Tag Archives: Advanced English

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English in India: a strange alliance.

English in India

Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an excellent documentary on the privileged status of the English language in India (1).

Unlike China, India has no single homegrown national language of government. Hindi, the official unifying national tongue, is an artificial 20th century construct and remains largely unspoken.

Consequently, English has retained a powerful position in the civil service, upper judiciary, academia, national media and corporate business.

Love/Hate Relationship

The presenter, Zareer Masani, described how India, which claims the world’s second largest English-speaking population (after the USA), has a true love/hate relationship with the language of the British Empire.

While chauvinists and Nationalists have tried to ban its use, dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) have united with privileged elites to adopt English as the language of a new meritocratic India. Enrolment at vernacular national schools has declined, while private English language schools thrive.

A Strange Alliance

The increasing popularity of private English-medium schools shows a coming together of two quite different social groups, and mirrors changes taking place in the Indian economy. Now, the elite and the dispossessed are using them as a means to empower their children.

For rich and poor alike, the acquisition of good English is an important issue. It is the passport to white collar jobs, and the lack of it will hold their children back in their chosen careers.

But, the results are mixed. Predictably, the English spoken by those attending the best schools is excellent and almost indistinguishable from that of educated native speakers. However, at the Anglican schools favoured by the aspiring poor, Hindi is mixed with English to produce Hinglish a hybrid unintelligible to you and me.

Dreadful or Different

Of course, the claim of 125 million English-speakers in India is a distortion of the facts. So many speak Hinglish that a truer figure might be a fraction of that number, making India an also-ran in the English-speaking stakes.

Or does it? If we think of our huddled masses in Glasgow, Liverpool or Newcastle, perhaps we shouldn’t be too sniffy about those who speak different forms of English.  After all, who amongst us speaks perfect English? I’m not even sure if I  know what it is!

Raising the Standard

The truth is, of course, that you get what you pay for.

No matter where you are, if you want your child to have a good education, you make sure that they have highly-educated, professional teachers, who love teaching and are passionate about their pupils’ progress. And, for this to have any real impact, you must choose a school with small class sizes.

Great teachers and small classes cost money, so it is no surprise that the privileged elites opt for the excellence that comes from 1-to-1 classes with professional teachers, so that they get the greatest benefit.

Of course, this is what we offer at HELLO English. We are extremely well-qualified, professional English teachers and our reasonable rates and high success rates mean that it won’t cost you the Taj Mahal, either.
(1) Masani Z; ‘English or Hinglish – Which will India Choose?”; BBC Radio 4; 27/11/12 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20500312)

The BDSM Approach to English.

Looking through some language advertisements recently, I saw one I hadn’t been expecting: Free English Lessons! Now, I know that the world and their best friend are offering English lessons in these troublesome times, but free lessons? I had to find out more.

On further reading, it turned out that the advertiser was offering English conversation classes free to anyone who was prepared to walk up and down on his back while wearing high heels! This is certainly a novel approach to pedagogy, but not one that I would advocate for the serious student of English.

So, with so many people offering to teach English, what should a student look for when choosing where to study?

There are two types of factors to consider: those that cannot be controlled (your location, age or budget) and those where you have a real choice: the qualifications, experience and professionalism of your teachers.

For example, on the one hand, the students who come to HELLO English do so because they either live here, or were happy to come here for their course. On the other, they chose to come to us because they liked our combination of qualifications, maturity, professionalism and commitment to teaching English.

What our competitors don’t have, and what our students won’t see, perhaps, is our fantastic range of qualifications in foreign language pedagogy, including up-to-date language qualifications (CELTA 2012) and post-graduate studies in linguistics and philology.

Let’s be clear, though. You do not need to be an expert in grammatology or onomastics to speak sparkling, crisp English. But, if you want to teach students how to use such elegant expression, and to enable them to spring from stumble to fluency, then some serious qualifications in language and teaching will be needed.

On my philology course, we learned about phonetics, poetics, syntax and semantics, among other things, and I use this knowledge every day as an English teacher. But, do I really need to know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammars in order to teach about the present continuous tense?

Well, yes, actually. If you want to be able to answer your students’ questions with more than a simple ‘…because that is what the book says…’, you need to know as much as possible about the English language. You should be so fascinated that you live and breathe intelligent insights to convey to your students.

So, students should take care to choose not just cheap teachers (cheap at what cost?) but, rather, teachers who are experienced, well qualified, professional and committed to teaching English.

Elegant English is much like a swan. A great deal of hard work has to be done before you can glide gracefully through the choppy waters of linguistic life.

If you would like to swim smoothly through your English lessons, choose someone who really knows their subject. Talk to HELLO English today about conversation classes or Cambridge exams, IELTS or A-levels.
http://www.hello-english.co.uk

Stephen Fry on Language.

Excellent Viddy. Watch, Watch, Watch!

Why is English so Hard to Learn?

I love the English language – in all its quirky beauty and hair-splittingly hare-brained complexity but, as an English teacher, I am all too painfully aware of how difficult this fascinating social creation is for others to learn.

So, why is English so difficult to learn? Looked at from a philological point of view, I think there are many answers.

Actually, elementary ‘survival’ English, is  not that hard to pick-up. That is to say, English at a level which corresponds to the average Brit’s grasp of Spanish. With a little preparation, and a handy phrasebook, it is not hard to ask the way to the airport, or order two beers, in any language.

The difficulty comes when you want to speak our language correctly, because English is one of the largest languages on earth, and also one of the most  irregular.

Size Matters

That the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists 171,476 words in current use (plus 47,156 obsolete and 9,500 derivative words) simply underlines the size of the language, and this does not take into account entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective). To this you must add the technical and regional vocabularies and words not yet added to the published dictionary, giving a total approaching three quarters of a million.

With 750,000 words to play with, it is no wonder that overseas learners of English have problems unravelling the rules.

Meet the Vocabulary Ancestors

To do so, you really need to start by understanding what languages we are talking about.

In the United Kingdom, there is only one national language, Standard British English, but two autonomous regional languages: Welsh and Gaelic (both Irish and Scots varieties). The difference of these should never be discounted, as anyone who has been to North West Scotland or Wales will know, and English borrows from both quite freely (Loch, cairn or glen, anyone?).

Like all languages, English bears the imprint of its previous users. So, our national vocabulary includes words with Gothonic, Celtic, Gaelic, Latin, Saxon, Viking and Norman roots, but also loanwords from Russian, Hindi, Yiddish, French, German and, because the British got around quite a bit, almost every other language imaginable.

Because of our enduring relationships with some countries, though, we have borrowed from two or three cultures more than others. English shows its roots in Danish for many of the basics of life, the tell-tale traces of our long linguistic love-affair with France, and the influences of the post-colonial powerhouses of America, Australia and India.

Hell is Other People’s Language Patterns

As if this unmanageably various vocabulary weren’t enough, the learner also has the problem of seemingly unpredictable patterns in the way we speak.

This was caused by the differential adoption of pronunciation and grammar by different social groups and classes within British society, so that working words like ‘mallet’, ‘wallet’ and ‘billet’ have a distinctly English pronunciation while we keep a suitably French tone for a word like ‘ballet’.

The retention of donor language forms depends on how recently words were adopted, and by whom. Although pedants may quarrel over the pronunciation of ‘mater’ and ‘pater’, no-one argues about how to say the word ‘tree’ (Viking ‘tre’ related to the modern Danish ‘trae’), for example.

To understand these patterns, it helps to know the relative social status of the adoptees. The language of fine dining, for example, is predominantly French, and is still pronounced as close to the original as possible. This is as much about the education of those buying expensive meals – it was assumed that they would understand French – as it was about exclusivity and the exclusion of ‘undesirables’.

Creativity – Don’t you just hate it!

Every year the OED lists another few hundred words that have been coined by some journalist or cultural commentator. These wonderful new words are sometimes fly-by-night creations and are gone from the lexicon a decade later. Many stick, though, and become yet more for students to learn and puzzle over.

The leading new word this year is ‘Omnishambles’ – coined to cover a continuing  and all-consuming cock-up, whether political or administrative. It has it roots in the biting political satire The Thick of It, and has since been used in Parliament to great effect.

For those learning English, creativity is a real obstacle to success. They want simple rules and they want speakers to stick to them. This requires prescriptive grammar and good teaching. (Something that HELLO English does extremely well, by the way!)

The Good News.

The good news is that, whether you are a serious linguist looking at a descriptive grammar or an English teacher with a more normative (prescriptive) approach, English does have simple rules. Just a lot of them.

But it is a language which keeps on giving, and the more that the student puts into learning, the more they will get… and the better grades they will eventually achieve.

And what of us – at HELLO English? Well, as native-speaking English teachers, we realise how lucky we are. We think we won first-prize in the lottery of language, and we are determined to share that good fortune with others.

Why not talk to us today about how we can help you improve your language skills – whether for university, A-levels or for general interest. Check out our website http://www.hello-english.co.uk or contact us on contact@hello-english.co.uk

What Price Professional English?

What Price Professional English?

Check out this business and professional English blog!

God save the Queen’s English

God save the Queen’s English.

via God save the Queen’s English.

“Be a bloody train driver!”

Many years ago, when the world was young, my anarcho-feminist sister had Jacky Fleming’s 1991 cartoon collection “Be a bloody train driver” perched on her lavatory windowsill.

On the front cover, Minnie the Minx finishes: “- I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”

The gender stereotypes on which this is based  are a bit hackneyed these days, but they are still valid. Women are pretty rare in both train driving and brain surgery, and there is a range of professions and vocations to which more young women should aspire and gain entry.

However, I don’t think that in either of these jobs we would want applicants to be appointed on the basis of gender alone. I certainly don’t want to have my safety, on the operating table or elsewhere, left to a woman just because she is female rather than an expert and excellent surgeon.

So why is this of interest to linguists and teachers of English?

Well, increasingly these days, I interview  prospective IELTS students who complain about the standard of English required to practise as a medical doctor in the United Kingdom*. It is, they say, discriminatory.

I agree. It differentiates among those people who aspire to be senior professionals in highly-remunerated positions making life and death decisions about their fellow citizens. Some of them think that having the ability to speak good English is a legitimate requirement, and are ready to work hard to achieve that goal.

It is not unrealistic, I think, for those who aspire to practise in the professions to be able to converse and communicate on equal terms with other educated and highly skilled professional people in this country.

It is worth it, after all. In the UK, a salaried GP can expect to earn between £53,781- £81,158, while GP partners and hospital consultants can earn anywhere between £100,000 and £200,000.

Given these salaries, perhaps the effort to learn how to speak, write, read and comprehend English at a very good level is justified. After all, a train driver, at the pinnacle of his career, could not earn more than £51,000. Somewhat less, even after a lifetime of service, than our fresh-faced GPs will earn at the beginning of theirs.

So, if you don’t like the British Medical Council’s English requirements, there is always an alternative.

“Be a bloody train driver!”

* PLAB: Band 7 scores across all elements at one sitting. Foundation: Band 7.5 in all four in one go.

(With apologies to any train drivers who may take exception to this. No disregard for your skills and responsibilities is in any way intended.)

Taking Risks with the Truth

With the publication this week of the Hillsborough report, Britain has returned from a summer of sporting success – Tour de France, Olympics, Paralympics, US Tennis Open – to our most recent default setting: disgust at dishonesty among public servants.

Criminality, corruption, coercion and cover-ups… We probably aren’t too surprised at this sort of behaviour from politicians and journalists, but we used to expect better from policemen.

Disregard for honesty.

At heart, our dismay is at an increasingly widespread disregard for truth. Yesterday, our politicians queued-up to apologise for lying to bereaved families about the death of their children. Yet, we are left wondering how we can restore a regard for honesty among young people, so that such acts of deceit are avoided in future.

The portents are not good. As you consider this succession of scandals – vote-rigging in Birmingham, politicians fiddling expenses, match-fixing in cricket, phone-hacking, LIBOR-fixing, Hillsborough – spare a thought for those working in our schools and universities.

Local difficulties.

I run an English school for overseas students. We are good at what we do and enjoy seeing our graduates succeed. With our growing reputation for success, we have become conscious that some other schools are less honest in their admissions procedure (see London Met). So, we check our students carefully on enrolment, and we have learned to steer well clear of anything to do with visa applications, or the UK Border Agency!

In our area of work, there are people offering visa fixes for unscrupulous students, and income to unscrupulous schools. There are agents who offer you  an endless stream of international students, usually for a 30% share of your fees. As with every other dodgy deal, the rule is “Just say no!”

My problems are irritating but minor. They are run-of-the-mill stuff: fee payments delayed, bookings fudged and courses cancelled at short notice. Small beer, when all’s said and done, and as nothing when compared to the problems facing teachers and lecturers in our colleges and universities, these days.

A little help from your friends?

With the advent of modular coursework, it has become increasingly easy for students to get help with essays and assessed assignments which, because they are completed at home, can be improved with help from parents or friends… Or teachers, as we saw in the much-publicised case of Prince Harry’s 2005 A-level artwork.

From this it is a short step to buying-in help. The internet is awash with agencies who, for as little as £7.95 per page, will offer to write your essays for you. “Best Quality Academic Writing by Experts” they promise, and students are increasingly happy to stump-up the £150+ to cheat their way to success.

Writing last year, Audrey Watters noted that ‘… that cheating is at an all time high — or at least, students’ willingness to admit they’ve cheated. Some 75% of college students admit that they’ve cheated at one point or another during their academic careers. That’s up from 20% of students back in the 1940s.’

But this is what’s happening in the US, so it doesn’t concern us. Or, does it? Here,  in the UK, we tell our children that marks matter, don’t we? Increasingly, our teachers are being graded, paid and promoted on the basis of how well their students perform in standardised tests. Guess what they tell them, as well?

There is a conflict here, isn’t there? We want our schools to do well so that our children can do well, but should that success be predicated on a disregard for honesty and truth?

Academic dishonesty.

We need to answer this question because students, teachers and university administrators are cheating as never before. The Daily Telegraph‘s David Barrett reported in 2011 on a survey of academic malpractice in 80 British universities. In the 70 universities providing comparable data, there had been a 53% jump in reported incidents over the four years to 2010. Maybe staff are getting better at spotting plagiarism, but there is assuredly a great deal that isn’t spotted.

Our liberal university culture was built upon the personal relationship with supervisors that came from the tutorial system. It was quite easy to spot where a piece of work was not the fruit of your student’s intellectual efforts. You knew their voice – spoken or written – and could tell when something came from another hand than theirs.

This is no longer the case. Universities have been forced to change too quickly and, adopting the worst practices of US higher education, have replaced inter-personal trust with regulation and technology.

Into this arena have come a new breed of student with a ‘Nice guys don’t win’ philosophy which says that the end justifies the means. Ultimately, they would argue, if marks matter, then you buy your marks. Job done.

But, here’s a thing: if you are found out, the chances are you won’t be punished. In the 2011 study of British universities, out of 17,000 reported cases of cheating, less than 1% of students were sent-down.

What price honesty?

University administrators are complicit in this mess because they are desperate for income from overseas students, often with little regard for the legality of their enrolment. They won’t enforce a strict code of standards because they have no wish to lose the fees that come with each student place. And truth is again the victim.

All this is about to get a whole lot worse. Now that university fees for home students have tripled,  paying £27,000+ for a bargain basement service will no longer be acceptable. With a commercial relationship in place, we will see failing students suing universities for not providing tuition that guaranteed graduation.

This is already the case at some faculties and cases never come to court. Can universities afford to defend a slew of such actions from disgruntled students? Of course they can’t. Students will know this and accept their re-marked degrees with a suitable sneer.

What price honest, trustworthy, incorruptible public servants then?

Getting it Write.

Getting it Write: Six tips for better English essays

No matter what level of student you are – from beginner through to doctoral candidate – there will come a time when you have to sit down and write. No more scruffy note-taking and no more background reading: the time is now and your seat is waiting at the desk.

So, what is it that stops you from starting? Why do you dither, prevaricate, procrastinate?

Could it be that you make mistakes that others see when you can’t? How do you feel about English grammar? Does writing give you the jitters, collywobbles and screaming abdabs?

Well, here are six simple tips for how to control your fears, reduce uncertainty and get better marks in English written tasks.

Did I mention the evil word ‘grammar’? It is guaranteed to strike fear into the students across the continents. My EFL students assume (wrongly) that they are the only ones who need to be concerned about grammar. Everyone should be. Without it, meaning runs amok.

We need grammar, punctuation and syntax (word order to you and me), to make those funny squiggly things sit in the right sequence and mean what we want them to mean. For that is what it is all about, in the end: controlling meaning. If you don’t master meaning it will govern you … and ruin your writing.

So my six simple tips will put you in control. Believe me, they correct the mistakes that most irritate examiners, so they are really worth knowing.

  1. Spell it Write
    No Good at Spelling? Tough. There is no excuse. You MUST spell correctly.
    Lots of English people are absolutely dreadful at spelling and refuse to improve their language skills because it is ‘too much effort’. They should see how hard my EFL students work.
    You can beef up your spelling by working at it, too. Use cue cards and vocabulary-builder exercises. Memorise pronunciation and spelling patterns. Get friends to give you spelling tests or dictation exercises.
    Hard work pays off with spelling. (Spellchecker on the computer doesn’t.)
    Read more, read differently, and look up words you don’t know. You will expand your vocabulary, increase your spelling accuracy and learn a host of useful new words.
  2. Join the Dots
    Learn the ‘dos and don’ts’ of the dots: the simple rules of punctuation.
    Capitals start a sentence and proper nouns. Full stops end a sentence or abbreviations. Use a question mark after a question and an exclamation mark after something really exciting, shocking or unusual. Commas break up the parts of a sentence, or separate examples or items on a list. Apostrophes show omission or possession: don’t use them for simple plurals.
    If you can follow these simple rules, you will avoid the main mistakes of punctuation, make your teacher more optimistic and examiners better disposed to give you good marks.
  3. To ing or not to ing
    A frequent mistake in student writing is the use of a gerund (walking) instead of an infinitive (to walk). For example, ‘I want walking’ rather than ‘I want to walk’.
    The rule is that we use the infinitive after emotional verbs (I was happy to help) and adjectives (It is too cold to swim), and the gerund for the subject of the sentence (Swimming is good exercise) or after a preposition (without saying a word).
    You’ll need to check your grammar book, but it is worth sorting this out now.
  4. Right that Article
    If I had a Zimbabwean penny for each time I have had to correct errors with the use of articles (or ‘adjectival articles’ as some call them), I would be able to retire comfortably on the proceeds. You need to remember that there are four uses of article: Definite (the), indefinite (a/an) and the zero article, where no article is used. Learning how and when to use each of these forms is key to writing well in English.
  5. Repetition
    This is really a matter of style and vocabulary. There are upwards of 600,000 words in English, so it is considered bad manners to keep on repeating the same word, whether in writing or conversation. With so many words to choose from, there will be a variety of nouns and pronouns you can use to avoid repetition.
  6. Are You In Tense?
    The last of our keys to quality in written English is maintaining consistency in the person and tense you use. It is too easy to slip-slide around in time and number: starting your writing as I/me in the simple past tense, but then talking about he/him, in the present continuous. You must stay in the same person and tense.
    If you are unsure of moving forward and backwards in your writing, stick with one tense per sentence and use simple grammatical constructions. Once you are more confident with working solely in the simple past, say, move on to using other tenses separately. Only when you can do that properly should you start combining tenses in more sophisticated sentence structures.

Of course, this is just a glimpse of what to watch out for in your own or your students’ writing. For a fuller picture, and for a thoroughly expert grounding in English, you should come to HELLO English – our independent language school based in Moseley, in the English Midlands.

At HELLO English (www.hello-english.com), we have classes and worksheets aplenty on all these failings. Among the range of courses we offer, we can help you with your academic writing and written English, and you can choose from our General English (GEC), Pre University Package (PUP) or various A-level, Cambridge and IELTS programmes.

Why not contact us today for more information?