Category Archives: Language Learning

How language transformed humanity

Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

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March 10, 2014 · 12:00 pm

Quit wasting time: 5 ways to study English more effectively

You think you’re studying the right way, but you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere? Most likely you just need to change your approach to become more efficient. Fluency in English doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen in school. So take your learning outside of the classroom and make improving your English an active part of your daily life.

5. Be consistent

Invest (a little time every day) in a vocabulary trainer on your smartphone or tablet.

4. Focus on the right things

Groups of words, not individual words. If you read one online article per work day in English, take one expression from the article and add it to your vocabulary list. Take expressions from your (English-speaking) colleagues’ emails and add them to your vocabulary trainer. You probably know many of the words already, but can you use them together with such flair?

3. Write every day

When you talk, you need someone to listen. Writing can happen alone and it is one of the easiest ways to convert your passive knowledge into active knowledge. You can write your emails, your to-do list, your meeting minutes in English, or even start a blog or journal.

2. Use your down time

Change your subtitles from Dutch to English. Dutch subtitles are a crutch that is preventing your brain from processing the English that you hear on the TV all the time.

1. Connect with context

This is for all the high school students out there: no one can memorize lists of random words. Add context to your vocabulary lists: write a short, catchy sentence for every word. You’ll have an easier time remembering the words within a context.

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Writing in English: How to get the passive voice right

It’s hard enough to write in the active voice, but once you start writing in the passive voice, things can go haywire. Let’s start with the basics.

How do I form the passive voice? (in four easy steps)

Example sentence: We made a mistake.

1. Identify the verb and verb tense in your active voice sentence.

made, past tense

2. Make your object your new subject.

A mistake…

3. Put the verb “to be” in the tense that you identified in #1.

A mistake was…

4. Put the past participle of the verb after it.

A mistake was made.

When do I use the passive voice?

Not all the time! Not even often! Please read this post about when and why we use the passive voice.

For Dutch speakers…

If you’re Dutch and writing at a high level, the passive voice is going to trip you up. It’s all about the words is and was: we use them in both languages but in vastly different places.

When you use this in Dutch

…use this in English!

 wordt  is
 werd  was, has been
 is  was, has been
 was  had been (was, has been)

The trick is to avoid using is and was in English in the same place as in Dutch. It will be tempting, but resist!

Dutch to English Passive Voice:

1. Deze afdeling wordt goed geleid.
This department is managed well.
2. De binnenlandse markt is hard geraakt door de verhoging van de BTW.
The domestic market was hit hard by the VAT increase.
3. De ideale oplossing is gevonden.
The ideal solution has been found.
4. De eerste auto werd gemaakt in 1886.
The first car was made in 1886.

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Filed under Language Learning, Writing in English

Top 10 English mistakes among Dutch speakers and how to correct them

Dear Dutch compatriots,english utrecht

Maybe this year you resolved to improve your English on a professional level. In order to get you started on the right foot, please find below 10 small changes that you can make today that will greatly improve your fluency.

10. I live in Utrecht for two years.

Dutch tenses are used differently than English ones, even if they look similar. Beware! Whenever you have “for 3 months” or “since December” use the form “I have lived” and not “I live”

✔I have lived in Utrecht for two years and I’ve worked here for three months now.

9.  Maybe I do it soon.

English uses the future tense more than Dutch does. Start pronouncing the ‘ll and your English will noticeably improve: I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, it’ll, we’ll, they’ll. Read more about when to use will in English.

✔Maybe I’ll do it soon. Don’t worry, I’ll get it done before the end of the week.

8. Yes. No.

You know this: English is less direct and more polite than Dutch. Answering with just one word sounds rude (I know you don’t mean to be!) Remember the rule of three to be more polite:

✔Yes I do. / No I don’t. / Yes I have. / No I haven’t.

Have you finished that presentation yet?

No I haven’t.

7. Hereby

You only use this word in English if you’re writing a contract. Since you probably aren’t doing that, throw this word away. When attaching a document to an email, use

✔Please find the revised version of my article attached.

6. on school

Many prepositions are used similarly, so it’s hard to tell which prepositions are different. On is an easy one though: Are you sitting on the roof of your school? If not, then you are

✔at school

5. Greetings

There are innumerable ways to translate groetjes or groeten, none of which are greetingsRead the blog post about how (not) to use greetings.

✔Cheers/Take care/Kind regards

4. The report is published.

Is published is the past tense in Dutch but the present tense in English, so it usually does not translate exactly. Read more about how to get the passive right in English.

✔The report was published (yesterday). / The report has (already) been published.

3. I am having an idea.

Certain verbs cannot be used in the ing form, even when you’re talking about right now. The most commonly misused one is have because have also appears in many expressions where it means something else, like

We’re having dinner (have = eat)

He’s having a great time (have a great time = enjoy oneself)

When have only means have, it can only appear one way:

✔I have an idea. He has a plan. We have our own company.

2. When I would do that, you wouldn’t like it.

There are actually two issues here: when and would do. Read the post about if/when and conditional sentences.

✔If I did that, you wouldn’t like it.

1. I have seen that yesterday.

I have seen/I saw sounds a lot like ik heb gezien/ik zag. However, you use each form in a completely different way than you do in Dutch. When an action is finished (last week, on Tuesday, yesterday), you have to use I saw even though you would make the sentence with ik heb gezien in Dutch:

✔I saw that yesterday.

If you learned something from this post, please share it with your friends or colleagues!

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Filed under Business English, Language Learning

Why you should be talking to yourself

english language learning utrecht

Have you been trying to learn a new language (or even English–aren’t we always learning?) and can’t seem to get really comfortable speaking? You do your homework, review your notes, try to consume English-language media…but when you have to turn around and talk to a real person, it just doesn’t feel so fluent?

You are missing one thing. You should be talking to yourself.

Out loud.

Crazy, you say? Not so, according to PsychCentral, who asserts that talking to yourself is a sign of sanity and may even make you smarter.

And how else are you going to get in hours of practice conversing in a new language without frustrating the kind native speakers who volunteer to talk to you or picking up other learners’ bad habits?

I spoke to myself a lot, both when I was learning French and when I was learning Dutch. Especially in the Netherlands, I always got comments on how fast I was improving and how fluid my speaking was becoming. It didn’t happen all on its own. I had to talk to myself a lot to get there! I am now no longer actively learning either, and have noticed that the less I practice speaking, the less easy it is the next time I need to do it for real.

It’s easy to practice reading and listening–you don’t need anyone’s help. But usually people shy away from practicing speaking because they worry about what others will think when they make mistakes. When the only audience is you, you don’t have to worry. Just put it out there and listen to how it sounds. Correct yourself. Say the same sentence five times until it feels right.

Does the idea of talking to yourself still feel a little funny? Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Read out loud to yourself.

2. Ask yourself questions, then answer them.

3. Tell the story of your day as you’re brushing your teeth at night.

4. Practice giving your opinion on a topic that interests you or a topic that came up in conversation last week that you weren’t prepared for.

5. Practice planning a get-together with friends or talking about what you do for a living.

6. If you’re a more advanced speaker, then you have to do the same things native speakers do: practice that sales pitch out loud. Practice your presentation out loud.

Remember this: you can’t improve your speaking unless you speak. Speaking out loud is different from imagining a conversation in your head. Your vocal chords and mouth have to get used to new forms and vibrations.

Plus, if you talk to yourself, then the next time you speak to the native speakers they are that much more impressed because they don’t know about the time you put in practicing when they weren’t there. Good luck!

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Turning over a new leaf

It’s January and everyone seems to be turning over a new leaf. Here a leaf is like a page in a book, not a leaf like something that falls from the trees in the autumn. This is an empty page, a chance to start over, to begin anew. When we turn over a new leaf we try to do better, to be better than we were before.

english lessons utrecht

Likewise, we can use leaf as a verb when talking about turning pages: to leaf through a book.

He leafed through the book quickly, trying to find the answer.

When you leaf through something, you turn the pages quickly, looking briefly at each page or even every couple of pages. You don’t read every page. You generally leaf through a book in the bookshop when deciding whether or not to buy it.

If you like this post, you might want to sign up for the newsletter and get free English tips in your inbox!

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She fell off the face of the Earth.

I haven’t posted here for the last few weeks and I’ve been pretty absent on social media too. (It’s ok if you didn’t notice!) That’s because I was on vacation! However, to the outside world, it might have looked like I fell off the face of the Earth. When you say this about someone, you imply that you haven’t seen or heard from them in a long time. They have, essentially, disappeared, or they are not making contact. It sounds pretty extreme, I know, but that’s the fun of it!

Why do we say the face of the Earth? This is not your eyes-nose-mouth face, but the face that means surface. If you fall off the face of the Earth, you can imagine falling off a cliff like this one in Ireland:

english lessons utrecht

This expression seems to imply that the Earth is flat and that we’ve fallen off the edge, never to be heard from again.

Here are some other expressions with the face of the Earth:

She’s the nicest person on the face of the Earth. (~in the world)

He dropped off/disappeared off the face of the Earth. (~completely disappeared)

The virus was wiped off the face of the Earth. (~was eradicated)

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New Year’s Resolutions and how to make them stick

Resolution is just a fancy word for goal. When we make New Year’s Resolutions, we are just setting goals.

We’re setting them for the whole year though! Most people can’t follow through on their self-challenges for a whole year, but what about for a month? Have you ever thought about setting yourself a 30 day challenge?

Matt Cutts gives a short (3 1/2 minute) presentation about why 30 day challenges are much more effective than big, crazy resolutions. This is an apt discussion for the New Year. Have you considered learning a new English word every day for 30 days? Or simply writing 250 words of whatever you want in English for 30 days? This structure can be especially useful for those who are trying to write academic articles: 250 words a day for a month. Check out the talk below.

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December 30, 2013 · 12:00 pm

How to talk about your “appointments” in English

Appointments are an integral part of Dutch life and having to plan get-togethers far in advance is typically Dutch. Some foreigners find this hard to adapt to in the beginning. They say it lacks spontaneity, especially those foreigners who come from the lower latitudes where things are a bit more chaotic spontaneous.english making appointments

I think this is reflective in our use of language: an appointment is something that has been scheduled properly far in advance with one person. A get-together with just one friend at a time seems pretty common in Dutch culture.

However, many times (in other places) social events are not usually planned out so far in advance and frequently happen with groups of people rather than just one. You don’t make an appointment with a group of friends– you get together.

There are so many types of appointments to be made that in English they don’t all fall under one word.

You can use appointment if the meeting is professional in nature, or if you are consuming a service: an appointment at the dentist.

If it’s romantic in nature, then it’s a date.

date

If you’re in a very formal situation and have to excuse yourself without giving a real reason, you can say I have a prior engagement.

However, more casual situations use a completely different sentence structure in English.

If you’re meeting friends then you say: I’m getting together with friends tonight, like at a café.

cafe

If you’re going to grab a beer with some colleagues, then you say: We’re getting beers after work, want to join us?

An appointment in both of these instances sounds stuffy and proper.

You can use a general expression (I have plans) or you can be more precise about your plans.

I’m having dinner with a friend on Tuesday night, can we do Wednesday?

We’re going to the movies on Friday–do you want to join us?

We’re going biking on Saturday if the weather’s nice.

So..

Ik heb an afspraak. = I’ve got an appointment. I’m meeting someone. I have plans.

Bonus tip: Don’t want to say what you’re doing or where you’re going and you’re young (at heart)? Try “Got to go, I’ve got a thing (later).”

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Can or May? The final word. Finally.

Frequently in elementary school, well-intended teachers make you ask permission to go to the bathroom using “May I…?” rather than “Can I…?” (which is what everyone wants to say), leaving grammatically-inept children looking like this:

can or may English

Now the OED has given the final word on the correctness of “Can I go to the bathroom?” in their post Can or May?

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that “the ‘permission’ use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English. ”

I love the British, but for my poor American ears, can we say this more clearly?

not + incorrect = correct (two negatives, right?)

So, “the ‘permission’ use of can is in fact correct in standard English.”

They go on to say that using can in an “asking permission” context is more informal, whereas using “may” is more formal.

Thank you, OED, for giving us the final word word on the topic. If anyone tries to correct you now (I have a certain annoying high school geography teacher in mind, or a number of elementary school teachers), you can just say that the OED says it’s fine. So it’s fine.

So let elementary school children ask away: “Can I go to the bathroom?” and don’t make them sit there and wait while they repeat the “correct” sentence back to you (“May I go…”)

Little kids have tiny bladders.

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