Wednesday, August 01, 2012

You Already Know English

English is hard, I'm told. But to make learning it easier you just need to look inside your own memories. This guide will help.

You Already Know...

... The Alphabet
A surprising number of otherwise competent English speakers can't pronounce the letters of the alphabet. For example, native German speakers mix up I and E. But when I ask what kind of phone they have, they say 'an iPhone' without hesitation. In short, they know the connection between the letter I and the sound of the letter I, they just don't know they know.

Having said that, I'm convinced they sometimes they get it wrong on purpose to piss me off.

Letter You Can't Pronounce               Reason You Do Know It
I                                                          iPhone
E                                                         email
Y                                                         YMCA
G                                                         G-Star (clothes brand)
W                                                        BMW
H                                                         H+M
J                                                          J-Lo, OJ Simpson

... Say or Tell
Foreigners mess these up. They go 'She said me my mullet was sexy.' If only they'd paid attention to the words of Billy Jean they'd know how to do it right:

People always told me, be careful what you do
Don't go around breaking young girls' hearts 
She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son

See? It's EASY. Just LISTEN.

... Modal verbs
Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive. Like all Coldplay fans know!

This could be para-para-para-dise

And anyone who has ever seen Friends:

I'll be there for you!

... Word order
In other languages, the words come in a different order. Which is pretty stupid if you think about it. Foreigners end up saying garbage like, 'I go always by car,' and 'I never will sleep with you, Andrew.' It's bad enough when they do it in their own language, and criminal when they do it in English. Fortunately, some of the most famous songs in the world teach the right order.

I will always love you 
You are always on my mind
My heart will go on

Just this week a student wrote 'children will go mostly for snacks'. Even though he's seen Aliens!

They mostly come out at night. Mostly.

Newt. Mostly reads my blog at night.

So it's simply unforgivable that people still make mistakes. Unforgivable!

... Present perfect or past simple?
When you say when you did something, use the past tense. Don't say things like 'Yesterday I have eaten pizza.'

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day, you gave it away

... Present continuous
I normally start teaching this by asking students to look out the window and tell me what people are doing.
"He... is... getting off a tram."
"Good. What about her?"
"She... is... getting on a tram."
"Good. Now, what am I doing?"
"Um. Don't know."
"I'm bringing sexy back."
"[sings] I'm bringing sexy back."
"Oh. Yes."
"Have I finished bringing sexy back?" 
Exactly. Lesson learned.

(This video has supermodels like Gisele being all sexy and stuff!)

... All by myself
"Andrew, do I have to do this exercise by my own?"
"It's 'on my own' or 'by myself.' Haven't you heard that song?"
"It goes like this: [Squeaky singing] All by myself! Don't wanna be! All by myself! Any more!"
"Please stop. I'll try to learn it."

... Quotation marks
Students are totally capable of using airquotes, and totally incapable of using written quotes right. German speakers put the first quote at the bottom and the second one at the top. Like this. Wow! It hurts my eyes to look at it. Yet they do airquotes the right way up.
"Andrew, what did you do last night?"
"Oh I went to a bar. I dressed up and flirted with a hot babe."
"Right. And was your [airquotes] flirting [end airquotes] successful?"

They don't do airquotes all higgledy-piggledy. Why can't they write them?

... Tons of vocabulary
My students give themselves wrinkles trying to remember easy words. Words like art, prison, candle. But they're easy!
Art on Ice. Prison Break. Candle in the wind.

... Borrowed words
English uses loads of words from your language. In the case of German, or Dutch as they call it, English doesn't even change the spelling of:

doppelganger (someone who supports two football teams)
kindergarten (an underage florist)
wunderkind (a delicious toy-filled chocolate egg)
schadenfreude (an invisible psychiatrist)
wanderlust (wanting to have sex with Harry Potter)
zeitgeist (something you saw in the Guardian twice in one week)

... The conclusion
You already know the conclusion.


  1. societe12:16 AM

    Andrew did you write this article becouse of me :))))

  2. If I wrote it about you, it would be called 'People who are awesome'

  3. Andrew, you are a brilliant Englishman!
    Though, foreigners insist to pronounce H&M similar to their native language. It took me a while to understand what my friends in Berlin were meaning when mumbling something like : haundm.

  4. Anonymous10:50 PM

    More! More! More!

  5. Funny article. A few of your tips could acutally be helpful to avoid mistakes.

  6. Anonymous12:22 AM

    Shouldn't you have put "You were always on my mind"? It don't make no sense otherwise. - tR

  7. Hey, you're right! I always thought the song was called 'You are always...' but it seems all this time they were really singing 'you were always'. Weird!

    Anyway, in the seminal Willie Nelson version, he sings both.

    Grammatically, it's correct with 'are' or 'were'.

    The point is the placement of the adverb - after some form of 'to be' or auxiliary verb; before a main verb.

  8. Anonymous7:18 PM

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