Tag: English as a foreign language

Trump and King Lear

Trump and King Lear

It has become something of a cliché to compare President Donald Trump with Shakespeare’s fictional King Lear. Over the last year half a dozen newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic have made the comparison. In fact, there is nothing new about comparing Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s old tyrant. Elizabeth Bailey did so as far back as[1] January 2005 in The New York Sun. Back then[2] the similarities were limited: Trump was a capricious despot of a business empire whose unequal treatment of[3] his grown-up[4] children was already patent. However, it is since the property magnate became President of the USA that the comparisons have supposedly accumulated to the point at which ‘the leader of the free world’ seems to be openly parodying Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is an old widower[5] who has three daughters. His youngest, Cordelia, is possibly from a second marriage. She is certainly his favourite. Some critics even suggest that the father feels a repressed sexual desire towards her. In any case the king decides to delegate the responsibilities of rule[6] while maintaining the privileges of monarchy. To favour his youngest daughter he decides to divide the kingdom between his three daughters (rather than[7] pass the realm[8] intact to his eldest daughter and her husband). To do this, he offers portions of the kingdom to each daughter in exchange for expressions of love towards him. The eldest daughters play along[9] and flatter[10] their father competitively saying that they love him more than life itself. However, the youngest daughter refuses to[11] play the game because it will mean benefiting materially from her genuine filial love. She is banished[12] and the elder daughters, now in charge, marginalize and humiliate Lear until he goes mad. Cordelia comes to his rescue with an army from France but is defeated[13] and, in the end, the entire family is destroyed.

Clearly, at a formal level, there is little in common between the story of Lear and the story of Donald Trump to date[14]. There are, nevertheless, points of contact. As an old, possibly demented, self-involved[15], approval-obsessed autocrat, Lear does remind one of[16] Trump (or vice-versa). The most famous scene from the play is Lear ranting against[17] the storm[18] at night. The temptation to compare this to Trump’s nocturnal Twitter storms[19] is irresistible.

Before the election the Trump campaign let slip that the plan was for son-in-law Jared Kushner to run[20] the country. When asked what Trump would be doing, the vacuous answer was, “Oh, he’ll be making America great again”. It seems that after a long life of wheeling and dealing[21] in business, Donald Trump thought that the Presidency would be a sort of retirement in which he would receive honours and praise[22] while others worked on the nitty-gritty[23].

Last year the Administration allowed[24] the TV cameras into a cabinet meeting and what was revealed was horrifying. One by one each of the members of Trump’s Government expressed what a privilege it was to work for the President, a public display[25] of competitive flattery[26] that instantly reminded[27] those of us who knew King Lear of the elder daughters’ insincere adulation. Indeed[28], Trump’s foreign visits confirm again and again that he is an easy victim of flatterers. Meanwhile, truth-tellers, from James Comey to Jeff Sessions, are routinely victimized, insulted and vilified by the President for not telling him what he wants to hear (but rather[29] doing their jobs).

Other comparisons can also be made. Trump’s favouritism towards his daughter Ivanka, who he has occasionally sexualized in shockingly[30] inappropriate ways, echo the Lear-Cordelia bond[31]. Lear’s supporters[32] conspire with a foreign power to undermine[33] the independence and sovereignty of Albion[34] – possible similarities with the collusion[35] with the Russians? Lear promises to take care of the poor who have been forgotten and ignored by the elite in the past (but in the end does nothing for them). Likewise[36], Trump has promised much to the ‘forgotten Americans’ but so far[37] has delivered little.

The end of the play bears little resemblance to[38] the Trump Administration so far. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Trump has been in power for only 14 months. If he is eventually[39] ousted from power[40] through impeachment[41] or simply in response to the incompetence and chaos of the Administration, he may still morph into the self-pitying[42] demented Lear of Acts III, IV and V. At least in his own mind and that of his supporters he may by then have achieved[43] the status of tragic hero “most sinned against than sinning[44].

For the present, most of us consider the current US Administration a rather[45] grotesque comedy. There is even a stage act[46] called Trump Lear, a one-man show in which comedian David Carl impersonates[47] and lampoons[48] the President. However, we would do well to[49] remember that the legend of King Lear was always considered a comedy until Shakespeare got hold of[50] it. Its early audiences expected a happy ending and were startled[51] and horrified when everything went pear-shaped[52] in the final scene. The world may be laughing at President Trump but beware[53]; this may well all end in tears[54].

At the end of 2016, Shakespeare scholar[55] Harold Bloom commented, “Incessantly I re-read King Lear, and find what takes my apprehension to its limits. Nature dwindles[56] to nothing. Familial love turns destructive. Intergenerational strife[57] becomes murderous. […] I echo Lear: ‘We cry[58] that we are come unto[59] this great stage of fools[60].”

[1] as far back as – as early as, as long ago as

[2] back then – (in this case) in January 2005

[3] unequal treatment offavouritism towards some of

[4] grown-upadult

[5] widowerman whose wife has died

[6] rule – (in this case) government

[7] rather than – as opposed to, instead of (+ -ing)

[8] realm /relm/ – kingdom

[9] to play along – participate in a charade/farce

[10] to flatter – express insincere admiration for

[11] refuses to – is not willing to, will not

[12] to banish – expel, exile

[13] to be defeatedlose a battle

[14] to dateso far, up until now

[15] self-involved – obsessed about oneself

[16] to remind sb. ofcause sb. to remember, seem similar to

[17] to rant againstrave against, shout at

[18] stormtempest

[19] Twitter stormsequence of furious Tweets

[20] to run sth. (run-ran-run) – govern sth., administer sth., manage sth.

[21] wheeling and dealing – unscrupulous activities

[22] praise – adulation, expressions of admiration

[23] nitty-grittypractical details

[24] to allow – permit

[25] display – exhibition

[26] flattery – insincere expressions of admiration

[27] to remind sb.cause sb. to remember

[28] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[29] but rather – instead of, as opposed to

[30] shockinglyscandalously

[31] bond – relationship, connection

[32] supportersfollowers, fans

[33] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[34] Albion – prehistoric Britain

[35] collusion – conspiracy, complicity, connivance

[36] likewisesimilarly

[37] so farup until now

[38] to bear little resemblance to (bear-bore-borne) – not be like, not be similar to

[39] eventually – (false friend) finally, in the end

[40] to oust from power – dethrone, impeach, depose, evict from power

[41] impeachment

[42] selfpitying

[43] to achieve – get, attain

[44] more sinned against than sinning – (from King Lear III.ii) more of a victim than a victimizer

[45] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[46] stage act – theatrical performance

[47] to impersonateimitate

[48] to lampoonridicule, caricature

[49] would do well to – should, ought to

[50] to get hold of (get-got-got) – (in this case) adapt

[51] to startle – surprise

[52] to go pear-shaped (go-went-gone) – go wrong, become a disaster

[53] beware – (interjection) be careful, be vigilant

[54] to end in tears – have a catastrophic result in the end

[55] scholarexpert

[56] to dwindle – decline

[57] strifeconflict

[58] to cry – (in this case) lament

[59] that we are come unto – (archaic) because we live in, because we find ourselves in

[60] this great stage of fools – this pantomime, this farcical situation

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

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