Learning / teaching English (and other languages)

dick ton ary pleze

Just recently, a friend of mine asked for some pointers in regards to her new job teaching English. I obliged and quickly realised that I had a lot to say. I decided to outline my process for teaching English and give some of the resources that I use. My method is based on the writings of some of the world’s best polyglots, my experience learning French and Spanish, and my experience teaching English.

My method of teaching can be applied to any language with a few little tweaks, and it can be applied to teaching yourself. If you can find a teacher who is willing to follow instructions, you can direct your own classes. Before I get into the steps of the learning process, there are a few key principles that will make the difference between having a conversation with a native speaker in 2 months, and throwing in the towel. In my first session with a new student, I always explain my principles of language learning which you will find below.

Continue reading

One Minute of Massage – Language Practice With Your Partner


“You learn languages in 3 places: the crib, the bed, and the street.”
-Spanish saying


“El pollo, not el polla! One minute of massage! La polla means something else by the way”1.  It was my 3rd mistake in the last 10 minutes and now I owed my girlfriend a total of 10 minutes of massage. Time to switch back to English and get some massage time for myself.

For the last month we’ve been playing a game which has improved my Spanish speaking skills ten fold. The rules of the game are simple. Every time you are caught making an agreed upon mistake, you owe your partner 1 minute of massage. For example, my current challenge is about matching the gender of the article to the gender of the noun. If I say “una ejemplo” (instead of “un ejemplo”) then I owe my girlfriend a minute of massage. Her challenge is to make sure the grammatical number of the noun matches that of the article. So when she says “you owe me one minutes of massage!”, I smugly say, “don’t you mean one minute?”

Continue reading

The Three Little Piggies — From Swine to Sausage

For a year over 2011 and 2012 Mark Zuckerberg only ate meat from animals that he had personally killed in an attempt to remind himself what it means to eat meat. In the modern western world most people are completely disconnected from the food they eat. It’s so easy to get food that is ready made, or vegetables that have been picked, washed, peeled, chopped, and wrapped in plastic. If you’re a city dweller without connections, it’s very difficult to get your meat the old fashioned way. Meat bought from the supermarket or butcher is ready to go straight into the pan. If it wasn’t for the label, most people wouldn’t even know what they were eating. Actually, even with the label most people have no idea.

La matanza del cerdo – the killing of the pig – is an old tradition in Spain. But unfortunately, it’s not as common as it once was. In days gone by, it was common for small villages to get together once a year, kill a few pigs, and divide up the meat between the villagers. For one of my friends, this is still a family tradition in the mountainous country of northern Catalonia where her family lives. Earlier this year, Rob and I were lucky enough to be invited.

29/02/2014, 12:00am – Vic, Cataloña

The house

Continue reading

The Rolling Diaries

Rob has been keeping an account of our trips through GARMIN connect which goes with his GPS. Unfortunately the GPS tends not to direct us along bike paths so we usually just use it to record our trip data.

Day 1 – Edinburgh to Dunbar

Left Edinburgh at 3:30 PM, slightly later than our anticipated 11:00 AM departure. Weather was pretty shit but not too much wind. Fog set in later in the day and there was a mist that made everything pretty moist. Stayed with a bloke named Mark James who is a warmshowers.org member. We camped in his backyard and he gave us heaps of cycling tips and advice as well as lots of good organic food and showed us around Dunbar. We went to the local community garden which is at the hospital and planted a few Hazel trees. We cooked a meal on our little burner – macaroni and tuna stir through with a wild lettuce that Mark gave us. Cold night in the tent as both tent and sleeping bags are meant for… well… not Scotland in April. But that’s okay, we are still alive.

Click here from route data

Part of our lateness was due to my phone deciding to break on the morning of our departure. To fix it I had to wipe it and reinstall everything. This was taking way too long so I had to just stop it half way through, then put my computer in my bag and send it to Spain. Now I’m riding with only about a third of my music collection and half an audio book. I guess I’m going to be listening to a lot of podcasts…

Here is the recipe for the one pot meal we cooked. It’s easy, delicious and there’s minimal washing up. The only hard part is knowing how much water to add so that you end up with the right consistency when the pasta is al dente.  I suggest keeping a close eye on it and adding water little by little as required.

Fry onion, carrot in tin tuna oil ~ soft. + pimenton, thyme, bay leaf ~ 2-3mins. + tuna~2mins. +tin tomatoes, stock cube, and enough water so it’s a bit watery. Simmer covered for as long as you can/want. Add pasta, boil ~ pasta is cooked. Adjust seasoning (including acidity with lemon or lime). Serve over lettuce leaves (spinach is preferable) with lots of cheese on top.

Day 2 – Dunbar to Berwick Upon Tweed Continue reading

French Pronunciation Part 2: Consonants

This is a follow up lesson.  Part 1 can be found here.

Consonants in French are mostly the same as in English.  This post covers the main differences.  Vowels are the real challenge in French.  I still suggest you don’t dwell too long on pronunciation, otherwise you might get bored and quit. But, if you do really want to spend some extra time on it, focus on the vowels and see Part 1.

Last time we saw the following pangram:

Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume.

Check that you’ve still got the pronunciation with Google Translate. Remember that pronunciation from Google Translate isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty good starting point.  What follows below are a few rules about the pronunciation of consonants.

  • In general, don’t pronounce the last letter of the word.
  • qu sounds like “k”: quinze or banque.
  • ch sounds like “sh”: chaud.
  • ç sounds like “s”: ça va.
  • h is always silent.
  • s between two vowels sounds like a z: chaise.

The french R sound doesn’t exist in English other than when people snore.  It sounds like this: sucre.  If you can’t get it, don’t worry.  You will still be understood regardless and it will come eventually if you keep practicing.  

As I said earlier, don’t dwell on pronunciation.  It is boring and unfulfilling.  As long as you care about your pronunciation and try to pronounce each word as best you can, you will improve with time.

French Pronunciation Part 1: Vowels

Tongue Twister

From my time studying Spanish, I realised that people usually had bad pronunciation for one of two reasons.  The first reason – the one that I couldn’t understand – was that some people just don’t care about pronunciation.  If the only reason you want to learn French is to be able to order a baguette and check in to your ho(s)tel, then I guess pronunciation isn’t really that important.  In most cases you probably don’t even need to speak any French to be able do this.  But if you actually want to have conversations with people, perhaps make an acquaintance or even a friend, then good pronunciation will make things easier for everyone.

The more common reason I found that people had bad pronunciation was that they actually wanted to sound like a foreigner.  This I can understand, because accents are sexy and people want to hold on to their identity.  It’s the same reason that Italian Australians are making pasta by hand whilst their cousins back in Italy buy it from the shops.1 The thing these people don’t realise, is that even if you try really hard, you’re probably not going to lose your accent.  Think about how many people you know who have learnt English as a second language, but sound like a native speaker.  The few people you might be able to think of have probably lived in an English speaking country for many a year.  Do not worry about losing your accent.  If you try to hold on to it in the beginning you’ll probably end up sounding like a simpleton.

Now, on to the lesson…

Pronunciation is one of the hardest parts of French, and vowels are where most of the difficulties exist.  But, the good news is that you don’t need to nail it to be understood.  You will also pick up most of it when you are learning your vocabulary if you use Memrise and say each word aloud when you learn it.  So read this, but don’t dwell on it. If you do really want to spend some extra time solely on pronunciation, focus on the vowels and check this out.

The following sentence is a pangram.  It uses every letter of the french language in one sentence:

Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume.

Put this sentence into google translate and click the speaker symbol in the bottom right corner to see how it sounds.  Delete words so you can hear each word on it’s own, or put full stops between words to slow down the audio.  It’s not perfect pronunciation but it gives you a good idea.  Practice until you can say the whole sentence.  This gives you a good view of the pronunciation of the French language, but there are a lot of sounds missing.  What follows below are a few rules about the pronunciation of vowels.

  • e and eu sound like “eu”: le.
  • è, ê and ei sound like “eh”: tête.
  • é (at all times), and er and ez (when at the end of a word) sound like “ey”: été.
  • au, eau, and o all sound like “o”: chaud.
  • i, î, and ï all sound like “ee”: lit.
  • oi sounds like “wa”: boire.
  • Vowels followed by M or N have a nasal sound, except when followed by another vowel: un and une, or plan and plane.

One sound that doesn’t quite exist in English is the U sound.  There is a very subtle difference between the U and the OU sound.  If you can’t get this difference it usually wont matter, but there are times when it will.  Notice the difference in pronunciation between beaucoup which means many and beau cul which means beautiful arse.  It is the same difference in pronunciation between au dessous de which means below and au dessus de which mean above.

I had a lot of trouble differentiating between the U and the OU sounds when I first learned them.  Whenever you speak to a native french speaker, get them to check your pronunciation.  If you can’t get it, it helps to ask them to demonstrate how it’s supposed to be pronounced, then to demonstrate how you have been pronouncing it.  It helped me to first learn how to pronounce rouge, then use the same sound with other words.

As I said earlier, don’t dwell on pronunciation.  It is boring and unfulfilling.  As long as you care about your pronunciation and try to pronounce each word as best you can, you will improve with time.

I showed this to a native French speaker and the first thing they did when they heard Google Translate speaking was type this in:

Sale pute suce ma grosse bite.

1: I can’t back this up with facts.

Learn French in 30 days

I am going to try to become conversationally fluent in French in 1 month.  Is it possible?  Yes, definitely.  People have done it in far less time than that.  But is it possible for me…

I do have a few things on my side;

  • I’ve got the time that is required;
  • I’ve learned some spanish before (the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn new ones);
  • I already know some very basic French; and
  • I have a French girlfriend who can help me.  

On the other hand I have a terrible memory (just ask my friends), and this time I want to learn more French in 1 month than all the Spanish I learned in 4 semesters at university.

Luckily you don’t need to know that many words to become fluent in a language.  The below example is for Russian, but the numbers are similar for most languages.

the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences

Luckily French and English have similar roots, so I already know around 1700 words.  I’m not going to bother actively trying to learning these as I should be able to guess them when I need them.

So how many words do you need to learn to become proficient?  If you know the most common 3000 words of most languages, you will be able to read the popular newspapers.  To have a conversation you only need to know about 1200.  That is why my mission is to learn 1200 words in 30 days – 40 words a day.  The best way to do that that I’ve found is with a website called Memrise.  The website was created by Ed Cooke (A Grand Master of Memory) and Greg Detre (Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting).  These guys know a thing or two about memory, and they have incorporated these things into the website.  That should take care of the vocabulary.

As for the grammar, it’s not necessary to learn all of it.  To make things easier I will start with learning just the present tense “I” and informal “you” conjugations.  I will do this for the 3 types of regular verbs and the 24 or so most common irregular verbs.  Once I’ve learned this,  I should be able to use almost any verb in the present tense as long as I know the infinitive.

For the past and future tenses I will use the help of auxiliary verbs.  These verbs – such as to be, to want, to have (done something), to go, to be able, etc – allow me to use other verbs without conjugating.  The exception is “to have”, which will require me to learn one more conjugation for each of the regular verbs and a handful of irregulars.  But, learning this will allow me to use almost any verb in the past tense.

To learn the sentence structure of the language I am going to use the help of Tim Ferriss.  In his book 4 Hour Chef (which I highly recommend to everyone), he gives a few sentences that when translated and analysed, can show the basic structure of the language.  Tim gives the full set in his book, but here are some that I pulled from learn-spanish-smart.com:

  1. The apple is red. La manzana es roja.
  2. It is John’s apple. Es la manzana de Juan.
  3. I give John the apple. Le doy la manzana a Juan.
  4. We give him the apple. Le damos la manzana a él.
  5. He gives it to John. El se la da a Juan.
  6. She gives it to him. Ella se la da a él.

Once I understand the function and the order of each word in those sentences, I should be able to construct my own sentences.

Phew… That was a mouthful.  Only time will tell if this is going to work or not.

San Fermín 2012 – The Running of the Bulls

San Fermín 2012 – Pamplona, Spain.

The Running of the Bulls

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The trip out to Pamplona for us started on Thursday morning, the 5th of July, from a coach platform at one of the busier stations in Madrid. The five hour bus ride, including a brief stop and bus change over in the small town of Soria, wasn’t unpleasant as it allowed for us to catch up on some much needed sleep. We were still quite jet lagged and hadn’t done ourselves many favours by “taking it easy” after arriving in Madrid. However, I won’t go into that too much here as there is a whole other blog still to come which imparts insight into our many “Rookie Errors”.  This mistake, amongst numerous other topics, will be covered thoroughly.

We arrived in Pamplona in the early afternoon and found a representative from our tour company up above the bus station on the street. Sceptical looks were exchanged between Jazza and me when the British man, who had introduced himself as Sam, said that we were the first people from that particular company that he had seen and that he was starting to “get worried”. And now… so were we. We decided to have a walk around Pamplona first in order to get our bearings and it wasn’t long before we were a little lost. Not a whole lot. Just enough.

Having walked around enough of the city by this stage, we decided not to wait for the later buses that would shuttle us out to the campsite; Camping Ezcaba (about 15 minutes by coach from the centre of town). We decided to take a taxi instead (around 12 euros between us) but first we would need to purchase the appropriate apparel that would distinguish us as true revellers of San Fermín. Normal attire is all white and red clothing, that is; long white pants, white shirt, preferably white shoes, red sash for around the waist and a red kerchief which is to be worn around the neck for the duration of the festival (but only AFTER 12:00 pm when the opening ceremony officially kicks off). Until then, it’s acceptable to wear the kerchief around your left wrist. Having purchased all of the necessities for no more than 20 euros each and, with the help of some cheeky Spanish from Jazza,  we rode in style out to the campgrounds in the best taxi in all Pamplona (so the driver told us) – a Jaguar.

Upon arrival, it became fairly obvious what we had stumbled into. Camping Ezcaba, AKA Little Australia, was 90% full of Australians – three quarters of them Bogans. I don’t want to spoil too much here either as there will be much more to hear about in the up-and-coming blog entitled “Bogans Abroad”. For now, suffice it to say that there were far too many dudes listening to David Guetta and having push-up competitions.

We found our tents with the help of a volunteer from our tour company “Pillow” and we soon realised that the Pillow campers were highly outnumbered. The campground was a sea of green tents and southern cross tattoos, belonging to the “Fanatics” tour company. Look them up at http://www.thefanatics.com/… have a laugh and never book anything with them EVER. From observation, the people that booked with this company were the loudest, rudest, most bogan, idiotic, drunkest, obnoxious, and most ignorant people in the campsite. In saying that, we met a few Fanatics who we don’t want to lump in the same basket and who were genuinely really good people so ummm if you’re reading this guys… soz lol… try http://www.pillow.co.uk next time.

The first day of the festival begins on the 6th of July at 12:00 pm and involves a lot of pushing, shoving, massive crowds and sangria. There isn’t a bull run on this day; the first being on the 7th at 8:00 am. At about 11:00 am on the day of the opening ceremony, Jazza, Ben, Cassie and I all purchased appropriate amounts of sangria and made our way to the main square where the town hall is. For an hour, we waited and watched as the crowds grew, the tension mounted and people became more and more restless. Apart from showering each other with gallons and gallons of sangria, the crowd also beg to be moistened (ha) by the fortunate onlookers who had managed to secure apartments with balconies which overlooked the square. They would beg for sangria and water to be poured and, when the decibels from the screams reached the right level, the pseudo-gods would oblige, showering the crowds with buckets of mystery fluids.

We spoke afterwards and we all agreed that even our girlfriends weren’t as tight as the crowd at the opening ceremony of the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona. Cassie swears, and I believe her, that at one point her feet weren’t even touching the ground and she was being held up solely by the massive amounts of pressure that the crowds were creating. After the numbers had dissipated, we found a bar full of locals and drunk and danced with an old man who looked like he was by himself. Not for long! He didn’t speak a word of english but he taught us many dance moves that I hope to never forget.

The next day was the first running of the bulls and the one that we didn’t want to miss so we tried to get to bed relatively early. We had to be up at 5:00 am in order to get into town and get a spot so that we wouldn’t be kicked out. As it turns out, even with this early mark, we were still only metres away from being shafted out of the course by the police. Instead of undertaking the arduous task of trying to describe the sheer adrenaline and fear that we felt whilst taking part in this ridiculous yet amazing tradition, we felt it more appropriate to compile a short film with the footage taken from the GoPro HD Hero2 cameras that both Jazza and Ben had strapped to their chests during the run. The footage is over two separate but not consecutive days and if it makes your heart beat even a hundredth of the speed of ours on the day, then we can say that it is a success.

Please enjoy and, as always, Viva San Fermín.

State of Origin in Madrid

When we found out that we were going to be in Madrid for State of Origin game three, we were a little concerned. For me this is the biggest game of the year. I’d rather see QLD beat NSW at a State of Origin decider than Australia win the World Cup – something that the Spaniards may find hard to fathom.

We arrived in Madrid at 7pm on Tuesday night and kick-off was to be at 12 pm on Wednesday morning. I’d looked on google and I couldn’t find anything that looked like a reliable way to watch the game. We couldn’t guarantee ourselves an Internet connection so the best option for us was to go to a pub to watch the great contest. I got on to an internet forum that said that the best chance of catching the game was to go to an Irish pub. We eventually got onto the internet on Wednesday morning and found an Irish pub that said it was going to show the game. Luckily we found it quite easily, close to one of the many underground metro stations.

As soon as I walked in, I felt at home. Almost everyone in the pub was Australian. We were all dressed so similarly and were were all there for one reason. We found somewhere to stand and started watching the game. The bar had 2 projectors, one at each end, and we soon found out that it was divided down the middle with Queenslanders at one end and New South Welshmen at the other. We were at the wrong end and surrounded by blues supporters.

There wasn’t much room at the QLD end and the blues around us were friendly enough so we stayed there. With 5 minutes to go at 20 all, NSW were looking dangerous. Rob said to me, “this is too intense dude, I’m going to go watch with the Queenslanders.”. There was even more tension on the QLD side than on the NSW side but within minutes we had scored a drop goal to put us in the lead by 1 point. We were ecstatic, but we knew that it wasn’t over yet. For the next few minutes all eyes were glued on the screen and whenever we made a courageous play, our fearless leader (a haggard looking, old Queensland battler) would do the countdown… “1.. 2.. 3.. QUEENSLANDER!!”

There was only one minute to go now and the tension was mounting fiercely. Then Rob said something bad. “I can’t wait to celebrate a QLD victory”. He was immediately silenced by everyone around us with loud “shooshing” noises and thumps from the touching of wood. Sure enough, with 30 seconds to go, NSW had decent field position and 6 tackles. Luckily they made their final mistake, and with a mighty “QUEENSLANDER” roar, the game was over and QLD had won 7 games in a row. The New South Welshmen left hastily and for the next few hours we basked in the glory of a magical Queensland victory, thousands of kilometres from home.