote French culture and also offer French lessons.

So, a few years ago I went to Alliance Francaise to take some French lessons for a couple of weeks.

My wife bought me the lessons as a birthday present, and as an effort to get my French off the ground.

I wrote some notes while I was there. I recently found those notes. I have them here and I thought I’d just talk to you about them now, and try to remember what was running through my head in those classes.

I guess the point here is that I can reflect on my personal experience and generally make a few comments about learning a language in different contexts – paying particular focus to the classroom vs self-directed learning.

Being a student again.

Trying not to fall into all the typical student behaviour: not listening, arriving late, not doing homework and having rubbish excuses, asking unrelated questions, not paying attention to other classmates or listening to them, not really giving a crap about what’s going on, letting the teacher do all the work, not showing enthusiasm for work the teacher has clearly spent time and effort on preparing, not actually speaking French in the classroom, being shy with the other students and not wanting to talk to them, forgetting the book, not really going with activities that the teacher is attempting to set up, looking at my watch, yawning, complaining, judging the teacher on her appearance, etc.

Going for the level check

Got put in an A2 class. Probably because of accuracy, but I’m not really sure. I was never given a summary of my skills and problems.

Bought the book.

This is exactly like my normal experiences as a teacher, but from the other point of view.

Day 1

Joined a class that had already been studying together for a while.

Don’t remember doing much “getting to know you” at the start. I think it was just a quick introduction and then off we went. There were some people in the class I never spoke to at all.

Didn’t catch the teacher’s name at the start, and therefore it was lost forever. Why didn’t I just ask her?

What the class looked like.

Being late!!

Notes I wrote down during classes (when I should have been studying)

Good to see she’s keen. She makes excuses for being 2 minutes late and seems stressed.

Lots of photocopies. It’s very easy to get disorganised. It really helps if the photocopies are hole punched. I don’t mind if they’re not beautifully presented. They should be functional.

I wish she’d just let us talk freely, or try to talk freely!

Too much TTT. I’m very aware of this as a teacher in my own classes. A lot of her talking time is just lost on me. It feels very teacher oriented. She’s explaining a lot and spending a lot of time setting up activities, but I still don’t know what’s going on!

Teach the students, not the plan.

1 hour of pronunciation at the start of the class, with us trying in vain to pronounce certain vowel sounds. I suppose this is really important because mastering these different sounds can make a huge difference to your intelligibility in French. But we spend an awful lot of time on it and I wonder how useful it is. I wonder if perhaps it’s more important to develop fluency in the language, and to perhaps get some remedial correction. I’d like her to let us talk and perhaps listen to us and correct us a bit, and give us some much-needed encouragement. I desperately need encouragement. I really really need someone to tell me “Yes, that’s good! Well done, keep it up!” I can’t remember the last time anyone actually gave me positive feedback about my French. I’m in such a negative rut. I’d love it if she gave me more freedom, some praise and also some remedial correction.

She always expects perfection, but we need encouragement. Sometimes I’d like her to let us talk without interruption and perhaps correct us later. She won’t let us utter anything without it being perfect. I just feel like I’m slamming against a brick wall all the time. Maybe I’m too soft and I expect to just be great all the time. I’m too intolerant of failure. I’m too sensitive. Some of the best language learners I know can tolerate a lot of failure and just keep coming back for more, perhaps out of stubbornness or sheer bloody-mindedness. I need to toughen up a bit.

—— recording had to be abandoned at this point due to crying baby!

[Continuing the next day…]

I wonder which one is better: Loading all the grammar, vocab and pronunciation into the learner and then expecting them to produce correct language as a result, or letting the learner just struggle through with a focus on communication and then helping out in a remedial way.

I’m beginning to prefer the second option. I find it’s more responsive and even natural to emphasise the learner’s personal production of English and work from there, rather than inputting so much. I’m not here to gather information, I’m here to do things, to experiment, to make mistakes and do it my own way. Sometimes the classroom environment and teacher don’t let you own your English. But again, perhaps I’m expecting too much too soon and I might need to stop being so egotistical about it and accept my role as a learner in this situation and just get down to some good old-fashioned studying, and learn those verb conjugations. It’s quite humbling.

But back to the idea of the teacher controlling the class and using quite a rigid programme – being teacher-centred. You could argue that this is a problem from two different angles. Firstly, the teacher might rob the students of their independence, their natural tendency to just try to be understood and to communicate and to discover the language and make mistakes but to essentially “find their voice” in the target language. But also, learners might give up these things as they hand over responsibility to the teacher. In my experience, the best language learners are fiercely self-motivated and take full responsibility for their learning, but the language classroom situation tends to subconsciously cause learners to give up that responsibility to the teacher – so that if no progress is made, it’s the teacher’s fault, and if lots of progress is made – the teacher is a hero. But that ignores the fact that personal motivation might be the most important factor. So, perhaps the whole classroom situation encourages bad habits in learners, by taking personal responsibility away from the learners. Unless the teacher is particularly good, and knows this, and is always making sure that learners take responsibility for themselves while also giving them a structure and framework for learning. It’s hard to be a good teacher – you have to know when to be in charge of the class and be in control, and when to just get out of the way completely.

But then again, perhaps the classroom provides a space in which learners can basically get all the answers that they wouldn’t get if they were just out in the wild west of the real world, where nobody is there to lend a hand and it’s all just a question of survival. (sounds tough)

Anyway, the debate in my head here is about whether the teacher gets in the way of the learners, or is a vital agent in providing the learners with a moment-by-moment study plan.

All too often the teacher isn’t able to just get out of the way, and so you plough through more and more activities, being presented with language that you have to take on – which often leads to that feeling that as a student you’re kind of drowning. It might be nice to just spend some time asking the class some questions, seeing how the students answer them, and then take it from there, doing remedial work, allowing all the students to take part, giving us some discussion time with the corrected language, questions and phrases on the board. Going round, listening to us, gathering feedback to correct us afterwards. There’s not a lot of this happening, so I feel like the classroom situation is not being fully exploited.

This does require a particularly nimble teacher – one who is able to adapt on the spot and come up with feedback, drills, little practice exercises and questions that identify the specific problem the student has, how to remedy it and how to let the students practise it correctly. It also requires that the learners are able to go with the flow too. It’s often more practical to write a plan in advance and just stick to it rigidly regardless of whether the students are really on-board.

They have IWBs, which is nice.

The teacher is sweet, and she got hotter as the course went on.

Her efforts are very admirable. She intends to do an hour of pronunciation at the beginning of each class, and that has to be set up in quite a careful way, involving certain important stages in the exercises. So, she’s made an effort and has obviously spent time preparing this lesson. But a lot of her efforts are just torpedoed by late-comers or just students who seem a bit slow.

I’m aware of how it’s hard to be charming, funny or just yourself in another language. I think I must come across as quite different to my real personality, which is annoying, because I think my teacher and possibly other classmates don’t really understand what I’m saying and therefore who I am. I might give an example of what she’s saying but she doesn’t think it’s related – because I’m unable to specify what I’m talking about because of my poor French. It must seem like I’m not concentrating at all and I’m just rambling or trying to change the topic. I can see how easy it is to seem like a dickhead or a problematic student. Note: for my teaching I have to remember to always give my students a chance. Sometimes somebody will say or do something that I will find strange or perhaps rude. I have to remember that the language barrier often distorts people’s personalities. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t and you find people are the same in both languages. So, maybe I really am someone who doesn’t focus and talks without thinking and rarely makes sense, and perhaps even enjoys derailing things. I hope not.

But I find that I’m a bit weird. I have to explain myself a lot. My head goes faster than my mouth. I have a tendency to ramble and that’s because I;’m afraid that people don’t understand me so I repeat myself, so I must be pretty weird in class. I probably am a bit weird, but in English I’m quick enough to be able to flip that into being funny – I’m fast enough with the language to be able to manage my weirdness and make it humourous instead. In French, I’m just weird.

We do gap fills – paper exercises that are so common in language learning, but paper exercises don’t necessarily help in production of the language because you use different strategies for solving a gap fill exercise than producing fluent spontaneous speech.

Teacher has to be very patient and intuitive. Listening is so important for a teacher. We have to listen to our students, work out what they’re trying to say, and then give them the English they need to say that. Also, good activities are ones that present the students with a need to say certain things, so that they have to use the target language to complete the task. Then the teacher needs to pay attention to how we are completing the task, and give us the right feedback.

Sometimes the teacher thinks I don’t understand, or misunderstands me, but it’s just because I can’t explain myself properly. I feel like talking about what we’re talking about means that we’re communicating on some metaphysical level where you need meta-language to discuss the language you’re learning. It all gets terribly complicated.

U and OO sound – Imagine you’re being punched in the stomach. Imagine that your mouth is a chicken’s arse. These things totally don’t help me! It shows me how so much of our explanations are wasted if they aren’t truly clear. We have to always think from the students’ point of view. This is more about teaching than learning French isn’t it!

As a learner I get the impression I’m being told one thing about French, and then I go out and hear something different. I wonder “Are they lying or just unaware of how their own language is being used in the real world? Or maybe I’ve got it wrong.”

A lot of the time I have no idea what’s going on or what the teacher is talking about. I’m just constantly spinning in space. No idea what’s going on. I’m always right on the edge of understanding things. On the edge of my comfort zone.

It’s a humbling experience, and quite sweet too because everyone’s a bit shy and just trying to do their best, but I feel very stupid indeed.

Sometimes I just can’t explain why I don’t understand. I don’t have the ‘meta language’ to do describe what I don’t understand.

Organisation is vital in language learning. Keeping a good record of vocabulary and other learning notes – but it’s hard to stay organised when you have a busy life. Learning a language is a full-time thing. You really have to devote yourself to it. It can feel overwhelming, but with step by step practice you can do it.

Slow students in the class bring the whole level of the class down. Sometimes I think “Just leave them behind they’re dead to us!” But obviously the teacher can’t do that.

In a classroom environment everyone has a lot of responsibility to work with each other. You need quite a tight team to make the whole thing work.

I felt a weird sense of camaraderie with the teacher, because I’m a teacher too. She didn’t know this until the end. It was funny to be on the other side for a change.

At the end of the course I felt a weird emotional pull. It was a bit sad or something to be finishing the course. It was all too brief.

Learning English in the classroom vs Learning English on your own

In the Classroom

Safe space
Actual speaking and writing practice
Group means more varied activities and a chance to practise real communication, not just book work
Text books
You can ask questions
Other students
Learn with others / peer group / Community
Expert explanation of grammar
Exam classes
Learn from the mistakes of others – Hearing other people’s English can be a good thing
Teacher’s own material
Social life
Friends and memories
Nothing is stopping you from studying on your own as well – you can combine your private study routine with classroom study – and use the classroom as a safe space, a place to test yourself and have your questions answered
A way to ringfence several hours in the week for exclusive language practice. For some people it’s too hard to build it into the routine, so they just take classes so someone else can manage it.

Slower or faster than others – held back or confused. Weaker students drag you down to their level (but often these are opportunities to learn – they don’t have to be wasted moments)
Level difference (is it really a problem? The assumption is that you need to be with people who are higher than you, but this is a class, not just a social situation)
Personalities in class – sometimes the wrong balance of personalities means that nothing gets done properly
Class sizes – too big? Hard for the teacher to manage effectively, less STT
You have no control over various factors, like the topic or study point of the lesson, who speaks, what the interaction will be etc. You might get to influence that a bit, but you simply can’t expect it all to be done the way you want – it’s a group
Tendency to sit back and be spoon fed
Reduced responsibility
Reverting to the old mindset of being a pupil at school
Hearing other people’s English can be a bad thing, unless it is being corrected
Possibly annoying teacher!
Expensive & time-consuming
Choosing the right school
In your own country the students will probably be from your country – this can be an advantage in that you will share things more closely, but this can be a disadvantage in that there’s less variety and a lack of an ‘international mindset’ which is helpful in developing a broad mind and to practice speaking to other non-natives from around the world (and the chances are that these are the people you’ll be talking to anyway)

On your own

You can use all the things I’ve ever mentioned on the podcast to create your own personalised study plan, or any other techniques or materials that you know. The world of language learning is your oyster.
There’s plenty of free stuff for learning English now
You can work out what’s best for you
Set your own schedule
You don’t have to go at someone else’s pace
You don’t have to go to someone else’s place!
If you’re organised, you can build a study plan that is tailored to you specifically
Massive amount of online stuff available including 1-2-1 lessons, e.g. with italki
Plenty of grammar practice and explanation online
You can surround yourself with English by using things like podcasts, books, italki etc
Take all the responsibility yourself
Ultimately, this is the only way because nobody can learn a language for you. Whatever approach you choose you’ll always have to be responsible for your own learning.

There’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders because you’ve got to do it all yourself and keep yourself motivated
You have to be extremely organised and devoted
You have to be able to manage your time and your workflow yourself, and let’s face it most of us need a helping hand
It’s hard to build learning English into everything you do even though that’s probably what you need to get to the higher levels
There’s no teacher to correct your mistakes and give you a plan
It can be lonely
Nobody to actually talk to unless you go online
Materials – which ones?
No guidance or advice from teacher or others – or at least it’s difficult to find – support network

In the end – the classroom is a resource which you have to learn to use. It can be a convenient way to get English practice into your life.

But ultimately, whatever the situation – personal motivation and your approach to what you do – these are the most important things. If you have the right level of motivation, you can use the classroom to your advantage, but it is limited. Outside of class you’ve got more freedom, but that can often result in you doing nothing. Classroom situations give you a bit more focus.

Learning in a classroom is just part of what you can do.

It works really well for lots of people, but not well for others.

It’s all about how you approach it.

In the end – you have to get to know yourself and your own ways of learning.

If classroom learning suits you, go for it – but make sure you use that classroom as a resource and get the most from it.

If classroom learning doesn’t work for you – that’s ok but you need to be very motivated, disciplined so you develop habits in your own time, but you have to be quite organised for that.

I could go on…

I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this. It has helped me to reflect on my French a bit. I feel a bit better now actually. I think my French is improving, just very slowly indeed – not as quickly as I’d like and it feels overwhelming, but I must remember the example of the elephant. How do you eat an elephant? Just one spoon at a time – but you do have to eat regular spoons – one spoon at a time, as often as you can and enjoy it too! I’ve no idea how an elephant tastes, but since this is just a metaphor, let’s say the elephant is made of the finest Belgian chocolate, shall we?

I also just want to say how impressed I am by those of you out there who have improved your English to a good degree. Many of my listeners – that’s you- you have developed your English really well, often starting from a very basic level and not living in an English-speaking environment and I’m really proud of you. This takes dedication, work, time and effort. I’m also impressed by those of you who have learned English using my podcast. Many of you listen until the end of episodes, you follow me banging on about stuff, you write carefully worded comments and emails, you send voice messages, and of course outside of podcast-related things I’m sure you do plenty of other things that I’m not aware of in order to push your English further and further, even when it’s difficult. You’ve done so well and I just want you to know that I’m really impressed and proud of you. I know the challenge – believe me – so I’m really impressed and proud of you and also flattered that you choose to listen to my episodes as part of your English language lifestyle. There must be moments when you’re listening to my episodes where you’re lost, confused you’ve kept going – and it’s bound to help and I’m sure it has. Well done.

Thanks for listening.

Additional notes (not used in the episode)

Let me remind you of those three things. Just consider how your learning involves these things:

Just how motivated are you to learn the language you want to learn? Where does that motivation come from? Is it external (e.g. I feel I should learn it for other people or other reasons) or is it internal (I really want to learn it for myself). Motivation is like the driving force that you need to power your entire learning process. It’s probably the most important thing, because where there’s a will, there’s a way.

What are the things that you’re actually doing in English? Examine your habits. The main thing is that English practice is in your life as a habit. Habitual practice – regular things – every day probably. But think about those habits too. How many of those things are: Productive (involving you producing English in speaking or writing) Receptive (involving you just consuming English by listening or reading) Regular (on a regular basis – every day if possible) and long (longer than just a few minutes really). Habit is one of the most important things because it makes sure that language learning becomes a regular part of your day. It’s hard to change your lifestyle, so it’s important to try and get into the habit of doing things but little by little. That can mean just spending 10 minutes a day on English. When that has become a fixed habit, you can build on it and push towards longer periods. If you’re already maxing out your English in terms of time, think about pushing towards more intensive productive practice, like writing and speaking.

What are the things you’re using to learn English? Are there any other things you could get into your life? How can you really exploit them fully? Some simple examples:
LEP – you’re listening, but do you check the episode pages, take the vocab in the lists, read the transcriptions, check out the videos and other links I recommend?
Books – are you reading books at all? If you never finish the books you read in English – consider buying shorter books or graded books (E.g. Penguin Readers) which are appropriate for your level. Do you note certain words or phrases that you discover in the books you read? Are you choosing books that really interest you, or books that you think you should read? Are you choosing books filled with complex old-fashioned language, or books that contain more normal every day English?
Films and TV – do you sometimes watch an episode several times with and without the subtitles? Do you ever repeat the things you hear? Do you make note of new bits of language? Do you go back to those notes and test yourself? Do you record yourself saying things?
italki – get some lessons or conversations. This can be a good way to get proper, real-life communicative practice into your routine. Don’t be shy – give it a try.

511. My Experiences of (not) Learning French [Part 1]

Sharing my experiences of learning French (or not learning it). My French and Me – How I learned some French as a child and how I’m failing to learn it properly as an adult. Includes conclusions about language learning, immersion and the importance of motivation, habit and simply applying yourself. Notes & transcriptions available. *Includes some swearing and general frustration!

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Some rambling about attempting to record while holding the baby, and new content in the LEP app…

In this episode I’m going to talk about my experiences of learning French (or not learning it as the case may be), I’m going to read from an old diary I kept for a while when I was taking some French lessons a few years ago and I’m going to reflect on the things I have done, or more specifically have not done and how these things have affected my progress, or lack of progress, in French.

I hope that you find this interesting and applicable to your experiences of learning English. Perhaps we can use my experiences to consider various things about how we learn languages as adults in classroom environments, using self-guided learning and by being immersed in the culture and language of another country.

I’d like to start the episode by speaking some French. I know you will now be judging me, even if you can’t understand me, but what the hell, here goes – and I’m doing this just as a sort of act of solidarity with those of you who have struggled to express yourself in English. Perhaps you’ll get some comfort in hearing me struggling in another language…

And by the way, if you don’t speak French – keep listening because I will switch back to English in a moment I promise. Perhaps you can just try to work out what I’m saying? Here we go…

*Luke speaks French quite badly*

So that was some of my French. There you go, if you find it tricky sometimes speaking English – I know how you feel, I really do.

Aims for the episode (some are dealt with in part 2)

In this episode I just want to talk about my experiences of learning French, tell you a few stories and use them as a way to consider things like:

  • What it’s like to learn a language in a classroom environment vs learning on your own
  • How to learn a language in a classroom and indeed whether you should study in a group class at all
  • What it’s like to teach language in a classroom environment
  • Just other little things that occurred to me about learning languages during my experiences with French

Backstory: My French and Me – How I learned some French as a child and how I’m failing to learn it properly as an adult

My first words in French on holiday.

I was sent on a mission to the boulangerie to get the bread and stuff for breakfast.

My parents taught me the phrase: “Bonjour, quatre croissants et deux baguettes s’il vous plait!”

The interaction went something like this:

“Bonjour! blah blah blah blah blah?”

“Quatre croissants et deux baguettes s’il vous plait!”

blah blah blah blah blah! Blah blah blah blah blah! *shouting to someone in the back of the boulangerie* BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAAAH BLAAAH!

*Gives money*

Blah blah blah blah!!

*Gives croissants*

“Merci!” *leaves quickly with delicious bread and croissants*

Anything outside this interaction was impossible. E.g. if someone asked a question or did anything else, I’d just look sweetly at the person and perhaps repeat the line.

In a way, not much has changed – I’m still doing it today!

French lessons at school – not really learning anything, feeling awkward, the other kids were hopeless and so was I. I wasn’t in a great class. They streamed you. I should have tried harder because then I would have been in a better class and then I would have learned even more – I’d have been with better kids. All I remember of my French classes at school was mucking about in the language lab recording rude messages over the top of the French tapes, our teacher bringing in a dusty old tape player and listening to dialogues in the street. “Tricolore”

One day the teacher rolled in an old TV and video, and played us a video of young people (13 or 14 years old) of our age socialising. I was horrified. They all dressed like adults and acted like adults. They all kissed each other and brought each other gifts. I feel like they drank wine with lunch but this is just my imagination. It seemed like they were just socialising like a bunch of adults, and it all happened on a Wednesday. It seemed so far from my life where I was incapable of communicating with other kids of my age unless it was via a game of football, piss taking or very awkward giggling and embarrassment, especially if there were girls around. The French kids in this video all seemed so confident, sophisticated and grown up and they felt a billion miles away from us.

It didn’t help also that the sex education videos we watched were French I think (translated into English) again I might have misremembered this I’m not sure, and they showed a French family naked on the beach and that was tremendously awkward. I imagined these French kids just hanging around naked with their family and friends and being so confident and the whole time speaking in this French that made them sound so grown up and scary.

One of the other things I remember from French class was the fact that the other kids misbehaved so much. First of all it was almost impossible for the teacher to get them to actually speak French and I witnessed a number of awkward meltdowns by teachers who just couldn’t hack it. Once, one of the girls at the back of the class (seemed like a trouble maker type girl, and it felt like she was a good 2 years older than me and she probably was in terms of her hormone levels). She pretended to faint in class and there was a big drama with lots of the other girls making a big fuss and the whole class stopped for ages while the teacher attempted to deal with it and obviously didn’t really know what to do and I’m certain the whole thing was fake just so this girl could get out of class, and I even felt that the teacher was playing for time as well because she couldn’t wait for the lesson to end, and the whole time I just sat there and probably talked about Super Mario Brothers with the kid next to me or something, in English.

So, I don’t remember learning much more than “Je m’appelle Luke. J’habite a Solihull. J’ai treize ans. Je joue le football and le babyfoot” etc. Hilarious moments in class were when certain words sounded like something rude in English, notably the words “banque” (sounds like “bonk”) and “piscine” (sounds like “pissing”).

But I came out with a B at GCSE level so I must have been ok. I remember in my spoken interview I felt that I did pretty well. I seem to remember holding down a conversation that wasn’t too bad. I actually feel quite proud of myself.

Then I grew up and decades passed before I had to speak it again.

Now I actually live in France and I feel that I carry so much baggage that holds me back, or maybe that’s just another excuse.

Got together with a French girl. Our relationship is in English.

Moved to France.

Just before I moved, I took conversation classes with colleagues in London.

That helped quite a lot.

What were those classes like?

Who were you with?

What did we do?

Then moved to France

I expected to be able to speak French as a result of just living here. I thought – it’ll happen as a consequence because I will simply have to learn, or being here will mean I’ll just pick it up like magic.

The thing is, I think my life is fixed in a certain way and it doesn’t involve much need for speaking French. As well as that, hand-on-heart – I think my heart isn’t in it. Frankly, I didn’t move here to learn French, I moved here for love – which is probably the most French thing about my life!

But really, I don’t need that much French, or I can get by without it.

There are moments when it would definitely help, and moments when my lack of French reflects really badly on me. But basically I can get by without it and the vast majority of how I live my life is in English.

However – you should know that I am very ashamed of this for lots of reasons, but also because I feel like a hypocrite. I spend most of my time preaching about second language acquisition and I don’t do it myself. I don’t practise what I preach.

Some of you might be thinking “How is it possible that you haven’t learned the language?”

Well, I say “I haven’t learned the language”. I can speak a bit, but my level is nowhere near what it should or could be after 5 years here. I’m genuinely not proud of it and sometimes I feel genuinely bad about it, like when I’m with friends or family who have known me for years now and have seen no development really. I sit there at the dinner table with everyone speaking in French around me and it’s like I’m watching a tennis match, but after a while I have no idea where the ball is any more. I can follow the conversation for an hour maybe, but then my head starts spinning and I just can’t keep up or even stay conscious. It’s terribly exhausting, but nobody seems to really realise. Perhaps they think I’m being modest. Most French people will say “Oh my English is terrible” but then they’re just being modest or something and in fact their English is pretty good on balance. I say “My French is terrible” and they think I’m being modest too, like them, – they think they know what that means, but when I start attempting to say something, they realise and are shocked like “holy shit your French really is terrible!” and I feel like saying – “Yes, I told you!”

Also, Parisians can be very judgemental, I have to be honest. They’re extremely judgemental of each other’s English, and I’m certain they’re judgemental of my French. They can be just very direct and seem to spend a lot of time being brutally frank about things, including their assessments of other people. I just feel like rather a sad case in some people’s eyes. It’s rubbish, I have to tell you. I also believe that some people have no clue who I am. They think I’m this timid guy or something, with no personality – I’m certain. I’m sort of invisible or just one-dimensional. I’m sure of it. So much of who I am is connected to my understatement, sarcasm, irony, humour and general ironic detachment from everything – and all those things are communicated in my subtle use of language in English. In French I am just a completely one-dimensional person, and that one dimension is a kind of 14-year-old who hasn’t developed a personality yet. I’m basically my 14-year-old self, surrounded by all these very confident and well-dressed French kids in that video except that we’re all adults.

Imposter syndrome – yep. Then we speak English and it’s better, but I feel a bit bad about speaking English so I don’t really let go in that situation either.

I’m making it sound worse than it is – I have lots of French friends now that know me well and I am myself with them, but sometimes I get stuck at a party or at a dinner and it is exactly as I’ve described it.

I have lots of excuses.

Like I’ve said before “My French isn’t very good, but my excuses are improving all the time.” I’m fluent in excuses.

I don’t want to make excuses for what I consider to be a lack of French, but I can give reasons why my French hasn’t improved as much as I want.

I’m wary of doing this, because frankly I think it will make me look bad, especially considering how I often give advice on language learning. But perhaps there will be some of you out there who take some comfort in hearing me talk about my hangups, failures and general rubbishness in language learning. As a learner (or non-learner) of French, let me tell you – I’d love to hear other people’s stories of how they struggle. It would bring me a lot of comfort to know that there are other people out there like me who feel generally awful about their language learning. We so often hear from successful language learners, who deliver their advice like a sales pitch for how to learn a language and although I know there’s a lot of great advice in there, sometimes it feels a bit sickening to hear about other people’s great successes in language learning. I personally want to hear about people who are crap at learning languages, or at least crap at applying themselves. That would make me feel better.

So in that spirit let me talk about doing all the wrong things in learning French.

The first wrong thing is to make loads of excuses, which is what I’m going to do now.

By the way, there’s a difference between an excuse and a reason. A reason is why something happened or didn’t happen. An excuse is also a reason but it also is a way of passing the blame onto something else, or a way to avoid taking responsibility.

Here are my excuses, which ultimately are my ways of avoiding my personal responsibility for learning French, but perhaps they’re also legitimate reasons…

I think, ultimately, it comes down to motivation. Clearly I’m not that motivated to learn the language. Even though I live here, I have to go out of my way to learn the language, and the fact that I don’t makes me feel bad because I’m basically not adapting to my host culture properly.

But, I feel I should at least list some of the reasons why my French hasn’t improved as much as it should – just to get them out-of-the-way. But I realise they are all excuses.

As a teacher I feel added pressure to be an excellent language learner, and I hardly ever meet my own high standards. A lot of my friends who learned French didn’t have that expectation. They were just young and living in Paris and it happened as a consequence of their whole journey of discovery here.

I live in an English-speaking bubble – I work in English, I speak English at home, I listen to English podcasts (there are so many that I can’t give up), I watch YouTube in English, I do stand-up in English, I do LEP in English, in fact I find that I am often studying English when I prepare for lessons or do other language work in preparation for teaching or content creating
My world is predominantly in English but this doesn’t mean I have no interactions with French people. I regularly interact with local people but it often happens in English!

People’s level of English is often better than my French, so they automatically switch to English. This includes waiters, people in the street, and also people at parties etc.

Sometimes people speak good English to me, but they say their English is no good. A lot of French people are hung up about their English and are convinced they’re no good, but they’re capable of having a conversation quite confidently, but they talk about their lack of English and there’s a lot of competition here. People are very competitive about it but also quite modest, or perhaps self-critical. Then I say that my French is no good and I think they assume I mean the same thing – that it’s just not excellent. They assume that, but the fact is I really mean it! My French is no good! Then it’s embarrassing when they really hear it.

Once at a party a guy I was talking to said to me “You need to start speaking French, ok? So, don’t talk to me until you’ve learned French. He just walked away from me and left me standing on my own at this party. I felt terrible – both because of my shitty French, but also because the guy was a dick head.”

I really shouldn’t feel like this – but I often feel really ashamed and embarrassed about my level of French. This means I end up in a vicious cycle of having an embarrassing experience or a failure, and then feeling bad, and that affects my confidence, which leads to more failures – because you have to be confident to communicate well.

I actually think I’m quite a wordy person. I tend to ramble a bit and sometimes I don’t get straight to the point. In French I can’t do this, so I find it hard to really be myself. I still haven’t found myself in French yet. I feel like every time I open my mouth, I just make things more complicated and I bring more problems, because people misunderstand and misinterpret.

That’s just shyness and social awkwardness though, and I must not let that get the better of me.

People want to practise their English and they want to be nice, so we switch to English.

My wife often helps me when I need help. She’s nice like that, but it means that I don’t face the sort of ‘survival challenges’ that are necessary for developing in the second language.
I’m not making time for moments of French in my daily routine. I already feel like I have too many things to do and so I don’t fit French into my life. It’s the same with sport. I don’t do any because I think “when the hell am I going to do it?” God knows what will happen when my daughter arrives on the scene. In terms of language learning – people tell me I’ll learn because I’ll have to do more things in French for her. But also I just wonder if there’ll be any time for anything.

Note to self: Don’t be negative!!!

More excuses:
Paris is a very busy place and I feel people are impatient and even judgemental. This adds pressure to me. I feel like such a dumbass when I speak French and some people don’t always react in the way I need them to – there’s not that much sympathy and I feel they’re just thinking – oh god you’re mangling my language, let’s just speak English. Again: These are 100% excuses and I know it.
I am very good at speaking English to non-natives and they usually understand me really well, and so it’s just much easier to talk in English! Their English has to be pretty bad for French to be the choice of language!
I am a lazy student. I don’t really do any studying – I have done some but I found it to be impenetrable and frustrating. I used to do conjugation exercises in a big book but I found it hideously dull and boring. For example, I found the example sentences and gap fills frustrating because the sentences were so stupid and idiotic. I feel like a terrible person right now.
Sometimes the fact that English is the global language and most people can speak it and want to learn it – this frankly works against me and I will only learn French if I really go out of my way to learn it, even though I am living in the country itself.

I could go on but I won’t…

What my situation proves is this:

Unless you apply yourself to the task, you won’t learn a language, even if you live in a country where that language is spoken. This contradicts the old adage that immersion alone is the path to fluency in another language. Applying yourself to the language really means being prepared to spend time with that language – consuming it and producing it – either by studying it or by engaging in communication with it. If you don’t apply yourself properly, it won’t happen.

There are three important factors, which you have to have in place to learn a language. Simply living in the country where they speak that language is not enough unless you have these three factors involved.

Motivation – the desire to learn it which drives your behaviour, your curiosity, your patience and your will to continue practising and overcoming obstacles. Motivation is vital. It could be short-term motivation – like, you work as a waiter in French and you just have to understand people or you will have a miserable time – on a daily basis. So, the motivation to just get some control over the panic in every moment of the day. Or it could be a more long-term sort of motivation, which is usually the idea that you’re learning the language because you want to have it as part of your identity. You’re just drawn to it because you simply want to be a person who can speak that language.

Habits – regular practice and contact with the language. The longer and more frequent the better. Also, a certain organised approach to keeping a record of what you’ve learned, and measuring your goals and your progress.

Resources – these are the things that can help you – text books, reading books, listening materials, also people who you can talk to.

It does depend on the person too, I think. I believe some people just soak up the language – but this is down to motivation a lot of the time. The ones who soak up the language and just learn it through contact and immersion seem to be the ones who just enjoy exploring this world of the second language and who embrace their new life in a second language. I haven’t embraced my “french side”.

Perhaps I need a structured system – a regular study plan that I can apply. E.g. working through coursebooks or simply reading and listening to dialogues and doing exercises.

But ultimately motivation is the main one. If you’re motivated – you’ll actually do things to improve your level. I just don’t do enough things. I don’t apply myself. My excuse: I’m just too caught up in my world of English.

These three things (motivation, habits, resources) may be the most important factors for learning a language. Motivation is probably the big one. If you really want to learn a language, you will.

If you’re not that bothered about learning it, you won’t learn it – even if you live surrounded by that language.

So I suppose that I feel bad because my lack of French seems to suggest that I don’t care about it. That makes me feel bad because I don’t want people to think that I don’t care, or that I’m not invested in the country where I live, or that I’m not integrating with the culture. I feel bad that ultimately I’m not learning French because I just don’t care about it. I’m a bit conflicted about this. I think I do care of course, but perhaps not enough to actually do anything about it. Habit is involved here too though, because I think it’s a question of changing certain things in my lifestyle – like, basically, including some French practice into my lifestyle on a daily basis – but it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

I think it is a vicious cycle.

If I don’t learn the language, I can’t appreciate the culture properly and I get alienated, and if I can’t appreciate the culture properly, I can’t really learn the language because I’m alienated from it. Add a sense of shame and the fact that I really should be a better learner because I’ve been a language teacher for a long time – the result is a bit of a mess in my head, and it all blocks my ability to learn French.

I’m also quite modest. I’m probably beating myself up a bit and I’m not utterly hopeless or anything. But my honest assessment is that I’m far from good enough especially after having lived here surrounded by French people for a few years. I think I’m A2/B1. I’m only capable of limited conversations about familiar things. I need help and patience from the person I’m talking to. I frequently come across moments where I just can’t carry on because I didn’t understand something or because I don’t have the words. I can follow a group conversation for about 20 minutes but then I get lost. Honest assessment – Pre-intermediate. Intermediate on a good day. Strengths – listening, reading, general communicative competence (all my other things are good – active listening, body language, I’m very aware of what makes a good communicator – I’m a reactive person and I’m not completely stupid). Weaknesses – speaking (fluency, accuracy, vocabulary range, pronunciation, grammatical accuracy) writing – no idea how to spell a lot of what I’m hearing, for example. Sometimes I can’t distinguish a phrase from a single word. I’m illiterate, basically! I feel like I have a similar level of intelligence as a really clever ape (like a particularly gifted chimp) or an average 4-year-old child.

Also, being a language teacher myself might actually exacerbate the problem. I’m so aware of what I should be doing, of how far I have to go, how much work I need to be doing, that I’m just defeated before I’ve even started. I’m essentially just down at the foot of the mountain, running around doing lots of things, constantly aware of the mountain looming above me and how much climbing I have to do.

Alright this isn’t supposed to be some sort of self-flagellation session or a confessional. Let me get on to those classroom experiences I was supposed to be talking about.

In Part 2:

  • Reading from the diary I wrote while taking French classes a few years ago.
  • Learning language in the classroom vs on your own.

Thanks for listening!

I might be able to respond to your comments in part 2 so go ahead and write your thoughts and questions.



487. Learning Languages and Adapting to New Cultures (with Ethan from RealLife English)

A conversation about travelling and learning languages with Ethan from RealLife English. Ethan is very well-travelled, having lived in at least 6 different countries. He’s also learned a few different languages to a good level as an adult. Let’s talk about his advice for adapting to new cultures and learning languages in adulthood. Vocabulary notes and language test available below. 

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A Summary of what Ethan said

How to adapt to a new culture

  • Arrive with an open mind and be ready to try anything
  • Don’t just hang out with people from your country
  • You have to make an effort to integrate into the country
  • Things might be weird, but you’ll end up having some really memorable experiences
  • Push yourself to live like a local, even if at first you feel like the lifestyle isn’t as good as it is in your country
  • Get over yourself! Get out of your comfort zone
  • Don’t go just to learn English, go somewhere for the whole experience – and if you do that you’ll probably learn English more effectively as a result

Ethan’s advice for learning English on your own

  • Watch a popular TV show with subtitles – it’s important to choose a show that you like.
  • Listen to music and taking the time to look up the lyrics.
  • He just talked to people, even though he was really awkward and shy because he made lots of mistakes.
  • Motivation is key – he fell in love with Catalan and this gave him the motivation to push through the difficult moments, the awkwardness etc. So build and nurture your motivation to learn a language. Realise how good it is for you to come out of your shell and remember that you can get over your barriers if you really want to.
  • Find the right people to talk to, find people who are understanding and sympathetic to your situation (someone who’s learning a language too).
  • Do a language exchange because the other person will be much more likely to tolerate your errors, and will be willing to help you out because you’re going to do the same for them. (you can use italki to find language partners in many countries – )
  • Be voraciously curious – cultivate the desire to do more. If you’re listening to music, check the lyrics and look them up. While watching TV use a notepad or an app like Evernote on your phone to note down vocab and then look it up later.
  • Practice by speaking to other non-native speakers of the language you’re learning. Other learners of the language are likely to be more sympathetic, they’ll probably have more in common with you, they might have some good advice, you’re going through a similar experience. Having peers with whom you can share your experience is really important.

Some language from the first part of the conversation (Quiz below)

Listen to this episode to get some definitions and descriptions of this language.

  • Refurbished buildings (made to look new again)
  • You can see some random smokestacks and things sticking up (tall chimneys)
  • Three blocks from the beach. (distance between his place and the beach)
  • I tend to go running there (I usually go running there. Not – I am used to going running there)
  • The weather hasn’t really been beach-appropriate (appropriate for a beach!)
  • We’re just rolling into fall here (entering) (fall = autumn)
  • I enjoy running by the beach, especially because the whole area around the beach is very iconic from when they had the Olympics here (impressive because it’s a famous symbol of something)
  • A modernist humongous whale structure (massive)
  • Every time I look at it I’m just astounded, it’s beautiful. (amazed)
  • Language for describing Ethan’s background (background – narrative tenses, past simple, past continuous, maybe some past perfect)
  • I moved back here (already) two months ago.
  • I was living here two times before, once for a year and a half and once for 3 months. (normally I’d use ‘I lived’ but perhaps he was thinking of it as a temporary thing in both cases)
  • Ways he talks about his current situation – present perfect to describe past events with a connection to now.
  • I’ve come back to stay, probably indefinitely, hopefully for a couple of years. (this is the only example actually)
  • Describing your background and your current situation 

    Describing your background

    You need to use narrative tenses to describe your background story, and you need to learn how to do this in English and to be able to repeat it with some confidence. It might be worth thinking of how you can make your background story quite interesting or entertaining, or at least say how you felt about it. It just helps in social situations.
    Past simple – the main events of the story – the main sequence
    Past continuous – the situation at the time, or longer events which are interrupted by shorter actions
    Past perfect – background events to the main events of the story
    E.g. I went to university in Liverpool and studied Media & Cultural Studies. It was a really interesting degree, but it wasn’t very useful. I stayed in Liverpool for a while and played music in a band but we didn’t make it and I left and moved back in with my parents which was a bit of a nightmare. I didn’t really know what to do with myself for a while, but I decided I wanted to travel and go somewhere quite different, and I‘d always been curious about teaching, so I trained to be an English teacher and I got my first job in Japan. I stayed there for a couple of years, had a great time but decided that I wanted to come back because of family reasons. I taught English in London for 8 years, did my DELTA, got a job in a good school in London and then I met a French girl and I moved to France so we could be together. I’m very romantic. (actually that was almost exclusively past simple, wasn’t it?)Describing your current situation
    Then you also need to talk about your current situation. We do this with present simple (permanent situations) and present continuous (temporary situations) and present perfect to talk about past actions with a connection to now.
    E.g. I live in Paris these days. I’ve been here for about 5 years. I’ve worked for a few different schools, teaching English. These days I teach at The British Council. I’ve been there for about 3 years now. I’m also developing some online courses which I hope to release on my website before too long!
  • I’m from Colorado in the USA. Luke: Oh cool.  (I said cool – because you should say cool when someone tells you where they’re from, or at least you should show some interest or curiosity, and be positive about it.)
  • It’s below Canada and above Mexico, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. (my non-specific description of where Colorado is – basically, it’s somewhere in the USA, haha etc)
  • It’s (to the) north east of Arizona, (to the) east of Utah, above New Mexico.
  • What’s the difference between ‘east of London’, ‘to the east of London’ and ‘in the east of London‘?
  • The four corners – it’s just a couple of hours away from the town I grew up in. (how would you put that in your language? “It takes two hours to get there”, “It’s a couple of hours from here”
  • It’s a tourist trap now. You go and put your hand in the middle and you’re in four states at once. (a place that attracts tourists and is probably best avoided)
  • I was born in my house. Durango, Colorado. That’s the town I lived in.
  • When I was 17 I moved to Germany for 6 months.
  • It’s interesting to see that, when you’ve lived in a place for 20 years, how it evolves. (how it changes gradually over time)
  • Colorado is wonderful, it’s spectacular. (magnificent, amazing, breathtaking)
  • We’re so active, we’re always outdoors. There are spectacular hikes you can do.
  • There are 4,000 or 5,000 metre peaks. (summits, mountain tops)
  • It’s very different to Europe because you get that kind of old-west feeling. (from the period of western expansion) (wild west – cowboys and lawlessness)
  • My only criticism is that I lived there for 20 years, which is more than enough. (nice way to start a sentence with something negative in it)…. (more than enough = too much)
  • I’ve never seen a grizzly, and they are dangerous. (grizzly bear)
  • Mountain Lions – if you were by yourself and you encountered one, it might not be a great end for you. You might get eaten alive by a huge cat. (You don’t meet a wild animal, you encounter one.)
  • We have deer and elk and in the north we also have moose, and a lot of, we’d say, critters, like small animals. (deer = animals that look like they have trees growing out of their heads – you know what I mean. Like Santa Claus’ reindeer. Elk = big deer. Moose = really big elk. Critters – little animals like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, raccoons, skunks)
  • In the US you drive from city to city and you see endless expanses of mountains and plains. (wide open spaces)
  • That’s a fun question so I’d have to think. (a nice way to buy time for yourself when someone asks you a question, like saying “that’s a good question, let me think”)
  • When I was in high school I did a 6 month exchange in Germany and during that time I also got to live in Poland for 2 weeks. (difference between for and during?)
  • I lived in Spain in Majorca for a year during college, which is when I fell in love with this place.
    Some time expressions to help you tell a story:
  • After that, after school, I moved to Brazil.
  • I joined RealLife English because they had started a few months before I moved there.
  • That’s when I moved to Barcelona. Then I moved to Chile for 6 months. Now finally I‘ve moved back here.
  • After that you can imagine I’m a bit tired of jumping around so much and living out of a back pack. Now I’m here to stay for a while.

Were you listening carefully? Test yourself.

Did I mention this? I was recently interviewed on the RealLife English Podcast – you can listen to it here…

We talked about using comedy TV shows and humour in learning English. Check it out below.

RealLife Radio #161 – How to Be Funny in English (Special Guest: Luke’s English Podcast)

RealLife English – Links

RealLife English Global Website

RealLife English Podcast

487 pic

485. & 486. Difficult Words to Pronounce in English (with Paul Taylor) (Parts 1 & 2) + video

This is a double episode with two audio episodes on one page, and it’s going to be really useful for you because it’s all about difficult pronunciation in English. Listen to Paul Taylor and me discussing the tricky relationship between spelling and pronunciation. There are lots of jokes, impressions, funny accents and useful comments about this important area of the English language. Use this episode to avoid some very common mistakes in English pronunciation, and try not to laugh on the bus while you’re listening! Check this episode page for word lists, transcriptions and my video of 40+ difficult words to pronounce in English.

Part 1

Part 2


british humour posterLuke’s British Council Teacher Talk – “What is this, British Humour?”

I’m doing another talk on the topic of humour at the British Council in Paris on 19 October. It is also being live-streamed on Facebook. Details below.

Click here to reserve (free) tickets if you’re in Paris.

Click here for the British Council France Facebook Page for the live stream – Thursday 19 October at 19:00 Paris time (CET).

Difficult Words to Pronounce in English: Notes, Word Lists and That Useful Video (below)

  • Focus /fəʊkəs/
  • Fuck us /fʌkʌs/
  • Sting /stɪŋ/
  • Boy George /bɔɪ ʤɔːʤ/
  • Spandau Ballet /spændɑː bæleɪ/

What problems do French people have with pronunciation in English?

  • /h/ sounds
  • /th/ sounds

Part 1 ends here… Part 2 continues below!

  • /r/ sounds
  • Some vowel sounds, particularly certain ‘long’ and ‘short’ sounds, such as…
  • bitch” /i/ and “beach” /i:/
  • shit” /i/  and “sheet” /i:/
  • voiced and unvoiced sounds
  • Paul’s “how to beatbox” with boots and cats

The words & phrases from the TOPITO article – “The Most Difficult Words to Pronounce in English – the hell of /th/ sounds

1. I have a sore throat
2. Squirrel
3. Throughout
4. Bewildered
5. Hierarchy
6. Anaesthetize
7. Threshold
8. Worthlessly
9. Worcestershire
10. William Wordsworth

The TOPITO article (it’s in French by the way)

An academic “focus” on French people speaking English, from Frankfurt University

There are some differences in the sound systems of the two languages that can cause French learners problems of comprehension and speech production. Spelling errors may result from the frequent lack of correspondence between the pronunciation of English words and their spelling.

A typical pronunciation problem is the inability to correctly articulate the vowel sounds in minimal pairs such as ship / sheep, live / leave, full / fool. Because the tip of the tongue is not used in speaking French, learners often have problems with words containing the letters th (/θ/ /ð/), such as then, think and clothes.

Another common feature of English spoken by French learners is the omission of the /h/ sound at the beginning of words. This sound does not exist in French and leads to problems such as ‘Ave you ‘eard about ‘arry?, or overcompensation by pronouncing the /h/ in words like hour, honour.
French learners typically have problems with the unpredictable stress patterns of English words, particularly of cognates. (Word stress in French is regular.) Learners may also be unwilling to engage in the prevalent vowel reduction of unstressed syllables in English. Consider, for example, the way that English native speakers swallow the first syllable of the word tomorrow (t’morrow). These problems result in the stereotypical staccato French accent of beginning learners.

From Frankfurt International School Website

TH sounds

/th/ can be voiced [ð] or unvoiced [θ]

A quick guide to producing TH sounds:

  • Stick tongue out slightly
  • Let air pass under/through teeth and over the tongue
  • You don’t need your lips!
  • It’s not /f/ /s/ /d/ /v/ or /z/
  • It’s [ð] (voiced) or [θ] (unvoiced)

Watch my video (below) for more help with /th/ sounds.

More words which learners often find difficult to pronounce

  • Architecture /ˈɑː.kɪ.tek.tʃər/
  • architectural /ˌɑː.kɪˈtek.tʃər.əl/
  • Drawer /drɔː/
  • Colonel /ˈkəːn(ə)l/
  • Comfortable /ˈkʌmftəbəl/
  • Pronunciation /prənʌnsɪˈeɪʃən/
  • Recipe /ˈresɪpi:/
  • Scissors /ˈsɪzəz/
  • Strengths /streŋkθs/
  • Clothes /kləʊðz/
  • Eighth /eɪtθs/
  • Queue /kjuː/
  • Fruit /fruːt/
  • Sixteenth /sɪkˈstiːnθ/
  • Eighteenth /eɪˈtiːnθ/

“Ghoti” is pronounced “fish” (is it?)

This is an old attempt to prove that English spelling makes no sense. Note: David Crystal doesn’t agree.


David Crystal disagrees with this “ghoti” (See below)

Some Words with Silent Letters

  • bomb
  • climb
  • comb
  • crumb
  • debt
  • doubt
  • government (ok, so the ‘n’ isn’t really silent, but this word has 3 syllables, not 4)

More here:


  • Business /ˈbɪznɪs/ or /ˈbɪznəs/
  • Busy /ˈbɪzi:/
  • Derby (place and a horse race) /ˈdɑːbi:/

L/R (Often difficult for Japanese speakers, or people from East Asia in general)

  • Roller coaster
  • Rarely
  • Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry

My name

  • Luke (correct) /lu:k/
  • not:
  • Look
  • Luck
  • Mr Luck (the most common wrong version, especially in writing)
  • Teacher luck pot cat? (teacher luke podcast)
  • Ruke
  • Ruku
  • Rook
  • Duck??
  • Mr Luke (still not correct – it’s just “Luke” or “Mr Thompson”, although Moz called me Mr Luke as a sort of joke)

Thompson /tɒmpsən/

  • Often pronounced “Tom-sun” in France
  • and pronounced “Tom-pu-son” in Japan

Some rude or funny tongue twisters read by Paul and me

She sells sea shells on the sea shore.
(not rude)

Red lorry yellow lorry red lorry yellow lorry…
(not rude)

I am not the pheasant plucker,
I’m the pheasant plucker’s mate.
I am only plucking pheasants
Because the pheasant plucker’s late.
(don’t say “fucker“)
I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit;
and on the slitted sheet I sit.
(don’t say “shit“)
One smart fellow; he felt smart.
Two smart fellows; they felt smart.
Three smart fellows; they all felt smart.
(don’t say “fart”)
I’m not the fig plucker,
Nor the fig pluckers’ son,
But I’ll pluck figs
Till the fig plucker comes.
(don’t say “pig fucker“)
Fire truck tyres
(repeat it – don’t say “I fuck tyres”)
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Not a punt cut square,
Just a square cut punt.
It’s round in the stern and blunt in the front.
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Six stick shifts stuck shut.
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers.

(don’t say “cunt” – really, don’t say that word, it is extremely rude)

She sells seashells by the seashore.
The shells she sells are surely seashells.
So if she sells shells on the seashore,
I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
(not rude)
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
And chuck as much as a woodchuck would
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.
(not rude)
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers
(not rude)

Betty Botta bought some butter;
“But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter!
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o’ better butter
Will make my batter better.”
Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So it was better Betty Botta
Bought a bit o’ better butter.

(not rude)

Pronunciation practice – repeat after me!

There’s no quiz for this episode – instead I thought I’d make a video so you can practise your pronunciation by repeating after me. Word list with definitions below.

Word List + examples [The definitions are in brackets]

  1. Sore throat – I’ve got a sore throat today [a painful throat, because you have a cold]
  2. Squirrel – I saw three squirrels in the park [cute little animals with bushy tails that live in the park]
  3. Throughout – Squirrels live in this park throughout the year [all the way through]
  4. Bewildered – I was bewildered by all the options [confused]
  5. Hierarchy – There’s a flat hierarchy in our company [a system of levels]
  6. Anaesthetist/Anaesthetise – It’s the job of the anaesthetist  to anaesthetise the patients with an anaesthetic [to give someone an anaesthetic – something which stops you feeling pain]
  7. Threshold – If you earn more than £70,000 you enter the next tax threshold [a level or point where something ends and something else begins]
  8. Worthlessly – I was worthlessly trying to impress her by showing off [in a worthless way – with no worth or no point]
  9. Pass the Worcestershire sauce, would you? [a kind of brown sauce for giving flavour to food]
  10. William Wordsworth was a wonderful writer
  11. live / leave – You have to live a little before you leave this world
  12. ship / sheep – we put all the sheep onto the ship, so the ship was full of sheep
  13. full / fool – The room is full you fool!
  14. Architecture – I love the architecture
  15. Architectural – The architectural style is fascinating
  16. Drawer – The knives and forks are in the top drawer on the left [for example, where you keep the knives and forks in the kitchen]
  17. Colonel – Colonel Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken [a senior officer in the army]
  18. Kernel – Pine kernels can be a delicious addition to a salad [a nut]
  19. Comfortable – Are you comfortable? Would you like a pillow?
  20. Pronunciation is important. You have to pronounce words properly.
  21. Recipe – Can you give me that delicious cake recipe? /  This is a recipe for disaster! [the instructions for how to make certain food]
  22. Scissors – Do you know where the scissors are? [a tool for cutting paper or fabric]
  23. Strengths – What are your strengths and weaknesses? [strong points]
  24. Clothes – I bought some new clothes today.
  25. Months – She’s 18 months old now.
  26. Eighth – Henry the Eighth was a Tudor king of England
  27. Queue – Sorry, are you in the queue? Are you skipping the queue? Sorry, the end of the queue is back there. Yes, we’re all queueing up, we’re not just standing here. Unbelievable. [a line of people waiting for something]
  28. Fruit – Do you have any fresh fruit?
  29. Sixteenth – It’s the sixteenth of October
  30. Eighteenth – It’s the eighteenth of November
  31. Thirteenth – it’s Friday the thirteenth
  32. Thirtieth – it’s the thirtieth of December
  33. Bomb – There was a bomb scare in the station. People were talking about a bombing. I remember when the IRA bombed Oxford Street. [an explosive device]
  34. Climb – Do you want to go climbing with me next weekend? I’m going to climb that mountain on Saturday. You climbed it last year didn’t you? [to go up something steep like a ladder,  a hill or a mountain]
  35. Comb – I’m just combing my hair with a comb. [something that you use to make your hair straight]
  36. Crumb – Why are there lots of bread crumbs on the table? Have you been cutting bread here? There are lots of crumbs everywhere. Can you clean them up please? [little bits of bread or other food]
  37. Debt – (Many students leave university with) thousands of pounds of debt. [money which you have to pay back to someone after you borrow it]
  38. Doubt – There’s no doubt about it. It’s a brilliant film. [something you’re unsure about]
  39. Government (ok, so the ‘n’ isn’t really silent, but this word has 3 syllables, not 4) The government is yet to make a statement.
  40. My name is Luke  (not Mr Luck) Thompson
  41. This is a podcast – not a postcard, or potcard, or pot cast or pot cat. It’s podcast.

 See Paul’s One Man Show #Franglais –

By the way, if you’re in France, you really should see Paul’s one man show called #Franglais because it is back in theatres for another run. A lot of the comedy in his show is based around pronunciation differences, including the way people say his name, the way French people say funny things without realising it and more. Check out for more information.

Here’s David Crystal’s response to “GHOTI” = FISH

Remember that thing that goes around the internet about how “Fish” should be spelled GHOTI?

Basically David Crystal believes that English spelling is not actually senseless, chaotic or mad. It is complex but it’s not completely random. In fact it is the end result of a fascinating process of development that can tell us a lot about the rich history of the English language.

From a Guardian review of his book “Spell It Out”

‘Crystal shows a brisk impatience with the tradition that likes to pretend that English spelling is senseless. The famous suggestion that you could spell “fish” “ghoti” (gh as in “rough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”) is a witticism often ascribed to George Bernard Shaw but, Crystal says witheringly, has been doing the rounds since the middle of the 19th century. It is, he argues “complete naughtiness. The spelling ti is NEVER used with this sound at the end of a word in English, and the spelling gh is NEVER used with this sound at the beginning of a word.” It doesn’t do, then, to simply throw your hands up and say: “Isn’t our language mad?” The real story is much more interesting than that.’

You can read more about the interesting story of English spelling and what it can teach us about the history of the English language by reading David Crystal’s book “Spell It Out”, which I expect is available from any half-decent book shop.

454. David Crystal Interview (Part 1) Professor of Linguistics

455. David Crystal Interview (Part 2) Questions from Listeners

So, that’s it for this double episode then, thanks for listening!

  • Join the mailing list!
  • Don’t be a ninja hiding in the shadows – write something in the comment section
  • Be excellent to each other and party on!


483. A Rambling Chat with Moz

The second part of my conversation with my friend Moz, this time covering subjects such as podcasting vs YouTube, bathing naked in a Japanese spa, sharing personal information online (like a story of bathing naked in a Japanese spa), the role of artificial intelligence & social media, murdering mosquitoes and meeting a crack addict on the streets of London. Vocabulary list and quiz available below.


Introduction Transcript

Hi everyone, Here’s the second part of my conversation with my friend Moz that was recorded a few weeks ago.

After talking about murder in the last episode, Moz and I kept talking for about another 45 minutes, just rambling on and going off on a few tangents and you can listen to that conversation in this episode as part of your ongoing mission to improve your English by listening to real conversations that actually happened, between actual people who actually said some actual things and actually recorded them and uploaded them for you to actually listen to.

Things that we actually talked about (in the form of questions)

  • What goes into making and publishing a podcast?
  • Who is my audience and where are they (that’s you)?
  • What’s it like to meet members of my audience?
  • What’s the difference between doing audio podcasts and making videos for YouTube?
  • Should native speakers adapt their speech when talking to non-native speakers of English?
  • Does the word ‘cack’ in English relate to similar words in other languages?
  • What does ‘cack’ mean? (it means poo, by the way)
  • How much of our personal information should we be sharing online?
  • How much of my personal information should I be sharing in episodes of this podcast?
  • Should you post pictures of your children on social media?
  • What are the effects of social media and artificial intelligence on our lives? How might this change in the future?
  • How could you fight against a robot invasion using an umbrella and software updates?
  • How much do we hate mosquitoes and what happens when you kill them?
  • How can you identify different drug addicts that you might meet on the streets of London, just based on how they smell?

I think they all sound like perfectly good questions for discussion, don’t you? I can even imagine some of them cropping up in the speaking section of a Cambridge English exam. Some of them. Maybe not the one about cack, or the one about drug addicts, but who knows?

Listen on to find out how we talk about all of those points.

If you’re a vocabulary hunter, check the page for this episode on my website because there you’ll find a list of words and phrases that come up in this conversation.

That list is available in order to help you to use this episode to expand your vocabulary and to develop a more natural form of English.

There is a bit of rude language and some slightly graphic content in this conversation. Just to let you know…

But now it’s time for you to hear the rest of my chat with Moz.

And here we go.

Vocabulary List

  • These days I’m a lot more devoted to it than I used to be
  • When the inspiration struck me
  • I try to be a bit more organised and rigorous about it
  • There are some teachers on YouTube who are getting phenomenal views
  • There are also various young, hip, fresh-faced YouTubers
  • I’m sticking with podcasting because it works for me
  • Technology has moved on so fast that we can do these things ourselves
  • A digital SLR with a boom mic attached to it (or a shotgun mic)
  • Those are the ingredients for making a hit youtube channel
  • Libsyn is my hosting site and I’m about to sign up with iTunes
  • I had to replace all of the embedded players on my website
  • A ‘hell of a lot of stuff’ that had to be done
  • Libsyn have various different filters that they apply to the data
  • The internet is basically this huge network with all these different sub-stations
  • My podcast is big in Wisconsin. It is the home of Ed Gein, the murderer
  • A lot of internet servers are based in that part of America
  • There’s some sort of internet sub-station or routing station in Virginia
  • If people are using VPNs or proxy servers that counts as coming from the USA
  • I’m trying to use an element of scepticism when I’m reading my stats
  • Lots of people are getting my podcast from bit-torrenting sites
  • I tell you what, a good way of working out how many listeners you get…
  • Every now and then someone comes out of the woodwork
  • I used to have the word ‘whittle (down)’ in my tour
  • You get a piece of wood but you slowly etch away pieces of wood to make it into something else
  • People whittle a stick down to a spike or something
  • You whittle the evidence down until you get the bare bones of the case
  • It’s helped me work out the kind of phrases that only English people use
  • Some aspects of our pronunciation or idioms are a barrier to the global community
  • Communication is a two-way street
  • I’ve just come away from dog-sitting with my brother [your brother is a dog??]
  • They were brummie (from Birmingham)
  • Their brummie was so strong that I couldn’t understand my own language
  • It was only when she came nearer that I could grasp what she was talking about
  • Do you curb your language, or do you hone the way that you speak on this podcast?
  • If they’re not careful they swing too far in the other direction and it becomes unnatural
  • It’s a balancing act between trying to be understandable and trying to be natural
  • “Oui, oui” = “yes, yes” in French
  • Wee wee = unrine (pee pee in French)
  • Poo poo = excrement
  • “Caca” = “poo” in French
  • Cack (another English word for poo)
  • Input = just the language you hear when listening
  • Intake = the language you are really focusing on when listening
  • The more personal they (podcasts) are, the more I get engaged
  • Stiff upper lip and all that, hopefully the lip will be the only thing that’s stiff
  • The pianist stops playing
  • I felt like everyone broke off their conversations
  • Naked guys lounging around, chatting
  • The first guy who walks past me is a midget
  • It did occur to me to check him out and see if it was in proportion
  • I don’t necessarily want to open up the doors of my house
  • We don’t really want to post lots of pictures of the baby on Facebook
  • She has remained true to her word

How much of the vocabulary can you remember from the list?

Take the quiz below to find out. Not all the vocabulary is in the quiz, just a selection.

That’s all folks!

Don’t forget – Moz’s podcast, called “Murder Mile True Crime Podcast” is available now on iTunes and at

Moz’s links:

[Website content] Luke on the RealLife English Podcast

I was on the RealLife English Podcast and we talked about why I became an English teacher, doing James Bond impressions and also comedy & how to use humour in learning English. You can listen to it here. More details about Real Life English below. Enjoy!

Last week I was featured in an episode of the Real Life English podcast and I just wanted to share it with you here on my website.

Check out the RealLife English website.

On their website you can:

  • Download this episode
  • Check out other episodes of the Real Life English podcast + more
  • See a vocabulary list with definitions
  • Check out their other learning English resources

RealLife Radio #161 – How to Be Funny in English (Special Guest: Luke’s English Podcast)

Have you heard of RealLife English?

RealLife English is an online community with a mission to inspire, empower, and connect the world through English, both online and in-person.  

It’s run by three English teachers, Justin (USA), Ethan (USA) and Chad (Australia) and they do a podcast, write blog articles, create YouTube videos and also host an online community for social learning. A lot like LEP, they believe in teaching English to the world in a fun, personal and inspiring way.

Recently I spoke to Ethan on the Real Life English podcast (and also recorded an episode of LEP) and we talked about lots of things, including British & American comedy shows, and how to use humour (and alcohol) in learning English. Listen to it above, or on the Real Life English website. I’m sure they’d appreciate some comments from friendly LEPsters.

I’ll be speaking to Ethan in an episode of LEP soon. You can look forward to that in the next few weeks.



Why does the UK have so many accents? (Recorded February 2017)

This episode was originally recorded in February 2017 and is being uploaded in August 2017. In this episode I’m going to answer several questions from listeners about accents, including how regional accents occur in the UK and why there are so many accents there. Video available.


Video – I’m not sick, I’m English, and it was winter. ;)

uk accents

There is a very wide variety of accents in the UK (not to mention the accents you find in other English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and more. English is a hugely diverse language and in my experience foreign learners of English don’t usually know a lot about the different accents – particularly all the regional varieties in the UK, and they often just find it difficult to understand them, and as a result learners of English can’t enjoy the great variety of sounds in English and the sheer diversity of character and personality you get from the different varieties of English, and therefore it’s worth talking about on the podcast.

This is such a big subject that to do it justice would require me to write a whole book about it. Instead I just do episodes about accents fairly regularly in an effort to cover as much of the topic as possible. For example, I recently did some episodes about British accents that you hear in the Lord of the Rings films, which gave me a chance to talk about the different associations we have with different accents in the UK and how those associations were used to provide some colour and character to the movie versions of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings stories. I also did episodes about the accents you might hear in Glasgow and I spoke to Korean Billy about regional dialects and accents too.

Since uploading those episodes I’ve noticed a few comments from listeners wondering why there are so many accents in the UK, so I’ve prepared this episode which I hope will help you understand that a bit more.

The plan, in this episode (or episodes) is to talk about these things:

  • Why there are so many accents in the UK
  • How our accents develop as part of a natural psychological process
  • What this means for learners of English and teachers of English

Also, we’ll listen to someone speaking in a Liverpool accent and I’ll help you understand it

So, this episode is about the way people speak, but it’s also about history, psychology, how to learn English, what my friends sound like, and how to understand a football player from Liverpool.

How are all those things connected? Listen on and you’ll find out!

Why do we have so many accents in the UK? (Communication Accommodation Theory)

One of the things I said in those episodes about LOTR was that there is a really wide variety of accents in the UK, and that your accent reveals lots of things about you such as where in the country you’re from and what social background you come from.

Remember, when I say “Accent” this means simply the way that you pronounce the words you’re using.

If you remember, one of the things I mentioned in one of those episodes was a quote from George Bernard Shaw, which said “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, George Bernard Shaw.

This gives the impression that we all hate each other of course, and I don’t agree. The point which is made by this quote is that we all have prejudices about each other’s accent and this is an expression of the class system probably. That middle class people probably look down on people with strong regional accents and resent people who speak with very posh accents and so on…

Here’s a comment from Nick in response to those episodes.

Nick 2 hours ago – [These bits in brackets are Luke’s comments]
What a complicated life there in the UK… Everybody resents each other because of their accents… [we don’t resent each other really, but we do judge each other a bit – we also love each others accents too] Wow I never thought that accents in the UK had such an important role in people’s lives. [Yes, they’re very important indicators of our identity – but they’re also a source of great fun, joy, amusement and celebration] Luke, thanks for this episode. You opened up the UK in a new way for me. Even though I knew about different accents in the UK (and from your podcast too) I somehow didn’t realize the deep meaning of accents in English life.
But I don’t really understand how it happened that you have so many accents in quite a small area. I can understand that different levels of society may have different words in their vocabulary, but why they should have SUCH different accents especially when they live in one city or region… maybe it was people’s desire to make something with the language, or at least with pronunciation in order to be somehow unique from others. Like different groups of people or subcultures dress in different clothes or different nations have their own folk costumes.

This is a really good question and there are so many interesting aspects to the answer. I’m now going to try and deal with that question.

Why do we have so many accents in the UK?

It could be explained by “Communication Accommodation Theory” or CAT for short.

Collins dictionary: “Accommodation” 3. countable noun
Accommodation is a kind of agreement between different people which enables them to exist together without trouble. (not a written agreement, but a social or psychological tendency to come closer to each other and form communities based on shared behaviour)

Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that the way we communicate is an expression of our desire or natural tendency to become part of a social group. (Wikipedia)

E.g. When I was living in Japan I picked up a lot of the body language because I wanted to fit in, basically. I didn’t even realise I was doing it.

That’s non-verbal communication, but we’re talking about verbal communication.

Also, it’s not just limited to individuals. Imagine whole communities of people, over many many generations being affected by this process. (Thornbury)

This could explain:

  • Why there are so many different accents associated with different regions in the UK
    For example, why people in Liverpool speak differently to people in Manchester, or why the ‘cockney’ dialect came about (more on this kind of thing in a bit)
  • Why we naturally change the way we speak depending on the people around us
  • Why speaking to a diverse range of people is very good for your accent
  • Why native English speakers sometimes change the way they speak when talking to foreigners – e.g. when travelling or meeting a foreign person.

The tendency is to unconsciously adapt.

I’m going to try and deal with all these things, but not quite in that order!

Why native speakers sometimes adapt their language when talking to foreigners
According to Scott Thornbury (a well-known teacher and author of teaching materials and a bit of a legend in the world of English teaching) there are two versions – ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’.

“This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, [using] forms of talk called ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’”
I’ve seen this happening to some English teachers. They adapt their speech to the students, speaking this weird form of English that’s easy for foreigners to understand but might not be helping them learn.

It’s really difficult to judge it correctly as a teacher. How much do you grade your language, and how do you do it? It’s important to speak correctly – meaning in the sort of full English that you normally would use and in the same way that most native speakers talk to each other, while making sure it’s comprehensible. If you’re too ‘natural’ your students won’t understand you. But if you simplify your English too much, you end up doing this ‘foreigner talk’ which is just not a good model of the language.

I guess this is part of being a good teacher; knowing how to strike the balance between being comprehensible and yet also realistic and natural.

I always try to keep these things in mind when I speak. It’s probably why my voice becomes more and more like standard RP, which I think is just generally accepted to be clearest version of the language, and that’s how I was brought up to speak by my parents. That’s not to say other versions of the language aren’t correct of course, and as I’ve said many times before I love the different accents.

Do I accommodate when I talk to native speakers with different accents?

Yes I do – a bit – I mean, only to accents that are a part of me. I have a few slightly different accents in me and my speech slides in slightly different directions depending on who I am with. They’re not radical changes because I’m still being myself, but my speech does change a little bit. When I’m back in Birmingham my speech becomes a bit more Brummie. When I’m in London it does the same. Only a little bit of course. This is totally normal.

It’s also why it’s important to speak to other people on this podcast because it’s in the interaction with others that language really becomes most alive and natural. When I’m talking to you on my own I speak in my neutral voice, but when I’m in conversation with others you might hear my voice changing slightly. You might not notice to be honest because it’s a pretty mild change. Perhaps it doesn’t happen that much because I am still aware that I’m being listened to by my audience.

For example, when I spoke to Rob Ager from Liverpool about movies last year, my accent didn’t change that much. But maybe if I’d spent the weekend in Liverpool, just hanging out and talking, my accent might have changed a little bit.

When I lived in Japan I spent a lot of time working with people from Australia and apparently I picked up some of accent – particularly the rising intonation pattern. So, the conclusion – I do accommodate a bit, but usually to an accent that I have personal history with, and only if I’m exposed to it for fairly long periods of time and when I’m feeling self-conscious it happens less.
Certainly when I’m back in Birmingham my accent changes a bit, because that’s where I spent a lot time when I was younger.

Cat’s question: What are Paul and Amber’s accents?
Amber & I are pretty similar. It’s just RP. Paul speaks RP too but with a bit more local influence. He’s from Kent so he speaks with some traces of a Kentish accent – e.g. glottal stops. “Native speaker” “Excited” Maybe some “th” sounds sound a bit like “d” or “v” sounds.

Some people seem to think that his voice is influenced by French. It’s isn’t.

That kind of influence would only happen if French was Paul’s first language, and he’d learned English as a second language in adulthood. That’s not the case – in fact to an extent he learned both languages while growing up. He’s certainly native level in English, and he probably is native level in French too. He certainly sounds it. So, because he’s got, basically, two native level languages, they exist independently in his head and therefore don’t influence each other much in terms of accent. Every now and then it influences his vocabulary but he instantly recognises it and self-corrects. You might have heard him do it on the podcast sometimes.

Paul speaks very clearly, which is evident in the way people always tell him that they can understand what he’s saying. His English accent is influenced more by where he grew up in the south-east of England and by the wide variety of people he’s spoken to in his life. He spent many years travelling with Apple, studying and living in different parts of the UK. RP again is probably the default setting for someone like Paul, when trying to speak clearly, but those glottal stops and some dropped consonant sounds reveal that his most formative time for English was in Canterbury, and he is also not the sort of person to listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4.
Paul is also a natural mimic. He’s able to hold different accents in his head at the same time and switch between them. He’s something of a chameleon in that way. Put him in with a bunch of Scottish people for a long time and he’d probably emerge with traces of that accent I expect. Anyway, when he’s with Amber and me his accent is pretty much like ours but with traces of his Kentish background, which is why he says “Native speaker” like that.

So, that’s a bit about ‘accommodation theory’ in relation to my friends and me.
What about Nick’s original question about the diversity of accents in the UK. I’m going to talk more specifically about that in a moment.

But first let’s check out a funny example of a professional footballer from Liverpool who moved to France to play for Olympique de Marseille football club.

Now this is an example of an English person accommodating to French people around him, and we see that this is certainly not happening to Paul Taylor

Joey Barton’s weird French accent

Who is Joey Barton? What was the situation?

Joey Barton speaking with this weird French voice

He was heavily criticised for this – a lot of people mocked him and called him stupid.
He’s definitely not stupid. Maybe he wasn’t aware of the different ways he could have changed his voice – e.g. speaking with RP probably just wasn’t something that would occur to him. This lad is a scouser through and through. He’s not going to start speaking RP – he’s going to accommodate to the French instead.

The reason he’s doing it, as explained by accommodation theory is to make it easier for the French journalists to understand him. His scouse accent is difficult for the French to understand. He was just trying to be intelligible and he ended up accommodating to their speech.

Also he did it to win social approval. I imagine being the only English guy there, in front of all those French journalists, with the pressure of playing for this big club and not speaking French, he wanted to win their approval. This probably happens in Football quite a lot because of the emphasis on teamwork. I expect during training and while bantering with other players and staff, Barton had to very quickly adapt his speech to be part of the team. I imagine speaking Scouse English more clearly wouldn’t help the French.

(Joey Barton talks about the French accent incident)

It’s not just speech – it’s also non-verbal communication. Barton does a couple of typically French things, including the kind of ‘sigh’ or blowing of air through the lips which is really common.

According to research we are naturally wired to copy the speech and behavioural patterns of the people we’re talking to. It’s a natural, neurological process that humans engage in when they want to communicate, be understood and be accepted by others.

Significance for Learning English
For learning English this suggests some of the most important ways to improve your English pronunciation and your English in general are to a) actually communicate with people in real conversations about real things b) have the desire to understand others and really be understood by others c) have the desire to share things (info) with the people you’re communicating with d) have the desire to be socially accepted by the people you’re talking to.

So, spend time talking naturally with English speakers because you want to! Or at least, practise communicating in English not just because you think it’s important for your career or for your English, but because you are genuinely interested in sharing ideas, finding out about people and the world, and broadening the scope of your identity. The more motivated you are by these things, the more you’re opening yourself up to the natural neurological conditions for language learning.

Got it? Talking to different people with good English and who come from diverse origins about things you are interested in, really helps your English and your accent in particular!
Being engaged in genuine communication because you care about sharing ideas is going to help your brain in a natural process of language learning.

Other work helps too – like studying the phonemic chart, analysing the physical ways we pronounce different sounds, how speech is connected and all that stuff, and doing plenty and plenty of mechanical, physical practice – it’s important too, but certainly this theory suggests that our brains are wired to adapt our speech patterns in the right conditions as part of a social process.

But also, it may be vital for you to learn how to accommodate yourself to the English of the people you’re talking to. This from Scott Thornbury:

So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, when you’re chatting to other non native speakers in English, how should you make yourself more intelligible in order to establish good relations? Do you suddenly start sounding like Luke Thompson, or do you accommodate to their way of speaking, following the rule of accommodation theory?

What do you think? Feel free to either agree with accommodation theory here, or disagree with it, but do give a good reason why.

But why are there so many accents in the UK?

It’s a really complex question which probably needs to be answered by someone with a PhD on the subject, but here’s my answer!

It’s probably a big mix of geography, culture, politics, history and human nature.

Perhaps it’s because we’re a small nation with quite a high population.

Geography. We’re an island (group of islands actually) so that creates a clear land border – meaning that we’re a bit more ‘penned in’ than some other cultures.

The class system. RP was the standardised version, but ordinary folk spoke in their own way and weren’t expected to speak RP because they knew their place. They could never break away from that. We never had a revolution proclaiming everyone as equal, so working people didn’t take on the standard form of English.

Irregular relationship between the written word (spelling) and the spoken version mean that the spoken version is perhaps more open to interpretation than others. Our written language is not phonetic, therefore the pronunciation is not tied down. There’s no solid rule book on how to pronounce English – there’s the phonetic chart, but that is based on RP and that’s where the class system comes into it. RP is associated with a certain class of people and then identity politics come into play.

Perhaps the multicultural ‘mongrel’ nature of the Brits has something to do with it. We’re a mongrel nation. Maybe the diversity of accents is the result of this patchwork or melting pot of different people and languages. E.g. celtic, nordic, germanic, norman French, gallic French, latin, Irish celtic, Scots celtic, commonwealth nations like Jamaica, India & Pakistan – especially Jamaica which has had a massive influence the way young people in London speak, and now media, like American and Australian English that we hear on a daily basis.

Our islands have been visited, invaded, populated and influenced by migrating people and their voices for many many years. This goes deep into the past and continues to this day, even though the official version of history will suggest that we have one unbroken family line (The Royal Family that we all learn about in school). There’s a lot more diversity than this narrative would suggest. This could result in a wide variety of influences, creating diversity which is not obvious just by looking at people. It’s also interesting to me that the narrative of the ‘unbroken line of history’ which we get from the monarchy, is also aligned with a certain way of speaking – this old-fashioned RP which is the standard form. Underneath that standard form, or next to it, there is a lot more variety and diversity.

There was a long period before the emergence of the single unifying monarchy in which the country was essentially split up into different, independent areas, ruled by competing monarchs. Tribalism was seriously important. Think: Game of Thrones. Community, loyalty, rejection of others – these were vitally important principles. It was the breeding ground for different local versions of a language. It must be the same in many other countries.

This relates to aspects of the accommodation theory. Convergence is when people pull together in a community and naturally speak in the same way to express this shared identity. At the same time there is divergence – pulling away from other communities which could be rivals or whatever. If you’re part of one community you’ll speak like them and you won’t speak like the others. Either you’re in one or the other. This could account for why people in Liverpool and Manchester speak differently even though the two cities are pretty close. Just look at the football fans to see how much of a rivalry there is between the two cities.

I expect a number of other factors have come together to cause the UK to have this wide diversity. But perhaps we’re just a lot more aware of the diversity because the place is really connected – it’s a pretty small island and we’re all squeezed in together with a clear natural border of the sea, and the industrial revolution happened there bringing the train – mass transport which suddenly brought everyone much closer together, making us a lot more aware of our different versions of English. I imagine if you examined other countries you would find similar differences in Accent. The USA for example has definite differences, and it’s quite a young country in comparison. So, I expect many countries have similar diversity in accent and dialect, perhaps we’re just a lot more aware of it in the UK.

We also have the class system which has added another dividing line – another factor which pushes communities together (convergence) or pushes them apart (divergence). Perhaps working class communities held onto their accents as a way of expressing their sense of local identity as a contrast to the less region specific upper classes, who seemed to be less fixed geographically. E.g. The Royal Family has it’s own geography, which moves between international borders and not just across domestic community borders. I mean, Prince Phillip for example was born in Greece. The QUeen’s ancestors were German. Despite the fact that they are the figureheads for the UK, they are not really fixed to local areas within the country.

This also would apply to the nobility – the proper upper classes, who probably owned land that perhaps their families hadn’t lived on for centuries. I expect one area of England for example was ruled by one family for a period, then another family became the rulers – either by conquest, trade, marriage etc. The ruling class probably were quite mobile. The people who lived and worked on the land, were of that land for generations. So, working class people have stronger regional accents than upper class people. It’s absolutely nothing to do with so-called “lazy pronunciation”, it’s more to do with identity – strengthening local communities by having their own version of the language. Power, identity and economics.

No governing body to standardise English. Just powerful people through their influence have guided the narrative that RP is the standard form – this also happens to be the English that the educated, wealthy class use.

So, that’s my fairly long and rambling answer Nick.

We’re not finished with accents though. I’ve just talked about how C.A.T. might explain why we have so many accents in the UK, and also what the theory can tell us about things like my accent, the accents of my friends and also how you can work on your accent too. I still plan to spend some more time focusing on specific accents and playing around.

Now, I would like to ask all of you a few questions

  • How many different accents can you identify in your country?
  • Are accents in your country related to geography?
  • Is there a standard accent? Is that accent associated with a particular region?
  • What attitudes to people have about accents where you come from?
  • In English, which accent do you prefer? If you don’t know a region, can you think of an individual person whose accent you like? Feel free to say Amber Minogue of course.
  • If you’ve been shipwrecked and you get washed up on a remote island populated by a local tribe of native people who seem to use English as their main language and yet look like they might be hostile, or hungry, or both, what’s the best way to get into their good books? Speak like me, or speak like them? Or get back in the sea and swim?

471. Andy Johnson at The London School (Part 1) Lego, Self-directed learning, accents

Talking to Andy about stepping on Lego, Andy’s job, self-directed language learning, accent, and British/American English.


Intro Transcript

Today on the podcast I’m talking to Andy Johnson my friend and former colleague from the London School of English, who also looks a bit like Moby if you remember.

Andy has been on this podcast 4 or 5 times before so if you’re a regular listener you’ll know his voice already.

Andy is an English teacher, a marathon runner and a father of two children – in fact his second son was born very recently.

In this conversation you will hear us talking about:

  • The pain of stepping on Lego
  • Recording the podcast in what used to be the boss’s office at The London School of English
  • Developments in Andy’s job and his career
  • Andy’s next conference talk about self-directed learning
  • Where Andy comes from and his accent, including the ways we both say certain words like “Bath, grass, laugh, podcast, ask and after.”
  • The time when my Dad visited The London School of English
  • British and American people speaking English

This is part one of a two part conversation.

Without any further ado, here is part 1.

Andy’s survey

At the next IATEFL conference Andy is planning on doing a presentation about self-directed learning. You heard him talking about it in this episode.

Andy would like some help from you in preparing for the talk. He needs to do some research and he’d like to ask you a few questions about your English learning, particularly how you use this podcast, my website and any other resources for learning English.

He’s created a quick questionnaire and you can find it on the page for this episode. Click the link, answer the questions and you’ll help Andy a lot in his next presentation.


It basically asks how useful LEP / and other sites are for learning English and how you find these sites. Andy also asks whether you pay for – or would pay for – additional language tuition. He’s trying to investigate why people are choosing LEP over traditional language courses (if indeed they are).

Stay tuned for the next episode, coming soon, in which you will hear Andy talk about his very personal reasons for training to run the London marathon – and I have to say that the conversation was much more surprising than I had expected and was also quite moving for a few reasons, so check that one out when it arrives.

Don’t forget to join the mailing list so that you’ll get email notifications whenever new episodes are uploaded over the coming days and weeks, and don’t forget to watch out for some website-only content coming soon too.

Thanks for listening and have a great morning, afternoon, evening, night or day whichever part of the world you’re in and whatever you’re up to.

Andy and Luke

457. Conclusions about Language Learning from the David Crystal Interview (Part 2)

A follow-up to episode 455 consolidating the insights of Professor David Crystal including various pearls of wisdom about language learning.


Notes & Transcriptions

If English keeps taking on words from other languages, will it stop being English?
This is the story of English.
English is a vacuum cleaner of a language.
Something like 300-600 languages have influenced English with words. If you look at English today. Where are the germanic words? They’re only about 20%. The other 80% is from French, Spanish, latin and others.
There is no single dominating influence on English today.
How many Urdu words have gone into English? Maybe 100. But English has over 1,000,000 words. No new cluster of words coming in is going to come in all at once (tidal wave) they come in drip drip drip.
New words are assimilated to reflect a need – e.g. for new types of food.
This is no threat to English.
In fact it’s evidence of the power of English, that it absorbs so many other influences from other languages and cultures. It’s like the blob!

What’s the future of English?
Unpredictable! Absolutely an unanswerable question. You should never try to predict the future of a language. It’s all about events which just happen, e.g. the Norman invasion, Trump or Brexit.
Will Brexit reduce the influence of English in EU?
Not much. But it will change its character because it won’t be used by so many native speakers, so there will be more developments “Euro English” (I think it has emerged a bit).
But English will continue to change and diversify.

Jairo wants help managing the workload of studies.
Learning about language is a huge burden.
Learning about a language you have to learn about the history, society and events of the time to understand why people were using language in those particular ways.
What was it like to be an old norse speaker?
But most philologists don’t have a psycholinguistic background to their studies.
Philology can be a bit dry.
David prefers the socially aware approach to the history of language which doesn’t just ask “what happened and when” but “why?” – let’s explore the nature of the people who made it happen. This should ease the process.

English syntax – can you explain it?
Come on you’re asking for a book here!
English has a simple morphology compared with German (or French).
How many possible word endings are there for a verb in English?
The difference between English and German is morphological but also syntactic.
English and German are quite close. They only diverged 2000 years ago.
Word order is a bit different.
Everyone understood David when he went to Germany and spoke German with the wrong word order.
There aren’t that many differences, although the few differences are noticeable.
Cat, why are you worried about local areas of syntactic difference between English and German. Why has this become an issue?
It usually comes down to identity. German English (used by people who have learned it really well) still is distinctively German English.
The point is, don’t be too concerned about micro differences in syntax between your language and English. As long as we understand you that’s the main thing, although obviously style is important so I imagine you want to write in the style of a native speaker (but which one though!) You might have to accept that it’s important to find your own voice in English, which might be influenced a bit by who you are (it is your own voice after all) – which is someone who lives in Germany. That’s not to say your English can be totally different and like German with English words – that would probably be unintelligible and a bit ridiculous. But micro differences aren’t such a big deal.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, it’s just small stuff.

Do people who speak different languages think differently?
It’s difficult to translate words sometimes because there are some words which don’t directly translate because there isn’t an equivalent word. 10-15% of the words might be untranslateable. But in Chinese it’s a lot more.
But when you do psycholinguistic experiments we discover that people can see the different concepts, but having those specific words makes it easier to talk about those things. You can see the colours but you might not have the language for describing it.
Different languages might not have the same word for something but it doesn’t mean they think about them any differently.
E.g. in English we don’t have a word for a certain thing in Japanese – natsukashii for example. But we find other ways of describing it. Ah, it takes me back or “good old” or “it feels nostalgic” or “it’s good to be back”.
So it doesn’t seem to be the case that languages affect or reflect different perception of the world.
*But I reckon there might be something to it Wesley. E.g. sense of humour, patterns of understatement, all contribute towards expressing a sardonic outlook on life (UK) rather than a direct attitude in the mediterranean for example.
The fallacy is that it’s words that translate, but it’s not it’s sentences. A group of words together are what hold meaning. So even if there’s no single word equivalent, you put some words together and make a sentence and that’s how the language transcribes.
“Snow that you use to build an igloo with” – he can still express that thing with a sentence and you can see that kind of snow.

Learn the vocabulary of a new language and you’ll see the cultural things that it reflects. It shows that to learn the language properly you should learn about the culture too – the mindset, the reference points and so on. You can see all those things too, but having certain words and expressions makes it easier to talk about them.
The result is that in languages it’s easier to talk about commonly occurring cultural phenomena because the language has the tools to do it, but people are all still basically the same, we might just take a bit longer to talk about a concept that in your language is very normal.

Why do Brits use indirect language?
It’s just a cultural difference. It’s the British temperament. The reason for that is hard to say. Maybe it’s because the UK is an island and the psychogeographic factors might affect that kind of language use.
Pragmatics – the study of why people are using specific bits of language.
Language norms reflect the cultural context – that’s the identity argument.
But why does the UK use this polite language? We don’t really know! You have to ask why British people want to be polite. (obviously it’s because we’re such nice people)
You just have to accept the cultural differences. Learn about them and accept them. “That’s who we are.” should be a good enough answer.
As ever, you must accept cultural differences. They’re not weird, they’re just different. It’s a good bit of advice for anyone coming into contact with another culture. You can speculate about why people behave the way they do, but ultimately you’ve just got to accept it and move on, like the way you often have to accept in English that “this is just what people say in this language” and that’s it.

Synchronic not diachronic method.

Synchrony and diachrony are two different and complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach (from Greek συν- “together” and χρόνος “time”) considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. Synchronic linguistics aims at describing a language at a specific point of time, usually the present. By contrast, a diachronic approach (from δια- “through” and χρόνος “time”) considers the development and evolution of a language through history. Historical linguistics is typically a diachronic study.

DC says we should use a synchronic approach to understanding these things – why is this particular person choosing to say it in this way, right now?
Some more modern dictionaries now contain essays about usage and pragmatics, which help us to identify how culture affects language. It’s worth reading the extra comments and information pages you find in many dictionaries.
Also, consider reading cultural guides as well as purely linguistic ones.

Will AI replace the need for language learning?
Babel fish (Hitchhiker’s Guide)
In 100 years it’ll probably be perfect.
(I’ve seen auto subs have improved recently).
Imagine a situation where the babelfish is operating perfectly. It would solve lots of problems, but identity hasn’t been addressed. I still want to “be French” and the AI might not include those differences. People will still hold onto their languages in order to express their identity. It won’t affect language diversity.
But it might mean that AI might make the need for a global language redundant. Maybe AI will replace English. Why bother learning an international language?
But there are various answers to that – tech might let you down so people might not choose to constantly rely on it – some conditions in which there is no electricity.
Will AI manage to be perfect like a human, with the ability to translate with a view to expressing the culture?
Human translators choose between different competing nuances. I could say it this way, or this other way. We make those decisions based on complex social and psychological factors. A computer might not have that cultural sensitivity, maybe only in the long term.
The number of people learning languages might be reduced, but it’s also ignoring another factor in learning another language – the want to become aware of the culture, history and literature of the other language. There’s a personal satisfaction in learning another language and enjoy the pleasant things about it. People learn languages because they want to not because they need to. It’s a pleasure.
There are many reasons to want to continue to learn, it’s not just about intelligibility.
For the forseeable future he can’t see that it would be economically viable to create that technological solution for language when the traditional methods are the best way to foster relationships.

Jack – I don’t know where you come from.
First of all, David doesn’t mind being addressed in the Ali G dialect.
“Me” instead of “I”.
“Me wants to know…”
“I is well impressed…”
Subject verb agreement. “I is…”
“It is a well big honour”
It’s quite a skill to be able to switch between registers. Sometimes we break the rules as a stylistic choice, like with the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It’s important to be able to switch between different styles and registers but you also have to know when it is appropriate to do it.
I’m not bothered by it in the comment section of my site, but you should be aware that some other people might find it weird or inappropriate, like for example if you write that in forums on other websites, in the comment section of Amber’s new podcast about Paris history, or in some business meeting. It’s going to seem really weird. So, you need to seriously think about the appropriacy of the things you’re doing and that means the style of English you’re using, or the decision to post dodgy pictures of cakes on my website.
Should the listeners learn the rules of grammar, or should they just focus on meaning, and let the rules look after themselves?
Both but in a structured sort of way.
In communicative teaching the structured side was a bit lost.
Just listening and working things out by being dropped in at the deep end is a bit of a big step – it takes a while.
It’s also important to do some structure work, but also to expose the learners to things that illustrate the language point being used in a functional way.
So it’s not just about form, but also about function and trying to balance the two.
So, as we’ve said before – do both. Some structured language work, combined with exposure in which you are really focused on following the meaning of what’s being communicated. Then probably some more reflection on the way it was done. Moving between grammar and pure meaning all the time. Juggling.

Back to the conversation with friends recently.

People get upset by failing standards in English.

Again, David doesn’t mind – as long as the language is intelligible then it’s a sign of changing identities – a sigh of the times.

Are we better at communicating than we used to be?

It is possible to measure, but not possible to give a simple answer. It depends on the situation.
Book: “The Gift of the Gab” How eloquence works.

Eloquence standards do vary from generation to generation, circumstances, individual to individual. E.g. Obama and Trump – differences in eloquence. Is Trump incoherent? Is Obama a better communicator? Some people say Trump is incoherent and inarticulate. But it’s not necessarily true considering Trump’s ability to communicate with his core voters.
People cite various things as examples of falling eloquence standards, e.g. using “like” but often these aren’t really examples of falling standards, it’s just a question of style.

How do we use “like”?
As long as it doesn’t get in the way, it’s just a question of style.
Again, people see language changes and they equate it with decline. It’s not.
Usually, people are giving examples of things that are just a different type of eloquence (again, change not death).

Trump’s English has a style with its own values. He avoids the rhetorical style of Obama with balanced, complex sentences. Trump uses everyday conversational strategies. “Look, believe me folks..” Every day conversational strategies. He doesn’t use carefully crafted sentences, he changes direction even mid sentence. These are all features of informal American speech.
Semantically it can be extremely difficult to understand what he really means. But adopting that style allows him to appeal to certain people.

These days he might have become a bit more formal, but during the campaign he was noticeably less formal and more colloquial than Clinton and the other candidates. As a result he clearly stood out from the crowd, during a climate of dissatisfaction with the traditional political class. People were fed up with the type of boring politician speaking in that boring old way. They thought they were out of touch with ordinary people, and part of a crooked system. Trump got in by presenting himself as an alternative to this established political system and the way he used English was a big part of that.

Thanks for listening! I hope that helps!

456. Conclusions about Language Learning from the David Crystal Interview (Part 1)

Discussing and clarifying what David Crystal said in episode 454. Conclusions about language learning and linguistics.



Here we are back once again with an episode of this podcast for learners of English. This one should contain insights about the English language and the process of learning that language, straight from the horse’s mouth.

That’s an expression, “straight from the horse’s mouth” which means you get information directly from a reliable and trusted source. In this case that source (or horse) is Professor David Crystal, who of course isn’t a horse – that would be very bizarre. No, he’s of course, he’s not a horse, he’s a great expert on the English language, the author of many books, known by anyone studying linguistics, he’s described as the world’s leading voice on language. I was very happy to have that leading voice on my podcast and there’s certainly a lot of good information to take in – whether you’re learning English or simply interested in languages and what makes them tick.

In this episode the plan is to go through some of the ideas David talked about and see if I can point out some specific bits of relevance for learners of English.

Let’s unpick the wise words of Prof David Crystal and really clarify some truths, tips and general conclusions about language learning, and perhaps explain some of the vocabulary you heard as well.

Essentially, I am going to repeat the main points DC made here, but the aim is to clarify it all and make it a bit more digestible. I will constantly be attempting to answer the question – how is this useful for learners of English? So, you should be able to take away quite a lot from this episode, in combination with the other two.

Is grammar glamorous?

Glamour and grammar come from the same word – because grammar, language etc used to be considered like magic. But grammar seems to have lost its magic these days, in the way people think about it. These days its considered to be boring, prescriptive and all about rules you learned at school.

It’s not glamorous if you study it like they used to in school. Just parsing sentences and working out what the part of speech is.

It only works if you ask why people are using those forms.

Semantic (focusing on meaning) vs pragmatic (why people say the things they say).

Understanding the motivations of the people who use grammar (the pragmatic side) is the interesting part and that’s when grammar really comes alive and becomes glamorous in the old sense of the word.

For learners of English this means exploring not just the form of the language you’re studying but also the reasons why each different form is used. The challenge is to get the semantic side and the pragmatic side into your studies.

So, don’t just study grammar rules on their own in a list. You need to examine the living language and notice those forms and the way they are used to perform specific functions.

Can you learn English without studying grammar?

Children do it, and you can do it too but it takes a long time for all the language to be assimilated by exposure. You can cut out a lot of that time by studying the rules. As adults we can apply what we already know and take apart the language by studying. So, studying grammar is an essential part of the learning process and goes together with a more long-term process of acquiring English through exposure.

But it’s no good just learning the rules and being able to explain it all on paper, you have to know when and why and where all the grammar is used. So it’s about applying yourself to the pragmatic aspects of the language you’re using and letting that guide your choice of language.

So, as I’ve said before – listen a lot, read a lot – like this podcast or any other material you fancy, but it’s best enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. Do some grammar work too, like self-study exercises in English Grammar in Use or another decent workbook, but make sure you are always asking yourself – why are these people using this language like this? How are the motivations affecting the choice of words and structures? When you’re doing your listening try to notice bits of language which you’ve studied. Could you say the same thing another way? What would be the difference and how is language related to that. Try experimenting with different ways to put something and get used to the slight nuance it adds. E.g. using a passive structure or an active one.

I know you’re not actually an English teacher, but do you have any tips for learners of English who want to improve their grammar?

No! Not a teacher!
Some linguistic-y tips – basically to know what all the grammar is, but also to be aware of the English that’s being used in the real world and how all that applies to the grammar you’ve studied.

I would add:
don’t be afraid of it, it’s more interesting than you might think, you might need to learn some abstract terms but don’t be put off, the more you learn the more you can learn, always look for examples.

Learning about why certain grammar forms are used really opens up the way you can see language. For example, learning that passive forms are used when you don’t want to mention who did the action allows you to see all those situations. You might want to write an impersonal formal letter, or give a general notice, or describe a process or simply talk about something that happened to someone without constantly talking about who did it. E.g. imagine a story about a guy who is a victim. People keep doing things to him but you want the guy to be the centre of the story. Like, John was kidnapped. He was bound and gagged and thrown into the back of a taxi. It took two hours for him to be rescued.

You wrote a political history of grammar in the UK (published online at
What relationship does the average Brit have with grammar today?

Essentially, Brits have an up and down relationship with grammar, based on the fact that grammar study came in and out of fashion and grammar was learned in a two-dimensional way. People are often a bit prescriptive about grammar as they think it should be about rules and regulations, but they’re really only attempting to impose controls over something which evolves over time.

Knowledge of Grammar in the UK
In the 50s kids all learned basic grammar at school, getting examined at 16. Told to identify parts of speech in a sentence.
Then it went out of fashion in the 70s.
Several generations of kids who didn’t study any grammar at all.
Now they’ve grown up and some of them are teachers.
They don’t know any grammar.
The ones who grew up in the old style had learned grammar.
The younger ones were teaching but had no knowledge of grammar.
“The baby had been thrown out with the bathwater”
A language awareness programme was brought back, with a modicum of grammar back in the syllabus/curriculum.
David had to do lots of basic grammar training for these teachers. He wrote “Rediscover Grammar”.
Now, it’s back again.
Kids are examined for their ability to recognise parts of speech and do sentence parsing.
But the semantics and pragmatics aren’t there – it’s just mechanical analysis of sentences. Some teachers are very unhappy.

Now there are 3 types of audience.
The oldies who are in their 60s who know about the old style grammar teaching,
The middle generation, some of whom know a lot about grammar and some who don’t.
Then the modern generation for whom grammar is back. They have to come to terms with it.

One positive thing for learners of English is that you probably know more grammar than the average native English speaker. You should feel quite good about that.

Questions about language from Amber & Paul

People complain about the decline of the English language. Are standards of English declining?

That Q comes from 2017 but you can see exactly the same question being raised at any time.
The English language is in a state of terminal decline. (according to people)
This also applies to spelling and pronunciation and punctuation, plus discourse politeness. Grammar gets more mentions because there’s less of it to complain about than say ‘vocabulary’. Grammar has only 3000 or so basic points of grammar to master.
So, people feel that if you can’t manage that then there’s something serious to worry about.
People look to contemporary examples to justify their complaints.
IN the 1860s it was because of Americans.
Today the internet gets a lot of the blame, especially texting, tweeting, SMS.
Uneducated people will blame what they sense to be a reason for what they perceive to be a decline.
But when you study it you realise there’s no correlation between the signs of decline and the features they mention.
Usually people cite old prescriptive rules.
You should never end a sentence with a prep. You should never split an infinitive.
The English language has survived very well even though people have been breaking these so-called rules for 200 years.
This is the man I was talking to. – Any modern person realises it’s a stylistic distinction. “To whom” is more formal.
The informal usage also has a history as old as the English language. It’s in Shakespeare. “To be or not to be, that is the question… Or fight others that we know not of.” (ending a sentence with a prep – Hamlet)
It’s a huge puzzle to understand why the old grammarians decided to be so prescriptive.
They were blinded by their views.

For learners of English – realise that the language is always in flux. Keep up with it. Remember also that some people have slightly traditional views about language. E.g. more people in the world say “schedule” with a /k/ sound, but I continue to say “Schedule” with a /sh/ sound because it annoys people to do it the American way. Similarly, I think there’s nothing too bad about splitting an infinitive, but I tend to avoid it because it makes people a bit annoyed too.

They’re grammar nazis who don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re right.

It’s not such a big problem for learners of English really. You have your own issues with accuracy. But remember that everyone struggles a bit with the language, even native speakers. We should have a progressive view of how language rules evolve, but a lot of people don’t share those views.

If you encounter people who say “It’s the death of the English language”, they’re talking out of their bum. Remind them that English is alive and well and shows no signs of dying, quite the opposite. They’re just being reactionary and hyperbolic.

Language Death

Almost half the languages in the world are endangered.The reasons are many. It could be linguistic genocide – forbidding the use of the language, or opting not to use it for political reasons (e.g. because you want to side with a particular faction on your country), but when a language is endangered, when another language starts taking over the functions of that language, people no longer find themselves able to use that language for everything – certain facilities kind of disappear because people have got used to doing it in the other language.

Welsh is quite successful these days because of activism, but a few years ago English was taking over Welsh, and also some rules of Welsh grammar weren’t being used. You get a sense that the structure of the language is declining. Certain Welsh structures stopped being used. It looked like a kind of structural erosion of Welsh, because of the influence of English. Vocab is more common – many foreign languages contain English words. #Franglais

But there’s no hint of decline in relation to English which is actually going from strength to strength. Spoken by 2.3 billion people. It’s nowhere near death.

They just mean it’s changing, it’s not death.

Language change is difficult for lots of people to take and they talk about death but it’s irrelevant. The only languages that don’t change are dead ones. They go in very unexpected directions and you can’t predict them.

Petty language gripes don’t bother him. They don’t bother me either.

Partly it’s to do with identity – people are annoyed that British identity is changing or being influenced by American identity. But getting annoyed at the language usage, which is a symptom, is a bit redundant.

Some people don’t like change at all, but David sees it as a natural part of the way languages develop. Be like David.

My mate Paul often says that we’re actually using the language incorrectly because there are more non-native speakers than native speakers of English. Is he right or talking nonsense.

Error: Talking about right and wrong.
Correct: The perception that there are more non-natives than natives.

It’s a global situation now, not local (e.g. North vs South England). Global language differences are the same as local ones – equivalent – just different communities using English differently, on a global scale.

Now it’s Irish English, Indian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Singaporean English and many many more including French English, Japanese English and so on – all versions of English spoken by people who have learned it to a proficient level as a 1st or 2nd language.

It’s just different communities that are right in their circumstances.

Standard English and non-standard English.
Standard English is traditionally viewed as the correct version, but NSE has it’s own justification. There are reasons why non-standard English exists and they’re perfectly good ones. Non-standard English and standard English are equal in terms of their status.

A standard promotes intelligibility. Standard English has lots of users, but there’s also a huge number of dialects (international), many different kinds of English reflecting community backgrounds. You can’t say “right and wrong” in these circumstances. It’s just a number of different communities using English in a way that is appropriate for their conditions.

When you start looking at individual cases like a foreign learner is breaking a rule of standard English, then you’ve got a transitional situation. BrE and AmE. They coexist. It’s not possible to say “wrong” or “right” when millions of people are using both versions.

In China there are very fluent speakers of English, not learners but proficient speakers, who have developed a certain usage which is basically Chinese English. Local features of grammar and vocab don’t keep communities apart, we just learn to understand each other.
“Informations” vs “information” – no problem of intelligibility.
Anyway, Chaucer wrote “informations”.

These small differences are expressions of identity and rarely get in the way of intelligibility. This is one of the reasons the UK has proud diversity in its English accents. They’re all statements of local identity, and although we see the differences, we are able to communicate with each other.

It’s a Q of whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate for that circumstance and the two criteria are
Intelligibility – do we understand you. If we understand you, it’s appropriate.
Identity – differences are an expression of local identity. Lang is adapted to reflect the locale, especially the vocab – all the reference points to important things in culture. Local terms, idioms, expressions etc.
If the English you use is wrong for that context because of the way it expresses a certain identity then you have a problem of appropriacy.

If Ali G went to the Houses of Parliament to speak with politicians and civil servants, his English would be considered inappropriate (even if intelligible) because people would think it’s not the proper way to address people and so on. Similarly if Theresa May went to a skatepark and tried to talk to some locals, she’d have a hard time as well.

English is always in tension between intelligibility and identity (against global anonymity)

Local versions need to be different enough to express their identity, but not so different that nobody understands them.

My French students feel a bit bad about their pronunciation.
Do they need to worry?

This is perhaps the #1 concern of my French students who judge each other harshly for their accents and also feel bad about it. It may be the same in your country, but I find in France people are very disdainful of a strong French accent. I don’t mind that much.

The bottom line is, once upon a time they would have felt bad because people would have said “you’re speaking English badly” and that’s not so long ago.

Now, there is no such thing as a single version of universal English accent. RP is spoken by less than 2% of the population of England. It’s a minority accent but a powerful one.

Why should people be expected to speak this minority accent when other accents are now considered acceptable in their own right.

RP is important because of tradition but miniscule compared to American, Indian and so on. It’s no longer possible to condemn an accent because it doesn’t fit in with this small version of the language. You have to analyse it on its own terms, with its local identity. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the need for intelligibility.

So the main thing is – can we understand you? If “yes” then no worries. Does it matter if you sound a bit French? What’s wrong with sounding French?
I was very impressed by Emmanuel Macron who made a speech in English. It wasn’t perfect, but he got his message across and it showed him to be a really open, confident, modern person. Compare that to Francois Hollande who couldn’t string a sentence together. You don’t need to speak English perfectly in the traditional sense, but you do have to speak it. Stop worrying about being 100% accurate – concentrate on being 100% intelligible. The main criteria is “can you express what you want to say?” not “can you express this flawlessly?”

“But my accent isn’t good”
Well, develop a different mindset. Start thinking more positively about all this!
“I don’t speak received pronunciation” (french accent)
“Well nor do I!”
Mixed accents are the norm everywhere.
English accents are much more mixed than ever before.
There are now hundreds of millions of people who understand each other but have local accents as a reflection of their national pride.
Why are the French worried about sounding French?
There’s nothing wrong with sounding a bit French. (But it’s hard to convince them of this – French people can have very negative views about some things, especially their position on the world’s stage – they beat themselves up quite a lot, which is odd. In comedy, they seem ok about being insulted about their national character. They quite enjoy the masochistic approach it seems! Either that or their just happy to have a foreign comedian talking about French things during a show, even if it is criticism. Making fun or insulting people is quite normal in French comedy – I think this is linked to the way French people often beat themselves up about stuff like English.

The main job of the teacher is to expose the students to a wide range of accents. Let them hear the English in different accents, to prepare for the real world, to develop a sense and an awareness of diversity which inevitably will help to change their mindset.

*By hearing lots of different types you get more of an overall understanding of the entire language and how it can have a core structure which is changed slightly in different versions of English.

So – I should keep playing you extracts of English spoken in a variety of accents so that you can hear the whole range.

But also, don’t get hung up on your accent too much. It’s very hard to cut out the traces of your origins, and it’s unnecessary. Just focus on being intelligible – fix your pronunciation, vocab, grammar, punctuation etc following this criteria and you’ll be on the right path.