Focus on Pronunciation

September 21st, 2010

Listen Up, All You Spanish Speakers!

My last post reminded me of a very important topic to bring up.  It is the all-too typical Spanish pronunciation of the word focus. At the Lake Tahoe Institute of English we hear a serious mis-pronunciation of this word with nearly all of our Spanish-speaking clients, and this mis-pronunciation is very, very bad.

Focus is a very popular word in business jargon at the moment – it’s used in every other sentence, it seems.  The focus of the project is this, we need to focus our attention on that, our team focus is X, etc., etc., etc..

Properly pronounced the first O in the word focus is pronounced with a long O sound, like ohhh, or like the sound of the letter O.

This is Very, Very Bad

However, way too many Spanish speakers of English pronounce it with the short U sound, very clearly and distinctly saying fuck-us.

Don’t do this.  I’m telling you. This is very, very bad. Of all the pronunciation errors that are charming or interesting, this is not one.  O.  Practice the long O sound.  Like fold or open or mow, no, go.  No U sounds, please, or you’ll have all the native English speakers in hysterics!

Keeping Your Hands in Your Lap

September 13th, 2010

Embarrassing Cultural Mistakes

Last night I was out with the girls to say goodbye to two who were heading off to China to teach English at a university.  This is their third year to do so, so there were stories being told about embarrassing past mistakes made while living or traveling in a different culture.  Anyone who has traveled much at all certainly has some stories to tell about this painful experience.

Also present were two Irish friends, plus several others, including me, who travel frequently and to far flung places.

Watch Your Mouth

Well, we got to talking about the meaning(s) of various hand gestures around the world.  Now I knew a few, both from personal directed usage, as well as from some unintentional mistakes.  But the variety of insults that can be conveyed quite unintentionally really surprised me.

The Irish girls demonstrated quite a few that were very, very bad, but that I could have easily have made without knowing it.  You know, I really try to “watch my mouth,” as my mother would say (really, quite ineffectively, I might add), but I’m thinking I had really better keep my hands under control as well.  Who knows what kind of trouble I could get into?

Watch Your Hands

I was thinking I should keep my hands in my lap to be safe, but then I remembered what happened to my daughter, Eve, when she was an exchange student in Chile.

Here in the United States it is good manners to keep your free hand in your lap while eating.  But Eve was chastised one evening after she first arrived:  “Eve, you need to keep both hands on the table at a meal.  Who knows what you are doing with that hand in your lap (wink, wink)?

We must all be careful with our mouths and our hands when we travel, but we don’t have a clue how to do that.

Maybe I’d better keep my mouth shut and sit on my hands, just to be safe.

The Best Tip You’ll Ever Get for Speaking a Foreign Language

September 5th, 2010

A Slow and Lazy Language

As I’ve mentioned before, English is a slow and lazy language, except maybe as it is spoken in New York.  In general, we speak more slowly than speakers of many other languages.  Our ears aren’t tuned to very rapid speech, so most English speakers will find it difficult to understand a fast talker.  Add a foreign accent to rapid speech, and most English speakers will have real trouble with comprehension.

Comprehension is Key

The primary need of learners of English as a foreign language is to both understand what is being said to them, and to be understood by others.  Sounding intelligent, well-read, professional or charming is, believe me, of purely secondary importance to understanding and being understood.  That can come later.  First, you have to understand what others are saying to you, and you have to be understood by those you are speaking to.

Fast Does Not Equal Smart

Interestingly, most learners are more occupied with sounding smart (or at least not sounding too stupid!) than with being understood.  And, in their native languages, most learners of English as a foreign language are used to speaking quickly – much more quickly than they should be speaking in English.  So, in order to feel at least somewhat smart and accomplished, most English as a foreign language speakers try to speak very rapidly.  Wrong move!

Recently I was listening to an interview in English that featured three French CEOs.  All three had heavy accents, but a good command of English.  Two spoke very rapidly, and were nearly impossible to understand.  The third spoke English with just as heavy an accent, but he spoke very slowly and thoughtfully.  He was very easy to understand, in spite of his accent, and actually sounded like a much better speaker of English than the other two (which he really wasn’t).

Slow Down, Repeat Less

So slow down.  It may seem painfully slow to you, but you will be understood, which is what you want.  And, if you set a slow pace, people you are speaking to will unconsciously slow down, too, so you will be better able to understand them.

Slow it way down.  You’ll be surprised at how much less frequently you will be asked to repeat yourself.


August 29th, 2010

Eve and Justin sneak a kiss


It’s been a busy summer, and so I haven’t been as diligent about blogging as I might have been.

First, I had foot surgery, which required a far longer recovery than anticipated, and then my oldest daughter was married in a beautiful ceremony at home a few weeks ago.  That’s my daughter, Eve, and her new husband, Justin, in the photo, if you haven’t already guessed.

I guess all that warranted a bit of time off for me.

But now I’m recovered and back at work -

My Good Fortune

I feel very fortunate indeed that I am able to do work that I love in a place that I love.  I’ve had a number of different careers in my life, but teaching at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English is definitely my very favorite.

Many of our clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English have met my dear friend Mary.  She teaches for us on occasion and is a frequent dinner guest with clients.  Always outgoing, interesting and friendly, Mary specializes in what she laughingly calls “coffee and chat” jobs.  She just loves being around people and wouldn’t work at anything that doesn’t involve talking with them.

What Could Possibly Be Better?

For me, the Lake Tahoe Institute of English is like a “Mary job” or a “coffee and chat” job.  It’s a lot of work, but so much of it is incredibly interesting and fun.  After all the preparation, most of what I get to do all day is talk to amazing, interesting and varied clients from all over the world.  I make friends for life, learn much about everything, and get paid to do it.

What could be better than that?

Why English is Crazy!

July 31st, 2010

Why is English the international language?

Linguistically, why has English become the international language?  Why has French been eclipsed?  Why did Esperanto never really catch on?  Why not Chinese?

Of course there are many contributing reasons for this.  You could say it is because Britain and then America were the dominant superpowers for a long time, so it was natural.  You could say it is because for many years America was the leader in technology and business innovation, so it became the language of tech and business, but then why no German or Japanese?

I mean really, why English?

It’s a completely crazy language.

It is a completely crazy language with more irregular than regular grammar, more irregular than regular spelling (or so it seems to the learner), and so many ways to pronounce each letter of the alphabet that we can’t even write them all down. Plus, English has a much larger active vocabulary than probably any other language in modern usage.

How anyone can ever expect to master this seems ridiculous.  And why they would try seems even more ridiculous.  And yet, it is the most widely studied foreign language in the world, and millions and millions of people do in fact master it.

As a native English speaker who is a teacher of English at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, I am constantly having to try to explain and find rules for what comes naturally to me.  We get all kinds of English learners here at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, and we design very personalized programs for each one of them.  We create programs that address various needs, professions and learning styles.

Sometimes I have clients who love structure.  They want a syllabus and a plan for what they are going to accomplish each day.  Some of them really want to know and clearly understand the framework and rules for English grammar, pronunciation and spelling.

To be perfectly honest, when I have a client like this, I have to spend considerable time reviewing the so-called rules and the many, many exceptions to the rules.  And even then, I find it difficult to explain!

English grammar doesn’t make sense!

There is a pretty simple explanation for this:  English grammar doesn’t make sense.

English is an extremely versatile and flexible language.  It is an ancient language that has been contributed to and molded by many, many very diverse languages over the centuries.  It is not largely Latin-based, or Greek-based.  It is Anglo-Saxon based with huge influences from Celtic, from German, Swedish, French, Latin, etc.  It is a polyglot of languages.

But in the 17th century linguists greatly admired Latin, supposedly the purest of languages, and decided that the rules of Latin grammar should be imposed on English, a decidedly non-Latin based language.

According to my language hero, Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue, “this is like trying to play baseball in iceskates.  The two simply don’t match.”

Well, no wonder then…..

Is English Easy to Learn?

July 21st, 2010

Is it easy to learn?

My last post proposed one of my theories as to why people think a language as crazy and irregular as English is easy to learn.

My idea, coming from my experience teaching at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, not research, is that nearly everyone can find many, many words or phrases that they already know.  English is a huge conglomeration of many languages, so there is something in it for everyone.  Plus, English words and phrases have flowed around the world, and have become standard in nearly every language on earth.

An exuberant language.

My second theory is also based solely on my experience at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English.  My theory is that English is a very exuberant, inventive language.  It loves to borrow a good word or phrase, and it loves to make up new ones.  It is flexible, lively,varied, and immensely forgiving.  It’s a crazy language.  How can people not love that?

Many of my clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English have mentioned that they prefer to read in English.  They have told me that they feel things are more precisely explained in English, and that they understand concepts better in English.

I suppose that could be because Americans in particular, and English speakers in general, are more verbose than speakers of other languages.  We just write more, perhaps, so there is more to read on any particular topic.

I could also be that English has more words in common usage than other languages (a fact), so has more ways to explain an idea.  We can drill down deeper in English, perhaps, and we can perhaps explain a bit more colorfully in English, which just might make for a more interesting read.

Comments, please.

I would love readers’ comments as to why they think English is easy to learn.

You Already Know More English Than You Think

July 15th, 2010

English is easy?

So, to build on my last post, which explained why English grammar is impossible, why do nearly every one of my clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English tell me that learning English is easy?

They say that English is, for them, easier than learning French or Portuguese or Russian.  On the face of it, that doesn’t make sense, either.

Irregular grammar, irregular spelling, irregular pronunciation would not logically indicate that the language is easy to learn.

My theories

I have a couple of theories that are, as far as I know, unfounded and unproven.  They just come from my experiences here at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English.

First, I think that English, particularly American English, is such a combination of other languages that nearly everyone in the western world at least can recognize words and phrases.  Just as English speakers can study Latin to increase their vocabulary, speakers of other languages can study English to find words or remnants of words from their native languages.  If they speak more than one language, for example German and French, then this only increases their platform.

Something for everyone in English

In English there is something familiar to everyone.Not only do western world non-English speakers regularly find their own language in English, but non-English speakers  everywhere in the world have taken on English expressions in their own languages.

According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, in 1964 just under 10 percent of words used in Japanese newspapers were English, or at least interpretations of English, such as “nekutai” for “necktie” or “bata” for “butter”.  If that was the case in 1964, imagine what it is in this post-modern tech-driven world.

You already know more English than you think

My clients find they already have a large working English vocabulary just from living in the modern world.  Without even trying they know hundreds, maybe thousands of English words.  As they actively study and try to acquire vocabulary, they realize that there are many more words they know or can guess at, coming from a conglomeration of many, many languages.

I Love Bill Bryson

July 2nd, 2010

Bill (and Mick):  TMI

Bill Bryson is the kind of man I could fall madly in love with.  I would marry the man if:   a) I knew him, b) I hadn’t already been married for 30 years, and c) if he was at all interested in leaving his wife and family for a 56 year old woman with bad feet but good hair.

Actually, the same is true with Mick Jagger.  In fact, I have a fidelity exception written into my marriage contract for Mick that my husband has even agreed to (he’s thinking, “fat chance”, and after 30 years he’s probably right).  Are you reading this, Mick?  Hmmm….. Thought not.

But that’s perhaps too much information, known in the USA as TMI – as in “sweetheart, you do have a lovely shit-eating grin on your face, but really, the exact details of last night’s date are TMI for your mom.”

Why I Love Bill Bryson

But, I’ve digressed. Why do I love Bill Bryson?  And who is he?

Well, Bill Bryson is a wonderful, funny writer who has written many books on all topics.  Loosely, he could be called primarily a travel writer, but his books are far more than that, and not always about that at all.

His book that I have recently thoroughly enjoyed is called The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way.  In it Bryson explores the history and development of the English language (not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love stuff like this.  Yeah, I know….)  And, what he concludes is that the English language is crazy.

And, why I love him is that he concludes that English grammar is also crazy and makes no sense whatsoever.  As I said, I love this man.  (You can see that my pathetic life has become way, way too involved with grammar.)

Learning English Grammar Is NOT the Same as Learning English

I’ve always been good at English, at reading it, at writing it, at speaking it, but I have never, ever been good at grammar.  In middle school, when we first studied grammar, I failed every single grammar test I ever took.  I went on to study English literature at UC Berkeley, quite a reputable institution, and managed to graduate with extremely high grades, but only because there were no grammar tests.

I have long felt that learning grammar bears no relationship to using the English language well.  And now, I am vindicated.  Bill Bryson says, “In English we possess a language in which parts of speech are almost entirely notional” and “the parts of speech must be so broadly defined as to be almost meaningless.”

EXACTLY! I am a rational, logical person, as are my Lake Tahoe Institute of English clients.  I can’t always explain grammar questions to logical English learners because there is no logic to much of it.  To date, I have done my best, but have all too often resorted to saying “I’m sorry, but English is crazy.  Just memorize it.”  And now I know, English is crazy, and it is because I am so logical that I can’t explain it.  I’ll be writing more abut the reasons for this in future posts, but for now, let me just say:

I love you Bill Bryson!

Why We Founded the Lake Tahoe Institute of English

June 26th, 2010

Lots of Questions

When I tell people what I do for a living I get all kinds of remarks and questions from them.  Everyone always wants to know how and why we do this.  They want to know what textbooks we use, and how we conduct our “classes”.  They want to know all about the “structure” of the classes. 

No Ordinary Language School

It is very difficult for many people, teachers in particular, to understand that this is no ordinary language school, and that we don’t teach in an ordinary way.  Rather, we have found that by working individually with clients, and designing their “lessons” around exactly what we feel they need to know, or what they want to know, we have tremendous success. 

Really Speak English

We teach very little grammar and formal structure here at the LakeTahoe Institute of English – we teach what you need to know in order to be able to actually speak English, to have satisfying conversations with other English speakers, and to have confidence in your ability to speak English.  Click on the following link if you would like to see a short video of me talking about how we got the idea for starting this kind of language school:  Founding the Lake Tahoe Institute of English.

How NOT to Learn a Language

June 20th, 2010

Making Videos of Teaching Philosophy

Last year Kim and I made several videos for the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, so that potential clients could see us, listen to us, hopefully feel more comfortable with us, and also to explain some of our philosophy of teaching and learning languages. 

Let me tell you, making a video is not as easy as it sounds, at least for me.  It was a very humbling experience.   An actor I will never be.  If I seem so unnatural just being myself, I doubt if I could ever follow a script. 

How NOT to Learn a Language

So, forgive me that I am not an actor, but, if you are interested in some of my ideas about language learning, just click on this link:  How NOT to Learn a Language.  I hope you enjoy it, and learn a bit more about the Lake Tahoe Institute of English.