Hello folks and welcome to the podcast. I hope you are doing fine on this particular day. This episode features a conversation, recorded a couple of weeks ago now, with a comedian and writer from the UK about various things, as you’ll see. Your task is to follow along and see what you can pick up and what bits of language learning wisdom you can glean from this conversation.
I don’t really know James that well. I’ve only actually met him once in fact.
He’s a comedian and a writer, he speaks several languages and his twitter feed is good value. He tweets about politics, learning languages, the issues of the day, comedy and various other things. We share a mutual friend – that’s Dharmander Singh from Birmingham, who I used to be in a band with and who is now a stand up comedian in Berlin. The time I met James was in Berlin when I was there on holiday, and I did some stand up on the same show as him.
So why have I invited him on the podcast? Well, it’s mainly because of Twitter. As I said his Twitter feed is interesting. He takes a moderate and balanced view of things, and his interests are pretty wide-ranging, including the fact that he’s very international. He’s married to a Chinese girl, he’s lived abroad, he used to work as a tour guide in several countries, he used to be an English teacher like me, he speaks very good German and French, he’s working on his Chinese, he works as a translator and he’s generally an articulate and interesting guy and so I just thought that he could be worth talking on the podcast.
The language learning thing is obviously very appropriate and I’m always interested in finding out as much as possible about how someone has learned a second language to a very decent level in adulthood, and that is something that we talk about for at least 50% of this conversation. The first half of our chat is basically me getting to know James properly, talking about his work, his studies, his experiences of going to Oxford University, why he chose to move to Germany, being married to a Chinese girl. Then we get into the details of how he learned German mainly, but also French and now how he’s working on his Chinese.
No need to say much more except that I hope you manage to follow the conversation clearly all the way through. Let me know how it was for you and I will speak to you again on the other side of this conversation, probably with some background music going over the top.
Long thread about languages (1/24): One of the most frequent ambitions I've seen for people during the lockdown is to learn a foreign language. I'm something of an exception, an Anglophone person who's managed to do this as an adult, and I have some thoughts on the matter.
Did you pick up any useful nuggets from that conversation? I think there was some pretty good advice there especially the stuff about reading and noting down certain words, being a bit rigorous about your studying and believing that you can do it, really helps.
Hello and welcome to Luke’s English Podcast. This episode is number 669 and it’s called How To Learn English.
That’s quite a bold title but this really is a lot of what I have to say about learning English. If you really want to learn this language, this is my advice.
I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, podcasting for over 11 years now and I keep finding out more about learning a language through teaching it, getting feedback from listeners and also through my experiences of trying to learn French.
This episode is a distillation of many of my thoughts and advice on how to learn English. It’s not going to cover absolutely every aspect of it, because language learning is a huge subject that encompasses so many different things and you could talk about it all day, but I have decided to talk about learning English, breaking it down into the 4 skills, and giving you as much advice as I can in this single podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
For those of you who are not so familiar with me and my work. My name is Luke Thompson, I think I am the 4th most famous Luke Thompson in the world. I’m an English teacher, a podcaster, a comedian, a husband and a dad. I am from England but these days I live in France. My podcast is free and is downloaded all over the world. I also have a premium subscription in which I focus specifically on improving your vocab, grammar and pronunciation. To find out more about that go to teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo
I expect you want to learn English, right? That’s the main reason you’re listening to this I expect. You want to learn English.
Well, good news! It’s definitely possible. You can learn English and you will if you put in the time and the effort. It’s important to remember that.
What do I mean by “learn English”, though? I mean that you can learn to speak English fluently, clearly and with confidence, expressing yourself with shades of meaning, adapting your English for the situation both in speaking and in writing, knowing and being able to use a wide variety of vocabulary and accurate grammar and ultimately being yourself in the language and developing beneficial relationships with others based on effective communication. Yes, you can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
That’s it, just a positive and encouraging message at the start. It’s important to always remember that making progress in your learning is a realistic prospect and will happen when you put in the time and effort, and more good news: the more you enjoy it, the easier it is.
I hope this podcast helps you to enjoy getting English into your life on a regular basis, which is a key part of learning the language effectively.
But what else should you be doing in order to improve your English overall?
In this episode I’d like to talk in some detail about learning English and how you can do it.
This episode is a sort of “come to Jesus moment”, which I feel I should do regularly, just to remind everyone listening that there is a method or approach at work here and that it’s not just you listening to people talking.
A “come to Jesus moment” in the world of business is when someone does a passionate speech or event in which fundamental priorities and/or beliefs are reassessed, or reaffirmed. It’s like when Jesus gathers his disciples around him in order to reaffirm their belief in what he’s preaching or to say some deep stuff which strengthens their faith.
This is a come to Jesus moment for me.
Not that I’m comparing myself to Jesus. No, not at all. Not even a little bit, and anyway that’s not for me to say, that’s for other people to point out isn’t it, not me. Anyway…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is a method to the madness.
In my podcast episodes, I’m always teaching you, using my particular set of professional skills, but rather than presenting it all as a lesson I usually try to present it more like a radio show or a comedy show even.
So, amidst the episodes about music, comedy, interviews and so on, I thought it would be worth restating the core values of LEP, which I seem to do about once every 6 months or so.
I’m going to give loads of advice here, and this is all based on what I’ve learned from:
Teaching for about 20 years
Meeting thousands of learners of English, some of them successful, some of them not, working directly with them as their teacher and listening to them talk about their studying habits and experiences
The academic studies I’ve done, especially the DELTA which involved extensive reading and writing on various aspects of how people learn and teach English
Doing my podcast and getting testimonies over the years from many listeners who told me about how they’ve used it to improve their English
There’s also my own personal experience of working on my French
Anyway, the plan is to talk about learning English with a focus on the 4 skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
I have talked about these points quite a few times before on this podcast, and have given tons of specific advice about working on your English, including in episodes like 174 (and others)
So I will probably repeat myself a bit. But I still get asked to talk about “how to learn English” very regularly and I think it’s important for me to talk about learning English on this podcast on a regular basis. Obviously, that is what this podcast is about, first and foremost, even though a lot of the time in my episodes you’ll hear me and my guests talking about all sorts of other things.
Learning English is the main aim of this podcast
Essentially the thinking is that you should listen to natural conversation on a variety of topics and it’s simply listening to things in English (not just listening to things about English) that’s going to help you learn this language, especially if you enjoy the content.
I’ll probably talk about this again in a bit, but let’s say that ultimately the plan with the free episodes is to help you listen to English regularly, for longer periods of time, long term. The more, the better. If the content is enjoyable, that should just make it easier for you to achieve that. In fact, if you’re really into what you’re listening to, you don’t really even notice the time passing.
Then there’s the premium content, which is an effort to push your learning beyond the gains you get from all the exposure and input you get from just listening. The premium content is designed to let you get the benefit of my experience and teaching skills in order to cut out a lot of work that you would otherwise have to do yourself, so I can essentially take you by the hand and lead you through some intensive practice to work on your English more directly.
So that’s my content, but let’s talk now about learning English as a whole then.
Learning English is a holistic thing. It encompasses many aspects and skills that are connected as a whole.
There are receptive skills like listening and reading, productive skills like speaking and writing, language systems like grammar, spelling, vocabulary and phonology, social and psychological factors that come into play when we use language when interacting with others, then there are other factors that come into play like identity issues, body language, culture, literature, pragmatics and all sorts of other things. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about it.
You need to learn it to the point where you don’t even think about it any more.
The more you talk and think about it, the more it starts to sound like the force from Star Wars.
Stretch out with your feelings.
Do or do not, there is no try.
Do not think, feel.
Let go, let the English flow through you.
I am your father (oh wait)
It’s about learning how to do something which goes right to the core of who you are in fact.
It’s a holistic thing. It incorporates many aspects as part of a whole process and so it’s quite tricky to know where to start.
Let’s put it like this. Language goes in, and language comes out. (I told you it sounds like The Force)
Language is within you and language is without you. It flows through you. It binds the galaxy together.
There are receptive skills (this is how language goes in)
And there are productive skills (this is how language goes out)
There’s the written language
And there’s the spoken language
This is our system.
Think of it like a table with two categories on the horizontal axis and two on the vertical axis, so it’s like a grid with 4 squares in it.
On the horizontal access we have receptive and productive skills.
On the vertical we have written and spoken English.
Within the table we have 4 skills – the 4 squares.
So in the box marked “written” and “receptive” we have reading.
Below that in the “spoken” and “receptive” categoriy we have listening.
On the right in the “written” and “productive” side we have writing.
And then in the “spoken” and “productive” side we have speaking.
Those are your four skills. Reading, writing, listening and speaking.
The 4 skills are connected in various ways.
Reading and writing deal with the written word of course.
Reading helps you to write. It helps you to see how the language is built, how words are spelled and how sentences, paragraphs and texts are put together with grammar and textual conventions.
Listening and speaking deal with the spoken word.
Listening helps you to learn how English actually sounds, how words join together in sentences or longer utterances, it helps you get familiar with the speed, rhythm, flow and intonation of the language. It helps you get used to natural pronunciation which in turn helps you produce English in the same way.
Words exist in visual form, and in spoken form.
But reading and listening are connected too because they’re both receptive skills. They provide us with input which is the essential foundation of language learning.
And speaking and writing are connected because they’re productive skills.
These are the skills you need to use when using language for various purposes. This is where you are more active in the sense that you are constructing language and putting it down visually in the form of writing, or using your body to produce it orally.
Let’s talk about those receptive skills and input.
The reading thing there is something we’ll come back to in the section about reading.
This is the academic who is always mentioned in this context, when talking about how to learn English these days. Krashen was one in a long line of linguists who came up with theories about how language is learned and should be taught.
Arguably, we still don’t really know how people learn languages, but various academics over the years have put forward different hypotheses to explain it and these have been the backbone of our understanding of language learning that has informed the way we all learn and teach languages over the years.
Krashen though is the one that people often talk about today, including all the many YouTubers who regularly post videos about the best ways to learn, the only ways to learn, the secrets of learning and all that sort of thing. Krashen is usually brought up because his ideas fit in quite nicely to a model of language learning for today. I mean, it involves a lot of consumption of content in English – plenty of listening and reading and that sort of content is in plentiful supply online, like for example episodes of Luke’s English Podcast.
In his input hypothesis in which he makes the case for the importance of comprehensible input for language learning, he states that in fact the only way we can successfully increase our underlying linguistic competence. This is our system of linguistic knowledge or let’s say that “language instinct” that you have, which even subconsciously gives us a sense of when language is right or wrong. I suppose it could be active in that you know a certain grammar rule and can see when it’s been broken, or passive in that you just feel that something is right or wrong but can’t necessarily explain it.
I would say the passive knowledge is the vital one because ultimately you just want to be able to feel that language is right or wrong without thinking about it.
But that being said, your active knowledge can be really useful when doing things like avoiding common errors as a result of your first language, or consciously pushing yourself to create language which is normal.
Anyway, Krashen says the only way to increase your linguistic competence is through comprehensible input, meaning reading and listening to things that we mostly understand and that with the context of what you do understand, you are able to work out the bits that you don’t know. This is how we acquire new languages.
So basically, we learn a language when we understand it. So, naturally, according to Krashen, the receptive skills come first.
I think this makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s bound to be true that we learn language by listening to it and reading it. But what about those moments when you have to speak or write, what about learning the grammar and all the rest of it?
Krashen would say that we learn the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of a language by listening to it or reading it, and that it’s a natural process and part of how we decode language through comprehensible input.
So, don’t worry about grammar rules and all the rest of it, just listen and do your best to keep up and work out what’s going on, and do it regularly.
Again, I am sure this is true but I also think it’s worth studying the language a bit too, breaking it down a bit, seeing how it works, actively trying to learn more vocabulary, checking up on the rules of grammar and doing some controlled practice. Working on your pronunciation by copying and training your mouth and brain to cooperate with each other, like the way we practise certain movements in sport or musical parts on an instrument.
I do believe that controlled practice and conscious learning like that must also be beneficial because I’ve seen it happen. Doing some active studying can be like a fast track of English learning. It can cut out a lot of time by helping you realise certain things about the language quickly, and I think if you then notice it again while listening and reading that only reinforces what you’ve learned.
Of course, you shouldn’t get blinded by grammar or pronunciation rules and so on, to the point that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Try not to get hung up on grammar, because it can make you process language in an unnatural and contrived way. It can get stuck in your head and block you a bit. Instead, try to notice patterns and incorporate them into your use of English. Try to see grammar study as a way of confirming things you’ve already noticed, or a way of consulting with a reference book as you also just absorb English more naturally. If you only study English with the grammar, it’s going to be a weird abstract process for learning the language. It’s better to focus on consuming English in the form of messages which you are trying to understand, and then perhaps check your grammar later to straighten things out.
The premium subscription is where I help you with that sort of thing, hopefully combining with the free content to give you all the stuff you need to attack English from several angles.
How can you learn this language if you haven’t heard it and read it a lot?
Read and listen to things that are slightly above your level, so you can understand 60-80%. You need to be able to understand that much for your brain to work out the remaining 20-40% that you don’t know. Meaningful context is vital.
Basically, listen x5 and read x5.
It’s largely a question of finding the right stuff to listen to.
There’s this podcast of course. Others are available.
Watch TV and films with and without subtitles.
Hopefully you’ll find content that you actually want to listen to, not just for studying English. So if you do get addicted to a Netflix series and you can’t wait to find out what happens next, that’s good! That means you will get more comprehensible input and you will be much more focused and involved in it, which is great for your English. Or maybe you want to hear another stupid and funny conversation with my friends just because it makes you laugh and you feel some sort of connection to it. All of that is great because it will help you listen more, listen longer and listen long term.
This one is also a pleasure to talk about because it’s a pleasure to do and there are lots of great things to read.
Let’s hear from Krashen again as he is the master of the whole input model.
This is again from Wikipedia, which I think is fine usually for the basics like this.
Extensive reading, free reading, book flood, or reading for pleasure is a way of language learning, including foreign language learning, through large amounts of reading. As well as facilitating acquisition of vocabulary, it is believed to increase motivation through positive affective benefits. It is believed that extensive reading is an important factor in education. Proponents such as Stephen Krashen (1989) claim that reading alone will increase encounters with unknown words, bringing learning opportunities by inferencing. The learner’s encounters with unknown words in specific contexts will allow the learner to infer and thus learn those words’ meanings.
Of course that system is disputed because this is the academic arena we’re dealing with and people are always putting forward ideas, defending them, disputing them and so on. It’s how we move forwards and learn about this stuff.
So this is extensive reading which is different to the sort of intensive reading you do in English lessons, where you spend ages on just one page of text, break it down into tiny chunks, understanding every single morsel. With extensive reading it’s all about just getting as much English into your head as you can by reading as much as you can, and you focus on reading enjoyable things, especially stories and you don’t stop too much to analyse the language or even check words, you just keep trying to follow what you’re reading. The more involved in it you are, the better.
Again, this point about input is that it feeds your instinct for the language. You get a subconscious sense of what is right or wrong, which comes in very handy for when you’re doing those nasty sentence transformations and use of English tasks in a Cambridge exam like CAE. What you really want in those situations is to know exactly which preposition or auxiliary verb is missing, or to be able to manipulate sentences in a variety of forms. I reckon it helps to do a bit of language practice as well, with a few controlled exercises but the idea is that it should all go in naturally giving you this sense of language competence.
It’s important though to choose texts which are not too difficult for you. You need to be able to understand enough to be able to get a grip on the rest of the language.
So which books do you choose?
We’ve talked about the importance of choosing stuff that’s interesting to you, that reflects the type of English you might need.
Genre isn’t an issue. People assume you need to read or listen to the news but as we’ve already established they don’t really talk like normal people on the news, and they also write in a certain “newsy” style. Funnily enough it might be more useful to read the tabloid papers as they write in a more conversational style, but I think it’s worthwhile looking beyond the news.
Basically, read whatever you want.
Even comic books or graphic novels as they’re known for adults.
Graphic novels can be brilliant because they support your understanding with the images and often the English is in the form of speech so you learn really directly how to apply that stuff to real life. I love graphic novels in French. It’s my favourite way to work on the language.
You could consider the current bestsellers. If other people like the books then why shouldn’t you? Look in the fiction and non-fiction categories.
Or try graded readers, which are an excellent and underused resource. I really recommend them if you’re not a strong reader. They’re previously published books, and often some of the great classics and modern classics in English, but they’re republished with English that is graded for certain levels. The number of words is reduced, it’s truncated and essentially it’s a way to increase the percentage you do understand, and decrease the amount you don’t understand, getting to that 80/20 spot where you can maximise your language learning.
There are lots of titles to choose from and various publishers. Check these ones out
But your English may well be good enough now to have a go at a book for native speakers. So go for it. You have loads of options. Just make sure you enjoy reading on a regular basis.
I would also add that it’s important to choose texts which are written in modern style and perhaps about an area that you are particularly interested in. Perhaps think of it like this – what is the kind of English you want printed on the back of your head (on the inside)? Odd question, but I mean, what is your target English. Perhaps it’s the involving and descriptive storytelling of fiction, or it’s the matter-of-fact world of non-fiction. I reckon non-fiction is probably better because it reflects the kind of English you are more likely to be writing, especially if it’s things like academic work or reports at work, because they’re all about presenting you with information, data, commenting on what’s going on, describing how to do things and that’s probably the sort of thing you’ll need to use English for, especially in writing.
This might be a bit dry but it will really show you loads of examples of emails with full explanations, so you can read and learn.
The Story of English in 100 Words
Anything by David Crystal is fantastic, but this non-fiction book will teach you the entire story of the English language through 100 words and there are some great words in there like
Loaf, Street, Riddle, Arse, Jail, Wicked, Matrix and Skunk, to name but a few.
So you’re bound to learn tons from that.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny By Nile Rodgers
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
The writing is a bit old fashioned. I have to be honest, but it’s mostly modern in style and I think it’s worth it because the story is amazing and it’s not too long. It’s wonderfully descriptive and much better than any movie version could be. Definitely one of my favourite books of all time.
Productive skills / output
This is where we get to the more nebulous world of productive skills. It’s like an alien land where monsters roam, a bit like war of the worlds maybe.
OK I’m exaggerating here but I mean that productive skills are a bit harder to pin down because even more psychological and social factors come into play. You have the public aspect of it, the fact that you’re trying to manipulate the language and get your ideas across in the right way, being coherent and cohesive and in the right style with the right level of politeness with the correct conventional replies and requests and on and on it goes!
Again, I’m making it sound tricky, but I mean that you are involved so much more because you’re making the language and actually using it. This is exciting because you get to express yourself which is the most wonderful and gratifying thing you can do in another language, and when it slides out quite fluidly and you’re not too blocked by who knows what, then it’s all gravy. But sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work out that way and you get mixed up and it doesn’t come out right at all. There’s a sense of performance in productive skills, and a sense that you have to be aware of the right way to conduct yourself, and to be able to utter things in English instantly, following what the other person is saying, it’s all done in a sort of unconscious blur and thinking about grammar in that situation is a killer.
So it’s about getting a level of ease, a level of comfort, a platform from which you can bob and weave your way through the conversation, finding other ways to say things and switching correctly between tenses and situations. I think you get what I mean.
So how do you work on these things?
Ease – a voice, fluency
Control – grammar, vocab, pronunciation
Range – a wide range of language for a wide range of things
Coherence – does it all make sense? Can people follow you easily?
Cohesion – particularly in writing, how does the whole text make sense as a whole?
Social factors – knowing how to put things and how to manage relationships through language
Again, the idea is that this language is just built into you from all that exposure and input.
I would say that there’s a great deal of other stuff you can do to improve your productive skills beyond reading and listening a lot, of course.
In both writing and speaking the first thing to remember is you need to engage in it as much as possible. Real writing and real speaking.
Ultimately this means trying to use language to communicate a message in some way and that’s what you should be focusing on. Meaningful interactions, especially ones in which you have something to offer or something to gain, such as negotiations or even information gap situations in which you’re telling someone something they don’t know. Also social interactions involving being polite or building relations with people. Ultimately, doing it for real is the best workshop in which you can work, rolling with the punches and trying to keep track of what you’re learning.
This is why people learn English best when they’re forced to do it because of their surroundings. They learn by being a waiter in London for a year or working in an office with native speakers, or being plunged into a foreign university for a year, or moving to a new country and having to cope with all the challenges that brings and in a second language. I suppose this is immersion, but it;s more than that. I recommend actually conversing with people to just practise. It’s the 5 Ps.
It’s like going to the gym. Fluency is like physical fitness in your mind and also in your body because you’re using your mouth, your breathing and your head and hands to communicate too.
It applies to writing too. You can observe the way other people write their emails and kind of copy their style, you have to really think about what you’re saying and doubtless you will end up writing emails with requests, with information, with questions and with complaints and so on, so you will have to learn on the job. Being thrown in at the deep end, or if you just have to use English at work it could either be a big stress for you or a huge opportunity to just go for it.
Anyway, let’s talk about specific productive skills – writing and reading, and how to work on them.
Let’s say you’re not actually in a situation where you can talk to people or have correspondence with people, or have to write things which other people will ultimately have to read. Unless you find a tutor on italki for example then that person could be your practice point for speaking and writing, giving you feedback as you go. But let’s say for the purposes of this episode, it’s just you and the English language, facing each other off in a kind of wild west fashion.
How can you practise on your own?
Obviously you need to write. But what are you going to write and who is going to read it?
Firstly – just write, write regularly, write meaningfully and write with a reader in mind, even if nobody reads it. This is important because it will help you get used to simply putting your ideas into words. It’s a creative process and also a mechanical process to an extent. Building sentences is a sort of art or a craft. You have to practise it in order to get some level of comfort with it. Let’s imagine there’s a muscle in your head (this is not scientific at all) which, if you never exercise it, will be quite weak and underdeveloped. But if you exercise that muscle regularly it will be strong, reactive and quick. I expect there is a part of the brain responsible for creating written language, and a sub-section for creating written English. Keep that part of your brain fresh by writing English as much as you can. That’s as scientific as I can get here.
So, here are some things you could write
What to write
Email an imaginary person (spooky?) or yourself (think outside the box here ok?)
Academic writing – text types
Emails – email types and conventions
Reports – same!
Formal and informal letters – same!
Applications – same same!
Basically – Whatever you have to write, you should try to find some samples of these texts and aim to copy them. Copy the style, the arrangement, the language they use and reproduce it yourself. Texts that you write will invariably be very practical so it’s about reporting information and asking questions. Look at the sample texts and copy them.
It helps if you have a specific workbook. I recommend Email English by Paul Emmerson. It’s a simple workbook that helps you work on almost all those things and I’m not even sponsored by Macmillan or anything, it’s genuinely a great book.
They also have downloadable email writing tasks on the Macmillan website or here
Ideally you’ll have a teacher to proofread your work, correct you and give you feedback.
If this isn’t possible, it’s still a good idea to write.
A diary (just describe things that happened, or make it more personal and really explore your thoughts and feelings. If the words don’t come, just use basic words. If you feel unable to express yourself perfectly, express yourself imperfectly but try to express yourself.
Writing is not just sentences, it’s paragraphs and pages. The thing you are writing will define how you write it. This means – conventions of certain texts, formality level of the language.
Specific exam tasks → IELTS, FCE, CAE, CPE, BEC higher and vantage
These will often push you to learn the conventions of different types of text, so it could be a good idea to take a Cambridge exam if you want to work on your writing.
You might write some notes on vocab and I would recommend here that you take a more extensive approach to doing this. Don’t just have one word per line. I want to see one word or phrase at the top of the page, and then loads of text underneath full of examples and your own examples with the language. You can then come back and cover up some of the words and try to remember. Alternatively you can use my PDFs with the notes and memory tests if you’re a premium subscriber. Little plug there for my other podcast.
But making more extensive vocabulary notes with plenty of examples means that not only are you recording vocabulary, you’re practising using it in writing too.
I mentioned italki before and you can find tutors, teachers and conversation partners there for regular practice and I do recommend doing that.
Otherwise, let’s look at some ways you can work on your speaking other than in actual spoken practice with others. Developing your speaking on your own.
This is quite a tricky thing to do because normally speaking is an instantly interactive form of communication. It also involves a lot of listening and then being able to produce English instantly and without hesitating too much.
It’s also quite physical as it involves using your mouth to produce words and sentences in the right way.
And of course there are all those cultural things to think about too.
But really speaking should just be your attempt to find your own voice in English, with fluency and with a specific tone. Of course it comes through a lot of practice, of having conversations in which you’re not really thinking about what you’re saying on a grammatical level but it’s pouring out of you due to necessity and not being able to really think a lot. Doing that regularly helps your brain map out the extent of the English you have and increase it, keeping it sort of fresh. That’s not scientific but more a metaphor of what I think speaking can do. It activates something in you that you have to maintain and keep active or those parts of the brain go dull.
So practice x5
But with who?
The fact is, it just helps to talk to other people and that’s the best and most basic advice I can give. Outside of that, you have to manipulate your surroundings and use your imagination to practise speaking on your own.
Talking on your own (and even in your head)
This might sound a bit odd, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to activate English that is in your head. You essentially talk to yourself, out loud, in English, describing what’s going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, say it all in English. Alternatively you can just do it in your own head and just think the sentences. This also keeps that system of language production in your head fresh.
Listen and repeat
You can use certain audio and play a bit, pause, repeat what you heard, rewind, repeat again and keep going until you’ve got it, and then check the transcript or subtitles to see if you’re correct, check any new words and carry on. Always find ways to vocalise the things you are learning and that means saying them out loud even to yourself.
You can also practise different speaking scenarios.
Preparing for a Cambridge exam you can find past papers with speaking part preparation and practise. Find out what’s required in the different parts, watch videos of people taking the speaking part on YouTube, practise answering common questions about yourself, practise speaking on a topic for a minute or two, practise discussing your opinion on the issues of the day. Those are all specific speaking skills that you can practise on your own. I particularly recommend listen and repeat, especially when you have to take quite a long utterance in English, hold it in your head and repeat it like it’s one word? It’s like going to the gym in English. It involves a lot of things: Understanding the clip, identifying the words and grammar, being able to remember it all, being able to produce it in a similar way. That’s a whole punch of different kinds of practice. And if you repeat the sentence straight away, and again, you might notice certain little errors you’re making and correct them. So repeat over and over again, a bit like practising boxing combinations in the ring before the big fight.
In reality, the 4 skills are often mashed up together and you find you are doing things like listening and speaking at the same time, while also taking notes, looking at visuals and so on. It all gets very messy when language is actually applied to real communication in the real world.
A little note about pronunciation and a sort of disclaimer.
I think there are probably plenty of other things I have not mentioned in this episode, such as not talking about specific memory techniques (done that) or specific features of pronunciation (done that) or exactly how to read a book to learn English (done) or plenty of other things probably. To be honest this is just a podcast episode that I wanted to make about the 4 skills and it expanded into an episode all about learning English as a holistic process.
Anyway, the note about pronunciation
It is worth learning the phonemic script
It is worth getting the sounds app on your phone
It is worth doing drills and practising different features
It’s worth getting a book called Ship or Sheep or other books of that nature.
It’s worth remembering that if you have an accent when you speak that is fine and it’s part of who you are, the main thing is that you speak clearly, not which regional accent you have. Clarity is the thing to achieve. Also, it’s extremely difficult to “lose” your accent in English. Hardly anyone does it. But you can still be fine with your accent. English is quite open like that. Everyone’s welcome.
But there you have it. That was quite a comprehensive look at how I think learning English is best when you combine two things: comprehensible input, and a clever studying routine.
I think it can work wonders for your English.
And that’s what I try to do with this podcast. Give you all the input in the free episodes and then do some more focused studying in the premium content. Hopefully, together those two channels can boost your English to the max.
Talking to Sherwood Fleming, author of “Dance of Opinions” about intercultural communication, including common problems and the solutions to help us learn to communicate more effectively across cultures.
Hello you and you and you, welcome back to the podcast. I’m recording this on a very windy Tuesday morning. A storm passed by over the last few days, wreaking havoc across the UK and also here in France we’ve had some pretty strong winds and it’s still very blustery out there.
But here I am in the cosy confines of the Podcastle at LEP headquarters. A pre-lunch recording of this introduction today. I hope you are comfortable. Let’s get started.
Recently I was contacted by a listener called Inna with a suggestion for the podcast.
The message went like this:
I’m Inna, one of your regular listeners, as well as a Premium subscriber.
I would like to thank you for your podcast, which is always helpful and always interesting.
She is teaching me how to communicate better in English as a foreign language.
Her lessons changed my vision of what communication is and helped me to understand how to communicate better not only with my foreign colleges but how to communicate better “tout court”. [full stop, period]
Some of my colleagues had the chance to work with her, and it was kind of “a revelation” for all of them every single time.
I strongly believe that this topic would be very useful to all your listeners.
So I got in touch with Sherwood and arranged a call for an interview and that is what you’re going to hear on the podcast today.
Here’s some intel on Sherwood, from her website.
Sherwood’s expertise is in improving the written and spoken communications of those who use English as a second language and work within intercultural business contexts. She has designed and led seminars for more than 25 years in both Canada and France, helping thousands of participants to communicate more effectively.
Sherwood is the creator of the five-step CLEAR method, which has established a new standard for expressing opinions interculturally. It forms the heart of her recent book, Dance of Opinions: Mastering written and spoken communication for intercultural business using English as a second language, an easy to learn and apply method for intermediate and advanced ESL business people, designed to improve how they express their opinions. Her motto? “We build our futures together, in the words we exchange today.”
OK so this conversation is all about intercultural communication. What are the issues and obstacles that we face when communicating with people from different cultures? How do our different approaches to communication influence the relationships that we build with people? What are the solutions to some of the problems that can arise when communicating across cultures?
Sherwood talks about finding strategies to help you learn to dance to the same tune as the people you’re talking to, and this involves things like the pragmatics of looking beyond the words which are being used and towards the real intentions of communicative acts.
There are some examples of people in business contexts and also how I sometimes struggle with intercultural communication in my everyday life in France.
Our aim for this episode is to help you, the listeners, attain clarity about these issues that you may not even be fully aware of, and once you can see more clearly what these issues are then you’ll be ready to apply the proven solutions, which Sherwood shares during this episode and in her other work, including her book “Dance of Opinion” available on Amazon.
So let’s now listen to Sherwood Fleming and you can consider these questions
What are the typical problems people experience when communicating across cultures?
Can you find some examples?
What are some of the reasons behind those problems?
What are some solutions that we can apply to those problematic situations?
I’ll chat to you again briefly at the end, but now, let’s get started
Thanks again to Sherwood Fleming for being on the podcast today. That was a very interesting conversation about the way we all communicate with each other in different ways.
It sort of boils down to this I think.
Keep it simple!
Make it explicit what you want and what you’re offering. Dumb down your English in intercultural contexts.
Focus on the main message (the speech act) rather than the form of the message. Some cultures don’t emphasise things that other cultures expect, but the main thing is to focus on specifically what the other person wants, rather than how they are saying or writing it.
Thanks for all your recent comments and emails and stuff it’s great to hear from you, including some choice comments from the last few episodes.
Luke, I have just binged all three episodes with Quintessentially British things and I must say theyre brilliant! You are so blessed to have such an interesting and intellectual family of yours, all the three episodes are completely different and amazing to listen. it’s like I’ve looked at the Britain I’ve never known before. Hats off to you and your beautiful kin!
By the way everyone, it’s mum not mom in British English.
There have been numerous requests for episodes of Gill’s Book Club as it might be called, or Gill’s Culture Club or something. So we’re looking at doing episodes of that sometimes.
There’s also a Rick Thompson report on the way soon.
I’ve had messages thanking me for the recent episode about IELTS with Keith O’Hare and have asked for more so I might do something in the near future.
Hi Luke, I am Uswah from Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about giving comment in each episode particularly everytime Amber and Paul are on the Podcast. However I always feel not sure untill today I heard the fact that there are fewer comments and responses from your listeners.
So here I’m now, I want you to know that I am a faithful listener, I get every joke you make (including Russian jokes and Lion king, LOL), I laugh out loud when three of you are laughing. I am an English teacher basically, but I spend most of my time for sewing, hahaha so I’m a tailor (not Taylor, LOL) at the same time. So I’ve been always listening your podcast when I’m sewing. It’s just sooo fun. So I feel my sewing project is much more fun since that’s the time I listen to your podcast.
So, let me recap: last May, Luke published an episode titled “SLEEP with Amber and Paul”. Now, eight months later, Amber is heavily pregnant. These guys are bringing the concept of modern family to a whole new level…
Part 2 of my episode about punctuation. This one covers punctuation rules for apostrophe, full stop and comma. Also you can hear the rest of my book review of Punctuation..? by User Design. Transcript available below.
Hello there, you are listening to part 2 of this episode about punctuation. In the last one I talked generally about the importance of punctuation in various types of writing, described a book about pronunciation which has been sent to me for review by a publishing company and also I went through a list of punctuation symbols and described them so you know the names for a lot of the different punctuation marks available to you.
In this episode I’m going to actually teach you various punctuation rules relating to 3 big punctuation symbols.
So, I’m going to talk about how we use apostrophes and how to avoid certain common errors that actually make people’s blood boil, then I’ll give you some tips about full stops and commas. I’m also going to finish reviewing that book which I received in the post recently. It’s a punctuation guide and I’ll be giving my review of it.
Just before recording this I realised that there were some punctuation symbols which I didn’t mention in the last episode and I just want to say them now because you might not know the names we use in English for these symbols. These are ones we see on our computer keyboards and use quite a lot for various things like email addresses and stuff like that.
@ at mark
* asterisk or star
Alright, now I’ve mentioned those, let’s carry on with this episode with my comments about apostrophes, full stops and commas and then the rest of my review of the book Punctuation..? by User Design.
Just a reminder – you can find a transcript on the page for this episode on my website so you can read along with me or skim the script later in order to check for any new words. There are also links for the book and some pictures too. Right, let’s carry on.
Some punctuation rules
I don’t have time to go through every single punctuation symbol and explain their rules so I’m just going to focus on a few thing. To get the rest you’ll need to get a copy of this book or one of the others on the market. Other books are available of course.
Also I should say that usually, these days I do this kind of language teaching in my premium episodes. This time I’ve chosen to include this in a free episode, but if you want more of this kind of thing – episodes where I focus specifically on teaching you language then check out my premium episodes and become a premium member at www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium
I’m going to deal with
The apostrophe (various uses)
Full stop vs dot vs point
I’ve chosen those because they’re really common and people, surprisingly, get them wrong quite a lot. Usually it’s learners of English who get full stops and commas wrong, and errors with apostrophes are common among native speakers. In fact errors with apostrophes make some people really angry. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
One thing to say here is that there is a certain amount of disagreement when it comes to punctuation rules. There isn’t a single agreed set of rules that everyone follows. Some things, yes, everyone agrees on, more or less. I think this includes certain basics like the rules of full stops and apostrophes. But for many other areas of punctuation there are always little points of disagreement, like for example some uses of the comma (The Oxford Comma debate comes to mind. I can’t go into that now though, because we’d be here all day! Just google it to get the full story, perhaps on a website like Grammarly).
So, be aware that there are some differences of opinion when it comes to style and the application of punctuation. The following information is correct as far as I’m concerned.
This is not just a brilliant album by Frank Zappa, it’s also one of the most commonly used bits of punctuation, and this is a big one because people get it wrong all the time and it has a few different uses.
I’m paraphrasing from the Punctuation…? book here by the way.
Paraphrasing means taking information that you find in someone else’s work and then putting it into your own words, not copying it word for word, I mean changing the wording so that it’s not the same as before. In fact, paraphrasing really means reading someone’s words, understanding them and then writing the same concepts but using different wording.
Anyone writing essays at university should be well aware of the importance of paraphrasing so you don’t commit copyright infringement. This is a major issue these days because the internet allows people to copy & paste other people’s text so easily, but we shouldn’t do it. We shouldn’t pass off other people’s work as our own. I know that there are plenty of universities that are working on ways to seriously crack down on their students just ‘copy & pasting’ other people’s work into their own essays.
Having worked at a university here in Paris I have seen it done lots of times and I must say it really annoys me. It’s always blatantly obvious and, well, I just can’t stand it. For me the main examples were when I gave my university students presentation tasks to do and they literally just memorised a page from Wikipedia and then recited it to the class with absolutely no effort to even care about or think about what they were saying.
It just looks so terrible when people do that. It’s ok to take information from somewhere, just try to absorb it and then put it in your own words, and please, if you ever do a presentation at university or anywhere for that matter, just try to put some enthusiasm into your work, even if you’re worried about making errors in English. Sorry, I touched a nerve there in myself. Bad memories of some moments when I felt frustrated during my days of being an English teacher at university.
Anyway, for the record, I am paraphrasing the main points that are made by the Punctuation…? book here, with some other ideas of my own thrown in.
What’s the apostrophe?
Think about the title of my podcast – Luke’s English Podcast. There’s an apostrophe in it. L U K E apostrophe S. That one shows a possessive. It’s my podcast. Luke’s podcast.
What does it look like, Luke? (can you repeat that question? haha)
It’s like a little dot with a tail that hangs in the air just to the right of a letter. In the case of possessives, that’s just before the letter S at the end.
It’s for possessives, but also other things. Here’s a list of situations when we use apostrophes.
We use apostrophes with singular and plural nouns to show that one thing possesses another thing.
Here are some examples of possessives with singular nouns, in this case Dave is the singular noun.
“That is Dave and that is his car, just over there. Yes, that car belongs to Dave. That is Dave’s car. This is not Dave’s car. This is my car. My car is small, but Dave’s car is really big, unnecessarily big, some might say. I don’t know why he’s been driving such a massive car around the city. Now, as you can see, Dave’s car has crashed into my car. My car is now completely smashed up and will have to be thrown away at the junk yard. Dave’s car on the other hand, is relatively undamaged. So, Dave’s car is fine, but mine is completely smashed up. These are my hands. And this is Dave’s throat. Yes. I am strangling Dave. In my mind.”
Sorry, I got a bit carried away there! Don’t worry folks. It’s just an example. I don’t have a car and none of that ever happened, and anyway Dave’s dead now so it’s fine.
Anyway, you saw lots of examples of the possessive apostrophe being used there.
You know this already, right? You should do.
We use an apostrophe to show possession when we’re dealing with singular nouns, like Dave. Dave is a singular noun (he’s also a single man, girls, if you’re interested in men called Dave who have large cars but can’t drive them).
It also works for things too, not just people. For example, the word car. “That car’s windscreen is completely smashed, whereas this car’s windscreen is somehow undamaged.”
That’s singular nouns. What about plural nouns, Luke?
What if both cars had their windscreens smashed in the accident?
As you know, plural nouns in English have S at the end. One car, two cars.
So what if you’re talking about the windscreens of two cars?
So, to add possessive S to a plural word which already has an S at the end (like CARS), what do you do? Do you add ‘apostrophe + S’ like with singular nouns? So C A R S ‘ S?
Nope, you can just add the apostrophe to the end, without the final S.
So it’s C A R S ‘
These cars’ windscreens are both smashed.
To be honest, if we’re not talking about a person I’d probably find another way of putting it. I’d probably say
The windscreens on these two cars are smashed.
What about plural names? For example if you have more than one bloke called Dave. Two Daves.
Actually, it’s rare that you have possessive forms of plural names.
It’s just weird to say something like “Daves’ cars crashed into each other” meaning “Dave and Dave’s cars crashed into each other”.
The point is – for plural nouns, whatever they are – people or things, with possessives you can just add an apostrophe.
This is also true for names that end in S, like James, my brother’s name.
You can write James’ Room. That’s J A M E S ‘ R O O M.
I remember that one because when I was a child, my brother and I had separate rooms and we had little signs on our doors. Mine said “Luke’s Room” with an apostrophe after my name and then an S. James’ sign said “James’ Room” with an apostrophe and then no S. I sometimes wondered why they were different. It’s just because James’ name ends in an S.
Fascinating stuff this, isn’t it?
For names ending in S like this you can also just write James’s Room. J A M E S ‘S R O O M.
How do you say that? James’ / James’s —-> /jeimziz/
So actually, for names it can be S’ or S’S.
So that’s possessives for singular nouns, plural nouns with S and names ending in S.
But what about irregular nouns? I mean, nouns where the plural form isn’t made with an S, like “children”.
Well, we just do the same thing as we do with a singular noun.
So, “The children’s toys are in the bedroom”.
Other examples are things like “Women’s rights”, “The people’s champion” or “The Men’s changing room”.
A common error with apostrophes (Using apostrophes for plurals – don’t do it folks!)
This is a mistake that makes some native speakers get really annoyed.
Sometimes in the UK you will see people use apostrophes just for normal plurals.
For example you might walk through a market and see a sign saying “Orange’s” or “Burger’s” or even “Fish & Chip’s”. Needless to say, there definitely shouldn’t be an apostrophe in those words. They’re just plurals of countable nouns. They’re not possessives and they’re not contractions of verbs.
Those kinds of errors are likely to make people’s blood boil!
If they know you’re a non-native speaker of English, that will make it a bit better, but still – don’t make the sort of mistakes that native speakers make, even if native-level English is what you’re looking for.
We’ll look at a couple of other common errors in a minute.
Apostrophes in contractions to indicate missing letters
Apostrophes are also used to let us know that some letters have been removed to make contracted forms.
Luke’s terrible improvised “joke” (?) Just let us know when the letters have been moved from the lettuce.
(The words “let us” “letters” and “lettuce” sound really similar, that’s it. Terrible. Not even a joke.)
Apostrophes in contracted forms
Don’t → Do not
Doesn’t → Does not
I’ll → I will
Isn’t → Is not
Let’s → Let us
There’s → There is
You’re → You are
The book says that contracted forms are used for writing out speech, which is a good way of putting it. I’d add that these days we just use contracted forms in any kind of informal and neutral writing, but not in formal writing.
This use of apostrophes isn’t very complicated, is it? But it does cause one particular problem, which is it’s vs its
That’s the difference between the contracted form of it is and the possessive form of the pronoun it.
More common errors: It’s vs its
This is another thing that native speakers get wrong quite a lot.
Think of these two examples. Which ones should contain an apostrophe and which shouldn’t?
Obviously if you’re reading the script for this episode then you’ll be able to see the apostrophe with your eyes because it’s right there. But for those of you who are listening, in which sentence would you add an apostrophe after “it”?
It’s a lovely day today!
My phone has a crack on its screen.
I feel like I should join those sentences together to make one slightly sad sentence.
It’s a lovely day today, but my phone has a crack on its screen. :(
So, with an apostrophe “it’s” means “it is” or “it has” (like in present perfect).
Without an apostrophe it’s a possessive pronoun, just like my, your, our, their, his, her. My phone, your phone, our phones, their phones, his phone, her phone. None of them have apostrophes either.
We saw a lion and its paw was injured. (possessive pronoun) Oh no, it’s (it has) injured its (possessive pronoun) paw!
Full stop (also called the ‘period’ in US English)
This one is really simple but it needs to be said because I’m surprised at how often I see missing full stops in students’ writing and also people using commas instead of full stops, incorrectly.
So I’m just going to say – put a full stop at the end of your sentence and a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence!
You don’t need a full stop if you have an exclamation mark or question mark.
How do you know when it’s a full stop and not a comma?
Well, if you’re using a new subject in a new clause without a conjunction (a joining word) to connect them, you need a full stop.
I love cheese, but I can’t eat too much of it. I love cheese. I can’t eat too much of it.
A basic example there, but there it is.
“Full stop” is a phrase that we use in spoken English to mean “And that’s the end of it! I am not discussing it any more” For example, “I don’t want to see any more smoking in front of the building, full stop!”
In US English they say “Period”.
“God damn it John. You’re a god damn maverick! I want your badge and your gun. You’re off this case. Period!”
“Full stop” is the phrase we use for the dot at the end of the sentence.
We also have other little dots in things like numbers and web addresses. What do we call them?
Use this in email addresses and websites. Teacherluke.co.uk
Also use it just to describe the shape – a small round mark is a dot, like on a pattered dress.
For example you might have a blue dress with white dots on it.
Also we use the word “dot” for the top part of the letter i or j and also to describe exclamation marks or question marks. It’s just the word we use for a tiny round mark.
This is for numbers, meaning “decimal point”.
For example 3.14159 (Pie) Three point one four…
BBC headline: Women have 1.9 children on average, a record low – BBC News One point nine children…
This is the most common punctuation mark in English. Basically, it’s used to make your writing clearer and to indicate some sort of pause in the rhythm of the sentence. We use them to separate items in a list.
For example, “Give me your clothes, your boots, your cigarettes, your Pokemon cards and your motorcycle”.
It’s also used when there is a change in the subject in your sentence. That’s something the Pronunciation…? book said and I think it’s really good.
“I wanted to watch the new Avengers film, but Dave crashed into my car, so I couldn’t.”
There are more little uses of the comma, like the way they’re used in non-defining relative clauses or conditional sentences but to be honest I can’t go into all of those things now!
You’ll have to get a punctuation guide to get all the details.
Alright. This stuff can be hard to keep in your head, even when you already know it! That’s why you need a reference book to keep going back to. Explaining punctuation is not that easy, especially in an audio podcast, so why not use a book like this to save you the effort of working it all out for yourself, or doing loads of google searches and attempting to find consistent answers from different sources.
One thing I will say again is that there is some disagreement about the rules of punctuation and to an extent some of the application of punctuation symbols in your writing is a question of personal style and personal choice but some things are definitely right or wrong so the more you know the more control you’ll have and ultimately the better it will be for your English.
Book Review – Punctuation…? by User Design (continuing my review)
Punctuation..? by User Design (front and back covers)
There are a few books that explain punctuation that already exist on the market, but not that many that only deal with punctuation on its own.
Most of the time you’ll find punctuation guides inside other reference books like dictionaries (for example The Oxford English Dictionary) or grammar guides (like The Oxford A to Z of Grammar and Punctuation). As far as I can tell, the main book people buy when searching for a punctuation guide is The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. So, those things are the mainstream, well-known guides.
This book, “Punctuation…?” should be considered as an alternative.
So, let’s think about this book again. Remember how I described it to you earlier? Let’s go a bit deeper and I’ll give you my thoughts – both the negatives and positives.
I definitely like this book but I think it’s not 100% perfect. Let’s start with the negatives first. This is where I do some nit picking. Nit picking means making small criticisms or critical observations about something. Small criticisms that aren’t really all that important.
Well, perhaps some of these criticisms are important. We’ll see.
The design aesthetic of this book is minimal, but it’s a bit too minimal in places, maybe. It doesn’t always give full reasons for some punctuation points and it feels like some things are lacking. For example, the page about colons. I had other questions which weren’t answered, like “Shouldn’t we put a capital letter after a colon? When do we use a capital letter after a colon and when do we not?” Those are questions which might be answered by more thorough and detailed punctuation guides or just by googling it. I sometimes feel there’s more to add, and I expect that in later editions of the book, if they publish them, there will be more details added, or at least I think there probably should be, without spoiling the minimal style of the whole book anyway.
So, yes, the book feels a little bit insubstantial, as if it needs more. For example, it could do with some pages of commentary, generally, about punctuation in general. The book covers each punctuation point succinctly and then it just ends. I would like some comments perhaps from the authors just explaining their process or perhaps giving some opinions about punctuation and style or something like that.
At first I thought that this feeling of “there’s something missing” was because of the minimal design with plenty of white space on the page and the cartoons which look quite sketchy, even if they are good fun. I thought it was just the effect of the design.
But in all honesty, it’s not just the way it looks, it’s also the content. Don’t get me wrong, the pages which are there are great and will definitely teach you good information about punctuation but it’s not really a full book. It’s more like a pamphlet, which is how it is described on Amazon.
The recommended retail price on the back of the book is £10, which is higher than other, more substantial books on punctuation which are available. I think that might be a bit of a sticking point for some customers. You’d expect the price to be a bit lower for the amount of content you’re getting.
Also, some of the examples are a bit weird, which can make them slightly confusing (“The snakes’ hisses”?)
Also, sometimes it’s not completely obvious to me what the connection is between the illustration and the punctuation point being explained. This makes it feel a bit like the pictures aren’t all that helpful beyond just creating a fun atmosphere – but is that what people want when using a punctuation reference guide? By all means, use humour and fun. Of course I believe in that strongly. I think it’s really important to help people to enjoy learning stuff like this but I also think that the fun stuff should be performing a function too and in this case some of the pictures don’t seem to make things clearer, some of them just seem a bit odd.
They’re idiosyncratic which is cool, but not always that helpful, and they might just make the guide somehow less serious, which I think is something people look for in a guide like this. Am I repeating myself? Probably.
In summary, it might lack the seriousness and full commentary that some people expect from this kind of book at this kind of price, even though I like it.
One of the good things about this book is that it’s just a nice product to own. The paper it’s printed on is nice and thick and feels pleasant to touch. It has a pleasant-looking minimal design. The illustrations are quite fun and give the book more personality than your average dictionary or style guide. Also it would be more appropriate for young people I guess, or people who just want a bit more fun. It’s quite a good coffee table book, which makes it sound frivolous, but it is the sort of book you can enjoy flicking through, picking up some tidbits about punctuation that you might have always wondered about.
The explanations are short enough for you to digest quite easily. For example, there’s pretty much one rule or point per page. Punctuation rules can get pretty complicated but this book does a good job of reducing superfluous information. It gets straight to the point and as a result is very useful.
I said before that the book could do with some more commentary, like perhaps an introduction or conclusion, but on the other hand this book’s minimal approach makes it very accessible.
You will definitely learn things about punctuation by reading this book. Sometimes, very detailed language reference books become impenetrable because there’s so much information to sift through. Not with this book. They keep it short and simple.
Because it’s quite fun and a bit different while also being useful, I think it would be a good gift. You might not choose it in the bookshop if you want a no-nonsense language reference book, but you’d probably be happy to receive it as a present. I actually really like the book and I’m glad I have a copy. I learned a thing or two from reading it and it’s good to see some originality in this kind of reference work.
But it depends on the person I think. Some people might like this book because they will think it is a case of “Less is more”. I mean, some people will like the minimal style, will find the illustrations fun and will appreciate a more light-hearted feel but there are bound to be others who would just like more information, presented more seriously, please.
On the whole, I like the book. It’s original and quirky while also being useful and clear. It might not be the serious reference book that some people are looking for, but the information inside can definitely help you understand and improve your use of punctuation and ultimately that’s the main thing.
What did my wife think?
This morning I was having breakfast with my wife and the book was lying on the table. I pushed the book towards my wife and said, “what do you think of this book? Just give me your first impressions.” She said “I really like the pictures. I love this sort of thing. It looks really useful.” We agreed that it was actually a really cool book.
So if you’re looking for an alternative book about punctuation which has a more fun approach, get this book – either for you or as a gift. I think it’s particularly good as a gift for someone with a bit of a sense of humour, who is curious about punctuation and who also wants to be able to write more clearly.
The book seems to be available from all good bookshops including the main online retailers, certainly the ones which are well-known in the UK.
User Design Website https://www.userdesignillustrationandtypesetting.com
I’d like to say thanks to User Design for sending me the book, and thanks to everyone out there for listening to this!
Owning a book on punctuation is a great idea. If you actually use it, you will see a definite improvement in your awareness of punctuation, which feeds into an overall sense of how you need to be clear when communicating, particularly in your writing.
So, I do recommend getting a punctuation reference book. Either this one, for the reasons I’ve given, or another one if this book isn’t your cup of tea.
This episode is about the importance of punctuation in writing. I’ll teach you the names of various punctuation symbols and review a cool punctuation reference book that someone sent me recently, and yes I do think it is possible to have a cool book about punctuation! Transcript available.
In this episode I’m going to talk about… punctuation!
I’m going to talk about punctuation, teach you the names of most of the main punctuation symbols we use when writing. I’m going to explain the rules/uses of some bits of punctuation (namely the apostrophe, comma and full stop) and also I’ll be doing a review of a book about punctuation that you might be interested in purchasing.
So this is an episode of an audio podcast about punctuation which is a completely visual system, so this might be a bit ambitious and there will be times when I’m trying to describe punctuation symbols, so I expect there will be some bits of descriptive language there to look out for, as well as just loads of commentary and also a book review from me.
What is punctuation?
Just in case you don’t know, punctuation means all the symbols we use to perform various functions when writing. This means things like full stops, commas, apostrophes and things like that.
I don’t often talk about writing on this podcast. The focus is usually on speaking, listening, vocabulary, bits of grammar, pronunciation and of course just talking about various topics in order to help expose you to loads of English through audio, like I talked about in the last episode about the importance of listening in your learning of English.
Writing can be difficult to teach in an audio podcast, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about it that much. But I’d like to deal with it sometimes if it’s possible and punctuation is actually one of those areas of writing that often doesn’t get taught, but it’s a really important part of writing.
First of all, it’s something that a lot of learners of English need to work on. In my experience as a teacher, I’ve seen plenty of issues relating to it in my students’ work. This includes basic things, like just not putting full stops at the end of sentences, or getting confused about the difference between a plural S and a possessive S. So there are certain basic errors that you really should avoid.
Also, learning about punctuation can really help your grammar. The more you understand punctuation, the more you understand the way sentences are constructed and the more you are able to then get control over those things.
Basically – learning about punctuation helps you to write better and that is just one of the things you have to deal with if you would like to get a proper grip on this language.
Also, there’s that famous quote which illustrates perfectly the importance of punctuation, “Punctuation is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.”
I would say that punctuation is always important if you want to be clear and correct, which I assume you want to be. Who would want to be vague and wrong? Nobody, I think!
Does punctuation change depending on the situation or the type of writing we’re doing?
Obviously, the more formal your writing the more important it becomes. If you’re writing external business correspondence, legal contracts, letters of application to university, academic essays and so on, then punctuation is going to be a big consideration for you, because you have to pay very close attention to the clarity of your writing.
But what about informal writing?
Some people might say that you don’t need to worry about punctuation in things like emails to your friends or work colleagues that you know well, or in text messages and comments online and stuff. Arguably there is a different set of conventions for those things, but I still think punctuation is really important even in informal writing like that.
Perhaps some of the rules are a bit different when doing informal writing. For example, I think it’s normal, when having a text chat with a friend, not to put full stops at the end of your sentences. In fact, I think the way we use full stops in text messages has changed recently. I mean, if you’re having a chat, you might leave the full stops out of your final sentences as a way of showing that the conversation is still open. For me, a full stop at the end suggests “that’s it”, which can suggest “this chat is over”. That’s a subtle thing, but I think it’s true.
Article: The Text Message You Should Never Send, by Rachel Feltman
OK, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but here’s an article I just found from The Independent, which I think is interesting. This article is called The Text Message You Should Never Send, written by Rachel Feltman (published in December 2015)
Basically it’s talking about how putting full stops at the end of sentences in text messages looks unfriendly and insincere and that this is backed up by research from Birmingham University.
OK, let’s have a bit of a read and then get back to the point.
Basically, punctuation is important. Knowing when or when not to use it is an important skill to master.
If you’re serious about improving your written English, you’ve got to get punctuation right. It makes a huge difference to the impression you give to people reading your emails, essays, reports or whatever it is you’re writing, even your text messages or website comments. It’s all about getting more control over your communication, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Think of punctuation being to writing what pronunciation and body language are to speaking.
When we speak we use lots of different ways to add interpretation to our words. We use stress and intonation to give emphasis and tone and we use our faces and hands too. At this point my Italian listeners are saying “Yes Luke, we know all about that.”
So, punctuation is something that is absolutely crucial for your writing.
Let’s get back on track here.
Do you know the words for all the punctuation symbols in English? Do you know how to use them properly?
The plan in this episode, like I said at the start, is to teach you the words for some punctuation marks and symbols we use when writing, explain the rules/uses of these bits of punctuation and also I’ll be doing a review of a book about punctuation that you might be interested in purchasing.
About the book I just mentioned. Let me say a few things about it before we start. You’re now going to hear me describing this book. Watch out for the language I’m using. You can read a lot of this on the transcript for this episode which is available FREE on my website! So, if you hear me using certain words or phrases that you didn’t catch, head to teacherluke.co.uk and find the page for this episode. The script is there for you to read or just skim for vocabulary.
Book: Punctuation..? By User Design
A while ago I was contacted by a listener to this podcast who is an author, illustrator, designer and publisher – yes, all at the same time apparently! He’s published a book about punctuation in English and he offered to send me a copy of the book in return for a little review of it on the podcast. I thought it could be a good opportunity to talk about punctuation, to teach my listeners some of the words for punctuation marks and to give some comments about punctuation rules, so I accepted to do the review. It’s a good deal for everyone – you can hear me talk about punctuation and perhaps learn some things, I get a copy of the book and the author gets a bit of publicity.
The book is called “Punctuation…?” and the author goes by the name User Design, which is actually a service/business name that he’s using. So, let’s call him Mr User Design.
Actually the full name of this guy’s company is “User Design, Illustration and Typesetting”. A quick look on their website shows that they provide various services, and I quote, “We offer a complete graphic communication design, illustration and production service, from books to websites, to many other printed and electronic items.”
So, one of their products is this handy guide for punctuation. It’s a pretty slim book with a clear contents page where you can see all the main punctuation marks that you should know about, with page numbers as you’d expect. It’s all very minimal and clear. But this isn’t just a boring reference book. One of the first things you notice when you open it is that it contains lots of cartoon illustrations to keep things interesting and fun.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. This is a famous saying, which means that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance. But in the case of books, I have no idea how you are supposed to judge a book before you have read it. Judging it by its cover is pretty much the only thing you can do, isn’t it! I suppose you can flick through it and maybe read the first few pages, but if you’re standing there in a bookshop reading a book, the person behind the counter might start to get a bit peeved after a while.
Anyway, let’s judge this book by its cover. The front cover is very minimal. It’s black and white. There’s the title, “Punctuation…?”, the author (User Design) and then a cartoon illustration of two people apparently communicating with each other. The one on the left is a girl holding her hand out as if she’s saying something and the one on the right is a guy scratching his head with his other hand in the air, and it looks like he’s confused.
[caption id="attachment_35734" align="alignright" width="3200"] Punctuation..? by User Design (front and back covers)
The illustrations are simple sketches done with a pen. They’re quirky. Thin lines. They look a bit like doodles but they’re quite funny. There isn’t anything else. Now, I reckon most people would not really know what to make of that. Well, maybe there would be two reactions – one would be “oh this looks quirky and cool – a hip book about punctuation” and some others might think “This doesn’t look serious enough and I don’t know why these people are standing there like that – what does that have to do with punctuation?” That’s just the front cover though.
If you look inside and actually read all the pages, it’s clear that this is a clear and simple guide to what the different punctuation symbols are and how they are used. But I reckon most people would expect something a bit more academic, like your average dictionary or reference book.
On the back cover you’ve got some text explaining the book, as usual, and another cartoon illustration.
I’ll read the text to you.
Luke reads the back cover of the book. See the pic above ⤴️⤴️⤴️
OK, great. That’s nice and clear.
The illustration shows some kind of nightclub or party with a dreadlocked DJ spinning records on his decks and funny-looking people dancing. You can see (but you have to look pretty carefully – it’s not obvious at first glance) punctuation symbols coming out of the speakers and sort of flying out of the turntables where the DJ is spinning what I assume is some kind of awesome bass-heavy dancehall reggae or maybe drum and bass. It’s cool – and a different way to do a book about punctuation, but I reckon some people won’t really get it.
In my experience, people expect a more serious and academic feel from this kind of thing. I remember once we had a publisher visit The London School of English to get feedback on some new dictionary designs. He had dictionaries from different publishers and asked us which ones we liked and which ones we thought learners of English would like.
We all liked the fresh-looking, minimal, modern-looking dictionaries, but he told us that the most popular ones with learners of English were the ones with slightly old-fashioned designs, older looking fonts (I mean classical-looking fonts – I don’t know all the correct words for fonts – I think serif fonts probably). Basically, learners felt like they trusted dictionaries that looked older, more formal, more established, more old-fashioned, with words like Oxford and perhaps even symbols featuring old buildings and things on them. Also, darker colours were more popular. That’s all probably because those designs made the dictionaries look more serious and full of trustworthy information published by well-established institutions.
So, this book might not give the right impression, but on the whole I think the content is mostly good and it certainly can tell you what you need to know about punctuation.
OK, let’s have a look at the contents page of the book. Some of you at this point will be craving a video for this. Maybe I’ll record one, just to show you the front and back, but it depends if I have time! We’ll see. I think you can just use your imagination though and just follow what I’m saying.
By the way, User Design have given me permission to use some images of the book from their website, so I’ll probably add some of those to the page for this episode on my website, so have a look there to get an idea of the way the book looks and the illustrations I’m talking about.
Right, so the contents page. Here are the things the book covers.
Luke reads out the contents page and describes the different punctuation symbols and gives their names. See pic below for the symbols ⤵️⤵️⤵️
Contents page from Punctuation..? by User Design
OK, we’re going to stop the pod here. This episode will continue in part 2 which should be uploaded very soon and might in fact be available for you now.
In part 2 I’m going to talk about some punctuation rules, focusing on 3 very common bits of punctuation – apostrophes, full stops and commas. I’ll talk about how these symbols are used in writing. I’ll point out some common errors and how to avoid them and I’ll finish my review of the punctuation book I’ve been talking about.
Remember, on the page for this episode on my website you’ll find a pretty much full script for this episode … as well as pictures of the punctuation book and links for information if you’re interested in buying it.
OK! Nothing more to add here then except the usual suggestions that you become a premium LEPster to gain access to the ever-growing library of episodes devoted to language teaching. Go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium for that.
Also, you could consider checking out today’s sponsor, Cambly in order to find teachers for that all-important speaking practice. Go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/cambly to check it out and use my ambassador code teacherluke to get those 10 free minutes of conversation.
Thanks for listening and supporting this podcast over the years. I received loads of nice messages for the 10th birthday of LEP. I’m very glad to have such a cool audience from around the world. Speak to you again in part 2!
More conversation with Ben Worthington from IELTSPodcast.com, talking about English skills and exam skills, considering the whole approach and mindset that you need to succeed in IELTS. Includes questions from listeners.
I hope you’re doing well. Here is Part 2 of this double episode that I’m doing about IELTS, this well known exam that tests your level of English. Learners all over the world are taking IELTS, preparing for it, suffering from it, recovering from it. So I’m sure most of you are aware of it. Here’s an episode about it.
As usual in these multi-part episodes I suggest that you listen to the first part before listening to this.
In this episode I’m talking to Ben Worthington from IELTSPodcast.com He specialises in helping people get ready for IELTS and in this episode we’re going through questions from listeners on social media about this test.
Listen up if you have experience of IELTS, but equally if you don’t have to take the test I hope you can enjoy this episode in full relaxation mode, since you won’t actually have to take this evil test.
In this episode you’ll hear Ben and me saying various things about IELTS. Here’s a run-down of the conversation and the things we mention.
How to prepare for IELTS, self-study and using a course.
Tips for writing, reading, listening and speaking.
The importance of getting feedback on essay writing
Check online samples of people taking the test, like this one
The potential risks of taking group IELTS courses
Tips for how to get the best out of an online tutor
The importance of making a good first impression in part 1 of the speaking test
How to get ideas in speaking part 2
Using cue cards to practice the speaking test
Thinking on your feet and speaking spontaneously
Focusing on core skills
So we’re talking about a lot of specific English skills and exam skills, considering the whole approach and mindset that you need to succeed in IELTS.
As a special gift to my listeners, Ben is offering a 15% discount on his IELTS prep course called “Jump to Band 7 or It’s Free”. On his website check out the course and use the offer code LukeIELTSPodcast15 to get a 15% discount. Not bad.
Anyway, you know what to expect from this episode, so let’s carry on.
There you go. Unfortunately we couldn’t answer all the questions because we ran out of time, but you might find more answers and support on Ben’s website, which is IELTSpodcast.com. You can ask Ben and his team questions and of course Ben is offering you all 15% off his course, called “Jump to Band 7 or it’s Free”. Just use the offer code LukeIELTSPodcast15 at checkout.
Thank you so much for listening, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
A conversation with IELTS teacher Ben Worthington about the IELTS test, with advice for getting your best score in speaking, writing, reading and listening. Includes questions from listeners. Part 1 of 2.
This episode is all about the IELTS test. Yes, that dreaded test that many of you will have either experienced or heard people talking about, probably saying things like “I need IELTS 6.5. HOW CAN I GET IELTS 6.5??” Like they’ve been poisoned, and IELTS6.5 is the name of the antidote that’s going to save their life – I need IELTS6.5! How can I get IELTS 6.5?? Tell me, quickly!!!”
It’s known for being a tough test. Not all the stories are horror stories of course. It’s important to be positive. There are plenty of success stories of people who managed to raise their score to the level they require. It is definitely possible to get success in IELTS. People do it all the time. But how?
Well, in this episode I’ll be talking to Ben Worthington from IELTS Podcast about various things relating to this test. This episode is full of good advice and insights into how to prepare for this test and ways to improve your score.
Do you know IELTS? I don’t know if you are familiar with it.
I think most learners of English who are serious about doing things in English will probably end up considering taking an exam like IELTS in order to get some kind of certificate confirming your level, which you can then use to do something like get a job, get a visa or get a place in a university. There’s TOEIC and TOEFL as well, but those are the American exams.
Actually I did get some questions about TOEIC and TOEFL, which Ben and I didn’t have time to respond to in this episode. Speaking personally, I am less familiar with TOEIC and TOEFL because I’ve rarely had to work with those tests. I’m much more familiar with IELTS and other Cambridge exams, and so this is what I’m more qualified to talk about.
IELTS is the standard testing system in the UK and also other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada and I think IELTS is probably now established as the world’s #1 English test. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, listening to this, have taken IELTS or are thinking about taking it. Or maybe you’ve looked into other Cambridge exams like FCE or CAE or something.
Basically, it’s very common for people to take this test and prepare for this test. So it’s worth talking about again on the podcast.
IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. It’s administered both by Cambridge English and the British Council and there are centres in most countries where you can take the IELTS test.
It’s a notoriously difficult test. I think anyone who takes it finds it hard, no matter what level you are, even native English speakers would find it challenging to be honest.
Here’s a quick summary of the IELTS test
IELTS tests your skills in 4 areas – reading, listening, writing and speaking.
It takes about 2h45m to complete the test.
The reading section involves a number of texts (3 texts in the academic version and about 5 or 6 in the general version) with comprehension tasks which test various reading skills.
Similarly the listening section has about 4 listening texts with various task types to test a range of listening skills.
The writing part takes an hour and involves two sections. In part 1 of the academic test you have to write a description of a graph, table, chart or diagram. In part 2 of the writing test you have to write an essay which probably involves explaining different sides of an argument with an introduction and conclusion.
The speaking test is in 3 parts and takes about 15 minutes. The first part involves chatting with the examiner for a few minutes, answering some questions about yourself. In part 2 you have to talk on your own for 2 minutes based on a cue card given to you by the examiner, and part 3 is a discussion with the examiner in which you talk about some more abstract things like social issues.
So this test is pretty long and covers all 4 skills. It requires all your abilities in English – accurate and diverse grammar, a wide range of vocabulary, fluency, clear pronunciation and the ability to complete communicative tasks effectively in English.
The way it works is that the overall score you get is converted into a band number which is an indicator of your level across the 4 skills. There’s no pass or fail mark. It’s just a case of the higher your score, the higher your band or level at the end.
So this test reveals your level in English. Levels go from 1 to 9. 9 being the highest.
So, it’s a tough test.
People all over the world need an IELTS score for various purposes, so it is an extremely common challenge for learners of English to undertake.
Schools in many places offer IELTS preparation courses to help people learn exactly how to improve their IELTS score. Preparation courses are obviously important to help you raise your English core skills across the 4 areas, but they’re also important to help you develop exam skills – which means becoming familiar with the test, familiar with the task types, familiar with the way the test is administered, and familiar with the little tricks and traps that are intentionally put into the test. It’s important not only to improve your level of English to prepare for IELTS but also to get an understanding of what the examiners at Cambridge English are looking for. This is also true for other similar tests.
To be honest, the test is so contrived and the marking criteria so specific that it’s very unwise to take an IELTS test without some preparation in advance because you simply must get familiar with it and develop your own strategies for each section. So I always advise students to do some test preparation, be it self-study or by following some sort of course either online or offline.
Offline options would probably be to find a preparation course in a school near you and the online options include finding and using self-study materials and practice tests, taking one to one lessons with a tutor for feedback (using iTalki for example) or finding other online resources that offer alternative ways to work on your exam skills.
One of those resources is IELTSpodcast.com run by Ben Worthington, my guest today.
As the website name suggests, IELTSpodcast.com is a podcast about IELTS with lots of tips about each section, but it’s also a website with lots of resources – videos, blog posts, practice tasks and also paid courses for specific exam skills and services including things like essay correction and feedback from Ben and the other teachers he works with.
Ben Worthington has been training people in IELTS preparation for some time now and has got lots of advice to share, all of which can really help you improve your IELTS score. A lot of his advice is shared on his website and in his courses, but in this episode he’s going to share some of that with us.
You can sign up to Ben’s full IELTS preparation course, called “Jump to Band 7 or it’s Free”, which is a confident name if ever there was one. If you don’t get to band 7 then it’s free. You can get it at IELTSpodcast.com and Ben has offered to give a 15% discount on the course for listeners to the podcast. So this episode is all about good advice for IELTS and it should be a genuinely useful episode, but if you want more thorough preparation for IELTS you can get a 15% discount on the Jump to Band 7 Or It’s Free course by using the offer code LukeIELTSPodcast15 – if you’re interested.
Ben originally is from Yorkshire in the north of England. You might notice some slight differences in his accent compared to mine. I’m from the south and the midlands, basically – but I sound mostly like I’m from London probably. Ben has a slight northern accent because he’s from Yorkshire. His accent is not that strong, but you might notice a few differences.
Now, the IELTS test is big and there is a lot to say about it – more than can be covered in just one or two episodes of this podcast (and I think this will be a two-part episode).
If you follow me on social media you might have noticed that I asked my audience for questions about IELTS and I received quite a lot across the different platforms. I’ve tried to include as many questions as possible, but we didn’t have time to deal with every single one.
So, apologies if your question isn’t mentioned in the episode. You can actually ask questions to Ben on his website if you like.
What if you’re not taking IELTS?
This will be relevant to the large numbers of people in my audience who are taking or have taken this test, but also hopefully to those of you who don’t need to take this test right now. I think it’s a good idea for any learner of English to have a sense of what’s involved in the IELTS test and of course the skills you need for IELTS are skills that anyone needs if they want to be more than just a competent user of the English language.
I have done several episodes about IELTS before. If you haven’t heard those episodes it’s probably a good idea to check them out, especially if you’re preparing for the exam.
Episode 256 is called IELTS Tips and Tricks. In that episode I tried to include as much of my personal advice as possible into just one episode, so that should be useful to you.
Anyway, let’s talk to Ben Worthington from IELTS Podcast. He produces lots of content online for learners of English who are preparing to take this test. He’s been teaching students IELTS for a number of years now.
We’ll start by getting to know Ben a bit (this is the first time I’ve spoken to him actually) and then we’ll get into his advice for preparing and taking the different parts of the test, and I’ll ask him some of those questions sent in by my audience on social media.
Let’s see what we can cover about this big test for learners of English.
You’ll have to wait for part 2 of this episode to hear what Ben has to say about preparing correctly for IELTS.
This is the end of part 1. Remember if you’re interested in using Ben’s online course for getting ready for IELTS, which is called Jump To Band 7 Or It’s Free, go to IELTSpodcast.com and use the code LukeIELTSPodcast15 at checkout to get a 15% discount.
So, we will leave the episode here and you can pick up the rest of the conversation in the next part.
By the way, there was a short quiet period at the end of February, and that’s because I was uploading a lot of LEP Premium episodes. There are now over 30 full episodes with tons of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, focusing on teaching you the most common phrases and talking points in English and how to say them all clearly and fluently.
There are now premium episodes about language which came up naturally in conversations I’ve recorded for the podcast. Recently I did ones about the episode I did on Paul Chowdhry. In the premium pipeline I have episodes about the conversation with James, my conversation with Jessica from English Across the Pond and also this episode with Ben. I’ve been noting extracts, vocabulary, grammar, phrasal verbs, idioms as we go.
To sign up for LEP premium just go to teacherluke.co.uk/premium and all the details are there. It’s the equivalent of a cup of coffee a month from you to me, that’s less than 10 cents a day. It’s pretty good value I’d say!
Right, in any case I hope you’re doing well. Fun fact, I’ve been using different microphones while recording episodes recently. All the P11 episodes were with different mics and this one that I’m using now isn’t a usual mic I use for intros and outtros.
My question is, outside of IELTS, can you even notice a difference in the sound because I’m using a different microphone? Can you tell the difference between the different mics I use or does it all sound basically the same? Let me know in the comments section.
And the IELTS conversation will continue in the next episode.
Examining British communication style and debunking a few myths about how British people communicate. This episode is based on a famous infographic called “What British People Say vs What They Really Mean” or “The Anglo-EU Translation Guide”. It contains lots of thoughts about how direct and indirect cultures communicate with each other, and some samples of business English, with a few improvised scenarios too! Transcript available.
In this episode I’m talking about an infographic which is often shared online called “What British People Say vs What They Mean”. In the infographic there are three columns. One with sentences typically spoken by English people. The next column has what, apparently, British people really mean, and then the third column shows us the perceived meanings of those sentences by foreigners. It is supposed to highlight the indirectness of British English speakers and the how people from direct cultures often misunderstand us.
I’m going to go through the graphic line by line, discussing the language, talking about the indirect communication style of British people and discussing to what extent this infographic is true and how much is a stereotype.
This relates to several conversations I’ve had in episodes in the past, namely the ones about cultural differences with Amber & Paul, British humour with Amber and the one about language & culture with Alex van Walsum.
This chart often pops up online. You might have seen it. It’s shared on Facebook or Twitter, and people send it to me by email. People send this to me all the time, often accompanied with the question “Is this true?” It’s probably the infographic that I’ve seen more than any other. A while ago I shared it on my Facebook page and it got a big response with thousands of people seeing it and loads of comments.
The chart is anonymously written. It may have first appeared in an article on the Economist’s website. Apparently some people say it originated in a Dutch company that had dealings with the UK, which is interesting because the Dutch are known for being very direct in their communication, so through their eyes the Brits might seem excessively indirect. The infographic is sometimes entitled “What British People Say vs What They Mean” or the “Anglo-EU translation guide”.
Basically the chart presents a list of utterances, which it presents as typical things the British say in business situations, and then two other columns which represent what British people really mean when they say those things, and then how other people actually understand them to mean something quite different.
I think it’s based on communication and cultural differences between the UK and European neighbours. The underlying cultural difference is that in the UK we have an indirect communication culture, particularly with regard to saying negative things, and tend to signal their disapproval, disappointment, disagreement or offence in other ways – either by minimising the negative part, or using euphemism, which may be hard to understand to the untrained ear.
In my experience as an English person living in France, I find that it is definitely true that we have slightly different communication styles as a result of our cultural differences. But they’re just slightly different really.
One example of a difference between France and the UK is that generally in the UK our first interaction with people – especially people in service positions, e.g. if you’re going to the post office to collect a package which you’ve been told is there even though last time you went they claimed it definitely wasn’t there. So you have to go back and kind of complain and make them look again. In the UK my normal way of doing it would be to approach the situation in a nice way, using friendliness as a social lubricant to help things go more smoothly. Like “Sorry to bother you again! I went to the other post office and they told me the package is definitely here. Could you have another look for me? Thanks!” You kind of talk to that person like you understand how you’re personally putting them out, but between the two of you there is a friendly understanding. You’re nice to the person, even though technically they’re wrong and you’re sort of making a complaint. That’s how it goes much of the time – not every time of course. Often when Brits are unhappy with a service they will complain about it very directly. But many times you’ll see or hear Brits being pretty friendly when dealing with people in impersonal situations.
Now, that might actually be perceived not as a nice, informal gesture – but as fake, and two faced because in fact you’re actually not happy with the situation and you don’t know them personally, so why are you being all chummy?
In Paris, your first interaction would typically be a bit more formal and also a bit less friendly. If you’re all nice and friendly and you smile, you might be perceived as weak. That’s not to say that French people don’t smile – of course they do, but in that kind of service situation where you are making a complaint you’re likely to be serious and with a straight face. You can be completely straight about it and bring your unhappiness to the table. It’s normal to dig your heels in and argue a little bit before things then turn into a more amicable arrangement. It usually ends well, but there’s a bit of conflict at the start, for example saying “no” or “it’s not possible” at the beginning, before deciding later to ‘make an exception’.
I refer you to the episode with Alex Van Walsum who sums this up really well.
If you’re nice and you compromise from the start they’ll walk all over you without even realising it. So there’s conflict at the beginning until the thing finally gets resolved, and later on a relationship of trust might develop from the problem being fixed, but it comes after. I’m not saying in the UK we’re never direct or angry in that situation, or that in France people are never nice at first, I’m just saying in my experience it pays to be more formal and tough at the beginning or you’ll be taken for granted. Whereas in the UK my approach would be a bit different.
Sometimes this difference gets the better of me. I might go to a restaurant and say “Do you have a table for two at 8?” and the guy says “It’s complicated” or “No, it’s not possible” and I smile and say “OK, that’s a pity, thanks for your help!” and then leave. But what I often don’t realise is that “No, it’s not possible” is just the starting point. What you should do then is wait and just not take no for an answer. Wait and say “Is there anything you can do?” and dig your heels in a bit. Often, after a bit of digging, you might get a result. But you have to push through a little barrier first in many cases.
The point is that the words we use and the messages we convey are often quite different, and messages are often subject to various cultural codes which allow the people involved to truly understand what is being said vs what is the intended meaning, or illocutionary force of something.
Or more simply, in indirect cultures we don’t always say exactly what we mean, and it depends on the other person to decode the intended meaning of our messages. This is more common in some cultures than others, and this kind of indirectness does have a social function. If you’re from a direct culture, you’re less likely to be able to decode the messages and that’s where the misunderstandings happen.
That brings us to this chart of what British people say vs what they mean.
This chart essentially targets this cultural and linguistic point quite specifically, and while there is truth in it, I think the chart is not completely accurate.
Nevertheless, let’s go through what Brits say vs what they mean and see what we can learn.
One of the most important problems with this chart is the lack of context and the fact that these are spoken phrases written down, so none of the intonation is included. Intonation and context are vital in the way these messages are delivered and understood.
Without the context and intonation, this chart makes Brits look incredibly devious and two-faced. It also makes other people seem pretty dumb and naive.
On balance, what do I think of this?
It’s exaggerated. Brits are not as stuffy, awkward or unable to say what we mean as this seems to suggest. It’s slightly old fashioned too.
Also it’s not really fair on foreigners who aren’t that stupid.
I think it originally came from the Netherlands (who we do most of our business with in the EU) and they’re known for being a very plain talking, direct culture. So, this is perhaps from the dutch point of view, which exaggerates things further.
There is a point being made too, which is that the English say the opposite of what they mean, which is not true. Direct cultures tend to view indirect ones as being two-faced, hypocritical and even duplicitous. We do speak indirectly, perhaps downplaying negative things and attempting to use tact and diplomacy but it doesn’t stretch to being deceitful. For the English it’s a way to keep things nice and to sugarcoat our formal relationships. It’s a respectful distance which has been in the culture for a long time. We might be a bit indirect by dutch standards, but we know what we’re talking about. We understand what each other means, because we know the codes. So it’s a functional communication system, and just another way to share ideas while getting on at the same time.
Another point is that you could argue that it’s specifically English, rather than British because there is a slight cultural difference between the English and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and even Cornish people, who might be more direct. Anyway, I know plenty of English people who are perfectly capable of being direct and saying exactly what they mean.
Also, there may be a class issue here. I think this relates to certain kinds of middle class or upper class English people, who tend to communicate like this, especially in a formal situation. There are certainly plenty of English people who are very direct in their communication style.
The situation is also important. Most of these phrases are used at work where diplomacy is important. In social situations these same people might be extremely direct, for example with friends who you make fun of and speak to without any kind of filter.
The sentences are out of context, so it’s not obvious how the phrase is intonated or what other phrases are used around it. Written down like that it has no nuance and can make the Brits look like pretty awful. So, this graph is designed to make people laugh and illustrate a tendency for Brits to be a bit indirect, but it is by no means a flawless guide to British communication style.
It’s a bit black and white. In fact there are plenty of UK individuals who are more direct than this, and EU individuals who are indirect. It’s a bit “them and us”, a bit ‘black and white’ and therefore a bit unfair.
It’s not just Brits. There are plenty of other cultures or individuals who also communicate like this. Canadians, for example, are well-known for having a polite and indirect communication style.
While there is definitely an underlying point being demonstrated by the chart, taking it on face value makes British people seem insincere and sneaky – which is a common criticism of us by European people with direct communication styles. Whereas us Brits see our communication style as diplomatic and avoiding conflict and essentially all about being nice, other people think we are not being honest, straight or sincere. We just don’t want to be too negative or nasty, but we come across as being unsure of ourselves, weak or untrustworthy. Equally, from the other side, Brits think the French can be wilfully difficult, stubborn and problematic because of how direct they are with negative comments. We also find the Germans – who tend to state things exactly as they are, to be cold and humourless with their ultra-pragmatic approach which doesn’t involve much small talk or ‘window dressing’. It’s tricky isn’t it!
In English we like to sugarcoat things. Not every culture does that. Some do it more than us.
Of course it doesn’t always go like that and most of the time communication happens without problems and it’s all fine. For example I have had many many exchanges with people from many different cultures including those from direct cultures and they’ve been absolutely lovely, but then again I am quite culturally aware and able to minimise this sort of thing by recognising the importance of saying exactly what you mean. I imagine that when people from other countries do business with Brits who are not used to cross cultural communication that sometimes there is friction and it’s often related to these cultural differences.
Also, it could be related to writing style in emails where this kind of thing becomes so much more obvious. I can imagine foreign people receiving English emails and wondering what exactly the person means – like the example of my wife and the castle.
For example, apparently when the German company BMW took over the British car manufacturer Rover, it took ages for BMW to fully understand the extent of the problems at Rover because all the British staff minimised the problems or spoke in slightly vague euphemisms. The Germans were not able to decode the embedded negatives within the Brits’ responses.
E.g. “We’ve had a few slight issues on the production line. Staff have expressed some preference for a longer break during the afternoon shift.” How big are those problems on the production line exactly? It would probably be worth investigating them further rather than assuming they are just “a few slight issues”.
Overall, I think there is truth in this chart, which is why it’s such an enduring success online, but it’s not totally true. The truth is that Brits put a positive shine on things as a social lubricant (sugarcoating) and it works within indirect cultures, whereas direct cultures say things as they are which can make them seem unfriendly or cold hearted yet ultimately more sincere. Neither approach is better than the other, they’re just alternatives.
Really, it’s about context. With indirect cultures, the indirect style probably feels more natural, with direct cultures it’s the other way around. The problems arise when the two cultures get together and then misunderstand each other. For the chart, more perspective and context is required to really understand what’s going on, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions. I say knee-jerk reactions – these are sort of quick, instant responses that happen without thoughtful consideration (like when a doctor taps your knee and it jerks forward without you thinking about it). Those things might be to conclude that Germans have no sense of humour, French people are willfully difficult and don’t want to work, English people are hypocrites who don’t say what they mean.
Simple binary comparisons of language without context like this can foster unbalanced opinions which can lead to or reinforce resentment and things like that. The final point is that despite our communication style, we’re still just as fair-minded, honest, trustworthy, narrow minded, dishonest and untrustworthy as anybody else! Don’t jump to conclusions and never let cultural differences cause you to make fast judgements about people without seeing the whole picture!
Rambling (in my sweltering hot flat) about the benefits of playing football, giving encouragement to a shy new listener, some prepositions with transport, comparing formal and informal styles and commenting on the risks of using humour in emails.
Effects of exercise on the body and mind (less stress, less anxiety, less frustration – clear head, positive feeling, lighter feeling etc)
Are there any LEPsters in Germany who are up for a meetup?
There are rumours of a LEPsters meeting somewhere there. If you’re in Germany – let us know!
Messages and Comments from Listeners
Encouraging Laurentiu Adam Hi Luke I just have done one of the best or the worst things in my life – only time will tell. I have just visited one of my colleagues in Romania, during a business trip. His name is Laurentiu. I have never seen such a shy person who completely has no trust in his English skills – except myself years ago. One could ignore this if English was not a must in our international company. But without English he will lose the chance for communication among colleagues, professional development, promotion etc. What is funnier is that probably 30% of the words in our language are almost the same (based on Latin origin). I gave him homework for the next 30 days. I have copied for him about 50 of your podcasts. I hope he will hear at least one per day traveling to the plant and back home. He spends 2 hours daily on the bus. I think everybody deserves a chance, like I got several times. I was thinking that you could give some courage to Laurentiu. If it isn’t me, he might believe you. Thank you Luke Regards Adam p.s. I still measure time in Lukes ;-). Today about 4.5 Lukes to get home.
Luke’s Comments to Laurentiu
Laurentiu – if you’re listening. Hello! I know how you feel, because of my experiences with French.
How can you persuade someone to change their mind? How can we change your mind Laurentiu?
I hate it when people go on at me and put pressure on me.
I’m sure Laurentiu knows the reasons why he should learn English.
I think, what do I need to hear to get me to do more French?
Here are some ideas:
It’s loads of fun. The more you do it the better it is.
You can do it in your own way! It’s totally up to you. Anything and everything you do with
English is good. It’s all good man! Don’t worry about the best way to start, just start even if it’s not perfect. Listen, read, speak. Make mistakes. It’s fun. You WILL make progress.
Just do a little bit per day. Just 10 minutes of reading or listening. Try 10 mins of a podcast per day. If you don’t like it, just stop after 10 minutes. If it’s not too bad, keep going for a bit.
Just try to understand what’s being said and relax.
That’s it – no pressure, just take it step by step and start with a little bit.
I am just finishing my business trip to Romania (no vacation just a job in many plants in different places in Europe). Last week I was trying to convert Laurentiu to English – let’s wait and see how it works.
I have a feeling that I have successful infected my other Romanian colleague – Cristian with LEPoholism.
I hope you are not angry if I try to cure myself with the In Our Time podcast?
Please if you could encourage Laurentiu and he could hear this, it would be great (see my previous podcast comment).
Can you imagine being so afraid to say more than 3 words and then you jump to your comfort zone – to your language. He is like this ;-(. I know the following story. 17 years ago a young well educated guy went to an interview to get a good job in a big American food company. He got, like other candidates a case study – a real problem and he gave quite an interesting solution to it. Finally he qualified for the next round. Everything went well until the check of the English language. The guy wisely said: I have learned German in one year, so for sure I will learn English, but at the moment I cannot say anything longer than “my name is …” . The manager seemed to understand, so he tried to encourage the guy. The discussion was like this: “please say anything” and the answer was like this – “no, no, not now, but I will learn for sure.” Eventually the guy was so convincing that the manager could not give the job to him. I hope Luke you will not ask who the guy, was. Thank you in advance. Regards Adam
More Things to say to Laurentiu
Don’t be shy, give it a try.
The worst thing you can do is to say nothing and do nothing.
If you’re worried about making mistakes – the biggest mistake is to do nothing.
Don’t do it later. Do it now. Right now! Even if you’re on your own, speak some English to yourself. Don’t put it off until later. Later doesn’t exist in language learning, there is only now. Speak English now, you must.
Do or do not, there is no try.
Stretch out with your feelings. Use the force.
Feel the English! Breathe, relax. Let the English flow through you.
Worried about looking stupid? Don’t worry too much. Sorry, but nobody really cares that much. Nobody is judging you as much as you are judging yourself. So give yourself a break.
Every day millions of people are experiencing exactly the same feeling as you, in exactly the same situation. Do you think you’re different?
Anyone can learn English, the only thing stopping you, is you.
You feel like an idiot when you speak another language and you don’t want to look like an idiot who can’t express yourself and who can’t make the right sounds, but nobody will think that you’re an idiot. They’ll actually be impressed that you’re making an effort. They’ll find it charming and nice. And if someone judges you, it means they’re a loser who’s not worth worrying about.
When you speak English it feels like you’re not in control. But not being in control is the most fun thing ever. People love not being in control. Drinking, going crazy to music, going on a rollercoaster at Disneyland or something. You’re not in control then and it’s fun. Enjoy the feeling of danger and excitement in taking a risk with English. (and anyway, it’s not that risky, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? YOu’re going to break your tongue? Injure your chin?)
Take it one step at a time. You don’t have to be brilliant at the start. Be crap at the start, it’s fine! Anyway, I’m sure you’re not that crap.
Just improvise. Make it up as you go along. Nobody has a clue what they’re doing anyway.
You’ll be fine.
Everyone has to be a beginner when you begin, that’s why it’s called being a beginner. But when you don’t even begin, you’re nothing – just a monkey spinning through space – there is no name for you if you do nothing. You’re a zero. So open your mouth and say something and you’ll automatically be upgraded from ‘nothing’ to ‘beginner’. Immediate level up!
My French is terrible and I often feel awful about it – I know how you feel! But I promise you, when I do open my mouth and say a few things I feel much better than before I started speaking. And when I don’t say anything because I feel shy, I regret it. The only cure for this situation is to just speak the language.
Jilmani’s 15 Day Challenge
If you’re part of the challenge, I hope you’re managing to keep up with it and that you’re discovering or rediscovering some episodes from the archives.
On “30. The Mystery Continues” (15 Day Challenge) Naomi – Episode 30 The Mystery Continues (Click here to listen) Thank you Jilmani for day 2. I love this story. It’s amazing and funny both the story and Luke’s narration! In the term of grammar I often get confused between ‘jumped in a cab’ ‘jumped on a bus’ ‘on the train’ etc. Does it depend on the vehicles? How do I know which preposition to use?
Carrick Cameron once told me this: if you can stand up it’s ‘on’, if you can’t stand up it’s ‘in’.
Test it out on different modes of transport. All of them.
Car, taxi, horse, bike, motorbike, canoe, helicopter, plane, spitfire, tank, camel, skateboard, train, boat, dinghy, hovercraft, UFO. [Listen for the answers]
Formal vs Informal Salwa El Zallawi Brilliant! I like the idea of dedicating the whole episode to one specific delexical verb. I love learning phrasal verbs and expressions. Learning these will help us end the intermediate plateau. Looking forward to more episode on other verbs, ( go , put, keep….). But we shouldn’t use them in formal speech and formal writing, should we ? I don’t know. I know that I shouldn’t use phrasal verbs in formal e-mails. But again, articles in newspapers today are taking more and more of an informal tone. The line between formal and informal English is not clear for me, and is a bit confusing. Thank you, Luke, for this wonderful episode.
Salwa – you’re right.
Don’t use them in really formal writing like impersonal emails & letters, academic writing.
But they do appear in newspaper articles that use a neutral tone and sometimes in financial reports that use quite a lot of idiomatic language, including phrasal verbs – like “shot up” and “picked up” etc.
Formality in writing. It depends on the situation. It’s also true of speaking.
Let’s look at writing first.
People seem to think phrasal verbs might be these very informal and therefore disrespectful language or something. Not so. Phrasal verbs are very common in neutral speech and writing, including in professional contexts, in newspaper articles including stories about financial reports and so on. You see them all the time in those contexts.
To be honest the vast majority of the English you’ll use will be neutral in tone.
There are 3 forms, I would say. 1. Formal 2. Neutral 3. Informal
Formal language – primarily an impersonal form. E.g. university essays and assignments, professional correspondence in which you have to use lots of distance because of the respect that you’re attempting to show in a business relationship. You use it when you’re communicating on behalf of the company with people you don’t know and you want to add that impersonal distance to show respect, high levels of politeness and so on. It can also make you sound incredibly old fashioned and distant, like a bad guy from a science fiction movie, or Dracula.
Informal language – much more personal. This is like the way you would speak to a friend or a family member. It can sound friendly, but very out of place and rudely familiar in the wrong situation. Imagine writing to the Queen. “Hi Liz, what’s up? How are you handling this heatwave? It’s a nightmare isn’t it! I’m totally boiling here in my flat – no aircon because my landlord’s an idiot. WTF right? Bet you’re keeping cool tho cos you’ve got so many fans! LOL!” On one hand it’s really friendly and relaxed, but on the other hand it shows no respect if you aren’t personal friends with that person because it’s too close – there isn’t enough distance.
Neutral language – somewhere in the middle. In fact, you can get formal/neutral and informal/neutral. It’s a bit personal and friendly sounding, but not to the extent that you seem overly familiar. The vast majority of language that we use every day is neutral. It can be a bit more formal, e.g. using no contractions, probably using the bigger latin words, certain polite constructions.
Are these formal, neutral or informal situations? Let’s play around a bit. (Listen for the answers)
Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are visiting your office and you’re writing a welcoming letter to be presented to them on arrival.
A letter from the RMC about the annual expenditure and building costs (which I have to pay for).
You are writing to a manufacturing company (maybe a weapons manufacturer) requesting information about a new product range.
You are a marketing manager writing an internal email to a member of the accounts department to ask for some sales data. You know this person because you sometimes have meetings with them and you have had lunch together a few times.
You’re writing to your best friend because you want to remind them to water the plants in your flat when you go away.
You’re writing to your wife to suggest that you have pizza for dinner this evening.
With phrasal verbs, I’d say – it’s a fairly reliable rule that the more formal you get, the less you use them.
There’s usually a formal equivalent – probably a latin origin word.
Phrasal verb – more formal equivalent
Call off – cancel
Put off – postpone
Carry out – execute
Get across – communicate
Hold up – delay
Pick up – collect
Get off – alight
Turn down – refuse
Phrasal verbs are less formal than their ‘latin’ equivalents, but you will find them in language including some financial reports, professional emails and so on.
If you’re being really formal, avoid them. If you’re being just neutral, you will probably want to use some.
If you’re being informal, you’ll use them a lot.
That’s the best I can say right now without writing a whole book on the subject. Keep your eyes peeled when you’re reading or hearing different types of English.
Cat in reply to Salwa
I have the same confusion here, Salwa. I have to write tons of emails each day, to people from different countries, using English, of course. The question I’m always asking myself is — how formal and how informal can I get without confusing the other side… Often I have to check myself before I wreck myself; and at times failing badly, I fear…
The other day I wrote to a lady in UK with the name “Clare” — she wanted to double check on something — and I wrote to her “Hi Clare! I see, there is a need for some Clare-fication here. ;)” Now I’m a bit worried, maybe I shouldn’t have written such things…. What do you think?
Then, on the same day, I was desperately trying to invite some students to one event we were organising for the said Clare. And I wrote to our students:
“Come and build a bridge
to the University of Cambridge!”
(she was from Cambridge). I don’t know how it sounds for native speakers… But sometimes it’s fun to have a bit of fun at work. :))
Using Humour in Emails
It’s fun – but beware of making jokes in emails it almost never works.
If you’re lucky, and Clare is 100% lovely, she will find it charming.
But what are the chances she is 100% lovely?
There’s a big risk that she will think it’s pretty cheesy.
Humour is very hard to pull off unless you’re being self-deprecating (and I don’t recommend that too much either, especially in emails).
Beware of making jokes with people’s names. They might just get a bit triggered by that and won’t see the funny side.
I feel a bit awkward here because I have said that humour is everywhere in British culture, but remember that we go for self-deprecating humour a lot – understatement, putting ourselves down a little bit. If you do wacky puns on someone’s name, they might just think you’re the annoying office joker.
But maybe not! Brits love a pun, and Catherine you are very charming and I don’t know the relationship you have with Clare, so maybe she will like it and it will help you two bond more.
Thing is, how is she now supposed to respond? It’s hard for her to adopt the same tone. That’s why it’s potentially inappropriate.
Clare might think you’re a bit nuts, to be honest!
But I think you’re wise enough to know what you’re doing Cat, right?
The Cambridge University joke is better, because it’s not a joke about someone’s name. But, does she work at Cambridge University? If not, she might be thinking, “well, what do I have to do with Cambridge University, just because I’m from Cambridge?”
I’m teachersplaining now, and possibly making you feel bad, I don’t know. The jokes are sweet and nice but the danger is that they will backfire on you.
But if it was me, I would avoid that kind of thing in emails. Mainly because there’s no chance for you to react quickly to rescue the situation if she doesn’t like it or understand it, and email lacks all the subtlety of body language, facial expressions and intonation that you need to help make a joke like that.
I speak from experience as someone who has put my foot in it by making silly jokes which impressed nobody, and as someone who has found silly jokes to be slightly inappropriate, annoying and awkward.
That’s it for now! Thanks for listening.
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