Session 2

Could you survive in an extreme situation? People who live in the desert are able to deal with extremely difficult living conditions. Some parts of Russia see temperatures fall to -50C, but the people who live there manage to cope. We're talking about modal verbs of ability in this session. Can you join us?

Sessions in this unit

Session 2 score

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    Activity 1
  • 0 / 7
    Activity 2
  • 0 / 0
    Activity 3

Activity 1

'They can survive without water...'

Survival in tough times

There are some amazing animals in the world. Some, like camels are able to survive in extreme conditions, like the heat of the desert. They can go for days without drinking water.

And there are plenty of tough humans too. Traditional bushmen in the Kalahari Desert are able to thrive and make the desert their home. The skills passed down over the generations mean that they can do all sorts of things - like lighting fires without matches!

A few remarkable people have survived the toughest situations imaginable. Like Mauro Prosperi, the Italian athlete who got lost in the Sahara desert and couldn't find his way out. He managed to keep going for 12 days by drinking urine and bat's blood.

When you're talking about surviving and dealing with tough situations, the phrases canbe able to and manage to are very useful. In this session you'll look at the grammar of these phrases and find out how to talk about surviving the desert!

Read the text and complete the activity

Can, could, be able to, manage to: Meaning and use

We use can or be able to  when we want to say someone or something has the ability to do something. Can and be able to have similar meanings, but we often use be able to when something is surprising or unusual.

Camels can carry up to 600 pounds on their backs.
They are able to close their noses to keep out the sand.

To talk about ability in the past, we use could or be able to.

50 years ago, you could walk along this road for hours without seeing anyone else.
We were able to speak on the phone every evening.  

Mauro Prosperi was able to survive by drinking urine and bat's blood.

For a single event in the past, we use be able to (not could) in positive statements.

Our guide was able to show us the caves where the bushmen lived.
NOT: Our guide could show us where the bushmen lived.

In negative statements and questions about single events, we can use could or be able to.

Could you talk to the bushmen? Were you able to talk to the bushmen?
We couldn't talk to them. We weren't able to talk to them.

If something is very difficult to do or is very successful, we often use the verb manage to instead of a modal verb like can or could.

Mauro Prosperi managed to find shelter from the sun.

To do

Try out our ability phrases quiz! Can you remember when to use can, could, be able to and manage to?

Did you get the meaning?

6 Questions

Choose the best word or words to fill in each gap. Can you get them all right?

Congratulations you completed the Quiz
Excellent! Great job! Bad luck! You scored:
x / y


So you've learnt about the modals can and could and the phrases be able to and manage to. And you've learnt some facts about deserts! Next up, we're going to another extreme environment - the freezing temperatures of Russia! Don't let your English freeze though, because we're going to take a closer look at the form of phrases for talking about ability.

Session Grammar

  • We use can and be able to with infinitive verbs to talk about ability in the present.

    An elephant can carry up to 9,000kg.
    They are able to walk for up to  50 miles a day.

    For ability in the past, use could and was/were able to.

    I could see the fish in the water, but I couldn't catch them.
    They weren't able to survive long without food.

    For single events in the past, use be able to for positive sentences.

    We were able to take a photograph of the lions (NOT: We could take a photograph of the lions)  

    For single events, use be able to or could / couldn't for negatives and questions.

    We weren't able to see the elephants today. We couldn't take any photographs. Could you see any giraffes? 

    Use manage to when something is very difficult to do or very successful:

    They managed to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.

Session Vocabulary

  • bushmen
    members of tribes in southern Africa

    survive and grow

    rough, difficult

    (here) the area around the place where a person or thing lives