Culture and Modernity

Concept to reality

And just like that… another year has passed and it’s been a full one. Central to this academic year has been the concept of cultural development in an era where the speed and diffusion of technology are challenging teachers and trainers alike in terms of what content is delivered and how that content is delivered, analysed and processed. And I was once again struck by the expression ‘back to the future’ as I consider how important cultural and associated studies are to us.

I’ve collaborated on some very interesting projects this year, including teacher training which has been a wonderful experience, being surrounded by those who share the same profession as myself, and exchanging with them the experiences and approaches adopted in terms of enhancing the learning and as a consequence teaching experience.

Another project was a reading night instituted, to make more accessible those authors who are considered by many as distant and unreachable in terms of possible difficulty. We tried to simplify that process through the analysis of short stories by writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and a few other less well-known jewels, and the engagement was rewarding for those who prepared and those who took part in the events.

Certification has also been a constant this year from B2 to C2 levels as well as IELTS preparation for both 15- 25 -year-olds as well as those professionals needing certs for professional development. On the whole, objectives have been reached and it’s been interesting to push individuals to the limits of their abilities and pass on some exam management techniques.

And last but not least the adult professional and business English sector which makes up such a large part of what I do. I’ve been actively looking at and challenging the traditional A1 – C2 pathway where almost everyone gets stuck in the B1 zone and stays there for a long time. Those levels are often remarkably narrow in terms of how they are evaluated and the content proposed is usually very poor.

What constitutes good speaking, presentation and communicative ability? What constitutes listening ability, the invisible and poorly taught language skill? It’s been fun challenging the existing models and guiding learners to a position where so called limits become opportunities, and a seemingly problematic language issue suddenly becomes a solution. The only thing I ask for from the perspective of teacher and trainer is commitment and determination. If you don’t have either of those characteristics then I’m probably not right the person for you.

I was reflecting on the above when I came across the presentation of Elon Musk’s most recent company Neuralink. He is also the founder of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring complany; in other words, he makes things happen. Neuralink involves Artificial Intelligence, planting a chip in the brain, eventually replacing what we know as the smartphone interface and the long-term possibility of communication without any language at all. I’ve embedded a reduced video of the presentation. The language is American and challenging too. Just how I like it!

It’s been fun. Bring on another year!

An analog guy in a digital world

Summer is out and I’ve been catching up with long lost friends and acquaintances. London is a focal point for me in terms of bringing together the various people in my life. My Mam and Dad are deeply linked to the place; I graduated there; my brothers live there; it’s the easiest place for ‘the Americans’ to get to. So many of us set off from the Emerald Isle all those years ago. I saw this very analog, chewed video tape recording recently. Takes me back. Lyrics below.

‘I dunno how long this is but, if you wan’me to stop just gimme the nod’

Of all the stars that ever shone
Not one does twinkle like your pale blue eyes
Like golden corn at harvest time your hair
Sailing in my boat the wind
Gently blows and fills my sail
Your sweet-scented breath is everywhere

Daylight peeping through the curtain
Of the passing night-time is your smile
The sun in the sky is like your laugh
Come back to me my Nancy
Linger for just a little while
Since you left these shores I’ve known no peace nor joy

No matter where I wander I’m still haunted
by your name
The portrait of your beauty stays the same
Standing by the ocean wondering where you’ve
gone, if you’ll return again
Where is the ring I gave to Nancy Spain

On the day in Spring, when snow starts to melt
And streams to flow
With the birds I’ll sing this song
In the while I’ll wander
Down by bluebell stream where wild flowers grow
And I’ll hope that lovely Nancy will return

No matter where I wander I’m still haunted
by your name
The portrait of your beauty stays the same
Standing by the ocean wondering where you’ve
gone, if you’ll return again
O’ where is the ring I gave to Nancy Spain

Repetition to Mastery – ‘An ocean in between the waves’

Unfortunately, since first posting this tune, youtube has taken it down on 2 different occasions from 2 different platforms (the Amsterdam 2017 version which is unbelievably good). In the meantime I’ve posted the version below which is really good although doesn’t catch the spirit of the former.

So what makes us speak a language well. And understand it well for that matter. Could it have something to do with the fact that we have been repeating the same or similar words and phrases over and over again for the best part of ‘x’ years of our lives? And hearing them too? Of course it could. Actually, it’s for that very reason.

What makes people masters of what they do is a particular source of curiosity for me. What drives individuals to be the best they can be. Making a coffee, painting a ceiling, running a Fortune 500 company, art, sport, you name it.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine with similar curiosity sent me a concert of a band I had never heard of before. I listened until 29 minutes in and then got pleasantly stuck. From minute 20.30 to 29, something strange happened. I couldn’t go any further. I kept going back listening to the same piece over and over. To that magic space where you know you’ve seen, read, felt or heard something that’s just right. I looked for other examples of the same piece. Found many of them. Good.. yes. But this good… no. All those times playing the same piece..again and again.. and on a November’s night in Amsterdam it all came together. And the music was made.


Bean sí – Fairy Woman

Dolores O'Riordan

Dolores O’Riordan

The arts are a form of communication; music, writing, film, theatre, painting, photography and all other mediums that are devolved from these pillars of human existence and endeavour.

I’m Irish. I grew up listening in awe to the deeds and legends of my boyhood hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and the stories my grandmother would tell me (terrify me with) about the bogeyman and one of my personal favourites the banshee (Gaelic; bean sí – fairy woman).

I’m reminded of this while listening to the voice of the late Dolores O’Riordan who passed away on the 15th of January 2018. A voice which represented the finest traditions of Irish music, with links to the wilderness and the wails of the bean sí in terms of its haunting, lilting and melancholic style. A sound and style of pronunciation closely associated with her birthplace Limerick.

The video below is a version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, in which Dolores duetted with no other than arguably the greatest tenor of them all, Luciano Pavarotti, at a charity concert in Modena, Italy in 1995.

Hauntingly beautiful. RIP.

From Present Perfect to Past Simple

I’ve recently seen an interesting series on language evolution and what can be considered ‘correct’ language. I’m a real believer in the evolution of language, as history shows that language has always been changing, evolving and morphing into something new and different. This isn’t my opinion by the way; it’s historical fact. English as we know it today has little in common with the English spoken in the middle-ages (Middle English) and even less for Old English. Italian for example, didn’t even exist as a language pre-middle ages.

As a result, I still can’t understand the refusal to embrace this idea of language as an ever changing entity. How can we still teach that ‘will’ and ‘going to’ are so completely different when talking about the future tense when in reality we can hear mother tongue using them interchangeably?

In a very high percentage (I would say the overwhelming majority) of casual unreal conditional use in American English, ‘would’ is used on both sides of the clause and the subjunctive clause is ignored. Prime ministers and business leaders around the world use ‘there is’ with a high percentage of plural nouns. The word ‘awesome’ is now probably the most frequent US expression of ‘great.’ It didn’t exist in it’s current form 25 years ago.

Why are we pretending that these changes aren’t occurring? Why are we preaching to today’s youth that they don’t speak correctly when we ourselves don’t either? Why are we teaching that modern language textbooks modelled on 1970’s didactical approaches is the right way?

Why don’t we make any reference to ‘gonna’, ‘gotta’, ‘wanna’ or ‘lotta’ in our textbooks? Why aren’t UK regional pronunciation variations more clearly explained; British English… what does that mean exactly? The English spoken in Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Birgingham, London, Bristol…. all significantly different but treated as the same. And learners don’t understand.. and so what do we do? Analyse real life language?.. No .. “open your books, page 59, today we will study the difference between the present perfect and past simple ”. Because the present isn’t perfect, as if the past was.


Floppy Disk

I graduated from university in 1999. I distinctly remember how I used to use the university computer labs in order to finish assignment work. I remember using computers at the time for word processing primarily and I started sending emails which was a relatively new way of communicating quickly with others. Portable computers and mobile phone were still quite rare. At that time all my documents were stored on floppy disk.

I bought my first PC in early 1998.
I resisted buying a mobile phone until the year 2000 as I didn’t like the idea of being contacted while on the move.
I bought a digital camera in 2005 with a memory card of 256 mb which was actually quite big at the time.
I remember using internet cafès from 2000-2005 until the idea of 24/7 home internet took hold.
I got my first flat internet connection in late 2006.
I resisted the modern smartphone phenomenon
until 2012.
My children don’t know what a floppy disk is.

Time flies, doesn’t it!

Inner Galactic Orchestra

My son came home from school recently and said that his English teacher had done something new in class, something that in 10 years of classes, no-one had ever done. He played me a song – the video is below – and told me that he had finally understood what the ‘present perfect continuous’ actually meant. This may surprise some of you seeing as I’m an English teacher after all. However, I’ve always said that I want my two sons to grow up in a natural English speaking environment where I can simply be ‘Dad’ and not the irregular verb driller. This means that their comprehension and speaking skills are to a high level in terms of 2nd language acquisition, although some grammatical terminology still remains elusive.

Kutiman is an Israeli musician who decided to take a fresh look at how copyright was playing out in terms of the diffusion of social media and online media in particular. For the following piece – Inner Galactic Lovers – he used ‘Fiverr’ a freelance global online marketplace offering tasks and services, beginning at a cost of $5 per job performed.

The following composition is a collage of 23 different artists from all over the world who were enlisted to play their own individual piece for the song. Kutiman contacted them all through Fiverr, received the samples from the various contributors and then put those samples all together in order to create the song, through the use of a sort of living-room / bedroom orchestra.

Thinking outside the box?

You think about me, like I do you
You’ve been on my mind since that
time when we took off for the stars.

You’ve been thinking about me, like I do you

Have I been on your mind since
that time when we took off for the stars?

We are inner galactic lovers
loving flying through the stars
We are inner galactic lovers
We are inner galactic lovers
loving flying through the stars
We are inner galactic lovers

Do you think about me, like I do you?
You’ve been on my mind since that 
time when we took off for the stars.
You’ve been thinking about me, like I do you.

Have I been on your mind since
that time when we took off for the stars?

We are inner galactic lovers
loving flying through the cosmos
We are inner galactic lovers
We are inner galactic lovers
loving flying through the cosmos
We are inner galactic lovers

Into the love that we live in
If there’s no condition,
if there’s no confusion about who’s loving who
I’ve been feeling you
from planet since stars away
We are quantumly entangled no pulling away
Just that touching those vibes through you

We made it, we made it.

From East to West, North to South; in pursuit of perfection.

Music It’s been a while. I’ve been busy trying to coax language out of fossilized theoretical compartments into more fluid, active and engaging use. It’s not easy and takes time, patience and resolution; as long as I have any two of those 3 at any given time I’ll be okay and students will learn. Or learners will study. Depends which side of the fence you’re on.

The theme for this post took me on a musical voyage. Over the past few years, in trying to explain in class how dynamic and experimental English is, I’ve had to delve into its history in terms of how the language had changed and evolved, thus having a better idea of global variations and cultural usage. English is a remarkably flexible and open language. It’s been described by those who know better than me as a ‘monster which devours all in its path.’ When it meets a new language, it doesn’t resist it but pulls from it what it needs, incorporates it into lexis at incredible speed and moves on, and on, and on.

A bit like music really. That’s where jazz and blues come in. I could describe so many other styles but these two have the most interesting balance between what language is – what perfection is – what art is – what experimentation is.

These most artistic of musical expressions were born in the 19th and evolved through 20th century america. It was the music of the poor, the racially oppressed and the grammatically illiterate. It also, however, went on to transcend preconceived ideas of what music was and became an art form; so much so that the ‘doesn’t’ is rarely pronounced in the 3rd person in any modern musical form with english speaking artists of the highest cultural level much preferring the musically better sounding ‘he /she/it don’t’, or the authentic qualities of the double negative (I ain’t got no time).

So what is perfection? When is a language simply a communicative device, and when does it transcend grammar and become an art form?

I’ll let van morrison help you make up your mind on that one. Born in Ireland; moved to the states as a young adult; made astral weeks in 1968; virtually unclassifiable, an album which is commonly considered one of the finest of all time and an album that transcends multiple musical genres; was literally starving when it was released; was unable to tour with the album due to the lack of financial and artistic support from his record company, until he finally performed his masterpiece live in the hollywood bowl, 40 years after its recording. It had been a very long time.

His spoken pronunciation is now a mix of American South and his original North of Ireland twang (North of Ireland and Scottish accents being principally responsible for that Deep South twang in the first place).

But when he sings, accent, form and grammatical precision disappears as the performance transcends music and language form, the way the best artists do!

Oh my common one

With the coat so old
And the light in the head

Sufferin’ so high
Take a walk with me

Among the regions

Among the regions
Let’s take a look

I was sittin’ down

In a mystic church
In the mystic church

At the Notting Hill Gate
Notting Hill Gate, I was sittin’ down
In the mystic church, at the Notting Hill Gate
At the Westbourne Grove bus station
At the Swedenborg church

At the Notting Hill Gate
I was thinking about it

I take you out, get you in my car

Gonna go for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long drive

Take you down
To a town called Paradise
Baby we can be free
We gonna drink that wine
Gonna jump for joy
In town called


I wanna squeeze you tight
Make everything alright

Until we get that, ‘till we get that, ‘till we get that, until we get that, until we get that

get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that get that get that
Squealin’ feelin’, squealin’ feelin’, squealin’ feeling, squealin’ feeling

(Voice as instrument)

Go ahead and scream

Can you feel the silence?
Can you feel the silence?
In a mystic church…
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church
In the brotherhood of the light
At the Notting Hill Gate

Can you feel the silence?

In a mystic church

In the brotherhood of the light

Can you feel the silence?
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church

Words, y’know.

Church of Type from Two Dollars Please on Vimeo.

I wrestled Jesus for a snake once and lost .. he took the snake.

The only reason I moved to LA was for the traffic..

Nah, all kiddin’ aside, I was ready to pick up and lay some roots on the west coast and see what that’s about ‘cos I had a big dose of Tennessee, I’d lived it, I’d loved it and ready just to reinvent..

I came out here for a summer .. made some art .. got some sunshine on me and fell in love with it and I thought the universe just kinda sent me here, so here I am.

Y’know, I’m on the backside down here man, I call it the golden ghetto, and there’s still a little bit of flavor and craziness back on the west side of Santa Monica which I like.. some mom an’ pop stuff goin’ down..

I like bein’, y’know, in the middle of it yet on the side of it .. I haven’t advertised, no-one knows I’m here except for the sign on the door, so people are discovering me just as I’m discovering LA and it’s really been laid-back and cool that way, and this has given me a little island, y’know, in the wilderness here .. my little spot on Pico, an’ it’s kinda magic in that way..

Printing is essential to all education, all the other arts rely on it, religious movements depend on it. Hand compositors usually set the large type, called display-line used in advertisements and other printed matter. Hand composition offers opportunities for artistic expression. Compositors who have the ability to create original ideas are highly paid craftsmen. The work requires manual dexterity, good eyesight and thoroughness.

Our language, our structures, worldwide, it’s all based on communicating thoughts and ideas, an’ you start breakin’ it down .. you get down to the letter form .. and then y’know you break that down a million ways and you get a million styles of it all .. and so for me, y’know, once I got into letter press, it had to.. you physically have to have the type, you have to have the font, and there’s so many thousands and thousands of ’em created in the course of two or three hundred years here .. y’know in the 17, 1800’s most of it was made that’s in use today.

Those guys were my heroes and they were doin’ it by hand, they were engraving it into copper matrixes and pouring the lead moulds so .. it’s, y’know, you go back to the monks and the illuminated manuscripts, spending their lives, devoting their lives to spreading the word so to speak, y’know, but anyway once they were able to reproduce edition work it changed the world, and if you look, y’know, at the list of the hundred most important inventions of all time, Gutenberg’s Press, it’s right up there at no.1, so a lot of it is tied to the history which I really love that, but it’s also tied to the present and the now, and even though I’m usin’ the old stuff, I’m makin’ new stuff.

Having a shop where people can come in and see the action going on, y’know, I think that’s a really important thing, and bein’ able to produce just custom things and beautiful things for people … that’s a big part of it.

But the word, the word y’know it’s somethin’ man and the type .. you just … it’s so beautiful, it’s got it’s own history, it’s all carved into wood an’ it’s got dents and dings an’ imperfections and it prints crazily, but it’s pure, and that’s what I love about it .. it’s just really pure.

I was able to find a freedom and a voice, my own voice through a handmade approach to it, and I’ve always tried to make graphic design into art, make it more than what it, y’know, is or wants to be .. into something that it can be, an’ I think that’s been a good philosophy for me. But it’s been back-breaking work and there’s just no shortcut to it.

Of course, I have a mackintosh .. I can’t even get into my email, what an ordeal, fuckin’ thing, I have a hate – hate relationship with the computer .. always have .. it’s the reason I went lo-tech in graphic design, I did not, I didn’t like it and it didn’t like me. I’ve always just wanted to try an’ have fun makin’ art ..and as hard as that is .. it’s really hard .. let’s see now, it’s a goddamn serious business .. it just is .. it’s brutal!

DeConstruction – ReConstruction



Happy New Year!

The theme I’ve been pushing with students over the past 6 months has been the idea of deconstruction and reconstruction with regard to comprehension ability and improvements in understanding across the vast number of accents that are to be found in the English language. The same theme could also be extended to perceptions governing definitions of correct and acceptable 2nd language use in general. How good is our English? Are breakdowns in communication our fault? If the problem is comprehension, what steps can we take to improve that area? How can course design help learners overcome limitations?

The video below deals with design and how the person speaking interprets the design process. The ideas are interesting, yet what really stimulated my interest was the fact that the word ‘design’ could have been substituted with ‘language’ and the concept would have been quite similar in terms of course design. I’ll leave that to you to work out.

The speaker is Ayse Birsel, a Turkish woman with an excellent command of English, although she does seem to have some difficulties with the pronunciation of ‘digital.’ Does that mean her English is bad? Or does it mean that there is no such thing as ‘perfect.’ 😉

The following are some excerpts from the dialogue which are useful considerations in relation to 2nd language learning and course design in particular.

how things come to us,
breaking preconceptions, we are full of preconceptions,
shifting our perspective or points of view,
creating new value, 1+1 = 3,
moving towards a creative economy,
user centered to human centered,
doing good and doing well,
serving a purpose,
deconstruction, reconstruction, DeRe,
creative process, design logic, pragmatism,
communication supported by problem solving,

create value within constraints,
imagination, how do you use inspiration?
How do you think outside the box?
a thinking tool,
dichotomous, dichotomy,
left brain – right brain, creative – pragmatist,
3 dimensional in 2 mediums,
tactile as well as digital,
they will elevate my thinking, we will influence each other,

Ayse Birsel: Deconstruction & Reconstruction from MFA Products of Design on Vimeo.

Why do we talk? What is fluency?



It’s been what seems like ages since I last posted; about 6 months, which in the blogging universe translates into light-years. It’s been an interesting period. I’ve finished some courses, started some others and have been quite involved in testing students this year, both younger learners (13-17 years old) and adults (23-53 years old).

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the work I do, the objectives I have both for students and myself , the results I want students to achieve, and how those results can be differently interpreted by others, depending on certain testing criteria.

My attention has always been drawn to the definition of ‘fluency’ in 2nd language learning. Thornbury put it like this; ‘various researchers, working in a cognitive tradition, attempted to characterise it in measurable terms. Thus, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005), following Skehan (1998), define fluency as “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.”

I was reminded of this again while watching the excellent BBC documentary ‘Why do we talk?’ which tries to understand how we learn to speak primarily our first language and then others. The finest minds in the world haven’t yet been able to answer this question. One thing that sticks out from watching the documentary is the way children are analysed in the acquisition of their (our) first language.

I suppose my question is this; if the process works so naturally and so well in the 1st language, why do we work in the opposite direction in the study of the 2nd language?

Homework – What does that mean exactly?

The following is an extract from a post written by Scott Thornbury, who is an internationally recognized academic and teacher trainer in the field of English Language Teaching (ELT). Some time ago he explained his feelings regarding ‘Homework‘ or as he calls it ‘out-of-class-work.’

How important is homework? – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury


Scott Thornbury

March 5, 2012  Posted in: Homework

‘Two or three hours of English is just not enough. Even studying in a classroom for several hours a day, you’re unlikely to achieve a high level if you do nothing in between.

As Leo van Lier put it, ‘The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen’.

Maybe what happens between lessons is as important – or more important – than what happens in them. Think of the classroom as a kind of ‘pit stop’ where learners come in to be re-fuelled and change their tyres. The real action is happening outside.

But I don’t like to call it ‘homework’. To me it’s more like ‘out-of-class work’. Or ‘between-class’ work.  Confining it to the home is to limit it unnecessarily (not to mention all the negative connotations that are associated with the term ‘homework’).  We need to take homework out into the street.’

I decided to start working on this blog for this specific reason. I wanted to create a space where students could go for a ‘pit-stop’; to listen, read, watch and have contact with English. I’ve said to learners many times that they don’t necessarily have to use my blog per se, but the internet should be used to watch subjects that students could find interesting, such as 5 or 10 minute video clips, short articles, grammar exercises etc. Regular contact of this kind will aid improvement.

The video below is a pecha kucha presentation Thornbury recently did at a conference in Seoul.  His pronunciation is from New Zealand. Although the Australian and New Zealand accents are different they do have many similarities. He speaks quickly but clearly and as such it’s a good comprehension exercise. He talks about fundamental aspects of 2nd language learning. The ‘noticing‘ part is interesting with regard to homework and how it could be perceived.

Present Unreal Conditional

Happy New Year!

The transcript follows the video, which is entitled ‘What if money didn’t matter?’ One of the reasons for choosing it is the more traditional style of spoken English, as opposed to recent videos which have focused on American pronunciation. There are a few interesting phrasal verbs too!

“What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?

Let’s suppose – I do this often in vocational guidance of students – they come to me and say ‘well ..ah.. we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do’

So I always ask the question: What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Well it’s so amazing as the result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say ‘Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way!’ Or another person says ‘Well I’d like to live an out-of-doors life and ride horses.’ I say ‘Do you wanna teach in a riding school?’

Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do? When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him ‘You do that! And forget the money!’ Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time! You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living – that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing! Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like what you are doing – it doesn’t matter what it is –  you can eventually turn it…. you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much, somebody is interested in everything. Anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others who are.

But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track. See, what we are doing is we are bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. So it’s all retch and no vomit – it never gets there! And so, therefore it’s so important to consider this question:

What do I desire?”

Pulp Fiction


Okay, Christmas is coming and I’m going to need a few books to read. I’d like to get through 3 if possible so I need to get thinking about what to read.  I came across the following video recently, and was immediately transported 16 years into the past, to a time when I was studying at university and enjoying the freedoms that accompanied this period of my life. One of those freedoms included having more time to read than I have now.

During this time, I was given a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, which was a hilariously vulgar description of alternative-living in 50’s and 60’s America. It deals with ideas explored by the Beat Generation, a literary movement which represented the American counter-culture at that time.

So in this moment of crisis, general disaffection with politics and distrust of the ruling classes,  it could be refreshing to re-read some of those writers, those who looked at life from another side of the social divide.

The following video is a recital of Bukowski’s poem, Nirvana.

Charles Bukowski’s Nirvana from Patrick Biesemans on Vimeo.


Back to the future…


Hi again,

Blogging is supposed to be a very addictive habit. That doesn’t seem to be the case with me, so thanks for your patience. Looking at what I’ve blogged about this past year, a recurring theme seems to be technology, and how this is juxtaposed with a fascination of how we used to do things in the past. As readers will know, I consider the abundance of technology at our disposal today as being a primary driver in the development of 2nd language learning, particularly in terms of the acquisition of English as a 2nd language.

Yet…. the future of 2nd language learning more than likely resides in the past; well, the past in terms of more traditional structures and systems. I’m talking here about CLIL which is Content and Integrated Language Learning. CLIL entails the teaching of some traditional subjects, for example, geography, history and science in state schools by the usual teachers of the subject. I’m not talking about a specialist 2nd language teacher like myself, but about teachers in primary, middle and high schools who teach subjects not in their mother tongue language but in a 2nd language, whatever that language may be.

The term CLIL was coined by David Marsh, University of Jyväskylä, Finland (1994): “CLIL refers to situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language.”

The key lies in the competency of the (geography, history, science) teacher using the 2nd language simply as a vehicle to improve proficiency in a chosen 2nd language, while imparting the same content as requested from a syllabus point of view. This means of course that teachers who have spent their professional lives teaching through Italian, will have to work hard to bring their English up to a level where they can teach the same content through English. The process should ideally start at primary school and work its way up.

It puts the whole industry of English teaching in particular into perspective. The dedicated hour or two a week on a chosen language from primary to high school has generally proved to have a limited impact in terms of language proficiency. It creates a base yet not a lot more. Private schools have entered the fray and offer so-called ‘specialist’ extra curricular courses which promise to cure all ills, although in the majority of cases are simply offering a re-regurgitated (although smaller class size) version of what 6-18 year old students find at school. The same grammar, the same books, the same syllabus and the same approach in 90% of cases.

The industrialization of English has been progressing strongly over the past 30 years and it’s possible that an apex is being reached as regards the levels of proficiency that can be achieved. It is this evolution that has led to the examination of how 2nd language learning can become less 2nd language centered and more 1st; the proposal of a model which requires students from 4-18 to enter a state school structure which demands bilingual learning instead of simply desiring it; a system which makes the same demand of its teachers. We all remember how boring some lessons at school can be. Research has shown that studying the same subject / content in a 2nd language increases stimulation levels, as students are not only required to absorb content, but to do so while grappling with the complexities of a language which is not their own. Research has also shown that the process of learning itself is enhanced as a result of this two-way interaction, and school results where CLIL is evolved and practiced have reflected this fact.

The following video is related to this concept. Looking to the past to improve the future. The speaker is American and has a southern accent. This accent is one of the most difficult encountered by English language students, yet when softly spoken, as is the case in this video, it’s a delight.

American Tintype from Matt Morris Films on Vimeo.

Sam Maguire

Mayo Legends

This is an important sporting weekend for me. My home county, Mayo, is playing against Donegal for the Sam Maguire Cup, in the All-Ireland football final. The last time we won this competition was in 1951. We’ve been in the final many times since but just haven’t been able to go the extra mile. Hopefully that will change today. Most of you reading this will have no idea what Gaelic football is. It was constituted as a sport in 1887 and was part of a determined effort to promote Gaelic games and Irish culture on our island, while Ireland was still under the rule of the British Empire. It was founded on a strictly amateur ethos and had to compete with rugby and association football (soccer) for popularity. The most interesting aspect of the sport is its tribal nature. You’ll say that all team sports are tribal but Gaelic football is strict in that sense. To play for one’s county and win an All-Ireland, is the highest honour for a player. Only players who are born, live and work in the county can play for their county. There is no transfer system for players, unless you happen to live and work in a different county for an extended period, so as a result changing allegiance is unusual. Players do not receive payment for playing, although there are reimbursements for expenses. Players hold down full-time jobs and train 4 times per week, after work in the evening with games at weekends, and have the fitness levels of professional athletes.

Each of the 32 counties can take part in the All-Ireland Championship. The 4 provinces in Ireland: Ulster, Munster Leinster and Connacht, are involved in play-offs until a champion emerges from each province. Mayo are the Connacht champions this year, while Donegal are the champions of Ulster. There are a further series of games until the two finalists are decided. The final takes place on the 3rd Sunday of each September.

The final is played in Croke Park (Páirc an Chrócaigh), and is watched by 82,000 spectators; an incredible statistic for an amateur competition and a testament to the importance of Gaelic games in Irish life. The sport has endured even with the overwhelming global evolution of football in England and the development of rugby in terms of popularity.

Of no less importance for many Irish people this weekend is the most important derby game of the English football year, Liverpool vs Man United. Although coming from different cities they are separated by a mere 35 miles and more importantly by 1 title (United having won 19 and Liverpool 18), being without doubt the two most successful sides in English football. I’m regularly asked why it is that so many Irish are passionate about English football; Man United and Liverpool in particular. The answer surely lies in the fact that United and Liverpool both hail from traditionally working-class, immigrant cities with huge Irish populations. Another reason is that the best Irish players have always played club football in England. An example of this is Kevin Moran, who won two All-Ireland finals with Dublin and then went on to win two FA cups with Manchester United.

Paul Scholes, who Zinedine Zidane said was the finest midfielder of his generation, had the following to say about United – Liverpool games; “Manchester United against Liverpool is always the first game I look out for when the fixtures come out. Maybe the games against City and Chelsea are now just as important because they are more of a threat in the league, but United and Liverpool are the two biggest clubs in English football with huge, worldwide fan bases. It’s a massive game.”

And this for me is without doubt is one of the most significant aspects of this weekend from an Irish sporting point of view. It’s on the one hand a celebration of our culture, our identity and our stubborn determination to extol those characteristics which define us as Irish, while on the other hand a celebration of certain teams in the country of our former oppressors, which through emigration we helped to shape and build. It’s something that defines me as an Irishman, and something that makes me proud.

Come on Maigh Eo!

Highlights – Mayo vs Dublin All Ireland semi final 02/09/2012

Double Dutch


Hello again,

While on holiday in August I had the chance to drink a glass of wine with a Dutch couple. We spoke in English, although one of the couple was studying Italian and had a lot of difficulty in speaking it. She recounted how only that day in the supermarket she had asked the cashier ‘posso andare?’ instead of ‘posso pagare?’. The cashier was very confused by this of course, as one generally tends to pay before leaving the shop. She was highly embarrassed by this episode which she said she encounters regularly and which causes her particular frustration.

After a few minutes of small talk I was curious to know how it is that the Dutch speak English so well. They told me that they watch virtually all the films they see in English / original language with subtitles from when they are children. When children in The Netherlands go to see the new Batman / Spiderman and other non- Dutch films on a typical Sunday afternoon, they see them in the original language. Strangely, this doesn’t happen in the same way in Belgium,  where international films are shown in either French or Dutch and where the general standard of English is lower.

Applied linguist Kees de Bot has spoken on this subject with the BBC.

One Dutch applied linguist likes to speculate that there might be a correlation between language aptitude and intelligence. The reason why Dutch people have a reputation for being good at languages might be, therefore, that Dutch people are simply cleverer than other people. “Unfortunately,” says Kees de Bot, “the experience of having lived in that country for more than 50 years has made it absolutely clear to me that that cannot be the explanation.”

Instead, his research shows that the stereotype of the multilingual Dutch person isn’t entirely accurate. The Dutch aren’t amazing at languages generally; they just speak particularly good English. In fact, things really aren’t all that rosy for other languages in the Netherlands. The numbers of students taking French and German are in decline. University departments teaching other European languages are struggling to survive. Teaching minority languages such as Turkish and Arabic is no longer allowed during school hours. And other languages are hardly taught at all – just like in the UK. The main reason why the Dutch are so good at English, according to Kees de Bot’s analysis, is that English is highly visible and valued in mainstream culture. Most of the music Dutch kids listen to is in English and the films they watch are mostly in English. Most interesting, in my view, is the link between TV and being good at English. In the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where proficiency in English is very high, English-language TV programmes are subtitled. In Germany, Spain and France, where fewer people speak English well, the TV programmes are dubbed.

Read the full extract on the BBC voices website.

Europe and Dubbing of Films and TV

The graphic on the left backs up what is stated in the article. Those countries in blue are those where English is more proficient and are the same countries where TV/ films are not dubbed (including countries in eastern Europe where proficiency levels are high with regard to English). The countries in red are generally less proficient in English and are those countries where dubbing is commonplace.

So to return to my original point, why did this Dutch woman communicate so confidently in English and so insecurely in Italian? The most obvious reason is because she had started studying English at a young age (this is also true of many Italians who aren’t so confident with the language, however). The most important reason is because she had been exposed to ‘natural’ English from a young age. And by ‘natural’ I mean television, music, cinema and so on. It’s generally not the type of language one comes across in schools.

The moral of this post; go on line and watch language clips, rent a movie, watch an English language program in the original language and don’t be discouraged if it’s difficult…it has to be. Then if you’re feeling really ambitious you can also decide to read a few pages of a book or some articles in English every week.

You can see in the video below why many English speakers have always disliked dubbing!


Online Learning … or not …

... on the look out ...

I’m always on the look out for sites that offer good solutions for English language students.I have to say that what’s available on the net isn’t very impressive, considering both paid and free content. There’s definitely something lacking online. Many sites offer very simple content, or content that seems to be simply scratching the surface of 2nd language learning. Other sites are better designed from a graphics point of view, but propose more of the same Grammar McNuggets as regularly described by Scott Thornbury. Grammar McNuggets being rigid, pre-packaged grammatical forms that don’t take into consideration the chaotic and fluctuating nature of language use.

I’ve recently turned my attention to the BBC Learning English website, which is one of the most famous and visited language websites in the world, due in no small part to the BBC’s global reach. I’ve spent some time on it recently and have tried to approach it from a learner’s point of view. I’ve found it to be a bit limited to be honest and have to say it feels a little disjointed. With the wealth of materials at their disposal (video in particular) something more innovative could definitely be done. One area I did like though, was the express English section. It’s a type of vox-pop that gives different speakers 1 minute to talk about various themes. I thought it useful because it’s possible to hear a variety of accents, and the English transcript is given too, thus aiding comprehension.

Give it a listen!

Counting Sheep … conditionals … and grammar rules …

'..if I'd (had or would?) known ..I'd (had or would?) have gone..'

How/ do / grammar and numbers / go together? It’s part of my job to analyze language, yet I sometimes have to remind myself that I study it too. I’ve been a student of Italian for many years now, and my approach to the language has always been an attempt to make sense from chaos. This is due to the fact that we usually have an endless number of possible grammatical combinations and lexical structures from which to choose, every time we open our mouths, or put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard as is now more often the case).

Making the correct grammatical and vocabulary decisions, while at the same time trying to pronounce correctly, speaking at a speed that is acceptable and, last but not least, giving the impression of actually enjoying the experience, is daunting to say the least. However, it should be our ultimate objective in terms of 2nd language learning. Attaining perfection in a 2nd language is particularly difficult. Striving for it shouldn’t be.

The following video deals with numbers and common language associated with adding (plus, add), subtracting (minus, less), multiplying (by), dividing (divided by, into). What it also reminded me of was the often exasperating experience of attempting to turn all those grammar rules and all those words into something coherent, satisfying and correct.

For conditionals info. go here;

Technology Loop

Hello again,

I was finally able to find a version of this video which would play outside the U.S.

The video is a reflection on technology overuse nowadays, which is ironic given that I’m using technology as a means of helping your English evolve. The speakers are using American English. They are speaking quite frenetically (much more than you would usually find) and the conversation is quite dis-jointed for comic effect. It’s a good example of when people speak too quickly, which causes problems with comprehension.

Some language analysis for you to consider at different points of the clip can be seen under the video.

0.12 – ‘ one more text ‘  – meaning sms

0.14 – ‘I gotta watch these movies and I gotta return emHave to and have got to meaning something similar to Must and ‘em‘ referring to them. The object pronoun is sometimes contracted in English to give more fluidity to a sentence e.g. ‘I can see ‘im (him)’ / I can see ‘er (her)

1.18 – ‘Okay…what / should / we / do?’ – Question formation; should spoken very quickly.

1.31 – ‘Hey ..have you ever wondered…? – meaning – think about something to know more about it.

If you have other questions, either lexical or grammatical, simply comment on the clip.


Writing Letters


Hi again,

I recently received a wedding invitation. These often contain a card inside for the purpose of RSVP which derives from the French ‘répondez, s’il vous plaît’. Traditionally, this card wasn’t included, so invitees had to respond using their own stationary, as was the case with this invitation. The last time I wrote a hand-written letter was in 2002. That’s a long time ago. To make a long story short, I didn’t have any specific stationery and so went out to find some. I went to 3 different stationers and guess what . . . they didn’t sell the stationery I was looking for because in their words; ‘nobody really uses it anymore.’

I eventually found a shop that sold something close to what I was looking for. And this made me think about this video I watched a few months ago, which describes how digital technology is changing the way we use (or don’t use) the materials around us, and how not using these materials (pen and paper in this case) can cause the disappearance of services linked to them, such as the printer and paper experts in the video you’ll see below.

The speakers are American and they speak clearly, so although it’s 9 minutes long, it’s worth it from a comprehension, and mechanical engineering point of view.

What / does / bilingual / mean?

Mother tongue?!

Hi again.

I was fascinated while reading the following article about fluency development in 2nd language learning in Montreal, Quebec, as touched upon in a previous post. (Click on the image above to read the article).

I found some observations from the article particularly interesting from a linguistic perspective, such as;

fluency – the ability to speak smoothly and quickly, without undue hesitations and pauses

“It has to do with exposure opportunities,” says Segalowitz,

If you feel awkward in a second language, you probably won’t get involved in activities that require speaking it.

Adapting your level of speech to different settings – whether you are making a boardroom presentation or cracking a joke in a pub – is one of the most difficult tasks for people speaking a second language.

The more you pursue interests that require using your second language, the more fluent you will become, Segalowitz says.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good read on a sunny Sunday morning. Get the hint?

Vowels – iphone / ipad / i / i: / i.e.

a e i o u

Hello again,  

I wasn’t going to post this week as I’ve been up to my eyeballs, i.e. very busy.  I’m not going to do too much grammatical analysis on the following piece. The creator of the video goes through vocabulary which identifies not only vowels, but vowel sounds and diphthongs, which are a feature of English pronunciation. All the words you hear pronounced in the clip are not simply vowels in the written sense, but are the representation of the phonetic alphabet, as seen in the picure in the top left-hand corner of the post.  

Videos that I had uploaded from non-youtube sources in the past seem to have had compatability problems with the iphone and the ipad. This is because the iphone / ipad don’t display flash technology without specific apps. New apple devices come equipped with built-in youtube readers, yet this doesn’t apply to other sites like vimeo, which deals with better quality video. I’ve uploaded this video in an ‘iframe’ format and would be interested to know if this plays on iphone and ipad, as well as playing on other browsers. So all you iphoners, ipadders and i-something or other, do let me know!   


Click on the ‘HD’ button to turn off High Definition and speed up browsing. 

A day in the life . . language is everywhere. Chew on that!

On yer bike . . .

So what exactly / does / this video have to do /with learning English? To be honest it took me a while to come up with something. The reason I posted it is simply because I liked the video, as well as being struck by the music accompanying the song; I then started to analyse it more carefully from a didactic perspective.

The video you see below, describing a general day in one’s life, was filmed in the Canadian city of Montreal. Canada is a predominantly English speaking country with the exception of the province of Quebec, which is principally french speaking. Around 50% of the city of Montreal is bilingual, in that both French and English is spoken fluently. The existence of two languages so historically and culturally opposed, while at the same time existing within the same sociological sphere /sfɪə(r)/ (UK) /sfɪr/ (US), is intriguing. And it’s just the excuse I needed to put this clip online.

Language is everywhere. Go and find it. The irony with regard to this post in particular and language in general, is that this video has no spoken English content; yet look at the amount of language analysis that was generated. Now chew on that!


Different types of language…

Hello again,

So, why / did / I / choose/ this particular song?

1. It has lyrics which I can use to draw attention to vocabulary and pronunciation.

2. I can put it online without copyright problems.

2. It was made using 2000+ pieces of recycled paper and was filmed using an iphone4 and time-lapse photography editing, which I think is pretty cool.

3. It’s short and you’re all extremely busy, aren’t you? Although at the same time you want to improve your English, don’t you? (slight hint of irony there).

4. You might actually watch it,  listen to it and learn something new; this being the objective of the blog, after all.

I am overboard, I am lost at sea,

the decision I made was a tough /tʌf/ one to take,

but the ship that I jumped was gettin’ to me.

I am overboard, I am lost at sea,

the decision I made was a tough /tʌf/one to take,

but the ship that I jumped was gettin’ to me.

now I’m driftin‘,  but my heart /hɑː (r)t/ is sinkin‘, I’m just driftin’ alone,

but my heart /hɑː (r)t/ is sinkin’ like a stone (x3) (UK).

Now I see land ahead, I see blue skies, these crashin’ waves they are wearin’ me down, and the water’s leavin’ salt /sɔːlt/ (UK) /sɔlt/ (US) in my eyes.

I am driftin’,  but my heart  is sinkin’, I’m just driftin’ alone,

but my heart is sinkin’ like a stone (x3) (UK).

I am overboard, I am lost at sea,

the decision I made was a tough one to take,

but the ship that I jumped was gettin’ to me,

now I’m driftin’,  but my heart is sinkin’, I’m just driftin’ alone,

but my heart is sinkin’ like a stone (x3).

What / is / your / question? What / do / you / want / to know? How / would / you / like / it pronounced?

Q & A

Questions are the keys to conversation. It’s a tricky area due to the use of auxiliaries in English. We usually structure the question in English in the following way;

Question word / Auxiliary / Subject / Verb / Object or Complement

The person speaking in the clip has a standard south of England accent, well, that which you’d come across in and around the Greater London area anyway. Pay particular attention to the pronunciation (or non-pronunciation) of the ‘r’ after vowel sounds. You can see from the dictionary links with phonetics that the American dictionary includes the /r/ sound yet the British version includes it as an option (r). I’ve marked some examples under the video itself. You can check those against US pronunciation of the same word.

Click on the ‘pronunciation’ button beside the phonetic text when the dictionary opens.

Ever wondered (have / you / ever wondered) where a question might take you? UK /ˈwʌndə/ – US /ˈwʌndər/

Why / do / cats / purr? UK /pəː/ – US \ˈpər\

How / can / we / turn / garbage into energy? – UK /ˈɡɑː(r)bɪdʒ/ – US /ˈɡɑrbɪdʒ/

___ / Can / robots / change / their mind? – UK /ðeə(r)/– US – /ðer/

Explore the impossible. UK /ɪkˈsplɔː(r)/ – US – /ɪkˈsplɔr/

The moon was once a pie in the sky.

You have the power (UK /ˈpaʊə(r)/) – US (/ˈpaʊər/) to change things for the better (UK /ˈbetə(r)/ – US /ˈbetər/)

To find the answer – UK /ˈɑːnsə(r)/ – US /ˈænsər/

On reflection

Run… or reflect..

Hi all,

I suppose Happy New Year would be a good place to start seeing as it’s the first post of 2012. So it’s back to school time again and I’ve been thinking about the blog and content. Having done a few lessons and having had contact with some students, I was thinking about the theme of reflection, particularly with reference to language acquisition and use. The start of the year usually means the start of the running season..running for work..running for family..running for sport…running to get to English lessons on time.

Before we start running again, take a moment to think about your English. Are you happy with your level? Do you think you can improve? How can you improve? How can you develop fluency? How can you improve your comprehension? How can you be more precise? Is your teacher pushing you to be more fluent and more precise? Is your teacher helping you to realise your ideal of where your English should be at? If not, why not? What are your specific language objectives this year?

Have a think about the questions above, try and answer them and discuss them with your teacher. Tell him/her what you want and be realistic about how you can achieve those goals.
The video clip you are going to see is from a guy who decided to give up his job, travel the world, take photos, and put together a splendid time-lapse photo montage for us to enjoy. There isn’t any dialogue given that the theme is reflection. And strangely enough, do you know what struck me most about the images captured in the piece? The frenetic running from place to place…even on holiday…go figure!

Technology Loop…Yeah right!

Language Loop.....

Hi again,

I hadn’t planned on posting so soon but recent feedback from a student informed me that the technology loop video below is no longer available outside the US. It’s probably because it’s part of a new TV series they are doing in America called Portlandia, and they don’t want European viewers getting it before time. I asked a friend of mine living in London to check if it was working in the UK and the answer was “no.”  I looked into the series a little more and it seems to be one of the few occasions where british style humour has travelled from the UK to the US and not vice-versa, as is usually the case. ‘English’ TV is largely influenced by its American counterpart. One of the features of British humour is its sense of the ironic and absurd, which sometimes borders on the surreal and is often presented in sketch format. American audiences generally don’t go for this type of humour; until now that is. Hopefully with the success of the series, more clips of the video will go online and I’ll be able to update it again; preferably before the series is exported to Europe in its dubbed version.


My Blog


Hello all,

Yes, you’ve guessed it…this is my new blog. As you’ll see from reading the ‘about’ section, the idea is to provide you with a platform from which to access language content. The idea was to get to grips with the technical aspect and then bombard you with language you may (or may not) find interesting. It took me 6 weeks to understand the technical aspects of the blog which meant that I was ready to upload content around mid October 2011…..or so I thought!
A friend of mine involved in creative visual design recently observed that the use of facebook as a means of communication was creating more questions than answers. In terms of language content on this blog I’ve also encountered more questions than answers.
I’ve been ruminating on what content to put up online for about a month now, and I’m still no closer to an answer. Well, that’s not exactly true. Putting up content will be easy; getting you to actually watch, read and make use of it will be a wholly different matter. And that’s the part that I’m really interested in.
I’ve decided to go with it regardless, in the hope that students will provide me with some answers. There are links and associated material on the various posts and pages, but it’s content that many of you are aware of already and don’t use that often. In fact, you only tend to use this content when I’m nagging you on a regular basis.
The text I’ve put in italics is language that you could / should find interesting and of benefit. I’ll try to keep it as natural as possible. Log it in your vocab lists and ask questions about it if unsure about meaning.
The posts you see below are simply tests to see what kind of content I was able to play with. I’m going to leave them there so that I can start as I mean to continue; audio-visual material, with grammar and vocabulary reference.
Please sign-up, leave comments and remember that what you post is public….so get the spelling right!!