Archives for June 2011

Conditionals and pen-pushers

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Will Will | 13:30 UK time, Thursday, 30 June 2011

Dear Zsuzsi

Thanks so much for your interesting blog article. You've covered so much ground over your four weeks, I feel like I know Hungary much better than before!

I'm particularly intrigued by what you say about Hungarians being very good at science and maths and that Hungary has produced many notable inventors. Why do you think that is?

Once upon a time, you might have said the same about English people. We had many famous engineers like Brunel and George Stephenson. But nowadays I think we are a nation of pen-pushers! Many people in my city, London, are involved in international business, consultancy and accounting. I guess we have a big advantage in being able to speak an international language.

Someone writing

Britain: a nation of pen-pushers?

I'm going to say goodbye to Zsuzsi today because this is my last blog for now. I am sure I will be back in the future! Bye to all my readers too; it's been great hearing your thoughts.


I arrived really late at the place of fete with my boyfriend, and we didn't enter the museums even if it was possible, we enjoyed rather the atmosphere of the Night and we took a tour in the centre of city walking on the streets.

This is tricky stuff. I think that what you want here is something we teachers call the third conditional:

If (past perfect verb) then (modal + past participle)

So in your sentence, you could say:

Even if the museums had been open, we wouldn't have entered them.

But you put the result first, so it should look like this:

I arrived really late at the fete with my boyfriend, but we wouldn't have entered the museums even if it had been possible. Instead, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the night and took a walking tour of the city centre.

This is about as difficult as English grammar gets, so let's return to this point in this week's homework.

In my view, my country is not a rich one economically.

In my view is a great example of a stance marker: a word or phrase that indicates the speaker's attitude towards something. To find out about some other stance markers, watch this fun video.


Well done to Les, Beatriz, Hind and Tereza - you all got these answers right! Beatriz, you're right that it is me that presents most of these programmes - the very same William! Can't you tell from the photo of me and my dad on this page?

Hind, well done for doing this even though you find the blogs difficult. I'm sure your English will really improve if you keep pushing yourself.

1. He knows everything there is to know about stamps. He's a complete anorak!
2. I can't believe you're getting married! When's the big day?
3. I just bought a packet of crisps and when I opened them I saw they were half-empty! What a swizz!
4. Lots of my friends kiss each other when they say goodbye. I have to say I don't like it - I guess I'm just not very touchy-feely.
5. I'm almost ready - I'll just be two ticks / two shakes / a jiffy.

Remember that you can find out more about all these words by going to The English We Speak homepage.


OK, I did say I would return to the difficult terrain of the third conditional. Can you fill in the gaps in the following sentences, using one of the words in brackets? You might find this page useful:

1. If I _______ to Budapest, I would have seen the Danube. (have gone / had gone / go / went)
2. I _______ visited Hungary years ago if I'd known it was so fascinating! (had / (nothing) / would / might have)
3. If only _______ him about the phone call, he wouldn't have wasted his morning trying to speak to the supplier. (I have told / I told / I had told / I tell)
4. _______ I had applied for a ticket, I probably wouldn't have got one. There was so much demand! (Only if / Even if / If only / Whether)
5. _______ got up earlier I might have got to my meeting on time. (Had I, I had, If I, Have I)


  • to cover so much ground - to discuss or review many topics, e.g. It was a very long meeting but we covered a lot of ground.
  • intrigued - curious, interested
  • notable - important, well-known
  • Once upon a time - In the past, maybe a long time ago. Many children's stories begin with this line, e.g. Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived an unhappy princess. (Incidentally, children's stories often end with this line: They lived happily ever after.)
  • pen-pusher - someone who works in an office, doing paperwork. The phrase is slightly derogatory, but humorous
  • tricky - difficult
  • to push oneself - to force oneself to work hard and achieve a goal, e.g. You'll never get into Cambridge unless you really push yourself and study every day
  • terrain - the landscape. Here I am using it figuratively, to mean a topic area. Third conditionals are difficult, like doing a walk where there are many obstacles and you can't see the path.

Tea versus Coffee

Rob Rob | 12:10 UK time, Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hello again. My last blog got people discussing whether the British preferred tea or coffee.

The answer is we enjoy both but there is no doubt that since the 18th Century we have been one of the biggest consumers of tea. "A nice cup of tea" really makes our day.

A nice cup of tea

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My country

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Zsuzsa Zsuzsa | 11:24 UK time, Friday, 24 June 2011

Hi everybody,
Now I would like to present briefly my country with my holiday pictures. But, firstly as I promised, I would like to share my experiences from the Night of Museums.
If you have ever participated in a fete at night, it is like a festival in broad daylight. The streets are full of people, nice young couples walk, the elders are fascinated by the exhibitions, the youngsters hang around the parks and the MODEM (it is the name of our modern art gallery) is a happening place.
Here we could see the bonfire of Szent-Iván. In the background, you can see the MODEM, which was built in a modern Scandinavian style.


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Festival Season

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Rob Rob | 16:42 UK time, Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hello, it's Rob here again.
It's summertime in the UK so unsurprisingly, as I look out of the window it's raining.

OK, we know it rains in the UK but for thousands of festival goers the rain is a pain! Summertime is festival time where numerous outdoor music events take place, some lasting all weekend.

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Learning informal English: your ideas

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Will Will | 11:41 UK time, Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Hi Zsuzsa

I really enjoyed reading your blog about the Days of Turkey in Hungary. Here in the UK, we have always had lots of summer fetes but I think craft fairs are becoming more and more popular. In recent years, farmers' markets have also really taken off - this is where you can buy traditional food direct from producers.

In general, I would say that Britain is currently in the grip of a spell of nostalgia. Maybe it's because of the royal wedding, or maybe it's the tough economic times - I'm not sure - but at the moment Brits seem to be seeking solace in the past. Everywhere you go at the moment you can see bunting and posters inspired by the 1940s. There has been a revival of folk music, and traditional games have been rediscovered too.

Here is a picture of some traditional dancers that I took at a festival a few years ago. They would describe themselves as Molly dancers because they are from the east of England, but this kind of dancing is more commonly called Morris dancing. You can listen to a programme about it here.

Molly dancers

The Pig Dyke Molly Dancers


Just to follow on from what I said about your slightly formal style Zsuzsa, let's take a look at the following passage:

According to me, one of the most valuable parts of this entertainment is the presentation and purchase of old professions' products and a lot of other communal programs commence to follow this tendency nowadays in Hungary.

You could say something like this:

In my view, one of the most valuable aspects of this event is the space given to craft stalls and demonstrations. A lot of programs have recently been set up to support and encourage this folk movement in Hungary.

Thanks everyone for your very interesting insights and tips into learning informal English words. But before we look at those tips, let's just stop and ask ourselves the question 'Why learn informal English?'

Fayas pointed out that in his country, India, slang is not very highly-regarded. People are respected if they can speak formally. Svetlana made a similar point about Russia - that speakers are admired if they can construct beautiful sentences. And our blogger Zsuzsa pointed out that "the major point in studies is that we can express ourselves in a formal way."

So it isn't 'one size fits all'! Ask yourself why are learning English. Is it to pass exams? Is it to communicate formally in a business context? Is it to make friends? That will affect how important learning informal English is.

Also, some cultures are simply more formal than others. To some extent, I think it's great that learners use English to express their own culture - and that might mean using English in a different or more formal way from native speakers. (It's a different topic, but I think you could make a similar point about pronunciation. Lots of teachers nowadays say it's fine for students to retain an accent so long as they can be understood. It can help demonstrate a speaker's personality and culture.)

Having said all that, my starting point as a teacher is to look for things that will make students stand out from native speakers. And if I'm honest I think that learning a language is partly about entering into a new culture - not just speaking different words but saying different things!

This last point might be a starting point for your question, Zsuzsa. French and English are linked languages but culturally our countries are very different - even more so with France and the USA. I think the more time you spend with French and English speakers, books and films the easier you will find it to separate in your mind not so much the words we use, but the kind of thing we say. But as for the words themselves, circulation is a word in English (many words ending in -tion are words in English), although maybe we use it a bit differently. That's confusing but it's an advantage too!

OK, enough philosophy. Let's look at some of your tips:

• I really like Paloma's tip about listening to BBC 1Xtra. That radio station is far too young and trendy for me but it's so important that you find a source for new English words that suits your interest and personality.
• I liked Hooonamdrol's tip about using his phone to make a note of new words. But are there any modern ways to learn words as well as record them? For example, how about using social networking sites to communicate with native speakers? Or noting down the words you learn from computer games?
• Svetlana described herself as a book junkie. I think modern books - with plenty of dialogue - can be a really great place to go for informal language. What's nice about this idea is that this language is balanced with more formal prose in the descriptive passages. If you find 'proper' English books too difficult, why not try graded readers?
• Lots of people mentioned watching films with subtitles. Try watching a film with subtitles on, and then watching it again with them off. You will be surprised how much you can understand and remember. The reason for that is...
• Context is everything. As 'BBC fan' wrote, When you learn the word with no context first it is very hard to keep it in your long-term memory, and second it gives you no clue how to use the word...When I need to learn new words I just write them down, and try to make up a sentence with them. You will only learn new words by using them. So make up sentences on paper and in your head - and then the word will be ready in a conversation when you need it.
• Silvia has a perfect technique! First I usually find new words from the newspaper, reviews from restaurants or movies, magazines, e-mail, movies and television. Secondly I am used to writing the new word with their meaning, pronunciation and one or two examples. Finally I remember it when I start writing and when I can not remember I need to go over it one more time.
• Les mentioned vocabulary builders. The big advantage of these books is that words are linked together in themes. That should make it easier for you to remember topical words and use them in a conversation. Just make sure that you DO use the words. Do as WyLin does and use them as often as possible. A fantastic way to learn topical vocabulary is to plan to discuss a particular topic with friends; before you meet learn as many words and phrases connected with that topic as you can.
• One thing I would add is that it's worth spending some time learning the 'furniture' of English. I'm referring to things that are more formally called discourse markers. Two examples of what I mean are highlighted above: 'In my view' and 'having said that'. Using phrases like that will make you sound more natural but also serve to tell your conversation partner how you feel about something. That means that you are asking your topical vocabulary to do less work!


Let's round off this discussion by practising some everyday English phrases. Can you fill in the gaps in these six sentences? You'll find all the phrases you need here.

1. He knows everything there is to know about stamps. He's a complete _______!
2. I can't believe you're getting married! When's _______?
3. I just bought a packet of crisps and when I opened them I saw they were half-empty! What a _______!
4. Lots of my friends kiss each other when they say goodbye. I have to say I don't like it - I guess I'm just not very _______.
5. I'm almost ready - I'll just be _______.


• fete - a festival
• craft fair - a festival where you can buy handmade things
• to take off - to suddenly become very popular, e.g. I think this website is really going to take off next year
• to be in the grip of something - to be controlled by something, often something unpleasant, e.g. We're in the grip of winter
• nostalgia - wishing to return to a time in the past or to one's home (a feeling that is somehow both sad and enjoyable)
• to seek solace in something - to look for comfort in something, e.g., After Marty died I sought solace in work.
• bunting - small triangular flags on a string. See the picture below! Note that this is a non-count noun.


• revival - a new interest in something old, e.g. The dance is a revival of a Victorian tradition
• In my view... - I think that...
• movement - the action of a group of people who all share a belief or an ideal
• one size fits all - a way to describe clothing that doesn't need different sizes. But here it means an approach to something that is suitable for everyone. E.g. There is no one size fits all solution for a company's marketing needs.
• Having said all that... - But..., However...,
• stand out from - seem different from
• trendy - fashionable
• junkie - someone who is addicted to illegal drugs (Svetlana used the word humorously)
• graded readers - books that are designed for language learners, with different levels of difficulty

An Englishman's home is his castle

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Carrie Carrie | 15:01 UK time, Friday, 17 June 2011

Hi everyone,

A couple of weeks ago, on my way to Cornwall, I visited the last castle to be built in England.
It's built on a hill, overlooking a deep gorge in Devon - and is not yet 100 years old.

Castle Drogo

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Turkey, Bijous and Bartók

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Zsuzsa Zsuzsa | 11:28 UK time, Thursday, 16 June 2011

Dear blog-readers,
Thank you for these comments, I did not looking forward to receiving so kind answers and encouragements. I really appreciate your nice replies and comments. It really means a lot to me!!!
Now I would like to write about an event which is not as well-known as the Carnival of Flowers.

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Gremlins and Informal English

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Will Will | 18:27 UK time, Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Hello again!

I know that in my last blog I ended by saying goodbye, but there has been a change of plan and you're stuck with me for another month.

Zsuzsa, it's great to meet you and find out about your wonderful city. I know that we had some technical gremlins last week, but everything seems to be sorted now. So, I'm really looking forward to blogging with you across the rest of June.

I have been to Hungary once, to see my friend who was working as an English language teacher in Budapest. I thought it was a lovely city - full of grand buildings but it also seemed quite a 'happening' place. I have vivid memories of eating palacsinta (pancakes) and listening to lots of fab gypsy CDs.

Budapest from across the Danube

I'm not sure if this is Buda or Pest... but it's very grand!


In your passage you describe June as a nightmare for students, but you go on to tell us about a heavenly park where students can relax while they revise. As some other students commented on your blog, you create a nice mental image of this special place.

Frogs croak and water-lilies float on the surface of water, children run around, they angle for tadpole and undergraduates study their notes of chemist or philology on their blankets.

This is a lovely little passage. We would say Chemistry here and tadpoles. Here's another very small mistake:

June is a nightmare for Hungarian undergraduates. These days we have to prove our knowledge...

In English these days means the same as nowadays; i.e. it means now in 2011 rather than in the past. E.g.

In the past most Englishmen had a cooked breakfast every day, but these days people don't have time.

In your sentence you could say in this month or at this time.

But those are tiny mistakes. In general, I think you write very well indeed and really confidently. The only thing I would say at this stage is that your writing is a little formal and functional.

I would like to transmit some events and curiosities from my little country, Hungary in this month.

You could say - I can't wait to tell you about some of the events and curiosities from my little country, Hungary.

I don't know much about Hungarian (other than that it is very hard to learn!) but English is a profoundly informal language. So we tend to write in the same everyday language that we use with friends. Even business correspondence will contain phrasal verbs and contractions (although you probably wouldn't use slang words in that context).

There are usually three or four different ways of saying something in English. When you come across a word like transmit it's worth looking up the synonyms and trying to work out which of the words is most used, which is most formal and so on.



... I'm interested in your ideas and the ideas of our correspondents on this blog. So for this week's homework I'd like everyone to share how they learn English vocabulary - particularly informal vocabulary.

Where do you pick words up?
How do you make a note of them?
What do you do to ensure that you can remember the words when you need them?

I look forward to reading your responses!


  • you're stuck with me - A humorous phrase that means 'Unfortunately for you, I'm staying"

  • gremlins - gremlins are little creatures that don't really exist. Sometimes we say that problems with technology are caused by these little creatures living inside telephones, TVs etc.

  • sorted - an informal word meaning fixed or resolved. Here in the UK we use this word quite a lot. E.g. - A: Did you manage to get that contract to the client? B: Yep, it's all sorted now.

  • 'happening' - an informal adjective meaning that a lot of interesting or exciting things are happening. It's usually used to describe a place.

  • fab - this is informal / slang English. It's short for fabulous, so it means great, brilliant. This word was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • revise - to look again at your studies before taking an exam

  • everyday - ordinary, normal. Note that this word is an adjective; the adverb form is two words. Compare: In the past most Englishmen had a cooked breakfast every day. We tend to write in the same everyday language that we use with friends.

  • come across - encounter, find by accident

  • looking up - to check something in a book or on the internet. It usually refers to using a dictionary or encyclopaedia.

  • synonyms - different words that mean the same thing

  • pick (something) up - here, to pick up means to learn something. We can use this phrase to describe learning a habit or activity, especially without much effort e.g. My dad was always playing the guitar and I just picked it up.

Hello from Debrecen

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Zsuzsa Zsuzsa | 10:23 UK time, Monday, 13 June 2011

Dear blog-readers and BBC learners. My name is Zsuzsa, I am a Hungarian student in the University of Debrecen in Hungary. My major is French and I have English courses also and I would like to transmit some events and curiosities from my little country, Hungary in this month.

Read the rest of this entry


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Will Will | 17:50 UK time, Friday, 3 June 2011

Hi Lito and all the regulars

This is my last post. I just wanted to say thanks for being such great students and asking such interesting questions.

Lito, I'm so pleased you published those fish recipes with the mouth-watering pictures. I don't think I have ever tried Filipino food, but I'm going to seek out a Filipino restaurant in London now.

You've been a really fantastic blogger. It's not easy to write in another language but you have given us an idea of the sights, sounds and tastes of your country. You have also made us all feel very lazy because you get up so early every morning!

Thanks also to everyone who has commented below. We seem to have lots of film fans on this blog!

Mohammad, I was interested in what you wrote about how rare dancing and singing scenes are in Hollywood nowadays. Of course you are right that Bollywood films are really different from Hollywood films, but I wonder if the situation is changing. I know that recently there have been some Indian films that have tackled some quite serious themes. Meanwhile, in Europe and America musicals have come back into fashion partly because of a very popular American TV show called Glee. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next few years we see a lot more Hollywood musicals than we are used to.

I can remember the first time I saw a Bollywood movie. I grew up in a town with a great many people from the Indian subcontinent. For this reason my local cinema showed Indian flicks every Sunday. One day I went along to watch a film - I forget which one. I realised that I was the only non-Indian person in the whole auditorium. The film started, the hero was 'introduced' to applause from the people in the cinema... and I realised there were no subtitles! But guess what? It didn't matter. It was easy to follow the story.

Queen Elizabeth II during tour in India visits a film studio and views some rushes

I'm not the only person to have enjoyed a Bollywood film! The Queen visited a film studio during a visit to India in the 1990's.

From next week, my colleague Neil will be the teacher blogger. Be gentle with him.


1. Cinema is sometimes called the WHAT screen? a) bronze b) silver c) golden

The silver screen.

2. Which country has the world's biggest filmmaking industry? a) USA b) Nigeria c) India

Tricky one. More films come out of India than anywhere else so in that sense it is the biggest industry (but I'm not sure which country makes the most money from films!)

3. What is the missing word? "Lights, camera, _______!" a) action b) cut c) act

"Lights, Camera, Action!" This is what the director says when he wants people to start acting.

4. In what country was Catherine Zeta-Jones born?


5. Where did Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn go on holiday in 1953?

The answer is indeed Rome. If you haven't seen 'Roman Holiday' then I heartily recommend it. Beatriz, I think there were as many women who fell in love with Gregory Peck in 1953 as there were men who fell in love with Audrey Hepburn.


  • mouth-watering if something is mouth-watering it makes you want to eat, e.g. She came back from Sicily with all of these mouth-watering stories about meals she'd had.
  • tackled here, this means to address something, to examine and discuss something which is difficult to talk about. E.g. If you don't tackle these issues with your son, things can only get worse.
  • flicks an informal word for movies
  • auditorium room where films are shown; it can also be used for concerts
  • applause a noun for lots of people clapping their hands
  • subtitles the words that appear at the bottom of a film in another language
  • heartily enthusiastically

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