Tag Archives: up-to-date teaching

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!

What do I need to do to pass IELTS at Band 7?

Good IELTS* scores are needed for registration in many professions. In addition, similar proof of English proficiency is becoming a pre-requisite for post-graduate and even undergraduate courses at university in the United Kingdom.

So, how do you achieve Band 7 or above in the four elements of IELTS?

1. Be Realistic

The level of English that a score such as this represents is very high. To achieve marks in Speaking, Listening, Writing and Reading at this standard is no mean feat, and you should not expect to achieve this without a considerable amount of studying.

If you are starting as a Lower Intermediate Learner, and aiming for Band 7,  you should allow for 6-12 months tuition. This does not have to be full-time, but should be at least 3 hours per week: ideally as two 90 minute lessons.

2. Control the Variables

Exams can be stressful, so it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the testing centre and the requirements of the test,  considering all aspects of the tasks involved. This is just common sense. If you can control the variable elements in a stressful situation, you will reduce the risk of confusion when it comes to the exam.

3. Consume More English

No-one is going to seriously improve their English if they do not listen, read, write and speak in English regularly. It is no good just coming to lessons once a week. You should also be listening to BBC Radio 4, reading books and newspapers, writing and interpreting information from a range of sources in English. If you are not prepared to do that, you will be spending a lot of money on exam re-takes!

4. Use BE not IE!

Some students say ‘I speak International English, not British English.’ Fine: but there are no exams in ‘International English’. IELTS is an exam which, in this country, tests skills in British Standard English. If you want to pass IELTS, you will have to learn to use English the way we do over here. Sorry, but there it is.

5. Think Academic

IELTS has two modes: the basic and the academic. Levels 5 and upwards are only awarded for the Academic form of the exam. If you want to gain Band 6 or 7 scores, you will need to be able to think and write in good academic English. Although this may sound like a a contradiction in terms, it is not. Clear, crisp written English will be of tremendous importance to your academic career. This is a skill which you will learn through practice with a good English academic.

6. Get a Good Teacher!

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? At HELLO English, we are very experienced at helping students pass the IELTS exams so that they can fulfil their dreams and ambitions. We offer IELTS classes to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as pre-registration medics, nurses, lawyers and other professionals.

Could we help you to gain high scores in the IELTS exam? With hard work from both of us, I am sure we could. Why not contact us to find out more?

* The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is rapidly becoming the default requirement for proof of English skills in the professional and academic world.

Jump Aboard!

Jump Aboard: The financial benefits of investing in You as the economy picks up.

What are better language skills worth to you? Will investing in English classes transform your bank account?

Looking at the latest issue of The Economist, I am struck by the powerful case made in their leader article for nurturing the recovery in the UK economy through considered investment.

Apparently, all of us – governments, companies and individuals – need to start spending sensibly again. But, while the Cabinet tries to decide how to invest for growth, how do we make similar strategic decisions?

Famously, you get ‘owt for nowt’* in this life so, if we want to progress, we will need to invest in our own careers. This is as true for me at 54 as it is for my kids at university, and learning new languages is money well spent.

How does that work for me? Well, I go to French classes each week, which helps me think about how I use language. Also, my extra linguistic ability allows me to see things differently and increases my confidence in communicating, both in French and my other languages.

But the best option for the non-native English speaker is going to be improving their English. That is simply the best strategic investment anyone can make in language-learning.

There is a direct link between the quality of your English and your earning power. Those who communicate well tend to do well. They are always able to put their point of view across in an interesting and persuasive way. In almost every situation, they have the advantage because they know how to express themselves clearly.

This confidence is translated into more formal situations, too. Whether it is in closing sales, winning contracts or gaining promotion, good English will be worth money in your pocket every step of the way.

But don’t just take my word for it. Research into the financial benefits of learning English (Pinon & Haydon 2010), conducted on behalf of the British Council, found that employees with advanced skills in English were promoted faster, enjoyed more international business trips, had greater training opportunities and were more likely to gain economic benefits for themselves and their families. This was true even in countries where English was not an official language.

Interestingly, in spite of these findings, they found that objective reality was not the determining factor. It was the perception that good English was necessary for career advancement that drove recruitment as individuals believed ‘…that they will benefit from higher salaries if they speak the language.’

So, what is better English worth to you?

When you are considering whether to invest in a HELLO English course, one question you may like to ask yourself is: how much – in cash terms – is better English worth to you? The fact is you will only need to increase your annual income by a very small result to pay for the course.

Almost all our students confirm that they have reaped financial benefits worth many, many times more than the cost of tuition. This is why we describe the course as being ‘value for money’.

A first class vocabulary, the ability to write well, improved conversation skills, accurate reading and reliable spelling…these are benefits you’ll enjoy as a result of studying at HELLO English. Benefits that will translate into a higher income for you.

Your investment of time and money at HELLO English will increase your income. That is our experience and also what research tells us.

So, base your investment decision on good sense. Invest for your future in excellent English, taught by experts. It will boost your earning power… and kickstart your economic recovery.

Sources

Leader Article (2012); ‘Heading Out of the Storm’; The Economist, 29th September 2012.

Pinon R & Haydon J (2010); The Benefits of English Language Learning for Individuals and Societies: Quantitative Indicators for Cameroon, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bangladesh & Pakistan; Report compiled by Euromonitor for The British Council.

*Originally a Yorkshire homily:

‘Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt –
Do it fer thissen.[5]

Translation: ‘Hear all, see all, say nothing; Eat all, drink all, pay nothing; And if ever you do anything for nothing – Do it for yourself.

God save the Queen’s English

God save the Queen’s English.

via God save the Queen’s English.

Language Mismatch

Why doesn’t the language we learn in class match what we hear in the street?

This is a serious problem for learners of English and one of the most common questions faced by EFL teachers.

There are many answers. Including:

  • Because my teaching is very old-fashioned,
  • Because I am using poorly prepared materials,
    or
  • Because we don’t really bother to think things through when we are preparing our courses!

None of these would apply to classes at HELLO! – Learning English in the Heart of England, where classes are well-thought-through, relevant to modern usage and tailormade for your individual linguistic and personal needs.

While there is a grain of truth in the above – in other institutions, I hasten to add – the real reason is, of course, that courses tend to be taught prescriptively, because it is simpler. This uses an approach which says: “Say it like this. This is the correct way.”

It requires a great deal of pedagogic experience and linguistic understanding to design courses using an approach that is both clear, descriptive and up-to-date.

That is what we try to do at HELLO! in Birmingham.

We think it works. Thankfully, so do our students!