The Company You Keep

When it comes to languages, we pick up things sometimes without even realising. We listen, imitate, incorporate. We might copy the pronunciation of those around us, or hear a phrase and use it ourselves. It’s a great way to enhance and improve your language learning without putting in too much effort.

Interacting with people speaking the language you are learning is wonderful, but there can also be problems, especially if that language is also a second language for them.

Take an example: I have a student who has a very advanced knowledge of English and speaks fluently. His working language is also English so this means he is using it for the most part of his day. However, his colleagues come from all over the world so nearly everyone speaking English with him has it as a second language as well.

I recently had to stop the class during a speaking exercise with him. He had made the same grammatical mistake a few times, one I hadn’t heard him say before. “Why did you say that?” I asked, and then got him to explain why it was wrong. He knew the error, a schoolboy error you might say, and seemed ashamed of it. Then he said, “It’s the boys at the office.”

I realised that my student was picking up the bad speaking practices of those around him. He obviously wasn’t doing this on purpose (I don’t think any student would want to sound worse than they do!) but it was noticeable. 

Sometimes it is difficult to know if something you hear is correct or incorrect, but I suggest that using the knowledge you already have should make sure that at least you don’t modify what you know is right and use something that is wrong. You can always make a note of something you hear, check it with your teacher or a native later so you don’t end up returning to those mistakes you thought you had left behind!

The company you keep in the language you are learning can have both good and bad consequences!


Schoolboy error: a mistake that is very easy and shouldn’t be made.

Modify: to change.

End up: transpire, to finish (as) E.g. It was raining, so I ended up going home early. 

The company you keep: the people you spend time with/those people around you. 

European Day of Languages

Today, September 26th 2013, is the European Day of Languages. What does this mean? Well, in countries all over this continent events are taking place in schools, workplaces, on the television and radio to promote the different languages and their respective cultures in Europe. I’ll be honest. It’s the first time I’ve heard of it. But, after reading a BBC news story yesterday, it seems like the perfect timing for some foreign language promotion.

“Everyone speaks English” was an excuse I used to hear from my students (who were supposed to be learning French). This attitude always bothered me. Yes, you have been born in a country whose language is one of the most widely spoken and used in the world. But! That does not mean you should join the ranks of British people who think other languages are pointless. It is frustrating always trying to point out all the benefits of learning another language.

Yesterday a new campaign in Britain was urging people to learn 1000 words in another language. 1000 words would allow you to hold simple conversations. Just 1000 words would mean you would not be the one shrugging your shoulders, unable to say anything.

British people have long had a reputation for being lazy linguists. The number of teenagers taking language GCSEs has fallen. But now experts think it is also having a detrimental effect on international trade and jobs. I would agree. In one workplace I visited, the company was desperate to do more business in the Middle East and start getting clients in China. No effort was ever made to meet prospective clients on a linguistic level, even customary greetings. It struck me as arrogant. 

First impressions count. I recently moved to Luxembourg and in the small town where I now live, everyone will speak in Luxembourgish first. Around 400,000 in the world people speak Luxembourgish. It is not going to feature on any language course lists outside Luxembourg. However, being able to say hello, goodbye and thank you is important. Those three words create the right impression: I am living here and I respect your language. And I will try it first. Personally speaking, I then speak French, one of the national languages. As I stumble through, sometimes feeling embarrassed if I cannot find the right word, I always remind myself: at least you are trying.

So today, Language Learner, make one promise to yourself. You will try. Maybe you reach far beyond 1000 words, maybe you only manage 10. But at least you are not the person sitting back and letting everyone else speak for you.


  • TO JOIN THE RANKS OF (idiomatic phrase) - to become part of a large group
  • BOTHERED (adjective) - check out our Word of the Week HERE
  • DETRIMENTAL (adjective) - negative, harmful
  • SHRUG YOUR SHOULDERS (verb phrase) - a gesture of indifference, contempt or ignorance
  • STRUCK (past of the verb Strike): came to mind, occurred to

To read the BBC article in full, please visit

Listening to the English

In Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English, the author explains the hidden rules of English behaviour and why we English behave the way we do. As an anthropologist, she is interested in the meaning of ‘Englishness’ and what it can tell us about our national identity. Built into this is, of course, language and it’s the points she raises on this which I’m going to share with you today.

As an EFL teacher I often get caught in discussions with students about why there are so many words in English for the same thing. One of my favourite classes is getting them to learn and use the synonyms we have for walking and speaking.

“Wade!” they cry. “You have a word to explain walking through water?!” I can understand both their joy and their frustration.

However, in Watching the English, Kate Fox touches on another aspect of the British English vocabulary: how it is related to social class. She has a great chapter she calls Linguistic Class Codes and I recommend you read it whether you’re learning English or not. She starts by explaining how pronunciation affects your positioning on the ‘class map’, but I’m going to focus here specifically on vocabulary.

Take, for example, those common words we use for meals: lunch, dinner, supper and tea. “Isn’t tea a hot drink?” I hear you shout. Well, yes it is, but it also means your evening meal.

All these words have social class connotations which still exist today, according to the author. She explains:

‘Dinner’ is a working class hallmark if you use it to refer to the midday meal, which should be called ‘lunch’. Calling your evening meal ‘tea’ is also a working-class indicator…. ‘Tea’ for the higher classes is taken at around four o’clock, and consists of tea and cakes.

So, as an English learner, you’ve learnt these words. Then you arrive to England and get invited to tea. Do you take a cake and arrive at 4pm or buy a bottle of wine and get there for 7pm? Someone invites you for Sunday dinner: does this mean midday or in the evening? You have no choice but to ask what time you’re required to arrive on their doorstep. Then their answer will tell you your hosts’ “social scale” as Fox calls it. Double learning.

These linguistic codes in British English lead Fox to her conclusion in this section that “class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation. Speech is all important.” If you are learning English, this post is not meant to scare you in any way. Instead, I want to point out how deep-seated some of our vocabulary is and the implications it has for its speakers, or indeed, listeners. It’s another interesting layer to the every expanding onion that is English.

Tea, anyone?

For more information on Kate Fox’s work, please visit

Learn a language

For the past five months, two thirds of my working life has been teaching at a high school. I’ve been teaching English and French. Every child at school in England realises why they need to study their own language. I never have to justify why we are reading plays, writing poems, listening to myths and legends or discussing adjectives. Teachers of other subjects are also subjected to the power of English as they put literacy points into their lesson plans. You can’t escape it.

But I do get questions from students about why they have to study French. It’s compulsory at the school I work at until GSCEs. So some will continue with it until they leave school and others will drop it aged 14. The question of “Why do I need to know this, Miss?” obviously comes from those who struggle with the language and who will not be choosing it in their options in Year 9.

Normally I will answer that knowing another language helps you understand your own a little better, uses different parts of your brain and helps makes friends on holiday. But there is more to learning another language than that. 

I studied French to A-Level as I had always enjoyed it throughout school. I loved how the verbs were totally different, the nouns could be boys or girls and the pronunciation was so nasal and terrifically unlike English, even if the words looked the same on the page.

Because that’s the first joy and benefit in learning a new language. At first it’s so alien and bizarre that you’re shocked into it, mesmerised. Then you can tell someone who you are and it rollercoasters along pronouns, verbs, times, places, colours… Pretty soon you’re writing postcards, describing your favourite foods and debating the environment.

OK, but what if a foreign language doesn’t grab you? It’s actually too weird and your brain doesn’t recognise any of it as a way of communication. From the outset, it can be a struggle. But many studies have shown that the earlier you start learning another language, the easier it is. Those spongy brains of babes suck it all up. I am already jealous of the children I do not have who will be truly bilingual from birth (my husband’s native language is Spanish). Younger children also have that natural curiosity and it will open their minds to other languages, cultures and people who don’t share their mother tongue.

But the relationship between the earlier you start learning and the easier it is isn’t the only benefit. It goes way beyond engaging children in language and culture; learning another language helps with cognitive development as well. As well as being a linguistic activity, learning a foreign language is a cognitive problem solving activity. Research has shown that foreign language learning enhances creativity and critical thinking in young children.

Other studies have shown the effects of language learning on mathematical skill development, increasing the argument for how learning another language is a cognitive activity rather than solely linguistic.  Studies in the United States and Canada have shown that children studying a foreign language out-perform non-language learning children in the verbal and maths standardised tests.

This makes perfect sense to me. The rules you have to learn and apply and the development of problem solving skills relate perfectly to learning a foreign language. I don’t know how many times a day a child asks me the answer to a task they are doing and I simply say, “Work it out for yourself, the tools are right in front of you.” Learning a language encourages recognising patterns, working out rules and applying them, knowing when to operate outside the rules and analysis. Taking these skills to other subjects, and areas of life, can lead to an all-round better understanding and practice.

And, the beauty of it all is that the development of these skills can continue an entire lifetime. The language learning brain is kept healthy and engaged for life if that language learning continues. Do crosswords, do Sudoku and speak in whatever language you choose.

The last benefit: it doesn’t matter which language you start to study. Just stick at it. Giving up means you lose learning and practice, not just in that language class, but perhaps in other places as well.


  • ROLLER COASTER (noun, here used as a verb) - the train ride at an amusement park that has many ups and downs and goes fast
  • GRAB (verb) - to catch the interest (of someone)

Say, what?

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked how you can teach a language when you don’t know the native language of the students: or how can you learn a language solely in that new language. I've been asked them a lot. I’ve taught English to French, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Argentine, Chilean, Brazilian, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, German and Indian students and let’s make it clear: I do not speak all of those languages, although I would love to!

When I was studying at university for my undergraduate degree, I took a course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to get an idea of what it was all about. It really grabbed my attention as we learnt about the process of learning our own language and then another one, and the specific pitfalls of English. 

But they didn’t seem pitfalls to us: 15 twenty-year-olds in their second year of university starting to realise they don’t know everything in the world. So our teacher arranged for us to go to a different seminar room one day. It would be an hour class instead of the usual two-hour seminar we took. Great, extra time to do all those things that English students tend to do; like… read.

Once in the room, we were seated in a circle. Our bags had been left outside and we had no folders, books, paper or pens. Then our professor said, “Good luck” and stepped out of the room. To the front came a Chinese man. He started to speak to us in Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, although we did not know this at the time. We looked at him as if he was crazy. He continued speaking.

Once we got over our surprise and confusion, we all started to listen. He spoke calmly and started to use gestures to get us to repeat what he was saying and listen. We started to pick up greetings and practise with each other in the circle. He corrected our pronunciation and encouraged our blossoming Mandarin with little smiles and nods of the head.

The hour passed so quickly and in that time we learnt to greet people, introduce ourselves and say what we did and didn’t like. OK, our accomplishments may seem like a short list, but in just 60 minutes we went from not knowing a word or proper sound in Mandarin to being able to wander the streets of China and be polite to others, say our names and show when we liked something (or not if we didn’t!).

And all without seeing a word of it or being able to write anything down.

Sometimes when I am teaching a beginner student, they are so keen to get everything into their note book. I tell them and gesture to them to put their pen down. Just practise. Listen. Repeat. Use. Use again. Answer the question. Answer another question. Ask me. All without a dictionary in their own language, or flicking to Google translate on their phone. It works.

You can enter a room not knowing the first thing about a language and in an hour come out with a knowledge that means some kind of communication. It’s a start.

So, start to listen. 


  • PITFALL (noun) - a danger, a negative consequence
  • TO GRAB YOUR ATTENTION (expression) - to make you notice something, to fascinate you
  • BLOSSOMING (adjective, verb in gerund) - developing, growing
  • FLICK (verb) - take a quick look