Season 2 Episode 18

Welcome to Ethos English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. In roughly ten minutes a week I help you expand your productive vocabulary so that you can become a more confident and fluent English speaker. You can access the full text version of the show at EthosEnglish.com/podcast. You’ll be prompted to sign up for my newsletter, which I send out once a month. It includes a Quizlet flashcard set covering all of the key vocabulary covered in each episode. Remember that at the end of the episode I provide a definition for all of the items of vocabulary as well as examples to illustrate the meaning with extra context.

Last week I went to the cinema to see Apocalypse Now, set during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and originally released in 1979. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the movie has been given a new lease on life with the director’s 2019 Final Cut version. This is one of those movies that is worth seeing in a movie theatre, no doubt about it. At the beginning of the movie there’s a scene in which a huge fleet of armed helicopters bomb a Vietnamese village to the tune of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. It’s one of the most memorable, adrenaline-inducing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Hailed as one of the greatest films of all time by critics, this movie is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. 

The original book, published in 1902, is set in what was then the Belgian Congo and is about an ivory trader by the name of Kurtz who has run amok, that is he is out of control and dangerous. He convinces the locals to venerate him like a god. The novel is considered a commentary on European imperialism and racism and is based on Conrad’s own experiences working for the merchant navy in the Congo. 

In Apocalypse Now Kurtz is a high ranking army officer who sets up his own murderous society in the jungles of Cambodia. Captain Willard, played by the actor Martin Sheen, is sent in by the American army to assassinate Kurtz because he’s become a loose cannon, that is, he can’t be trusted or controlled. 

Now, why am I talking to you about Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness? I do recommend both the film and the novel, but that’s not why I’m making today’s episode. It’s because Joseph Conrad, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language, born in the Russian Empire to Polish parents, did not even start learning English until he was in his 20s.  Nowadays the internet is littered with so-called English teachers telling people how to sound like a native English speaker. But despite becoming one of the most influential writers in English, Joseph Conrad never managed to sound like a native speaker. So if you’re frustrated at not not sounding like a native speaker, don’t worry, you’re in excellent company.

I was recently talking to an arbitration lawyer by the name of Myriam Speers who has a legal English business. She pointed out to me that plenty of native English speakers wouldn’t be familiar with lots of the vocabulary I cover in this podcast. And, as you might guess, I started questioning myself. Should I dumb down my content? If a native speaker could learn a thing or two from my show… was that a problem?

The fact is, if you’re listening to this podcast you’re already quite fluent in English. You might be an English teacher yourself, or a translator, a lawyer, an academic. My goal isn’t to help you sound like your average English speaker. There are loads of podcasts out there for learning slang and everyday idioms. I want to help you to speak more precisely, more articulately, more vividly. And that means not sounding average, not being afraid to use vocabulary that some people in your audience might not be acquainted with. 

More and more research is being done on mindset and how it affects our learning potential. There’s still far too much stigma attached to having a foreign-sounding accent in English and a fear of making mistakes in English. And so I wanted to bring up the example of Joseph Conrad because he made his mark on the English speaking world despite his noticeable Polish accent. 

Lady Ottoline Morrell, a famous aristocrat and socialite, wrote the following meeting Joseph Conrad:

“I found Conrad himself standing at the door of the house ready to receive me…. [His] appearance was really that of a Polish nobleman. His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fibre of him seemed electric… He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner…. He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked… apparently with great freedom about his life—more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered… [His wife Jessie] seemed a nice and good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook, … a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life’s vibrations…. He made me feel so natural and very much myself, that I was almost afraid of losing the thrill and wonder of being there, although I was vibrating with intense excitement inside …. His eyes under their pent-house lids revealed the suffering and the intensity of his experiences; when he spoke of his work, there came over them a sort of misty, sensuous, dreamy look, but they seemed to hold deep down the ghosts of old adventures and experiences—once or twice there was something in them one almost suspected of being wicked…. But then I believe whatever strange wickedness would tempt this super-subtle Pole, he would be held in restraint by an equally delicate sense of honour…. In his talk he led me along many paths of his life, but I felt that he did not wish to explore the jungle of emotions that lay dense on either side, and that his apparent frankness had a great reserve.”

This quotation gives the impression of an incredibly articulate and charismatic man who is not held back by his foreignness. His accent does not prevent him from profoundly affecting the people around him. And if I haven’t convinced you yet what a self-possessed man Conrad was, let me quote from a conversation he had with the commander of the Tuscania, David Bone, on they sailed to America in 1923:

“I had said to Conrad how extraordinary it was for him, a Polish aristocrat, to elect to tar his hands in a merchant ship, and to become a British subject. He said, ‘Bone, I am more British than you are. You are only British because you could not help it’ ”

If ever someone makes you feel you fall short as an English speaker, why not take a page out of Joseph Conrad’s book. Just say to them “I am more of an English speaker than you are. You are only an English speaker because you could not help it.”

Now, let’s go over definitions and examples of today’s vocabulary.

give a new lease on life: if something is given a new lease on life, it is changed or repaired so that it can continue
The bullring was given a new lease on life when it was converted into a shopping centre.
if someone is given a new lease on life, they become healthy, active, or happy again after being weak, ill, or tired
The operation gave her a new lease on life.
In British English it is more common to say give a new lease OF life.

be hailed as: If a person, event or achievement is hailed as important or successful, they are praised publicly.
U.S. magazines hailed her as the greatest rock’n’roll singer in the world.

loosely: used to describe something which is not exact, often in the chunks “loosely based on” and “loosely translated as”
The film is loosely based on the novel by Kundera.
This phrase can be loosely translated as “Go away!”

run amok: suddenly behave in a very violent and uncontrolled way
Drunken troops ran amok in the town.
more generally, get out of control and cause a lot of problems
We live in an age in which global capitalism has run amok.

venerate: honour or respect someone or something because they are old, holy, or connected with the past
In museum culture the original physical artefact is venerated at the expense of a replica, duplicate, reconstruction or hologram.

a loose cannon: someone who behaves in an uncontrolled or unexpected way and is likely to cause problems for other people
I don’t think we can take a risk on a loose cannon like him running our country.

be widely regarded as: be considered by many people to be something
The Beatles are widely regarded as musical geniuses.

be littered with: A place, document, or other object that is littered with something has or contains a lot of that thing – usually negative
The newspaper has a reputation for being littered with spelling mistakes.

dumb something down: present news or information in a simple and attractive way without many details so that everyone can understand it – used to show disapproval
Television is often accused of dumbing down complex issues in order to appeal to viewers.

stigma: a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair
often collocates with attached to
There is still a lot of stigma attached to divorce.

make your mark on something: do something which causes you to become noticed or famous
The article looks at the new generation of Japanese directors making their mark in world cinema.

be self-possessed: calm, confident, and in control of your feelings, even in difficult or unexpected situations – used to show approval
He seemed too self-possessed and self-aware to let any challenges affect him.

If you enjoy this podcast a review on Apple Podcasts would be a helpful gesture to help me reach more listeners. I always love hearing from you, so don’t hesitate to get in touch. My email is sean@ethosenglish.com. Thanks for listening and see you again next week!

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