Tag Archives: England

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Season’s Greetings

2012 Xmas Card

Women Bishops, Noah and Christmas Pud.

Amongst the media bombardment about Middle Eastern rockets and women priests, I notice that today is traditionally the day on which Noah is held to have entered the Ark.

Given the weather we have had this year, I imagine that there are many who feel like copying him, although perhaps without the complete domestic menagerie he brought along.

It is also about now, my almanac tells me, that Stir-Up Sunday falls: the last Sunday before Advent on which the Collect begins “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of the faithful…” which was taken as a reminder to stir-up the mixture for Christmas puddings and pies, in order to allow them time to mature.

It was parodied thus:
Stir up, we beseech thee,
The pudding in the pot,
And when we do get home,
We’ll eat it piping hot.

Christmas puddings and pies should always be stirred clockwise with a wooden spoon. All present in the house should take a turn to stir in order of age: father, mother, visitors, children and babies by seniority.

Is there a connection between ‘stirring’ and women?  Certainly Johnny Nash and later Bob Marley thought so in the reggae classic ‘Stir It Up‘ – and they weren’t talking about ecclesiastical ructions within the Anglican church.

Anyway, in this house, if I want a Christmas Pudding  I shall have to make it myself, so I wish you all have a safe ark to carry you forth and that you remember to stir your pudding clockwise. (What happens if you don’t…?)

And if you don’t know how to make one, here’s a Christmas Pudding recipe, for you to try at home.

At HELLO English, we enjoy all the oddities of English traditions – whether in the English language, or in our weird and wonderful institutions, even if their arcane rules seem a little outdated from time to time. To find out more, contact us here.

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

Remember, Remember…

Gunpowder-plot

At this time of year, our English students often ask about the story of Guy Fawkes. Why do we remember this failed attempt to blow-up a king?

When Guy Fawkes planned the Gunpowder Plot more than 400 years ago, he could hardly have imagined his treasonous actions would be remembered for so long afterwards and inspire so many books, poems, short stories and songs.

Yet the man who was part of a group – led by Robert Catesby – that tried to kill the king of England in 1605 has been the inspiration for many millions of words – to which we add these few.

Most people born and raised in Britain know the story of the Gunpowder Plot, which was an attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to kill King James I, when he opened the Parliament at Westminster.

Fawkes and his group cooked up a secret plot to assassinate King James. England was a protestant country and Fawkes and his fellow band of men wanted to have a Catholic king or queen on the throne.

Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament while the king was there. But the king’s guards were tipped off and on November 5, 1605 they searched Westminster Palace and found Fawkes guarding a pile of gunpowder. He was arrested and sentenced to death.

The fact that King James survived was cause for great celebration!  People took to the streets to have a party. The country soon followed in the celebration and a party-like spirit spread across England. Everyone gave thanks that God had saved King James’s life.

The king did not want any more attempts on his life. His ministers made sure people did not forget Guy Fawkes, and November 5 became known as Guy Fawkes Night. It continues today as an evening of celebration, with food, drink, songs and stories. Effigies of Guy Fawkes are even burned on a bonfire.

And it continues in our literature because the drama and intrigue of the Gunpowder Plot have appealed to writers across the centuries. The story has been captured in various ways.

The most famous poem, sometimes classed as a nursery rhyme, is “Remember Remember”.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
In Britain, most children will learn this ditty  in infancy, but there are longer versions: the longest being kept in the Tower of London archive.

There are Guy Fawkes related  songs, and many of these are period ballads with a decidedly sinister feel to them, including the “Devil and the Washerwoman”, but there is also a more recent “Ballad of Guy Fawkes” by the band Green on Red, which links these seventeenth century events to recent political dissatisfaction.

The most successful substantive account of the Gunpowder Plot has been that written by the renowned historian Antonia Fraser. Her book “The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996) unravels the tangled web of religion and politics that spawned the plot.

The Gunpowder Plot captures children’s imaginations too. There are many  books for younger readers about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. Two of the most popular are “The Gunpowder Plot”, by Liz Gogerly, and “Guy Fawkes” by Harriet Caster. Indeed, in towns and cities across the UK, children may still ask strangers to spare ‘A Penny for the Guy, Mister?’, although it is likely to mean a lot more than a penny these days.

Guy Fawkes even shaped our language.  In the 19th century the word “guy” was used to describe an effigy or a strangely dressed person. In American English use of the term evolved and it came to mean any male person.

Today, some people say Guy Fawkes Night is overshadowed by Hallowe’en, and the advent of ‘Trick or Treat’ – an American import, described by one Guardian journalist as ‘the Japanese knotweed of autumn festivals’.

So, whether you see Guy Fawkes as ‘The only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions’, or as a treacherous traitor, who deserved all he got, it seems we do ‘Remember,  Remember’ pretty successfully, so it is unlikely that ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot should Ever Be Forgot!’

At HELLO English, we love explaining the old customs and traditions of England, and we even enjoy exploring those of our near neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

If you want to find out more, please look at the HELLO English website on http://www.hello-english.com, or email us at contact@hello-english.co.uk.

God save the Queen’s English

God save the Queen’s English.

via God save the Queen’s English.

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?

Finding the right course…

The west end of King's College Chapel seen fro...

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

English Courses in England – What is Available?
As can be expected the UK has more English language courses than anywhere in the world. No matter what you level there is a course for you.

The selection ranges from beginners through to advanced, business and academic or vocational use.

Most English language courses in the UK do not have academic entry requirements, so there really is nothing to stop you from studying English in the UK.

So exactly what English language courses are available?

General English Courses: These courses are available at all levels and are aimed at improving general day-to-day English. You will work on grammar, vocabulary and colloquial English, focusing primarily on speaking, pronunciation and listening allowing you to achieve greater English fluency.
See http://www.hello-english.com for more details

English for Academic Purposes: These courses are designed for students who are enrolled on university courses in the UK. They help students develop the language skills necessary to take notes, write essays, and understand academic journals. Some courses will also help students develop subject-specific vocabulary.
Check http://www.english4professionals.co.uk/e4education/ for academic English.

Study Support: These courses are designed to help students who are currently studying in the UK who have solid English language skills but require a few hours a week guidance to improve their study skills.
Contact Neil on contact@hello-english.co.uk for study and research support.

Business English: These courses are aimed at students who want to develop their English skills for a specific industry, such as business, economics, finance, tourism or law. They enable students to communicate effectively and operate professionally within these sectors by developing vocabulary, report writing and delivering presentations.
See http://www.english4professionals.co.uk/e4business/ for more details of business-focused courses.

English Exam Preparation Courses: These can be residential or non-residential. They can be short, high-intensity ‘cramming’ courses or longer with only one or two hours per week. Either way, they will help you to prepare for IELTS, A-levels resist, IGCSE, Cambridge First, Advanced or Proficiency exams.
For  information on exam preparation courses,  contact info@hello-english.com

Summer Courses: There are several summer courses during the longer summer and Easter breaks that allow students the fantastic opportunity of studying and learning English while also enjoying a holiday. These summer courses really complement students’ English language development and also help students to develop social skills through activities such as sport and sightseeing. For more information about HELLO Homestay English courses, contact Pauline via contact@hello-english.co.uk