Episode 1

Hello, and welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for inquisitive and ambitious students of English who want to be more fluent and articulate.

If you’re studying English as a foreign language, chances are one of your main goals is to become more fluent. In fact, I’d say fluency is the Holy Grail of most language learners. In other words, it’s your ultimate goal, and one that seems a little bit elusive, that is, beyond your reach. We use Holy Grail to refer to any difficult goal, that is so challenging as to seem unrealistic. It is a metaphor, based on legends in mediaeval Europe about the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. It was believed that it still existed and that whoever found it would be granted eternal youth or incredible riches.

Anyway, back to your Holy Grail, namely speaking English fluently. Luckily fluency in English, unlike eternal youth or unearned wealth, is a completely realistic goal. The goal of this podcast is to get you on track to becoming more fluent right away by focusing on what matters most – your vocabulary.

If I asked you about your biggest frustration with learning English, I’m pretty much certain you’d mention the sense of being stuck, of not making noticeable improvements. This problem stems from the fact that we treat all learners equally, when in truth an advanced learner, that is someone in the C1/C2 range of the Common European Framework for Languages, is akin to a high-level athlete. Thus, if you are in this transition from intermediate to advanced learner, you need new strategies.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to overwhelm you with loads of theory, at least not today. But let’s start with a useful metaphor. We can categorise language skills as being either receptive or productive. Reading and listening are receptive skills as they require us to passively understand a written or spoken message. On the other hand we have productive skills, namely speaking and writing, which require that we actively use vocabulary and grammar structures. Unsurprisingly, students tend to feel much more comfortable with the former and much less so with the latter.

Let’s visualise our knowledge of English as a triangle. The top of the triangle consists of the vocabulary and grammar that we’re comfortable using productively in our speaking and writing, and this rests on a much wider and deeper base of vocabulary which we are able to recognise and understand passively when listening and reading. It is entirely natural that this base is greater in size.

 

Even native speakers of a language will be comfortable using a far narrower range of language than that which they are able to understand when listening or reading. The problem for language learners is that traditional language teaching neglects the development of your productive skills. In my experience, most C1 and C2 students have well-developed reading skills, yet have woefully underdeveloped productive vocabularies. The good news is that there’s a straightforward solution to this. Your goal, and one which this podcast will help you achieve, is to build your productive skills so that the two halves of the triangle are more balanced.

This podcast, which comes out weekly, is interactive. On my website BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast you’ll find an interactive transcript which allows you to see definitions and explanations of key vocabulary. Sometimes I’ll explain new words and phrases as I’m going and other times you’ll need to consult the transcript directly. In any case, I do my best to include notes on any tricky vocabulary I use. In the new year I’ll be launching a premium subscription, which includes Quizlet flashcard sets based on these vocabulary notes. To celebrate the launch of the podcast, I’ll be making these premium features free for the month of December.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about me. My name is Sean and I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language since 2014. I teach at a university language school in Barcelona. I grew up in Montreal, Canada, where the main language is French, so from a young age I was exposed to a second language. As a teenager I took up Spanish and German and then once I moved to Catalonia about 10 years ago I started learning Catalan as well.

Now, let me explain the name of this podcast. In English there’s a saying that “no man is an island”, which means that people are meant to be in communities, that we are all deeply social and connected to one another. This saying is taken from the first line of a poem written by John Donne, who lived from 1572 to 1631. Just as people are not isolated from each other, nor are words. As I mentioned before, as an advanced language learner your focus should be on building your active vocabulary. One hurdle to effectively learning vocabulary is focusing on individual words. Most words occur in chunks of at least two words and sometimes even consist of entire sentences. In upcoming episodes we’ll further explore this concept of chunks, but suffice it to say that they are the building block of language and make up between 50 and 80 percent of what we say. In other words, these natural word combinations or collocations will be the focus of this podcast.

What’s more, I’ll be focusing on more formal language. Don’t be afraid to use it. Formal or learned language is not just for essays. There’s nothing wrong with sounding educated. Before becoming a language teacher I studied law. While I didn’t ended up practising law, Iaw school did teach me that language is power. The power to convey your ideas precisely and persuasively. While I may mention slang or colloquialisms, that’s not the focus of this podcast. I’m not here to make you sound like your average Brit, American or Canadian. I’m here to give you the tools to be yourself while communicating in a way that transmits confidence and intelligence. Now, how’s that for a Holy Grail?

Send me your questions and comments to podcast@BetterLanguageLearning.com.

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