Pronouncing English properly is impossible.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation, DON’T READ THIS, IT WILL DRIVE YOU MAD!

My dad, now 86 years old, used to force-recite this poem/pronunciation exercise/mental torture to me relentlessly 40 or 50 years ago. It was therefore both a shock of panic and of fond recognition to find that it is still alive and kicking today. I will just give you the first couple of stanzas here, the rest can be found on many places on the internet. If you get the whole thing right (you won’t), try an Irish accent. Or Jamaican.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.

Oh dear, that reminds me. Does anyone have the story of Arthur the rat, who’d never take the trouble to make up his mind? I remember students crying in the office next door, trying to get it right.

“Pass the parcel” writing exercise

It has been a long time since I wrote something about writing. This will not do. Here is a lovely creative writing exercise I did with my technical report-writing group last week.

  1. Make groups of four or five; tell everyone to find a pen and a sheet of paper (no laptops or books or anything like that, just a sheet of paper).
  2. Give them half a sentence to write. I gave them “This morning, when I was coming to class …”, but it could be anything you like of course.
  3. Tell them they get thee minutes to write as fast as they can, continuing from the half-sentence you gave them. Don’t let them think, make them write! “Punch those keys!” (from the movie Finding Forrester, which is about an aspiring writer, co-starring Sean Connery).
  4. When the three minutes are up, tell your students to stop – don’t let them finish their sentences – and to pass their writing product to the next person in the subgroup, so that everybody gets somebody else’s product. Give them 10 seconds to read and then ask them to continue the story, again for three minutes.
  5. Keep doing this until each student gets their own story  (i.e. the one they started) back, and give them two minutes to wrap it up. Don’t give them more than 10 seconds to read during the changeovers.

To make it more difficult – and a lot more fun – you can add small assignments like: your next sentence contains an elephant or the next paragraph contains a five-syllable word. I usually make these up on the spot, but if you are a better organized language teacher than I am, and chances are that you are, you can make them use the passive voice only, or the gerund, or the idioms they were supposed to have studied (one per sentence), whatever floats your boat. But don’t overdo this, it will kill the fun.

It is important that you put the pressure on. Don’t give them time to think, they have to write as fast as they can.

Every time I do this exercise with my students, the room buzzes with energy and the results are invariably hilarious. But have they learned anything? Well, if it’s only that they perform better under pressure than they thought, that would be enough. But also …

  • Writing can be fun.
  • Writing does not have to be difficult and you can do it anywhere. I used this game once to resuscitate a birthday party that was on the brink of death.
  • Anyone can write. And that includes technologists like my students, not only linguists.
  • You don’t have to leave the writing of your group assignments to someone else.

Paul Kuijer was the teacher at “d’Witte Leli” who  taught me this exercise back in 1982. I still have it somewhere in my archive. Thank you, Paul.

A cat, algae and a small snake

A few years ago I was asked to coach the contestants in a pitching contest for one of the big oil companies. The goal of the pitches was to present new, greener energy sources. For one of the participants I was able to come up with a shrewd plan involving a prop.

A prop can be anything you bring to the presentation for demonstration purposes, but don’t take this too far. I once saw a man who brought a cat to a presentation in order to demonstrate the mechanics of it landing on its feet. The cat was not happy. You can guess how it ended. It’s amazing how fast a cat can move its claws when it is properly motivated.algae

Anyway. William, my student, came on to the stage carrying a glass that was filled with something that looked like algae in water. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I would like to present to you algae, the biofuel of the future!’ and he held up the glass. The audience were properly impressed and William put the glass down and floated fluently through his presentation, describing the many benefits of his idea with great confidence.

When he got to the end though, he appeared to be making a dreadful mistake. He said: ‘I am sure that this fast-growing green fuel will be available in every service station in less than five years. I’ll drink to that!’ And he set the glass to his lips. The audience, who had been quite captivated, jumped up and shouted: ‘No, no, no! Stop, you fool! You can’t drink that!’ And William smiled and said: ‘Yeah yeah, don’t worry. It’s lemonade … Cheers!’ Needless to say that William won first prize.

Props can be really helpful if you do something with them. Don’t just stand them on a desk or they will be very distracting (unless they are a glass of lemonade). The more spectacular looking props are best kept hidden until you need them. Show them when you do – and make sure everybody can see them – and then put them away again. I remember a biologist who left a small snake lying on the desk just for decoration. To this day I still have no idea what his talk was about and I am guessing nobody else in the audience do either. Something to do with snakes, probably…