Orchid English Blog
Posted on January 11, 2019
It’s said that it’s essential to start learning languages as young as possible, but is this really the case? Does age matter when learning languages? Here are some of my experiences learning languages with age, from a teenager until now.
French as a teenager
I first studied French at secondary school and we did a lot of grammar and verb conjugations. Does anyone enjoy verb endings? Like lots of British people, what I remember most clearly is learning how to ask for various items of stationery from our partners. I remember wondering why French people were so interested in stationery and assumed their conversations must be very boring!
At our school we had a lovely native French teacher and our accents really improved when we tried to copy a real French person.
A teen magazine article gave me the idea to learn vocab with mnemonics which I enjoyed a lot. After five years of studying French I got grade “A” but was unable to hold a conversation or understand a simple dialogue between French people in real life. I do sympathise with the school system trying to measure accuracy in language, which is, I think, more of an art.
Japanese in my early twenties
Before I was qualified to teach English I regret to say that I didn’t know how to study languages effectively. I had a great private tutor in Tokyo and spent a lot of time studying alone from books and notes. What I should have done was spoken more and made more mistakes and got through it, in addition to our private language classes.
French again in my mid twenties
After not speaking French for about eight years I moved to Paris to teach English. One reason I chose France was because I had studied French at school and was looking forward to refreshing my language skills.
On the ferry I realised that I needed to get my phasebook out to look up how to order a coffee. My French was dormant, and needed a trigger to get it back to the front of my mind. Fortunately this wasn’t such hard work as learning it the first time. I took group language classes to improve the accuracy of my French.
Happily, French people don’t ask each other about stationery much, as I had been led to believe at secondary school. Speaking French in real life as opposed to in school taught me that you have to make mistakes as part of your journey to learning a language. People will be impatient with you but you just have to carry on.
Spanish in my mid-thirties
Everyone says languages are easier when you’re younger. But my experience learning languages with age has been the opposite. My Spanish is much less precise than my school French but I’m able to communicate better and I learned it much faster because of previous experience learning languages.
One thing I find harder about Spanish is that it has taken me longer to get a sense of the “music” of the language. Recently in our group language class a young classmate told me that I spoke Spanish with a strong English accent, and I had to agree!
Then, to my surprise, my Spanish teacher said that he didn’t start learning English until he was in his mid-thirties too, and he speaks English with a very accurate British accent.
I have met several retirees who say they will only ever be able to speak a couple of words and phrases in the language they are learning. Well, in the words of Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t do a thing, you’re right”. I honestly think it’s more about attitude, and self-identifying as “bad at languages” than age.
I have been impressed by classmates in their eighties in my group language classes who are profient in Spanish and Japanese. We can often surprise ourselves.
In conclusion, learning languages with age may take longer but it’s not a race anyway. People who learn second languages as children can often fool native speakers into believing that they are also natives.
As adults we are unlikely to be able to do this, but we are still capable of getting to an advanced level in a foreign language. With age, hopefully we become more patient with ourselves too, which is key when learning something time consuming.
Posted on January 9, 2019
I first went to Japan in 2005 and taught English in addition to absorbing the culture and seeing the country. Before I left, a British friend told me that I was sure to learn Japanese quickly from talking to people in shops, and just from being in Japan. Exciting to think that I could be a linguistic sponge and pick up so much language naturally.
Months later, still without a teacher, I could use and understand some everyday words but certainly not hold a conversation, or make friends with Japanese people who didn’t speak English, as I had been hoping.
You will not learn a language to above a very basic level just by living in the country and talking to people in shops. Think of the vocab you need to go to a shop. Probably something like “Hi”, “Would you like a bag?” “Thanks”, “No thanks”, “Bye” plus some numbers. The same goes for using the train.
By the way, using the train in London and listening to the announcements is an excellent way to learn the pronunciations of local places. Even native English speakers don’t always know how to pronounce British place names because our spelling can be full of surprises.
But you’re reading this blog post because you want to improve your English beyond learning names of tube stops, right? You want to improve fluency and accuracy. So can you learn English without English classes in London?
If you work here and just speak English for your job you run the risk of only being able to speak about your own job. If you have British friends and talk to them socially you may only learn to have social conversations. English classes cover a wide range of subjects.
In this wonderfully multicultural city I meet several non-native English speakers who have have lived here for many years. Some have learned English without English classes and they speak what I call “street English”. This is uncorrected English which enables them to communicate in day to day situations.
Adults can’t learn grammar effectively by absorbsion, like children can, so “Street English” can be hard for other people to understand. Is this action finished? Is it hypothetical? Also the pronunciation of people who have learned English as adults without English classes tends to be inaccurate. In Britain we are normally hesitant to correct the English of foreigners, unless we are English teachers.
So in conclusion, it’s true that you can widen your vocabulary if you want to learn English without English classes. But you will sacrifice accuracy, being understood by other people, and the fast progression that you can see from applying yourself in English classes.
Posted on January 3, 2019
We often get asked how students can supplement their English classes at their companies and improve their English for free. If you live in London you are already at a huge advantage having English all around you. But how do you absorb all that English effectively? Here are some ideas to improve your English for free.
Use The Media to Your Advantage
The two free London papers Metro and Evening Standard are available at stations even before you go through the ticket barriers. There is also City AM for advanced speakers who want to improve their business English.
Reading is a great way to build your vocabulary and isn’t as stressful as speaking can be. If you know more about current affairs it will enable you to chat with native speakers more easily, as well as understanding more about British culture.
TV and Films
Watch TV and films in English. Like reading, this is a stress-free way to study. Because English spelling often doesn’t accurately reflect a word’s pronunciation (or is entirely treacherous), listening is a great way to improve your pronunciation.
Use subtitles if the accent is unfamiliar, or if the subject is very complicated. Some people say it helps to watch films they have already seen in their own language. Dramas, reality TV or soaps tend to have simpler language.
I always used to love watching makeover videos on YouTube where the presenter tries and reviews different cosmetics and different looks. Recently it occured to me that I could practise my Spanish by searching for makeover videos in Spanish. It’s great! I’m so engaged in the topic that I can watch several without losing my concentration on the language.
Listen to radio programmes in English such as the BBC World Service, which offers free podcasts such as their excellent 30 minute world news podcast twice a day.
Two Top Techniques to Learn English for Free
When you come across a new word in English, write it down. Even if you can’t quite remember it, do your best. If you understand the word you can even write it in your own language and then look the word up in the dictionary later. Keep a little notebook with you to look over on the tube, at breaks at work or at other free times.
Ask for Corrections
Ask your British friends and colleagues to correct your English when you speak in private. British people are usually very hesitant to correct the English of a non-native speaker for fear of seeming xenophobic, so explain that you would really like to improve your English. You may need to insist! Discover how to get people to correct your English here.
Good luck, and let us know your thoughts on how to improve your English for free, too.
Posted on December 21, 2018
What’s the difference between “earn” and “win”? We hear these words used in place of each other a lot, especially by the professionals learning English with us in London who have a Latin language background.
How often do you win money? At the end of every month? If so, you must have been born under a lucky star, that is, you must be an extremely lucky person. I think the last time I won any money was four years ago on a scratchcard, and then I only won my own money back. Not much to write home about…
Winning is usually by chance as in the example of the lottery, or you can win a game or competition. What is your favourite game? I love playing tennis and the climate in London means you can usually play tennis all year round – it doesn’t get too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. When I play with friends we never play to win, we don’t keep score.
This holiday season is a good one to play board games with family. My favourite board game is Scrabble, where you compete to make high-scoring words from randomly picked letters. In our family we are constantly bemused that our grandmother can still win despite her advancing years.
Earning money is getting money from your job. If you work hard at the right company you can of course also earn a promotion or pay rise. Earning is not by chance, it’s something you deserve through work. At this time of year lots of us feel that after a long stretch of hard work we have earned a relaxing break.
Note the overlap here: did you see Usain Bolt win gold in the Olympics? He trained so much that he really earned it.
Bonus English tip about money
While we’re on the subject of earning money, there is another mistake that people learning English make. Describing a salary as “interesting”. Remember that in British culture we often use understatement and euphemisms, so something negative can be “interesting”.
- How is your new colleague?
- Umm, interesting.
Depending on the tone, we could understand that this new colleague is perhaps a bit weird, the speaker has mixed feelings, they dislike the colleague or really find them to have a lot of interesting things to say.
So interesting doesn’t necessarily mean “good”. And just having more money isn’t “interesting” because there’s nothing intriguing about an amount of money in itself. You could buy lots of interesting things but that’s another matter. Instead of “
an interesting salary” you should say “a good salary”, or “a higher salary”.
So that was the difference between “earn” and “win”. I hope it was useful, and that you have a great winter break!
Posted on December 7, 2018
Time for a cultural post about the UK – British pub culture and vocabulary was a request from Vlad who is a learner of English on Google Plus. Thanks Vlad!
Did you know that the word “pub” is short for “public house”? In the winter, you can’t beat going to a London pub that has a log fire and sitting in front of it. My favourite winter pub drinks are mulled wine and mulled cider. A “mulled” drink is something hot with sugar and spices such as cinamon, cloves and nutmeg.
What is the minimum age that you can visit a pub?
In order to buy an alcoholic drink in a pub you must be 18 or older. Some pubs ask anyone who they think looks under 25 for ID. If this happens to me I am delighted! Some pubs, especially in the countryside have a children’s play area outside. So you can bring the whole family as long as the children drink soft drinks.
Who often visits pubs, men or women?
Both men and women often visit pubs. Historically, some pubs didn’t allow women because the only women in pubs were prostitutes. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century there was a high propotion of female pub landladies despite the fact that they didn’t serve women.
Can I bring alcoholic drinks bought in another place to a pub?
No! It’s illegal and the staff would be annoyed that you weren’t paying for anything.
What alcoholic drinks can I buy in a pub?
It depends on the pub, you have to go in and see. If you’re new in London you should try ale, which is a traditional drink similar to beer but often with a stronger taste, uncarbonated and served at room temperature.
Can I smoke in a pub?
Not since 2007; smokers have to go outside now.
Should I leave a tip in a pub?
You can if you like, but you shouldn’t feel obliged. When buying a round of drinks at the bar you can say “and whatever you’re having”, and the bartender will charge you for a drink for themselves too.<
If it’s a gastropub, which is a pub that serves good quality meals, you can give the staff an extra 10-12% when you pay for your meal at the end. However, be sure to check on your receipt that the staff haven’t already factored in a service charge, because this is really the same as a tip.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that this introduction to British pub culture and vocabulary helps you to take advantage of the great British pub this winter.