• Challenges of Teaching and Learning Conversational English


    Confusion-meterCommunicating with native speakers is one of the top goals of foreign language learners.  There are, however, certain challenges in teaching and learning conversational English that are difficult to address in a regular classroom setting.

    Limited Classroom Exposure • even an excellent instructor is just one speaker, with just one individual pronunciation and personal communication style. The Internet, movies, and TV are excellent resources, but they do not provide feedback on comprehension.  In other words, how do learners know if they have understood something correctly?

    Language is Culture Specific • without being a member of a cultural group, it is difficult to understand the attitudes, feelings, beliefs, personal values and subtle gradations of interpersonal relationships in the target culture.  In other words, the learner may understand what native speakers are saying, but may not understand why they behave the way they do. What are people concerned about or afraid of?  What makes them happy?  What is considered “good manners”?  When can you consider yourself a “friend”? Meaningful communication with people from another country, continent or region requires understanding of their cultural peculiarities.

    Authenticity of Instructional Materials • most textbooks and instructional materials are written by professional authors and/or teachers with a heavy focus on Standard English.  Instructional dialogues and videos are staged and scripted and do not represent the variety of patterns of authentic communication.

    Real life, authentic conversations are not prepared ahead of time.  They are spontaneous by nature. How does this spontaneous speech differ from the language of instructional dialogues?

    Here is the comparison:

    Instructional Dialogues Spontaneous Speech
    Complete sentences Short, elliptical sentences and idea units
    Standard grammar Frequent ungrammatical structures
    Formal vocabulary Slang, swearing, social and professional jargon
    Limited and “predictable” vocabulary Wider range of vocabulary choices
    Explicit reference to people, objects Implied knowledge of the subject, acronyms, abbreviations
    Few fillers, if any Frequent fillers
    Distinct turn-taking Interruptions and pauses
    Intonation: wide and frequent pitch movement Intonation: more monotonous
    Enunciation: excessive precision Less precision
    Standard accent Multiple regional and international accents

    With so many distinct differences between the instructional and authentic materials, it is only natural that language learners, who have not been exposed to and trained in features of spontaneous speech, have difficulty communicating with native speakers. If your goal is making friends, living and working or doing business in an English-speaking country, it is essential you use instructional materials based on authentic, spontaneous conversations.


  • The Aware Werewolf


    I came across this wonderful image, and it inspired the poet in me.
    I hope you like it :)


    There was once a lonely creature,
    Being half-man and half-wolf was his feature,
    Was he frightening to wolves and men alike
    To prevent escalations, he took a hike.

    He decided to serve as au pair
    And occasionally as wolf-wear,
    Was his fur very much in demand
    But alive fur was very soon banned.

    And the places he went they would stare,
    For his life he was scared and mumbled a prayer,
    He was caught, poor wolf, with the net in midair
    Then was sold to a Zoo, what a sordid affair!

    Now he lives in a cage he was destined to be
    And content with his life to a certain degree,
    Morning yoga with panda bear,
    He enlightened became and aware…

  • Don’t Mean a Thing


    Flapper: A fashionable and socially rebellious young woman in the 1920s era.

    I love this style of music, late 20-s early 30s.  It’s old, yet very modern for some strange reason.

    I guess it just confirms the idea that the new is usually well-forgotten old. :)

    Click & Enjoy:

  • Fun Tour of American Accents


    Which one is your favorite?  Let’s vote for the cutest, nicest, most impressive, and overall best accent/variety performed by Amy Walker in this video!  I wish I had this fine ability to mimic sounds and prosody (rhythm, stress, and intonation) of spoken text!  I think people who can do that are very special.

    Enjoy and don’t forget to vote!

    What is your favorite accent/variety from this video?

  • What kind of American are you?

    And I thought you get these questions  only if you speak with an accent…  Turns out you get them if you “look with an accent”, too! :)

  • Dear Santa…


    Do you understand what’s funny here?  If you do, enjoy the joke.  If you don’t, read on.

    There is a tradition for children to write letters to Santa Claus asking for certain gifts.  Millions of boys and girls pour their heart and soul on the paper expecting a desired present in return.  There is a catch, however.  As one of the Christmas songs has it, Santa knows “who’s naughty and who’s nice” and that’s how he decides who gets gifts and what kind of gifts.  So this particular cat has no illusions as to what category he’s in: naughty!  He has been misbehaving this year and he wants to get right to the point and explain what went wrong. He’s not wasting Santa’s time! :)

    My guess is his letter will also have phrases like “It wasn’t my fault…”, “I didn’t do it…”, “He started it…”, “I had no idea…”, “The bird was already dead…”  Can you think of other excuses a pussycat might make?  Please share.

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  • First and Only Impression


    Psychologists say that the first impression is very important when we meet new people.  Job interviews, social gatherings, neighborhood meetings are just a few examples of places where we come into contact with people who might have a significant impact on our lives.  What about strangers we meet  in the streets every day?  Do we  need to greet them or smile at them or in any other way acknowledge them?

    Traditionally, people in small towns and villages all know each other and they say “Hi” or some other greeting when they meet, but residents of big cities just rush past each other paying little or no attention to strangers around.

    It makes total sense to me! When you have the time and you personally know the people, you greet them; when you are in a hurry and everybody around you is a stranger, you would never get to work if you were to stop and greet every person on your way there.  What doesn’t make sense is when people in two cities or towns with about the same size population behave very differently in this respect: in one of them you get a smile and a greeting, in another one you get a surprised look when you try greeting a stranger.

    In the U.S. every town is a community with its own culture, and it may be quite different from the culture of another town just 20 miles down the freeway.  It reminds me of the variety of microclimates in the San Francisco Bay Area: two towns 30 miles apart could have a very different weather on the same day: hot and dry in one, and cool and rainy in another.

    What is the difference in attitudes though?  Sometimes it can be explained by snobbishness: wealthier towns tend to display less hospitality. Other times the difference might be explained by the ethnic makeup of the population: some immigrant cultures are more sociable than others. Luckily, my town is pretty friendly.  Most people on the trail where I ride my bike usually smile and greet me when I pass them.  And I really love that!  I feel like I’m part of the “trail community” and it gives me a sense of belonging and harmony.  Even when I meet another biker, and the time we have to interact is just a split second, we still greet each other. The greeting might be just a nod, or even an acknowledging semi-smile, but it’s there and I can see it! It makes my day.

    And  what about your town, city, or trail?  How do people greet you there?  Please share.



  • Giving Thanks

    For many of us, immigrants and English as a second language speakers, Thanksgiving  is not just a holiday.  It is also a word that is very difficult to pronounce.   I struggled with it for quite a while and couldn’t pronounce it clearly enough.  Then I tried something that helped me and now I’m sharing this trick with you.  I hope it  helps you as well.

    Here it is: the word consists of two parts “thanks” and “giving” since the idea of the holiday is “giving thanks” for everything good that we have in our lives.  So if you have a hard time pronouncing this word, try reversing the parts and pronouncing “giving thanks” a few times, at first slowly, then gradually increasing the speed.  Giving thanks, giving thanks, giving thanks….I bet after that, you’ll find it easier to pronounce “Thanksgiving”.

    'Eat Ham' Turkey

    Please let me know if it helped. :)

    By the way, did you know that this year, Butterball -the largest  producer of turkey in the country- announced a shortage of the juicy birds?  What happens if you don’t find a fresh turkey in your store?  Follow the advice of this turkey in the picture and eat ham!

  • A Silent Partner: Culture

    “Teacher, I understand the words, but I still can’t make sense of what people are saying! Why?”

    Some people think that in order to communicate in a foreign culture all they need is to learn the language. There are usually a few cultural notes in most language courses  that provide learners with information about customs and traditions in the target culture.  The language training provides adequate information about what to do and say in simple situations, like shopping, hiring a taxi, or looking for a hotel. But chances are, most newcomers will be lost if they are thrown in a spontaneous conversation between native speakers who don’t know (or don’t care) that there is a foreigner in the group.  Many newcomers report this feeling of missing something important in a situation like that. Even if they understand all the words and expressions said, they sometimes don’t understand why people are saying them and why people react to certain things the way they do.

    The truth is, there are a few other important “players in this game” (factors to know and understand) if we want to successfully communicate in a foreign country, the most important being the new culture.

    Culture is not just holidays and traditions, food and the national colors.  Culture is an unseen and powerful force that regulates  behavior and communication in every society. You can speak a foreign language fluently but without cultural understanding you might not be able to make sense of much of what you see or hear in a foreign country and wonder “Why am I not understanding?”.

    In the course of our life in our native culture, we don’t recognize some factors of interpersonal communication as culture factors since we grow up in a place where they are commonplace.  We really begin to understand our own culture if and when we observe differences (and sometimes conflicts) between our own and foreign ways to do or say certain things. In other words, we fully comprehend our own culture only through comparing it to others.


    There are a few levels of cultural understanding. Take a look at the picture that illustrates the “iceberg” theory of cultural components (from Recognizing Deep Culture’s Influence on Communicative Behavior by Stephen B. Ryan).  The theory suggests that there is much more to culture than what we first see. There are several layers, and just like the case with the iceberg, the visible layer is the smallest.

    According to this theory, the national colors (flag), holidays, traditions and customs, food and drinks are the examples of the surface level of culture.  This is the easiest level to notice and recognize since it can be easily detected by our senses, like sight, smell, sound, and touch.

    Other cultural manifestations take more time to notice and recognize. They are in the just under the surface level of cultural understanding.  For example, it takes some time to notice that in the U.S., older people do not automatically enjoy privileges when it comes to waiting in lines or getting a seat on a crowded bus: they wait for their turn like any other customer in a store or a bank and stand on public transportation when there are no empty seats available. If a person gives his or her seat to accommodate an elderly, this is perceived as his or her personal choice of behavior rather than a cultural norm that dictates to do so. To people coming from cultures where elderly enjoy privileges in public places, it may come as a surprise and take time to accept that this behavior is a cultural norm rather than indifference or rudeness on the part of younger people.

    The third and most important level is the one we cannot see at all. It goes unrecognized in our daily lives. This is deep culture. It is so ingrained into our consciousness that it defines what is or isn’t normal and doesn’t need explanation, or so we think. Here is an example.

    Not long after I came to the United States, there was a tragic event on the news, a 10-year-old girl died while piloting a small plane. The girl’s mother said in a subsequent press conference that her daughter didn’t die in vain because she died doing what she loved to do. To a Russian (me) the incident was clearly this girl’s parents’ fault since they let such a young child do this. I thought that a 10-year-old child just isn’t ready to assume responsibility for this kind of risk, and she simply didn’t live long enough to understand what she “loved” to do.  To my surprise, my American coworkers did not share my opinion.  One of them said, “ This is the country of innovators and people who defy the “normal and usual’. Children are not an exception”.  The spirit of freedom to do or say what you want (if it is not illegal) runs very deep in American psyche and culture, and it can come as a culture shock to unprepared visitors.

    How do we prepare ourselves for this profound change in cultural format?  I think that just being aware of the iceberg theory and what it means will be a huge help to anyone going abroad.

  • Coming soon to US Conversation: Business English and ESP series