Join me for an unplanned rambling episode about various things including: hump day, bed bugs in Paris 🐞, fashion trends I followed when I was younger 👟👖, CDs 💿 vs cassettes 📼 vs vinyl 🎵, the most relaxing place in the world 🛏, Japanese zen gardens ⛩, Hunter S Thompson 🚬, the most disgusting job I ever had 🤮, and more…
Steve Kaufmann is a very prolific language learner. He has learned at least 20 languages to varying degrees during his life. Some of them he learned during his career as an international diplomat and businessman, and others he has learned during his (semi) retirement. In this interview Steve talks about his language learning experiences, methods and motivations. We talk about various metaphors and similes for language learning including ocean voyages 🚢, cows 🐮, skiing ⛷ and cutting grass🏡, and I ask Steve about cross-cultural experiences he has had during his career. There is a video version but only the audio version contains my intro and ending rambles about getting my hair cut and how you need to remember that you’re a baby cow-shark on skis 🐄🦈🎿😅.
Thanks again to Steve for the interview! Check out his website here https://www.thelinguist.com/
As a language learner, never forget that you are a baby cow-shark on skis!! 🐮🦈⛷
The third (and final) adventure in this series of mini-mysteries on LEP. Can I improve my detective skills to work out the disappearance of a priceless painting and a series of gruesome murders? Story by Peter Carlson and available on textadventures.co.uk
Sorry for mispronouncing “Masaccio” in this episode! 🇮🇹
Giving you as advice about learning English across the four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. Full transcript available.
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
Right, let’s get started.
Hello, welcome to my podcast.
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.
Receptive Skills / Input
Prof. Stephen Krashen
This from Wikipedia
Stephen Krashen has a PhD. in Linguistics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has more than 486 publications, contributing to the fields of second-language acquisition, bilingual education, and reading. He is known for introducing various hypotheses related to second-language acquisition, including the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the input hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, the affective filter, and the natural order hypothesis. Most recently, Krashen promotes the use of free voluntary reading during second-language acquisition, which he says “is the most powerful tool we have in language education, first and second.”
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.
Anyway, what Krashen is saying I suppose is:
Input is vital. This is like your food.
Receptive skills / input
Language has to go in before it comes out.
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.
Just check Amazon bestsellers or Waterstones.com https://www.waterstones.com/books/bestsellers for their current lists.
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
- Pearson Graded Readers https://readers.english.com/
- Penguin Readers https://www.penguin.co.uk/series/penrea/penguin-readers–graded-readers-.html
- Oxford Graded Readers https://elt.oup.com/teachersclub/subjects/gradedreading/?cc=fr&selLanguage=en
- Black Cat https://www.blackcat-cideb.com/en/catalogue/english/graded-readers-en/
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.
So, just read and enjoy it!
Here are some more book recommendations
Book of email correspondence
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
- A diary
- 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
Email English by Paul Emmerson
Ideally you’ll have a teacher to proofread your work, correct you and give you feedback.
If this isn’t possible, it’s still a good idea to write.
A diary (just describe things that happened, or make it more personal and really explore your thoughts and feelings. If the words don’t come, just use basic words. If you feel unable to express yourself perfectly, express yourself imperfectly but try to express yourself.
Writing is not just sentences, it’s paragraphs and pages. The thing you are writing will define how you write it. This means – conventions of certain texts, formality level of the language.
Specific exam tasks → IELTS, FCE, CAE, CPE, BEC higher and vantage
These will often push you to learn the conventions of different types of text, so it could be a good idea to take a Cambridge exam if you want to work on your writing.
You might write some notes on vocab and I would recommend here that you take a more extensive approach to doing this. Don’t just have one word per line. I want to see one word or phrase at the top of the page, and then loads of text underneath full of examples and your own examples with the language. You can then come back and cover up some of the words and try to remember. Alternatively you can use my PDFs with the notes and memory tests if you’re a premium subscriber. Little plug there for my other podcast.
But making more extensive vocabulary notes with plenty of examples means that not only are you recording vocabulary, you’re practising using it in writing too.
I mentioned italki before and you can find tutors, teachers and conversation partners there for regular practice and I do recommend doing that.
Otherwise, let’s look at some ways you can work on your speaking other than in actual spoken practice with others. Developing your speaking on your own.
This is quite a tricky thing to do because normally speaking is an instantly interactive form of communication. It also involves a lot of listening and then being able to produce English instantly and without hesitating too much.
It’s also quite physical as it involves using your mouth to produce words and sentences in the right way.
And of course there are all those cultural things to think about too.
But really speaking should just be your attempt to find your own voice in English, with fluency and with a specific tone. Of course it comes through a lot of practice, of having conversations in which you’re not really thinking about what you’re saying on a grammatical level but it’s pouring out of you due to necessity and not being able to really think a lot. Doing that regularly helps your brain map out the extent of the English you have and increase it, keeping it sort of fresh. That’s not scientific but more a metaphor of what I think speaking can do. It activates something in you that you have to maintain and keep active or those parts of the brain go dull.
So practice x5
But with who?
The fact is, it just helps to talk to other people and that’s the best and most basic advice I can give. Outside of that, you have to manipulate your surroundings and use your imagination to practise speaking on your own.
Talking on your own (and even in your head)
This might sound a bit odd, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to activate English that is in your head. You essentially talk to yourself, out loud, in English, describing what’s going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, say it all in English. Alternatively you can just do it in your own head and just think the sentences. This also keeps that system of language production in your head fresh.
Listen and repeat
You can use certain audio and play a bit, pause, repeat what you heard, rewind, repeat again and keep going until you’ve got it, and then check the transcript or subtitles to see if you’re correct, check any new words and carry on. Always find ways to vocalise the things you are learning and that means saying them out loud even to yourself.
You can also practise different speaking scenarios.
Preparing for a Cambridge exam you can find past papers with speaking part preparation and practise. Find out what’s required in the different parts, watch videos of people taking the speaking part on YouTube, practise answering common questions about yourself, practise speaking on a topic for a minute or two, practise discussing your opinion on the issues of the day. Those are all specific speaking skills that you can practise on your own. I particularly recommend listen and repeat, especially when you have to take quite a long utterance in English, hold it in your head and repeat it like it’s one word? It’s like going to the gym in English. It involves a lot of things: Understanding the clip, identifying the words and grammar, being able to remember it all, being able to produce it in a similar way. That’s a whole punch of different kinds of practice. And if you repeat the sentence straight away, and again, you might notice certain little errors you’re making and correct them. So repeat over and over again, a bit like practising boxing combinations in the ring before the big fight.
In reality, the 4 skills are often mashed up together and you find you are doing things like listening and speaking at the same time, while also taking notes, looking at visuals and so on. It all gets very messy when language is actually applied to real communication in the real world.
A little note about pronunciation and a sort of disclaimer.
I think there are probably plenty of other things I have not mentioned in this episode, such as not talking about specific memory techniques (done that) or specific features of pronunciation (done that) or exactly how to read a book to learn English (done) or plenty of other things probably. To be honest this is just a podcast episode that I wanted to make about the 4 skills and it expanded into an episode all about learning English as a holistic process.
Anyway, the note about pronunciation
- It is worth learning the phonemic script
- It is worth getting the sounds app on your phone
- It is worth doing drills and practising different features
- It’s worth getting a book called Ship or Sheep or other books of that nature.
- It’s worth remembering that if you have an accent when you speak that is fine and it’s part of who you are, the main thing is that you speak clearly, not which regional accent you have. Clarity is the thing to achieve. Also, it’s extremely difficult to “lose” your accent in English. Hardly anyone does it. But you can still be fine with your accent. English is quite open like that. Everyone’s welcome.
But there you have it. That was quite a comprehensive look at how I think learning English is best when you combine two things: comprehensible input, and a clever studying routine.
I think it can work wonders for your English.
And that’s what I try to do with this podcast. Give you all the input in the free episodes and then do some more focused studying in the premium content. Hopefully, together those two channels can boost your English to the max.
Thanks for listening.
To sign up to lep premium go to https://www.teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo for all the details.
Recently I was reading a book about listening and learning English. This episode is a summary of what I read, including details of how listening fits in with learning English, some considerations of the importance of listening and also some tips for how to improve your English with audio.
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This episode is all about the importance of listening in the learning of English. It’s full of various thoughts and reflections about this topic and my aim to a large extent is to give you ideas and inspiration to help you keep learning through listening and to keep doing it more effectively, also to consider some things we know about learning through listening, to encourage you to reflect and form some metacognitive strategies towards your listening and also to give you some practical tips to help you learn English through listening and to improve your listening skills. I suppose ultimately I’d like to develop your process of understanding the place of listening in your learning so that you can take more and more responsibility for that learning. So that’s what this episode is all about. It’s quite appropriate I suppose considering this is an audio podcast for learners of English and you’re listening to this as a way to improve your English through listening, it’s worth taking time to think about the academic points on this subject.
Before we start I just want to say to any premium subscribers that I’ve got a series of episodes probably coming out next week all about grammar, focusing on tenses. We’ll be looking mainly at present perfect, but also comparing it to other tenses. So it’ll be a sort of tense review, focusing mainly on present perfect. There’s also going to be a series about the language which came up in my conversation with James that you heard on the podcast earlier in the year. So, grammar stuff coming next week and vocabulary later. If you want to get access to that stuff and all the other premium content go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium
Recently I was thumbing through some books at work. One of the books was a copy of Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom by Tricia Hedge, which is something of a bible for English teachers. A lot of teachers use this book during their DELTA and CELTA courses as it is absolutely filled with insights about language teaching and learning, all based on academic studies done over the years. It is a great book and covers most aspects of the work of an English teacher, including how people learn English and how, accordingly, English teachers should adapt their teaching methods.
I remember reading the book intensely while taking my DELTA. You heard me talking about the DELTA course with Zdenek earlier this year.
So I remember reading the book very thoroughly when I was doing my DELTA. Can you believe it, that was 13 years ago! It stuns me to imagine that it was so long ago. Anyway, during that time, when I was taking the DELTA and I had nothing else going on in my life – I used to work, come home from work, make myself tea and then retire to my bedroom where I would listen to ambient music and desperately try to focus on my work without getting distracted by absolutely everything in the universe! Because, somehow, when you’re working – everything becomes a major distraction. Anyway, one of the books I used to pour over was this one. I had loads of post-it notes marking various important pages.
Anyway, the other day I was at work and I noticed the very same book on the shelf, so I picked it up and started thumbing through it. 13 years later my situation has changed a bit. These days I’m doing this podcast and the majority of the people I am essentially teaching English to are not in the same room as me, they’re not even in the same country and in fact the only way I can communicate with them is through the medium of audio. I can also write things and post pics and videos on the website, but most of my audience don’t check the website – only about 10% actually go to the page.
Anyway, the point is – it’s now all about listening, which is amazing.
One of my aims in the beginning was to get people listening more, and it’s working. I have always thought listening to English must be an essential way to learn the language. It’s got to be a vital part of the learning process, surely. It’s like music – there’s music theory, music technique and all that, but for most musicians the best way to learn how to play well is to listen to plenty of music, and to practise every day. Listening probably comes first, right? Then it’s a question of practice x 5 and trying to replicate what you’re hearing. But first you have to get to know what music can sound like and to hear the way it is produced. When I first learned to play the drums I became obsessed with listening to my favourite drummers, who were: Mitch Mitchell, Stuart Copeland and Ringo Starr. Playing the drums at the beginning gave me a sense of how the music was produced, so I could listen to those songs and hear what the drummers were doing. I knew how they were doing it – which parts of the kit they were hitting, how those sounds were made. It was all a question of practising until I could do it too. In most cases I couldn’t replicate what they were doing (except in the case of Ringo!) but in practising like that I developed my own style, my own ease, my own technique and ultimately I was able to do things on the drums, play the kinds of beats I wanted to play, fit in with a band in the way I wanted. Obviously, listening was vital. It sounds ridiculous, obvious, right? To learn music, you must listen to it a lot – pay attention to how it all works. It’s the same thing with learning a language.
Obviously there are differences – the thing about music is that you understand it from birth without having to learn it first, right? It’s just something you feel. But anyway, I think the point still stands – that listening is a vital part of the learning process, just like it is with music.
So, back to the book. Now I’m interested in listening and I’m interested in what Tricia Hedge has to say on the subject of listening. So when I had the book in my hands, I flicked straight to the sections about listening and I made a note of what I found there.
In this episode I’m going to explain some of the things I’ve read and reflect on them.
Academics often write that listening is overlooked in ELT
Think about the average English lesson. Most of the time is spent on other language skills and language systems.
Listening is one of the 4 Skills
It is one of the 4 skills and it is a very important part of Cambridge Exams such as FCE, CAE and IELTS. Those exams give equal weight to the 4 skills, so listening is 25% of the whole exam. Is 25% of your study time in class devoted to listening?
We don’t do much listening in class
The majority of classroom work is devoted to other things, probably speaking and writing skills, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. I totally understand why. I wouldn’t spend all my time doing listening in my English classes. It wouldn’t make sense to get a bunch of learners of English together and just make them do only listening. Class time should be spent on other things, like communication skills, speaking and remedial work by the teacher.
We often listen to scripted listenings in class
Listening is in a lot of course books but the focus still seems to be on scripted dialogues which are designed specifically to present certain language, such as vocab or grammar. There just isn’t time to do extended listening, using unscripted dialogues that don’t follow a pre-planned agenda, but this is the sort of thing people need to practise listening to. Normal speech, which is a bit random, contains things like sentences that don’t end, false starts, moments when people talk over each other, moments of humour or spontaneous reactions and tangents in the conversation. So, real listening is overlooked.
Listening is vitally important in everyday life
The majority of interactions you will have will involve you speaking to a person, and it’s so important to be reactive to what they’re saying, and this relies on your ability to quickly follow what’s being said. It’s like fluency in a way – being able to follow fluid speech without thinking about it too much. That’s very important, of course.
Listening is linked to pronunciation and speaking
Raising your listening skills means raising your awareness of the connection between the written word and the spoken word – meaning that a good listener is able to recognise English as an oral language and this means being able to decode connected speech, elision of sounds, weak forms, how meaning is expressed through intonation and sentence stress. Getting good at listening means getting to know English as a spoken language. This in turn should help you make your English more natural, rather than just a version of the written language which comes out of your mouth, and that is a big problem. When I listen to learners of English (and I have met many thousands of them over the years) it’s amazing how often their mistakes are a consequence of them essentially speaking English as it looks when it’s written down. So many learners of English got to know English as a written language, to the point that the spoken version is so foreign to them that it’s almost like another language.
How much communication time do we spend on listening?
How much time do we spend on listening, when we communicate, compared to the other 3 skills? Research has been done into communication in English, focusing on the average time spent on the different skills of writing, reading, speaking and listening. How much time, on average, do we spend writing, reading, speaking and listening when we are communicating? The research shows that 9 per cent of communication time is devoted to writing, 16 per cent to reading, 30 per cent to speaking and 45 per cent to listening. (Rivers & Temperley 1978, Oxford 1993, Celce-Murcia 1995). There’s no doubt then that listening is really important and is perhaps the first thing you must master when you’re learning the language, followed by speaking. That’s if we decide that time spent during communication is the most important factor. Of course it depends on your situation. Maybe you work in an office and you have to write a lot of emails in English but you never speak it. I guess for you, writing would be the most important thing. But anyway, the numbers speak for themselves. We seem to spend most of our time listening. But we don’t spend most of our learning time on listening. The result is that when we are learning, we focus on learning words, learning structures and so on, but when we actually interact with the spoken version of the language, it all seems totally weird because the way we deliver those words and structures with our mouths often bears no relation to the English we have become familiar with during our studies.
Listening will be more and more important
Listening will only get more important. It’s almost definitely true that society in general is moving away from print media towards sound, so listening has become and continues to become more and more important as we move forward. Much more of our information comes through audio than ever before. With the internet a lot of the news we’re exposed to on social media is small video clips, we send each other audio messages, talk via Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp, there are frequent audio and video conferences at work, we have a plethora of podcasts available to us and much more than ever we are tapping into entertainment on a global level with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime where there are loads of English language TV programmes in the original language version, perhaps with subtitles in your language. The internet has allowed us to use listening as the primary source of information transfer today. So, listening is more and more important all the time.
How do people learn English through listening?
But what do we know about how people can learn English from listening? How does this affect the way I can produce LEP and how my listeners can consume LEP?
Input vs intake
This is part of the theory of language acquisition which is very popular. The principle is that if learners listen to English which is understandable but slightly higher than their level, and they focus on understanding the message within a meaningful context, that they can then pick up the language as a by-product of the process. This is good news for LEPsters. It means that you can pick up the language from my episodes by listening carefully to the main message being communicated. By interacting with English like this, you’re just naturally exposed to language and learn the functions of phrases and grammar through context. The argument is that you learn a language when you can understand it, and the process of getting to fluent speech comes first through a lot of exposure to the language, at the right level. It’s important that you understand most of what you hear, and that allows you to learn the new things you are hearing.
This is the principle that people only learn from the bits which are genuinely important to them. Learners won’t learn everything they hear. They’ll be selective, based on their own personal motivations. For whatever reason, each person will value certain parts of the listening content more than others. This is the stuff they’ll really learn. This means, there are certain things that will make the listeners prick up their ears, and a lot of that is based on the preconceptions of the listeners, their values and so on. For example, learners might believe that they can only learn from an authority figure like a teacher, and therefore their words will carry more value and will become part of the intake. On the other hand, words spoken by someone they don’t respect will just go in one ear and out the other side. It’s not just respect of course. It could be other things. E.g. if a listener is an engineer, they’re naturally going to be more motivated towards the language of engineering. What this means for my podcast is that I have to constantly think of ways to keep you engaged in order to turn most of the listening input into intake. It also means trying to cover a wide range of topics, which I try to do. But I also think it’s something to do with being personable, real and relatable while talking. I try to always address my listeners and think about what it’s like for you and hopefully this keeps you focused, which is good for your English.
The point is that the language should be understandable yet not without challenge, and the content should be presented as valuable but with the understanding that you can’t please everyone all the time – that each individual brings their own personal motivation to the listening experience, which means that different parts are valuable to different people. Each person will focus their attention on slightly different parts based on their feelings and attitudes.
What can I do on LEP?
What I can try to do is make each individual feel personally involved, in any way I can. I believe this is done best when I address the listener directly and sometimes avoid speaking from a script. It’s more human and engaging to talk ‘off the cuff’. Also I should keep the topics varied and also have a variety of people on the podcast.
Why listening is more difficult than reading
The language is transient – I mean, the words are only audible for a moment before they disappear. You can’t normally go back and listen again, unlike when reading when you can simply read the sentence again or scan the text to find something again. Listening comes and goes into the ether very quickly. You need to learn to think in a slightly different way and get used to interacting with the listening text by remembering what is being said, predicting what’s going to come next, and so on.
The written word has a standardised spelling system which everyone more or less follows. Also there are gaps between words on the page, and punctuation to show when one sentence begins and ends etc. With listening you don’t get any of these things. It’s not standardised like writing. You’re dealing with a lot of diversity in terms of accent and different ways the language can sound (and English is an extremely diverse language in which there are many, equally valid, versions of the spoken word).
What can you do?
It’s important to bridge the gap between the spoken version of the language and the written version. One way to do this is to do plenty of listening and reading, so that you’re familiar with the conventions of both versions of the language, but also there are other things you can do.
- Listen and read at the same time
- Dictation or listen + repeat dictations (use audio with a script)
This allows you to turn an interconnected stream of sounds into sentences, words, syllables, phonemes.
I’ve talked about this on the podcast before and I will no doubt talk about it again because I think it’s a great technique and in fact I’ve been working on some content which is designed specifically for this technique. Basically, listen to some audio, repeat what you hear bit by bit, then compare it to the script. You can then do things like use a pen to mark emphasis, intonation, connected speech, pauses on the script, then record yourself reading out the script, then try and replicate the main ideas without reading (it doesn’t matter if you say it differently – it’s not a memory test, you just have to communicate the main ideas in your own voice – and you might find that you remember some of the lines that you repeated before. You can also try writing down what you’re hearing and comparing that to the script as well. All of it can help you turn fluent speech into individual words, phrases and sentences, helping you work on pronunciation and speaking skills too.
- Engage with the subject, not just the language. We know that we tend to understand what we hear more when we are engaged in the subject. This means that you should think about the topic being talked about and perhaps predict some of the things we’re going to hear. Basically, before you listen to something, just take a moment to make sure you are intellectually and perhaps emotionally engaged in that subject. Find some way to relate it to yourself personally. Use your imagination to picture the whole subject, issues relating to it and the things which might be said. We know that this helps you to listen more accurately, rather than just going straight into the listening, cold.
- Learn the phonetic chart and practise it. Get an app, like Sounds or Sounds Right by the British Council. Do all the exercises, learn the phonetic alphabet. These are the basic building blocks of English and can really help you to break down, recognise and replicate sounds, words and so on.
- When you’re repeating, pay attention to the emphasis. Which word in a sentence is being emphasised? Why? When you repeat, try to say the whole sentence like a word with the emphasis on the same part that you heard it. This can help you not only learn good sentence stress (which arguably is the most important factor in pronunciation) but also can help you identify the key information when you are listening.
- Listen to a variety of things. Different genres of audio tend to follow their own “macro-script”, meaning that they follow the same kinds of conventions. For example, listening to the news you’ll notice certain things they always say, certain things that they only do on the news. Sports reports have their own characteristics, political speeches have their own style, a radio drama sounds unmistakably like a radio drama, an academic lecture sounds like an academic lecture, etc. You’ve got to get used to recognising certain conventions of different types of audio recording. So listen to a variety of audio.
- But also, listen to the same thing again and again. Listen to your favourite English podcast every day for a month. You should wait about a month before you make a judgement. Listening to just one episode isn’t going to make a huge difference. Listening to many episodes, regularly, over a longer period – this is what makes the difference. It is a compound effect and to an extent it’s not even noticeable, but keep it up! This is one of the main issues today. People want instant, measurable results, but the reality is that language learning occurs over time and is sometimes not noticable. It sort of happens under the surface. But you have to be in it to win it. If you don’t use it you lose it. So keep listening every day for at least a month, then you’ll see that suddenly you can understand more and more and a whole new world of English can open up for you.
- Listen to things you enjoy and are really motivated to hear. This helps turn input into intake.
- Listen several times.
- Don’t assume that movies and TV series are the best things to listen to. They tend to focus on visuals first. There’s music and other sound effects which actually get in the way. Sometimes dialogue is so naturalistic that it’s kind of impossible to follow. Often I can’t actually hear what’s being said in movies. Audio podcasts are probably better because they’re made for you, and you can just focus on the English exclusively. But, of course, if you like watching films in English don’t let me stop you. If you’re a big fan of the MCU for example – go ahead and watch Avengers: Endgame in English, twice!
- Watch out for subtitles. Watching Netflix with English subtitles is something that everyone assumes is a great idea, and it is good. You can read what you’re hearing, notice the way the written language is expressed in speaking, you can pick up new words and phrases and so on. But for working on listening skills alone, it’s important to try some other ideas. For example, try to spend time listening without subtitles, then rewind and listen to that section again with subtitles and see what you’ve understood. Use subtitles or scripts after you’ve listened, in order to identify which bits you got and which bits you didn’t. But don’t get too used to always having subtitles when you listen, because this means you don’t develop proper listening skills. Also, don’t feel you always have to have the subtitles on or off. Switch between having them on, having them off, watching scenes several times with and without subtitles. Good learners of English actively use TV and films and think outside of the box a bit. It’s not just a case of switching Netflix to English and then just relaxing on your sofa.
Another thing is this – if you listen to podcasts a lot, then you’re immediately pushing yourself ahead of your peers who don’t do this. Think of the advantage you’re getting over other people who just don’t do any listening.
Motivation, reducing anxiety and building confidence. Listening a lot can really help you with these things, because you become friends with the spoken word. Imagine if you’re a regular and long term LEPster and you have to do a listening test. While other people are probably panicking because listening is a nightmare for them, for you it’s like you’re entering your comfort zone. Make listening your friend. Get to know the spoken version of the language and get a leg up on the competition.
So finally, the points are…
- Listen a lot! Yey! This is probably good news because if you’re a regular listener to this podcast you just need to keep going! Keep it up!
- Listen to various things. I’ll try and keep it varied here, but consider checking out some other things. Check out BBC podcasts on different subjects and shop around a bit.
- Use some techniques, like listening and repeating audio that has a script and learning the phonemic script.
- But ultimately, just relax and enjoy the process! Take time to reflect personally on what you’re listening to and enjoy yourselves!
I am sure that many of you have some interesting things to add here – either stories of how you’ve improved your English through listening, or specific things that you do relating to learning through listening. So please, add your comments under this episode. Your input is extremely valuable because as well as all these academic studies that underpin many of the things in this episode, it’s the testimony and personal experience of people who have learned English to a decent level that is what counts. So, please, tell us your stories, give us your thoughts regarding learning through listening.
And thank you for listening to this!
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This episode includes anecdotes and descriptions of our short visit to Las Vegas, including stories of more rental car issues, Las Vegas craziness, winning and losing $$$ and 11 English idioms that come from gambling.
⬇️ Episode script and notes (Idioms list below) ⬇️
It was just as a stopover between L.A. and other areas, and to have a one look in your life, see what all the fuss is about sort of experience.
Take the rental car back to the car rental company.
Remember them, from part 1 of this?
When we picked up the car in LA – just a Nissan hatchback by the way, nothing fancy, at the start of the trip we had to go and wait in a boiling hot car park in Inglewood or somewhere, where I stood waiting on my phone for ages waiting to get through to someone to tell them we had arrived, standing there on hold with my arm going numb and the sun beating down on both me and my pregnant wife, and after about 40 minutes a guy in a rental car came and picked us up, and told us “oh yes, the shuttle busses are in the garage – they broke down on Tuesday”.
We drop off the car, pay the money, ask about the difference in price between the bill and the receipt –
“Sorry Mani, isn’t here today.”
“Can you do it?”
“Sorry, I can’t. He’s the manager.”
(We got fobbed off by the girl behind the counter)
There’s supposed to be a shuttle (bus) service back to the airport.
But it’s obvious that this is a crappy little rental car company that is cutting corners and fobbing everyone off with this talk of the “shuttle” that is mysteriously always in the garage.
Again we’re told that the shuttle is in the garage so we squeeze into another rental car with a German couple this time.
My wife is in the front, and I’m squeezed in with the Germans.
The Germans are quite nice, but it’s pretty clear they didn’t have the best experience with their car and they’ve driven a really long distance, without cruise control (which is standard for rentals usually) and they’re saying to the driver,
“Do you not have cars with cruise control? Because it’s very uncomfortable to drive 4,000 miles without cruise control, you know?”
I’m thinking – 4,000 miles! Without cruise control. His leg must be knackered.
The driver goes “Cruise control? Yes, there is cruise control.”
“No, there is no cruise control in this car.”
“This was your rental?”
Turns out the “shuttle” is just the same car the Germans just rented.
“Yes, there is no cruise control in this car. It was very difficult for us. Do you not have cars with cruise control?”
The driver is not interested in taking questions. He says “Some of them do and some of them don’t.”
“I think it would be good if your cars have the cruise control”
“I’m just the driver man”
I note in my head that our car had cruise control, and I never used it, not once, but I don’t say anything. I don’t think it would have helped.
“Well, our car had cruise control, and guess what we never used it! Ha ha, it would have been useful if we’d swapped, right? I bet you would have appreciated that after the first 3,000 miles!!”
But I didn’t say that. I just ‘enjoyed’ the really awkward vibe in the car, and the knowledge that my wife was pretty much steaming, but keeping herself under control.
After the Germans got out my wife chose to cross-examine the driver.
“So, where are the shuttles?”
“Oh, they’re in the garage, we had some trouble with them.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes, it’s just a coincidence.”
“OK. When did they go in the garage?”
“Oh just on Friday.”
“Well last week you said they broke down on Tuesday.”
“I’m just the driver”
“I know you’re just the driver but…”
“You’re getting driven there, I’m driving you personally…”
“I know but we just don’t appreciate being lied to, that’s all…”
At this point he got really angry and started making it personal.
“OK, you’re getting personal with me now, and I don’t appreciate you making personal attacks against me, ok?”
As I was taking the bags out of the back, I was trying to say, “Look, it’s not personal we’re just commenting on the service. We were told one thing, we get another thing. It’s not you, right? it’s your management, right?”
He just went “Well I deliver you to the airport and you make it personal” and he just got in the car and drove off.
I couldn’t help feeling bad for the guy. I think he probably has no choice but to lie about the shuttle thing because the crappy management of this company keeps telling their customers there will be a shuttle. It’s written in their emails and stuff. I imagine he’s just trying to keep his job.
He couldn’t really say “Yes, well to be honest sir our company is lying to you. We don’t have any shuttles, it’s not worth it – you know? Because we don’t get enough customers to justify using a whole bus, and there’s obviously nowhere for us to park one anyway, so we just use these cars and I’m always dealing with these problems, but it’s because the management keep lying.”
He can’t admit that the company lies or is wrong. It’s unfair on him. I know, I’m making excuses for the guy, but what can he do?
The management should just say they have a personal car service, it would solve the problem.
That’s the solution. We don’t care about shuttles. Just say there’s a personal car service. The driver can introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Carlos, I’m your driver, where are you guys from?” Etc. That would solve the problem. Instead, Carlos (or whatever he’s called) is on the defensive and can’t start talking to the customers because he knows they’re not happy. Poor Carlos, and poor customers.
I wonder what’s really going on there – at this particular franchise of Wrong Cars™.
Anyway, after that we got on our plane for the short flight to Vegas. We could have driven but we planned this to make sure there was as little driving as possible, because when you’re pregnant it’s not good to sit in a vibrating car for hours on end, and anyway it sucks to be stuck in a car all the time.
We arrive in Vegas
It’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert for goodness sake.
We rent a car from another company this time – more established. Enterprise. Admittedly, it’s a bit more expensive but we don’t want to risk it because we’ll be driving in some fairly deserted spots and we want a car that will not break down and that has customer service that’s actually available by telephone.
So we get to the car rental area – a massive building in airportland. Dazzling service. We’re in the car in a matter of minutes and it looks brand new. We rented a small SUV. The main thing was that it was comfy and could deal with bits of rough terrain if needed. We get a Jeep Renegade. It’s pretty cool. Wife is happy and in comfort. OK.
Staying at New York New York Hotel.
Vegas is completely insane and, honestly, not a great place. In fact it’s the most tawdry, sleazy, tacky place ever.
Pick the most touristy part of any town and amplify it by 1000. It’s like that.
It’s boiling hot outside but inside it’s freezing, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build this massive place with all these things like swimming pools, hotels and golf courses in the middle of the desert.
God knows how they get their water.
And it’s just a weird place cut off from reality in which you are constantly being seduced and distracted by flashing lights and big things and encouraged to gamble your money away. It’s like one huge sales pitch in the form of a city.
Inside the casinos there are no windows. They’re like huge circus tents on the inside, with big restaurant facades around the edge, tables for gambling – playing poker or roulette or the one where you throw the dice and there are loads of different numbers and letters and it’s a bewildering illusion of choice, big individual gambling machines, lamp posts (inside the hotel), fake little streets, massive Irish pubs (which is never really a bad thing in itself) but all this stuff and you look up to the sky and it’s the black ceiling of the hotel above you, quite high and in the background. It’s probably daylight outside, but you can’t see the desert sun. Inside the hotel’s gambling area there’s this black canopy of the ceiling above all this trashy fake stuff.
It’s so weird to come to the desert and then find yourself in this totally synthetic place all set against a black backdrop.
This is some people’s idea of a wonderful place – a vast plastic playground with so many attractions, but there’s something very unnatural and twisted about it.
People smoke indoors and this feels wrong now after 10 years since the smoking ban. No big deal, but still… I think the reason is that they prioritise the gambling, so even though it fills the air with harmful smoke, it means people stay at the tables and don’t go outside to smoke their cigarettes.
There are tourists wandering around, families and stuff but also you spot these grizzled gamblers losing fortunes.
You see some old people who have travelled for miles to spend their money because they don’t really know what else to do with it, so it all goes in these machines.
There are some really drunk people, sitting at the bar.
But also families with kids walking around.
Even some bars have gambling machines built into them, so you can lose money (or maybe win) while you’re taking a break from the bigger tables.
In one casino, where we went to the theatre – there was a girl in suspenders dancing erotically on a table, and kids were wandering around.
It was like a strip club in Disneyland. It was like a cross between Disneyland and a lap dancing club. Adult Disneyland, but with families wandering around in it.
Our hotel had a rollercoaster going around it.
Yep, a rollercoaster, with tracks that actually went around the outside of the hotel.
You can stand in the bedroom and every now and then you hear the rumble of the rollercoaster and the muffled screams of people outside the window. This is from inside your hotel room..
If you part the curtains and look out you can see part of the track twisting around past the window and eventually you’ll see the rollercoaster race past, people screaming.
Take a look into the distance and there are the mountains, some desert and then closer to you just weird, big shiny bright buildings and Trump tower. A massive tower with his name at the top in huge gold letters.
“We’ve got the greatest buildings folks, all the best casinos. You’re gonna have fun, and you’re gonna make so much money. We’re gonna Make America Great Again. Believe me folks.”
And the house always wins.
That’s the thing with these casinos.
You have to enjoy the process of it, because you’re basically paying money to experience the excitement of possibility of having more money, even if the probable outcome is that you’ll end up with less.
You’re paying for the excitement of losing, it’s exciting because there’s a possibility that you won’t lose, but the fact is you will probably lose.
So the chances are that you’re going to lose
but you might win
and that’s what makes it exciting
to throw your money away.
The house always wins.
Sometimes somebody wins.
But most people are losing.
And the house is always winning.
Fair enough though, people choose to gamble and they probably enjoy it. People seem to enjoy it – that’s their choice, but it doesn’t appeal to me very much, beyond just having a go to see what the fuss is all about.
But there are some good things about Vegas, ok!
It’s not all awful! It’s fun for a night or maybe two, depending on what you do.
It is a big spectacle – some of the hotels look amazing and massive, and also there are some spectacular shows that you can see – like dance shows such as Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group and magic shows like David Copperfield or Penn & Teller.
We chose to go there as a stopover but also to experience it and we did have a laugh!
You have to just go with it a bit and just go ‘ wow, look at that, that’s ridiculous!’
A lot of the time we were walking around, couldn’t believe our eyes, saying “this is insane” “Look at that! It’s a massive Egyptian pyramid!
Our hotel was basically a recreation of the New York skyline. Other hotels have things like an Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian Sphinx, massive fountains and light shows.
It was pretty weird to see the Eiffel Tower considering we see it every day in Paris.
Also, it’s a very convenient place – in the sense that it’s really easy to access the airport, it’s not all that big, things are open 24 hours a day.
People are helpful and friendly.
There was a wholefoods there. In fact there are a few Wholefoods supermarkets there – say no more!
Some of the stuff is good fun.
So, that’s that then isn’t it.
Penn & Teller
Gambling in the Casino
We played some one of the “one armed bandits” – the fruit machines. It’s like one dollar to pull the arm and watch some things spinning around. We put aside about 50 dollars for fun. My wife enjoys the one armed bandits and she’s actually very lucky. I’m a lot more sceptical about it.
But she thinks she’s blessed with luck or something.
(Actually she’s blessed with Luke, but anyway… I’m not sure “blessed” is the right word – “married to” is probably better)
In England, when we had first met each other, we took a trip to Brighton, on the south coast, and we went to the pier (a wooden walkway that stretches out over the sea, wooden legs supporting it – a pier) where there are lots of arcade machines and gambling machines and other attractions, and she was convinced she would win money on the machines and I was going “ but the house always wins” and she was saying “no I’m magic!”.
I was shaking my head thinking “there is no magic, only the force” and she put one pound in a slot machine and promptly won £20, and said “I told you I was magic”. We walked away £20 richer. We didn’t continue gambling. I think she’s smart enough to know that you quit while you’re ahead.
The same thing happened years later, we were in a little resort in the north of France where you find some casinos. She’s not a gambling addict or anything. She just likes playing the machines a few times when we’re on holiday sometimes.
We went to a casino and chose to spend no more than 50E. A 50E limit. Ooh, big bucks, right?
We were walking around trying to find a good machine. There were some slightly sad looking people just sitting there plugged into these persuasive light shows – it’s a sort of low level basic addiction (or high level for some people) – an addiction to the sales pitch, basically.
I was being very sceptical, and making various sceptical noises.
We ended up leaving with 80E, 30E up from when we went in.
We quit while we were ahead.
In Vegas we did some gambling on the machines. I was thinking, “Well, she is magic. Maybe we’ll win enough to get a half decent dinner.”
We lost all the money we took in. All of it.
It was a steady one directional flow of us putting money into the machines and getting nothing in return. Las Vegas just ate our 50 dollars like a crocodile eats a chicken. One gulp, all gone, didn’t even chew. It didn’t even touch the sides as it went down.
We won nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We always seemed to win a few credits just before our money ran out, which I’m sure is a little trick to encourage you to put more money in because you think the machine is going to ‘start paying out’ at some point.
Obviously, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no clue and I’m sure those machines were the wrong ones to be playing, and some of the casinos are better than others, but anyway we weren’t really there for the gambling. We were more interested in playing it safe.
11 Gambling Idioms (that don’t just apply to gambling)
- to be on a winning streak (when you’re winning)
- to be on a losing streak (when you’re losing and nothing is going your way)
- to break even (when you take the same amount of money that you spent – in gambling or in business. No profit, no loss.)
- to quit while you’re ahead (stop when you’re winning)
- the house always wins
- to bet (to gamble) “I bet you £20 that Arsenal win the game” or (a challenge) “I bet you can’t throw this paper ball in the bin from there!” or (an expectation) “I bet all the tickets are sold out”
- to show your hand (show the cards in your hand / reveal your position)
- a poker face (a facial expression which reveals nothing – used while playing poker, or in any other situation where you keep a straight face)
- don’t push your luck (take a big risk and try doing something that could end in failure – it’s a bit like saying “watch what you’re doing” or “be careful”)
- to raise the stakes (the stakes = the money which you have to gamble in a round of poker. The expression is used to mean to increase the amount of money you can win or lose in a gambling game, but also to raise the general level of what you can win or lose – e.g. this line from a recent Daily Mail news article “Mr Trump raised the stakes in the escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats, suggesting drastic economic measures against China and criticising ally South Korea.”
- the chips are down (chips = the plastic coins you use while gambling. The expression means – when you’re feeling bad, or when the situation is bad) E.g. in cricket – “When the chips are down for England, Moeen is often the side’s most useful player.”
I once saw a great documentary by Louis Theroux about high stakes gamblers in Vegas. Some of them lose thousands of dollars, but they keep gambling because they think they’re going to eventually start winning it all back. I’ve put some videos from the documentary on the page for this episode. I love Louis Theroux’s documentaries. They’re fascinating.
The phrase that I take away from one of the videos: Louis and a high-stakes gambler are standing in the biggest hotel suite in the city, looking out of the window at the huge hotels and Louis says “Vegas – they didn’t build these casinos on winners you know” and the guy says “I think in the lifetime, everyone’s a loser. But the thrill of being able to win today, lose next month, win the year after. I think it’s the challenge. I think it’s the thrill. I think it’s the entertainment in this city.”
Louis Theroux Gambling Documentary – video clips
Louis hangs out with a high-stakes gambler in a very expensive hotel suite in Las Vegas
Here’s the same guy, after losing about $400,000 dollars in 3 days
Louis gambles with a couple of gambling “enthusiasts” (addicts?)
Louis plays the “one armed bandits” with Martha (these are the machines that took our $50 in just a few minutes) Martha says “I lost 4 million dollars in the casino in 7 years.”
Louis gets lucky playing Baccarat
“Because I resigned myself to failure that night, Lady Luck had decided to tantilise me by making me win.”
How gambling can be dangerous
It seems that this is how it goes:
- You might begin by winning some money. Then you feel lucky so you bet bigger, but you lose it.
- You then start digging yourself in deeper and deeper, expecting your luck to change but there is absolutely no certainty that it will.
- Some people talk about ‘the law of averages’ – suggesting that in time any sequence will balance out. E.g. you might spend a certain amount of time losing, but ultimately this will be balanced out by the number of times you win.
- But that’s assuming that gambling in a casino is random. Usually it is subtly weighed in favour of the casino so that the pattern is that the casino wins more often than you. Even if you win a lot, the casino can afford it because more people have lost overall.
- Often these high stakes gamblers keep betting because they think they’ll eventually start winning. They often don’t and then leave utterly devastated by the loss.
- The house always wins.
- Then what might happen is that you’ve lost, you’re dejected. You resign yourself to failure but play another game because why not, and then you hit a winning streak.
- What a powerful combination of defeat and then victory, all out of your control. You’re at the mercy of this external force, playing around with “luck”. (Not Luke)
And the house always wins.
We drove along the strip. It’s madness out there! Just all the flashing lights and the spectacle, it’s like Picadilly Circus on steroids and the steroids are also on steroids.
Unbelievably massive plate of pancakes for breakfast.
Then we got out of town.
I told you I would talk about nature and canyons, and big rocks! All that stuff I really loved seeing, but I got carried away – distracted by tales of gambling in Vegas.
Las Vegas – a place that seems diametrically opposed to somewhere like Bryce National Park or The Grand Canyon.
I’m glad we only spent an afternoon, one evening and a night there.
Natural beauty is so much more real.
Well, anything is more real than Las Vegas, I suppose.
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Speak to you in the next episode.
Rambling on about so-called “facts” I found on the internet, while sitting in direct sunshine wishing I had beer.
In this episode I’m just sitting in the sunshine and I just want to ramble with absolutely no preparation. I’ve been doing quite a lot of fairly serious episodes about language, and politics and there’s more to come. But in this one I don’t want to feel obliged to make any serious points at all. Instead I’d much rather just be light hearted and talk about whatever comes into my head in an effort to just relax and have fun.
Nothing is written down. I have literally no idea what I’m going to talk about. I’ve got loads of episodes in the pipeline but for this one, it’s just turn on the microphone and let’s go. It might be pretty inane and stupid. Don’t take too much of it seriously. But who knows what kind of vocab or idioms will pop up, and maybe some other bits.
So – expectations should be a full on ramble with no particular language aim than to just follow the English as it accompanies my stream of consciousness.
Let’s go through 9facts.co.uk. I have no idea if they are actually facts, but it’ll give me a springboard to just ramble about whatever I come across.
Images and “facts” from www.9facts.co.uk
The Kinks – Sunny Afternoon https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/t/the_kinks/sunny_afternoon_crd.htm
What do you think?
What are your thoughts on the topics that came up doing this episode?
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