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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


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Will!

    Thank you and your colleagues for the 'English We Speak' podcast! I've been listening to its programmes for a while. They help me very much. Actually, they are extremely helpful for those who cannot communicate with native speakers as much as they want.

    Ok, here is my homework:

    1. He knows everything there is to know about stamps. He's a complete anorak when it comes to stamps!

    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 (in a swiz)!
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 in a jiffy (in two ticks).

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Will,
    Thanks very much for your blog and your explanation. You explain each word or sentence and give us a new example for the word which helps me a lot to understand the word more. Also you give homework and correct the sentences for learners. In my opinion, you are the best. Thanks again, and thanks to the BBC.
    My best wishes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Will:
    First of all I´d like to know if you are the William in "The English we speak" that is always very interesting and useful and secondly if the person with you in the photo is your dad. Is it wrong to be a bit curious? Tell me, please. Well, having said all that, here is my homework:

    1) He knows everything there is to know about stamps. He´s a complete anorak when it comes to stamps.

    2) I can´t believe you are getting married! When´s the big day?

    3) I just bought a packet of crisps and when I opened it I saw it was half empty! What a swiz! (I have doubts with what we opened: the packet or the crisps? Singular or plural?

    4) Lots of my friends kiss each other when they say goodbye. I have to say I din´t like it. I guess I´m just not very touchy-feely.

    5) I´m almost ready. I´ll just be in a jiffy.

    Thanks for your help and cooperation and the best for you! Beatriz.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for your advicises it will be really helpfull for all of us.To some extent learning new words is not very compulsive espeacially in everyday English.Bur for some Englısh exams in turkiye which requires really good vocabularly knowledge ,it is quite diffucult to remember meanings .İn addition my nuisance is synonyms.For instance 'block,hamper,impede,hinder' they all have the same meaning.The point is to know which word is suitable for which sentences..

  • Comment number 5.

    General speaking ,every language has informal way to use in daily basis .Here in English has also has that and we have to learn it in orader to improving your knowledge or experience where you travel to the nation who use the English language. Those informal English has been flourishing to among the society by people's habits .Whether they use them with grammatical mistakes you have to realize that it is very useful thing.

    I loved to read your new post and these corrections makes improvements for our English so I like to say thanks on behalf of all the students of BBC learning English .
    Yeah in these days I learn from BBC learning English and I like your home works whether I can not do it as well .
    But I don't know the game of computer.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi will
    I'd thank you for your blogs however i find it a bit hard for me but i try to understand all the new words ;and thanks" bbc learning english" for enjoyable program "the english we speak"i think that this homework is a good ocasion to use the informal words of this program
    Here my answer
    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 with you in a jiffy.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hello William,

    your blogs are always perfect. Thanks.

    The homework:

    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 tuchy-feely.
    5. I'm almost ready - I'll just be in a jiffy.

    Have a nice day,

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Will and all BBC LE fan , It 's great to see you as teacher bloger . sorry it 's my first comment although I follow your entries eagerly ! To tell the truth I knew just two answers and good to other friends whom did homeworke correctly . Thank you for tips how to learn new vocabularies . Generally I try using mixing of them . About FB or other social networks I communicate with some overseas friends ( they all have Good English and it benefites me a lot ) but I 'm not sure if native English speakers would like to be our friends to practice English ? Long time ago when my English was so weak I tried to chit chat with some native English speakers in a US web page but very soon I knew it doesn't worked for me .Maybe now it 's different and we can make friends easily !
    bye for now and have a nice day
    Pary from Iran

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi will and all BBC fan,I am the new one on this page.For a long time i am trying to improve my english skill,but failed,when i heard about BBC learning page, really it was the interesting one.Now i am sure i will improve my english rapidly.


  • Comment number 10.

    I wish we could use live/real time resources to improve our fluency at a value cost

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Will,
    Its a very nice article encouraging how to remember new words, then practise them and the importance of the informal words. In my view, As a beginner of learning english, everyone should try to learn both formal and informal english. The reasons behind my claims can be further clarifieds in the following ways. Firstly, everyone learns english to achive their goal. for instance, as a student, i need to write good english for my essays or reports in academic. Moreover, i also give presentation sometimes on my project work or other course related works. However, according to my view, informal english is very effective way to share our ideas more comfortably with our friends or relatives or family members. I would like to conclude that both the formal and informal english has its own importance and it solely depends on the person who is learning english.



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