Category Archives: Learning English Tips

How to Learn English Vocabulary

How to Learn English Vocabulary

Many years ago, I was on holiday with my family at a campsite in Devon when a young guy offered me (what sounded like) a "kruggi". Don't be alarmed! It's what happens when there are two kids but only one bicycle. One kid sits on the saddle of the bike, and the other gets in front and pedals. The kid pedalling the bike is giving the other kid a "kruggi" (if he / she's from a particular area in the UK). Where I come from, it's called - a little more unimaginatively - a "backie".

So imagine my surprise when I found out - after all these years - that it isn't spelled "kruggi" - but "croggy". My holiday friend was from the north of England, where an "o" sound is pronounced more like the "u" in "put"; and where the long "y" sound is reduced to a much shorter "i".

So why am I telling you this story? I came across the word "croggy" in this blog post. The blog post explains some of the 1000 new words added to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Some words (like "croggy") are from regional English dialects, while others are new words.

It's fascinating reading. The OED tracks English vocabulary, to make sure that the dictionary reflects the way English is used today. Because English vocabulary changes so fast, updates to the dictionary are made every three months.

How to learn English vocabulary

English has a rich - and expanding vocabulary, which makes learning and remembering new words difficult. Even people who write dictionaries can have a hard time keeping up! So here are some tips for you.

1. Improve your memory technique

You can have a basic conversation using just 2000 words, but if you want to extend your conversation skills, you'll need to learn more. In this blog post, you can find techniques to help you improve your memory.

2. Remember that words change meaning

A few weeks ago, my niece and nephew came out to stay with me. I got a text from a friend saying "have a great time with your fam". "Fam" for me means "family", but it's also used in a much wider sense - explained in this blog post. So when you come across a word you know being used in a different way, it's a good idea to make a note and check it out.

3. Read, listen - then read and listen some more!

Great sources of vocabulary come from books, newspapers, blog posts, songs, films... (This is especially true if you want to make sure you're learning the newest words or slang.) If you don't have the chance to hear English spoken all around you, then go online and immerse yourself in English! If you come across a strange word that you can't work out, let me know in the comments below, and I'll try to explain it for you!

How to Learn English Idioms

How to Learn English Idioms

One way to improve your English is to learn English idioms - and then use them. Idioms add interest to what you say or write, and they make you sound more like a native speaker.

Take, for example, the idiom "water baby". This is someone (often a child) who loves being in the water. When you hear or see the idiom, you get the idea of a child who sees the water almost like a second home. So you could say to someone "Her son loves being in the water" or you could use the idiom and say "Her son is such a water baby".

Like other languages, English has thousands of idioms which you can use in many different situations, or to talk about your feelings and opinions. So how do you learn them?

1. Learn idioms in context or by theme

It's difficult to learn vocabulary through lists. Instead, make sure you understand when you can use a particular idiom by learning it in context or by theme.

For example, on this site we have an Idioms section which is separated into different themed pages.

Make sure you have an example of how the idiom is used, whether it's common or old-fashioned (English-speaking people rarely say "It's raining cats and dogs," for example) and in which situations you'll hear it. This is important, because if you use the idiom in the wrong situation, it won't sound natural.

2. Don't try to learn too many at once

Idioms can be complicated. For that reason, don't try to learn more than five at any one time. Don't forget: you'll need to practise your new idioms (like any new vocabulary) so limit what you try to do in any one study session.

3. Understand the feeling

We often use an idiom to convey a feeling or emotion. So for example, we say that someone has a "heart of gold". Because gold is a precious metal, we can imagine that someone with a heart of gold is a good person. (In fact, it means that a person is very kind.)

Idioms can also give you an image or a mental picture. For example, imagine that a person (Joe) is "under someone's thumb". You get the mental picture that Joe is ruled or controlled by the other person.

4. Listen out for idioms

If you hear two words used together in an unusual way, it might well be a new idiom. Some of the time you can guess the meaning through understanding the feeling and the situation, but you might also need to make a note of it, or ask the person who has spoken it.

You can also check the meaning of idioms in the Free Dictionary.

How to Understand Native Speakers

How to Understand Native Speakers

It can be very frustrating when you don't understand native speakers - especially if you've been studying English for a while. When you get into a conversation and need to keep asking someone to repeat or slow down, it can feel demoralising!

Here are three tips that can help.

1. Be patient

Give yourself some time to get used to the person's accent - and also to the ways in which native speakers stress some words, reduce other sounds, and connect sounds.

Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean.

Word / sentence stress
Native speakers stress information words, as you can see in the sentences below. (Stressed sounds are in bold.)

What time is your meeting today?
Can you go shopping on your way home?
What did you think of her presentation?

The words and sounds which aren't in bold are unstressed. They're spoken faster than the stressed sounds, as they have to fit in between the stressed sounds. Often the vowel sounds in them are reduced to "uh" sounds.

If you focus on the stressed sounds when you listen to native speakers, it will be easier for you to understand the general meaning. (Then use your knowledge of grammar to fill the gaps.)

Connecting sounds
Sometimes it's hard to know when one word stops and another one starts, because native speakers connect them together. Here are a few examples:

She lives far-away (/r/ sound between "far" and "away")
Coudjou help me? (/dj/ sound between "could" and "you")
I saw-Alice with an-older man (/w/ sound between "saw" and "Alice" and /n/ sound between "an" and "older")

The important thing to remember is that what a word sounds like is different to what a word looks like (when you read) because the pronunciation can change depending on the context - on what sounds follow the word. So when you listen to a native speaker, listen carefully to how the words are linked as well.

2. Be an active listener

To understand native speakers well, you need to concentrate when you listen. It's not enough to think that your listening skills will improve if you just have a radio playing in the background, for example.

So this means deciding to listen to something (an audio track, song, podcast, video, etc) and then listening more than once so that you can be sure you understand.

How do you do this? In this blog post, James Granahan shows you a five-step process you can use to improve your listening.

3. Practise listening regularly

This is similar to point 1 above. Improving your listening skills so that you can understand native speakers of English takes time - and practice.

If you find it difficult, listen for a few minutes a day - every day. Then as it becomes easier, you can listen for longer periods of time. It doesn't really matter what you listen to - cartoons, songs, parts of films, podcasts, YouTube videos will all help to "train your ear" so that you become more used to the patterns in spoken English.

You'll also find that when you listen, it will become easier to identify typical English pronunciation such as word stress, sentence stress and connections between words. But also, your own English pronunciation will also improve as you begin to "pick up" these elements of pronunciation.

The students I have taught with the best pronunciation are those who regularly watch and listen to native English speakers in TV series and films!

Finally - check out these 6 tips (and one bonus tip!) to help you understand native speakers.

Why It's So Important To Be Polite When You Speak English

English speakers value politeness over almost everything else. You can speak the most perfect English, but if you appear rude, other people won't want to talk to you.

Politeness helps us to deal with other people easily and smoothly. It helps us get on with strangers in a crowded place (like in the underground) and it helps us get what we want (say "Please" and your transactions get easier). Politeness is something we learn as children, and we expect to see it in other people, too.

But one problem is that if English isn't your first language, it's difficult to know what's polite and when to use a polite expression. So here are some quick tips to help!

1. Don't make orders

We rarely use the imperative form. So instead of saying "Do this!" we'd say "Can you do this, please?" or "Would you mind doing this?"

Using modal auxiliaries helps you to make requests:
Can / Could you...
Would you mind (+ ing)...

"Could you help me with this project?"
"Would you mind moving your suitcase?"

2. Ask for permission

If you want to do something that might inconvenience someone else, ask before you do it!
Do you mind if I...
Is it OK if I...

"Do you mind if I turn on the air conditioning?"
"Is it OK if I turn off the photocopier?"

3. Show respect for other people's opinions

You can also seem too direct when you give strong opinions. Supposing the other person doesn't agree? Then it would be difficult for them to share their opinion with you. So English speakers use a range of "softening phrases" to appear less inflexible.

kind of / a bit
"It's kind of hot in here. Can I open the window?"
"It's a bit too late to go out now. Shall we stay in?"

may / might
"It might not be possible to give you a day off next week."

4. Make it easy for the other person to say no

When you are less direct with other people, you give them space to refuse a request or say "no" without losing face. One way to be less direct is to use past forms:

"I was wondering if we could talk about a pay rise." (past continuous)
"Did you have time to look at my report?" (past simple)
"I wanted to ask you a favour." (past simple)

5. Remember and use the "magic words"

The "magic words" are the words that get you what you want. This is the sort of thing we learn from an early age:

Child: "I want an ice-cream."
Parent: "What's the magic word?"
Child: "Please."
Parent: "Please can I have..."
Child: "Please can I have an ice-cream?"

The magic words for politeness are:

Please - when we want something
Thank you - when we receive something
Sorry - when we inconvenience someone, do something wrong, or can't help someone
Excuse me - when we interrupt someone, or want to ask a stranger a question

For more tips, check out the Cambridge Dictionary page Politeness. If you need politeness for work, check out this post on how to be polite in negotiations and this post on speaking diplomatically at work.

English Pronunciation - Get Word Stress Right

English Pronunciation - Get Word Stress Right

Many English learners worry about making a mistake with the sounds in a word. But it's more important to get the stress of a word right. Word stress is when you make one syllable in the word louder, longer and at a higher pitch than the other syllables in a word.

Word stress helps gives a rhythm to spoken English. Without it, every syllable would have an equal weight.

For example, the word "beautiful" has three syllables:
beau - ti - ful
The stress is on the first syllable "beau". So we say:
BEAUtiful

Here's another example. The word "intelligent" has four syllables:
in - te - li - gent
The stress is on the second syllable "te". So we say:
inTElligent

By the way, if you'd like more help with syllables, check out this page.

Which syllable do you stress?

So how do you know which syllable to stress? There are a lot of rules which can help, and you can find a handy list here.

But a better way to learn is to listen as much as possible to native speakers, so that you can hear how they stress words. Repeat new words as well, so you get practice speaking the word. With new words, it's also a good idea to make a note of the stressed syllable. You can do this in a number of ways:

- putting an apostrophe before the stressed syllable (in'telligent)
- writing the stressed syllable in capital letters (inTElligent)
- typing the stressed syllable in bold (inTElligent)

More help

It's not just word stress which gives English its rhythm. Sentence stress (where we give emphasis to particular words) is also important.

English With Kim has lots of useful detail about sentence stress here - plus some great advice on where to put stress in phrasal verbs.

Finally, if you'd like to test your knowledge, check out a word stress quiz here and here.

How to Talk to Your Boss in English

How to Talk to Your Boss in English

Most of us want to make a good impression with our boss or project manager. Creating a great relationship with a line manager can make a promotion or pay rise more likely.

But it's one thing to do this with a boss who speaks your own language - and quite another thing to do it in another language. So if your boss is an English speaker, here are some tips for using the right English.

Remember to be polite

Ask for things or make suggestions rather than making orders. (So "Could I" or "Do you think we should" instead of "You should" or "You must".)

Remember to use polite modals as well: would, could, may and so on. Here are some examples of how you can use these modals in polite words and expressions.

Be enthusiastic

Don't be that person who always complains or tries to get out of a task. Instead, show your boss that you're happy to be in the job and pleased to learn new things. If a boss sees that you're enthusiastic, you're more likely to get interesting projects to do, and you'll also become known as a good worker.

Offer to do things in the office and to get involved. Here are some great phrases for this.

Be open to feedback

It's important for your boss to know that you are keen to progress in the job. One way to do this is to check in with your boss and to ask for feedback. You need to know if you're doing something right, or if you need to make improvements in how you're doing your work.

Check out these feedback phrases that you can use with your boss.

Need more help for how you can talk to your boss?

Check out my book Business English ESL

How to Talk to Your Boss in EnglishHow to Talk to Your Boss in EnglishThis book has all the phrases you need to succeed in English and to make a great impression in every work situation. It's for anyone who works in an English-speaking office, or deals with English-speaking colleagues anywhere in the world.

You'll learn how to:

Answer difficult English questions at interviews to land a great job
Impress your boss, expand your role and get a promotion
Speak up in meetings so your ideas get heard and you get credit
Socialize and network in English with ease
Delegate work, give feedback and manage people and projects in ways that get you respect
Deal with difficult colleagues to repair bad situations and build great working relationships

How To Be More Confident On The Phone

How To Be More Confident On The Phone

Making a phone call in a foreign language is difficult. You can't see the other person, so you don't get the visual clues that help you understand what they're saying.

Another problem is that you can't predict what the other person will say - so you might find yourself in a situation where:

- you might not understand the other person
- you don't know if the other person will understand you
- you might not know how to respond to the other person

No wonder people prefer to write emails!

But there are some things you can do to be more in control of an unpredictable situation. Here are five tips to make sure you can understand the other person, so that you can feel more confident when you use the phone in English:

1. Prepare and practise before you phone

Make sure you know what to say. If it helps, write down your main points before you phone:

"Can I make an appointment to see the doctor, please?"
"Are you available for a meeting next week?"
"I'd like to change the details on my bank account."

2. Make sure you get all the important information

Repeat the key points of your phone call as they happen - or ask the other person to confirm.

"So that's tomorrow afternoon at 2 pm. Right?"
"Sorry, did you say 13 or 30?"

3. Take notes as you talk

If you're phoning for details, write them down! It sounds obvious, but it's a lot of pressure on you to remember the right telephone phrases to use AND all the details of your call. Besides, if you're writing things down, the other person will need to slow down for you. Use these phrases:

"Hold on a sec. Let me write that down."
"Let me just note down these details. OK - can you repeat the phone number for me?"

4. Get the other person to slow down

If the other person is still speaking too fast, ask them to speak more slowly.

"Sorry, can you slow down a bit?"
"Sorry, I don't understand! Can you speak more slowly, please?"

5. Know when to end the phone call

Learn some useful phrases so you can end the call easily. This is often the part of the call that people don't prepare for, so it makes the end much longer and more complicated than it needs to be! Say something like:

"OK great. See you next week."
"OK, thanks for your help. Bye!"

More helpful links:

Telephoning in English

Making an Appointment

Telephone Appointments

Should You Concentrate On Accuracy or Fluency?

Should You Concentrate On Accuracy or Fluency?

Are you embarrassed when you speak English? Are you worried that you'll make a mistake, or that you'll look stupid?

This fear of making a mistake is often the biggest obstacle standing between you and your goal of speaking fluently. It means that you never take a chance when you speak English, or that you're so worried about getting everything right that you end up hesitating and pausing - two things which make you less fluent.

So why do people feel this way? After all, young learners of English (ie children) don't seem at all embarrassed to speak - it's only when we become teenagers and adults that we have this fear.

EnglishwithKim says that the problem is that we're too perfectionist. We set ourselves impossibly high standards and don't consider ourselves as "advanced" unless we have perfect pronunciation, perfect grammar, and perfect vocabulary.

She makes the excellent point that communication isn't about perfection, but that it's about connection.

Nobody's perfect

You probably find that when you speak your own language, you make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time in English! I start a sentence with one noun, then change it half way through. Or I forget that I started with a singular noun, for example, and end up using a plural verb. Or I slip into ungrammatical "dialect" English and start using the wrong verb endings, or double negatives.

The point is that no native speaker of any language speaks perfectly. That doesn't mean we aren't good communicators, but that making mistakes is a part of using a language. It doesn't stop us from speaking!

I'm lovin it

A lot of people asked me why the McDonald ad says "I'm lovin it" when we all know that you can't use a state verb in the continuous form.

People who create advertisements play around with language rules to make an impact. (See this post for some great examples.)

It isn't just people creating advertisements. Newspapers also break the rules to make an impact. After one national election, the headline of the Sun (a tabloid newspaper) read "It woz the Sun wot won it" (= It was the Sun that won it). Using non-standard spelling and non-standard grammar was a deliberate (and effective) way to appeal to a certain type of reader.

Final tips

If you need to write, aim for accuracy. If you need people to understand and act on your message, or if you need to make a good impression (writing a CV, doing an exam, etc) then accuracy is more important.

If you need to communicate face-to-face, then concentrate on fluency. Here are some ways you can achieve that:

Paraphrase
If you don't know the right word, or if the other person doesn't understand, you'll need to say it again in a different way.

Use checking phrases
If you don't know how to end a sentence (but you're pretty sure you communicated most of the meaning) you can say "Know what I mean?" to get the other person to show understanding.

Listen
One of the best ways to improve your communication skills is to improve your listening skills. If you show you're listening closely to the other person, firstly you'll probably understand them better (so your responses are more appropriate); and secondly, that other person will also focus on you when you speak. When two people focus on each other in a conversation, the overall communication becomes more successful.

What this means is that you shouldn't try to have a complicated or difficult conversation when you're texting!

Copy native speakers
Do what native speakers do when they make a mistake:
- keep going (you don't need to make it obvious that you made a mistake)
- go back to the beginning. If what you say is so complicated and wrong, just start again. Say "Let me say that again" and then say it again - but in a simpler and clearer way.

Are You Too Stressed to Learn English?

Are You Too Stressed to Learn English?

We've all been in this situation. You start to learn a language and you see a new language rule which makes no sense to you - because it's so different from your own language.

These are some of the things that my English students have said when they come across something that doesn't make sense to them:

"Why aren't there masculine and feminine nouns in English? We have these in ... (Italian)

"Why can you use two tenses to mean the same thing?"

"Why don't you have one word which means the same thing as it does in my language?"

Don't fight the differences!

The problem is that if you spend more energy "arguing" that English is illogical - and not accepting that it's just different - you're going to feel frustrated. Learning English then becomes difficult, annoying and a chore.

So my advice is to "go with the flow". Accept that some rules are different (and might not make sense to you now) and accept that every language - not only English - has a certain amount of flexibility. There aren't always strict rules which you need to follow. The key is to be tolerant about ambiguity so that you can concentrate instead on immersing yourself in English and practising it as much as possible.

Here are three ways to feel less stressed when you learn English:

1. Relax

You can worry about the rules later. Just accept them for now and don't try to always translate into your own language.

2. Experiment with what you know

Try out your understanding of how a grammar rule or new word works. Try putting more than one thing together. Ask for feedback.

3. Feel free to make mistakes

It's only through mistakes that you really test your understanding. Make mistakes so that you get to know a new rule or how a new word works.

What do you think? What strategies would you advise someone to use when they learn a new language?