Talking to Michael Lavers from the Level Up English Podcast about learning Japanese, embarrassing moments in language learning, social awkwardness and some “very British problems”. Are you as socially awkward as a British person? Let’s see how you and Michael would respond to some quiz questions that will test your British awkwardness to the max. Video version available.
Today on the podcast I am talking to Michael Lavers who is an English teacher from Cornwall in the South West of England. Michael also has a podcast for learners of English. It’s called The Level Up English Podcast – you might want to check it out if you haven’t already done so. It’s available wherever you get your podcasts.
As well as being an English teacher, Michael is also a language learner himself and in his podcast episodes he often talks with guests about experiences of learning other languages, including those embarrassing or awkward moments that happen when you feel shy or you make mistakes. Also, Michael has described himself as a socially awkward person who lacks a certain amount of confidence in himself. In fact, he says that one of the reasons he started his podcast was to try and gain some confidence by going out of his comfort zone.
So this is what I thought I would ask Michael about: his language learning experiences and those awkward and embarrassing moments, and then I’d like to chat about social awkwardness and whether this is a uniquely British thing. And we’re going to go into some specific examples of how this so-called British awkwardness manifests itself.
That’s the plan, so now, let’s meet Michael Lavers from the Level Up English Podcast.
Awkward Situations – Very British Problems
Here are some questions based on some tweets by the popular Twitter account, Very British Problems. Each one describes a specific problem that British people typically experience in social situations. They seem to sum up the experience of being a British person. We’re socially awkward – I don’t know why.
Let’s see how you respond to these questions. And listeners, I want you to consider your answers to these questions too, then we’ll see what Michael says, and then we’ll see the original tweets and we can see if they match up.
Questions & Tweets
How do you feel when you walk through the “nothing to declare” gate at an airport?
You’re sitting with a group of people. It’s time for you to leave. What do you say as you kind of slap your hands on your knees and stand up?
If someone says something to you but you don’t hear it, how many times are you willing to ask them to repeat themselves?
What do you say to your taxi driver as they approach the point where you want to get out of the cab?
If you’re on a train, sitting in the window seat with a passenger next to you, and your stop is approaching, what do you do to signal to the passenger in the aisle seat that you will need to get up?
You’re standing at the exit door of the train as it is pulling into the station, slowly coming to a stop, and there is a crowd of other passengers right behind you, eager to get off the train. The “Open door” button isn’t yet illuminated. What do you do? Do you press the button?
How do you feel when the ticket inspector inspects your perfectly valid ticket?
What do you say, modestly, to guests arriving in your home, even though you spent some time before their arrival, tidying things up?
There’s one last roast potato on the table at Sunday lunch. You want to eat it. How do you achieve this?
Just take it and eat it
Ask if you can eat it
Offer it to everyone else first
Do you ever tell your housemates or family that you are “off to bed” but then just stare at your phone in bed for an hour?
Imagine you are walking through a hallway with lots of doors in it, like in a library or something and you’re walking just behind a stranger who keeps having to hold the doors for you. How many different ways of saying “thanks” can you think of?
How do you end an email? Is there a subtly less friendly difference between kind regards and just regards?
What do you do when you get an incoming call from an unknown number?
How good are you at overtaking someone on foot?
Do you feel it necessary to speed up at all, when walking over a zebra crossing?
If you pay for something with exactly the right change, and you know it’s exactly the right change, do you wait for the cashier to count the money?
I have had some entries already. If you’ve sent me something, then thank you. Please send your designs to firstname.lastname@example.org and my brother and I will review the entries we receive, talk about them on the podcast and pick at least one to be featured in the LEP Merch store.
Think of a t-shirt that LEPsters would want to wear
PRIZE: The winning design will be put on t-shirts, mugs and other merch, and the winner will also win £80!
SPECS: A high-resolution transparent .PNG at 150dpi. Minimum dimensions of at least 1500px by 1995px (not including outer transparent pixels).
Talking to author Natasha V Broodie who has written a book which aims to help learners of English understand the subtle codes of polite language when making requests and giving information in professional and personal contexts. In the conversation we explore the topic and consider some tips for making your language more culturally appropriate.
In this episode I am talking to author Natasha V Broodie who has written a book which aims to help learners of English to find the right tone in their speaking and writing. Tone is something which is very much affected by culture and often relates to things like being direct, indirect, formal, informal, the use of modal verbs and phrasal verbs and so on. In English the general tone is often quite friendly, indirect and polite, and this can sometimes cause problems for English speakers coming from different places where codes of politeness or professionalism are different.
Natasha has worked as an English teacher and has also worked in international contexts for the UN and so she has direct experience of observing people communicating in English and not quite getting the tone right.
So in her book, “Give me tea, please. Practical Ingredients for Tasteful Language” she lays out a sort of style guide with theory, practical tips and a glossary of defined vocabulary at the back.
It sounds like an interesting book which could be a worthwhile read for my listeners, so I thought it would be good to chat with Natasha a little bit and explore some of the ideas presented in her book.
“Give me tea, please” is currently available on Amazon but from 24 September should be available from all other providers too.
Right, so now you know what sort of thing we’re going to be talking about, let’s meet Natasha Broodie and find out some of those practical tips for tasteful language.
How are you doing? How is everything in your particular part of LEPland today as you listen to this? What’s going on? Where are you? How are you? Who are you? How’s your English? OK I hope.
This podcast is here to help by giving you a source (not sauce) of authentic English to listen to on a regular basis. There are various ways you can use the podcast to improve your English but let’s just keep it simple and say – all you need to do is listen, try to follow what is being said and hopefully enjoy the process, even if it’s a bit difficult to understand every single thing. Sometimes you will find notes and transcripts on the page for each episode on my website. Checking them can also be a good idea.
I have another guest today. Marie Connolly is back on the podcast in this episode. She came over to the flat a few weeks ago to record this conversation.
I know Marie from doing stand up comedy both in London and Paris. Like a lot of my friends she does stand-up, and she has also worked as an English teacher but these days the main thing she does is write – she is mainly a writer now – an author – writing books both for adults and for children.
You might remember Marie from episode 683 in October last year, when she told us some funny stories about moments when French men have flirted with her, and the book that she wrote which contains all those stories. Episode number 683 – that’s the last time Marie was on the show.
But she is back again to tell us about a new series of books she has written, this time for children. So, if you know any kids aged 8 or above, and you want to encourage them to read something fun in English, these books could be a good choice. They are written for people with English as a first language, so they’re not for beginners, but they are fun and if your kids can read English, they might like these stories.
She’s going to tell us about those stories and the process of writing and self-publishing them but this conversation also contains lots of other stuff too – including different types of extreme sports, the classic old topic of doing comedy to audiences from different countries, an anecdote about the time Jerry Seinfeld came to one of our comedy shows, some comments from listeners in response to Marie’s last apperance, and more stuff for your listening pleasure.
Right then. So let’s now enjoy the company of Marie Connolly once again. I will speak to you a bit more on the other side of this conversation, and here we go…
Thanks again to Marie Connolly there. You can find her books on Amazon – her writing alias is Muddy Frank, and you could search for Dude’s Gotta Snowboard.
There are also links on the page for this episode on my website.
So thanks again to Marie.
So how’s everything going with you?
I will say that things are pretty busy here, with a lot of work going on and also some fairly complicated general life stuff – basically, we are in the process of moving to a new flat, and if you’ve moved flat or moved house, you’ll know how complex and disruptive that can be.
Of course, all our possessions will have to be packed in boxes, moved to a completely new place and then unpacked, and that’s after all the decoration and work we’re having done on the new place and all that stuff. I will be leaving my pod room, taking everything down. All the books are coming off the shelves, all my equipment will be boxed up, all the guitars are coming down, everything is moving.
What is cool is that I am going to have my own dedicated office/recording space/pod-room.
It’s going to be incredibly small – more of a cupboard than an office, but it will be my HQ for LEP, and it’s not going to be part of our new flat. It’s in a completely different location, but it’s 5 minutes on foot from our new place. Anyway, we have a LOT of stuff to get done and our lives will be kind of turned upside down over the next couple of months, plus we want to do a trip to the UK for a holiday and various other things, so I don’t know how this is going to affect the podcast. I suppose there’s a chance I won’t be able to record, which would be a pity, although I’m sure you’d understand. I would have to publish some premium content though.
Luckily I have a few episodes recorded and edited and ready to be published, and they will continue to arrive over the next few weeks, but meanwhile, things in LEP HQ are a little bit chaotic at the moment. I won’t go into it in further detail at this moment, but as I said I will try to publish a rambling episode with news and comments about what’s going on and maybe I’ll respond to some listener comments and stuff like that soon, ok. In any case, podcasts will be arriving as normal at least for the next 4 or 5 weeks, so everything should be ship shape in podcastland, even if things are a bit crazy behind the scenes. We will see if I can continue to create and publish content during the madness of the next few months.
I said I wouldn’t ramble here. I’ll save it all for a full on rambling episode next time.
In any case, I hope you are well out there in podcastland.
At the end of the episode I thought I would sing a couple of songs which I’ve been playing recently.
Hello listeners, here is an episode about English Tests like TOEFL and the Duolingo English Test which I hope will still be an interesting episode even for those who have no plans to take one of these tests. I’m joined by online English teacher Josh MacPherson. I guess you have heard of TOEFL, and the Duolingo English Test is a test made by Duolingo, that company which helps you learn languages on your phone, and which seems to be managed by a green cartoon owl, who is some kind of master of learning English. They make a test now, and it’s getting really big.
Some time is spent describing the tests but we don’t just spend an hour describing TOEFL. Most of the time we are doing samples from the test, commenting on my performance in a TOEFL speaking task, discussing testing methods in general and giving comments on ways to perform well, particularly in the speaking parts of a test like TOEFL and IELTS.
Also, tests should be reliable and having genuinely good English skills should (of course) cause you to get decent results, so a lot of the tips relating to getting a better score are also generally good tips for improving your level of English, so even if you’re not planning to take one of these tests, the tips and advice here should be applicable to your English anyway.
There is a video version of this episode on YouTube and you can see Josh’s screen and can observe our conversation as if you are taking part in a Zoom call with us. You can find the video on the page for this episode or on my YouTube channel.
Again, the audio is not tip top this time round and that was caused by things like microphone echo, which I have managed to fix, but in any case I think you can still hear everything clearly.
That’s it, I hope you enjoy it and you will find all the links you need on the page for this episode on my website.
Let’s get started
I am joined today by Josh MacPherson from TSTPrep.com and the TST Prep YouTube channel.
Josh is an English teacher who specialises in helping learners of English prepare for English tests, particularly TOEFL and also the fairly new DuoLingo English Test.
I thought I’d interview Josh to find out more about these tests and to get some tips from him about how to get the best result that you can.
Also, we’re going to do some test questions during this interview, so we can see how well I perform in these tests too.
Thanks again to Josh for his contribution to this episode.
Don’t forget, links are available on the page for this episode for all the things Josh mentioned there including test practice, sample answers, tips and videos.
Thank you as ever for listening all the way up to this point.
There’s not much more for me to add here. I haven’t played the guitar on the podcast lately, but I will be coming back to that soon, but for now I will just wish you a fond farewell and until next time, good bye bye bye bye bye
This is a weird period of history in which we are living? I hope you’re getting on ok. Here in France the government has just put some new lockdown restrictions in place and we’re all trying to work out what they really mean. I don’t want to go on about covid on this podcast too much, except to say “hang in there everyone” and keep calm and carry on. Check out my episode from earlier this year which is all about language for talking about lockdown and dealing with lockdown, including the word lockdown, if you’re wondering what that is.
Here’s an episode in which I’m on my own, doing a bit of housekeeping – general podcast admin. I’m mainly going to talk about the WISBOLEP competition (as you can see from the title of the episode), but also I’m going to ramble about a few other things too including teaching you a bit of English – just some simple advice about making polite requests, also an inspiring message from a listener and maybe a song on the guitar at the end, we will see.
I’m publishing this episode hot on the heels of the last episode, which was my conversation with Christian from Canguro English (LEP686). Have you heard that? I only published it a few days ago and conventional podcasting wisdom says that you shouldn’t publish another episode so quickly after the last one, because the last one will sort of get ignored, lost, forgotten or sidelined as people won’t notice it and it won’t get as many listens as it should.
I think it’s a good episode, so if you haven’t heard it – be sure to listen to episode 686 with Christian. There’s also a video version of it on YouTube. It’s had a great response with people saying generally positive things, which is nice. Some people are requesting more video content. My position on this is that most of my content will always be audio, because that’s what I do – I make audio content, but every now and then I’ll do video versions of episodes and stick them on YouTube as well. OK. So subscribe to LEP on YouTube to make sure you get notified when I publish a video episode. I’ll probably tell you on the podcast too.
Also the episode before last has had some really interesting comments on the website. That was the episode about bilingual children in which we heard Alex in Moscow and his daughter Alice. Very interesting to read the comments from LEPsters or LEPlanders who are also bringing up their kids to speak English. Go to the episode archive and find 685 and read the comments. It’s all interesting stuff. I will do more of those bilingual kids episodes at some point. It’s a bit hard to mentally keep track of everything. There are a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous – a lot strands in this old dude’s head, man.
The deadline for sending in your entries was 15 October, so that’s long gone. One person is now freaking out.
The results aren’t ready yet or anything. You still have to vote for your favourites and all that – “how can we vote?” Steady on, the voting’s not ready yet either. All in good time.
All the recordings are sitting there in my inbox and I haven’t had a proper chance to work on the next stage of the competition yet. Things take time around here, you know how it is.
First of all I should say that it was great to get all the entries. I’ve managed to listen to almost all of them. I should say that it’s amazing to hear the voices of some of my listeners (some of them – obviously only a tiny portion of you sent in recordings because the vast majority of you are ninjas as we know, and that’s fine). It’s inspiring to hear little snippets of people’s stories of learning English, with the help of this podcast in many cases. That’s also quite flattering – that’s not the point of it all of course – just to flatter me or something. The point was to encourage you to step out of your comfort zone a little bit and record something and send it in, to celebrate my audience a bit and also to just find a new guest with an interesting story to tell in an episode of the podcast. I want to say well done for everyone who plucked up the courage to record a sincere entry into the competition. Some of them are particularly inventive and… well, you will see.
It’s going to be very difficult to choose a winner, because there are quite a lot of really interesting people and I’m sure you are going to want to hear more from many of them.
But the thing is, I have a bit of a problem. We have a bit of a problem with this competition. It’s a logistical issue. Logistical refers to the organisation of something complicated.
It’s not a major problem. It’s not like a Tom Cruise jump out of a plane to save-the-world Mission Impossible to problem or anything – no explosions. It’s quite a good problem really, but still, I’ve been scratching my head and wondering what to do about it.
What’s the problem Luke?
The problem is… I’ve had 100 entries – each one 2 minutes in length – that’s about 200 minutes in total, and that’s about 3 and a half hours if I play all the entries back to back without any pause or comment from me between them and without any introduction from me, and I will have to do some kind of introduction at the start, and it will also be necessary for me to say the names of each person again plus maybe one or two other things to help you remember them.
So, 200 minutes or 3.5 hours, plus an introduction in which I explain the voting rules etc, and little comments from me – that’s at least 4 hours of audio.
It’s too much, isn’t it? It’s too much audio for me to expect everyone to listen to. And I need everyone to listen to it all because I want to do some kind of fair voting process for this. Hmmm.
I like doing long episodes, but this goes beyond that, especially since I would like every single two-minute entry to be heard and you’ll need to remember which one or ones are your favourites in order to vote for them on my website.
Imagine a presidential election with 100 candidates, all presenting themselves to you one after the other. You’d never remember who they were, even if they were all extraordinary.
So this is the issue. Too many entries. It’s become a bit of a logistical nightmare.
It’s my fault. I take full responsibility of course. I set the 2-minute time limit for each recording because I thought you’d need that long to say something meaningful.
What did I expect though? For some reason I thought not many people would enter, but I don’t know why I thought that. I should have known that I’d get at least 100 entries!
Anyway, what’s the problem? You might think.
Let’s go through the options I have ahead of me now and we’ll see.
Why am I telling you this?
Transparency – I want everyone to know what’s going on, so that I don’t get loads of messages from people asking my why I’m doing it this way, and not that way and why didn’t you do this, and I thought you would do that, and I’m disappointed with this and why didn’t you play my recording, and I thought you’d play them all, and I was disappointed by the last Star Wars film and English is too complicated because the spelling and pronunciation are weird and there are too many accents and why can I understand you Luke but I don’t understand other native speakers and can you explain the Russian Joke and why why why and all that kind of stuff.
To avoid confusion and questions, I want you to know the situation like I do.
Also I’m curious to see what you think and I would like you to tell me your thoughts because it can help me make the right decision. (although to be honest I think I’ve already made up my mind)
I’d like to have some input from you but ultimately, I do maintain supreme executive power, so I will still do what I personally think is best, but nevertheless, I am interested in your ideas and I want you to know my decision making process.
Some of you will think this is all unnecessary and that I’m overthinking it, but I disagree. I think it’s necessary and I’m applying the appropriate amount of thinking and talking time to this. So there.
The main things we need to do are:
I want you, the audience, to be able to hear all the entries that have been sent to me (because I think people sent them to me with the understanding that they would be published for public scrutiny) and I want you to be able to vote for your favourites, rather than it just being a solo decision from me.
I would like to give an introduction before playing all the entries, because there are things I need to say about the voting process and stuff like that. Also I would like to make one or two little comments after some or all of the entries, as well as repeating the names of the contestants. All those things will increase the time this will all take, of course – so we’re looking at 4hours plus in total.
Then, based on the voting by you the audience, I will interview the winner. There might be a couple of runners up too, we will see.
I want to do this in a way which is fair, and which gives everyone an equal chance (because I am committed to maintaining some democratic standards in this world!)
Here are the different options which I’m considering. None of them are perfect, because of the whole “too many entries” issue. (by the way, saying “too many” does sound negative, but like I said before, this is quite a good problem in a sense. It’s a bit like having too much chocolate in your cupboard or something, or too much cake. Oh we’ve got too much cake! When and how will we eat it all? We can’t throw it away can we?) You see? Yes, you see. The cake metaphor is good.
So, the options I’m considering. And I’ll say right now that I think I’m going to choose option 4. Anyway, here we go.
I play all the entries (in alphabetical order, or chronological order) in one single epically long episode – probably about 4 hours long or more.
Problem: This is obviously far too long and just not a practical length for one single episode of the podcast. The chances are, people will not listen to the whole thing and most of the entries will not be heard and so the voting will be unfair.
I play all the entries, but in a series of episodes (that all get uploaded on the same day). It would probably be 5 or 6 episodes → Introduction, WISBOLEP 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5. 20 entries in each episode. Each episode is about 45 minutes long.
Problem: It’s more or less the same as option 1. Will people listen to all the entries? The people in parts 4 and 5 might not get as much attention as the ones in the first part.
Also, I have to say that I have to be a bit careful about what I publish to my podcast feed.
Dropping 5 episodes of only competition entries into my podcast feed is not the greatest idea – and I say that as a podcaster and podcasters must be fairly careful about what they publish. I have to be honest, I think that the majority of my audience aren’t that invested in the competition and the entries.
I have a survey on my website asking people to vote for their favourite types of episode (find it in the CONTANT section) and this kind of episode – competition entries from listeners – is actually the least popular type of episode that I do. I like doing them, but I have to make sure I do it right. I think the reason this type of episode got low votes in my survey is because the last time I did this (YEP competition) I published all the entries from round 1 (8 episodes in total, all in a row) and it probably wasn’t what a lot of people wanted in their podcast feed. I shouldn’t really do that again.
I choose what I think are the best entries and create a shortlist of something like 20 entries, and play them in one episode, and let people vote on just those 20.
Problem: 80 people’s entries just get rejected and never get played or published in any way, which is a pity and I think that would disappoint about 80 people who took the time to record something thinking that it would appear on LEP. I don’t think I ever said that all the entries were guaranteed to be played on the podcast, but I may have given that impression.
This would essentially solve the main problem of there being too many entries, but I don’t really want to just just chuck 80 recordings in the bin. Those people recorded them expecting them to be heard by more than just me.
I create two rounds of voting.
The first round is done on the website only, meaning that all the entries are posted on my website but not played in an episode of the podcast.
That way, the people who really want to listen to all the entries and vote for them, can do it by going to the website and listening there. I would probably post all the audio as an unlisted YouTube video because I can create time stamps for each entry, making it easier for you to find them and hear them.
So, the episodes would all be available for listening on the website (so they are made publically available) and people can vote for their favourites there. The winners of the first round could be decided by a combination of votes from listeners and my own choices.
Round 2 would be something like the most popular 20 entries from round 1 and all of them would be played in an episode of the podcast.
This would make it much easier for the whole audience to vote.
The winner of round 2 would be interviewed on the podcast.
It might be possible for some runners up to be featured too.
So, which option do you prefer?
To be honest, I’m leaning towards option 4. I think I’m going to choose option 4 but I’d also like to run it by you to see what you all think.
The chances are, you’ll all have different opinions and different advice, which is fine.
I get the final say and you’ll just have to trust me on that.
Let me just recap
Option 1 – one mammoth 4 hour episode with all the entries. No.
Option 2 – one mammoth 5-part WISBOLEP series. I don’t fancy it.
Option 3 – I choose the top 20 entries and publish them, and just bin the rest, never to be heard by the public.
Option 4 – Put all the entries on the website and those people who want to listen to every single one, can do it, and they can vote too.The most popular 20 (let’s say) will then be published in a single WISBOLEP episode for the second round of voting. The selection process will be based on a combination of the listener voting and my own judgement (which will probably be more or less the same I expect).
Again, some of you might say I’m overthinking this whole thing. But I’m just trying to do it properly and fairly.
I think I’m going to choose option 4, but as I said, let me know your thoughts.
You might have an idea for an option 5 for example, so feel free to share that.
But do bear in mind that I also have to limit the time and cost that is involved on my side for this.
For example, if your idea for Option 5 could be for me to do a YouTube live stream in which I play all the entries one by one, with some comments from me… well, that could be fun, but it would also mean me live streaming on YouTube for a lot more than 4 hours probably, and it’s rare that I ever get 4 free consecutive hours in my life these days! So, that would just not be practical from my side. [Do it at night!] No, sorry. I need my beauty sleep.
My name is Luke not Luck / look / Mr Luke / luke (lower case L) or Luke’s
I’ve been doing this for 11.5 years, nearly 700 episodes (a lot more in fact) and I’m still talking about how to spell my name (I remember saying this in episode 1 of the podcast).
People often spell my name Luck → but maybe it’s autocorrect!
Proofread your emails and comments before you send them! (advice for us all)
So this whole “Luck English Postcard” thing might just be a conspiracy by computers and phones that are “just trying to make the world a better place” by helping us with our spelling (and yes, “postcard” is often what people type when they mean podcast – maybe that’s because they think the word is postcard – it is the sort of word people learn in lower-level English classes, or it’s because your computer doesn’t have very good English and it’s “helpfully” autocorrecting podcast to postcard. I don’t know.)
Having said that, I remember many many times when I was actually called Luck, look, ruku or rook or whatever by learners from around the world that I have met, but again that’s probably because it’s hard to pronounce Luke, or people don’t realise that Luke is a name and they think my name is Luck.
For example, if I was learning Chinese or Russian or any other language with words that look different to English I am sure I would make similar errors and worse probably. I do it in French.
Basically, what I’m saying is I forgive you. But please do remember to proofread your emails and comments. ;)
Making Polite Requests
Another language point here with reference to people getting in touch with me: making requests.
People often request certain things from me. Like for example they’re very keen to hear me talk about a certain topic.
Luke, make an episode about Peaky Blinders.
Luke, do more videos.
Luke, publish an episode about Ricky Gervais.
Honestly, when I read that, probably in the queue at the supermarket or something, my first reaction is “no”. “No-one tells me what to do! … well, except maybe my daughter, and my wife, and my boss at work, and the government, and.. well ok fine, some people tell me what to do, but you get the point.”
Even though I would quite like to do an episode about Peaky Blinders, or Ricky Gervais and I like doing videos when I can.
My first, stressed out, overloaded mind, trying to not catch COVID reaction is “no – don’t tell me what to do!”
I think this is just because of the way the request has been presented to me.
In most cases, when people request things from me, I am sure they are being very well-meaning and there is no malice behind it at all, quite the opposite. They’re showing their enthusiasm and it’s motivated by positive feelings. They like the podcast and would love to hear something about Peaky Blinders or whatever it is.
What I’m saying is, think about how you word your requests.
Think of the difference between a request and an order (or an imperative).
Requests are polite (they should be), orders are not really polite. Orders are what the police do, for example. “Get in the back of the van!”
I could get into the fine details and all the linguistic specifics, but this is not LEP Premium, so let’s just keep it simple.
Order / imperative
Make an episode about Ricky Gervais.
Even your boss at work doesn’t use imperatives.
“Write this report and send it to me by 5pm Friday, and also come in to work on Sunday, we need you.” –> if you work in a horrible place with a boss who doesn’t care about your feelings even a little bit.
Usually bosses will at least sugarcoat their requests a little bit, to help the medicine go down.
“If you could wrap up this report and ping it to me by end of play on Friday, that would be great, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to come in on Sunday – there’s nothing we can do about it – I’ll see if I can get you a day off later in the year maybe.”
Let’s consider how to turn an imperative into a simple and polite request.
Luke, make a new video with Amber and Paul.
You could add a “please” to that, because we all know that adding please makes it more polite, right?
Luke, please make a new video with Amber and Paul.
That’s better, but adding please to an order isn’t enough. It is still an order, and it just sounds like you are a rich person giving commands to a member of staff or something.
Also, adding thanks at the end makes it sound a bit dismissive and a little bit rude even.
Luke, please reunite the Beatles on the podcast. Thanks.
Saying thanks for something before it’s been done, I think, sounds a bit pushy. It’s like assuming it’s going to be done.
We sometimes write “Thanks in advance” at the end of an email with a request, but it can still come across as a bit pushy. [Thinks: I need to do an online course about writing emails…]
The issue is with the structure. Any imperative structure still sounds quite rude even if you add lots of stuff at the start or end, because it is still an imperative. It’s still an order.
Luke, please consider making an episode about James Bond. [good, you’ve added “please consider” – a nice bit of hedging but you’re still ordering me to do it.]
Luke, if you have time, please consider making an episode about James Bond. [“If you have time” is a thoughtful thing to add, but again this is still an order.]
Both those things are better, but this is still not what I’m looking for.
What are you looking for Luke?
You need to make your request into a question. To cut a long story short I just recommend that you add “Could you” at the start and “please” at the end. That’s it. That’s probably enough, probably. Don’t forget the question mark.
Luke, could you make an episode about Ricky Gervais please?
This is much better. It just comes across as much more polite and nice and I don’t feel like I’m being ordered to do something. I’m more willing to have an instantly positive response to that.
Even better would be a bit more hedging (adding things before or after the main statement), just to show more respect.
You don’t have to go too far.
Luke, your podcast is a work of genius unrivalled in all forms of art, culture and human endeavor, and I am certain that in your infinite wisdom have you have considered all possible topics for an episode of your esteemed podcast. Having said that, and I pose this most humble of requests to you with the deepest level of respect, sir, would it be at all possible if you could consider spending even a tiny speck of your most valuable time on the consideration of an episode devoted to the subject of Richard Gervais. I am certain that you would bring new insights and depth to this topic, and that all other commentary on it would pale in comparison to the profound work that you would undoubtedly produce.
That’s obviously too much.
But you could do this:
Hi Luke, thanks for your episodes. I particularly enjoy the ones about comedy, especially the one you did about Karl Pilkington. Could you do an episode about Ricky Gervais at some point, please? I’d really like to hear your thoughts on his stand up and TV shows. Don’t know if you’ve already considered that, but it would be really interesting to hear your thoughts.
Or, more simply – Luke, could you do an episode about Ricky Gervais please?
I know online culture is to just put things in the simplest and quickest way possible, but let’s not abandon the pragmatics of politeness in the process.
This is not just me by the way – I’m not just ultrasensitive or anything – this is a cultural thing and I think it’s true across the English speaking world.
Some of you might think that my comments here are waaaay too much and that it’s completely mad, unnecessary and over-sensitive to phrase your requests like this, but if you want my professional opinion I’d say → this is the right way to do it.
And that’s it.
Just to recap. If you are requesting something from me, just add “Could you…” at the start and “please?” at the end. Nice one.
Inspiring message from Daniel ER on Facebook
Dear luke, [actually it should be Luke with a captal L :) ]
I´m not sure whether you will have time to read this comment but here it goes anyway.
Three years ago, I got a ticket to Australia. With no English at all, I was determined to have an amazing adventure, live in another country, and obviously, learn English.
To be honest, it was really hard at the beginning. I had to play music in the street to earn some cash and I felt bad when I couldn´t say what I thought to the kind people of Australia.
Six months went by like nothing so I grabbed my backpack and accordion and took a road trip towards the north of Australia (Queensland).
I could [was able to] get a job in a resort as maintenance and although I [‘ve] gotta say that Australian English “is a thing”, all of them helped with my English, they were really patient with me.
Most of the time I was sad: People speak too fast, where is that accent from? What do you mean by “smoko” mate? It was then when I found your podcast. I had lots of time to listen to Spotify while I was fixing something at the resort so I took advantage of that. This really helped me a lot, I couldn´t be more grateful. I won´t forget episode 297 called “be positive” as I listened to it just on time, just when I was feeling that this fight wasn´t worth it.
Now, being fully aware that my English is not the best one, it is at least functional and that´s the point of all this, isn´t it? We must keep improving but at the end of the day you should be nicer to yourself, I mean that we have to recognize the achievements done so far.
I am back in my country (Chile) and I could [was able to] get an amazing job in which I speak English all day long, and you don´t know how awesome that is to me.
I honestly believe that maybe you are not fully aware of what do you actually do… you help people to achieve their dreams so be proud of all your efforts because we – your listeners- will be eternally grateful.
If someone out there is reading this comment and you are feeling frustrated and sad, just keep going! You can do this, it is not impossible and you have everything you need to learn this beautiful language. The key, in my opinion, you must be willing to go through the tough and uncomfortable moments that are on this path. You will remember them since they are the ones that teach us most. (quite sure I wrote that badly hahaha)
Thanks a lot for everything and I´ll certainly be listening to the podcast.
My dad has written a book and it’s all about the wildlife you can find in an urban English park. He’s on the podcast to tell us all about it, and there are some collective nouns for animals too, plus some bonus stand up comedy at the end.
Hello listeners, this is a reminder about LEP Premium, which is my other podcast service. With episodes of LEP Premium I focus specifically on language, helping you understand, remember and pronounce target vocab and grammar. I’m currently still deep into premium series 24 which is about homophones, but also you can access an archive of over 80 episodes now both audio and video, all about teaching you the kind of English that I speak, and there are plenty of stupid improvisations and jokes and things too. Get started by going to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo
Welcome back to Luke’s English Podcast – this award-winning podcast for learners of English. Yes, the podcast has won a few awards over the years, but not lately. The last few years have been quiet, on the award front. If you see any competitions for best podcast for learners of English, or something, let me know!
Speaking of competitions, I’ve been thinking of launching another listener competition, and I’m wondering what you think. The competition would involve you recording yourself speaking and sending it into the podcast, then people would vote for their favourite and that person would then get interviewed in a full episode of the podcast. This idea was sent to me some time ago by a listener called Vadim. What do you think? I haven’t fully decided to do it yet, so let me know what you think of this new competition idea from Vadim.
But anyway, what about this episode then?
Park Life – A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park
As promised, this episode features my dad, which should be good news for all the Rick Thompson fans out there. As you might know we sometimes call my dad Rickipedia because he knows so much stuff about so many things, although it might be unreliable from time to time.
People often say that my dad should start his own podcast, as his episodes are so popular. He still hasn’t created a podcast of his own, but I am glad to say that he has written a book.
The book is called “Park Life – A year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park”
In this episode I’m going to talk to my dad about the book he’s written including a broader discussion of urban parks in the UK – green public spaces which perform an increasingly important role in UK life.
We start by talking about the book, what it’s about, how he was inspired to write it and what style it’s written in. Then we move on to describe some of the wildlife you can find in a local English urban park. Then we discuss some history of urban parks and the health benefits of spending time in green spaces.
Also there are some collective nouns for different animals, including things like “a murder of crows” and “an unkindness of ravens”. Keep listening to hear some more.
I hope you enjoy the conversation. I’ll chat with you a bit afterwards, but now, here is Rick Thompson talking about his new book.
Thanks again to Dad for being on the podcast today. Once again, check Amazon or BookDepository for Rick Thompson Park Life to pick up a copy of my dad’s book for yourself.
In fact the book has already picked up a 5 star rating on Amazon from someone called Princesslizzykins
I have no idea who she is, but this is her review.
5.0 out of 5 stars
A wonderful read.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 5 September 2020
What a beautifully and thoughtfully written book.
A super balance of content between wildlife and local history, with some lovely poetic references thrown in, this book shows how anyone can escape the haste of urban life and take a moment to look at and love the world around them.
I live in Warwick, so have the added benefit of knowing the localities mentioned, but would recommend this to absolutely anyone that has an urban park near them and enjoys a damn good read.
Thumbs up for Dad. Nice one.
We’re not done here yet, I have some more things to do in this episode.
First of all, you heard me mention the stand up comedy gig that I had on Sunday and I did the gig and it went fine. I recorded it so I’ll play a few minutes of that at the end of the episode.
But first, let me go through some more collective nouns for animals. This is a really interesting and curious aspect of English – the way we use different words to collectivise different animals.
You heard us mention some there, and I’ve included them in this list too. So here is a list of common collective nouns for animals.
As promised earlier, here are a few minutes from my stand up set on Sunday evening. There was one LEPster in the audience by the way, who had come because he’d seen the gig advertised on my facebook page www.facebook.com/lukecomedian So, shout out to that LEPster!
Anyway, this was my first gig since Christmas, but it was great to be back on stage again and I should be doing more gigs this year, lockdown permitting.
So this is me on stage at the New York Comedy Night in Paris last Sunday. Thanks for listening and speak to you again soon. Bye…
Professor David Crystal returns to talk about his latest books, and more. The first book is all about the art of conversation in English, and the second one is a spy thriller inspired by real events. David Crystal is one of the world’s leading linguists and an expert on the English language. He is also a national treasure and it’s a treat to be able to talk to him in this episode. Video version also available on the Luke’s English Podcast YouTube channel.
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.