Episode 17

Hello, and welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for advanced English learners and those who teach them. 

If you’re already familiar with the podcast please bear with me a moment while I explain how it works to listeners new to the show. Let me begin by pointing out that I’ve designed the show to be used with the interactive transcript at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. So before you do anything else I’d urge you to head there right now. You’ll find an embedded audio player along with annotations on all key words and chunks as well as a Quizlet set to review this vocabulary. Whenever I mention an article or other resource there will be a link in the transcript. When I use challenging vocabulary I paraphrase myself, that is, I express the word or chunk in a different way that is easier to understand. However, this isn’t always possible, and this is why the show has an interactive transcript. As you’re listening, follow along with the text. When you come across any words or chunks highlighted in pink click on them or tap them with your fingertip to see an explanation or definition. 

What’s more, from now on I’m going to read out a summary of the key vocabulary along with definitions at the end of the episode. Finally, you can follow me on Instagram at BetterLanguageLearning for regular content to help you see each episode’s vocabulary with extra examples as well as posts on learning strategies and random stuff like the wild world of etymology, that is, the study of words and their origins.

At this time of year my students are getting ready for final exams and I thought I would tie in today’s episode with a topic that tend to come up in both speaking and writing exams, namely, learning English. In many official exams such as the Cambridge suite of exams, which includes the First Certificate, Advanced and Proficiency, candidates are asked about their motivations for learning English. After a class yesterday it occurred to me that learners often fail to give thoughtful responses to such predictable exam questions. I can hardly blame them, because exam questions are a bit on the boring side.

Here’s an example. Candidates typically provide short, vague answers when asked why it’s important to learn English. Common answers include, “because it’s required for many jobs”, “it allows me to watch television series in English” and so on. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these answers, but as an exam candidate you need to bear in mind that you have very little time in which to demonstrate your language skills and so it’s a good idea to anticipate the kinds of questions and corresponding language that you’re going to need to discuss them. In short, not knowing key language for topics that are highly likely to appear on the exam is a missed opportunity.

So, if you’re going to talk about the value of learning English or another foreign language, here are some useful chunks to use. We often speak of having a good or excellent command of a language. This is a somewhat formal way of saying that you speak a language well. If you want to get top marks, especially once you reach Proficiency, such chunks are absolutely vital. Typically my Spanish students talk about “having a good level” of English. While this isn’t wrong, it’s not particularly idiomatic, that is natural sounding. By the way, if you want to talk about someone speaking a language badly, don’t say “have a bad command of” but rather “have a poor command of”. 

I can’t belabour this point enough. That is, I can’t stress its importance enough. Developing your collocational competence, which means knowing which words combine to form natural-sounding English, should be what you devote 80% of your time to. Notice how I just said devote time to. This is a more formal way of saying “spend time on”. Many of my students say things like “It’s important to dedicate time to studying.” This is a direct translation of the Spanish “dedicar tiempo a algo” and, while not wrong in English, sounds far less idiomatic than “devote time to something”.

Now, think of other reasons you might give for learning English. An obvious example are the social benefits of speaking English, and students will talk about wanting to be able to make friends while travelling abroad or being able to interact with the locals if they’re in an English-speaking country. They might say something along the lines of “I like to be able to make new friends and talk to strangers when I’m travelling”. Here we can easily upgrade, that is, improve our language by using more challenging language. For instance, we often use the phrasal verb “strike up” when talking about friendship and conversation in the sense of starting to become friendly with someone or starting to talk to them.

For example, when talking about your motivations for learning English you might say something like, “Striking up a conversation with people when you’re abroad is a lot easier when you’re fluent.” Or, even better, “Striking up a conversation with people when you’re abroad is easier when you have a good command of the language.”

As I mentioned before, oral exam questions are kind of boring by their very nature, but that doesn’t mean your response should be. A candidate who gives a more thoughtful and maybe even original response will have a more positive impact on the listener, that is the examiner. While we’re not directly evaluating how interesting, intelligent or original a thinker you are, I do think students who approach the questions with genuine curiosity fare better when it comes to their results.

Speaking of which, fare well means to be successful, as in, “students who devote time to noticing, recording and reviewing chunks fare better in speaking and writing exams than those who don’t.” Here’s another example. “Nowadays job seekers who speak fluent English fare better in the job market.” Or, conversely, “People with a poor command of English don’t tend to fare well in the job market.”

Is requiring fluency in English creating an uneven playing field?

This leads to another consideration, namely whether it’s fair to set great store by fluency in English. If you set great or considerable store by something you consider it important and value it. Although teaching English is my livelihood, that is, the way I earn money to live, I am well aware of the dangers of setting great store by the ability to speak English. Given that in many countries quality English language courses are not available in state-run schools we’re not operating on a level playing field, that is, in a system which provides equal opportunities to everyone. 

And what about the virtually unquestioned assumption that English should be the main, if not only, language of academic research? Across Europe more and more graduate programmes, that is Master’s and PhD programmes, are taught exclusively in English. I came across a BBC article entitled Dutch Language Besieged by English at University, which suggests that even in a country long renowned for its citizens’ knowledge of English there is growing resentment of the role of English in its universities. Annette de Groot, a professor of linguistics at the University of Amsterdam, is quoted as saying the following:

“What happens to the identity of a people of a country where the native language is no longer the main language of higher education? The Dutch aren’t as good at English as they think they are. You shouldn’t use a weaker language in education. If you use English in higher education, Dutch will eventually get worse. It’s use it or lose it. Dutch will deteriorate and the vitality of the language will disappear. It’s called imbalanced bilingualism. You add a bit of English and you lose a bit of Dutch.”


Many cultures feel besieged by the overwhelming influence of English.

I have also heard this referred to as subtractive bilingualism, that is a situation in which a second language is learned at the expense of one’s first language. As much as I love teaching English, I do think subtractive bilingualism is a thing. So I feel a bit torn, that is ambivalent. Sometimes I think English as a Foreign Language teachers are a bit like modern-day missionaries. Just as the Catholic Church used to send countless priests and nuns to the New World to spread the word of God, us English teachers travel to far-flung parts of the planet to enlighten the ignorant natives with our precious knowledge of English. (And if you’re wondering, that’s irony you hear in my voice.)

Perhaps part of the problem isn’t so much the expectation that people learn English, but that so many native English speakers get away with not learning a single foreign language. Here in Barcelona there are loads of long-term foreign residents who can barely speak Spanish, let alone Catalan. You’d think that after more than a decade here you’d pick up the language by being constantly surrounded by it. Sadly that’s not the case. But that’s the subject for another episode.

Now, let’s review the key vocabulary from today’s episode.

Vocabulary Summary

tie something in with something elseconnect or incorporate something
“Today’s episode is tied in with a topic useful for oral exams.”
I can hardly blame you.used in spoken English: used to say that you think it was right or reasonable for someone to do what they did
have a good/excellent command of English
formal: speak English well or very well
have a poor command of English
formal: not speak English very well
belabour a point
formal: to keep emphasising a fact or idea in a way that is annoying
devote time to something

formal: spend time on something

strike up a conversation

start talking to someone - remember, the past form of strike is struck

strike up a friendship

start a friendship

fare well/badly, fare better/worse

If you fare well in something you do well or are successful. If you fare badly you don’t do well or are unsuccessful.
If you fare better than someone else you are more successful than them and if you fare worse than them you are less successful than them.
set great/considerable store by somethingformal: consider something to be important or valuable

livelihoodthe way you earn money in order to live

operate or compete on a level playing field

work together or compete under fair conditions in which no one has an unfair advantage

be besieged by

be surrounded by people or things that make you feel like you’re under attack (from "siege", a situation in which an army or the police surround a place and try to gain control of it or force someone to come out of it)

resentmenta feeling of anger because something has happened that you think is unfair

at the expense of

causing harm or damage to someone or something

feel torn about something

finding it difficult to choose between two possibilities, synonym: ambivalent

a modern-day ______

used to describe someone or something existing in the present time that is similar to someone or something from the past
“EFL teachers are modern-day missionaries."
far-flungvery distant

get away with

not be caught or punished when you have done something wrong

pick up

learn something by watching or listening to other people and not through formal, academic study

Thanks for listening! Remember, if you have an upcoming speaking exam these chunks are bound to come in handy. The key is reviewing them at regular intervals using the Quizlet flashcards so that you can learn them by heart and use them without hesitating. 

I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to send me an email to podcast@BetterLanguageLearning.com and tell me which three words or chunks you found the most helpful.

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