I studied French at university, in fact I lived in Paris for five years so I reached an advanced level. I understood everything and I had near-native pronunciation. But that was twenty years ago now (!). I still understand everything I hear and read but I can’t speak because I have lost the habit. I have lived in Italy for 14 years now and I am used to speaking Italian. To speak French you need to make different shapes with your mouth and particularly with your lips and to do it well you need to train yourself. A big problem that language learners often have is the opportunity to speak. Maybe you don’t have anyone to talk to, or you speak only very little. When you then do have the chance you speak, you are not used to speaking out loud and the words feel unfamiliar in your mouth.
What if you could improve your listening, speaking confidence and pronunciation by talking to yourself? No I am not going mad, the technique really exists and it’s called shadowing. There is a lot of material on Youtube related to watching films or Tv series or using podcasts. Thanks to audiobooks you can also shadow (follow and observe closely) the words of your favourite authors! Shadowing is a real workout for your mouth, it’s not just listening and repeating, it’s copying the rhythm, intonation, speech patterns and pauses of a native speaker in real time.
What is the best way to do shadowing?
With practice you can develop your own method but to get started I recommend you try the following
1. Choose a book you really like.
2. Find an audiobook version of the book with a reader whose voice you like or would like to emulate.
3. Listen to an extract from the audio book for general understanding.
4. Listen again and follow with the text a couple of times.
5. Try to work out the meaning of any new words by the context and intonation of the speaker before looking them up.
6. Mark the text to remind yourself of the correct pronunciation, especially word stress, linking and intonation (see picture for an example from the Preface of Frankenstein)
7. Pause the recording after each sentence or phrase and repeat.
8. If there is a word you have difficulty with, say it on its own a few times. You can even try dividing the word into syllables and then putting it back together.
9. Read along with the speaker at the same time as he / she speaks.
10. Get up, walk around, act out the text, it will help add emotion and meaning. Speak loudly.
11. Continue until you can repeat at the same pace as the speaker.
12. Record yourself and listen back to it to evaluate your progress.
I like this Libravox audiobook because it is read by a young girl, and Mary Shelley was only 18 when she created the story!
Please if you do try, let me know how you get on. One of my students who has tried it has said it has really benefitted his confidence!
Next Friday October 26 there will be the first Lost in Classics book club meetings both online and in person. I am very pleased to say that the live meeting at my house is already fully booked! There are still places available for the group video call so if you have been thinking about joining in but are still hesitating I hope to convince you with these five benefits of joining a book club.
1. It's motivating!
Every Saturday morning I have a group video call with my two colleagues I met on a course about online teaching. We tell each other what we have done to improve our work in the past week and set ourselves goals for the next. We encourage and support each other even if we don't do everything we would like. We just keep each other in check and remind each other of the importance of keeping focused. It is really useful to talk over any problems and get advice. Just the thought that I have to 'report back' to them pushes me into action. A fixed appointment with fellow readers can be just as stimulating. You share a common passion and desire but also problems and difficulties. Every month in a book club each member takes on a specific role for example looking at language, characters or plot and shares their findings with the others in the group. The sense of responsibility for the quality of another person's experience can be highly motivating.
2. You can share the load!
In a book club each member takes on a specific role, changing every month. For example, one person looks at the main themes, another at the setting, another at words and grammar etc. By sharing roles you don't have to read or understand the whole novel if you don't have the time. You can just concentrate on one aspect. So, if you have a lot of time that month you can research more, if you have little time you can focus on an extract or chapter and report what you find there. Your contribution can also be in the form of a picture, a poem or a short video that represents your ideas best. It's up to you. The other members in their turn will decide their contribution so that at the end of the meeting you will have an overall vision of the novel.
3. You could read as many as 12 English books a year!
Would you like to read more but have difficulty getting started? By joining a book club you could read a book a month, that's 12 in a year! Imagine that the 12 books cover 12 different genres, historical periods or contexts. Imagine that each novel gives you the opportunity to go into different vocabulary and grammar issues. Imagine how many characters or themes you can meet! If I had a tattoo it would read 'I have lived a thousand lives'. Wouldn't that be wonderful!
The members of a book club can decide on the books they would like to read together. Of course you don't have to read every month. The quality of your experience is worth more than quantity here. We are 'lost in classics'. Think of your favourite novel. How wonderful is it to be caught up in another world? When reality gets tough you can always take refuge in another world and learn from another person's experience.
4. Practice speaking in a comfortable, non-threatening environment!
Speaking spontaneously in front of strangers can be intimidating, even for a native speaker! In a book club you can make friends from all over the world, from the familiar setting of your sofa, wearing your pyjamas if you want! You can build relationships with people who share the same passions and interests so that you can feel comfortable expressing yourself. For each role I will provide you with a worksheet that will give you some ideas and things to focus on. You can prepare your contribution in advance, even writing down exactly what you want to say or just making some notes. The most important thing is to be clear and communicate your message, don't worry about small mistakes. If you prefer you can look online for something that expresssses your ideas in the way you would like to and share that at first: a picture, a poem or a video. You choose exactly how much you feel comfortable sharing in that moment.
5. Make friends!
As I said before a book club is above all a way to connect with others that have your same interests and perhaps goals. You can never have too many friends. It is thanks to online friendships and collaborations that I am speaking to you today. We can build a community of like-minded people exchanging ideas and opinions. Let's share our love of reading in English!
I hope I have convinced you to give it a try. Contact me for details of how to join the next meeting!
Next month in the Group we will read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Many of you will already know the background to the creation of the story. Mary Shelley at the age of 18 was on holiday with her husband, the poet Percy, visiting the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva where Lord Byron was staying when one evening Byron suggested that they all write their own ghost story and Mary's contrinbution was what became Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus.
Many of my colleagues have been talking recently about the benefits of creative writing. Differently from speaking, when you write you have time to reflect on what you are saying and how you express yourself. It is the ideal opportunity to try out any new vocabulary or grammatical structures you have found whilst reading or listening. Reading is a great way to see words and phrases in a meaningful context. Imagine how much more memorable those words would be if you wrote the story yourself! An online student of mine has recently asked me to write him a story using new words he would like to memorize better. I really enjoyed trying to weave the words and phrases he gave me into a story, but I think that this experience could be even more powerful for a person learning a language. If you use words to talk about something that comes from you, your experience or even your imagination, you make them your own, you master them.
Here are the words that my student gave me:
Dainty ( or daintiness)
Bells start chiming
It would never have occurred to me to ...
He mumbled something under his breath.
Walk something off
Lend itself to something
And here is the story I created
The evening lent itself to an after dinner walk. It was cold but not damp, that short of crisp cold that can be envigorating. I headed down the sinuous Union Canal that wove its intricate path through the capital. Edinborough seemed like a treasure trove of possibilities to a budding young doctor like me. I was the first in my family to attend university and that made me proud but at the same time the investment my parents were making in me weighed heavy on my shoulders, I had to prove I deserved their trust. At the strike of midnight the church bells started chiming and almost simultaneously the street lights dimmed, the council was cutting back on spending and the measly light made me feel quite twitchy as it strew eery shadows. In the haze a pasty girl in a dainty dress dashed past me, casting a whiff of her sweet floral perfume into the night air. Her scent took me back to the party and I immediately recognized her as the girl my friends and I had all seen loudly having it out with a young man we had presumed was her boyfriend.
It would never usually have occurred to me to follow her. I was a shy boy and quite inept at approaching strange women. But Dutch courage and the incessant ringing of the bells provoked a rift from my usual behavior. I hurried after her. ‘Miss! Wait! Are you OK?’ I cried. She quickened her pace so I reached out to her and managed to grab her arm, squeezing it perhaps too tight. ‘Leave me alone!’ she snapped indignantly as she struggled to get free and ran off. I froze: the sticking point was that I was a stranger and she must have been afraid of me. I retreated to consider my predicament and must have got lost in my own thoughts and lost track of time. I was awakened from my reverie when I heard a whining coming from just around the corner. I took a surreptitious glance and caught sight of a taut arm protruding from the back of an abandoned building. Overcome with fear I tiptoed closer and there was the girl, stumped against the wall, holding her arm to her side to protect a wound. Her face was bashed in. I tried to remember my first aid and as I tried to I grabbed her arm to get a better look at the wound she winced. ‘Help me’ Elena mumbled under her breath. I managed to whisper ‘It’s all ok now', before she fainted in my arms. We have never been apart since.
I hope you liked the story, but even if you didn't, that's not the point. The point is to use words to internalize them, no matter how weird it seems.
So, with Halloween coming up, like Byron I challenge you to write a ghost story. Challenge yourself to use some more difficult structures. This is a good way to make them more familiar. If you would like to send me your story, I can comment on the English you use. As for the content of the story, the stranger the better!
If you would like to receive a recording of me reading the story above, feel free to contact me. It is a pleasure for me.
As always, lost in classics
As I said last week, one of the most appealing aspects of Agatha Christie's writing are her colourful dialogues. And there is nothing more colourful than idiomatic phrases. They add interest to your language and are, well, just fun! Let's look at 5 idiomatic phrases from 'The Body in the Library'.
1. Chapter 6 - Colonel Melchett tended toward a blunt brutality. "No good crying over spilt milk," he said sharply. "The girl's dead, strangled. You're lucky that she wasn't strangled in your hotel. This puts the inquiry in a different county and lets your establishment down extremely lightly. But certain inquiries have got to be made, and the sooner we get on with it the better. You can trust us to be discreet and tactful. So I suggest you cut the cackle and come to the horses. Just what, exactly, do you know about the girl?"
Originally 'Cut the dialect and come to the horses', this was a favourite saying of Alexander Ducrow, a famous early 19th century equestrian, circus rider and great showman.
He believed that in a show the most important thing was the action, not the dialogue and his favourite part of the show naturally the part was with the horses. By 'dialect', he meant dialogue which in our version has been replaced by 'cackle' literally meaning a raucous cry of a bird like a hen or a goose but as birds are often associated with women, the meaning is extended here to indicate a group of women laughing or chatting loudly. So the whole phrase basically means 'Stop wasting time chatting and get down to action'.
2. Chapter 9 - "Oh, yes, Harper, it's all perfectly possible. But there's still one thing to be done. Cherchez l'homme." "What? Oh, very good, sir." Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded Melchett's joke, although, owing to the excellence of the colonel's French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.
'Cherchez l'homme' is a variant of the expression 'Cherchez la femme', which comes from the novel 'The Mohicans of Paris' by Alexandre Dumas.
Literally translated as 'Look for the woman', it means that if there is something a bit unusual about a man's behaviour, there's quite often a woman behind it. The phrase became a cliché in popular fiction and appears sveral times in Agatha Christie's works.
3. Chapter 11 - Sir Henry was wondering, as he went upstairs, just what had induced the sudden urgency of his friend's message. Conway Jefferson was not the type of man who sent urgent summonses to anyone. Something quite out of the usual must have occurred, decided Sir Henry.
Jefferson wasted no time in beating about the bush.
'To beat about the bush' means to avoid talking about what is important, digressing, being indirect or evasive. The term originally comes from bird hunting. Hunters would literally beat the ground surrounding bushes to encourage birds to come out from their resting or hiding places, so that they could be taken by other hunters. Some saw the bearting as a waste of time instead of getting down to the real job of directly taking the birds.
4. Chapter 15 - "It sounds to me the kind of village domestic problem that is right up Miss Marple's street. She's very sharp, you know." The superintendent smiled. He said, "I'll say you're right. Nothing much gets past her."
If something is just or right up your street, it is the kind of thing you like or know about. For example, if you like classic novels, lostinclassics should be right up your street (or alley in American English)!. Your alley or street is your home territory and so something to be comfortable with.
5. Chapter 15 - "I don't know. Before Ruby Keene came on the scene I happen to know that he had left his money between Mark Gaskell and Mrs Jefferson. I don't see why he should now change his mind about that. But of course he might do so." Superintendent Harper agreed. "You never know what bee a man is going to get in his bonnet; especially when he doesn't feel there's any moral obligation in the disposal of his fortune. No blood relations in this case."
If you 'have a bee in your bonnet' about something, that thing, however small, is bothering or worrying you so much that you cannot forget about it. A bonnet is an old-fashioned hat that was tied under the chin. Imagine how annoying it would be to actually have a bee inside your hat! This phrase is more than 500 years old, evolving from the original, 'have a bee in your head' in Gavin Douglas's Aeneis, 1513.
I have a bee in my bonnet about the recycling system in my building. The bins are only open at certain times, but the test of the day they are locked. The lady who lives on the ground floor has taken charge of the situation. But who gave her the keys? Who made her in charge? Why? I am talking about this with all the neighbours. And you? Do you have a bee in your bonnet about anything at the moment?
When you have to talk to someone about something delicate do you beat around the bush?
Is this article right up your street?
Write your answers in the comments and don't forget to tell me if you find any other interesting idiomatic phrases as you read!
This month in the group we are reading The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. If you don't have a copy you can find links in the BOOKS! section of this website. Agatha Christie's dialogues are so natural you can hear the character's voices as you read.
When you read or listen to anything sooner or later you will come across a phrasal verb. (Oh look there's one in that sentence too!) The Body in the Library is no exception, in fact this week I will make a new infographic on phrasal verbs from the book.
Everyone I speak to has difficulty with these verbs and asks themself what is the best way to learn them or at least understand them a little better.
Let me try to help. It is said that you can speak English using only a few words. This is true only because one word can have many different meanings. In a previous post in May, I explained that in the past words of French or Latin origin were used to talk about more formal subjects while shorter Old English words were prefered for everyday conversation. Short words are the people's words, they are familiar. Short words and phrases and no specialist terms are characteristics of English that I think are behind its international 'popularity'. As society evolved and people extended their horizons beyond their immediate surroundings they applied simple words, understood by everyone, to explain more complex or abstract concepts. So they took short verbs and added prepositions stretching the physical meaning of the preposition and using it figuratively.
Instead of trying to learn the meanings of lists of phrasal verbs that you may never use or that can have different meanings in different situations, it is better for you to get to know well the physical meanings of prepositions and imagine how those prepositions can be interpreted figuratively. Close your eyes and try to create a picture in your mind. Let's think about the preposition 'up'. 'Up' means towards a higher position, superior. In fact if you look up to someone you respect them because they are superior to you in status or skill. If you want to arrive at that person's level, but you are a bit behind you can try to catch up with them.
Maybe we can say that you look up a word in a dictionary to increase your knowledge. We can also think that if something is in a higher position it is easier to see so if we look a word up we bring it to our attention, into our view.
If you put some water into a glass, the level of the water will rise. When the water reaches the top of the glass, the glass will be full. By extension, 'up' also means completely, totally. Imagine you go to a shop but find the door is locked. You look in through the window. The lights are off, there is no one there. You tell yourself the shop is shut but you can come back tomorrow. Now imagine you look closer. The shelves are bare, the posters are down, the shop is shut up, permanently closed. It will not open again.
Have you taken up any new hobbies recently? 'Take up'? Imagine you see a guitar on a table. You hold the guitar in your hands and you raise it to your chest and start to play some notes. You have taken up playing the guitar, you have started a new hobby or activity.
Who brought you up (bring up)? When you were a baby your parents took your hand and accompanied you as you advanced in years until you became an adult.
How can you look at the prepositions 'down', 'off', 'back' or 'after'? Next time you see a phrasal verb try to picture the situation in your mind and consider how the preposition affects what you see or which direction you look at it from.
If you would like to receive my phrasal verb infographic this week write me your email address in the comments. Then you can try out this method with verbs from Agatha Christie's 'The Body in the Library'. Happy reading!
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.