Tag: English as a foreign language

Are We Nearly There Yet?[1]

Are We Nearly There Yet?[1]


photo by Max Alexander

In the not too distant future I will be able to say that I have been teaching English in Spain for 30 years. There is nothing particularly[2] special about that; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Anglos in exactly the same situation. However, it does give me an excuse to take stock[3]: how much impact have people like me had on the level of English in this country? From one point of view, a lot. When I came here in the late 1980s most people spoke no English and the majority of those who did[4] spoke very broken English[5]; most were even ashamed[6] to try to speak English outside the classroom. It was a decade before I met my first Spaniard who could speak my language at a level similar to an Anglo.

Now the linguistic landscape[7] is very different. Most people – at least in larger[8] towns and cities – have a smattering of[9] English and many young people use English to a level we could only have dreamed of a generation ago. I regularly hear young Spanish people chatting to[10] foreign acquaintances[11] in English on the streets! Moreover, English is more ‘popular’ than ever. There are half a dozen English academies within a few hundred metres of my home in Madrid. And it’s not just[12] the capital; I recently visited Mairena del Aljarafe, a middle-class suburb of Seville, and there were – or at least there seemed to be – more English schools than bars! CLIL[13] programmes mean that English is present in schoolchildren’s lives as never before in Spain.

Nevertheless, there is one area in which the progress has been painfully slow – what one might call ‘official English’. I took the AVE high-speed train to Mairena (and may I just say that no trains in the UK are as clean, as efficient, as fast as the AVE). However, I was annoyed[14] the entire round-trip[15]. Why? Well, the LED[16] sign stated[17] every 20 seconds “Train with destination Seville” on the way there, and “Train with destination Madrid” on the way back. This is what I call the Spanish habit of half-translating – finding the English equivalent for each word and repeating them in the same order as in Spanish. No doubt the LED16 sign has been saying that for 20 years; who cares if it sounds completely unnatural?[18] I do. You make a tremendous effort to get everything about the on-board service[19] right, and then you spoil[20] it with lower-intermediate English!

I tried to look away from the LED16 sign but that only brought the label[21] on the window to my notice[22]. For example:

“Action for opening the emergency window” (it should be “How to open the window as an emergency exit”),

“Breaking with the hammer[23] the first and second glasses[24] of the window” (it should be “smash[25] both panes of glass[26] using the hammer provided”),

Remove[27] the broken glasses with the crossbar” (it should be “Use the crossbar to dislodge[28] any remaining shards[29]”), though I’m still not sure what they are referring to as a ‘crossbar’.

You may already know that one of my bugbears[30] is the deplorable English on the websites of many Spanish universities. Their stated aim[31] is to attract more foreign students but this simply isn’t going to happen[32] if they say so in woefully[33] deficient English.

The same is true for many official texts in English. Ironically, they are not strictly necessary; Spanish is a tall-building language[34] spoken by 400 million people. However, if you are going to translate, do it properly[35]. The problem is that when Anglos see something written in English, the quality of the English affects their perception of the quality of the goods[36] or services on offer. If you can’t see it yet, imagine translating “Are we nearly there yet?” verbatim[37]. It would sound awful compared to the correct idiomatic translation (¿Falta mucho?).

In answer to the question “Are we nearly there yet?” I will quote a British Rail advertisement from the 1980s which used to say, “We’re getting there” (= Hemos hecho progresos pero aun falta).

[1] are we nearly there yet? – (typical question asked by a bored child on a long trip) will we arrive soon?

[2] particularly – especially, very

[3] to tale stock (take-took-taken) – evaluate the progress that has been made

[4] who did – (in this case) who did speak English

[5] broken Englishpidgin English, pre-intermediate English

[6] ashamed – embarrassed, reluctant, uncomfortable

[7] linguistic landscape – panorama as regards language

[8] largerbigger, more significant

[9] a smattering of – a little

[10] to chat totalk in a relaxed way to

[11] acquaintance – sb. one knows

[12] just – (in this case) only

[13] CLILcontent and language integrated learning

[14] annoyedirritated

[15] the entire tripall the way there and all the way back

[16] LEDlight-emitting display

[17] to state – declare

[18] it should be “train to Seville”, “train to Madrid”

[19] the on-board service – (in this case) the service on the train

[20] to spoil sth.ruin sth.

[21] labelsticker, sign

[22] to my notice – to my attention

[23] hammer – utensil for hitting things

[24] glassesspectacles, eyeglasses

[25] to smashbreak forcefully

[26] pane of glass – the sheet of glass that forms a window

[27] to remove – (false friend) take out, eliminate

[28] to dislodge – displace, remove28

[29] any remaining shardsany pieces of broken glass that are left

[30] bugbear – pet peeve, cause of obsessive irritation

[31] stated aim – explicit objective

[32] to happen – occur

[33] woefullyvery, depressingly

[34] tallbuilding language – one of a few global languages that eclipse smaller languages

[35] properly – appropriately, correctly

[36] goodsproducts

[37] verbatimword for word

Conversation Class: Fit to Foster?[1]

Conversation Class: Fit to Foster?[1]

Photomontage using photos by Joshua Sherurcij and Laura Aziz (not the real people in the case).


Last week I was in England. While I was there, an interesting case appeared in the newspaper, which could be summarized[2] as follows:

A five-year-old ethnically English (i.e. white and blonde[3]) spent the last six months in the foster care[4] of a Muslim family. Her biological family – from whom she had been removed[5] by the child-protection services (the reasons for this order were not made public) complained[6] that the little girl was being kept in a culturally alien[7] environment. Specifically, they cited that:

  1. the foster family had removed[8] a necklace[9] with a cross[10] on it from the little girl and had not returned it.
  2. the women in the foster family wore niqabs[11] in public.
  3. the primary language in the foster family’s home was not English, and the little girl was being encouraged[12] to learn Arabic.
  4. the foster family had refused to let the girl eat a spaghetti carbonara her birth mother had prepared for her because it contained bacon.
  5. the foster family often ate their meals on the floor.
  6. the girl reportedly told her mother on a supervised visit that Christmas and Easter were stupid and that “European women are stupid and alcoholic”.

Assuming[13] that all these accusations are true, which do you consider significant and which are irrelevant?

Is it Islamophobic to suggest that salafi Muslim families are unsuitable[14] to adopt or foster children from other cultures?

Should salafi Muslim families be banned[15] from adopting or fostering children – even children from conservative Muslim families?

Imagine if a Christian foster family had ‘encouraged12 a non-Christian foster child to wear[16] a cross; would that be comparable to point 1?

Imagine a vegetarian foster family had refused to let the girl eat the spaghetti carbonara; would that be comparable to point 4? Should vegetarians be allowed[17] to adopt or foster children from not vegetarian families?

Is eating on the floor as a family better or worse than eating in front of the television? (Only a minority of families in the UK regularly sit down to eat dinner together).

In the end the child was removed5 from the foster family and placed[18] under the care of her biological grandmother until a permanent decision is reached[19] on the case. Incidentally, the judge who took the decision to remove the child from the foster family is a practising Muslim.

As a group, try to come up with[20] a list of minimum acceptable characteristics for foster/adoptive parents (e.g. Should they be married? Should they be straight[21]? Should they be from the same religion as the child? Should they be non-religious or only moderately religious? Should they be politically moderate?).


[1] fit to foster? – are they apt to adopt a child temporarily?

[2] to summarize – sum up, synopsize

[3] blonde – fair-haired, yellowy-haired

[4] foster caretemporary adoption

[5] to remove sb. – (false friend) take sb. away, separate sb., extract sb.

[6] to complain – protest

[7] alienforeign, unfamiliar

[8] to remove sth.take sth. away

[9] necklacechain worn around one’s neck

[10] crossChristian symbol (representing the crucifixion)

[11] niqabMuslim veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes

[12] to encourage – urge, exhort

[13] assuming – (false friend) supposing

[14] unsuitable – inappropriate, ineligible

[15] to ban – prohibit

[16] to wear (wear-wore-worn) – (in this case) have around one’s neck

[17] to allow – permit

[18] to place – put

[19] to reach a permanent decisioncome to a permanent decision, decide definitively

[20] to come up with (come-came-come) – (in this case) agree on

[21] straight – heterosexual

Future-Proof Jobs

Future-Proof Jobs

US Navy photo by John F. Williams

Over recent weeks I’ve seen a couple of[1] articles about the jobs that it will be most difficult to automate[2] and therefore destroy. I’m a little bit sceptical about these lists. One had primary-school teacher high up[3] the list while, at the same time, we are told that 25% of university classes will be online in just[4] three years’ time. My (thankfully limited) experience of small children suggests that handing[5] them an iPad is the best way to get them to quietly concentrate on something. A soft robot with an imbedded[6] screen[7] that could stop them climbing out of the windows would seem to have many advantages over a primary-school teacher. Yes, I am suggesting that a Teletubby will replace Miss Pritchett in the foreseeable[8] future.

Another list had lawyers and doctors at the top. But surely all medical knowledge and all legal knowledge could be available in an app if not now then very soon. Medicine is just[9] matching[10] symptoms to diseases[11]; the legal profession is just remembering precedents that could be relevant to a specific case. OK, I’m exaggerating a little but both diagnostic medicine[12] and law are memory-based professions and those are precisely the ones most threatened by[13] modern technology.

Really future-proof professions are those that require a bit of creativity, a bit of social skills[14] and a lot of precision motor coordination manipulating non-standardized objects. Over the last fortnight[15] I have seen a state-of-the-art[16] robotic chef (in Korea) and a cutting-edge[17] robotic bartender[18] (at the Google conference[19] in San Francisco). They were both crap[20]. The incredibly slow automaton cook[21] got more food on the floor than in the salad bowl, while the android barman took three minutes to pour[22] a pint of beer. Whatever the experts say, for my money[23] the best future-proof jobs right now are those preparing food and drinks.

One final – more serious – comment about the future of work: the complaisant[24] often say that new jobs always emerge when technology replaces obsolete ones (e.g. when farm machinery replaced agricultural labour). However, this is the same fallacy as dismissing[25] anthropomorphic climate change because the earth’s climate has always changed. The problem isn’t evolution; it’s the speed of the change. If species don’t have time to adapt, then there’s mass extinction. If the labour market doesn’t have time to adapt, there’s mass unemployment. We read that, “65 per cent of primary-school kids[26] will have job types that don’t yet exist.” That’s putting a very positive spin[27] on the fact that two-thirds of today’s jobs won’t exist in 15 years’ time; it may just9 mean that over half the workforce will be out of work[28].

[1] a couple ofseveral

[2] to automate – replace with a machine

[3] high upnear the top of

[4] just – (in this case) only

[5] to hand – give

[6] imbedded – that is an integral part of sth.

[7] screen – the part of a computer or a TV where the images appear

[8] foreseeable – predictable, near

[9] just – (in this case) only, simply

[10] to match A to Bmarry A with B, pair up A with B

[11] diseaseillness, sickness

[12] I’m not referring to surgeons and dentists, whose jobs are very safe

[13] threatened by – in danger from

[14] skillstalent, ability

[15] fortnight – two weeks

[16] state-of-the-artultra-modern, cutting-edge

[17] cutting-edgeultra-modern, state-of-the-art

[18] bartenderbarman or barmaid, sb. who serves drinks

[19] conference – (false friend) convention

[20] crap – (informal) useless, very inefficient

[21] cook – chef

[22] to pour – (in this case) serve

[23] for my money – in my opinion

[24] the complaisantpeople who accept what they are told without protest

[25] to dismiss – ignore

[26] kidschildren

[27] spin – interpretation

[28] out of work – unemployed

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

In many written languages there is a direct correspondence between combinations of letters and combinations of sounds. No doubt you have already realized[1] that English is not such a[2] language. Just[3] think of the dozens of homophonic pairs and groups in English – such as lain[4]/lane[5], raise[6]/rays/raze[7], phase/faze[8] and isle/aisle[9]/I’ll.

One concept that can be hard[10] for non-natives to internalize is that we produce the sound /ɜ:/ in a number of different ways including: -ear- before a consonant (e.g. ‘pearl’), -er- before a consonant (e.g. ‘herd[11]), -ir- before a consonant (e.g. shirt), -ur- before a consonant (e.g. burst[12]) and -or- after w- and before a consonant (e.g. word). A useful phrase for fixing this idea in one’s memory is “the early bird catches the worm[13]”, in which the vowel sound in ‘ear(ly)’, ‘bird’ and ‘worm’ is the same (not similar, exactly the same). The phrase refers to the fact that the person who takes the first opportunity to act will have an advantage over others.

[1] have realized – (false friend) are conscious

[2] such athis type of

[3] just – (in this case) simply

[4] to lie (lie-lay-lain) – be horizontal, recline

[5] lane – track, path

[6] to raiseelevate

[7] to raze – burn down, destroy

[8] to faze – disturb, disconcert

[9] aislepassageway in a church or supermarket

[10] hard – (in this case) difficult

[11] herdgroup (of horses or cows)

[12] to burst (burst-burst-burst) – inflate and explode

[13] (earth)worm – (Lumbricidae) terrestrial invertebrate

The Sausage Dog & the Great Dane

The Sausage Dog & the Great Dane

Photo by Dan Bennett

These are two breeds[1] of dog that can provide pronunciation assistance[2] for non-native speakers of English. Serious people call elongated short-legged little dogs from Germany ‘dachshunds’, though I have difficulty imagining a dachshund taking on[3] a badger[4] as the name implies (der Dachs is German for ‘badger’)! Less serious Anglos call dachshunds ‘sausage dogs’ because of their elongated shape[5]. The good thing about this informal term is that there is assonance between ‘sausage’ and ‘dog’. In other words we pronounce the -au- in ‘sausage’ like the -o- in ‘dog’.

‘Great’ is one of three very important words in which -ea- is pronounced /ei/ (the other two are ‘break’ (a homophone of ‘brake[6]) and ‘steak’ (a homophone of ‘stake[7]). The easiest way to remember the pronunciation of ‘great’ is in the name of that ‘gentle giant’ breed, the ‘Great Dane’ (a homophone of ‘deign[8]). Interestingly, Great Danes have nothing to do with[9] Denmark. These dogs used to be known as German boarhounds[10] in England and ‘the English dog’ (die Englische Tocke) in German. In the 20th Century, as conflict arose[11] between Germany and the English-speaking countries, names were childishly[12] changed to avoid using[13] ‘German’ (and Englisch). So, the boarhounds became known as ‘Great Danes’ (probably in part because of the assonance) and eventually[14] the Germans even started calling it die Dänische Dogge (‘the Danish dog’).

[1] breed – kind, type (of dog, cat, horse, etc.)

[2] assistance – help

[3] to take on (take-took-taken) – attack, challenge

[4] badger – (Melesmeles) an omnivorous nocturnal mammal with a grey coat and a black-and white striped face

[5] shape – form

[6] brakemechanism for stopping a vehicle

[7] stakepointed stick

[8] to deign – condescend, do sth. beneath one’s dignity

[9] to have nothing to do with (have-had-had) – be unrelated to

[10] boarhounddog used for hunting boar (= wild pigs)

[11] to arise (arise-arose-arisen) – emerge

[12] childishly – in an infantile way, (in this case) petulantly

[13] to avoid using – so as not to use

[14] eventually – (false friend) in the end

Flexed Burial

Flexed Burial

Photo by Herb Roe, http://www.chromesun.com

Over the last 20 years I have been collecting the words whose pronunciation cause my students most problems. In recent months I’ve decided that one way to confront these problematic pronunciations is to present the words in established expressions in which the pronunciation is reinforced by a sound parallelism[1].

I’ve decided to start the presentation of these terms with the archaeological expression “flexed burial[2]. OK, admittedly it’s not an expression you’re going to use every day but it can be graphically illustrated and it should help with the frequently mispronounced ‘burial’, in which the -u- is pronounced /e/. Finally, notice that ‘flexed’ is pronounced /flekst/.

Please tell me if you find this useful because, if you do, I should be able to produce d ozens of similar illustrated expressions over the coming weeks and months.

For more on sound parallelisms, look out for[3] my forthcoming[4] book Rhyme or Reason? The euphony of 10,001 everyday word combinations.

For more footnoted texts, visit www.yes-mag.com

[1] sound parallelism – repetition of the same sound in consecutive stressed syllables

[2] flexed burial – when a cadaver/skeleton has been interred in a fetal position

[3] to look out for – be vigilant for

[4] forthcoming – in the pipeline, coming soon

At the Gym

At the Gym

I rather[1] cruelly dedicated my last post to those learners who failed in their New Year’s resolution to quit[2] smoking. To make amends[3] for my cynicisms, here’s a post dedicated to those who fulfil[4] their New Year’s resolution to go to the gym more.

If you are an urbanite then most of the exercise you take is probably at the gym – if you take any. People go to the gym to do aerobics or to build up their muscles. Aerobics and other group exercises to music, such as jazz dance, are meant to strengthen[5] the heart and lungs[6]. Taking exercise specifically to develop[7] your muscles is called bodybuilding[8]. A colloquial way of saying this is “to pump iron”. A person who regularly exercises to develop their muscles is a bodybuilder.


Be aware of[9] the right verb to use with each activity:

take exercise               do aerobics                 get fit              keep/stay fit

Getting Fit

One of the aims[10] of going to the gym is to keep fit[11]. This has evolved into a noun/adjective: we talk about keep-fit classes in the UK. These are called (physical) fitness classes in the USA and Australia. Be careful with the expression “s/he’s fit!” because in British slang it means you think someone is sexually attractive. You should also take care with the word ‘fitness’; in English it simply means the condition of being physically fit and does not have the specific connotations it has when used in other languages.

Expressions with ‘fit’

Three English expressions:

To be fighting fit        To be as fit as a fiddle[12]         To be as fit as a flea[13]

mean ‘to be in good health’.


Most of the muscle vocabulary comes from Latin and is more or less the same across different European languages; e.g. abductors, adductors, pectorals, biceps, etc. You should know the abbreviation ‘abs’ (= abdominal muscles) and the term “one’s six pack” for visibly well-developed abdominal muscles). One term you might not know is the hamstring for the three muscles behind the thigh[14] that flex the knee[15].

Some Typical Exercises

  • We say you do press-ups in Britain when you lie flat[16] on the floor with your face down and you try to push your body up with your arms, while keeping your legs and back straight[17]. This is called doing push-ups in the USA and Australia.
  • You do squats when you bend[18] your legs under your body and then straighten[19] them (going up and down).
  • If you do squat thrusts, you put your hands on the floor and move your legs from a bent[20] to a straight17 position by moving your feet in a single movement.
  • You do sit-ups when you lie flat16 and then bring your head up to touch your knees.
  • Be careful with the expression to do the splits, this is a false friend and refers towhen you lower you body so that both your legs are flat on the floor in the opposite directions. If you put your weight on one leg which you flex, while the other is straight, this is called a hamstring-stretching[21]

Some Fitness Machines

  • A rowing machine imitates the action of rowing[22] a boat (logically!).
  • A treadmill is a machine that measures your speed[23] while you walk, jog[24] or run on it. Originally, treadmills were wheels with a prisoner inside that were used to drive[25]
  • An exercise bike imitates the action of a bicycle but does not move.

For more footnoted articles about sports, see Yes 15 (www.yes-mag.com).

[1] rather – (in this case) somewhat, quite

[2] to quit (quit-quit-quit) – stop

[3] to make amends (make-made-made) – atone,

[4] to fulfil – (in this case) satisfy, execute

[5] to strengthen sth.make sth. stronger

[6] lungpulmonary organ

[7] to develop sth. – (in this case) expand sth., build sth.

[8] ‘culturism’ does not exist as an English word!

[9] to be aware of – be conscious of

[10] aim (n.) – objective

[11] to keep fit – maintain your body in a good physical condition

[12] fiddle – violin

[13] flea – (Siphonaptera) small insect that cannot fly but can jump and drinks humans’ and animals’ blood

[14] thighupper leg, the part of one’s leg around one’s femur

[15] kneemid-leg articulation

[16] to lie flat (lie-lay-lain) – be in a horizontal position

[17] straight – in line, not flexed

[18] to bend – flex

[19] to straightenmake sth. straight17

[20] bentangled, arched, flexed

[21] to stretch – extend, tense

[22] to rowmove a boat with oars (= long sticks with paddles at the ends)

[23] speed – velocity

[24] to jogrun at a slow, regular speed for exercise

[25] to drive (drive-drove-driven) – (in this case) power, cause sth. to function