Archive for August, 2009

Should we practise the art of conversation more?

August 31, 2009

When talking with friends yesterday, it struck me that we undervalue conversation considerably. When teaching English I first encourage students to talk through what they are going to write. They seem to believe that just talking is easy, – not ‘real’ work. Yet, while I am trying to learn another language (Spanish) it is through conversation that I believe I learn the most. In trying to construct a sentence, in trying to clothe an idea with words that express the exact meaning intended and in having to absorb what others are saying and adapt my comments to theirs, the language part of the mind, I am sure, is being exercised considerably.


What are good manners these days?

August 30, 2009

How important are good manners? What are good manners these days?

One interpretation of good manners, I guess, is to consider the people around you so that they feel comfortable in you rcompany.  When a friend joined us for lunch she kept answering her mobile phone – in the end I snapped “Turn it off”. Who was in the wrong eh?

With reference to language, I hate it when people use a stream of abbreviations when they speak– ones that take me ages to work out what they are supposed to mean until the meaning of the whole conversation is stilted or even c completely lost.  It tickled me when a member of staff stood looking at the board one day and commented: “There are too many TLA’s.” – more abbreviations I muttered to myself. I asked “What do you mean by TLA’s?” “Three-Letter Abbreviations” he replied. – loved it!

How should we teach language to our preschool children?

August 28, 2009

Does it matter how we teach our pre-school children?

I was in a discussion with a fellow teacher the other day. We were of opposing views. I believe that young children should be exposed to as many different ways of approaching language as possible. They will pick up what they can from one, some or all of the different ways. My opponent, on the other hand, believes that children should be introduced to language and to reading by a purely phonetic approach. When continuing the discussion with another I was given a wonderful example of the danger of a purely phonetic approach. A youngster learning to read the word ‘girl’ will read it as guh – i –  r uh – luh = gorilla!

It pays to talk

August 26, 2009

I popped into Cambridge (UK) International Bookstore in Hills Road today. I can always get up-to-date news about the EFL world there. While I had time on my hands, I chatted about books that sell. It seems that the highest sellers are course books, which is to be expected. Methodology books that I thought would sell well, sell only moderately I was told.

If you are writing an EFL book, the advice is to write for the students. Surprisingly enough there were no rival diaries of language learners on the shelves. Perhaps I may be starting something new for the market (or I may be providing something that very few people will be interested in!). It will be an interesting exercise trying to make my PHD diary readable whatever the case.

What kind of book should I write?

August 25, 2009

The recession, and the ponderous nature of the publishing world have led me to the decision that it might be in my best interests to try publishing my own book. There are websites now that make this much more affordable than it used to be e.g.

I somewhat rashly said I would be promoting a book at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate next year (2010) so obviously I need to complete it by then!

What kind of book should I write? If it depends on how people will want to use it, I suppose a straightforward, no-nonsense approach might be best. However, reading it would be a bit boring. I think I would prefer to read one that is more informal and chatty. If another PhD students wants to use it, maybe I should publish it exactly as it is at the moment. Any ideas?

I’ll paste below three ways I could approach it. Which would you prefer? Is there another way I should present it?


The diary of a language learner

Entry: 1

Date : Wednesday 15 September 1999 1010 a.m. for about 45 minutes                  

Age: this is already ‘known’ to be a disadvantage

Appropriate Approach: the only change I made was to consider abandoning the course early in the procedure if I did not fulfil my needs – e.g. the need for help with pronunciation …


The diary of a language learner

Tasmania was too far. There was no way I would be able to skip backwards and forwards from the UK to this idyllic isle for regular holidays. There was nothing for it but to swap the property I had inherited in Tasmania for one in warmer climes, closer to my new home in the UK.

With great difficulty I settled for Spain, largely incurred because of my complete lack of Spanish. As the proud owner of a new flat close to the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by Spanish speakers, there was nothing for it but to learn Spanish. What better way to learn Spanish than to observe myself going through the process. I knew it would be tortuous. …


Day 1: Wednesday  15  September

I knew age was going to be a disadvantage. With some trepidation I started my first course in learning Spanish:  “Teach  Yourself  Spanish by Juan  Kattán-Ibarra, 1998: a  complete  course  in  understanding,  speaking  and  writing  Spanish.”

 Even at first glance, I felt dissatisfied. This course did not give me exactly what I needed. I needed to know how to pronounce the words.    END

So, what do you think? comments would be gratefully received.

How careful should we be with our speech?

August 24, 2009

I was having lunch with local publisher Rodney Dale recently when he picked up on a phrase I used. He asked if it was a special Tasmanian phrase, or had I picked it up while in England. It’s the phrase “aren’t I?” instead of “am I not? “. I had never noticed it before and then realized that when teaching EFL, we teach tag questions e.g. “You like reading, don’t you?” – but do we teach “I’m late, aren’t I?” I’ll have to scramble for my textbooks.

Why every language learner should keep a diary

August 21, 2009

All learners should keep a language learning diary. They can be much more revealing than expected. While glancing through a diary I kept when I first started learning Spanish some years ago, the first comments were very revealing. I thought I knew exactly what was going on, and knew what kind of learner I was and what would happen. However, simple comments like:

  1. “I  had  always  felt  a  little  prejudiced  against  the  language  because  the  people  I  have  mixed  with over  the  years  seem  to  feel  this  way  towards  Spanish.  They prefer French.  So  I  felt  I,  too,  ‘didn’t  like’  Spanish  but  I  hoped  I  would  be  able  to  overcome  this.”


  1. “I  wasn’t  not  sure  how  my  voice  and  accent  sounded”

Reveal that I seemed to think that liking the language (or not) was very important and I assumed that I did not like the language. However, over time, I realized I DID like Spanish and Spanish culture – and was even keen on Spanish music at one time. My own compositions were very similar to the Spanish composer Albeniz when I was studying Music at Melbourne University.

The second comment reveals that I seemed to believe it mattered what my voice and accent sounded like. This was written very early on – so I was lucky to be able to pronounce the words at all, so why the worry? Also, if I was that concerned I should have recorded myself, although I would not have been able to correct any mistakes.

This has implications for our language learners. I am now extracting more comments in preparation for a possible presentation at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate. Watch this space.

What is it about McCall Smith’s writing?

August 20, 2009

What is it about McCall Smith’s writing?

What is it about Alexander McCall Smith’s writing that is so appealing? I picked up his “Dream Angus” from the library. Previously I had enjoyed his books about folk in Edinburgh even though I have only visited the city a couple of times so I was willing to give this book a try. My initial reaction was that I would probably find the theme of the stories uninteresting. Stories about ancient gods and a god that gives you dreams seemed a most unlikely topic for someone who is interested in searching for the truth, in stories based on real facts or in clever plots in murder mysteries.

However, from the start, I found his language fascinating. Short sentences that were unpresuming, clear and to the point lured me into his stories. He seems to have the knack of needing only a few words to describe exactly what is going on in the mind of his characters. A simple statement about the weather, the self-belief of the characters or institutions, or events as they occurred caught my imagination.

By the time I reached the third story I was hooked and could not put the book down.  You should give it a go.

re IATEFL conference: it may be wise to book now

August 19, 2009

It may be wise to book your own accommodation for the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate next year (2010). When I was at the conference this year in Cardiff some of the delegates said how they remembered their last conference at Harrogate. Their accommodation had been booked a long way from the conference centre so they had to be bussed to and fro – they missed many of the events. I’ve booked accommodation before booking into the conference – I hope I can get in!

remembering may not be a simple matter of repeating

August 19, 2009

Remembering may not be a simple matter of repeating

 A common way of teaching is to show students how to do something and then get them to practise it again and again until it is automatic. There is no doubt that this works to a degree.

However, I recently discovered that ideas that were generated from my study of myself trying to learn a new language gave insight into the way language was probably best learnt. I found that I had to use certain words or phrases that I was trying to learn repeatedly until it became part of the language I used. However, if I repeated the word(s) by simply saying the same word or words again and again, or by looking and covering and then trying to remember – this seemed to work for only a short period. I knew the word(s) for a short while. When I tried to use them later – they were gone i.e. I could not recall them.

 However, I believe there was a way to overcome this. This was to repeat the word(s) but in different ways and with different approaches. I would use the usual methods of looking covering writing and checking, saying out loud and visualizing and imagining interactive pictures that reminded me of the sounds of the syllables. It was not until I deliberately tried to remember the word(s) in a different way each time that I felt progress was made.

This seemed to work with teaching the piano, too. A young pupil was obviously a little fed up with repeating the same thing again and again.  So I made up slight changes of touch and rhythm for him to repeat the same series of notes and it seemed to open up a new horizon for him. He remembered the fingering and note series much quicker and I believe, better. It’s worth a try eh?