Category Archives: 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.

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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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Holiday Greetings

It’s Sinterklaas season! This Dutch holiday (that has been getting a lot of flak from the international community) is more important than Christmas for Dutch kids. Though the rest of us have to wait until December 25th to get our presents, Dutch children get theirs on December 5th.

Whether you celebrate Sinterklaas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, New Year’s or something else, it seems to be the holiday season for everyone. You send people greeting cards that might even say “Season’s Greetings” so this is the perfect season to talk about the word GREETINGS.

Where you can’t use it

Greetings or Greetz is a favorite among Dutch speakers because groetjes, the literal translation, can be used in many instances:

Say hi to him for me = Doe de groetjes aan hem.

Cheers = groetjes

Bye bye! = groetjes!

(Dutch Word of the Day has done a great little post explaining the use of groetjes in Dutch.)

However, in none of the above instances do we say greetings in English where you say groetjes (or even groeten) in Dutch. Greetings is just not that common a word. Greetz is not a word in English at all, as evidenced by the Urban Dictionary entry: “A term often used incorrectly by non English speaking people who insist on “greeting” people at the end of their message.”

Because both greetings and greetz are used so commonly in Dutch, it can be hard for Dutch people to separate themselves from this word in English. In general, if you’re Dutch, you should take the English word greetings and add it to your do-not-use list.

You might see some old-fashioned usage of greetings occasionally, but as a modern English speaker, you wouldn’t actually say these things because they sound awkward, overly formal, and stuffy:

Greetings if they are still with us to Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, originators of the comic strip.

I reciprocate your seasonal greetings.

Have you been flooded with greetings all day, sir?

In short, do not use it to say hello or goodbye. Do not use it to refer to saying hello or goodbye unless you are trying to sound stuffy.

But of course, there are always exceptions. Around the holiday season, you might see the word greetings in a couple of very specific contexts. This still does not mean that you should use it outside of this context.

Where you can use it

If you are reading a greeting card aloud to someone and it says Season’s Greetings, you can say this out loud. But only in this context–don’t go around wishing people “Season’s Greetings” — instead wish them “Happy Holidays” or the specific holiday they are celebrating: “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy New Year”.

greeting card english

You can use greetings to greet someone if you are imitating a Martian coming to Earth and greeting humankind:

Greetings, Earthlings!

Along these lines, if you are very competent, you can dare to use it in other contexts but keep that mental picture of the alien in your head. I admit that I sometimes receive an email from Coursera with the salutation “Greetings, Courserians!” but I have to think that is done tongue-in-cheek.

You can use greet as a verb, commonly seen in writing (novels, news articles, and the like):

How to greet a customer

He’d usually greet me in the Devon dialect.

When independence came in 1963, the moran were there to greet it with their manyattas intact.

We had all risen to greet them.

Now, go forth and greet everyone appropriately!

Happy Sinterklaas!

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