Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

August 12, 2009

Hello again,

I sometimes think that in our desire to teach, we lose the fascination of language as a concept. Of course, concepts may not be of much practical use in the classroom. But I do believe that we need to consider the phenomenon of language in the abstract if we are to understand why some groups of students find it difficult to...

Tracking language change

July 24, 2009

Hello again,

I always enjoy reporting on the way our language is changing. The speed and range of communications globally seem to have accelerated the process of change and it is sometimes hard for teachers to keep up. Of course one problem

Key figures in ELT

June 30, 2009

Hello again,

Like many teachers and trainers of my generation, I was deeply affected by the work of Stephen Krashen. His acquisition/learning distinction made a lasting impact on ELT, although ...

Movers and shakers

June 16, 2009

Hello again,

I wonder who you consider to be the most influential people in English language teaching. Perhaps we should start with the...

All well and good? That’s fine.

March 15, 2009

Hello again,

I thought I would pass on some thoughts about change of usage concerning three little words: well, good and fine. The traditional response ...

Casualties of international English

February 28, 2009

Hello again,

English is increasingly taking over as the language of international scholarship. I edit my fair share of doctoral theses and academic articles. I could of course deplore the general decline in writing standards rather than focus on the effect of non-native speakers publishing in English, but I think the two issues ...

How do we make new words?

February 23, 2009

Hello again,

Learners sometimes groan under the sheer weight of English vocabulary. I was both amused and sympathetic when one students told me of his horror at the fact that new words were constantly being added to the language. Why, he wondered,...

Book of the Month

January 22, 2009

Hello again,

Many books about language concern the minutiae of linguistics. In one of my various roles I edit academic papers many of which are about linguistics. Often I am struck by the futility ...

Confusing words

January 15, 2009

Hello again,

The confusing-word syndrome poses quite a problem for learners. In fact some words have seemed so confusing that they...

Language learning myths 3

December 07, 2008

Hello again,

It is always a delicate balance between giving learners easily applicable rules and misleading them about the universality of those rules. One of the most difficult areas is advice on stative and dynamic verbs. It sounds like ...

Are texting and the Internet harmful to English?

November 29, 2008

Hello again,

In a recent interview David Crystal pointed out that using letters and numbers as abbreviations for words is nothing new. He...

Language learning myths 2

November 10, 2008

Hello again,
I know I tend to be a bit of an individualist when it comes to teaching style but I have been in the field for a long time and have had plenty of opportunities to try things out. My...

Language learning myths 1

November 02, 2008

Hello again,

A student made me laugh last week as we revised the uses of the present simple tense. “Why do you call it simple? It’s really confusing.” And I can understand...

Ours not to reason why

August 20, 2008

Hello again,

I was asked recently why the future tense in English is used only for certain types of future expression. As I launched into my lengthy explanation, I realized very quickly...

Explaining meaning: collocation

August 05, 2008

Hello again,

The most common question an ESL student asks the teacher is "what does X mean?" The teacher is often lured into the trap of attempting an on-the-spot explanation. In fact the question is impossible to answer unless a whole welter of supporting information is gathered. Meaning is affected by a range of grammatical and referential influences...

Diplomatic language

July 31, 2008

Hello again,

Over recent months a lot of politicians seem to have been trying to impress not only their electorate but people abroad. Nicholas Sarkozy, with his wife, ex-model, Carla Bruni, went on a charm offensive; the rather less charismatic Gordon Brown addressed...

The intention behind the words

July 13, 2008

Hello again,

I said in my last post that at the base of my English for business courses is the concept of how we communicate. We use words not simply in their literal senses but as signs of how we really feel about the subject in hand. We need to help...

The English project

July 07, 2008

Hello again,

It is always interesting to find websites that will be of interest to teachers...

The communication gap

July 01, 2008

Hello again,

I wonder how much we really understand about communicating in this age in which the means of disseminating information ...

Language strategies

May 06, 2008

Hello again,

In teaching English for business, trainers normally organise the courses around typical business activities such as meetings, presentations, negotiations, telephoning, report writing and the like. This focus on activity has advantages...

Taboo or not taboo?

May 01, 2008

Hello again,

Should we censor the English we teach? I suppose if our students are under a certain age, we should avoid any coarse and vulgar expression but adults might well demand a smattering of oaths and rude words, if not to use, at least so...

Literature in the clasroom

April 29, 2008

Hello again,

The English-speaking world is rightly proud of its rich and diverse literature. However, ways of incorporating it into the English curriculum are not easy. The complexity of...

Lesson content

April 17, 2008

Hello again,

To continue my ideas for teaching about the language I want to make some suggestions for lesson content. Language–based topics are a legitimate source of material for listening and reading comprehension and for various classroom ...

Teaching about the language

April 13, 2008

Hello again,
It is a long-held tenet of direct method that we teach the language, not “about” the language. I have no quarrel with this. We are charged with helping...


April 09, 2008

Hello again,

I was asked recently by a teacher for some ideas on teaching idioms. Idioms enliven language and students enjoy learning them. I find it useful to sort idioms into categories, and as an example...

Is intonation neglected in the classroom?

March 30, 2008

Hello again,
When teachers discuss language issues with me, intonation never seems to crop up. And I can’t think of an example of intonation teaching in lessons I have observed recently, yet intonation is a systematic means of adding...

English for work?

February 15, 2008

Hello again,

ESOL in the UK is now clearly differentiated from EFL. I accept of course that learners who plan to live in the UK have distinct language requirements. However, the latest advice concerning English for work ...

Communication styles

February 10, 2008

Hello again,

To continue this brief overview of cultural differences, I want to look at high and low context cultures. In high-context ...

Erosion or development?

January 28, 2008

Hello again,

One of the problems with observing current develops in the English language is that it is difficult to know what long-term effects the changes will have. Modern English is virtually a different language from Old English but the ...

Gender agenda

January 21, 2008

Hello again,

Do men and women use language differently? It’s a controversial issue. The debate kicked off seriously when ...

English and new skills

January 16, 2008

Hello again,

New technology has had a big impact on how we use English. Yet many people do not combine language and technology to best effect. I remember an international ...

Political correctness

December 27, 2007

Hello again,

I admit it I’m old. When I was younger the f-word had four letters and you could be arrested for using it in public. Now it’s the x-aggot word and some luminary in the BBC ...

The art of saying nothing

December 24, 2007

Hello again,

I have been reflecting on how the UK seems to have some wordsmiths trained specifically in the art of using language to say nothing at all. Schools take note, this...

English for football managers

December 14, 2007

Hello again,

It seems English football is divided. Some welcome the appointment of Italian, Fabio Capello as the England national coach on the grounds ...

The politics of language

December 12, 2007

Hello again,

I have been listening to the debates about language teaching in UK state education. Recently foreign languages became optional for study after the age of 14. I found this a perverse move ...

Small talk, big impact

November 04, 2007

Hello again,
To communicate is risky, to not communicate is riskier (Anonymous)

Making small talk when you meet somebody for the first time is partly ritual, partly a social game, but it is essential for establishing rapport. Get it right and you pave the way...

Poetry in the classroom

October 02, 2007

Hello again,

A commenter mentioned recently that he found it hard to interest his class in poetry. I thought I would like to discuss some approaches...

Language in international business

July 26, 2007

Hello again,

English language schools need a special awareness of the underlying messsages in the language we use. Schools are not only concerned with teaching their students but in the process of influencing agents, sponsors and potential students through both the written and...

Effective teaching: pronunciation

July 15, 2007

Hello again,
I have been discussing with teachers recently what makes effective teaching. We have covered a lot of topics but...

Teaching plain English

June 15, 2007

Hello again,
A business student asked me recently what the expression “blue-sky thinking” meant. I said it meant ...

Useful new words or sales gimmick?

June 04, 2007

Hello again,

I am a self-confessed dictionary addict but even I am beginning to weary at the regularity with which publishers bring out new ...

The perception of errors

May 25, 2007

Hello again,

I have been working with adult business people recently and found myself fascinated by the effect of errors on me as a listener. It struck me forcibly ...

English for international purposes

April 19, 2007

Hello again,

Excuse me, but I feel a rant coming on. It’s about so-called “international English.” I really want to protest about the idea that this is a variety of English in its own right. It isn’t; it can’t be because it is never spoken ...

Decline or development?

January 12, 2007

Hello again,
Like many people with a professional interest in English, I am keenly critical of the way the language is used. I groan in despair as yet another "error" is made, usually...

The parlous state of native-speaker communications

December 08, 2006

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place (Shaw)

Hello again,
Not wishing to risk a libel action I can’t warn you about the company whose telephone-answering service has recently led me to almost weep at the depths to which communication in English has descended. But let me paint the picture.

I needed to obtain a replacement USB cable for an MP3 player. As the product.

Academic culture shock

December 05, 2006

Hello again,

I have recently been helping a post-graduate student with her thesis. Despite having spent many years in the UK education system, her written English remained woefully inadequate. However, what was more of a shock ...

Jenkins' ear

November 21, 2006

One day my sheep will come in

Hello again,

Somebody asked me recently what I thought was the most common cause of misunderstanding when non-native speakers use English. My reply was immediate: pronunciation. I think that was partly because I had in mind the possible seriousness ...

Teaching Idioms

November 01, 2006

Horses for courses

Hello again,

I was talking to some teachers recently about the best ways of helping learners acquire a good range of idioms. Certainly speech is richer when it contains idiomatic expressions but...

Hijabs, niqabs and wimples

October 05, 2006

When clothing affects relationships

Hello again,

The English language already has words that describe the clothing worn by Muslim women: we can speak of a headscarf, a veil, or even use the old word for a nun’s head-covering, wimple. But, clearly, these words won’t do. The dictionary must open its word store to the new terms to add to other forms of exotic clothing already accepted in English, such as the sari or the toga. None of this seems very controversial, yet ten years ago, we felt no need to use these words. In the past, the Middle Eastern students I taught ...

The language police

September 08, 2006

We don’t have to be language police or elitist or dinosaurs.


I recently plugged the children’s version of Lynne Truss’s improbable bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I think the book deals with punctuation in an accessible way through humour and clear examples. I was, therefore, surprised to find that David Crystal, English language “expert”, has criticized Truss for her approach of “zero tolerance” to punctuation errors. Crystal lumps her together ...

Punctuation matters

August 29, 2006

Slow children crossing, or slow, children crossing.


I know punctuation can seem like a luxury when you can’t even get your students to remember the –s on the third-person singular, present simple tense, but it is important. The good news is ...

Does language death matter?

August 15, 2006

According to the American Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are 51 languages with only one speaker left, 28 of them in Australia alone.


In his book, Language Death, David Crystal (C.U.P. 2000) gave some surprising statistics. Although there are an estimated 6000 languages spoken today, only about 600 are safe from the threat of extinction. Indeed, languages are dying at the rate of two per week. Only 4% of languages are used by 96% of people and 25% now have fewer than 1000 speakers As English language professionals...

Lost in translation

June 29, 2006

How misunderstandings occur.

Hello again,
A friend visiting me in the sleepy French village where I live was introduced to our “ancien maire”. She said later how surprised she was because he didn’t look all that old. It’s one of those false friends of the translation world, because in French “ancien” can also mean former. It brought a smile to my face because I remember speaking to a school principal in the UK who was puzzled that in France people seemed to try to hide guffaws of laughter when he used the acronym for name of his school. Unfortunately ...

Preparing for the World Cup

June 01, 2006

Football fever is intensifying: what opportunities does this offer for the classroom?

Hello again,

I wonder how schools are gearing up the World Cup. It strikes me as a language teaching opportunity. I am not sure how far the technical terms of football need teaching. I’m no expert on the game but I suspect the English involved is now fairly international. The French of course...

Redefining oral skills for business

May 25, 2006

Silence may be golden but for those engaged in business interactions it tends to be embarrassing.

Hello again,

In meetings of all levels of formality, people like to be able to talk with confidence, but when using a second language they understandably have inhibitions. They fear they lack fluency, may make mistakes and will thus lose face. As business English trainers...

Proverbs in ELT

May 16, 2006

In world that appears to be torn by irreconcilable differences, it is refreshing to find that humanity everywhere is united by the collective homespun wisdom expressed in proverbs.

Hello again,
I often use proverbs as lesson material when teaching English to speakers of other languages because they provide a unifying basis for a multinational class. As soon as I produce my list of proverbs in English, the different nationalities represented in the group seize on a few of them with a reassuring sense of recognition. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, many hands make light work, or, conversely, too...

US American English or British English?

April 05, 2006

"The English are polite by telling lies. The Americans are polite by telling the truth." Malcolm Bradbury.

Hello again.
Somewhere amidst the debate about native-speaker English is the issue of which variety of native-speaker English a school should teach. It’s one of those topics that causes heated argument for all sorts of largely irrelevant reasons. One argument is that US American and British are only two varieties of English: what about Australian, Canadian, South African and so forth? Another argument concerns the relative merits of the varieties: can one be said to be superior to the others? A third argument focuses on the variety that is most widely used worldwide. But, as I said...

Mr Chirac says "non" to to English

March 28, 2006

Is the writing on the wall for native-speaker English?

Hello again,

I enjoyed the expression of high dudgeon expressed recently by France’s President, Jacques Chirac, who flounced out of an EU summit because one of his fellow countrymen addressed the meeting in English. Quelle horreur! Jacques found his Gallic pride deeply insulted but his reaction was ill considered. First, he should have been proud that a French captain of industry is fluent in another European language. I really couldn’t name one British boss capable of delivering a speech in another language: if there are some I’d love to know. The British are lazy and arrogant when it comes to learning languages: after all, everybody speaks English don’t they? . . .

Non-verbal communication

March 21, 2006

Communication is all about language, isn't it?

Hello again.

I was watching Tony Blair on TV and though his words sounded defiant, he radiated discomfort. It set me thinking about non-verbal messages. Communications in international business are considered more often at the verbal level than in terms of body language and the signs and symbols that cultures use instinctively to convey messages and attitudes. Yet some claim that more than 90% of the social content of a message is contained in non-verbal cues. Clearly, if this is so, we neglect this aspect of communication at our peril . . .

The need for academic writing

March 08, 2006

How well prepared are foreign students to follow degree courses in English-speaking universities?

Hello again,

I am sure there is a real need for EAP courses. The last time I taught English for Academic Purposes in a British university, what struck me about the problems students faced in writing was not so much their deficiencies in language structure (although they were serious enough) as their almost total lack of awareness about what an academic paper is.

Academic writing must be firmly grounded in demonstrable fact; sources must therefore be cited to prove the authenticity of the facts and to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism. Students need to learn how to cite these references using one of the accepted style manuals . . .

Is English under threat?

March 06, 2006

Do you get tired of people telling you that English as we know and love it is under threat?

Hello again.

I hope you will permit me a little rant on my favourite topic: standards in English. Before the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English was the language spoken in various dialects in the several kingdoms of what is now England. It was a highly inflected language with a characteristically Germanic vocabulary. With the Normans came the imposition of Norman French for official business in all educated and courtly circles. English was left to languish, rot and atrophy among the lower orders before re-emerging in a different guise as the language that would become that of Shakespeare. Truly it was not until about 1500 that the language we would recognize today as English took hold once again. Of course there were great literary flowerings in an interim language with several dialects that we now know as Middle English. Unfortunately, however, the modern reader tempted to dip into the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, will usually call for a translation. Thus they miss the particular richness and gutsiness of the original . . .

Commonly Confused Words

February 26, 2006

First I must thank Jake and Lee for their warm welcome messages. I have much the same range of interests as Patricia so readers should not expect too much of a clean sweep from a new broom!


I thought I would kick off with a language item. I recently heard a UK politician say that he was not “adverse” to certain measures under discussion. It struck me that English is littered with pairs of easily confused words. He meant “averse” of course. It reminded me of a football manager who talked about the “heart-rendering” result his team had produced. An aerospace executive I once taught had much pleasure in collecting examples of such faux pas from native speakers to prove that it is not only non-native speakers who make mistakes. Well, of course not . . .

Welcome Brenda to ESL School!

February 24, 2006

Greetings ESL experts,

Allow me to say thanks to Jake for his introduction of me and for giving me the honor or presenting to you the newest member of the ESLemployment team, Brenda Townsend Hall, PhD.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with her work, Dr. Townsend Hall is a communications consultant trainer and course designer. Now, she’ll be blogging for ESL School and writing for the ESL Expert newsletter. She offers face-to-face and distance training in the fields of interpersonal communications, business English, written communications and cross-cultural awareness. She also has runs a distance-learning training course, Teach Business English, for teachers wishing to enter the field of business English . . .

Mother Tongue Interference

February 20, 2006

Hello again.

The most noticeable hurdle our students face is Mother Tongue Interference. Please suggest some ways of helping students with this. I promised a commenter on this blog that I would address the issue of mother tongue interference, so here . . .

What is Correct English ?

January 26, 2006


I don’t know about you but I feel that the language is changing so fast that it is increasingly difficult to give students hard and fast rules for correct English.

Of course, the language is in a constant change of flux and modern English bears little resemblance to Old English. But as I listen to native speakers I notice that many forms are in use that only a few years ago most grammarians would have pronounced “incorrect” . . .

Is English Language Teaching a Real Career?

January 17, 2006

Recently I was talking about careers to a group of university students. For most of them English language teaching was perceived as a short-term means of seeing the world before coming back to find a “real career”.

I started thinking about my own life in English language teaching and have to admit that at first I did just fall into it rather than make a conscious career choice. I needed to be in a certain place at a certain time and it was the work that was available and for which I had the right background . . .

The ESL Culture Issue Again

December 26, 2005

Hello again. I’d like to pick up on the topic of cultural imperialism once more.

English - Whose Language?

December 24, 2005

Who owns English? It’s a strange question but I was reading an article by David Crystal recently on this very topic.

ESL - It's Only Words

December 13, 2005

French Academy.jpg

I have been thinking about how adaptable the English language is.

Business English and Culture

December 08, 2005

I am airing some ideas I have discussed in other outlets as I thought those dealing with business English courses might be interested in the ideas.

Language and culture

July 05, 2005

I am very interested in how cultural values influence behaviour.


May 26, 2005

It was inevitable. This was a "language" waiting to happen. A former IBM marketing manager, Jean Paul Nerrière, has codified a simplified form of English for international use. Why inevitable? Well, I suppose I'm just kicking myself for not having devised this one myself. For years I've listened to business people expressing their impatience with learning English in all its intricate glory. They need something quick and effective. They probably won't be talking to native speakers anyway, but to other nationalities all of whom have the same problems with the "Queen's English" as they have.

Jean Paul, with Globish, has applied system to the somewhat haphazard techniques we all use in teaching business Eglish. For example, we teach learners strategies to compensate for situations in which they do not know the exact word in English. If they don't know the word for spade or the verb dig, they ask for a tool that makes holes in the garden. Jean Pierre has turned the spotlgiht of the famous Gallic logic on all this and come up with a whole teaching method. Armed with with a streamlined vocabulary of just 1500 words and a battery of strategies like the above, the international business person can communicate worldwide using "Globish." Okay s/he won't understand Shakespeare, but what use is Hamlet when an Italian is brokering a deal in China?

And so how is Globish different from Esperanto or Basic English? According to Jean Pierre, the difference is that his language is not so much artificial as adpated from the actual experience of international communicators. They get on just fine with each other using their Globish. it's only when they deal with the Americans, the Brits, the Australians that they have trouble!

Back soon,

Language and culture

May 17, 2005

Hello again. I have had some interesting comments about the native/non-native speaker teacher issue, also the whole can of worms of how standards are regulated. I still think the key point about teacher selection is to find the best person for the job. If the non-native speaker fits the bill, then surely that's all that matters. As for regulation, well I agree that students should be protected from sham schools that take their money but don't offer a professional service. Each country, it seems, has its own regulatory system, some stricter than others. It does seem to be a case of 'caveat emptor' or in our case, student beware.

Entre nous

April 07, 2005

Non-native speaker to non-native speaker

In thinking about the ways English is evolving, we have to recognize that it is frequently a lingua franca between non-native speakers. This has strange implications for teaching. I have been told that it is not worth learning any standard form of pronunciation because “the people I talk to wouldn’t understand” and I’ve been asked to simplify verbs to eliminate tenses! Of course, as English has developed from a highly synthetic language to an analytical one, it is likely that further losses of inflected forms will occur. I’ve noticed that many speakers prefer not to use the –er ending for comparatives, preferring to add “more” instead: I’m more happy, more free, etc.

Prepositions on the up

March 16, 2005

Hello. My name is Patricia Dean and I'm editor-in-chief at ESL Employment. I guess that gives me the right to sound off on a few things so here's my first beef!

When I trained English language teachers I used to tell them that prepositions were words of little meaning. They functioned as syntactic cement, holding more meaningful words together in a coherent fashion. In keeping with their lowly role, they are only stressed in the spoken language for the purposes of contrast. Thus if I say he drove out, the preposition is stressed because someone thinks he drove in and I need to put the record straight. Unfortunately such meaningful aspects of what the linguists like to call suprasegmental pronunciation seem to have been lost in the mists of time. Listen to newscasters reading ploddingly from their autocues. They think no word is ever as important as a preposition, so we are told nightly about our correspondent in Baghdad, reports from Washington, accidents on the roads.