A good question?


That’s a good question.

There comes a moment in the experience of every teacher (particularly one who teaches a language) when you simply don’t know the answer to a question put to you when a student asks: What does **** mean? I’ll pause there for a moment for digression, dear reader and make a plea, not of course to you personally because I know you would never transgress in this matter but to anyone you know who might be at fault and that is not to use the expression what means ****? particularly when posting something on our forum English Grammar, Vocabularu and Idioms. Recently I’ve seen this so often that I’m almost tempted to use it myself and that’s bad! So back to the classroom. You’re happily reading through a text (carefully prepared beforehand needless to say) with the class and you can see a word out of the corner of your eye that you think you know the meaning of. But at the back of your mind there’s a nagging feeling you don’t. As the word gets nearer and nearer, you can almost hear the threatening film music from Jaws and then before you know it, the shark – sorry the student – pounces and out comes the killer question: What does **** mean? Now there are a few strategies here. You can say you don’t know, look pathetic and lose your reputation. You can even bluff your way out of the problem (pretend you know and give a vague answer). That however can backfire. Our toothy friend will find the biggest dictionary he can, look the word up, find the real meaning and the next day publicly destroy you before the class. The cool way is to say something like: Let’s look that up. You do that. They know what it means and now you do. Ignorance is dispelled and your reputation is intact.

Who agrees with that?


I don’t see anything wrong with saying that you don’t know – and then, for example, using that as a possible starting point for a mini-discussion on guessing the meanings of words from context.

Hi, Alan

There was a similar moment in my life when in the middle of delivering a very short speech I used a word (I cant remember it now) and my English teacher thought that I mispronounced it and corrected me. Later, at home I found out that I’d pronounced it right, but on the next lesson, in order not to embarrass (or, as you say, destroy) my teacher before the whole class, I didnt say anything about it thus letting it go at that.

I believe that the termin “sharks” you were describing is more related to a younger audience that to an aged one. I remember myself as a child when I felt tempted to find any flaw in teacher’s explanations at school just in order to show her/him “I’m cooler than you”. But with time this temptation vanished, petered out and now, attending my English classes, I’m more interested in picking up skills than in making an ass of the teacher.

Hi Alan,

You brought up a very interesting question and I agree with Amy’s and LS’s answers. A teacher should show their students how they can learn English rather than teaching them. If a student asks you “What does this word mean?” my first question would be: “What do you THINK it means?” As Amy said, students should learn how to tell the meaning of a new words by looking at the context(s) the word occurs in. How did they learn new words in their mother tongue? They heard them in various contexts and after a while the meaning became clear. I always have my notebook with me (especially when I’m in a "classroom) and if I come across a new word, I either look it up in a dictionary (usually Babylon) or on Wikipedia. Or even better: I have one of my “students” look it up and read out the defintion(s).[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: A riverside[YSaerTTEW443543]

The research is in, though, and it’s now known that students who guess the meaning of a word from context guess wrong more than 64% of the time. Some students guess wrong almost ALL the time. So it’s an old folktale that guessing from context is the best way to handle that situation. (Read Keith Folse’s book “Vocabulary Myths”.)

I just say I don’t know the meaning of the word and have a student look it up, or I look it up myself. There’s no shame in that, and the teacher doesn’t lose any credibility.

I see that English has an extremely tremendous number of words ! Even native speakers have to look some words up.
I cant say the same about Russian. I’ve never looked any russian words up.

I’m aware that guessing doesn’t work all the time, and my post didn’t say that it did. However, it’s not just in reading that students might encounter unknown words, and there will be plenty of times when a dictionary or someone who knows the word isn’t close at hand to help.

I do think that ESL students need to understand, accept and be able to deal with the fact that they may not know every single word. There are times when they won’t be able to get the meaning from context, but there are also times that they’ll be able to get at least a very general idea of the meaning from the context.

Some students, however, apply the brakes at every single unknown word, and if this happens during a TV or radio program, for example, they may miss the next few sentences entirely while they’re busily scratching their heads over a single word they didn’t know 5 sentences ago.

In addition, I’ve always found opportunities for such mini-discussions to be valuable not only for discussing a difficulty, but valuable also simply as an opportunity for students to express and react to ideas, opinions, etc verbally.

You’re right about that stuff, Amy.

I’m one of those students.
But for me the hardest thing is to make out words. I find it very difficult. Like sometimes I listen to a conversation, and cannot make anything of it but then look at the script (with the dialog listed) and understand everything without a dictionary (i.e. I know the words). Then I listen to the conversation again and eveything becomes super clear. Even if I listen to it after a long while, I’ll still be able to catch the words.

You need training in English pronunciation, then. Good training in pronunciation also greatly helps your listening skills.

My best guess is that your main problems are with prosody and linking between words. In my experience, those are usually the biggest impediments to Slavic speakers’ understanding of spoken English.

Hi, Jamie

Thank you for your advice
Could you recommend any books or sites where I can brush up or improve my pronunciation?

The best book I can recommend is Judy Gilbert’s book “Clear Speech”, which explains everything about vowel reduction, linking, etc. It contains a CD, but the CD isn’t complete. For complete self-study, you really need the three class CDs, but maybe the CD that comes with the book is enough.

Be careful about websites. There’s one right now with some strange man trying to explain how to pronounce American [r], and he claims people should round their lips when they pronounce it. When he’s demonstrating, he rounds his lips like a big ugly fish, but when he’s speaking normally, he doesn’t round his lips at all most of the times he pronounces [r]. In fact, lip rounding isn’t necessary for pronouncing that sound. Even worse, the man’s pronunciation isn’t even standard English, so he’s a bad pronunciation model in general. He’s like a man who started putting out a podcast on how to speak Spanish, even though he had a very heavy gringo accent. With both men I kept thinking, “What made him think he had the skill to do this?”

Lost, when you pronounce the word города, do you say [ɡərəda], like people in St. Petersburg, or [garada], like people in Moscow?

Hi, Jamie

Thanks for your suggestions, I’ll certainly try to buy that book on-line.
That [r] sound is very hard for me to master. It gives me away as a Russian - when I record my voice and play it back, I can clearly see the difference between me and a native speaker. In fact in movies featuring Russians, film directors exploit that [r] sound to mark the Russians.

I live in St. Petersburg, so I pronounce that word as “GORODA”. Up to this time I was not aware that Moscow inhabitants pronounce it “GARADA”. You know, I’ve never been to Moscow so maybe that’s the reason. But I’ve seen a lot of movies and news in which people from Moscow were speaking and none of what they said struck me as odd. I think there arent any blatant differences between both accents.
On the contrary, if you try to speak to a suburban person (especially from a far-from-the-town village) you will notice a big dfference. You can tell 100% which person lives in the country and which lives in the town just by listening to them for a short time. As I know, in villages they even have their own vocaburary different from the “accepted” one (i.e. you will never find any of those words in dictionaries). In the village I spent some of my childhood, one word they used and I happen to have memorized is “крятать” (means “трогать”). I found only 300 entries in Google matching this word (and 1,760,000 matching “трогать”).

If you listen to Russian speech, you’ll notice that no one pronounces the word города the way you say you do. There’s no [o] sound in that word. In the St. Petersburg accent, город is pronounced something like [ɡworət], and города is pronounced [ɡərəda], with both the O’s pronounced as reduced vowels. The difference in Moscow speakers is that they tend to pronounce these reduced O’s as [a], so they say [garada]. This is why it’s sometimes harder to teach English pronunciation to a Muscovite than to someone from other parts or Russia. People from St. Petersburg have reduced vowels in their native speech, and Muscovites don’t have that so much. So, if I try to teach a person from St. Petersburg a word like bacon, it comes out reasonably okay, as [beɪkən], but many Muscovites will say [beɪkan]. Once I tried to demonstrate reduced vowels to a Muscovite, and I said, “You don’t pronounce города as [garada], do you?” and she replied, “Yes, I DO!” This was the first time I noticed a difference, but it’s definitely there.

Today I came across a very interesting listening exercise for pre-intermediate students. Most of them were lost in the beginning, even the better ones. Any ideas about teaching vocab here? I’ll type it out for you:

A: Late again?
B: Yes, I’m afraid we are.
A. Twenty minutes without moving.
B: Twenty? More like thirty!
A: No explanation.
B. No, none at all. Probably leaves.
A: Leaves?
B: You know, leaves on the line - from the trees.
A: Oh right.
B: There’s always Some exuse. Last month it was snow - the wrong kind of snow, they said.
A: And here we are. Like sardines.
B. Cattle.
A: More like animals than people. Absolute misery.
B: Better to stay at home.
A: Absolutely.

PS - In the end I was amazed that the word “line” turned out to be the crucial key to understanding the dialogue.

Hi, Ralf
So, what’s the point? What am I supposed to name? the cause of the delay or what?

I think you’re supposed to figure out what the heck A and B are talking about – so, yes, it seems you’re supposed to figure out the cause of delay and what sort of delay it is.

For me, at least, it was mainly the word line that helped. But even now, I’m still not 100% sure. :lol:

Hi, Amy

I think they are talking about a train (and the line is wire)
What’s your guess ?

I pictured bumper to bumper traffic. But your guess might be better.

Interesting puzzle, Ralf. :lol:

Could be trams, and damp leaves are falling and sticking onto the overhead electrical lines.