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Learners' questions

Can you help me with my English?

This is the most common request I get from site visitors. The usual reply I give is to refer the writer to an existing page or part of my site that may be of use, or to request that the writer reads the next section (and contacts me again with more details or a specific request for information).

What do I need to know about asking a question?

If you have any questions about learning English or the English language, I shall be happy to hear from you. But first some requests from me.

Firstly, please give me enough information to be able to answer sensibly. I get quite a few emails simply asking Please help me learn English. I cannot do this unless I know the writer's learning situation and learning goals. (For example, that she will shortly be going to live in the US and wants to be able to make a lot of new friends.) If I know why someone wants to learn English, then I can give advice on how to do so!

Secondly, please bear in mind that I am a full-time teacher with 4-5 ESL classes a day. Although I am happy to answer specific questions about grammar and usage, I do not have the time to check and correct work sent to me by visitors to my site. Neither do I have time to enter into regular correspondence with site visitors.

Lastly, please let me know if you find my advice useful. If I spend time thinking about and answering learners' questions, I find it a little discouraging when I don't get any kind of reply. In particular, I'd like to know if my suggestions or comments have been helpful.

Please note: If I consider my answer to be of interest to other learners, I will publish it here. (The questioner will remain anonymous.)

Can you help me with my spelling?

I understand your problems with English spelling. It really can be quite difficult; particularly for someone whose mother tongue is phonetic, like yours. For most people, the best way to improve spelling takes a long time - i.e. to read and read in English. When you see words correctly spelled, again and again, it's like you take a photograph of them in your mind. Then when you have to write them yourself, you have a mental image to compare with what you have written. So for example when you write the word freind, you can tell it does not look right. You then write it in a few different combinations, until you find the version that fits with your mental image - friend.

There are some spelling patterns (fight, might, right, tight etc.) and rules (e.g. i before e except after c) that may help if you learn them, but generally, extensive reading is the best approach. I do not have any spelling books I can recommend; but you could do a search with Amazon, or ask at your local bookshop. Of course, when you write, you could use a word processor, and get it to check your spelling. Using a spellcheck correctly also takes some learning, but will certainly help - particularly if you write down and try to learn the spellings of words you frequently get wrong. If you have written something that is very important to have right, then ask someone else to do a final check for you. We can often find spelling mistakes in other people's writing that we don't notice in our own!

There are two articles on this website that might interest you. One on spelling and pronunciation, and the other on using a spellcheck. Good luck!

What do I think about the advice in Five Step English?

This question is from a learner in Korea, who mentions a very popular book entitled Don't ever study English! containing a "Five Step English Study" program. The learner summarizes the steps below:

The learner asked for my opinion on the method.

My reply: So what do I think of the advice in the five step method?

Well, much of it is very sensible. For example, it is an excellent idea to read and listen to a lot of English that is suitable for your English level. I think this is much better than trying to learn from some grammar book (which I am sure is what the Korean author means by Do not study English). If you do listen or read a lot, I recommend that you find books or cassettes on a topic that is interesting or important to you, There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you will already know something about the topic; and secondly you will probably try harder to understand than if you are reading/watching something you find boring. Both of these aspects will help you to comprehend harder English than you would normally understand. This will speed up your progress.

 I do not fully agree with the other advice in the five steps. For example, I would recommend hearing the audio tape two or three times (maybe, on the second or third occasion, reading the transcript at the same time) and trying to make more sense of it each time. Any words you don't understand after three hearings could be looked up, and then you could listen again for a fourth or fifth time.

Writing a transcript of the tape is a quite a good idea, but I would then recommend writing a summary of it or a personal reaction to it. If possible, find another learner with whom to discuss your reaction. In general, I certainly agree that you should train yourself to guess the meanings of words from the sentences and paragraphs they are in, without immediately looking them up in a dictionary.

I am not sure about the idea of reading the text aloud. If you have someone who can correct your pronunciation and intonation, this may be helpful. But remember that there is little connection between reading aloud and being a good speaker. I myself am not very good at reading to my students from a book, but of course as a native speaker my English is completely fluent! If you want to practise your spoken English but have no communication partners, it is much more helpful to listen to some natural dialogues of native speakers talking, and try to practise shorter phrases or sentences with natural intonation. This is certainly better than reading aloud a long chunk of text that you have found in a newspaper.

But a very useful piece of advice in language learning is that you should try different methods and see which one works best for you. If the advice from the book works, that's great, but you could still try following my advice to see if my suggestions work even better! Good luck with learning English.

What movies should I watch to improve my English?

Many language researchers say that you learn English best by reading and listening at i + 1. This sounds like mathematics, but what it means is that you learn, if what you read and hear is a little bit difficult for you. i is your current level of English, so i + 1 means a level of English just a little higher than where you are. If you read at i (or i - 1), this will be easy for you and you won't learn so much. If you read at i + 7, this will be too difficult and you will also not learn so much.

Ok, how does this apply to watching movies? Well, many movies will be at level i + 10 or i + 20, so you won't learn so much English (although you may enjoy the film!). And even for me as a native Londoner I sometimes have difficulty understanding parts of American movies!

So what you need to do is to make it easier to understand what you see. You can do this by watching a Korean version of the video first so you know what happens and what the people will be saying. You then watch the English version. Or you get a movie with Korean or English subtitles.

As far as which movies you should watch is concerned, it depends on what you are interested in. I can recommend Disney cartoons like Mulan or Lion King or Tarzan. These are usually available in other language versions to watch first and the actors usually speak more clearly than in many normal movies.

How can I stop feeling so nervous when I speak English?

This question came from someone who has lived in the US for a long time but still hasn't learned English very well. She wrote how nervous she was when she had to speak.

My reply: Hi, and thanks for your email. The best way to learn English in your situation is to dive into it like diving into a pool of water. Watch English TV and movies, read English newspapers, listen to English radio, talk with English people, chat on English internet discussion groups.

If you don't need to write English, then don't worry about your spelling and grammar - it's not important. If writing English is important, then read a lot of English, and your writing will improve.

Learning English is like learning tennis. You get better at tennis by playing a lot of tennis. You get better at English by hearing, reading, writing and speaking English. Do not worry about making mistakes - who cares?? Everyone makes mistakes in their second language - just imagine how many mistakes the person you are speaking to would make if they were speaking your language! - the important thing is to communicate and keep talking. Good luck!

I had a similar question from another website visitor who has reached a high standard of written English but wrote for advice on how to speak more accurately and also, above all, how to speak without severe feelings of nervousness.

My reply: Thanks for your email. I hope I can give you a satisfactory answer. The reasons why your speaking is not so good are probably a combination of the educational, cultural, personal and psychological. English, to put it simply, is difficult for learners of your nationality! And I can certainly understand your reluctance to speak in the classroom when you have such unfeeling teachers. As quite a shy person myself, I know how difficult it is to speak out in front of others, even in my own language and with a sympathetic audience. However, there is really only one way more to become more comfortable in speaking English - and that is to speak it as much as possible. Take every opportunity to speak English - but not only in the classroom. It is difficult to make specific suggestions because I don't know your interests, but you could join some sort of club where there are native English speakers and try to get to know them. I learned a lot of German for example by talking to Germans at my chess club. A recent and very popular development in England is the book discussion group where people get together, without a teacher to talk about a book they have all read recently. Maybe there are similar groups in your location. (I am sure that there are many of these discussion groups online; and if you get involved with a synchronous chat group, this is almost like speaking because you have to respond in real time, but no-one knows who you are or can see your face!)

As far as classes are concerned, try to join one where the teacher allows lots of small group discussion. I can see the point of having a whole class discussion sometimes, but I strongly feel that students should have the chance to explore and rehearse what they want to say in smaller groups first before being required to talk in front of the whole class. In this way they can ask the teacher - or another student - for help in how to say something, so they are more ready to express their opinions to the larger audience. It also gives the students much more chance to speak than just answering one or two of the teacher's questions. If your teacher does not allow this, maybe you could suggest it or choose a different course. And as far as your opinions are concerned, allow me to say that they are YOUR opinions. Others (including the teacher) may disagree with you, but you have every right to say what you feel and believe.

Of course you will make mistakes in your speaking - and of course these will embarrass you, in the same way that I embarrass myself sometimes when speaking German, but there is not a person alive who does not make mistakes in their second language, and the main thing is to communicate your thoughts and wishes. If the person you are speaking to, or your audience in a group, is not accepting or tolerant of this, it is their problem, not yours.

Practising your speaking is the quickest way to become more fluent, but fluency also depends on having an extensive vocabulary so that you can express yourself in many different contexts. Listening to and reading English - if done extensively - can help you to build a large word store. You may also find it helpful to learn a number of set phrases like "I'm not sure whether I agree with you." or "I don't think I quite understand what you mean." These can help you to gain enough time to formulate what you want to say.

Finally, if you haven't done so already, you might want to look at my webpage Becoming a better speaker. I wish you good luck in learning English.

Can you help me learn how to use the future tense?

Talking about the future in English is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of grammar for non-native speakers. Here is a very simplified explanation of the use of the different tenses:

I can thoroughly recommend the following book if you really want to get to grips with this enormously complicated aspect of English. Good luck!

Practical English Usage, M. Swan (1995) , Oxford University Press

Can you explain about reported speech and the subjunctive?

This question came from someone who asked about reporting universal truths. She also had a question about the subjunctive.

My reply: Thank you for your question. Reported speech is a very complex area of English grammar, and the "rules" you find in some of the older grammar books do not represent what people actually do in current English. The following explanation is a very simplified account of one aspect of how native speakers report what they hear or read.

Basically, one of the factors that native English speakers take into account when choosing the tense of the reported verb is their perceived reliability of what they hear. The term Universal Truth is irrelevant here. It may well be a universal truth that the ice age started 3000 years ago, but if this information is new to me at the time of hearing it, then I make an intuitive judgment on the reliability of the speaker. If I hear the statement from a history professor or someone I else trust, I would probably report it to you as He said the ice age started 3000 years ago.

If I hear it from a four-year old, and I believe him to be well-informed, I would report it to you in exactly the same way. However, if I have reason to believe that he might be lying or misinformed, then I could report it to you as He said the ice age had started 3000 years ago. (I say could because it's more likely that I would report it as: He said the ice age started 3000 years ago, but I don't think that's right etc.)

In this sense it is not the actual authority of the person speaking to you that influences your tense choice of the reported verb, but your belief in his authority. You could equally say: My professor told me that the ice age had started 3000 years ago, if you think he may have left a zero off the end of the number.

The same applies to statements that are not universal truths. Take for example the sentence: I ride my bike everyday. If you as an English native speaker report that statement to your friend, you would probably say He told me he rides his bike every day. You believe it to be (still) true.

If you don't believe it to be true, you would probably say He told me he rode his bike every day. (Or He told me he rides his bike but I'm sure he's lying etc.)

The subjunctive is disappearing from everyday British English. (It is still much more prevalent in American English.)

I demanded that he came to see me is common usage in BE, particularly if both the demanding and the seeing took place in the past. I might say I demanded that he come and see me if I am still waiting for him to come, although you might also hear I demanded that he comes and sees me.

What is essential for you as a student of English is to know what is expected of you in the papers you write or the tests you do. Are you working from older grammar books which prescribe a particular use of English, that does not reflect how people actually speak in the year 2005. If you are, and your English teacher expects you to conform to these rules in your work, then you must do so. But be aware that English is so complex that even a 5000 page book could not contain the intuitive grammatical knowledge held by native speakers.

How can I start a conversation?

This question comes from someone who has moved to an English-speaking country, and feels nervous and confused when he or she tries to initiate a conversation or ask a question.

My reply:

I would say that 99% of the people you meet will be more interested in communicating with you than appraising your grammar. Everyone who has ever learned a second language knows that mistakes are both inevitable and transitory. So be patient (learning a new language takes a long time), and just keep talking!

Having said that, you could learn some typical phrases English speakers use to initiate conversation - especially about the weather: "Lovely day today, isn't it!"

There are some more here:


Just Google on "small talk English" and you will find hundreds of similar sites, including this useful video:


And here is a site with lots of conversational questions in a large variety of topics. You would use these after the initial contact (small talk) has been made:


Finally, here is a cartoon strip that one of my students made based on my input to illustrate a very important point:


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)