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July 2009

Wednesday, 01 July 2009

Time marches on...

Crikey! Half way through another year already! Where does all the time go? As you get older, the days, months and years seem to pass more quickly. I'm happy to say that I'll be with you for another month, so let's enjoy it while we can...

I'd like everyone to put their hands together and give a warm round of applause for Taru, who’s been blogging with us this last few weeks and has given us all plenty of food for thought. I don’t say goodbye because I hope she will keep reading and send us her comments from time to time. Thanks Taru – great job! You have a really great ‘turn of phrase’ in English, in other words, you use the language really well and with imagination. I hope that you have learnt something this month and will reflect on the experience and think of it as a positive one. Look forward to hearing from you again soon.

Welcome Jiae – what an impressive first post! I’d be interested to know a bit more about the summer school you are currently enjoying. How does it work? What do you study? What other activities do you do there?
I spent a short time in Korea last year, in fact I took a ferry from Pusan across to Japan. I was just passing through so I didn’t have time to stay there, so I’ll be interested to hear more about your trip. Can you guess or do you know where the photo below was taken?

Dream destinations

I promised to write about my dream destination but, now I’ve thought about it, it seems like a thankless task. How can I possibly choose one out of so many? I’ve travelled a fair bit, and although I was born and grew up in a city, what really floats my boat is nature; landscapes, scenery, mountains and lakes, islands, sea, forests, flora and fauna. That’s not to say I don’t like cities – they’re exciting and vibrant and also great places to visit. But experiencing the beauty of the natural world speaks to my soul, gives me peace, fills me with awe and wonder, with joy and sadness at the same time, makes me feel powerless but at the same time empowered.

thankless task - a task you have to do for which you will get no reward

a fair bit - quite a lot

floats my boat - interests and excites me

A new challenge for today’s post. I’ve decided to try to describe, in exactly 50 words, a memorable experience I’ve had on my travels. When I was teaching in Ecuador, I used to enjoy weekends outside the city in the Andes, walking and climbing. Two friends and I decided to climb the highest peak in the country. Here’s my description.


We climbed through the night, through snow, ice, cold and exhaustion. Ice axe, crampons, frozen breath. Dawn broke, at last - the summit. Breathless relief and exaltation – we had made it. As far as the eye could see, snow, volcanoes, clouds, everything white. For a moment, it belonged to us.

Think of a memorable experience you have had – can you describe it in exactly 50 words? It’s harder than it seems as you have to choose each word really carefully. I look forward to reading your descriptions! (this activity is loosely based on the idea of the 'minisaga')

Comments corner

Adek – I wonder why tennis isn’t so popular in Poland. Is it because the facilities are not so good? I think it's quite surprising as lots of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have produced so many great players.
Hi Bahij, well done for trying to correct those mistakes. It’s not an easy exercise for any level – I don’t want the exercises I set to be just for high level students. Please keep trying the exercises! You can also learn from other students’ comments when they try to do the same exercise.
Thanks Valeria, Wimbledon is quite unique in terms of atmosphere, tradition and history. It’s a wonderful place to visit, even for people who are not great tennis fans.
Cheikh Vall, I deliberately put some mistakes with verb tenses as a way to see whether students were able to recognise them as they often make similar mistakes. There's more than one way to skin a cat…. 'An orderly line would form' is fine as the orderly line is seen as the subject of the sentence. The line is seen as forming itself (rather than being formed by an outside agent). Another example might be 'The queue grew longer as the day went on' (not was grown).
Hello Sora! Yes, it is possible to book tickets in advance for Wimbledon, but it has to be quite a long time in advance. Some people enter a special ‘raffle’ and are lucky enough to win tickets. I only decided to go at short notice so I wasn’t able to buy a ticket – still, it was certainly worth going, despite the queue!
Toni, I’m sorry you couldn’t be with us for the past month. Better late than never though, and I hope you’ll keep checking out our blog for July.
Hyoshil, you’re almost a grammar genius, but in fact you’re a plucky loser! Look at number 6 again… To be fair to the referee, it must have been difficult having divided loyalties between the two players. A yellow card for dissent seems like a fair punishment to me – in fact, maybe you’re lucky it wasn’t red!
Leila, I hope it’s a healthy addiction for you! It sounds like you have some fond and still vivid memories of your time here, I hope you had fun reminding your daughter of those times. Marianna, thanks for reminding me about homework – I’ll have to set double for my next post! Benka, the ‘cult of celebrity’ is something which I find really hard to understand. Why does having a large fake chest and a pink horse make somebody a role model? Ana Ivanovic, from the little I know of her, seems to be a good role model. I just hope her head doesn’t get turned by all the stuff that seems to accompany women’s sports these days, or that if it does, it doesn’t distract her from her gift, which is tennis. Abdisamad, your English is very good – in your comments it’s hard for me to find any mistakes. Where did you learn English? What is the ‘status’ of English in Uganda? I admit that I’m surprised to learn that it rains all the time in Kampala – I guess we all have our preconceived ideas of places and it’s good to have them corrected sometimes. Asma, thanks for putting me right about the storms – can you rephrase this sentence: ‘the more stronger the wind, the more severe will be the storm’? Ana Paula – I didn’t realise Star Wars had such a loyal following in Brazil - glad you enjoyed yourself at that and 'bloomsday'.

Sunday, 05 July 2009

Phew, what a scorcher!

Last Thursday was a scorcher, the hottest day of the year so far, and, as luck would have it, I had an unexpected free day because there was a strike at the university. My friend Simon had called the week before saying he had a spare ticket for a big concert in Hyde Park. It was a reunion gig for a band called Blur who were big in the 90s. We got there to find thousands of people sitting out in the sunshine enjoying the atmosphere. There were a few support bands playing so we sat around, shooting the breeze and quenching our thirst and then at about 8pm the main attraction, Blur, came on stage to a rapturous reception. They played for two hours and even though they hadn’t played together for ages, they were superb. The audience of 30 and 40 somethings had a chance to relive their youth, forget their troubles and pretend they were 18 again! Magic!

A scorcher - a very hot day

As luck would have it
- by chance or by good fortune

Gig - a concert

To be big - to be popular

To shoot the breeze - to chat

Quench your thirst - to drink so you don’t feel thirsty anymore

A rapturous reception - a huge and friendly welcome

30 somethings - people who are in their 30s

Magic - great

Hi Jiae,
The question about the photo was a little tricky I admit. I actually took it in Seoraksan National park. Have you been there? It’s really beautiful – great for walking and escaping the rat race for a while.

It’s a shame I wasn’t able to stop in Pusan, it looks really nice from your pictures. I also wanted to go to Jeju island but I was en route to Japan and could not stay any longer. Have you been to Jeju island?

Again, you write beautifully. I’m impressed by your use of idiomatic expressions, modal verbs, tenses – everything in fact. I’ve picked out a few sentences which I’d like you to think about though - can you see anything wrong with them? These are minor problems, but you’ve set the bar very high! (what does that mean?)

I will try to respond your comments

Thanks for welcoming!

the world best camera

If you have a chance of coming to Korea…

I finished my final exam the last Sunday.

I was sick and tired of being at the collage residence after having done all the work for the semester. So did my friends.

we really didn’t know what we would find out

We did long lists of chatting

At last, we arrived in the Pusan Station at 4.30 in the morning.

Near the beach there is an island called Dongbeksum, where you can also take a walk through with feeling a nice sea breeze and it’s leading to Nurimaru APEC House.

Really good descriptive writing is very difficult – both for native speakers and non-native speakers. The best descriptive writers are able to paint pictures with language and words, they use a great variety of adjectives and adverbs, metaphor and analogy and different sentence structures to communicate ideas, images and sensations. Jiae, you’re doing pretty well so far!
Here’s an example by an Indian writer called Arundhati Roy who wrote a fantastic book called ‘The God of Small Things’:

It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, ploughing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled up over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway.

I love the idea of a house wearing its roof like a hat!

LE bloggers! You wrote some fantastic mini descriptions of important moments in your lives. Great stuff – well done! In my next post I’ll try to respond to anyone who sent in a mini-story.

Tuesday, 07 July 2009

Famous for an hour…

Q: What is a plinth?
A: A block or slab on which a pedestal, column, or statue is placed.
Q: Where is ‘the fourth plinth’?
A: It’s in Trafalgar Square in Central London.
Q: What is special about the ‘fourth plinth’?
A: It was built for a statue in 1841 but no statue was ever put on it so for around 150 years it was empty.
Q: So what?
A: It’s now a space for art and a new project by scultptor Antony Gormley. He has invited ‘ordinary people’ to apply to stand on the plinth for one hour at a time. Anyone can apply, the idea being that the plinth is continuously occupied by ordinary folk for 100 days. It started yesterday at 9am.

Quiz question: Who's the fellow standing on top of the column in the picture?
(The picture is one of the other plinths in Trafalgar Square - the horse isn't really blue..)

If you have a decent internet connection, you can watch a live feed of the art project at One and Other. Yes, it’s just somebody standing around doing nothing…
Looking at it today though, it seems to say a lot about Britain and the British. For one thing, it’s the middle of summer, and it's raining. Then there’s the young guy on the plinth. He looks a bit awkward. Doesn’t really know what to do with himself. A small crowd have gathered but nobody really knows what to do. Even the crowd seem slightly embarrassed. No fun-loving exhibitionists here! You’re going on the fourth plinth? Don’t forget to take an umbrella! What about some sandwiches in case you get peckish….
Maybe this is one of art’s functions? Maybe it should make us reflect on who we are and what we are doing?

What do you think?

Is this art?
Does it tell us anything about ourselves?
If you had one hour in a public space like this, what would you do?
Is it a complete waste of time and money?

Interestingly, the project seems to have given birth to a new word in the language. ‘Plinther’ - in other words, someone who will be standing on the plinth for an hour as part of the project.

Reading all your stories has suddenly filled me with wanderlust. Just a few weeks ago I was in Scotland but already I can hear the call of the mountains and the sea again... Sadly, it will have to remain unanswered as I have 16 essays to mark!! Below you’ll find some of my favourite sentences from the previous task, those which gave me itchy feet. Forgive me if I used my ‘teacher’s licence’ to make a few small changes here and there!

‘A magnificent whale, gently floating on the sea, calm and mighty, exposing itself to the summer sun before diving into the unknown.’

‘Trees were wearing a blanket of moss or lichen and often ferns on top of that. Tree trunks bulged like gored skirts and their roots looked like tangled snakes.’

‘A large city full of warm people talking funny’

‘We started walking after rambunctious greetings - through pitch-dark, hilly and winding paths - only hearing night owls cooing from afar.’

‘On arrival to the end destination your legs are throbbing and a dip in the sea is well earned.’

‘There is an excellent road, newly built which takes you to the top of the mountain. You can see a private palace and a hotel close by.’

‘We sneaked into the mango groves and plucked the mangoes.’

‘We went fishing in a wooden boat on the calm sea at night, throwing nets, lighting the lamps, pulling the nets out of the sea.’

Jiae - I know what you mean about being busy... why do you think people are always in such a hurry? In fact, I've heard about the education system in Korea from a lot of Korean students I've taught and I'm amazed by how hard and competitive it seems to be. If you're a student, you must be consantly busy - it sounds like a nightmare!

I'd be surprised if you hadn't been to Seoraksan. Lots of people I met travelling said it was one of the most beautiful places in Korea and there were a lot of visitors when I went. I remember hearing something about a sacred or legendary mountain but I think it may be just over the border in North Korea? Do you know the one I mean? One thing I really liked about Korea was the mountains - I love mountains and climbing so it was great for me.

Generally, the article isn't used when talking about mountains. We say Mount Everest for example, or Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the UK), MontBlanc or Kilimanjaro. You would probably say 'I climbed Soback' or 'Soback mountain' if the person doesn't know the mountain in question.

- thanks for the/your welcome or thanks for the warm welcome
- the world's best camera
- if you have a/the chance to come to Korea.... (any chance of coming is OK)
- college residence
- we really didn't know what we would find / what to expect (find out is used for information, or to answer a specific question, not in this more general sense of discovering somewhere new)
- why lists of chat? why not 'we chatted for hours' for example?
- we arrived at Pusan station at 4.30 in the morning

(all the others you corrected yourself, well done!)

Your comments

Thanks Abdisamad – it certainly does get more difficult learning languages as we get older, but perhaps when we’re older we appreciate the value and power of language that little bit more. Although vocabulary becomes more difficult to memorize, we can perhaps enjoy language in ways we couldn’t before.
Benka, your story is lovely, you and Daniella were obviously young entrepreneurs.
Can you add three adjectives or adverbs to make it exactly 50 words?
Kuldeep, I’m glad you liked the photo – hope it helps you to relax!
Vijay, I can’t see any reason why it should be 24 hours in a day either – indeed, why should there be 60 minutes in an hour or 365 days in a year?? Like you say, it doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s what you do with your time that counts.
A nice little story – it must be good to ‘turn the tables’ now that you are the one who is in demand. I revel on – what exactly do you mean by this? I’m not sure. Can you think of another way to phrase it?
Rabail, the Ashes series starts this week so keep an eye out to see if anything should be banned. I hope it’s a good, competitive series, unlike the last one which England lost 5 – 0!
A nice description – preparation is uncountable in this case. I couldn’t wait to get it over with /or/ for it to be over, nerve-racking.
Hyoshil, I didn’t spend much time in Pusan, in fact I was mostly in Seoul although I did visit Seoraksan national park which was gorgeous. I’ve taught countless Korean students in my time at various different schools.
Cheikh Vall, I’m sure you could describe an experience in 50 words if you really put your mind to it! Your English is certainly good enough to do it…
Mauricio, I’ve heard really good things about Salvador and would like to visit some time. Brazil is so huge that travelling around it must be like visiting different countries as you say. I’ve been to Rio de Janeiro, but only for 4 days, and would love one day to go back and see more of your beautiful country!
Sook, I like the way you use metaphors to enhance your description – trees wearing a blanket of moss, roots like snakes – excellent! Tamara, I would love to go whale watching. Your description sums up very well exactly why I want to do it. Thank you!

Friday, 10 July 2009

Storm in a teacup

Hi Jiae,
It’s interesting to hear about your rainy season – as I’m sure you know, in Britain we love banging on about the weather! Of course, that’s a stereotype, but it isn’t far from the truth. The climate is so unpredictable, it can be sunny one minute, raining the next, then suddenly windy and cold – I think this is why people talk about it, because you never know what’s coming next. It’s also a form of small talk. It’s an easy subject to talk about with strangers, nothing too personal. I hope the rain passes and you don’t get too many floods. A couple of years ago I worked at a summer school in Oxford. It was one of the worst summers on record, raining constantly and parts of the city and surrounding area were flooded. Thankfully, this year is looking better so far...

Your story about watching the floods when you were a nipper made me think of an event which happened when I was 9 years old. Near where I used to live in London, there is a grand old building called Alexandra Palace, or ‘Ally Pally’ to those who know it well. It was built in the 19th century and became famous as the location from which the first public television broadcast was made in 1936. Anyway, one night many years ago, the building went up in flames. My entire family walked up to a vantage point on a hill to watch the huge fire…… without me! They didn’t see fit to wake me up and let me come to see this momentous event with them but instead left me sleeping! Unbelievable! So, this is my story of what (didn’t) happen to me all those years ago.

Have you got an interesting anecdote from your childhood? Something funny or dramatic? I’d love to hear from you if you have.


to bang on (about sth) - to talk about sth all the time, without stopping

small talk
- conversation about unimportant subjects (often between strangers)

nipper - child (informal)

a vantage point - a good place from which to watch something

see fit to
- to think something is a good idea to do

momentous - of great importance or significance

anecdote- a short account of an interesting or funny event

On the subject of food
… Here’s a picture I took at a restaurant in Seoul.

I think this is ‘bulgogi’. Is that right? Whatever it’s called, it was very nice.
I have a confession to make....I'm not a big fan of kimchi! I know many people can't live without it but I don't see what all the fuss is about! For me it's just a bunch of spicy, pickled vegetables...I was impressed by kimchi fridges though.

Your comments:

I loved reading all your comments about Antony Gormley's art project. There was a wide variety of different opinions, both positive and negative.

Here are some of them:

Leila argues that the lack of an element of surprise means that the performance doesn't work. As I look at the site now, there's a young woman wearing angel's wings throwing free sweets to the onlookers and blowing bubbles. It's not Leonardo da Vinci is it? Paulraj wondered if he would stand for an hour as a preacher or politician, or perhaps a social worker but in the end seemed undecided. Toni poured scorn on the idea, suggesting that it's just a way to make money. Benka reckons that the artists can learn something about themselves buts questions whether the public can learn anything - but she likes the idea of ordinary people being involved in an art project. Asma believes it's a waste of time and money and says she would take a good book if she was a plinther. Funnily enough, last time I checked the plinth there was a young woman sitting there reading a book, looking very calm and unconcerned with what was going on around her. Sook explains that we are trained only to accept framed art, artefacts or performances as art and I reckon she's got a point. Kuldeep compares the idea to some people who stand on one leg in India for a long period of time in order to pray. Ramilton sticks up for the project, writing that it makes us reflect about ourselves and the meaning of what the people do, while Ana Paula suggests that the plinthers should perform some music. Finally Naheed believes the plinth is a platform for common people who know something and want to show it to others. Does that sound a bit like this blog?

When all's said and done, does it really matter whether it is art or not? I suppose it's made us think about the question "What is art?" and it's given us a different topic to talk about, and in that sense, it has fulfilled an important role. I'll end this post with a quote from English novelist E.M.Forster: "To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way."

* You might notice that I use a lot of 'reporting verbs' (suggest/point out/argue etc) in the comments section to describe what commenters said. It's a good idea to try to use a variety of words and expressions for reporting instead of just 'said' or 'wrote'.


to pour scorn on - to criticise something severely

reckon - an informal word for think or believe

to stick up for
- to give your support to somebody or something

ps I hope my comment about kimchi doesn't provoke a 'storm in a teacup'!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The world in one city....(almost)

Jiae’s post got me thinking about a project I came across a while ago called ‘The World in one city’. I don’t know if any of you saw this, but in case you didn’t, the idea was quite simple. Two shy Englishmen living in London decided to try to find a citizen from every country in the world currently living and working, or studying, in London. They gave themselves one year to complete the task. One year later, they had managed to find people from 189 countries – according to the United Nations there are 192 countries (there is some dispute as to the actual number for various reasons related to politics/nationalism etc.) The pair are still looking for somebody from three places: The Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu. So if any of you know anybody from those places living and working in London, I’m sure they’d be very happy to hear from you. You can have a look at their project on the website below. I think it’s an interesting idea...

The World in One City

Maybe the question is not ‘Which countries are multi-ethnic societies?’ but ‘Which countries are NOT multi-ethnic societies?’ Globalisation is a real ‘buzzword’ at the moment, but it’s not really new is it? I guess the reason it's on everyone's lips at the moment is simply the fact that technology and transportation are effectively shrinking the world in terms of transport and communication. Add that to the fact that, in population terms, the number of people in the world first reached 1 billion only about 200 years ago, but the most recent billion people have arrived in the last 12 years! Since I was born, world population has increased by about one third! No wonder people are talking about globalisation!! If we don’t start cooperating and learning to live with each other, we’d better start looking for other planets… Actually, that reminds me of a website created by Yann Arthus-Bertrand called '6 billion others'. Fantastic.
Uh oh, I'm rambling again....


to get somebody thinking - it made me think about something

there is some dispute as to - people argue about / something which is not generally agreed

buzzword - a word that is currently very popular (often in a business or political context)

to be on everyone's lips - what everybody is talking about

to shrink - to make smaller (not to be confused with 'a shrink' = psychiatrist)

no wonder - it is no surprise that...

ramble - to talk or write for a long time about something with no clear direction or purpose

Jiae, I enjoyed your posts. As usual, they were well-written, and as usual, there's a small but...I've copied some of your post below and want you to look carefully at the highlighted sections.

I think Korea is also quite famous for homogenous society along with Japan. I hardly saw foreigners wherever they were from until a few years ago. However, I can feel that Korea has become multi-ethnic society. I learned this from the class I’m taking at present. In fact, I see more foreigners and more tourists in cities than before. There must be many factors of that. I think the most interesting factor is international marriage. Intermarriage has become quite common in the countryside in Korea. These days in Korea, men in the countryside are having a trouble finding women to get married to, which make the men find women in other countries. Isn’t it interesting? Many Korean women don’t want to stay in the countryside helping their husband for farming or fishing and they want to get their own job in cities. Another reason for the lack of women can be the result of son preference. What about your countries?

To finish, a small task.
Since many of us live in multi-ethnic societies, I'd like you to go out and talk to someone you know, a friend, acquaintance, colleague or classmate, who is from a different country. I'd like you to ask them for a 'quote' about your country, about their impressions of your country, an opinion or observation. I'd then like you to post a comment including the quote and any of your own views about it. As an English teacher who has travelled widely and taught a great variety of nationalities, I've heard all sorts of comments and opinions about the UK - now it's your turn to get some views on your country!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Comments Corner

Just a quick one today to reply to some of your comments which, as usual, I enjoyed reading. Last time I asked you to write an anecdote from your childhood. I think a sign of good, descriptive writing is that it allows the reader to form an image or a pictorial sequence of events in his or her mind – to see the action almost like a photograph or a video clip. Many of your stories brought images into my mind, so, as I read your stories, I could almost see….

...Paulraj, wandering around in a dark, unfamiliar village, crying in confusion, and the expression on his uncles’ faces who hadn’t even realised he was gone! I can see Ana Paola, hiding in the doghouse in her garden, maybe holding her breath hoping her mum wouldn’t find her. She was, both literally and metaphorically, ‘in the doghouse’.
Then there’s Sook, huffing and puffing, going red in the face, a bean stuck up her nose while her brother no doubt looked on in great amusement. Toni’s story conjures up a more sinister image, a car wedged against a tree, perilously close to plunging to the ground. (‘I can’t think why….’ – might be a better ironic structure at the end, Toni).

Then there was Benka, running terrified across a field, pursued by a foal and its more frightening mum. Asma, was another one wandering around lost, suddenly alone in the big, bad world. Vladimir learnt an early and cruel lesson when forced to go without soap, while Ramilton used to look after his father’s goats. We don’t usually keep pigs as pets in England, but anyone who does have a pig would certainly give it a name. Can you remember any of the goats’ names?

Leila, I too have quite hazy memories of childhood – often the memories seem to be more impressions than events. I think it’s interesting how memories become mythologised, how a memory can change and become more colourful over time. Family members or friends may recall the same event in a totally different way…family stories are embellished, re-imagined and change over time. A bit like history I guess…

Xavi, I agree that weather affects the way we behave. When the sun comes out in London, it’s like a different city. Have you heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)? This is a kind of winter depression brought on by a lack of daylight. As I write this it’s dark and gloomy outside, dark grey clouds low in the sky, pregnant with rain. I think I need some bright light therapy!

Flower, great to receive your comment – it’s always nice to have first time commenters! Thanks for your best wishes, Abdisamad. OK can also be spelt Okay – there’s no real difference. It seems to be a question of personal preference on the part of the writer.


in the doghouse - if you are 'in the doghouse' somebody else, often a parent or partner is annoyed or angry with you

huffing and puffing - to be blowing hard in an effort to breathe (I was huffing and puffing after my 10km run a few weeks ago!)

conjure up - to make a picture or idea appear in your mind

perilous - dangerous

pursue - to follow someone or something to try to catch them

hazy - (of memories) vague or unclear

mythologise - to create a mythical or false idea out of something

embellish - to add to something to make it more beautiful or interesting

gloomy - almost dark, low light in which it is difficult to see

I’ll respond to your latest comments over the weekend – hope you all have a fantastic weekend!

Monday, 20 July 2009

What are you laughing at?

Where was this picture taken?

To find out, read my reply to Atsumi in Comments corner...

How was your high school reunion Jiae? I hope you had a great time reliving your school days. Did you feel nostalgic talking to your old friends? Don’t you think that as adults we forget about so many things that seemed vitally important when we were growing up? You mentioned ghost stories as one example, and it’s true. I remember, as a kid being told ghost stories and feeling that kind of deliciously spine-tingling fear that terrifies and thrills at the same time. Sometimes I think it’s the same with laughter. As a kid, and then a teenager, I remember having fits of giggles, laughing uncontrollably till my stomach hurt about silly things – at the time they seemed hilarious, but as an adult it seems to happen much less frequently. The stresses and worries of life take over, and we forget what it’s like to be a child.

When was the last time you laughed so much your stomach hurt, you couldn't breathe and tears rolled down your cheeks?


nostalgia - a pleasurable but also sometimes sad feeling you get when thinking about things which happened in the past

spine-tingling - something very frightening or exciting

fits of giggles - periods of uncontrollable laughter

hilarious - extremely funny

Today I’m starting a new month of pre-sessional classes. The main focus this month is on writing research reports and giving a group presentation. For their report my students have to create a questionnaire about university life in London which they will give to other students on the course.

What kind of questions would you ask if you were creating a questionnaire for students in London?

Comments’ corner

Atsumi – I travelled in Japan last year and I, like other people it seems, found the trains incredibly efficient and punctual, particularly the ‘shinkansen’ (bullet trains). I expect that it really depends on what you are used to. In the UK, trains, tubes and buses are often delayed quite severely, so a 3-minute delay for a train would hardly count as a delay (in fact, it would almost seem early). What are the reasons for this? Well, I think it’s mainly to do with the age of some of the infrastructure here. The underground (subway/metro) is the oldest in the world, so when it was built, it wasn’t really designed to carry such a vast number of people as it does today. Our rail system developed fairly early also, so it is quite dilapidated and requires a lot of maintenance. By the way, I remember Shibuya in Tokyo and its’ famous pedestrian crossing. (That's where the picture was taken) In London, there is a very busy intersection at Oxford Circus which is currently being redesigned to imitate the Shibuya model - the idea is to stop the traffic from all directions for a minute or two to let everybody across, rather than halting traffic from first one direction then the other. Have a look here to get the idea. It remains to be seen if this will work in London – does it take into account cultural differences I wonder??

Leila, I hope you have a wonderful time in Greece. I’m lucky enough to go to Greece quite often as my sister lives in Thessaloniki. I think the idea of taking off your shoes when going into a house is widespread in many Asian countries. A few people do it here, but it’s not particularly common. I think it makes sense in terms of hygiene and keeping your house clean.

Paulraj, although where you live is not a multi-ethnic society, at least we all have this opportunity to meet online and you can, to a certain extent, get to know about other countries and cultures here. Of course, it’s not the same as a face to face meeting, but a few years ago, it would have been impossible.

Benka, was that the Exit festival? Sounds like it’s a really great event, and getting bigger all the time. I hope that commercialism doesn’t destroy it’s spirit, something which seems to happen to a lot of festivals once all the marketing people get involved and the media take over.

Ana Paola, nice to hear such positive words about your country. Does the large Japanese community in Brazil mean that it's easy to find nice Japanese food over there?

Joe, I think you’re right that people’s ideas of a place are often determined by what they see and hear in the media. It's hard to remember specifically what impression I first had of South Korea originally. I guess my first impressions were of students I taught in language schools. I was always amazed by how tough the secondary education system seemed to be compared to the UK system. I always wanted to ask about the situation with North Korea, but found that many of them didn't really want to talk about it very much. I met some really nice students though, and was able to visit some of them when I visited Seoul last year.

Hyoshil, I like your story about seeing a foreign soldier for the first time. I was surprised to find that there is a US military base in the middle of Seoul. I think that it may soon be moving, or perhaps it has moved already. My friends told me that the presence of US soldiers had caused some problems in the past. It seems really strange to have that kind of base right in the middle of a city.

Ramilton, you’re right that there is a big Brazilian community in the UK. I do know some Brazilians here, and they do a variety of jobs, form cleaner to office manager. I heard that at one point there were worries about a 'brain drain' as many graduates were leaving Brazil to work in other countries, including the UK. I don't think it's particularly easy to get a job in the UK, but language skills are one very important factor. With good language skills and relevant work experience, a Brazilian should have the same opportunity to find a job as a native speaker.

Toni, I have to agree with you about bullfighting – for me it’s barbaric, as is fox-hunting in the UK. Many people say that it is traditional and part of the culture but the question is, does that mean that it’s right? Human history has countless examples of traditions and cultural norms which most ‘civilised’ people would not accept now.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Good morning bloggers!

First of all, let me congratulate you on passing your summer school course Jiae! Now you can relax and put your feet up.. are you planning to go away anywhere for your summer break?
I like your picture of the beach – did you take that when you were in Pusan?
While we're on the subject of beaches, here's a picture of me on the beach earlier this year - it seems like so long ago!

Looking at those corrections from your last post, here’s my new version:

1. …quite famous for being a homogenous society OR quite well known as a homogenous society
2. has become a multi-ethnic society
3. √
4. √ OR are having trouble (no article)
5. ‘men in the countryside are having trouble finding women to get married to’ (this is a fact) which makeS – the verb needs to be 3rd person singular here.
6. …might be a result of the preference for having a son (rather than a daughter)

Hope that helps!

Jiae – how is your spoken English? I know that it is quite hard to judge your own skills in a language, but would you say that you can speak English as well as you write it? I’ve often found some Korean students to be rather quiet in class and sometimes a little shy to speak English. At the same time their grammar and writing is often of a very high standard. I wonder if the education system in Korea is changing at all? Many students, from all over the world, come from an educational background which places great emphasis on grammar and writing. The idea seems to be simply to get them through incredibly difficult tests to get a place at university, with little regard for the skills of real communication. It seems to me that this must change, as more and more students study overseas and realise that their English classes simply aren’t providing them with the ability to communicate effectively. How were your English classes? What did they focus on? Did you have much opportunity to speak?

One of the trickiest things for any English learner is trying to choose the correct preposition. There are certain words which are commonly found with one particular preposition. These prepositions are sometimes called 'dependent prepositions'. Needy little words, often seen hanging around with bigger words like verbs, nouns and adjectives. Take the word 'influence' as an example. We often see 'influence' with the preposition 'on', as in the following sentence:

Which teacher had a big influence on you when you were at school?

Here the combination is noun+preposition. There are many of these combinations in English, and sadly there is no easy way to learn them! Reading a lot will help, though. Have a look back at the word+preposition combinations in bold. Try to create your own new sentence with each of them....

There’s an interesting short video about the spread of English (from an excellent website called TED) here. Why not watch it and see if you agree with what he says.

It would be interesting to know everybody’s experience of learning English at school or university, and whether the situation is changing at all.

That's all for now, more later and I haven't forgotten your comments - I'll reply to them next time - and ask if anyone saw the solar eclipse!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The ties that bind..

Hi Jiae, I really enjoyed your last post. Just like you, I’ve never liked commuting. At the moment I’m working quite near where I live so fortunately I can get 2 buses which aren't too crowded. When I used to work in central London I had to take the tube every morning and evening at rush hour. I hated it – crammed into a carriage like a tin of sardines, your face wedged into someone’s armpit. It drains your energy and makes you feel like a robot, part of some great big, meaningless machine, going endlessly back and forth...

I think what you say about cities is true. People are anonymous. We often don’t know our neighbours, and we spend most of our time surrounded by people we have never met and will never meet again. I don’t think it means we are selfish, or even indifferent. I would say that it's a kind of 'survival instinct'. If you behaved as if you were in a village or small town, said ‘hello’ to everybody, left your front door unlocked, walked slowly and so on, you wouldn’t survive very long. I grew up in London, and I’ve always lived in cities, so it’s not really new for me, but I agree that it can feel a bit inhuman sometimes. Worldwide, the number of people living in cities and urban areas is now greater than the number living in rural areas. The question is, how do we, as humans, adapt to this way of life? Are there any solutions?

Recently, an event called 'The Big Lunch' was organised by the Eden Project. (By the way, did you have a chance to visit the Eden Project while you were here?)

The Eden Project

Here’s a paragraph from their website. What do you think? Is it a good idea?

Most of us are shy, many of us lead single lives and even when we are together often go our own way. Ninety-seven per cent of neighbourhoods are more fragmented than they were 30 years ago. We just don’t gel the way we used to. Isn’t it crazy that 10 million of us are networking regularly online yet we barely know who lives next-door? Yet, inside almost everyone there is a notion that despite our differences, the ties that bind us are important. The Big Lunch is your excuse to cut loose. You’re all invited. Every man, woman, child, cat, dog and bird from every type of community, from best-kept hamlets to inner city estates to prisons and hospitals, all are welcome. All we ask is that you come as you, open-minded and up-for-it.

fragmented - consisting of many different parts

gel - in this context, 'gel' means to form relationships and connections with each other

networking - communicating with lots of other people, part of a network (like the BBC LE community)

notion - an idea or belief

the ties that bind - the links which connect us, for example family or community

cut loose - another way to say this is 'to let your hair down'. To behave in a less controlled way than usual, relax, stop being so formal

hamlet - a very small village

up-for-it - willing to try something

The idea was simply to get people all over the country to have lunch together outside in their street. It seemed to work quite well in some places, although I must confess that I didn't see anybody having lunch in my street. Maybe next year.....

Cities are big, anonymous places, but just the other day, I was on the platform at King’s Cross station, waiting for my train, when somebody said ‘hello’. I awoke from my daydream and saw a vaguely familiar face grinning at me. A split second of uncertainty was dispelled when he introduced himself, and as he did so I remembered him. Akihiro, a Japanese student I had taught for a few weeks about 5 years ago! He’s quite a well-known football commentator back in Japan and I remember he often used to be away watching and commentating on Champions League football matches. (we were all quite envious at the time...)
So you’s a small world!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Green spaces

Regent's Park in London

Just like any large city, London has many problems. We've already talked about transport, commuting and overcrowding. Then there's the pollution, the litter on the streets, the anonymity and the fact that we don't know our neighbours. But one thing which London doesn't have a problem with is 'green space'. It has a huge number of parks and open spaces which are a kind of refuge from the urban rat race, a place where we can go and have a few minutes away from it all. Some of the parks are so big that you can almost feel as if you are in the countryside, and forget about everything going on around you. These green spaces are sometimes called the 'lungs of the city', and, if they weren't there, London would not be half the city that it is.

Now, your comments have been building up, and it's a while since I replied to any so, here goes:

Comments Corner

(from July 20th post – aka ‘better late than never!’)

Tamara – where on earth did you learn English? You tell your story of the wedding in such a natural way, and your use of the Present tense to make the story more immediate and interesting is spot on. Very impressive! It’s true, babies are often a liability at weddings, but normally it’s them crying, not their parents…. The person you ask about is called a ‘registrar’.

Vladimir, your questions are all valid in my view. I think it would be very useful for students to write about their own educational background and I have done this before with some groups. One thing though, I’m not exactly sure what you mean with your last question – could you rephrase it for me?

Hi Cheikh Vall. I really think that a good fit of giggles is beneficial for the health. It must release some tension don’t you think? It seems logical that living in an English speaking country should improve a student’s knowledge of the language more quickly than staying in their own country. However, what often happens is that some students naturally tend to hang around with people from their own country, end up sharing accommodation with those people, going to restaurants and socialising with their own nationality. The fastest learners are those who are genuinely curious about other cultures and make the effort to go out and meet people and get involved.

Henrique, that’s the thing about the giggles – you never know when they might strike, sometimes at the most inopportune moment!

Adriana, thank you for your kind words. I think diplomacy is a very underrated skill!

Ana Paula, I like your story. It’s great when people do things like that – it’s just like the person walking around looking for their glasses who later realises that they are on their head. I put a cup of tea in the fridge by mistake the other day...

Thanks for posting your questions Rabail – I think they’re all valid.

Atsumi, with a heavy heart, I have to say that the ‘gentlemanly manner’ which you speak of appears to be dying out. Not sure if it’s the pressure of living in the rat race or what, but people are getting ruder and less respectful, and I can imagine the new crossing at Oxford Circus being complete chaos. (or maybe I’m just getting older and more grumpy…) Very nice questions, thank you.

Ramilton, yes indeed I have heard of, and read, Edgar Allan Poe – I remember reading The Fall of the House of Usher when I was younger. He’s quite well-known in England I would say.

Hyoshil, it’s interesting to hear the questions you would ask as a student – very practical and perhaps born of experience?

And thanks to Toni and P for your questions...

Comments 23rd July

Jingjing – thanks for your thorough and interesting comments. I think it has to be a good thing if the education system is changing and gradually the importance of English as a means of communication is being given more emphasis, not just in China but all over the world.

Henrique, if English gives opportunities then it must be a good thing, but I can’t help wondering when the ‘tipping point’ will come… I guess some day it will be a skill that is expected, perhaps like computer literacy now, and that it will no longer confer any great advantage or opportunities. At that point, it may be time for me to start looking for another job!

Mauricio, as you say, methodology in schools may be slow to change, but there are many more possibilities for the keen language learner these days, internet being perhaps the best example. A lot certainly depends on the person learning the language – wanting to learn and liking the language are two very important factors in my view.

Atsumi, I think fear of making mistakes and ‘losing face’ is a large part of why many students prefer to keep quiet. Something else which strikes me is the thinking time before answering. As you know, I teach multilingual classes which contain a really eclectic mix of students – many of my Asian students like to consider for a few seconds before answering a question, something which I believe is perfectly natural in many Asian cultures. The European or South American students often take this to mean that these students have nothing to say – they are used to an immediate response, rather than a considered response. From this, misunderstandings can so easily arise. Part of my job is trying to make people aware of these differences, because once they start their undergraduate or postgraduate course, the cultural challenge may be as big as the linguistic one…

Paulraj, I wonder if the situation is changing at all in India? With such a vast population, any type of country-wide education reform must be incredibly difficult. I read that the Indian government want to introduce ‘biometric ID’ cards for all Indian citizens – what a big job that will be!!!

James Wu, your comment is very interesting and raises a really important issue. I must confess, as a teacher (and a person…) ‘I’m not always right!’ You say that in Taiwan students shouldn’t question their teacher, the teacher is always right and this seems to be quite a common attitude in some educational cultures. Of course, the teacher is often right, and usually knows more about the subject than the students, but I think it is vital to encourage students to approach everything with an attitude of enquiry – to ask why something is the case, to be curious and to want to find out more, rather than simply to accept a bunch of facts without question, and to do this, a two-way interaction with teachers is essential.

Abdisamad – I forgive you!

Xavi, you’re spot on with what you say about motivation. There is no better motivation than survival to make you learn a language, and this is why studying in a country where the language is spoken is so important. You asked about the languages I speak. Well, my degree was in modern languages, French and Spanish, so I speak (or at least I used to..) those two languages, plus a tiny bit of Portuguese and an even tinier amount of Hungarian. The problem for an English speaker trying to learn a language is that the survival motivation which you mentioned is often not there because you find so many people who speak English wherever you go! Hasta luego..

Toni, although your experience at school wasn’t a positive one, it’s good that you were able to come back to it later on...communication is the key, and you're doing that right here.

Ramilton, it’s great to hear that language teaching is developing in the right direction in Brazil. If students are able to see the need and use for learning a language, then hopefully they will be more enthusiastic about it.

Ana Paula, well done in your FCE and good luck with CAE! After that - CPE?? It’s pretty tough I must say. I heard a statistic claiming that 70 – 80% of native speakers would fail Cambridge Proficiency if they had to take it and, having taught it before, I can well believe it!

Lucy, I’m happy you were able to experience the eclipse last week – 6 minutes, wow! Is Li Yang Crazy English and that method of teaching still popular in China?

That's all for now - keep blogging! Till the next time...

Friday, 31 July 2009

From BBC Learning English

Time to say thank you to Jim for a great blog - although I must say I am yet to find out what the √ in the entry of 23 July stands for! From tomorrow we have a new teacher blogger, Kieran McGovern - welcome Kieran!

This is the end of the line - all change!

Well, it seems that my time is up….

Jiae, it's been a pleasure to read your writing - it's been a breeze for me as a teacher because you write English so well. I wish all my students were like you! Enjoy your holidays and your time with your brother. Good luck!

You know, looking back at the comments and posts over the last few weeks, I’ve realised something. We’re really quite a nice bunch of people! I think we should give ourselves a pat on the back. Your comments and posts are thoughtful, show a lot of interest in other people and other cultures, they are open-minded and polite – isn’t that a great thing? Sometimes, reading newspaper blogs or other more general blogs I get quite depressed by some of the unnecessary and vitriolic words that some people write. It’s been a real pleasure to be a part of this community and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot, and I hope that you have. I think in this case the English language, for all its faults and idiosyncrasies, is doing a good job of bringing people together. Long may it continue!

I am going to leave you with a question:

What would you do if there was a pill which you could take which would give you the ability to speak, understand, read and write English like a native speaker?

Maybe most of you would bite my hand off if I offered it to you.... take a pill to speak English? Of course!
But I would like to think that a few, maybe just one or two of you, would not immediately take the pill. Why not? Well, for one thing, because I’d be out of a job! But not only that. I'd also like to think that there is something enjoyable about the process of learning English (or any language), however old you are, and that you can enjoy the journey and never stop learning. For me, if I'm no longer learning anything, life becomes stale, like an old loaf of bread. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a Masters degree in October to study something called Digital solutions and e-learning technology - I've been inspired by my experience here! It is a sad fact that the number of young people learning other languages in the UK is dwindling. For too many people learning languages is a chore, something they hated at school, and sadly many language lessons at school don't excite or stimulate students.
I've really enjoyed doing this blog because of the enthusiasm and eagerness to learn which comes across from all of you, even though we're all so far apart. Oh dear, I've just realised that I'm on my soapbox it really is.time to get off.

Please keep reading, reflecting and sending in your comments. I'll certainly keep reading, and I'm already looking forward to our next bloggers...I hope to see you all again here some time in the future.
Goodbye and good luck!


time is up - this means that there is no more time, that's something's finished

a breeze - if we describe something as a breeze, it's very easy

bunch - in this case it means a group

to give yourself a pat on the back
- to congratulate yourself

vitriolic - expressing hatred and anger

idiosyncrasy - a strange or unusual feature or habit

bite someone's hand off - to accept something very quickly and eagerly (jump at the chance to do something)

dwindling - diminishing, reducing in number

chore - a boring job or task that you don't want to do (eg housework)

Comments Corner

Jingjing - thanks for your comments. All the London parks are free. In fact, some of the parks, including Regent's Park, are royal parks. This is because most of them were originally taken by King Henry VIII for him to use as hunting grounds in and around London. You can explore these beautiful parks here.

Nice to meet you Vinh The - it's good to hear that you've found a place in the countryside where you feel comfortable.

Alexander - I completely agree with you. In this mad rush for money, consumer goods and our pursuit of a dream we are forgetting about what is really important. It's a shame more people don't think this way...I don't think the Olympics in 2012 will change the balance of the city too much. Most of the building work is taking place in Stratford in East London, a built-up but run-down area without much green space. The architects of the Olympic sites are promising that these Games will be the 'greenest' so far. In fact, on the main bridge leading to the Olympic Stadium they are building in feeding posts and nest sites for birds! Some of the Olympic events like horse-riding will actually take place in London parks - I think that the Games will actually be quite beneficial for London.

Benka - your spa experience sounds wonderful. I love visiting any hot springs and thermal baths and used to go quite a lot when I lived in Ecuador and Hungary. I think you're very lucky to have such neighbours!

Paulraj - yes, many people think that the 'streets are paved with gold' in cities. But I think that they often find out that things are not really so easy when they actually arrive in the city.

TrieuHoa - I went to St.Ives earlier this year. It's a lovely little town and I also found the people friendlier in general. Did you go anywhere else in Cornwall?

Abdisamad - thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate them and it's great that we could all spend this online time together. Best wishes to you and your family also and keep blogging!

Henrique, I hope that the authorities in your town can take measures to make sure that the congestion doesn't get too bad before it's too late. A city with forest reserves and botanical gardens sounds wonderful! Enjoy it while you can.

Hyoshil - so you're as mad as a hatter are you?! What a nice thing to do to make a hanging basket for your friend! I think the world needs more 'nutcases' like you - maybe then it would be a friendlier place. Did you ever go to the open-air theatre in Regent's Park? That's a really nice experience, watching a Shakespeare play in the open air on a long and warm summer night. I've really loved reading all your comments, they always make me laugh and you're very inventive with the language. Best wishes for the future....

Silvia, that's a very good question, where are all the people going on the tube...Where were you going?? I went to Italy a few times with my family when I was much younger, mainly around Florence and in Tuscany. Last year I visited Rome for the first time which was fantastic. I'm a big fan of Italian food...

Marianna - that's a tough question. I'm lucky because I really like teaching but I've always had the idea that I would have liked to be a marine biologist. I'm not particularly scientific-minded, but I love the ocean and scuba-diving and particularly now I think it's a tragedy what is happening to our seas with all the over-fishing and killing sharks for soup and so on. I'd love to be able to do something to help protect our oceans..... Best of luck to you too!

Ana Paula - so you're really going for the CPE! Wow, that's a great challenge to set yourself. I wish you all the luck in the world. My advice? Read as much as you can and read different varieties and genres of English, record vocabulary collocations instead of single items and find a native speaker teacher!!! Good luck!

Lucy, it's certainly true what you say about wealth not translating into well-being. Sometimes perhaps we just need to slow down and consider what is really important in life. I'd much rather stand on top of a mountain, walk in a forest or sit by the ocean than go window-shopping or visit the newest shopping mall.

Adriana, your commute sounds quite relaxing, and your neighbours also sound lovely. Why can't everywhere be like that?? There are a lot of great things to see in London, and I hope you can visit here some day. Have a great weekend - all the best.


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