As an add-on to the article below about common mistakes, here are some of my favourites. They're ones I've collected over the years and they're all real.
WHAT THEY SAID;
1. "I'm electric"
2. "My birthday, it was not yesterday"
3. "I like her hole"
4. "I like tinkering"
5. "At the party were only small people" (in reply to my question why he didn't like the party)
6. "I like cock" (during a job interview)
7. "Take off your clothes" (on arrival at a party)
WHAT THEY MEANT;
1. "I'm an electrician"
2. "I wasn't born yesterday"
3. "I like everything about her" - "I like her whole"
4. I think this was meant to be "I like DIY"
5. "At the party there were only a few people"
6. See one of my previous articles from a couple of months back - she meant "I like cooking"
7. Much to my disappointment it turned out to mean "Take off your coat"
More to come
Just had a break from blogging, been busy with courses for drivers and seafarers and also examining. Spending the last few weeks doing oral examining has got me thinking about how you hear the same grammatical mistakes again and again.
Of course different language speakers tend to make different common mistakes but there are a few which seem to go more or less across the board for most nationalities. Anyway, here are some of the main ones I've come across. Do you know what's wrong with them? (explanations below)
"I'm meeting my friends in my free time"
"I'm going swimming about twice a week"
(looking at a musician in a picture) "I think he plays a guitar"
"I live in london for 3 years"
"I've been to Paris last year"
"I'm bus driver"
"I saw Tower of London"
"I saw the Tower Bridge"
Present Simple/Present Continuous
"I'm meeting my friends in my free time" "I'm going swimming about twice a week" (in a picture)"I think he plays a guitar" etc (see below for corrections)
This is supposed to be one of the first grammatical structures students learn but this really is one of the most common spoken mistakes, and it occurs right the way from beginner to advanced. Why? Most languages have the same tense or aspect for something we're doing at the moment and something we do regularly. In English we use the simple aspect for regular activities and continuous for at the moment. The interesting thing is, while most learners know this, and would never make this mistake in a grammar test, for some reason it comes out while speaking. I hear even really good speakers of English, like teachers making this mistake. Some students have even invented a completely new tense in English (as if we don't have enough already) and say "I working on a ship" which in some parts of the world is becoming such a common mistake it might in a couple of hundred years time start to become correct. One in the eye for 'living language' opponents or purists.
"I live in london for 3 years" "I've been to Paris last year" "I finished" (see below for corrections)
We know why this is a problem because most languages don't have this tense. The perfect aspect is also supposed to be the hardest one to learn, which I'm sure is true. Explaining the difference between present simple/perfect and past simple/presentperfect is one of the first really tricky things a TEFL teacher comes across when starting out teaching. If you're not a teacher, to see how tricky it is to understand, try explaining the difference and especially in which situations we use the present perfect ("I have done something") as opposed to the past ("I did something"). Fortunately the other perfect aspects such as past perfect ("I had done something") and future perfect ("I will have done something") are used relatively rarely in spoken English so they don't count as common mistakes. But present perfect we really do use a lot and it needs to be understood if someone wants to be able to communicate in English with any efficiency or accuracy.
So often I get asked the question here in Poland "How long are you in Poland?" Being an English teacher I know they mean "How long have you been in Poland?" Does it matter you may ask? Well yes it does. A native speaker of English especially will understand the question "How long are you in Poland?" to mean the future, ie"How long are you going to be in Poland?" and they could well answer "I'm not sure" which would create all sorts of confusion.
Also, like the mistakes made with present simple/continuous, this kind of mistake is widespread and some have predicted that the perfect tenses will die out in spoken English if they haven't already done so in large parts of the world where English is used by non-native speakers of English, for example different nationalities working together or doing business. Perhaps in a hundred years "how long are you in Poland?" really will mean till now instead of the future.
Articles - a, an, the
"I'm bus driver" "I saw tower of London" but "I saw the Tower Bridge" (see below for corrections)
Articles (when we use 'a' or 'the' or don't use them) are supposed to be THE hardest grammatical thing to learn in English, even harder than (the) present perfect.
Why? Because most languages don't use them.
What's the difference between "The pen" or "A pen"? Non-native speakers of English tell me this is the one thing they think they will never be able to master completely, no matter how long or hard they learn English.
They could be right.
Even Neil Armstrong, a native speaker of English, got it wrong at one of the most important events in human history. While stepping onto the moon's surface he said; "This is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind" which is actually nonsense in English.
What he should have said was; "This is one small step for A man and one .........etc"
Still I suppose he was under a lot of stress at the time.
"I meet my friends in my free time"
"I go swimming about twice a week" (both regular activities)
"I think he's playing a guitar" (activity happening at the moment)
"I've lived in London 3 years" (how long in the present)
"I went to paris last year" (finished time frame - last year)
"I've finished" (just happened, we still have the result of the action)
"I'm a bus driver" (unspecified job)
"I saw the Tower of London" (name or place with 'of')
"I saw Tower Bridge" (name or place without 'of')
More common mistakes to come.
I've just finished working on a conference where we had to do simultaneous interpretation. The subject was oil spill preparedness in the Baltic Sea and the speakers were mainly Danish, with the participants Polish. Now I say 'we' did the interpretation. In fact all I had to do was organise the interpreters, 5 of them, prepare the (very) specialist vocabulary the interpreters needed and organise training etc.
I didn't have to do any of the actual interpretation at the conference mainly because I'm nowhere near clever enough. I'm not sure it's understood, but simultaneous interpretation has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.
Simultaneous interpretation is not where a speaker speaks and then waits for the interpreter to sum up what they say. Simultaneous means that the speaker talks at their normal pace and the interpreter has to keep up with them.
The people who do this, I'm convinced, are a different race from the rest of us. Not only does their knowledge of the foreign language have to be perfect, they have to be fluent in their own language too, which would rule out a number of people I know. They also have to be experts on whatever the technical subject is, in this case oil spill preparation (for heaven's sake). Then, they have to be able to listen to someone and speak at the same time. Thats's not to mention the actual translation that goes on in a split second in between.
It's so hard to do they work in pairs and can manage a maximum of about half an hour at a time.
To get a tiny idea of the difficulty, listen to something on the tv in your own language then try to summarise in the same language what is being said. By the time you've thought what to say, you've missed the next sentence. It's virtually impossible to do even without having to translate from one language to another.
How do they do it?
I hope Claire won't mind her dispute with her boyfriend being published on the web, but here's an interesting question a few people have raised recently regarding vowels in english. Below is my reply and some links to other interesting discussion about the same subject.
my name is Clare, I live in Australia. I came upon your English blog, which I found very interesting, and wondered, since you appear to have a love of languages, if you could help me with a little bet i have
My boyfriend told me yesterday that we in fact have 6 vowels, not only A, E, I, O and U but also Y. He thinks that he was taught in prep (first grade in primary school) that every word must contain a vowel,
and if it doesn't, then it isn't a word. He said that every time a word doesn't contain a vowel, such a sky, by or my, that a Y always takes the place of a vowel, therefore it must be a vowel! I think this is so stupid, can you please clear up this mystery, I have money riding on this!!
Thanks so much,
The answer depends on whether you are talking about graphic or phonetic vowels. Phonetically speaking, dictionaries say that there are 20 vowel sounds in English, but some people say in fact there are closer to 35, depending on accents. Graphically speaking there are 5, the ones we all know. But there are dipthongs (as in 'like'..... say it slowly and you will see that there are in fact two vowel sounds in there, something like a shortened 'aeee' sound) and even tripthongs (3 sounds together). Graphically 'y' is not classed as a vowel, but it is commonly used as one, mostly because the words containing it were originally Scandinavian or German or from other languages where it is classed as a vowel. 'Sky' for example was
originally Scandinavian, probably brought to Britain by the vikings. Does this make it a foreign word and therefore not to be counted in your argument?
The most common vowel sound phonetically in English doesn't even have a character to represent it. It's known as a "schwa" and the phonetic symbol for it looks like a wrong way round 'e'. Look up in a good dictionary (with phonetic inscription) a word like "policeman". The 'o' and the 'a' are written phonetically like the wrong way round e (I can't write it here because I don't have the symbol on my computer). Say it to yourself as naturally as possible (if you're a native English speaker) and you will see that it is a different sound, we don't say 'o' or 'a' but a much weaker sound. When students of any nationality are learning English, this is one of their biggest problems and by dealing with this problem a teacher can go a
long way to getting students to stop sounding so 'foreign'.
The problem with rules in any language is that they were invented after the language was created, especially true of English, which is something of a mongrel language. This is why language is not a science and rules often have exceptions. Grammatical or spelling rules are more like guidelines in language. Remember that Shakespeare spelt his name in about 5 or 6 different ways and he was a school teacher. At his time, spelling was not something that had been laid down in concrete rules, that only happened with the advent of printing and dictionaries. And because the dictionaries in the US were compiled by different people than in the UK, there is disagreement about how to spell for example 'night' or 'nite'
It's also not true that in English every word has to have one of the 5 written vowels, also including 'y'. Is 'Mrs' a word for example? You'll probably say it's an abbreviation, but if that's right what is it an
abbreviation of? According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary it's a word, not an abbreviation. Are they right? Are we going to argue with them? Well actually we could, they have no more right than we do of laying down a rule about English spelling.
So who is right, you or your boyfriend? What a responsibility I have. I suggest you call it a draw, on the basis that noone knows the rules of English, including professors of linguistics and experts like that. Buy each other a drink instead.
By the way, you've given me an idea for the next page on the blog, so thanks for that.
All the best,
words without vowels
words without a vowel
Polish, like a lot of languages has cases, but English doesn't (well mostly doesn't anyway). What do I mean by cases? The words change depending on what function they have in a sentence. The only examples in English are a few pronouns like "I" and "me" . "I" and "me" mean the same thing but it depends what grammatical function they have in the sentence which ones we use.
In Polish, even names change depending on where it comes in a sentence. My name's Julian; Juliana would be a girl's name in Polish because it ends in 'a' but if you say for example "Julian's group" this would be "grupa Juliana" because here Julian is expressing possession. I am from Liverpool but in Polish to say to be from somewhere requires a different case so Liverpool changes to Liverpoolu and so on and so on.
This makes things difficult. An English friend of mine who speaks good Polish was getting off a train and a young guy pushed in front of him. So he said to him "Ty dupku" which means "You asshole". Actually he got the ending wrong. What he actually said was "Ty dupko", which means "You sexy little ass you!" As my friend isn't gay, this could have been a problem.
Who said that grammatical accuracy wasn't important!
Just have to get this off my chest. One of the recruiters I work with (a British guy) asked me "why couldn't we just ask people on the phone to count to ten or something" in order to verify their level of English. He was frustrated with me because I told him that there would need to be a proper test, which would include an oral test to verify level of English and this would neeed to be a part of the recruitment process. He thought this would be a waste of time.
Why is English language always the thing that people think isn't necessary to spend money or time on? Nobody would ask a couple of questions on the phone to verify if someone was able to drive or verify any other kind of work-related skill.
Firms are prepared to spend thousands on recruitment experts and specialists but don't see the same need for English language specialists.
Recruitment projects of workers from other countries succeed or fail on the English language questions; how to successfully verify, assess and train people who need English for their jobs. It is often the first thing anyone notices about a worker when they are assessing their competence to do a job. This is the same for doctors, bus drivers, and anyone else.
The problem may be due to the confusion between seeing English language as an academic area, or one of business. English language is a 1.3 billion pound industry for the UK alone. God only knows what it is worldwide (any ideas out there?) But instead of hard-headed decisions being made about how much for example teachers and trainers are worth (and of course paid), it is still seen as a soft skill; rather like motivation trainers or suchlike (most of whom by the way are paid much more by firms than the average English language trainer).
English language experts (yes that's you if you're a badly paid English teacher somewhere around the world) should be among the highest earning consultants in the business world. After all, what can be more important than being an expert in international communication? Business and trade depend on it.
It's amazing how people can learn a language for years and not be able to say some of the most basic things. I'm always surprised how often people don't know what to say in reply to "Thank you" or how to say properly "I don't understand" (a lot of people learning English tend to say "No understand")
It's also amazing just how sad and boring I've become. There is a game I've been playing for the past year (yes a year) with another teacher friend of mine. We are competing to think of the least amount of words necessary to learn to survive in any foreign language. I've managed to reduce it down to 18 phrases only, which I think could be learnt in only one day. If you think you can do better than this, let me know.
Anyway, here are my essential survival phrases;
3. "I'm sorry"
4. "I don't understand"
5. "Thank you"
6. "You're welcome" or "Not at all"
7. "Can I ……?" (This is clever because you don't always need to say what. For example, if you point to a chair or indicate your cigarette it means "Can I have this chair please?" or "Can I have a light please?"
8. "I would like this please" (and point)
9. "What's your name?"
10. "My name's …….."
11. "How are you?"
12. "I'm fine thanks"
13. "What's this in English/Spanish/Polish etc?"
14. "Excuse me"
15. "Where is/ are……..?" ("the toilet" or "hotel …….")
16. "What time's ……" ("the next bus/train to"… or "breakfast" etc)
17. "How much is this?"
18. Counting from 1-20
And that's it. Perhaps I should produce phrase books called something like 'Idiots Guide to Speaking French/ Spanish etc' with only one page. Then it could be truthfully marketed as "learn a new language in only one day".
Latest Funny Bit
There is a term in language learning; 'false friends'. They are words which look really similar in one language but in fact have a completely different meaning in another language. In Spanish they have them, "I'm embarrassed" for example shouldn't be translated as "estoy embarasada" because that means that you are pregnant and so on and so on.
Sometimes you have to be careful. In English we say "I'm hot" but in Polish for example this means "I'm horny"
An English friend of mine staying only a short time in Poland bought a new sofa and was waiting for it to be delivered. The delivery man arrived with the sofa and before unloading it from the van introduced himself by saying "Jestem Sam" (jestem means "I am...") to which my friend replied "Oh hello, jestem Arthur" But the delivery man just got annoyed and repeated, "Jestem Sam" to which my friend replied again "I'm Arthur".The man just got more and more annoyed. "Jestem Sam" means "I'm by myself" in Polish.
Bye for now,
A lot of people think there is something magical about learning a foreign language, or that they need some kind of talent or just that they are too old or stupid to be able to do it. In fact learning a foreign language is something that anyone, at any age can do. The idea that only kids can learn is wrong. They don’t have a better memory than older people; that’s a myth. In fact adults have a better memory because we have found methods to remember. I’ve taught children from the age of 3, and believe me they have a terrible memory.
So why do children learn faster? It’s true that there is something magical in a baby’s brain that makes them learn a language very fast, but we lose this magical ability very early. From about the age of 3 we learn a language differently and probably we will never be a “native speaker” if we learn after that age. But children over the age of 3 also learn faster for a few reasons.
Firstly, they have more time to learn than adults do! Learning is all they do; all they have to think about and they can do it all day. We have to work, worry, keep a family and concentrate on 1001 other things.
Secondly, they don’t question why, they simply accept that it is so. For example, adults constantly wonder why is this word like this, what exactly does this word mean etc. Children don’t worry about why, they simply learn it as they are told to.
Thirdly, and most importantly, children don’t learn individual words. They learn phrases. This is the key to learning a language faster. Don’t learn individual words; learn phrases. To a child, the phrase “What’s your name?” is all one, something like “Wotsyournem?” It’s all one to them. If we learn all four words individually; 1.what 2. is 3. your 4. name it takes us four times longer to learn than if we learn it altogether. However this means that we have to stop our questioning too and force ourselves to not worry about what the individual words mean.
The person who is on record as having learnt the most languages is a guy called Sir Richard Burton (not the Richard Burton the film actor). He was a British (who said we can’t learn languages) diplomat who lived in the 19th Century and who is famous for discovering, translating and publishing the Kama Sutra (go to www.pages.drexel.edu/~garsonkw/biography.html for more information about this remarkable man). He was able to speak 35 languages! And what is more interesting, he left copious diaries and notes as to how and what method he used to learn them. You would think this man had ‘a talent’ for languages. But no. He learnt each language slowly and often painfully; he had no magical method he simply put a lot of time into it. He is proof that there is no magical method and that it is a myth that you need to have a talent to learn a language.
So come on, stop making excuses and go out and learn a language; it’s supposed to be good for the brain you know and can even make you live longer, so the doctors say because it stimulates blood flow to the brain and keeps your brain active.
LATEST FUNNY BIT
I was reminded recently of a funny story an English guy told me a couple of years ago. He was newly arrived in Poland and was trying to learn Polish. He wanted to buy a large brown envelope at the post office, and he practiced the phrase in Polish “Can I have a large brown envelope please?” repeating it again and again. In Polish this is; “Poprosze duzy, branzowy koperta”
When he got to the window, by mistake he said;
“Poprosze duzy, branzowy kobieta” which actually means; “Can I have a large brown woman please?”
At this the post office woman promptly replied;
“Nie ma” which roughly translates as “We don’t have any.”
This is particularly funny for those of us with experience of Polish post offices, where the workers are particularly fond of the phrase “Nie ma.’
As always in this section, it’s absolutely true.
Bye for now
With all these countries like Poland and Hungary joining the EU last year contacts are increasing noticeably between the old member states and the new. Here in Poland, firms from the old EU countries are more and more interested in either recruiting workers or in opening up branches over here. Recently has seen cheap flights starting, for example between Gdansk and Liverpool, London, Warsaw etc and so a lot of Poles are traveling and looking for work in the UK and Ireland, countries which allow them to work without having to apply for a work permit.
A Polish friend of mine living in London told me that there are so many Poles in London now that young British men have learnt how to say “You’re beautiful” in Polish (“jestes piekna”). This is the only time I’ve ever heard of Brits thinking there was any use in learning a foreign language. Perhaps when I was learning French at school many years ago they should have introduced us to nice looking French girls who couldn’t speak any English. We’d soon have picked up the basics I’m sure. There’s a lesson to be learnt here for language teachers about student motivation, I just can’t quite work out how to apply it practically to the classroom! Any ideas, let me know.
My wife’s Polish, before I met her I had several Polish girlfriends so I had some experience of the differences. In the UK for example, women are much more forward at letting you know if they like you or not. Polish girls on the other hand tend to let you think they aren’t in the least bit interested, and then suddenly you discover (usually through a friend) that they are. This takes a bit of getting used to for British men at least. Also, it’s all a bit more old fashioned here, the man is expected to pay on dates and open doors, buy flowers etc. And so the pace is all (a little bit) slower.
Mind you, don’t get me wrong, Poles are not as catholic as they might lead you to think they are. Just about all young couples have a sexual relationship before they’re married, just like in the UK. In fact I think people here are less hung up about all things sexual than in the UK. As my Polish (very Catholic) grandmother told me, “If there weren’t any sex there wouldn’t be people would there?”
LATEST FUNNY BIT
(I overheard this recently, here in Poland)
Young Man to Girlfriend; Women are never satisfied. How are we supposed to keep you happy? You always want something different.
Girlfriend to Young Man; Well, men are never satisfied. How are we supposed to keep you happy? You always want the same thing.
Bye for now
Just started a new project teaching English to Poles who would like to work in the UK and Ireland as bus and delivery drivers (for more info go to www.bes.info.pl). It seems no one else is doing this kind of specialist teaching, probably because they (the teachers I mean) think it's too difficult. Also, the teachers I've spoken to about it can't seem to understand that these guys don't need anything academic, they need the most practical lessons possible.
The employers too, (Brits mostly, I'm also British by the way so I'm allowed to criticise) expect more of the Poles than they would of an average British driver. They told me they need to be able to write accident reports, for example, in English. Why? It can be translated from Polish into English. Imagine asking a British bus driver to learn French to a level where they were able to write a report in French. You would be asking for master's degree level and then expect them to take a job just as a bus driver. At that level they could get a much better job as a translator with the EU, who I believe are short of translators for the newly-joined countries like Poland.
Teaching them to a level where they can communicate pretty well in English, perhaps not accurately but effectively, however is another matter. That's entirely possible. (for evaluation scale go to www.bes.info.pl/scale.htm)
Today I'm ranting about the many native English speakers who think they know how to evaluate someone's English just because they can speak it themselves. They don't understand the basics of language testing and often think someone can't speak English well because they can't answer what they think are easy questions. Some examples of questions (real ones I've heard) that may look easy but in fact are really difficult for a foreign learner of English;
"What would you have done if you had been involved in a road accident?" (3rd conditional)
"How long will you have been here by the end of the month" (future perfect continuous tense)
"How much time did it take you to pick it up?" (phrasal verb) etc etc etc
Of course, I won't mention the fact that most native English speakers wherever they are from, have the most horrendous accents you can imagine and are surprised that most foreigners don't understand them.
LATEST FUNNY BIT
As always in this section this is entirely true. I swear it is absolutely true, and is too funny to passover on the off chance it may offend. This happened this week;
Girl in interview for job on a ship; I'm 25 year old, I live Gdansk, I like cock.
Interviewer (me); Sorry?
Girl; I'm 25 year old, I live Gdansk and I very like cock.
Interviewer (me); Sorry? You like what?
Girl; I like cock. I like cock Italy, I like cock China, I like cock all kind I like soup I like cock meat, vegetables I like cock all .........
To appreciate this you have to understand that "00" in Polish (as in the word 'cook') is often pronounced "o" (as in the word 'hot')
Bye for now
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