Orchid English Blog

What I like most about autumn in London

Posted on November 13, 2013

While I do like the summer best of all, there is something very relaxing about autumn in London. In Japan people are keen on going to the countryside to see the changing colours of the Autumn leaves and there is even a particular name for this, “Momiji-gari”. My Japanese students ask me where they can go around London to see this and are often surprised we lack a particular word for this in English! There are lots of places where you can see wonderful red and golden leaves around London, especially in Hyde Park.

If this is your first Autumn/Winter in Europe you must try mulled wine. It’s a hot, sweet spiced wine, you can get it in bottles in supermarkets or make your own from spice sachets and add wine. Pubs have started selling it too if you want to try different recipes. Some pubs also sell mulled cider which is also delicious and often has a lower alcohol content. Dictionaries I have looked at don’t show proof of similarity in the origin of “mull” as in “to heat, sweeten and spice” and “to ponder” as in “We’re just mulling over her proposal”. I feel as though the wine has been sitting and pondering as the spices infuse.

There are lots of Christmas markets starting around now such as the one at the Southbank Centre (16th November – 24th December) where you can drink mulled wine, eat mince pies and buy traditional European winter food and presents. German markets are especially popular. Did you know that the word “German” derives from the Latin “Germanus” meaning “genuine”? Of course there is always Christmas itself to look forward to – although I overheard a customer in Boots yesterday crossly ask the cashier that the Christmas music be postponed until it is actually near Christmas.

Fancy going further afield? You could always “Skith” as an Old Norse speaker may have said, “skith” meaning “a stick of wood” or “snow shoe”, or “ski” as we say in modern English today. I don’t know, however, whether Old Norse speakers were as keen on verbing (turning nouns to verbs) as English speakers are or whether they would have tutted and lamented the decline of their language by young people today. Oddly enough, in French  “snowboarding” is called “le surf”.

What do you think? What is your favourite thing about this season? Please let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

What I’ve learned about learning a foreign language as an adult – by Emily

Posted on October 12, 2013

After about 10 years of teaching English I thought I would share some ideas about learning languages. Children and adults learn languages in different ways. Children’s brains are phenomenally sponge-like and absorb vocabulary at an astounding rate, particularly aged about 2-4. They also work out complex patterns in grammar by themselves in a way we have to study.

As an adult this is much more difficult, our brains will always to some extent use the model of our first language to base the second one on, rather than acquire it in its own right. We make mistakes that betray the mis-applied rules of our first language; Japanese students will tend to over-use the passive in English, French students will not use the present continuous enough, Italians will set English intonation to their own rhythm. When I speak Japanese or French I am told I modulate it like English.

I always tell students to try to think of language as a journey of discovery. Lots of students become disheartened that they still make mistakes after many years of study but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Try listening to native speakers of your first language and I bet you will hear them make mistakes, I do. When I read the paper even in English I come across words that I don’t know, so I look them up. When preparing an article to discuss with the class I might look up several words because I can understand them in context but not explain them. I have on more than one occasion had to look up a difficult spelling that has come up in class by chance.

I have met several adults who speak near-native level English and bemoan the fact that they do not sound perfectly like a native speaker. However, a non-native accent when you speak English can sound very pretty to native English speakers, and a different way of expressing things can be thought-provoking. Do not let this discourage you!

Another cliché that is also true, don’t compare yourself to other people. Who knows how many hours of study we have all really put in learning languages? There are also several other factors like working in an environment where that language is spoken, or having friends that will speak to you in that language.

Play around with methods of remembering information that work best for you. For me, I like to listen to vocab and grammatical structures on MP3s and (if I’m not on the tube!) repeat them aloud. I used to write and re-read lesson notes almost exclusively to learn but then I realised my listening and pronunciation was poor.

Good luck and let us know your own tips on Facebook or Twitter.


You know you’re an English as a foreign language teacher when…

Posted on January 25, 2013

To all of you lovely EFL teachers out there!

To all of you lovely EFL teachers out there!

Swearving: How to Swear Politely

Posted on November 8, 2012

When life’s irritations or levels of pain get too much for us in an instant, we need some kind of release. As someone in a client-facing job and who often looks after young children, it simply doesn’t do to be effing and blinding willy nilly. I noticed the other day that I had incorporated “gosh” and “my goodness me!” into my vocabulary even at home.

In my classroom in Japan I once tripped on the lead of the CD player and brought it crashing down on my foot. “Fffff” I started, before trailing off. Unfortunately I didn’t get away with it because it was a relatively advanced class, and one student in particular was delighted that he had almost heard an English swear word in action, albeit a quarter of one. “Did you say a bad word?” he asked gleefully. “No!” I answered, three-quarters truthfully.

So sometimes it’s really too late to avoid saying anything at all, and one needs to “swearve” /swɛːv/. I invented this word today and I’m quite pleased with it. It’s for those times when you are driving down the high street of life and something inexcusably vexing jumps in your way. It’s OK as long as you don’t hit it.

When I was little, my mother would exclaim “fiddlesticks”, rather elegantly in hindsight, when her exasperation levels peaked. Similarly there is “fudge” and “flip”. Of course there is always “sugar”, and, immortalised by Jennifer Saunders, the rather pretty “sugar crumbs”. To avoid blaspheming just use “gosh”, “Gordon Bennett” or my personal favourite, “God Bless America!” I quite enjoy swearves from across the pond too such as “darn”, “dang” or “dagnabbit”. You would have to be very lucky to hear the latter because according to Urban Dictionary its usage is limited to only a few select groups, including “cantankerous old farmers”.

If you have any good swearves, share them on the Facebook page:


Geddit? Jokes in English

Posted on June 29, 2012

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t translate? People of course have different definitions of what they find funny within and across cultures. In France for example, people often appreciate the value of punning more than in the UK. I find Beavis and Butthead’s Cornholio sketch hilarious, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. When conducting an English  lesson in Japan on the theme of jokes I found that I had to establish a code with the students. If you’re not laughing is it because you don’t get it or because you don’t find it funny?  Some jokes work perfectly across languages while some are just lost in linguistic or cultural translation.

Jokes that Work Across Languages

Jokes that rely on irony or funny situations can often work cross linguistically. A couple of years ago readers of The Telegraph voted for the best ever joke.  Tommy Cooper featured heavily in the top 100 and won with this one:

  • A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Did Cooper deserve the award? How about this one:

  • I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn’t find any.

One all the way from Japan:

  • “What’s the best way to use a “sensu” or fan while keeping it from wearing out? You move your head in front of the fan”

Here is my absolute favourite of the cross-linguistic ones:

  • A police officer stops at a ranch in Texas, and tells the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for drugs.” The rancher says, “Okay, but do not go in that field over there,” and points out the location. The police officer explodes saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me.” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removes his badge and proudly displays it to the rancher. “See this badge? This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish, on any land, no questions asked. Have I made myself clear? ” The rancher nods politely, apologizes, and goes about his chores.  A short time later, the old rancher hears loud screams and sees the police officer running for his life chased by the rancher’s enormous Santa Gertrudis bull!  With every step the bull is gaining ground on the officer, and it seems likely that he’ll get gored before he reaches safety. The officer is clearly terrified. The rancher throws down his tools, runs to the fence and yells at the top of his lungs: “Your badge… Show him your badge!!”

English-Specific Jokes

Not all jokes however can be translated into other languages easily, if at all. The first is my favourite from this category:

  • As Alexander the Great led his troops into Persia, his soothsayers urged him to cease from conquest and reign content as king of all Greece. The divine Alexander, in his pride, was wont to brush these warnings aside, until one day, lightning struck from a clear sky and completely destroyed his royal bivouac.  “A portent!” cried the priests. “Whaddya want,” said Alexander, “we get them at cost.”
  • A mushroom walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign? It says ‘No mushrooms!'” The mushroom replies, “C’mon man, I’m a fungi!”

Here the word sounds exactly like another set of words and makes sense either way.

Having recently finished my linguistics degree I was delighted to see a festival t-shirt in Bristol with the slogan: “Camping is in Tents”. This is an example of elision: if three consonants occur in sequence one will often be elided for ease of pronunciation. In this case the plosive /t/ sound is elided, making it homophonous with the word “intense”.

  • A man walks into a restaurant and sits down at a table. The waiter walks up to take the order and asks the man, “Would you like a soup or salad?” The man replies, “What’s a super salad?”

Grammatical function words like “or” often don’t carry a great deal of sentence stress, the stress occurs on the words that are being contrasted. In the sentence “Did you buy a book or a DVD?”  the word “or” holds almost no sentence stress and could sound like a schwa, the weak “ar” in “popular” the “er” sound in “finger” or, in this case, “super”.

  • What did the mamma tomato say to the baby tomato? “Catch up!!!

  • A man said to his friend, “Want to hear a joke about butter?” His friend said, “Sure.” The man said, “Nah, I’d butter not tell you. You might spread it.”

These are both quite the eye-roller, playing on similar sounding words. The second rather economically uses a second pun, exploiting the fact that the word “spread” can be figurative or physical.

  • There are two fish in a tank, and one says to the other; “How do you drive this thing?”

I find this one funnier, we are tricked into thinking we know what “tank” it is but we don’t. Here are some accent-specific jokes, from a Christmas cracker near you:

  • Knock knock! Who’s there? Luke. Luke who? Look through the keyhole and see.
  • In which US state can you find small Pepsis? Minnesota.

If you thought some of the above were bad, it’s time to really brace yourself for these British golden oldies…

  • A man walks into a bar with a roll of tarmac under his arm and says: “Pint please, and one for the road.”
  • I met a Dutch girl with inflatable shoes last week, phoned her up to arrange a date but unfortunately she’d popped her clogs.

Here you need a knowledge of English idioms to get the double meaning.

Well I hope that at least some of the jokes I chose made you laugh rather than groan. I have included a key for those you may not have “got” – after all not everyone is familiar with the Liverpool accent!


Didn’t get ‘em all?

“Portent” sounds the same as “poor tent”.

“Fungi” sounds the same as “fun guy”.

“Catch up” sounds like “ketchup”.

“Better” sounds like “butter”.

“Tank” can be a container for pet fish, or an army vehicle.

“Look” and “Luke” are pronounced the same in some accents eg Liverpool.

“Minnesota” sounds like “mini soda” in an American accent.

“One for the road” refers to the custom of having a drink to relax before driving home. Before the days of drink-driving regulations.

“To pop one’s clogs” is a casual idiom for dying.