This is a tribute to Peter Carter. 

Peter Carter is (or was, because he’s been missing for a few years) from Birmingham. I know that he had a daughter who was 16 (in 2010), but not much more… Unfortunately, his latest episode was posted on the 31st of January 2013. Four years later all we know is that his web and all the extraordinary information on it are gone. 

What happened to Peter Carter? Not sure yet, but I’m going to find out. So far all I can do is to gather together all his podcasts and share them with you (easier said than done). To preserve his legacy is the best tribute I can pay to him.


What happened to Peter Carter? I took Peter Carter for granted and now he’s gone. Would you help me out? Help PLEASE! Let’s share this #whathappenedtopetercarter

Peter Carter posted 289 episodes on his website called In my opinion, Peter Carter is the best podcaster ever. I’ve learnt so many thing thanks to him that I don’t know to return the favour. His super educational podcasts were free, and not also I improved my listening skills a lot, but also I learnt a lot of interesting things about: Lady Godiva, Stonehenge, Peter Rabbit, Golliwogs, how to say nothing, how much the Queen costs, the Parliament, rhubarb, the fifth of November, good manners, bank holidays, Pancake day, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, Topaz McGonagall (the worst poet ever in the English language), The Great British Donkey Race, painting the Forth Bridge…

Some Peter Carter podcasts:

The Staffordshire Hoard

Sep 29, 2009

Before beginning today’s podcast, I need to explain a few words. The first word is “treasure”. Treasure means things which are very valuable; generally, “treasure” means things made of gold or silver or precious stones. The second word is “hoard”. If someone collects a lot of valuable things, and then hides them or keeps them secret, we call that a “hoard”. And finally, a “find” is of course something which you find – but normally it means something very special or unusual or valuable which you find.

But that’s enough vocabulary practice. On with today’s podcast.

Terry Herbert is 55 years old. He lives in a small town called Bloxwich, about 16 kilometers north-west of Birmingham. His hobby is metal-detecting. A metal-detector is a tool which tells you when there is metal in the ground. You move the metal detector slowly over the ground, and it goes ‘bleep’ if it finds anything made of metal.

In July this year, Terry went metal-detecting in a field in Staffordshire owned by a friend of his, and found something completely amazing. He discovered a large number of gold and silver objects. He told the authorities what he had found, and a team of archaeologists then explored the site carefully and found more objects. When they started to clean and examine the discovery, they realised that Terry Herbert had found over 1500 objects dating from about 700AD. It was the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found in England.

The Anglo-Saxons were people who invaded and settled in England as the Roman Empire collapsed in about the 4th century. They came from northern Germany and the language which they spoke – which we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English – was the ancestor of modern English. They were skilled metal craftsmen; they made delicate and intricate designs on gold and silver, and often inlaid the metal with precious stones, such as garnet, which is a dark red stone. After they arrived here, the Anglo-Saxons divided England into a number of kingdoms and spent most of the next several hundred years fighting each other, and the Danes and the Scots. The largest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was called Mercia. It covered all of central England, including the area where the Staffordshire Hoard was found.

Gold inlaid with garnets, from the Staffordshire Hoard.

Almost everything in the hoard is connected with the Anglo-Saxons’ favourite hobby, fighting. There are gold decorations from swords and knives, from shields and helmets, from belts and buckles. There are no “women’s things”, like personal jewellery, and no household things like plates or cups. So what is the hoard? Many experts think that the treasure was collected after a battle. Quite simply, the victors went around and took all the gold and precious metal from the weapons and clothes of the enemies they had killed. Who were these victors and who were their enemies? We do not know. And afterwards, the victors hid what they had collected. Why? Again, we do not know. Nor do we know what happened later, and why the victors did not come back and collect the treasure which they had hidden.

In England, if you find gold or silver objects which are more than 300 years old, they belong to the Queen. Normally, however, a reward based on the value of the find is paid to the person who found it and to the owner of the land. Often a museum buys the treasure, and in this case the Museum in Birmingham together with other local museums want to acquire the Staffordshire Hoard so that it remains in the area where it was found.

We English are not generally very interested in museums or art galleries. We prefer zoos, pubs, theme parks and beaches. But there has been a lot of interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. Perhaps popular archaeology programmes on television have made people more aware of the importance of things from our history. There is a temporary exhibition of a few of the most important objects from the Staffordshire Hoard at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until the middle of October. Yesterday, together with hundreds of other people, I stood in a queue for over an hour to see the exhibition. It is quite fascinating. Many of the objects still have dirt from the field in Staffordshire on them, because there has not been time yet to clean them. Suddenly, Anglo-Saxon England, 1300 years ago, seems much closer and more real.

I cannot bear it ….

Sep 23, 2009

I told you, I can’t bear getting up in the morning…

This podcast is about “bear”. You all know what a bear is. It is a big, furry animal that likes eating honey. There is a picture of a bear on the website. He is from a zoo in northern Spain, where there are still some bears in the wild. However, that is not the sort of “bear” I want to tell you about today. If you are really interested in the big, furry sorts of bear, you may enjoy listening to Natasha telling you a story about bears – three bears actually – in another posting on Listen to English.

To bear” is a verb. Its past tense is “bore”. Originally, “to bear” meant “to carry”. We still use it to mean “to carry” in some set expressions, but it sounds a bit old-fashioned. However, you will often hear people saying things like :

* I cannot bear the noise which the children are making.

* I cannot bear the hot weather in summer.

If I say that “I canno If I say that “I cannot bear” something, I mean that I cannot tolerate it, it is awful, it is too much, it makes me very unhappy, it makes me want to scream and run away and hide! Here are some more examples :

* I cannot bear travelling by air, because you have to wait so long at the airport.

* George cannot bear getting up early in the morning.

* I cannot bear it when you are angry.

* Kevin cannot bear it when Joanne’s mother says that there are more important things in life than football.

There are some other expressions which mean almost the same as “I cannot bear..”. Here are some of them:

* I like classical music, but my children cannot stand it.

* I cannot put up with the pop music which my children like.

Now suppose you want to say the opposite of “I cannot bear..”. Suppose you wanted to say that you are OK with your children’s pop music. It is not a problem for you. How would you say that? You could say :

* I don’t mind my children’s pop music.

* My children’s pop music does not bother me.

So, now you know all about the word “bear”. And some of you will remember that there is another word “bare” in English, spelled B-A-R-E. The B-A-R-E sort of bare is an adjective, and it means uncovered, not covered with anything. So, you can say that someone has bare arms, which means that they are wearing a short-sleeved shirt or blouse which leaves their arms uncovered. Or you can say that someone has a bare head, which means that they are not wearing a hat. You can talk about the bare earth, which means ground where there is nothing growing; or about a bare mountainside, where there are no trees, just rocks.

Near where I live, there is a man who never wears any shoes. He says that his feet smell if he wears shoes, so for the last 30 years he has walked the streets of the city with no shoes. People call him Pete the Feet, and there is an interview with him on YouTube. Pete the Feet has bare feet; he goes bare-footed.

Now you are all experts on “bear” (the animal), and “to bear” (the verb) and “bare” (the adjective). So you can try the quiz on the website and see how good you are!

The Islands on the Edge of the World

Sep 15, 2009

Today we are going to visit St Kilda. St Kilda is a small group of islands in the north Atlantic, far to the west of Scotland. It is the home of tens of thousands of sea birds. In fact, St Kilda is one of the most important places for sea birds anywhere in the world. And for thousands of years, people lived on St Kilda, but they do not live there any more, as I will explain.

The traditional way of life on St Kilda was simple and hard. The people kept sheep and grew a few crops like barley. They hunted sea-birds for food. They did some fishing, but the sea around St Kilda is often very bad and fishing was dangerous. The people of St Kilda had little contact with the outside world. Once a year the representative of the landlord visited the island to collect rents. If the islanders needed help, they would light a big fire on the top of the main island, and hope that a passing ship would see it. Sometimes, they wrote messages and put the message inside a piece of wood. They threw the wood into the sea, and several weeks later someone walking on the shore in Scotland might find it.

Some big changes happened in the 19th century. A school opened on the island, where the children learned Gaelic (which was their own language), and English (which was a foreign language for them) and arithmetic. Small numbers of tourists started to visit the islands during the summer. The tourist boats brought things which the islanders needed, and the islanders made simple souvenirs to sell to the tourists. Some of the islanders left the islands, to go to Australia, and later another group emigrated to Canada. The number of people on St Kilda had never been more than about 180. By the end of the 19th century, the number had fallen to less than 100.

During the First World War, the British Navy had a wireless station on St Kilda, and on one exciting day a German submarine arrived and shelled the island. No-one was killed, but the Navy’s wireless station was destroyed. The Navy base on St Kilda made communication with the outside world easy, and Navy ships were able to bring supplies to the island. But when the war ended, the Navy base closed and life for the people of St Kilda became hard again. There were shortages of food in some years, and there was no way to get seriously ill people to hospital. By 1930, there were only 36 people left on St Kilda. They all signed a letter to the government saying that they wanted to leave before the winter storms made it impossible for a ship to reach St Kilda. And on 29 August 1930, they all left and went to mainland Scotland, and their houses, and the tiny church and school were empty.

Today, the National Trust for Scotland owns St Kilda. During the summer, a warden and volunteers carry out conservation work on the old houses. You can visit St Kilda during the summer by boat from Scotland. The trip takes 14 hours, or longer in bad weather, and sometimes the boat cannot reach St Kilda at all. When you get there you will find no cafes or restaurants, no cars or tourist coaches, no public toilets or souvenir shops, just the ruins of the houses where the St Kilda people used to live, and sheep, and thousands and thousands of sea birds. The islands of St Kilda are still the islands on the edge of the world.

Making a comeback

Sep 7, 2009

Hello, and welcome back to Listen to English. I hope you all had a good summer break.

Today, I will tell you about an expression which you often see in the newspapers – “making a comeback”. What does it mean, to “make a comeback”?

Imagine that you are a pop singer. Your records sell really well. Your concerts are a sell-out. You earn millions of dollars, or pounds, or euros, every year. Then your fans get bored. They want something new. They stop buying your records. They stop going to your concerts. There is a new band, composed entirely of 13-year olds, which is now top of the charts. People have forgotten about you. Then perhaps 10 years later, people rediscover you. They thought you were dead, and are surprised and happy to find that you are still alive. You make a new record and people buy it, because it reminds them of the old days. You are invited to sing at some big music festivals. You have made a comeback.

Here is another example. Kevin, as he generally does on Saturdays, goes to a football match to watch his team, United. The first half is a disaster. The other team score two goals. The crowd is sure that United will lose. The second half starts badly – the other team score again. And then, in the last 15 minutes, United start to play proper football. They score a goal, and then another one, and finally a third goal in the last minute. The newspaper report of the match talks about “United’s big comeback in the second half “. And Kevin is very happy!

The newspapers are very fond of writing about “making a comeback”. Here are a few of the things which the newspapers tell us have made a comeback, or are going to make a comeback:

1. sewing machines. Because of the economic recession, people think it would be good to make their own clothes, and sales of sewing machines have gone up. Sewing machines are making a comeback.

2. ripped jeans. Do you remember when you could buy jeans which already had holes in them? Well, they are making a comeback, or so the newspapers say!

3. bow ties. I have no idea why bow ties are making a comeback. Indeed I don’t think they are.

4. English cricket. After several years of despair, the English cricket team has beaten the Australians, and we are all very happy. English cricket has made a comeback.

5. red kites. The red kite is a bird of prey, which became extinct in England over 100 years ago. Over the last 20 years, conservationists have released red kites into the wild in several parts of England, and there are now several hundred of these beautiful birds. The red kite is making a comeback.

6. cider. Cider is an alcoholic drink made from apples. For years, sales of cider have been falling, as people preferred beer or wine. Now people are interested in cider again. I went to a pub last week which sold 20 different sorts of cider. Cider is making a comeback.

veralynn is Vera Lynn!

But the most amazing comeback is this.

That was Vera Lynn. She was a very popular singer during the Second World War, when her sentimental songs on the radio helped to keep people’s spirits up. But that was a long time ago. You have to be in your 70s to remember Vera Lynn on the BBC in wartime. Now a CD of some of her songs has just been re-released, and it is in the Top Twenty. Who is buying it? Are there queues of old people outside the record shops? Or do people buy the CD for their grannies? Or is it just that we English are in love with the past? I don’t know, but Vera Lynn – who is now 92 years old – has definitely made a comeback.

I meant to …

Jul 13, 2009

Today we meet the English expression “I meant to”. “Meant” is the past tense of “mean”, and I know you all know what “mean” means. (Sorry, there are a lot of “means” in that sentence!) I guess you often ask, “What does this word mean?” or you say “Now I understand what the sentence means”.

Now look at these sentences:

I meant to go to the supermarket, but I did not have any money with me.

I meant to do my English homework, but my friend visited, and we talked all evening.

I meant to speak to my mother, but she was not at home when I telephoned.

I meant to..” means “it was my plan, or my intention to..” do something. And it is an expression we often use when we have to explain why we have not done something! “I meant to send her a postcard, but I could not find a stamp.” “I meant to meet my daughter in town, but I had to stay late at work for a meeting.”

Why am I explaining about “I meant to..” in this podcast? Well, quite a lot of you have sent me e-mails to ask why there have been no new podcasts for the last few weeks. I have been busy. I am the Trustee of a Charity which helps children who have emotional or family problems. Unfortunately we have run out of money, and have had to close the Charity, pay all the bills, make the staff redundant and find other organisations to help the children. This has taken a lot of time, so I have not been able to make as many podcasts as I would like. I meant to make several new podcasts, but I did not have the time. I meant to explain to you, but I forgot. I did not mean to leave you in the dark, but I had so many other things to do.

Here in England, it is nearly the school summer holidays. I am going to take a break, but I will be back with new podcasts early in September. Also in September, I want to redesign the Listen to English website, and add several new features. Listen to English is now on Twitter, and there is also a Listen to English page on Facebook. You can find links on the website. I shall use Twitter and Facebook to tell you when there are new podcasts, and to send you other news. You can use the Facebook page to send messages to me and to other listeners. So, please follow Listen to English on Twitter, and become a fan of the Listen to English page on Facebook.

Royal Ascot

Jun 19, 2009

Today we go horse racing, and we meet people with lots of money and no dress-sense!

Ascot is a small town, south-west of London, and close to the royal castle at Windsor.

In 1711, Queen Anne went horse-riding from Windsor, and “discovered” Ascot. She decided that it was exactly the right place for horse races. So the poor folk who grazed their cows or their pigs on the land had to move, and there has been a race-course at Ascot ever since.

There are race meetings at Ascot throughout the year. In the summer, the races are “on the flat”, which means that the horses simply run round the race course. But in the winter, the racing is “over the fences”, which means that the poor horses have to jump over fences as well as race round the course.

The greatest race meeting of the year is called Royal Ascot, and it is one of the grandest social occasions of the year, at least for people who care about grand social occasions. Royal Ascot is taking place this very week, from Tuesday to Saturday, and I see from the Royal Ascot website that there are still a few tickets left. Before you rush off to buy a ticket, however, here are a few things which you should know about Royal Ascot:

One, it is expensive. You will pay about £60 per person per day for a grandstand ticket. You cannot actually buy a ticket for the poshest area, the Royal Enclosure. To get a ticket for the Royal Enclosure, you have to know the right people.

Two, the Queen will be there, and lots of other royals and celebrities, and if you are lucky you may see some of them.

Three, Ascot racecourse is very concerned that people should wear the right clothes. Morning coats and top hats are good. Jeans, t-shirts and trainers are bad – very bad. (If you do not actually own a morning coat or a top hat, you can hire them from a company called Moss Brothers. In other countries, do you have to hire clothes in order to watch a horse race?)

Four, the hats are more important than the horses. Ascot is famous for the extraordinary hats that the ladies wear. Many of these hats are masterpieces of structural engineering. There is a link on the website to photos of some of this year’s finest hats.

Five, eating and drinking is almost as important as the hats. Last year, race-goers at Royal Ascot drank 60,000 bottles of champagne and ate 11,500 boxes of strawberries.

Six, the horse racing does not really matter, but if you are interested an Irish horse called Yeats won the Ascot Gold Cup yesterday. Second was another Irish horse, and third was a French horse. English horses don’t win at Ascot, just as English tennis players don’t win at Wimbledon.

But I had forgotten. Our economy is in recession. People are feeling poorer. Many people have lost their jobs. Surely, this year people will not spend lots of money on champagne and silly hats?

And, yes, there are fewer people at Ascot this year than last year. Champagne sales are down. And one newspaper reports that the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Beatrice, was seen at Ascot wearing a £90 jacket from Topshop and a pair of shoes which cost only £65. Oh, horror! Times are definitely hard!

Travelling slowly is best

Jun 16, 2009

We have more about canal boats in today’s podcast.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the boatyard to find our canal boat. One of the staff took us round the boat, to show us how things worked. Then he gave me the keys. The boat was ours, for the next week, at least.

The first thing you learn about an English canal boat is that it is slow. It is, in fact, almost the slowest form of transport you can think of. Small children riding bicycles overtake you. People walking their dogs on the towpath overtake you.

Perhaps you think that sailing a canal boat is easy. It must be easier than a car, you think, because it goes so slowly. Wrong. Sailing a canal boat is difficult.

To start with, there are no brakes. “If you want to stop,” the man in the boatyard told us, “you put the engine in reverse.” OK – I put the engine in reverse. The boat takes no notice. It keeps going forward. In a panic, I increase the engine revs [ie I made the engine go faster]. Gradually, the boat slows down, and eventually stops. It takes me about 50 meters to stop a canal boat travelling at walking pace. Amazing.

Then the trouble starts. You can only steer a canal boat if it is going forwards. If the canal boat stops or goes backwards, it goes where it wants to go, not where you want to go. Generally, the canal boat wants to drift in front of a boat coming the other way. If there is no boat coming the other way, the canal boat will probably want to drift to the side of the canal where it will run aground in the mud. You then have to spend several minutes pushing the boat off the mud.

Now, suppose you want to turn the boat round, to go the other way. Turning round is no problem in a car. However, the canal boat is 15 meters long, while the canal is only 10 meters wide. You need a special wide bit of canal, called a “winding hole”, to turn the boat round. You look at the map. No problem, there is a winding hole only 5 kilometers down the canal. Then you remember. The canal boat will take an hour to travel 5 kilometers.

You sometimes hear car drivers say that “parking is a nightmare”. They know nothing. They should try mooring a canal boat. (“Mooring” is the proper word for parking a boat). First you have to stop the boat. Then you have to persuade it to move towards the bank and not towards the middle of the canal. Everyone on the canal boat, except you, the driver, has to jump onto the canal bank. You throw them ropes to tie the boat to the bank. The ropes fall in the canal. You pull them out of the water and throw them again. A group of people watch with interest as your helpers make the boat fast. (The word “fast” has two completely different meanings in English – generally, it is the opposite of “slow”; but sometimes it means “cannot move”. So, if I “make a boat fast”, I mean that I tie it to the bank with ropes so that it cannot move. English is a crazy language!)

The people who built the canals liked to play tricks on canal users. A favourite trick is to put a canal bridge just before a bend in the canal. That makes it impossible to see whether another boat is coming the other way. Another trick is to make some bits of canal so narrow that two boats cannot pass each other. When you find a narrow section, you have to stop (if the boat is in a good mood), and send someone to walk along the towpath with a mobile phone, to phone you when they can see that there is no boat coming the other way.

But at least there are no traffic jams on the canal, you say. Wrong. At busy times, you may have to wait an hour or more to take your boat through a set of locks. But it is not like a traffic jam on a motorway. On a motorway, you sit in your car getting more and more tense and angry. You look out of the window at other drivers who are also getting tense and angry. But on a canal, when you find a traffic jam, you park – sorry, “moor” – your boat and go and talk to the people in the other boats. You swap stories about your adventures on the canal, and then help each other take the boats through the locks.

In a week on the canal, I think we travelled 60 kilometers. It is good to travel slowly. You relax and notice things which otherwise you might not see, like the wild flowers on the towpath and a heron standing completely still in a field. At night, we moored in peaceful quiet places, and in the morning the singing of the birds woke us up. We met several people who live on the canal permanently. They call themselves “live-aboards”, because they live aboard their boats. They have a simple life, because there is no room in a canal boat for many possessions. Some of them make souvenirs which they sell to other people on the canal. Some of them stay in one place for most of the time. Others move their boat to somewhere new every day. The “live-aboards” think they are the luckiest people in the world. What do you think?

Canals and narrowboats

Jun 10, 2009

In the podcast about Mr Speaker, I told you that I was going on holiday. I said that I would be the captain of a ship and sail away to new and interesting places. So, where did I go on my ship? Perhaps I sailed across the Atlantic. Perhaps I visited the islands of Greece.

But, no. Actually, my wife and I hired a canal boat and we went for a holiday on one of Britain’s beautiful canals.

We have lots of canals in Britain, especially in England. Most of them were built in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Boats on the canals carried coal, iron, pottery, stone, lime, salt and many other goods needed by the new industries which grew during the Industrial Revolution. Until the railways came, the canals were one of the most important forms of transport in the country.

The centre of the canal system in England is here in Birmingham, where I live. We like to tell visitors that there are more canals in Birmingham than in Venice! (This is true, but the canals in Venice are probably more beautiful!)

Originally, horses pulled the boats on the canals. The horses walked along a path at the side of the canal. Do you know the English verb “to tow”? It means to pull something which cannot move by itself. If your car breaks down, you may need to use another vehicle to tow the car to a garage. So, the horses towed the boats along the canal, and we still call the path beside a canal a “towpath”. In the 19th century, however, some canal boats had steam engines instead of horses, and today, most canal boats have diesel engines.

Compared to the great canals of the Netherlands or Germany, English canals and canal boats are tiny. The traditional boats of the English canals are only about 2 meters wide and between 10 and 20 meters long. A bigger boat could not fit through the bridges or the locks. We call these boats “narrowboats”. Why are they so small? Well, the canals are narrow, because it was cheaper and easier to build a narrow canal than a wide canal. And the boats are small because, originally, they were towed by a single horse. Traditional English narrowboats are brightly painted in red, blue, green or yellow, or all of these colours. Often they are decorated with pictures of flowers or castles.

When the railways arrived, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the canals began to decline. It was much quicker to move goods on a railway than on a canal. And in the 20th century, road vehicles took traffic from the canals as well.

Here is a typical story about the decline of the canals. There was company with a factory which made feed for animals. It was beside a canal, and the company had 11 narrowboats which brought grain and other things which it needed from a sea port. The narrowboats took 3 or 4 days to make the journey from the factory to the sea port and back. In 1923, the company bought a lorry. The lorry could make two return journeys each day. Naturally, the company scrapped the narrowboats and used the lorry instead.

And so, everyone thought, that is the end of the old canals. The narrowboats disappeared, many canals were abandoned, weeds grew in the water so that boats could not pass, the towpaths collapsed into the canals, the locks would not work any more. It was all very sad.

Then, shortly after the Second World War, people started to think that the canals could have a new use, for recreation i.e. for leisure and holidays. They saw that many canals went through beautiful, quiet countryside, where people could relax and enjoy nature. Gradually, people started to use the canals again. Abandoned canals were cleaned and re-opened; locks were repaired; and in one or two places new canals were built. Today, you can see large numbers of brightly-painted traditional narrowboats on our canals again. But they are carrying holiday-makers, not coal, or lime or pottery.

There will be more about canal boats in the next podcast. There is a quiz on the Listen to English website so that you can test how well you have understood what I have said.

Quiz – how well did you understand the podcast. :

Black Jumper Day

Jun 1, 2009

A black jumper shows everyone that you are big and important!

Today, I will tell you about “black jumper day” , and we will meet the English expression “to leave for” somewhere.

In a podcast a very long time ago, in November 2006, I told you that most English children wear a school uniform to go to school. My daughter, who is 15 years old, goes to a girls secondary school. [Sorry – I say “11 years old” in the podcast, but this is wrong. It should be “15 years old”]. She has to wear a dark green skirt or trousers, and a white blouse and a dark green jumper.

She is in year 10 at school. In year 11, the girls sit their GCSE exams. GCSE stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education”. After their GCSE exams, the girls leave the secondary school to go to sixth-form college, or to a further education college, to continue their studies or to learn practical skills. By tradition, in my daughter’s school, the year 11 girls are allowed to wear black jumpers, instead of dark green jumpers. They like their black jumpers, not because the jumpers look beautiful, but because they show everyone that year 11 are the senior girls, the most important girls, in the school.

However, the year 11 girls do not have to come to school any more. From today, they are on “study leave”, a time when they can stay at home and work and revise for their GCSE exams. Some of them, of course, use “study leave” as a time to go shopping or have parties, but perhaps we had better not talk about that.

This means that, from today, the year 10 girls are the most senior girls in the school. It is now their turn to wear the black jumpers, to show the rest of the school how big and important they are. They have looked forward to this day for weeks. They have all searched the local shops to find a black jumper in a style which they like. And today, they have all left for school, wearing their new black jumpers.

They have “left for school”. That means, they have left home to go to school. Here are some more examples. Do you understand what they mean?

* At eight o’clock, Kevin leaves for work.

* At half past eight, Harry leaves for college.

* George has left for a meeting with some clients.

* Sarah has left for lunch.

* At the end of the day, Kevin will leave for home.

* Tomorrow, Joanne will leave for her mother’s (ie she will go to her mother’s house).

* George has a business trip to America. On Thursday, he will leave for New York.

* The train leaves for London in 10 minutes.

* And, of course, the girls leave for school wearing their black jumpers.

Goodbye, Mr Speaker

May 23, 2009

Who is Mr Speaker? Mr Speaker is the chairman of our House of Commons, in Parliament. He is called the Speaker of the House of Commons because, several hundred years ago, it was his job to speak to the King, to tell the King what Parliament wanted, and to bring the King’s reply back to Parliament. Generally, the King’s reply was “no”, so the Speaker did not have an easy job. In the 15th century, several Speakers made the King so angry that he had them arrested and executed. Politics was fun in those days.

Since then, life for the Speaker has been more peaceful. Yes, there was a Speaker at the end of the 17th century who was sacked because he had accepted a bribe from businessmen in the city of London. But generally, the Speaker’s life has few problems. He, or she, chairs debates in the House of Commons, and makes sure that the House of Commons obeys its rules. The only real disadvantage is having to wear old-fashioned black clothes with gold embroidery, and having to listen to so many boring debates.

But things have changed. To understand what has happened to Mr Speaker, you need to know that Members of Parliament (MPs) in Britain receive a salary, and are also able to get other money, or “allowances”, to pay for things like an office, a secretary, travel and the cost of having a second home in London, if they do not live in London already. MPs make a list of their expenses – we say that they make a claim – in order get this extra money. They give their claim to the finance office in Parliament. If the finance office is happy with the claim, the MP gets the money he or she has claimed.

Until very recently, information about MPs allowances was a state secret. But now, the newspapers have found information about the allowances, and published it. It is clear that some MPs have behaved dishonestly. One MP claimed money to pay interest on a loan to buy a flat in London – which was fine, except that he had already repaid the loan and there were no interest payments. Other MPs claimed for the cost of repairing houses, which they then sold at a profit. One MP, who lives in a castle, claimed for the cost of cleaning the moat – that is, the water around the castle. Another MP, who has a country estate, keeps ducks on the lake on his estate. But foxes kept killing the ducks, so he claimed for the cost of building a little island for his ducks in the middle of the lake, so that the foxes could not catch them

All this has made people very angry. There are demands for big changes in the way that Parliament is run – for changes in our election system, changes in the way MPs do their jobs and the way they are paid.

And Mr Speaker? Well, the present speaker – Michael Martin is his real name – has opposed changes and many MPs think that he is not the right person to lead the House of Commons. So they have forced him to resign. He has become the first speaker for over 300 years to be forced out of office. Next month, Members of Parliament will elect a new Speaker to wear silly clothes and listen to their boring debates.

I will be on holiday next week, so there will be no podcast. I am going to be a captain of a ship, and will sail far away to new and interesting places. I shall tell you about it when I get back.

The Poet Laureate

May 8, 2009

Britain has a new Poet Laureate. Already, I hear you asking, “What is he talking about? We know what a poet is – it is someone who writes poetry. But what is this ‘laureate’ thing?”

You may know that the ancient Greeks used to place a crown made of laurel leaves on the head of someone as a very special honour. Laurel is a type of bush, with sweet-smelling leaves. Normally nowdays we call it ‘bay’, and we use bay leaves as a flavouring in cooking. So, that is the literal meaning of ‘laureate’ – ‘crowned with laurel leaves, as a sign of special honour’.

Since about the 17th century, English kings and queens have appointed a poet as their own, special, private poet. The king paid the poet a small salary, and the poet wrote poems for special royal occasions, like births or marriages in the royal family. The poet appointed by the king became known as the poet laureate. Over the years, some very famous English poets have been appointed as poets laureate – William Wordsworth, for example, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The latest poet laureate has recently retired, and the Queen, advised by the Prime Minister, has just appointed a new one. Neither our Queen nor our Prime Minister know very much about poetry. But they have made a very good and popular choice for the new poet laureate.

Her name is Carol Ann Duffy and she is the first woman to hold the position of poet laureate. Her poetry is simple and direct, and easy to understand. Perhaps for that reason, pupils in many English schools study her poems. Recently, indeed, there was controversy about one of her poems – it is a poem about the feelings of an angry young man who wants to kill and destroy things. The first few lines are:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything. I have had enough of being ignored and today I am going to play God.

Some people argued that reading the poem would make some young people pick up a knife and go and kill someone. One of the organisations which runs school exams in England even asked schools to destroy copies of the poem. This is ridiculous, of course. People kill because they are very angry inside, not because they have read a poem. Also, as Carol Ann Duffy herself pointed out, Shakespeare’s plays are full of angry young men who murder other people. Should we ban Shakespeare’s plays in schools?

Here is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems. It is a love poem – but a rather unusual one. She is going to give her love a present – a present that represents love. And what is the present? An onion! Listen.

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.

It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.

It promises light

like the careful undressing of love.


It will blind you with tears

like a lover.

It will make your reflection

a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or kissogram.

I give you an onion.

Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,

possessive and faithful

as we are,

for as long as we are.

Take it.

Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,

if you like.


Its scent will cling to your fingers,

cling to your knife.

Without hesitation, repetition or deviation

Apr 29, 2009

Two weeks ago, a man called Clement Freud died. He was 84 years old. He was a remarkable man, and very well-known and liked in Britain. He made us laugh, and I thought I would make a short podcast about him.

Clement was born in Berlin in Germany. His father was an architect and his grandfather was the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud. His elder brother is the famous artist Lucian Freud. Clement’s family were Jewish, and they left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power, and moved to London. Clement went to school in London, even though at first he spoke hardly any English. When he left school, he became an apprentice cook in the kitchens of one of London’s grandest hotels.

That was the start of Clement’s first career. How many careers do most people have? Many people – perhaps most people – do the same sort of work for the whole of their working lives. They are a teacher, or a farmer, or an engineer, or a driver, or a civil servant. Clement Freud had five different careers.

First, he worked in restaurants. He learnt about good food and good cooking. He opened his own night club.

Second, he became a writer. He wrote books for children. He wrote books about food. (We British, as you know, do not understand how to cook properly, but we love books and TV programmes about food.) For many years, he wrote articles for newspapers, about food, sport and life in general. he was particularly keen on horse racing.

Third, Clement Freud went into advertising. He advertised dog food, in a series of TV ads in the 1960s and 1970s. The advertisements became classics, and most people who were alive and watched TV at that time remember them. There is a link to one on the website, and a transcript. His co-star was a dog called Henry. Clement and Henry looked very alike – they both had long faces and a mournful expression.

Fourth, Clement Freud became a politician. He surprised everyone except himself by winning a seat in Parliament for the Liberal Party. He remained an MP for 14 years.

And fifth, he became a very well-known radio personality. For over 40 years, he appeared regularly on a BBC radio game called Just a Minute.

The rules of Just a Minute are simple. The contestants are each given a subject and immediately they have to talk about it, for a minute. Easy, you may say. Anyone could do that. However, they have to talk without hesitation, repetition or deviation. “No hesitation” means that you are not allowed to stop and say “um – er” when you cannot think what to say next. “No repetition” means that you are not allowed to use the same word twice. And “no deviation” means that you must stick to the subject, you are not allowed to talk about something else. If you hesitate, or repeat, or deviate, one of the other contestants will challenge you, and if the chairman agrees with the challenge, the other contestant takes up the subject and tries to talk – without hesitation, repetition or deviation – for the rest of the minute.

It really is very difficult to speak without hesitation, repetition or deviation for a whole minute. Try it some time! You could even try it in English!

Help – the hens are on the point of taking over the world.

Apr 23, 2009

I am sorry it has been so long since my last podcast. Thank you to all of you who sent me e-mails to ask what had happened and when would my next podcast be. No. I am not ill. No, I am not dead. No, I am not bored with podcasting. No, I have not run away with a beautiful blonde model 40 years younger than me. I have simply been busy.

In the last podcast, I told you about my hens. I am watching them as I write this. They are running round the garden, eating grass and anything else they can find. Soon there will be no garden left. However, the hens are happy, and they lay an egg each every day; and the fox has stayed away.

Last time, I told you that the hens were “point of lay” hens. I want to explain properly what “point of lay” means. Perhaps you know the English expression “to be on the point of doing something”. For example, if I am “on the point of” going to bed, it means that I will go to bed very soon. I have locked the front door. I have put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, I have cleaned my teeth. The next thing I do will be to go to bed. I am “on the point of” going to bed.

Or, look at the picture on the website. It is a picture of a flower. The flower is still closed and there is snow on the ground. But you can see that very soon the flower will open. It is on the point of opening. It is on the point of flowering.

Recently, some builders came to do some work on our house. Before they came, a scaffolding company came and erected scaffolding so that the builders could reach the roof. After the builders had finished work, I waited for the scaffolding company to come and take the scaffolding away. I waited for days, then weeks and they did not come. Then I found their telephone number, and picked up the telephone. Just then the doorbell rang. It was the men from the scaffolding company. I said to them, “I was on the point of telephoning you to ask you to take the scaffolding away.”

The English language is never simple. We always have more than one way that we can say something. Here are two other ways of saying “I was on the point of” doing something. We can say “I was about to do something”. I was about to telephone my mother. I was about to get into the car.

Or we can say, “I was just going to do something”. I was just going to visit my friend. I was just going to buy a train ticket.

Here are a couple more examples:

I have written a shopping list. I have found my money and a shopping bag. I am about to go to the shops.

My car is making strange noises. Perhaps it is on the point of breaking down!

You are sitting in an aeroplane. The cabin crew have shut the doors and told everyone to fasten their seatbelts. The plane is about to leave. It is on the point of departure. It is just going to take off.

So, now you understand why our hens were “point of lay” hens. They were on the point of laying their first eggs.

Now they are on the point of completely destroying my garden. Soon they will take over the world!

The fox and the hens

Mar 24, 2009

I like hens. When I was a child, my grandmother kept hens. When we visited her, we could help her feed the hens. We thought she had hundreds of hens, but actually I think she had 40 or 50. They lived in hen houses in her garden, and during the day they ran around in hen runs. Every week, a man with a lorry stopped at her house to collect the eggs for sale.

A “hen” is, of course, a female bird. A male bird is called a cock, or a cockerel. His job is to look beautiful and make lots of noise. Just like a man, in fact. Very often, people say “chickens” when they mean hens, though strictly a chicken is a baby bird. Hen meat which you buy in a supermarket is always called “chicken”. It sounds so much better than “hen meat”!

My grandmother, however, did not call her hens “hens”. She talked about her “fowl“. Fowl is an old word meaning birds which are kept or hunted for their meat or their eggs. Another word which you may hear is “poultry“. Poultry just means birds kept for their meat or their eggs. A poultry farm is a farm where they keep large numbers of birds, sometimes in big sheds, or sometimes in tiny cages called “battery cages”.

My wife and I have our very own poultry farm, only a few kilometers from the centre of Birmingham. Last summer, we bought three hens, a hen house and a little hen run. The hens grew big and fat, they wandered round our garden and they laid big, brown eggs. The hens were happy. We were happy.

Then disaster struck. A fox killed one of our hens, and then another one. We gave the last hen to some friends who also keep hens, because she was lonely by herself.

Last weekend, we went to a poultry breeder to buy three new hens. There is a photo of them on the website, and – I hope – on your iPod screens. Like my grandmother, the poultry breeder does not call them “hens”. She describes them as “pullets”, which means a hen which has not started to lay eggs yet. In fact, they are what the breeder calls “point-of-lay” pullets – that is, birds of about 16 weeks which will shortly start laying.

What are our new hens or pullets like? They are all hybrid hens, that is they are a mixture of different types or breeds of hen. Many hen-keepers like hybrid hens because they are strong and lay lots of eggs. two of our hens are of a hybrid type called Black Star. The third hen is a Bluebelle. She is very aristocratic. Like human aristocrats, she is big, beautiful and slightly stupid. Yesterday, we found our first egg. Well done, hens!

We shall have to keep our hens in their hen run for most of the time, and not let them wander in the garden, otherwise the fox will get them too. There are foxes in most British cities. Indeed there may be more town foxes today than country foxes. There is an old English sport called fox hunting. Special dogs called fox-hounds find a fox, and chase it across the fields and through the woods, until they catch and kill it. The hounds are followed by people riding horses. There has been a lot of controversy in recent years about fox-hunting. Some people say that it is cruel to let fox-hounds chase and kill foxes. Other people say that it is important to reduce the number of foxes. There have been some changes in the law about fox hunting in the last few years, which restrict the sport but do not prohibit it.

At one time, I thought that fox hunting was very cruel. Now I am a hen keeper again, I think that it should be legal to hunt foxes with tanks and machine guns if you want to.

What sound does this animal make? : A drag-and-drop exercise.

What does your ring tone say about you?

Mar 13, 2009

Do you know the word “impact”? “Impact” means the action of hitting something with a lot of force. So, if two cars hit each other, we can talk about the “impact” of the collision. But generally we use “impact” in a figurative way – we use it to mean “a big effect”. For example, if someone loses their job, this will probably have a big impact on their lives and on their families. Or we might say that cars have a big impact on the environment.

What piece of modern technology, do you think, has had the biggest impact on the way we live? Perhaps modern medical technology – like drugs to treat cancer. Or computers – I wrote this podcast on a computer. Now I am recording it on a computer, and soon I will put the recording onto another computer, so that you can download it to your computer! Or maybe modern means of transport, like aircraft and cars – maybe they have had the biggest impact on the way we live.

I think, however, that the piece of modern technology which has had the biggest impact is something which most of us carry with us almost everywhere. You probably have one in your bag or your pocket. I am of course talking about mobile phones.

I remember the first mobile phone that I ever saw. It was about 25 years ago. The phone was the size of a brick. You needed to be quite strong to carry it. I asked the owner if I could make a call on it, and he agreed. It felt strange to be standing in a field in the country, talking to someone on a telephone.

Today, over half the population of the world either own or use a mobile phone. At the end of last year, there were over 4.1 billion mobile phones in use in the world. In most countries in Europe, in fact, there are more mobile phones than people.

You might think that mobile phones would have the biggest impact in those countries where most people have one. However, I do not think this is true. In Africa, for example, mobile phones have made a huge difference to people’s lives, because so much of Africa does not have a network of fixed telephone lines. In Gambia, for example, there are only 50,000 fixed telephone lines. But there are 800,000 mobile phone users – so, roughly, 16 times as many Gambians can use a mobile phone as can use a conventional telephone. A few years ago, in many parts of Africa, it was very difficult to send money from one person to another, because most people did not live near a bank, or did not have a bank account. Today, many Africans are able to send money to their families, or to pay for things, by mobile phone.

The mobile phone has given us more freedom. We can contact other people, when we need to, wherever we are. But it has also given us less freedom. The boss can talk to you at any time, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. A few years ago, people travelling by train sat quietly and read a book or a newspaper. Now they talk on their mobile phones. They tell everyone, “I’m on the train.” They discuss private affairs in loud voices. When they get off the train, they plug an earphone into their ear and carry on talking. Once, if you saw someone talking to themselves in the street, you assumed that they were slightly mad. Now you know that they are using their mobile.

Because of mobile phones, teenagers live different lives from when I was their age. At one time, parents would sometimes allow their teenage children to call their friends on the ordinary telephone. “Only a short call,” they would say. “Telephone calls are very expensive.” Now, teenagers send text messages to each other from their mobile phones, all the time. They have developed new ways of using their hands. They use their thumbs to press things like the keys on a mobile phone, while older people use their fingers. Is this how evolution happens? They have developed a new sort of texting language. As you know, the spelling of words in standard English is sometimes very strange. If you are texting in English, however, you can ignore normal spelling completely. You spell words exactly as you pronounce them. You use all sorts of strange abbreviations as well. In twenty years time, texting may have changed the English language completely! The quiz this week is about texting, to see if you can guess what some texts mean.

My mobile phone is about 8 years old. Several museums want to buy it from me. I hardly ever switch it on, and it refuses to send texts any more. I do not care, because I love its ring tone. It is a short piece of music by Franz Schubert. It tells the world that I am a sophisticated and cultured person.

Other people too have ring tones that tell the world what sort of person they are. Sometimes the ring tone says, “I am a witty and intelligent person”. Sometimes it says, “I am ignorant and uncivilised.” What does your ring tone say about you?


Mar 5, 2009

Today we are going to “miss” things!

Miss” is a word which we can use in several different ways. Here are some of them.

Kevin is at a football match. United, the team which he supports, is losing 1-0, and there is only five minutes before the final whistle. Then United’s star striker gets the ball. He runs down the field, past one, two, three of the players from the other team. Now he is only 10 meters from the goal. He kicks. Does he score a goal? No, he misses. The ball goes over the cross-bar. Kevin groans and buries his head in his hands. United have scored only three goals since Christmas.

You can miss other things too. You can miss your English class – that means, you do not go to your English class. Perhaps you are ill. Perhaps you forgot to do your homework. You can miss a meal. If you wake up late, perhaps you rush out of the house without eating anything. You miss your breakfast. And, of course, you can miss a bus or a train, if you arrive too late at the station.

Here is another way of using the word “miss”. Imagine you have come to England for three months to learn English. There are probably lots of things about England that you like. But there are probably some things as well that make you sad or anxious. Perhaps you miss your friends – you would like to be able to meet them and chat to them. Perhaps you miss the food of your country – English food is awful! And perhaps you miss hearing people speaking your own language.

Now lets look at the word “missing”. If something is missing, it is not where it should be. It is gone.

Joanne’s niece Sarah is seven years old. Her milk teeth (that is, her baby teeth) have started to fall out and her adult teeth have started to grow. At the moment, she has a big hole where her front teeth should be. She has two front teeth missing.

Joanne is shopping in the supermarket. At the till, she gets out her purse to pay. She looks in her purse. “That is strange,” she says to herself. “I am sure that I had a £10 note. The £10 is missing. Did I loose it? Did someone steal it?” Then she remembers. She spent the £10 note yesterday.

It is not just money or teeth which can be missing. People can be missing, too. Every year in Britain, the police deal with over 200,000 cases of missing people, or missing persons.

What sort of people go missing? Many of them are children or young people. Perhaps they had an argument with their parents, and ran away from home without saying where they were going. Perhaps they were frightened, or badly treated.

Adults can be missing too. If you are an adult, you can leave home if you want to. You can run away from your family and your job without saying where you are going. It may not be a responsible thing to do, but it is not illegal. Some adults gradually lose touch with their friends or family – they never write or telephone, and after a time the family does not know where they are. Some missing adults are people with drugs problems or mental health problems.

Happily, most missing persons are not missing for ever. Angry young teenagers calm down and return home. Adults get in touch with their families again, or send a message to say that they are safe and well. There are charities that help to find missing people, and which help people who have left their homes and families. There are only a very few missing persons cases which end with the police finding a body on a railway line or in an abandoned house.

So now you know all about the words “miss” and “missing”. Listen to the podcast again, to make sure that you did not miss anything! Then do the quiz on the website, which is all about missing words.

Lauren’s eyes

Feb 25, 2009

Britain has a new celebrity. Her name is Lauren Luke, and she is …how shall I describe her? Not a film star, exactly. No, she is a video star, a YouTube video star in fact. Lauren is 27. She lives with her mother, her 10 year old son, her sister, two nieces and five dogs in a little house in South Shields, in the north-east of England. Lauren used to work in a taxi office. She answered the telephone, and sent the taxis to people who wanted them. It was not work that she enjoyed. She found it very boring.

Lauren had always been interested in make-up. In fact, people told her that she was good with make-up – she understood what sort of make-up would look good on a particular face; or what sort of make-up to wear for different occasions. She decided to give up her job at the taxi company. Instead, she started to sell make-up on eBay, the internet auction site.

Now, men like me find make-up a complete mystery. Why do women want to paint their faces? Do they think that it makes them more attractive to men? Or do they do it to impress other women? I don’t know. I am only a man.

Lauren found a cheap video camera. She put it beside the mirror on her dressing-table, and she started to make short films of her putting on her eye make-up. She put the videos on YouTube, and people started to watch them. At first there were only a few downloads, then hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people watched her videos. She is now probably the most-viewed make-up artist in the world.

Who watches her videos? I guess that many of them are teenage girls, who want to know how to look like Britney Spears or Kate Winslet. Perhaps they are women who want to know how to put on liquid eye-liner without getting it all over their face. Or maybe they are men, who want to know why women paint the skin round their eyes. Lauren probably knows why women paint the skin round their eyes, but she does not tell us in her videos, she just shows how to do it.

And now Lauren has a weekly column in a national newspaper, and an American cosmetics company will soon start selling a range of Lauren Luke cosmetics. Lauren has come a long way from the taxi office. She is now famous. She is a celebrity.

There is a link on the website to Lauren’s YouTube videos. Lauren speaks with a north-east of England accent, what we call a Geordie accent, but I think you will be able to understand quite a lot of what she says. In the background in the videos, you may hear the sound of snoring. That is one of Lauren’s dogs, fast asleep.

Now, as I have told you before, Listen to English has an ambition to become a celebrity. If I am a celebrity, I might be invited to be on Strictly Come Dancing where I could dance with Cherie Lunghi and other beautiful ladies. Maybe I should get a video camera, and make videos of me cleaning my teeth in the mornings. I could put the videos on You Tube, and dentists everywhere in the world would see them. They would tell their patients to watch the videos, and before long I would be as famous as Lauren, and I would have my own brand of toothpaste. What do you think?


Feb 14, 2009

Today’s podcast is about a child’s toy, and a TV journalist.

The child’s toy is a golliwog. A golliwog is a soft toy, a sort of doll. There is a picture of a golliwog on the website, and – I hope – on your iPod screens. The Golly in the picture is wearing black and white striped trousers and a red coat. He has a bow-tie and a white shirt. And his skin is black, and he has curly black hair. Golliwog is intended to look like black minstrel singers and musicians in America in the late 19th century.

Golliwog first appeared in a children’s book in 1895. The book, which was called “The Adventures of two Dutch Dolls and Golliwogg”, was very successful, and lots more books about Golliwog followed.

Naturally, toy manufacturers noticed the popularity of the Golliwogg books, and they started to make golliwog dolls. And the dolls were popular with children too. In the first half of the 20th century, many British children had a golliwog. Sometimes they loved their golliwog and took him everywhere they went. And sometimes they threw their golliwog into the corner or under the bed and forgot about him.

Robertson’s, a company which makes jam, used the golliwog as their trademark (what we would call a logo today, I think). For many years, children collected little golliwog stickers from the labels on jars of Robertson’s jam.

Then things started to change. Immigrants arrived in Britain, especially from former British colonies. Gradually, Britain became a racially diverse country. And people started to wonder, is it OK for children to have golliwog dolls? Surely a golliwog is an out-of-date stereotype of black people. Golliwogs in short are racist.

Now, it was of course adults who worried about whether golliwogs were OK. I doubt if most children thought of their golliwog as representing real black people. Nonetheless, golliwogs gradually became less popular. Children wanted Action Men, and Barbie Dolls, and computer games, not an old-fashioned golliwog doll. Eventually, even Robertson’s stopped putting the golliwog on the labels of their jam jars.

Now we turn to our TV journalist. Her name is Carol Thatcher. Where have you heard the name “Thatcher” before? Yes, Carol is the daughter of the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Carol has done various reporting jobs for the BBC. After a TV show about 10 days ago, Carol was talking to a group of BBC colleagues. They were discussing an international tennis player – a black international tennis player. Carol referred to him as a “golliwog”. Some of the people who heard her were shocked. They told the producer of the TV programme. She in turn told the BBC’s senior management. A few days later, Carol Thatcher was sacked.

There has been a storm of controversy in the newspapers and on radio and television. Some people said that it was an unacceptable racist insult to refer to a black person as a “golliwog”. Other people said that when Carol called the tennis player a “golliwog”, it was only a bit of fun. They argued that Carol was having a private conversation, and that the BBC were wrong to sack her.

Personally, I think it is very insulting to call a black person a “golliwog”, but I know that lots of people think differently. English people do not all agree about what is acceptable language in a multiracial society. You are learning English, and I guess that sometimes you too find it difficult to know which words are acceptable, and which are not.

Poor Golly. He never meant to cause so much trouble!

We love snow!

Feb 4, 2009

When English people meet each other, they generally start their conversation by talking about the weather. “It’s nice weather we are having”, they say. Or, “It’s a bit cold for the time of year.” This week we have had a big national conversation all about the weather. It has snowed.

If you live in Scandinavia, or Germany, or Russia or Canada, you are perhaps saying, “It is winter. It snows in winter. Why are the crazy English obsessed with the snow? What is the problem?”

The problem is that, in recent years we have had very little snow. Our winters have been wet and windy, but in most places they have not been cold and snowy. This week has been different. We have had the heaviest fall of snow for 18 years. The snow has come on east winds all the way from Russia. It has been particularly heavy in London and the south-east of England.

We do not know how to cope with snow in England. In other countries, normal life continues even in the snow. On Monday this week, however, London came to a complete standstill. There were no buses. There were hardly any trains. The airports were closed. People could not go to work. Children could not go to school. It was like an extra public holiday. The TV news had interviews with tourists who were visiting London. They were puzzled. They said that they had come to London to do some shopping, but all the shops were shut.

Later on Monday, the snow came here to Birmingham, and then moved further north over the rest of the country. We woke up on Tuesday to see the sun shining on a world which was sparkling white. Then came the really wonderful news – all the schools in Birmingham would be closed for the day.

But today, Wednesday, the national conversation about the snow has turned into a national argument about the snow. Why does normal life come to a standstill in England whenever we have even a little bit of snow? Surely we could do more to keep the roads open and the trains and buses running. What must the rest of the world think about this country, when they read or see on TV that everything in London has stopped because of some snow? And why were so many schools closed? Surely most children and most teachers could have got to school, even if they had to walk.

Some older people remember – or think they remember – winters in the 1950s and 1960s when there was lots of snow. They have become national experts on snow, and they have been on TV telling us how they used to go to school through snowdrifts 2 meters deep, and things like that.

While the adults have been arguing, the children have been enjoying themselves. Until this week, most British children had never seen real snow, lots of snow, snow to make snowmen and snowballs. Tuesday was a wonderful day – cold and sunny – and because so many schools were closed, the children could go out into the gardens and the parks to play in the snow, and sledge down the hills. This is much more useful than a day in school, in my opinion. The children will remember this winter for the rest of their lives.

And the weather forecast is – more snow. Good.

Massive reductions – up to 50% off!

Jan 29, 2009

It has been more than two weeks since my last podcast. I have two excuses. The first is that I have had another bout of flu – not badly, but enough to make it difficult to do anything like writing or recording a podcast. My second excuse is much more exciting. I have just finished a project on which I have been working for several months. The computer programme, or software, which runs the Listen to English website is called LoudBlog. I have been rewriting LoudBlog, to add some new features. I have called the new programme PodHawk. If you are really interested, you can read all about PodHawk at

Every day for the past couple of weeks, I have looked through the newspaper for a nice, light-hearted story that I could use in a podcast. But there have been no nice, light-hearted stories, only serious, depressing stories about the recession and unemployment. But yesterday I found some inspiration. I was in a traffic jam, behind a bus. It was a number 37 bus, going from Birmingham to Solihull, but that is not important. On the back of the bus was the slogan “Up to every 5 minutes Monday to Saturday”.

Now, “up to every 5 minutes Monday to Saturday” is not very good grammar. And if you look up each word in a dictionary, it still won’t make any sense. “Up to” indicates a maximum. If you see road sign which says that you can park for “up to an hour”, it means that you may park your car for an hour, but not for longer. I know however what the bus company is trying to say. It wants to tell us that, on Mondays to Saturdays, there are buses every 5 minutes at some times of the day. At other times of the day, the buses run less often – maybe every 10 minutes or every 15 minutes. But the bus company wants to tell us only the good news – sometimes there is a bus every 5 minutes. So – “Up to every 5 minutes Monday to Saturday”.

In recent years, the phrase “up to” has become very common when people want to tell you only the good news and not the not-so-good news. For example, at this time of year, many of the shops in Britain have sales. They reduce their prices to try to persuade us to buy all the rubbish we refused to buy before Christmas. This year, there have been lots of sales, because of the recession. You will see signs in shop windows which say something like “Massive reductions – up to 50% off”. This means, “We have cut some of our prices. Some of the price cuts are big – 50% – but most of them are much smaller – maybe 10% – and some prices we have not cut at all.” It does sound so much better to say “Up to 50% off”, doesn’t it?

Up to” is also a a favourite phrase in advertisements when they only want to tell us the good news. A car advertisement might say, for example, that the car has “up to 25% more space” or has “up to 30% better mileage“. An advert for a household cleaner might say that it has “up to 45% more cleaning power”. What is “cleaning power”? How can I measure it? “Up to 45% more cleaning power” really, really does not mean anything.

We have an expression in English, to “take something with a pinch of salt.” It means, to be a bit sceptical, a bit doubtful, not to accept something “at its face value”. So, for example, Kevin tells Joanne about the truly amazing, truly wonderful things which his football team did at the match last Saturday. Joanne knows that Kevin often exaggerates, and that she does not need to believe every detail of what he says. She takes Kevin’s story “with a pinch of salt”.

So, when you see “up to 50% off” or “up to 45% more cleaning power” or even “a bus up to every 5 minutes”, you know that they are only telling you the good news, and that you should take what they say with a pinch of salt.

The Kinks : all about massive reductions (in the workforce, rather than in prices) and very topical!

How to keep track of the kids

Jan 13, 2009

Do you know the English expression “to keep track of” something? If you “keep track of “ something, you always have a good, up-to-date knowledge of it. Here are some examples to help you understand the way we use the expression.

Molly is an air-traffic controller. She works at a busy airport, and her job is to guide planes into the airport safely. She needs to keep track of all the planes which arrive at the airport.

Kevin likes to keep track of his money. He always writes down what he spends, so he knows how much money is left in his bank account.

Joanne has a job where she needs to visit lots of other companies, and to meet people at her office. She has a special programme on her computer to help her keep track of her appointments.

And John uses Facebook to keep track of what his friends are doing. Perhaps you use Facebook to keep track of your friends too.

The opposite of “keep track of” is “lose track of”. Sometimes, if I am reading a good book, I lose track of time. That is, I forget what time it is. Suddenly I realise that it is much later than I thought.

Kevin has three older brothers and an older sister. They are all married and have children. Kevin is “Uncle Kevin” to the children. But poor Kevin always loses track of the children’s birthdays. He cannot remember whether little Harry has a birthday in March or in June, and whether little Deborah is 3 or 4 years old.

At Kevin’s work, there have been a lot of changes. The boss has re-organised all the Departments and has moved a lot of people to new jobs. Kevin cannot keep track of all the changes. He cannot remember who is now doing which job.

I have a reason for telling you about “keep track of”. There was an article in the newspaper yesterday about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in the United States. This is the show where firms display their latest clever gadgets which they hope to persuade the public to buy. A British company is displaying a gadget which looks like an ordinary wristwatch. Inside the watch is a chip which uses the Global Positioning System to keep track of where the watch is. The idea is that parents will buy these watches for their children; they can then receive text messages on their mobile phones which tell them where their child is. Is he at school? Has he gone to see his friend? And so on. But won’t children simply take the watch off if they do not want their parents to know where they are? Well, if the child removes the watch, this will immediately send a message to the parents.

The new device sounds like a way of making children prisoners. However, the company which makes it says that it hopes that it will give children more freedom, not less. Parents may be happy to let their children go out to visit friends, or to play in the park, if they always know where the children are.

I can however think of one problem. I wear a watch so that I always know what time it is. Most older people are like me, and have a watch. Children and teenagers, however, do not wear watches. If they want to know the time, they look at their mobile phones. They will not want to wear the new watch. They will know that its real purpose is to enable parents to keep track of the children, not to enable the children to keep track of the time.

What do you think? If you are a young person, would you agree to wear this new watch? If you are a parent, would you think that the watch is a good way to keep track of where your children are and what they are doing?


Jan 5, 2009

A Happy New Year, everyone. Many thanks to all of you who sent e-mails to wish me a speedy recovery from the flu. I am now much better – thank you.

Today’s podcast is a delayed Christmas podcast. I would have made it before Christmas, but I was unwell so I could not do so. I hope you will like it nonetheless. In the podcast, we meet the words “crack” and “crackers”, and we learn what you should do at a Christmas dinner in England.

Let’s start with the word “crack”. Imagine that you drop a plate – a china plate – on the floor. It does not break into lots of pieces, but when you pick it up you see that the plate now has a line running across it. You know that soon the plate will break completely along this line. The line is a “crack”. You have “cracked” the plate. The plate is “cracked”. Here are some other things which you can crack. A piece of wood can crack if you hit it hard. Ice on a river or a pond can crack if you walk on it. A window can crack if you throw a stone at it. And an egg can crack if you tap it with a knife or a spoon.

We also use the word “crack” to describe the sound of something cracking – a sudden, short sound – “crack” – like that.

And a “cracker”? What is that? It is something which makes a cracking sound. In America, they call a savoury biscuit – the sort you eat with cheese, for example – a “cracker“. A “firecracker“ is a firework, especially a firework which makes a cracking sound. “Crackers” is also a rather old-fashioned slang word meaning “mad” or “crazy”. And in England, we have Christmas crackers.

Imagine that your English friend has invited you to join his family for dinner on Christmas Day. When you sit down at the dinner table, you will probably find a strange object made out of coloured paper and cardboard on the plate in front of you. If you pick up the strange object and shake it, you will hear something rattling inside. The strange object is a Christmas cracker. There is a picture of some Christmas crackers on the website, and (I hope) on your iPod screen as well, so you can see what they look like.

What do you do with the Christmas cracker? Perhaps you remember what I just said about biscuits in America. Perhaps you should eat the cracker? No. Do not try to eat a Christmas cracker. Perhaps a Christmas cracker is like a firecracker. Perhaps you should find a match and set fire to the Christmas cracker? Wrong. Do not set fire to the Christmas cracker. Well, perhaps the best thing is just to put the Christmas cracker in your pocket so that you can look at it more closely later, when you are alone. No. No. No. You hold of one end of the cracker and give the other end to the person sitting next to you. Together you pull the cracker. The cracker will break open with a “crack” sound – that is why it is called a cracker! And the things inside the cracker will fall out.

First, you will find a silly little hat made of paper. Etiquette requires that you put this silly paper hat on your head and wear it throughout the meal. Do not feel embarrassed. Everyone else will wear silly paper hats as well. Second, you will find a toy, or a puzzle. You are allowed to play with the toy or puzzle during the meal. Indeed, if you are lucky you may find a whistle inside the cracker; you can blow the whistle as often and as loudly as you like. Third, you will find a little piece of paper. On the paper is a joke. It will be a bad joke. For example, this is the joke from my Christmas Day cracker:

Why did the skeleton not go to the party?”

Because it had nobody to go with.”

No body” – “nobody” – do you understand? Never mind, I said it was a bad joke. You should read the joke from your cracker out loud to all the other people at the table. Everyone will laugh. You should laugh loudly when other people read their jokes as well, even if you do not understand the joke, and even if you do not think that it is funny.

You may be thinking, perhaps all this stuff about Christmas crackers and paper hats and things is an ancient Christmas tradition, going back hundreds and hundreds of years. Wrong again. Christmas crackers have nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with the birth of Jesus, which is what we are celebrating at Christmas. The first Christmas crackers were made in the middle of the 19th century by a man called Tom Smith. Today, you can buy boxes of Christmas crackers in the supermarket in the few weeks before Christmas. Or you can make your own crackers, if you wish.

So now you know that the English really are mad. Crackers, in fact. Happy New Year!

I am ill

Posted: Wed, 17 Dec 2008 13:32:00 +0000

My teddy bear has flu as well!

I am ill. I have flu. I have been sent to bed with a hot water bottle and my teddy bear until I am better. So I have not had time this week to make a proper podcast. I hope to have time in a few days.

But maybe this is a good opportunity to give you some information which I hope you will find useful. Some of you have sent me e-mails asking me whether there is a podcast similar to mine, but in American instead of British English. I have recently looked at the Voice of America website. Voice of America is a radio station which is largely funded by the American Government. I remember Voice of America in the old days, when it used to broadcast anti-Communist propaganda to listeners in Eastern Europe. But times have changed, and Voice of America is more balanced today. Among other things, there is a Learning English section on the VoA website, and it includes podcasts. Like the Listen to English podcasts, you can listen to the podcast and read the text at the same time. If you are interested in American English, try listening to some of these podcasts.

There is a link from the VoA website to Ted Lamphair’s blog. Ted has had a long career as a radio reporter and he writes about the many places in America, and in the rest of the world, which he has visited. At the end of each blog post, he explains some of the more difficult or unusual words which he has used. His blog posts are quite long, but they are written in good American English, and you will find them both interesting and useful reading practice.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Mike Marzio. He tells me that he runs a language school in the south of France. He has also built a large collection of short video clips of people speaking English, in the streets in America and in many other English speaking countries. The video clips are on his website. Many of the videos are linked to quizzes, so that you can test how well you understood what the people in the video were saying.

Finally, the English Cafe website has an article on how to use Google to improve your English. If you cannot remember whether you should say “I arrived to London” or “I arrived in London”, just try Googling “I arrived to London” and “I arrived in London”. Go on. Try it. Which one is correct?

That’s all for today. I must go and look after my teddy bear. He seems to have flu as well.

Christmas Shopping

Posted: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 22:38:21 +0000

In today’s podcast, we have a serious discussion of the state of the world economy, and we go Christmas shopping with Kevin and Joanne.

As I am sure you know, there are some big problems in the world’s economy at present. There is a recession (that is, a reduction in output) in many countries, including Britain. The problem is that banks in America, and in Britain and some other countries, lent money to people who could not afford to repay. So many banks are in big trouble, and have stopped lending to anyone. So people have less money to spend, and many have lost their jobs. And the big shops are cutting their prices because they are worried that people are not buying. And governments have had to intervene, to do things, some of which are useful and some of which are not useful. That is Listen to English’s summary of the world’s economic problems. You can use it in your economics homework if you wish.

December is the biggest shopping month of the year in Britain, as it is in many countries. People want to buy Christmas presents for their friends and family, and nice things for themselves as well. As a result, the shops are full of people. But perhaps this year is different. Because of the recession, maybe the big stores and the out-of-town shopping centres are deserted. Perhaps this year, for once, it will be possible to go Christmas shopping in peace. Wrong. Things are as bad as ever.

Kevin and Joanne went Christmas shopping last Saturday afternoon. They needed to buy a present for Kevin’s aunt Joan, who is 73 years old. “A cardigan,” said Kevin. “Old ladies always like a new cardigan.” So they agreed, they would buy Aunt Joan a new cardigan.

Good,” said Kevin. “I am glad that we have decided what to buy her. So is it alright if you buy the cardigan and I go with George to the football match”.

No it is not alright”, said Joanne. “She is your aunt and you can come and help choose her present.”

They took the bus into the centre of town. There were crowds of people everywhere – people going to and fro; people going in and out of shops; people getting on and off buses; people getting into and out of taxis. Every now and then, there was a gap in the crowds, and Kevin and Joanne made their way carefully down the street to Marks and Spencer. Marks and Spencer is, as I am sure you know, a well-known British store which sells mainly clothes, including cardigans of the sort which 73 year old aunts like to get for Christmas.

In Marks and Spencer, Kevin and Joanne looked around for the ladies’ cardigans. They went round and round the store, and up and down the escalator, looking unsuccessfully for cardigans. Then Kevin saw them, in a corner. It took several minutes for Kevin and Joanne to fight their way through the crowds to reach the cardigans. It took about 10 more minutes to find a cardigan of the right size and colour. And it took about 15 more minutes before Kevin and Joanne reached the front of the queue at the tills to pay for the cardigan. Kevin and Joanne were exhausted. When English people are exhausted, and even when they are not exhausted, they need a cup of tea.

Kevin and Joanne looked for a cafe. They were all full. Several had a queue of people waiting outside. Then Joanne remembered that there was a cafe at the art gallery. The art gallery was empty. Perhaps people are not interested in culture at Christmas. Kevin, who had never actually been there before, looked around with interest. “That painting is upside down,” he said in a loud voice as they went through the modern art section. “And that one is sideways.” “Kevin, “ said Joanne. “The people in the art gallery know which way to hang their paintings and you don’t. Now shut up and stop making an idiot of yourself.”

There were only a few people in the cafe at the back of the gallery. Kevin and Joanne drank tea, and ate a slice of cake each. They talked about how difficult it was to do shopping when there were so many people. “You know,” said Kevin. “It is better at a football match. There aren’t as many people, and they are not so aggressive.”

Drink your tea,” said Joanne. “We need to find a present for my mother next.”

Learning languages – why can’t the English do it?

Posted: Mon, 01 Dec 2008 21:45:00 +0000

They speak many different languages in this restaurant in Lugano, Switzerland, where they have very big brains indeed! Photo by Eric Andresen/flickr

I read an interesting story in the newspaper last week. It said that researchers at University College London had measured the brains of people who are bilingual (that is, people who speak two languages well) and also the brains of people who spoke only one language. They found that the part of the brain which processes information is better developed in people who are bilingual than in people who are mono-lingual. This effect is particularly strong in people who learnt a second language as a young child of less than five years old. So, quite simply, learning a second language makes your brain work better, and if you learn another language when you are very young, your brain will be very wonderful indeed!

If you are listening to this podcast, you are – I guess – learning a language which is not your own. So you must all have brains which work very well. The report in the newspaper is good news for you. Congratulations.

But it is bad news for us English, because we are really bad at learning foreign languages. Only the Americans are as bad as we are. So, British brains and American brains are perhaps not as good as the brains of people in a country like Switzerland where it is normal for people to speak two or even three languages to a high standard. In Britain, only about one adult in ten can communicate at all in a language other than English. In fact, “one in ten” may be too optimistic. A few years ago, a survey by a recruitment agency found that only 5% of British people could count to 20 in another language. What? How difficult is it to learn to count to 20 in German, or French, or Italian? British people who go to live in Spain or France are notorious for failing to learn Spanish or French, even after they have lived in the country for many years.

You probably know already that English children move from primary school to secondary school at the age of eleven. At secondary school, they start learning a foreign language, normally French. A year or two later, some children will start a second foreign language. At one time, the second foreign language was normally German, but this is not the case today. German language teaching has declined sharply in Britain. Spanish has taken its place. I do not know why Spanish has become so much more popular than German. Perhaps it is because so many English people go to Spain for their holidays.

In addition, in big cities where there is a large immigrant population, it is common for secondary schools to offer courses in south Asian languages like Punjabi or Urdu. But of course, most of the children who take these courses speak the language at home already. The courses give them a better knowledge and understanding of their own language, which is a good and important thing to do, but it does not teach them a new language.

When they are 14, children in England have to choose which subjects they will study for their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, which they take when they are 16. The government decided a few years ago that it would no longer be compulsory for children to include a foreign language in the subjects they chose. The result has been that the number of children who study a language after the age of 14 has fallen dramatically. The number of children taking the GCSE French exam, for example, has fallen by 50% since 2001.

We see the same pattern when we look at British universities. The total number of students at university in Britain has risen, but the number of students taking degree courses in foreign languages has fallen. There have been particularly big declines in the numbers studying French and German.

This is not a good situation. Everyone – politicians, school teachers, academics – agree about this. If young people do not study a foreign language, probably they will not understand much about other countries or other cultures. Most British teenagers, however, do not think that learning a foreign language is interesting or important. They think that they will never need to speak a foreign language, and that all foreigners speak English anyway. Foreign languages have a low status with young people. Our government thinks that part of the answer is to start language learning at a younger age. It wants primary schools to start teaching a foreign language. However, at the same time, it has cut funding for adult education classes in foreign languages.

The problem is complicated and deep-seated. How do you think that we can interest more young people in England in learning languages?

The Great Train Robbery

Nov 24, 2008

This was the engine which pulled the train in the Great Train Robbery. The picture is signed by Bruce Reynolds, who planned and led the robbery.

I think you know the English word “famous”. If someone is famous, it means that everyone has heard of them, that they are well-known. So, Beethoven was a famous composer, and the Eifel Tower is a famous landmark in Paris. But, suppose that someone is well-known for bad things and not for good things. Can we still say that they are “famous”? There are two words which we can use to describe someone or something which is famous for bad things – “infamous” and “notorious”. So, we would probably not say that Hitler for example was “famous”, we would say that he was “notorious”.

This is a long way of introducing today’s podcast, which is about the most famous – or perhaps the most notorious – crime in Britain in the last 100 years. It happened 45 years ago, in August 1963. In those days our Post Office used to send mail from one part of the country to another in special mail trains called Travelling Post Offices. During the journey, the Post Office staff sorted the mail so that it was ready to be delivered the next morning. Some of the mail was valuable. For example, the banks used the mail trains to send banknotes around the country.

In the summer of 1963, a group of criminals planned an attack on one of the Travelling Post Offices. They interfered with the railway signals in order to stop the train. Then they uncoupled the railway carriage which contained the banknotes, and used the railway engine to take it to a place where the railway crossed a bridge over a road. They threw 120 packages of banknotes over the bridge to other gang members, who loaded them into Land Rovers. The gang escaped with over £2.5 million pounds in used banknotes. This is equivalent to over £40 million today. It was at the time the biggest ever robbery in Britain.

A few days later, the police found the gang’s hideout, in an isolated farmhouse. And in the weeks after that, the police found and arrested 13 of the 15 gang members. They were tried, and sentenced to long periods in prison. However, most of the stolen money has never been found.

The story did not end there. Two of the gang members escaped from prison. Charlie Wilson fled to Canada. He was eventually brought back to England and to prison. Ronnie Biggs fled first to France, then to Australia, and then to Brazil. The British police found where he was, but they could not persuade the Brazilian courts to send him back to England. So Ronnie Biggs lived in Brazil for more than 30 years. He had a home and a family and friends there. But in 2001, when he was 71 years old, he returned to England. He said that he wanted to “walk into a pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter“. In other words, he was home-sick. I do not know if he was ever able to buy his pint of bitter in a pub, because he was arrested and sent back to prison, where he still is.

The story of the Great Train Robbery has fascinated the British public over the years. Our newspapers reported every detail of the robbery, the capture of the gang, their trial, the escapes from prison and Ronnie Biggs’ return to England. Only a few weeks ago there were reports that Biggs, who is now old and ill, would shortly be released from prison. Why are we so interested in the Great Train Robbery? Some people sympathise with the robbers. They think that the Great Train Robbery was a clever, daring plan, and that the robbers were unlucky to be caught. Ronnie Biggs is the most famous (or the most notorious) of the train robbers, and many people therefore think that he was the mastermind behind the plan.

The truth is more complicated, however. The robbery was not particularly clever. Ronnie Biggs was not the leader – in fact he played only a small part. The gang was too large – 15 people in all – which increased the chances that one of them would do something stupid. They had planned to drive the train themselves to the bridge where they unloaded the banknotes. But after they had stopped the train, they realised that they did not know how to drive the engine, so they made the real train driver drive it for them. And they left their fingerprints all over the train, and the farmhouse where they went after the robbery.

So, was the Great Train Robbery Britain’s most famous crime? Or the most notorious crime? What do you think?

Can you tell the difference?

Nov 17, 2008

Today we visit Second Life, and we learn the English expression “to tell the difference”.

My daughter likes chocolate cake. Last week I made a chocolate cake. I also bought a chocolate cake at the supermarket. I gave my daughter a little piece of each one. “Can you tell the difference?” I asked her. I meant, if you taste both bits of cake, can you say which one is mine and which one is the supermarket’s? So she tasted, and she said that she could tell the difference. The supermarket cake was much better. Oh dear!

There was a story in the newspapers last week about two people who cannot tell the difference – the difference between real life and a fantasy world. Their names are David and Amy. They first met each other in an internet chatroom. Then they met in real life, and got married.

After they got married, they started spending a lot of time on Second Life. I am sure that you know about Second Life. It is an internet programme which contains a virtual world – not the real world of your job and your family, but an imaginary world. You can go and live in this virtual world. You make an avatar, which is a sort of virtual you. You decide what your avatar will look like, what it will wear and what it will be called. You learn how to move your avatar to different places in Second Life, and how to make things, and how to meet other avatars and talk to them.

There was a picture of the real David and Amy in the newspapers. The real David and Amy seem to eat a lot of chips and doughnuts. But, like a lot of other people, David and Amy chose avatars which are young, tall and handsome. They explored Second Life with their avatars. David’s avatar became a night-club owner who travels in a helicopter gunship. Amy’s avatar became a disc jockey. In real life, neither David nor Amy had a job. Perhaps they spent too much time on Second Life to be able to work.

Then the trouble started. David’s avatar started meeting other women on Second Life. The real Amy was not pleased, but she gave David a second chance. Then David’s avatar met a young, tall, handsome lady avatar called Modesty McDonnell. They started to spend a lot of time together. The real Amy was furious. Now the real Amy and the real David are getting divorced. And now the real David is engaged to the real woman whose avatar is Modesty McDonnell. The newly-engaged couple have never actually met in the real world. This is because David lives in England while the real Modesty McDonnell lives in Arizona in America. But perhaps this does not matter. Perhaps the only important thing is that the two avatars love each other.

So, there is a real world where real people live, eat, have children and die. And there are imaginary worlds like Second Life. Sensible people can tell the difference between them. David and Amy, it seems, cannot tell the difference.

I once spent an afternoon in Second Life. I chose an avatar – young, tall and handsome, just like the real me, of course. Then I had to teach my avatar how to walk and to drive a car. He was useless. He kept walking into walls and into the sea. When he drove a car, he hit people and other cars. So I never went back to Second Life.

But perhaps I should try Second Life again. Because last night something really terrible happened. The British television viewers – who cannot tell the difference between a beautiful woman and a baby elephant – voted the incomparably lovely Ms Cherie Lunghi off Strictly Come Dancing. My dreams are in ruins. So – Cherie – if you are listening, get an avatar on Second Life and meet me there, and we will dance together the whole night long.

Cans and Bottles

Nov 10, 2008

There was a story in the newspapers recently about a couple called John and Ann Till. They live near a town called Petersfield in south-east England, and earlier this year they got married. They wanted to go on a honeymoon to the United States after the wedding. The difficulty they had was that it was going to cost too much. They could not afford it. The cost of their air fares, of hotels and travel and car-hire while they were in America – all of these things were too expensive. What could they do?

Then they saw that their local supermarket had started a scheme to encourage people to recycle cans and bottles. For every four cans or bottles that you returned to the recycling centre at the supermarket, the supermarket would give you 1 reward point. What is a reward point? Well, some supermarkets, garages and other shops give their customers reward points every time they buy things at the shop concerned. You can collect these reward points, and when you have enough, you can exchange them for, for example, a weekend break in a country hotel, or a new MP3 player. I have been collecting reward points from my local supermarket for years. Soon I will have enough to get an electric toaster!

So, John and Ann decided to collect cans and bottles, and take them to the recycling centre. For three months, they went out every evening, looking for cans and bottles. At first they thought that they might not be able to find enough. But they were amazed by the amount of rubbish that people throw away – in the streets, in their gardens (or other people’s gardens), in the parks and in the countryside. John Till told the newspapers, “There was enough rubbish out there to fly us to the moon and back.” John and Ann spent hours putting cans and bottles into the machines at the recycling centre. Eventually, they found enough cans and bottles, and collected enough rewards points, to pay for their air fare to America, where I am sure they had a wonderful honeymoon, and went to lots of interesting places.

John and Ann Till collect cans and bottles to pay for their honeymoon in America.

Are you thinking to yourself, that’s a nice heart-warming story about two people who wanted to do what they could to help the environment? I am afraid that I do not feel that way, for three reasons. First, as I told you in an earlier podcast, we in England are really bad at recycling. We are better than a few years ago, but many countries in Europe recycle a lot more domestic waste than we do. On the other hand, we are very good at throwing things away and generally making a mess. We throw away newspapers in the street and on the buses; we throw away food packaging and beer cans in the parks, and plastic bags and bottles in the countryside. John and Ann were able to collect all those cans and bottles only because other people had so carelessly thrown them away.

Second, the idea that it is good to pay people to recycle things is still very new in Britain. In other countries in Europe, it is normal to return cans or bottles to the supermarket and to get money in return. In Germany and Scandinavia, they have done this for years. But in Britain, we are only starting to experiment with them. John and Ann were lucky. Their local supermarket was one of only a handful of places where they pay you to recycle things.

And finally, what did John and Ann do with the rewards points which they got for all those cans and bottles? They bought air tickets to America. Unfortunately, air travel generates large amounts of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for climate change. Trying to be green is not easy!

Mind the Gap!

Oct 21, 2008

Mind the gap, on the London Underground. Photo by Marcia Cabral de Moura/flickr

In today’s podcast, I am going to talk about the English word “mind”, and about some expressions which contain the word “mind”.

Your “mind” means the things which happen inside your head, or inside your brain – your thinking, in other words. We can say, for example, that someone has “a good mind” – that means, they think clearly and logically. Or we can say that someone has a mathematical mind – they are naturally good at maths. Or we can say about someone “she has a mind of her own” – that means, she thinks for herself, she does not just accept what other people say.

We also use “mind” as a verb. To mind something means to be aware of something, to be careful about something, to “have it in your mind”. If you have visited London, I am sure you have travelled on the Underground and seen the signs or heard the loudspeaker announcements which tell you to “mind the gap”. There is often a gap between the railway carriage and the station platform. If you “mind the gap”, you think about the gap and take care when you get on or off the train. If you don’t mind the gap, you may trip or fall and hurt yourself.

You can mind other things as well – children, for example, or animals. Joanne has a friend called Susan. Susan looks after small children in her own home while their parents are at work. She plays with the children, she feeds them, and she takes them for a walk to the park and to the shops. She is what we call a “childminder”.

If we say “mind out” to someone, we mean “be careful”. When Susan takes her group of little children for a walk, they need to cross the road. She holds the children by the hand and says to them, “Mind out, in case a car is coming”.

Kevin, you may remember, is into 1980s punk rock. One of his favourite bands is playing at a gig on Saturday. He asks Joanne if she would like to go to hear them. “No way“, says Joanne, who thinks that listening to 1980s punk rock is a form of torture. “Do you mind if I go with George?” asks Kevin. He means, does it cause you any problems if I go to the gig with George? And Joanne says, “No, of course I don’t mind”.

And then there is the expression, “to make up your mind”. This means, simply, to decide to do something. If I make up my mind to sell my old car, it means that I have decided to sell my car. Joanne’s friend Susan, the childminder, is always dithering. She cannot decide what to do. Should she wear a red jumper or a blue jumper. Should she read a book or watch television. Should she take a bus or walk. She cannot decide. Joanne sometimes says to her, “For goodness sake, make up your mind!” That means, “Stop wasting time – just decide what to do and do it!”

And finally, let’s meet the expression “to change your mind”. If I decide to do something, but then I decide to do something else instead, I “change my mind”. Kevin has saved up some money and has made up his mind to buy an iPod. It is exactly what he needs to listen to his collection of 1980s punk rock music on the train. But on his way to the iPod shop, he passes a shoe shop. In the window there is a pair of green suede shoes. They are, thinks Kevin, the finest, the most beautiful green suede shoes in the whole world. Suddenly, he is in love with the shoes. He decides to buy the shoes and not the iPod. He “changes his mind”.

How to find old podcasts…..

Oct 17, 2008

I have been making Listen to English podcasts for nearly three years. All the podcasts are on this site, but obviously there are now a lot of them. Several listeners have e-mailed me to ask how they can find and download the older podcasts easily.

Here is how to do it:

You can find older podcasts on this website by navigating to:

where “YYYY” means the year (eg 2007) and “MM” means the month (eg 03 for March, 11 for November) of the podcasts you want to find.

So, for example, you can find all the episodes for March 2008 at:

If you want to download older episodes to your iPod, you may find it easier to use an RSS feed. You can find an RSS feed for all episodes for a particular month by navigating to:

So, for example, you can find an RSS feed for all episodes from November 2007 at:”

In the sidebar at the right-hand side of this webpage, you will find links to an archive (“How to find things on this site”) and to “Listen to English – Greatest Hits”, which is an RSS feed for some of the most popular episodes from 2006.

Happy listening and learning!

Wanted – a new patron saint for England.

Oct 14, 2008

St George killing the dragon – painting by Paolo Uccello c. 1470.

In Christian tradition, a “saint” means someone whom the Church recognises as having led a particularly good and holy life. There are lots of Christian saints. The Roman Catholic church recognises more than 10,000 of them. You can’t be recognised as a saint while you are alive. All saints are dead, and many of them have been dead for a very long time.

Some Christian saints are associated with particular countries, or particular occupations or particular sorts of people. We call these saints “patron saints“ . For example, St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, St Stephen is the patron saint of bricklayers, and St Joan is the patron saint of France.

The patron saint of England is St George. Until recently, we English did not make a lot of fuss about St George. But things have changed in the last 20 years. English football fans now wave the flag of St George (a red cross on a white background) at football matches. And many people want St George’s Day (23 April) to be made a public holiday in England (but not in Scotland or Wales, of course, because Scotland and Wales have their own patron saints).

The traditional story of St George says that he was a soldier in the Roman army at the beginning of the fourth century. He was arrested and executed because he refused to renounce his Christian faith. There is also a story that St George fought and killed a dragon, and thereby rescued a beautiful princess whom the dragon was about to eat.

At this point, I must tell you, gentle listeners, that I think that there are big problems about having St George as patron saint of England.

1. The story of St George is, well, just a story. Most experts agree that he never existed.

2. If St George did exist, he was definitely not English, nor did he ever visit England, nor did he have any connection at all with England.

3. It is not good to kill dragons. There are hardly any dragons left in the world. An environmentally responsible saint would have created a national nature reserve where the dragon could live in peace and people could come and take photographs of it.

4. St George is also the patron saint of about 12 other countries, including Canada, Georgia, Greece and Lithuania. Poor St George is overworked and overstressed. He has too many countries to worry about. And what would he do if two of his countries started to fight one another?

St Wulfstan, from a stained glass window in the parish church in Long Itchington.

So I would like to suggest that England should have a new patron saint, and as it happens I know exactly the right saint for the job. His name is St Wulfstan. He was born in a village called Long Itchington, which is about 35 miles from Birmingham, exactly 1000 years ago in 1008. He studied in monasteries, and became a priest and in 1062 became the bishop of Worcester. Four years later, in 1066, one of the most important events in England’s history occurred. William of Normandy, known as William the Conqueror, conquered England and became king. His armies killed, or drove out or replaced all the important English people of the country – the nobles, and senior people in government and the church – and replaced them with French-speaking people from Normandy. All except Wulfstan. After a few years, he was the only English person in a senior position in the country. How did he survive? Why did William not replace him? We know that Wulfstan was respected because of his simple and holy lifestyle. For instance, he fasted for three days every week, and on the remaining days ate only bread, vegetables and fruit. But he was also a very capable administrator. He built numerous new churches. He helped to compile the great Domesday Book which recorded details of everything in William’s new kingdom – every town and village, every mill, every wood. He tried to help the poor and to protect people who had lost their homes and their lands to the Norman conquerors, but he also opposed rebellion against the new rulers of the country. He was deeply concerned about the trade in slaves between Ireland and the port of Bristol, and tried to persuade the king to prohibit it.

The story of St Wulfstan is not, I agree, as romantic as the story of St George. St George suffered a martyrs death; Wulfstan died peacefully at the age of 89. But Wulfstan would have these advantages as patron saint of England:

1. He definitely existed

2. He was English.

3. He freed slaves, which is better than killing dragons.

4. He is the patron saint of vegetarians, which is very appropriate, because there are more vegetarians in England than in any other country in Europe.

5. He is not the patron saint of anywhere else, so he would have time to be a proper patron saint of England.

What do you think? If you go to the website, you will find a poll where you can vote for either George or Wulfstan.

Who would you choose as patron saint of England?

St George

St Wulfstan


Oct 6, 2008

In today’s podcast, I am going to talk about the English word “up-to-date”. Well, it is really three words – “up”, “to” and “date” – normally we spell it with hyphens in between – but we can think of “up-to-date” as a single word. “Up-to-date” is an adjective. It means “having the latest information or ideas”. We can say that something, or someone, is “up-to-date”.

I will give you some examples in a minute. But first, you need to know that the opposite of “up-to-date” is “out-of-date”. If something is out-of-date, it does not contain the latest information or ideas. Sometimes it means “old fashioned” or “no longer valid”.

Lets look at some examples.

Kevin, as you know, is mad keen about football. Often on Saturday he goes to see his team play. But he also want to know what is happening in the other football matches that are taking place at the same time. So he gets text messages on his mobile phone, to give him the latest scores in the other matches. Kevin likes to be up-to-date. The text messages keep Kevin up-to-date with the other football matches.

Joanne is planning to go on a picnic with some friends. Will the weather by OK, or will it rain? The weather forecast yesterday was that the weather today would be cloudy but dry. but perhaps that weather forecast is now out-of-date. So Joanne listens to the weather forecast on the radio to get up-to-date information about the weather. The weather forecast still says that the weather will be cloudy but dry, so Joanne and her friends set off for their picnic. However, they get lost, because they are using an out-of-date map, which does not show some roads which have been built in the last ten years.

John loves technology, or – rather – he loves technological gadgets which do clever things. Not all of these gadgets are useful, but John loves them anyway. He has just bought the latest, the most up-to-date iPhone. Is an iPhone useful, or is it just a gadget? I don’t know!

Mary has some important exams at the end of the year. She also has to complete a project to show to the examiners. Her teacher asks her, “Are you up-to-date with your project?” That means, have you done everything you should have done by now? If Mary’s work is not up-to-date, we say that she is “behind” with her work. She will have to work hard all weekend in order to catch up.

George thinks that it would be a great idea to go to Paris for the weekend with some friends. But he can’t. His passport is out-of-date. That means, it is no longer valid. He will need to get his passport renewed.

Kevin sees an advertisement for a job in the newspaper. It looks attractive. It is closer to home, and it would pay more. The advertisement says that he should send an up-to-date CV (CV stands for curriculum vitae, which is Latin and means an list of the things that you have done in your life – what school you went to, what you studied at university, what jobs you have done – things like that.) The last time that Kevin looked at his CV was three years ago, so the CV is out-of-date. He needs to update his CV, by adding information for the last three years. He needs to bring his CV up-to-date.

Joanne’s grandmother is 92 years old. Despite her age, she likes the latest pop music, and she always watches the news on television, because she likes to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the world. Joanne’s grandfather, however, has some very out-of-date attitudes – he wants to bring back compulsory military service, for example, and thinks that too many married women go out to work.

And finally, I looked in my fridge a few minutes ago. There was some yoghurt at the back of the fridge. The label on the yoghurt pot says “Best before 28 August”. Today is 6 October. The yoghurt is out-of-date. Shall I eat the yoghurt anyway? Maybe not.

The Prefabs

Sep 29, 2008

Near to where I live, there is a group of small houses. They are bungalows – that is, they are single-storey houses. There are gardens in front of the houses, and behind them; and most of the gardens are well-kept. There is something unusual about the houses, however. Most houses in this part of England are built of brick. These houses, however, are built of cement mixed with asbestos. They are what we call “prefabs”, or prefabricated houses, and they have an interesting history.

At the end of the Second World War, there was a serious shortage of houses in Britain. Tens of thousands of homes had been destroyed by bombing. It was also necessary to find homes for all the servicemen returning from the war. The government decided to build 500,000 new houses to solve the problem. They thought it would be too slow and expensive to build proper brick houses, so they decided to build prefabricated houses instead. Prefabricated houses are made in sections in a factory. The house-builders then take the sections by lorry to the place where the houses are to be built, and fix them together. Houses of this sort are common in many other countries such as the United States. But they are very unusual in Britain. The government explained that the new prefabs would only be temporary. They would be taken down after 10 or 15 years, and proper houses would replace them.

The prefab building programme started in the final months of the war. German and Italian prisoners of war built some of the first houses. Factories which had previously built military equipment were used to make the sections for the houses. In some cases, they used aluminium from old fighter planes.

Things did not happen exactly as the government had planned. Prefabs turned out to cost more than normal houses, and in the end only about 167,000 of them were built. And they were not generally replaced with proper houses after 10 or 15 years; they had to last much longer. There were problems too about very poor insulation, which made the prefabs cold in winter, and leaking roofs.

But for many working-class families, a prefab was like a dream come true. Previously, they had lived in cramped terraced houses in the centre of big cities, where they had little space or privacy. Their new prefab had a garden for the children to play in, and an indoor toilet, and a fitted kitchen with a refrigerator!

Gradually, over the years, the prefabs were demolished. Often blocks of flats replaced them. The planners and architects liked the concrete tower blocks; but the people who had to live in them disagreed. The old prefabs – despite their problems – had been better, and closer to the sorts of homes that people wanted.

Today, hardly any prefabs remain. Here in Birmingham they have all gone, except for the small group near my home. These have been refurbished, and they are now, happily, listed buildings, which means that they cannot be altered or demolished. They are a part of the social history of Britain, and it is good that they are still here.

Lost and Found

Sep 24, 2008

Alexandre Monteiro has sent me an e-mail asking about the difference between the words “seek”, “find” and “look”. I hope that this podcast will help him, and other people.

I guess you know the English verb “to lose”. The past tense is “lost”. If you lose your pen, you do not know where you left it or where you put it. The pen is lost.

When you lose something, probably you want to find it again. So you look for it, or you search for it, or you hunt for it. We also have a verb “to seek” which has a similar meaning to “search”. But we generally use “seek” when we are talking about abstract things. We can say, for example, “I am seeking happiness”. But we probably would not say “I am seeking my car keys”.

And that brings us to our story today, which is about Joanne, and she has lost her car keys.

Joanne is looking after her nephew Nick, who is two and a half years old. They have a happy afternoon together in the park. Then they come home and draw some pictures. Then Nick helps Joanne to make some biscuits. Nick eats most of the biscuits, until Joanne says, “No more, Nick. Your Mum will be cross if you eat too many biscuits and then can’t eat your tea.” Then Nick watches a video, and then it is time for him to go home. Joanne helps Nick to put on his shoes and coat. She looks in her handbag for her car keys.

The keys are not there. They are not in the pockets of her jacket, either. “Where can I have put them?” she says. She looks for the keys in the kitchen. Perhaps she left them on the kitchen table when they were making biscuits. But the keys are not there.

She searches for the keys in the sitting room. Perhaps they have fallen down the back of the sofa. But the keys are not there.

She hunts for the keys in the bedroom. Perhaps she put them down on the dressing-table. But the keys are not there.

She searches high and low, but the keys are nowhere to be found.

Have you seen my car keys, Nick?” says Joanne.

Down the toilet”, says Nick.

What?” says Joanne. “Nick, did you put the keys down the toilet?”

Don’t know”, says Nick, helpfully. “Can I have another biscuit?”

Joanne rushes to the bathroom and looks into the toilet. No keys.

By this time, Joanne is getting desperate. She told her sister that Nick would be home at 5.30. It is now 5.45. The door opens. Kevin comes in. He is in a good mood. He has been to a football match, where his team won 2-0. And he is carrying Joanne’s car keys.

Where did you find them?” asks Joanne.

You left them in the car ignition“, says Kevin. “You are lucky that no-one drove your car away. Oh, I smell biscuits. Can I have one?”

How to enter the kitchen!

Sep 19, 2008

I have some poetry for you in today’s podcast. It is a poem by a woman called Susie Paskins, and it is called “How to enter the kitchen”.

Let me first explain what the poem is about. Susie has a problem. There is a mouse in her kitchen! She knows that the mouse is there – somewhere in the kitchen – and she does not like it. So what does she do? She makes lots of noise when she goes into the kitchen. She does not look in the corners of the room, where the mouse might be. She sings loudly when she puts water in the kettle to boil. She pretends that she does not worry about the mouse at all.

The poem then goes on to say that we have secret parts of our lives which are like the mouse in the kitchen. Normally we ignore them. We make lots of noise so that we do not have to see them. And the secret parts of our lives, like the mouse, run away and hide.

But perhaps it would be better if we sat quietly and waited. Then we might see these parts of our life, and we would not be afraid of them any more. Just like the mouse in the kitchen!

Here is the poem:

Approach with confidence,

Then fling the door wide,

Make a loud stamping noise.

Do not look in the corners – That is where it might be,

Whisking and darting,

A black shadow

Running to hide.

Sing loudly as you put the kettle


Pretend a certainty you do not feel

That it will not – horror! – run over

your feet

Or pause and stare up at you,

Defying your possession of its


Parts of you

Hide in corners too,

Not seeing the light,

Muttering and grumbling,

Too low to be heard.

Mostly you avert your gaze

And make too much noise

To confront them.

So they run away

And hide in the secret places.

But perhaps

You should quietly tiptoe

To the corner and wait.

And then you might see,

And not be afraid

Of what lives in the dark.

Poem originally published in Quaker Monthly, March 2008. Reproduced here by permission.

The Longest Name

Sep 16, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a village in north Wales called Llanfair. Llanfair means, simply, “the church of St Mary” in the Welsh language, and there are many other places in Wales called Llanfair. The particular Llanfair in this story was called Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, to distinguish it from the other places called Llanfair. The name Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll means, in English, “the church of St Mary beside the hollow (or little valley) with the white hazel tree”. I think you will agree that Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll is perhaps too long for normal, everyday use. And English speaking people like me often find Welsh names difficult to pronounce. So people shortened the name to Llanfair PG. And people often still call the village Llanfair PG today.

In the 1850s, a railway line was built along the coast of north Wales. It ran to Holyhead, which was the main port for ships sailing to Ireland. The railway line was busy and important. But only a few trains stopped at the station at Llanfair PG, and only a few visitors came to the village.

How could Llanfair PG attract more visitors? “I know,” said a man who lived near the village. “We need a new name. A special name. A name that people will remember. A name that will make people say ‘That’s interesting. I really want to visit that place’”. So he suggested a new name – the longest place name in Britain. And other people agreed, and so the village was re-named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (That was not me speaking, by the way. That was a real Welsh person speaking real Welsh!) What did the new name mean? In English it is: “The church of St Mary beside the hollow with the white hazel tree and the rapid whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio with the red cave”. They put up a new name sign in the railway station, and it was the longest railway name sign in Britain. And they waited for the tourists to come.

Changing the name of the village was what today we would call a “publicity stunt” – something which you do to get people to notice you. Many companies, when they want to sell more of their products, find a new name for the product, or they design new packaging, or do something else to attract more customers. Sometimes this works. sometimes it doesn’t.

Did the new name work for Llanfair PG? I do not think so. Llanfair is still a quiet little place with about 3,000 inhabitants. Some trains stop there, but many go through without stopping. People arrive in their cars. They park in the station car park. They take a photograph of the the name sign on the station platform. Then they get back in their cars and drive away.

Why did the new name not attract more visitors? The answer is easy, I think. Imagine going to a railway ticket office and asking for “a ticket to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, please.”

A wet summer, and the Olympic Games

Sep 10, 2008

The summer holidays are over. People have returned to work. The children are back at school. And this is my first podcast since July.

So, what sort of summer has it been in Britain? Let’s start with the bad news. Our economy is in big difficulties. Prices are rising, especially prices for food. Petrol prices are now so high that people are using their cars less, and trains and buses more. Holidays abroad are now much more expensive, because the British pound has fallen in value. Our economy has stopped growing. Indeed, there may be a recession next year – that is, a period when the economy shrinks, or becomes smaller. Our Chancellor of the Exchequer (that means, our Finance Minister) certainly thinks that things are bad. He recently told a newspaper reporter that the economic position was the worst for 60 years.

Many British people own their own homes. They buy their homes with a loan from a bank. The last ten years have been a very nice time to own a house. House prices have risen steadily, and people felt that they were getting richer, so they spent more. In fact, Britain has had its longest period of economic growth for 100 years. But this has now stopped. House prices have fallen, and everyone expects that they will fall further. The fall in house prices has been the fastest for over 25 years. This is bad news if you own your house already; it is good news if you do not own a house but would like to buy one.

However, the really awful thing – the thing that makes British people really gloomy – is the weather. It has rained since the end of July. We have had the wettest August for many years. And there has been hardly any sunshine. In many places, August has been the dullest August (that is, the least sunny August) since 1927. It is still raining. And the weather forecast is – yes, more rain.

I am glad to say, however, that the summer has had one happy thing for Britain. At the Olympic Games in Beijing, British athletes won 45 medals. That is the highest number of medals since 1908. We even won more medals than the Australians, which is very satisfying. So, while the rain poured down, we could at least watch the Olympic Games on television. The next Olympic Games, in 2012, will take place in London. Will they be the wettest Olympic Games ever? Or will it stop raining before then?

Break up

Jul 21, 2008

There is an English phrasal verb “to break up”. It means to break into pieces. Here are some examples of ways in which we can use it.

Imagine a storm at sea. The wind and the waves drive a ship onto the rocks. The waves smash the ship into pieces. The ship breaks up.

Or, think about the great ice sheets in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Many scientists say that, because the world’s climate is getting warmer, the ice sheets are starting to break up.

Or, think about a really old car. You have had it for many years. You and it have had some fine adventures together. But now the engine does not start. And when, eventually, it does start, there are horrible clunking sounds and a cloud of black smoke comes out of the exhaust pipe. The car is finished. You take the car to the scrap yard where they break it up, so that the metal and some of the parts can be re-used.

And sometimes we say that a relationship breaks up. For instance, Joe and Mary have been going out together for a few months. They are boyfriend and girlfriend. But then they disagree and argue. Joe starts to think that he really doesn’t like Mary very much. Mary starts to think that Joe is selfish and boring. They break up. They decide that they are not going to be boyfriend and girlfriend any more.

You may be thinking that “break up” is a rather sad expression. We use it to talk about shipwrecks, and cars that have reached the end of their lives, and relationships which come to an end. But there is at least one really happy use of “break up”. We can say that a school breaks up. That means, simply, that it is the end of term. It is the beginning of the holidays.

There is a primary school behind my house. The school breaks up today. Today is the last day of the school term. The children are very happy. They are making even more noise in the school playground than they usually do. After today, there will be six weeks with no school. Six weeks to stay late in bed. Six weeks to play in the garden. Six weeks to watch rubbish programmes on daytime television and to play on the computer. Six weeks to visit your grandparents, or to go on holiday. Six weeks to argue with your older sister. Six weeks to drive your parents mad.

Listen to English is going on holiday too. This will be my last podcast for this term. But don’t worry – I will be back with a new podcast on 10 September. I am going to spend part of the holiday in Wales, so here is some Welsh music for you to listen to. It is played on the Welsh harp by Cheryl Ann Fulton. I will put an extra posting on the website with a flash player where you can listen to more of her music if you like it. Until September, goodbye.

Get MP3 (3 MB | 6:59 min)


Jul 14, 2008

Better buses, better service, better catch one

I am sorry that there was no podcast last week. I was unwell. But now I am better. That means, I am not unwell any more. I have recovered. I am better.

And today’s podcast is about the word “better”. “Better” is of course the comparative form of the adjective “good”. Good – better- best. We can say: “This is a good restaurant. But the restaurant over the road is better. And the restaurant round the corner is the best restaurant in the town.”

We can use “better” in other ways, too. There is an English expression “I had better” do something. It means “I must” do something, or “it would be a good idea” to do something. Here are some examples:

Kevin and Joanne are having breakfast. Joanne looks in the fridge. There is no milk. “I had better buy some milk this morning,” she says. Kevin looks at his watch. It is nearly 7.30am. “I had better go now,” he says. “I have to go to a meeting at 8.30.” “Yes,” says Joanne. “You had better hurry, otherwise you will miss the train. And it is raining. You had better take an umbrella”.

In Birmingham, where I live, there is a bus company. Actually, there are lots of bus companies, because our government believes that competition in public transport is a good thing. Our government is wrong. Britain has some of the worst public transport in Europe. But that is different podcast. One of our competing bus companies has a slogan on the side of its buses. It says: “better buses, better service, better catch one”. This is what it means.

Better buses…

Better buses” – the company has better buses. But better than what? Better than the buses of the other bus companies? Better than the old buses which it used to have? I suppose that “better buses” is OK as an advertising slogan, but if you want people to understand exactly what you mean, remember to use the word “than” – “better buses than our old buses”, for example.

Better service” – This means more frequent buses, more reliable buses. Perhaps the company means that they now run buses late in the evening and on Sundays.

And “better catch one” is short for “you had better catch one”. In other words, it would be a good idea to catch one of our wonderful better buses. Remember that in English, we can take a bus or a train or a plane; or we can catch a bus or a train or a plane.

Now you know all about “I had better”. There is a quiz with the podcast today. You can find it on the website. Now it is late. I had better stop now. I had better go to the supermarket. I had better cook supper for the children. I had better say goodbye.


Jul 4, 2008

In today’s podcast, we talk about some theories. We talk about things which may be true, or may not be true. We use words like “perhaps” and “maybe” and “it could be that..”. See how many examples you can find.

We English have not lived in England for long. Our ancestors, the Saxons, came to England from northern Germany in the fifth century. They spoke a language which we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Over the centuries, Anglo-Saxon changed to become modern English.

Before the Saxon invasions, people called the Celts lived here. The modern Welsh language is descended from the languages of these Celtic people. But the Celts had not lived in Britain for long, either. There were people here before the Celts came. These people had no written language, so they left us no manuscripts or inscriptions to tell us about them. However, they left us plenty of archaeological evidence – burial places, pottery, tools and so on. And they left us a remarkable and mysterious monument called Stonehenge.

If you drive by car south-west out of London, along a road with the romantic name A303, you will reach Stonehenge after about an hour and a half. You will see a circle of great stones, with other stones placed carefully on top of them. There are other, smaller stones – called “bluestones”. Around Stonehenge, there are other ancient places – burial places, for instance, and ancient paths.

The archaeologists tell us that Stonehenge was not all built at one time. The oldest parts of Stonehenge are about 5,000 years old. The “bluestones” came about 1000 years later, and the great circle of stones a few hundred years after that. The great stones probably came from a place about 40km away. They each weigh about 25 tonnes. Experts say that perhaps 500 men pulled each stone, while 100 more placed logs on the ground for the stone to roll over. The “bluestones” are even more remarkable – they are much smaller, about 4 tonnes each, but they come from Preseli in south Wales, a distance of nearly 400 km. How did they get to Stonehenge? Maybe people carried them on small boats, over the sea and along rivers.

The big question is “Why?” Why did these people, four or five thousand years ago, build Stonehenge, and what did they use it for? Here are some of the theories:

– Perhaps Stonehenge was a religious temple. Perhaps priests sacrificed animals or even human beings here.

– Maybe Stonehenge was a centre of political power, a place built by a great and powerful king.

– Possibly, it was a place to celebrate the dead, a place to send them on their way to the next world.

– Or it could have been a place where sick or injured people came to be cured, like Lourdes in France is today.

– Or Stonehenge might have been a place to watch the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and to forecast important events like eclipses.

– Or, conceivably, it was all of these things, or it had different purposes at different times.

Today, Stonehenge is an important tourist site, and a place for people who like to believe in magic. At the summer solstice (that is June 21st, the longest day of the year) people go to Stonehenge to watch the sun rise. This year, about 30,000 people were there. And, because this is England, it rained.

How much does the Queen cost?

Jun 30, 2008

A listener in France has asked, can I make a podcast about the Queen? And several other listeners have said that they would like some help with listening to numbers (which is always one of the most difficult things in any foreign language). I am going to kill two birds with one stone, as we say in English. This podcast is about the Queen, and also about listening to numbers. I have left gaps in the script where there are numbers,. Try to fill in the numbers as you hear them. You can check on the website whether you have heard them correctly.

Queen Elizabeth (a)….. came to the throne in (b)….., following the death of her father, King George©…… She is now (d)….. years old, and she has been Queen for (e)….. years. She is the (f)….. monarch (that is, king or queen) since the Norman Conquest of England in the year (g)…… What sort of things does she do?

The Queen has all sorts of official engagements in this country – visits to towns and cities, to schools and hospitals, to open new buildings and to attend official dinners. Last year she had (h)….. official engagements, which is (i)….. more than in (j)……

The Queen makes official visits to other countries too. Since she came to the throne, the Queen has made over (k)….. visits to about (l)….. different countries. Last year , she visited the United States, Uganda, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Queen sends messages of congratulations to everyone in Britain who reaches their (m)….. birthday. Since (n)….., she has sent (o)….. of these messages. She has also sent more than (p)….. messages of congratulation to married couples who are celebrating their “diamond wedding”, that is the (q)….. anniversary of their wedding.

Last week, her office published the royal accounts for®…… The accounts show that the cost of the Queen’s official duties last year was £(s)…… This was £(t)….., or (u)…..% more than in (v)…… However, officials at the palace want everyone to know that in real terms, that is after allowing for inflation, the cost of the Queen has fallen by (w)…..% in the last (x)….. years.

How much is £(y)…..? Well, there are about (z)….. people in Britain, so £(aa)….. is about (bb)….. pence for each of us. Palace officials, who try very hard to keep up with new technology and new fashions, have pointed out to the newspapers that (cc)….. pence is about the cost of a download from the iTunes music store.

An important part of the cost of the Queen’s official duties is the cost of travel. Travel, in Britain and overseas, cost £(dd)….. pounds last year. The Queen has a special royal train. Our newspapers love to tell us how much the royal train costs. Last year the royal train was used only (ee)….. times. One of these trips was a visit which Prince Charles made to a pub in the town of Penrith – the cost was £(ff)……

However, palace officials have told the press that there are serious problems because several of the royal palaces need to be repaired. Altogether an extra £(gg)….. is needed for this. The roof at Windsor Castle needs to be replaced – this will cost £(hh)…… Many parts of Buckingham Palace in London have not been redecorated for over (ii)…..years, and the electrical wiring is over (jj)….. years old. It will cost £(kk)….. to rewire the palace, and replace the plumbing (that is, the water pipes and the drains), and to remove dangerous asbestos from the building.

In fact, Buckingham Palace seems to be such a mess that I am surprised that the Queen still lives there. If you know of somewhere else where she could live temporarily, until Buckingham Palace is repaired, perhaps you could telephone her office and tell them The number is (ll)…..

The Queen has her own web-site…. :

…and YouTube channel. :

How much does the Queen cost? – exercise

Jun 30, 2008

Here are the missing numbers from the podcast “How much does the Queen cost?” You can download a pdf version of the exercise and the answers by clicking the link at the foot of the page.

(a) the second (normally we write Queen Elizabeth II)

(b) 1952

(c) the sixth (King George VI)

(d) 82

(e) 56

(f) 40th

(g) 1066

(h) 440

(i) 60

(j) 2006

(k) 260

(l) 126

(m) 100th

(n) 1952

(o) 100,000 (note that in English we use a comma to separate thousands in big numbers)

(p) 280,000

(q) 60th

(r) 2007

(s) £40,000,000 (generally, in written English we would normally write £40 million)

(t) £2 million

(u) 6.1% (in English we use a full-stop, not a comma, when we write decimals)

(v) 2006

(w) 3.1%

(x) 7

(y) £40 million

(z) 61 million

(aa) £40 million

(bb) 66 pence

(cc) 66 pence

(dd) £6.2 million

(ee) 19

(ff) £18,916

(gg) £32 million

(hh) £16 million

(ii) 50

(jj) 60

(kk) £2.4 million

(ll) 020 7930 4832

Alfred Brendel Calls Time

Jun 25, 2008

Last November, the Guardian newspaper contained an article. This was the headline.

Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career.”

What does it mean?

Well, you may already know about Alfred Brendel. He is a pianist, or a “piano maestro” as the Guardian headline calls him. He is famous for his playing of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. We shall talk more about him in a minute.

But what does “call time” mean? Until about 30 years ago, there were strict laws in Britain about when pubs could open. Generally, all pubs had to close at 10.30 in the evening, and everyone had to stop drinking and leave the pub at that time. Shortly before 10.30pm, the landlord of the pub used to ring a bell, and call out “Time, gentlemen, please!” or something like that. So, “to call time” means to announce that you will soon close something, or soon finish something.

Lets go back to the newspaper headline. “Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on his concert career”. It means that Alfred Brendel has announced that his career as a concert pianist will soon come to an end. In other words, he has said that he is going to retire.

There is another idiom with a similar meaning – “to call it a day”. Imagine that you have been working all day on a project for school or college. It is now the evening and you are tired. Yes, there are some more things you could do, but you decide to stop now and go to bed. You “call it a day”. Alfred Brendel has decided, at the age of 77, to “call it a day” too.

Alfred Brendel is a remarkable man. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1931. His family were not musical, and he had little formal training on the piano. Nonetheless, he made a successful career as a pianist from the 1950s. Since the 1970s, he has lived in Britain. He is not only a famous pianist, he also writes about music, and writes poetry, both in English and in German. When he retires, at the end of this year, he wants to spend more time writing and teaching.

For the last 15 years, Alfred Brendel has come regularly to Birmingham to play in Symphony Hall. Last night, I attended his last concert here. Every ticket was sold, every seat in the hall was occupied. When he played, the audience was completely silent. As we say in English, you could have heard a pin drop. Alfred Brendel’s playing is very personal and very direct. It is as if he was in your sitting room, playing specially for you. At the end of the concert, we gave him a standing ovation, and he gave us two encores. It was a memorable occasion, though also a rather sad occasion.

To end the podcast, here is Alfred Brendel playing some music by Schubert. May he have a long and happy retirement.

Captain Calamity

Jun 20, 2008

I could not find a picture or Forwick, but here is one of another part of the Shetlands, so that you can see what the landscape looks like. It was taken by tigernuts/flickr

In the past year, we have had two podcasts about English people who have gone to Scotland to do slightly crazy things. We had Andy Strangeway, who has spent a night on every island in Scotland. Then we had Steve Feltham, who has spent the last 17 years looking for the Loch Ness monster. Today we meet Stuart Hill. He lives on a tiny island in Shetland (a group of islands to the north of Scotland), and he has just declared his island to be an independent state.

This is not the first time that Stuart Hill has been in the news. He has a nickname, “Captain Calamity”. (A “calamity” is another word for a “disaster”). This is why. He comes from Essex in eastern England. Several years ago he bought himself a small boat. His boat became his main interest. He took a sail from a wind-surfing board and fixed it to his boat. He started to go for sailing trips. Then, in 2001, he decided to sail his boat single-handed all the way round Britain. His wife and his children thought he was mad. The distance around Britain is over 3,000 kilometers, and there are dangerous rocks and currents, and the waves and the weather are often dangerous too.

Stuart Hill set off. Within minutes, he hit another boat, and his sail collapsed into the water. He found he had forgotten some important equipment, and a friend had to swim out to his boat with it. Over the next few weeks, he had more problems with his boat, and he had to be rescued five times by lifeboats and twice by helicopter. Finally, in August 2001, his boat turned over in a storm near the Shetland islands. He was rescued again, but he had lost everything – he had no boat, and no money and nothing but the clothes he stood up in. So he stayed in Shetland, and got a job there, working in a fish-processing factory.

This week, Stuart Hill was in the news again. He now lives on a tiny Shetland island called Forewick Holm, where he is the only inhabitant (apart from lots of sheep and sea-birds). He is 65 years old, which means that he is able to get a state old-age pension. Most pensioners want a quiet life, but not Stuart. He has declared that Forwick is now an independent state, and that it is no longer part of Britain or of the European Union. There will be no taxes in Forwick, he says, and his state will soon issue its own currency.

Why is he doing this? He wants to draw attention to an argument that Shetland is legally not part of Scotland (and therefore not part of Britain). Many centuries ago, Shetland was ruled by the king of Norway. But in 1469, the king of Norway needed some money in a hurry, so he gave Shetland to the king of Scotland in return for a loan. So, says Stuart Hill, Shetland is not part of Scotland. It should be an independent state, able in particular to control oil production from the oil fields around its coast and to collect revenues from the oil companies. Some Shetlanders probably agree with him, though I doubt if they want Captain Calamity as their ruler.

Stuart Hill has spent much of the week being interviewed by the newspapers. “It’s all jolly good fun,” he says. “Every pensioner should do something like this.”

Getting married

Jun 17, 2008

Our podcast today is about weddings. I hope you will learn some new English words. There is a quiz attached to the podcast today so that you can test how much you know.

In England, you can get married in a church, or you can have a civil wedding (that is, a non-religious wedding) . Until about 10 years ago, civil weddings always took place at a Registry Office. Nowdays, however, you can get married in all sorts of places – in hotels, in country houses, and in many mosques and Hindu temples, for example.

A wedding can be very expensive. One website that I have seen says that the average cost of a wedding in Britain is over £11,000. Here are some of the things that many couples will want for their wedding:

* a wedding-dress for the bride, and dresses for her bridesmaids;

* wedding rings for the bride and the bridegroom;

* flowers for the church or the place where the wedding is held;

* a reception (that is, a party or a formal meal) for the wedding guests after the wedding ceremony;

* a wedding cake;

* a professional photographer, to take pictures or videos of the wedding;

* a honeymoon (a holiday) for the newly-married couple after the wedding.

And there are lots more things to spend money on if you want to. Some couples want to hire a beautiful horse-drawn carriage, or a vintage Rolls Royce car to take them away after the wedding. Some people even fly to holiday resorts in Mexico or Thailand to get married, and their families and friends fly there too.

There is no such thing as a “typical wedding”. Every couple getting married has to decide for themselves what sort of wedding they want – a religious wedding, or a civil wedding; a big wedding with lots of guests; or a small, simple wedding.

I went to a wedding last weekend. It was definitely not a typical wedding, but you might be interested in it. It was a Quaker wedding. There was no priest or minister to conduct the wedding, and no music or singing. The bride and groom and the wedding guests all sat silently together. After about 10 minutes, the bride and groom stood up and said that they took each other as man and wife and made their promises to each other. After that, some of their friends and relatives spoke about love and marriage, or read a poem or a passage from the Bible, or simply wished the couple every happiness together. The wedding lasted for about an hour. At the end, everyone who was there – about 80 of us – signed the wedding certificate as witnesses to the marriage.

And then – because we are British – we all drank cups of tea and chatted to friends and family members whom we had not seen for a long time. We went out into the garden of the Quaker Meeting House to take photos of the bride and groom. In the evening, we were all invited to a ceilidh. “Ceilidh” is a Scottish Gaelic word, which has become part of the English language in recent years. It means an evening of dancing, singing, story telling and poetry. The bride and groom cut their wedding cake, and we danced traditional English and Scottish dances until late in the evening. And then all the wedding guests, and the bride and groom too, did the washing up and helped to put the chairs and tables back in their proper places.

We had a wonderful time. Is this the sort of wedding you would like?

I could do with a haircut

May 23, 2008


I could do with a haircut. Artwork by Lorrie McClanahan/flickr

In today’s podcast we meet the English expression “I could do with…”

I could do with…” is an indirect way of saying “I need…” If I say “I could do with” something, it means “I need” something.

So, if I say to my teenage son, “You could do with a haircut“, I mean “Your hair is too long and you need to get it cut”.

One more thing before we start. The expression always uses the conditional “could” form of the verb. We always say “I could do with..”, and never “I can do with..” OK?

It is the weekend. Kevin’s plans include an afternoon in front of the television watching football.

Joanne however has other ideas. “The house could do with cleaning“, she says. “I will start on the kitchen now, but this afternoon I could do with some help.”

Kevin protests that he wants to watch the football. “United could do with a win today,” he adds. Joanne says that United will win even if he does not watch them play. “We could do with some more floor cleaner,” she says. “Please could you go to the shops and buy some.”

So Kevin walks to the shops while Joanne sets to work, cleaning the kitchen. Kevin returns about twenty minutes later, a little out of breath. “I could do with a rest,” he says. And he sits down on a chair and watches Joanne cleaning the floor.

Kevin, you are out of breath because you are too fat,” says Joanne. “You could do with losing some weight.”

What?” says Kevin, horrified.

Yes. You could do with going swimming twice a week, or going to the gym.”

An idea comes into Kevin’s mind. At the gym, they have a cafe with a TV set. He could go to the gym, and watch the football on television instead of exercising.

You’re right,” says Kevin, “I could do with some exercise. I’ll go to the gym this afternoon.”

Nice try, Kevin,” says Joanne. “You can stay here and do some exercise at home. The carpet could do with vacuuming, and the lawn could do with being mowed.”

Three hours later, Kevin and Joanne are sitting on the sofa. They are exhausted, but the house is clean and tidy for the first time in weeks. “I could do with a drink,” says Joanne, “and I could do with something to eat.”

I’m tired,” says Kevin. “I could do with a shower and an early night.”

And as for me, I could do with a holiday. So I am going to Germany next week, but I will be back with a new Listen to English podcast on about 5 June.

The Worst Poet

May 20, 2008

We stay in Scotland for today’s podcast. We are going to meet a man called William Topaz McGonagall. Most people agree that he was the worst poet ever in the English language.

He was born in 1825. His father was a cotton weaver, who had to move from town to town in Scotland to find work. Young William spent only 18 months at school before he too had to go and work in the mills and factories. He became a jute weaver in Dundee, a town on the east coast of Scotland. (Jute is a fibre which is used to make sacks. In the 19th century, Dundee was the centre of the jute industry in Britain). It was in 1877, when William was 52 years old, that he suddenly discovered that he was a poet. Not just a poet – a great poet – possibly the finest poet since Shakespeare.

Over the next 25 years, Willam McGonagall wrote a large number of poems. He wrote about the great public events of the day, like the attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria, and the funeral of the Emperor of Germany. He was particularly fond of disasters, like shipwrecks and railway accidents. He wrote about famous battles, and about people and places that he knew.

And his poetry was bad. It was so bad that it almost became good, if you see what I mean. It was like someone playing a musical instrument, loudly and confidently, but completely out of tune and without any sense of rhythm. It was like a newspaper report turned into poetry. Here are some examples.

In 1878, a railway bridge was built over the river Tay near Dundee. At the time, it was the longest bridge in the world. It was a triumph of British engineering, and the nation felt proud. Naturally, William McGonagall wrote a poem about it. It began:

Beautiful railway bridge over the silvery Tay!

With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,

And your central girders, which seem to the eye

To be almost towering to the sky.

Less than two years later, the Tay bridge collapsed in a storm while a train was passing over it. Many people were killed. McGonagall wrote:

Beautiful railway bridge over the silvery Tay!

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last Sabbath day of 1879

Which will be remembered for a very long time.

A new Tay Bridge was completed in 1887, and of course William wrote a poem for the occasion. I think you can guess how it began.

Beautiful new railway bridge over the silvery Tay!

With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,

And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye,

Strong enough all windy storms to defy.

William McGonagall organised public events where he would read his poetry. They were very popular. People came to laugh at his poems, and throw rotten fruit and vegetables at him. (Obviously, in those days, there was not much to do in Dundee in the evenings). But McGonagall continued to believe that he had a special gift as a poet. His fame as a bad poet spread throughout Scotland, and then in the rest of Britain and in the British empire. But his poetry did not make him rich, and he died penniless in Edinburgh in 1902. He has never been forgotten however. His books of poetry have been reprinted regularly. Last week, a manuscript of some of his poems was sold at auction for thousands of pounds. People still read his poems today and smile.

The Loch Ness Monster – Part 2

May 13, 2008

In the last podcast, we talked about the Loch Ness monster, and we met Steve Feltham, who has spent the last 17 years living beside Loch Ness, looking for the monster.

On the website today, you will find a YouTube video. In the video, Steve Feltham tells us about what he does. I will not give you a transcript of what he says, but here are some of the main things, to help you understand.

He introduces himself and tells us where he lives, how long he has lived there and what he does. He mentions a place called Dores where he now lives permanently.

He tells us about “the best thing he has seen” (ie the best sighting of something that might be the Loch Ness monster). It was near Fort Augustus, is at the southern end of Loch Ness.

He has also been out on Loch Ness in boats with sonar equipment. The sonar shows “little blobs”(ie little shapes) and sometimes some “big blobs”. Steve tells us what these “blobs” might be.

He tells us about the different theories that people have about the monster.

He tells us what he does when the water is flat and calm;and what he does when it is choppy.

He gets to hear about sightings which other people have made, and people often show him their photos and videos.

There are fewer good sightings of the monster today than there used to be. Steve puts forward a theory on why this might be.

There is a quiz on the website, so you can test how well you understood Steve’s video.

The Loch Ness Monster

May 13, 2008

Loch Ness is in Scotland, and it is long and narrow and very deep. Loch Ness is special. What is it?

Well, “loch” is a Scottish Gaellic word that means a lake or an inlet of the sea. There are thousands of place names in Scotland containing the word “loch”. So Loch Ness is a lake. It is in fact the largest freshwater lake in Britain. But that is not the reason why Loch Ness is special.

No, Loch Ness is special because it has its very own monster. People say that deep in the lake there lives a large creature. Occasionally – very occasionally – you can see the creature swimming on the surface of Loch Ness, or even moving on the land close to the shores of the lake. No-one is certain what sort of creature it is, so it has no proper scientific name. But everyone calls the Loch Ness monster “Nessie”.

The oldest stories about the monster date from the 6th century. St Columba, who first brought Christianity to Scotland, is said to have saved the life of a man who had been attacked by a huge creature near Loch Ness. The modern stories about the monster started in 1933, when there were three sightings of a large, strange creature, about 1 metre high and 8 metres long, with a long neck. There have been similar reports in most years since then, sometimes of a creature on land, though more normally of a creature in the water. There have been some photographs of Nessie as well, but most of them are of poor quality, and some may be fakes. Several studies of Loch Ness using sonar equipment have found traces of a large object or objects deep in the water.

So what is Nessie? Some people think that she (or he?) may be a type of dinosaur, which had managed to survive when all the other dinosaurs on earth died out. But most scientists think that this is extremely implausible. So is Nessie some other sort of animal, such as an eel or a seal? Or perhaps Nessie does not exist at all. Perhaps the people who say that they have seen a creature in Loch Ness actually saw other things – a small boat, perhaps, or a group of birds, or a pattern of waves and shadows on the water.

Steve Feltham is one of the people who believes that Nessie exists. In 1991, he gave up his home, his job and his girlfriend to become a full-time Nessie hunter. For the last seventeen years, he has lived beside Loch Ness looking for the monster. His home is an old van that used to be a mobile library. It is parked in the car park of a pub, close to the shore of the Loch. Steve makes little clay models of Nessie to sell to tourists. He has only once, in 17 years, seen something which might have been Nessie, but that is not important for him. He loves his life as a Nessie hunter. We shall have more about him in the next podcast.

The Loch Ness Monster – Grammar and Vocabulary Note

May 13, 2008

Let’s revise some adjectives which tell us how big things are.

* Loch Ness is long, narrow and deep. If it was not long, it would be short. If it was not narrow, it would be wide. If it was not deep, it would be shallow.

* Loch Ness is big. If it was not big, it would be small.

* The mountains in Scotland are high. If they were not high, they would be low.

* The man in the film is tall and fat. If he was not fat, he would be thin. If he was not tall, he would be short.

Some other words which mean “big” – large, huge, massive, vast, enormous.

Some other words which mean “small” – little, tiny, miniscule, minute.

Other words which mean “thin” (generally in relation to people) – slim, slender.

Other words which mean “fat” (again, generally in relation to people) – portly, tubby

…is said to…” means “people say that…”. For example:

* Bill Gates is said to be the richest man in the world. (People say that he is the richest ma in the world).

* I have not read any of John’s books, but it is said that he writes very well. (People say that he writes very well).

* It is said that, when she was young, she was a famous ballet dancer.(People say that when she was young she was a famous ballet dancer).

I have turned the first part of this note into a short exercise. It is in a PDF file which you can download from the link below.

I get my car repaired. You get your hair cut.

Apr 25, 2008

My car does not go. I don’t know what is wrong with it. The engine won’t start. The car will not move. What shall I do?

I will get the car repaired. That means – I will not repair the car myself. I will ask someone else to do it, and they will repair the car for me. Look at the way we can talk about this in English.

I will get my car repaired.

I will have my car repaired.

I will get the garage to repair my car.

I will have the garage repair my car.

Now here is something which we all need, but which we cannot do for ourselves – cutting our hair. (What? You cut your own hair? How? Would you like to send me a photo so I can put it on the website?) So what do you do?

You get your hair cut.

You have your hair cut.

You get the hairdresser to cut your hair.

You have the hairdresser cut your hair.

Do you know what a milkman is? In England you can have your milk delivered to your home. Our milkman comes at about 3am. He leaves two bottles of milk and one bottle of orange juice outside our door. He drives a little electric van (we call it a “milk float” in English), so he makes hardly any noise. The milk bottles are made of glass, and when they are empty, we leave them outside the door for the milkman to collect. So :

We get our milk delivered.

We have our milk delivered.

We get the milkman to deliver our milk.

We have the milkman deliver our milk.

Now imagine that you are very rich. No, not very rich – very, very rich indeed. You do not have a luxury sports car. You have three luxury sports cars, and a yacht, and a private aeroplane, and a home in Monte Carlo where your friends are all very rich too. And you have servants – people to do things for you. Here are some of the things you get your servants to do:

You get your food cooked.

You have your finger nails polished.

You get your butler to pour your champagne.

You have your gardener mow the lawn.

If you like, think of other things which your servants can do for you. Use the expressions we have used in this podcast -“I get something done”, “I have something done” etc – and put them on the Listen to English website as comments. Or perhaps you can get someone to put them on the website for you.

The Great Smell

Apr 20, 2008

In the last podcast, I said that I would tell you how Birmingham did in their match against Aston Villa. Well, they lost 5-1. Sorry, Birmingham! Birmingham could still stay in the Premiership next season, but things are not looking good. The nail-biting continues.

Now for our story today. It started on Thursday evening last week. People in the south-east of England noticed a strange smell in the air. It was not a pleasant smell. Rather, it was the smell of rotten things, of manure and sewage, mixed with the smell of traffic fumes. People started to complain – to the newspapers and TV stations, and to the weather forecasters at the Meteorological Office. What was it?

Well, said the Meteorological Office, the cause of the Great Smell was this. There was a mass of cold, still air over northern Europe. There was low cloud and no wind. All sorts of smells and fumes – from industry and from farms, from traffic and from everyday life – had become trapped under the cloud. Then on Thursday, the cold air, and its smells, had moved westwards over southern England.

What?” said our newspapers. “You mean, it isn’t a good, healthy English smell. It’s a nasty foreign smell.” And the newspapers started to run stories about how the smell was all the fault of the French, because we English always blame the French first whenever anything bad happens. However, it then became clear that the smell was coming, not from France, but from further north and east. So we started to blame the Germans and the Dutch, because we English always blame the Germans and the Dutch second whenever anything bad happens.

The Meteorological Office tried to explain that the smell was not a threat to health, and that it would blow away in the next few days. But the newspapers did not want to listen. They were having too much fun blaming foreigners.

The truth, of course, is this:

1. there was nothing more interesting for the newspapers to report;

2. people who live in towns get used to town smells, like traffic fumes and fast-food restaurants. They forget that there are country smells too, like the smell of manure being spread on fields.

3. many newspapers forget that England too has serious pollution problems. Normally, the westerly winds carry our pollution over to other countries, so maybe it is fair that occasionally other countries’ polluted air comes to us.

And what can you learn from this story? First, remember that “smell” in English is a neutral word. We can talk about nice smells and unpleasant smells. You can tell your girlfriend that her new perfume smells lovely; and you can say that a pile of rotten rubbish smells horrible.

Second, there are lots of other words that you can use instead of “smell”. A delicate, pleasant smell, like the smell of a flower, can be called a “scent”. “Aroma” is a neutral word like “smell” – there are pleasant aromas (like dinner cooking in the kitchen) and unpleasant aromas. And a really nasty smell like the smell of sewage can be called a “stink” or a “stench”.

So now you know lots of words to use if you ever want to talk about the smelly English.

PS. I forgot – the word “odour” also means a smell, normally an unpleasant smell.

We have fun blaming the Germans (or is it the French?) for the Great Smell. :

Why the Blues are biting their nails

Apr 18, 2008

Do you bite your finger nails? No – don’t answer that question. I don’t really want to know. Biting your nails is a bad habit which will lead to premature baldness and make you unattractive to the opposite sex. Instead, we are going to talk football in this podcast, and football has nothing to do with biting your nails, has it?

I want you to imagine that you are a life-long supporter of Birmingham City Football Club. Every week during the football season, you go to watch the team play. You wear a blue shirt, and a blue and white scarf and a blue and white hat. (Yes, you probably guessed that blue is the Birmingham City colour). If you can’t go to a match, you stay at home or go to the pub to watch it on television. And you wear your blue and white football kit even when you watch a match on TV. This is strange behaviour, but Blues fans are dedicated people.

You live in Birmingham, and many of your friends are Blues supporters like you. But Birmingham is a divided city, because another tribe of people live here too. They are the supporters of Birmingham’s other big football club, Aston Villa. Both Birmingham City and Aston Villa play in the Premier League, or the Premiership, which is the top division in English football, made up of the 20 top clubs in the country.

And I need to mention too that there is a third football club. It isn’t actually in Birmingham, because its football ground is just over the border in the town of Sandwell. This third club is West Bromwich Albion, though everyone calls them the Baggies. (No, I don’t know why they are called the Baggies.) When West Brom score a goal, their supporters celebrate by jumping up and down and shouting “Boing Boing”; and I don’t know why they do that either. Unlike Birmingham City and Aston Villa, the Baggies play in the Championship, which is the division below the Premier League.

It is getting towards the end of the English football season. Since the beginning of the season, at the end of last August, most clubs in the Premiership have played 34 games. They each have only have four more games to go. Aston Villa are 7th from the top of the Premiership. They are not going to win the Premiership, but they will definitely still play in the Premiership next year. And the Baggies are at present top of the Championship, so it is very likely that they will be promoted at the end of the season, and will play in the Premiership next year along with Aston Villa.

And Birmingham City? Well, poor old Birmingham are fourth from the bottom of the Premiership. They could still win sufficient matches to stay in the Premiership next year; but equally they could be relegated at the end of the season. And how would that make you feel, Birmingham City supporter? You would feel awful. You would be depressed. You might even be suicidal. You can imagine the smirks on the faces of the Villa and Baggies fans.

On Sunday, the Blues and their blue and white supporters will travel across Birmingham to play Aston Villa. The Blues really need to win this game if they are to be sure of staying in the Premiership. If you were a Birmingham City supporter, what words could you use to describe the atmosphere before the match – nervous, perhaps; or tense; or even “nail-biting”. If something is “nail-biting” , we mean that it is very tense and exciting, and all we can do is to wait for it to finish, and bite our nails while we are waiting. So, we can talk about a “nail-biting” atmosphere; or we can say that the last 15 minutes of the match was “nail-biting”; or that you had a “nail-biting” wait for the results of your exam.

Finally, can I remind you of two vital football phrases. If Birmingham win on Sunday, you will be “over the moon”. And if they lose, you will be “sick as a parrot”. I will tell you in the next podcast which you are.


Apr 14, 2008

Today we meet the English word “folly”, and we visit a strange old building and an art exhibition.

Let’s start with the word “folly”. I guess you know what “foolish” means. If someone is foolish, he or she does stupid or unwise things. We can call such a person a “fool”. And a “folly” is, simply, something which is foolish – something which is stupid, or unwise, or not sensible. We can say, for example, that it is folly to spend all your money at a casino, or that it is folly to drive your car on the wrong side of the road.

In the 18th century, it was fashionable for wealthy landowners to decorate their estates with beautiful but completely unnecessary buildings. For example, a landowner might build something that looks like a ruined Greek temple, half hidden in the trees. Or he might build a tall tower on the top of a hill. These buildings had no useful purpose. They were simply to decorate the landscape. We call them “Follies”.

We have a folly here in Birmingham. It is called Perrott’s Folly. It is a tower nearly 30 meters tall. There are six rooms, one above the other, and a spiral staircase. A man called John Perrott built the tower, in the middle of the 18th century. At that time, there was open country all around. Birmingham was still a village, a mile or two away. Today it is quite different. There are streets and cars, houses and factories and offices, where there were once fields and woods.

Close by, there is a second tower, built in the 19th century by Birmingham Waterworks. I guess you have heard of the author J R R Tolkien, who wrote the Lord of the Rings books. When he was a child, Tolkien walked past the two towers – Perrott’s Folly and the waterworks tower – every day on his way to school. Tolkien fans say that the two towers were the inspiration for the two dark, evil towers which play an important part in Lord of the Rings.

Today Perrott’s Folly is in poor condition. One of the floors is missing and the paint is flaking off the walls. There are old pipes and a boiler from a long-forgotten heating system, perhaps from the time when Birmingham University used the tower as a weather station. It is not an obvious place to hold an art exhibition.

Part of the Jürgen Partenheimer exhibition in Perrott’s Folly.

But last week I was able to visit Perrott’s Folly to see some art works by the modern German artist Jürgen Partenheimer. Carefully we climbed the spiral staircase. In each of the rooms, Jürgen Partenheimer had placed a single art work. When you look at his art works, they seem to remind you of something you once saw but which is now lost deep in your memory. And while we were looking at the art works, there was music playing- music written specially for this exhibition by the Irish composer Kevin Volans. The music too seems to remind you of something that you once heard but have now forgotten. Very strange. Here is a little bit to keep you company until the next podcast.

Up up up

Apr 11, 2008

When you learn English, you learn about phrasal verbs. What are phrasal verbs? They are verbs which are formed, not of one word, but of two or more words. For instance, if I come home from work and want to watch a TV programme, I go into my sitting room and I switch the TV on. “Switch on “ is a phrasal verb. And when I have finished watching the programme, I switch the TV off, or I turn the TV off – “to switch off” and “to turn off” are both phrasal verbs.

We have thousands of phrasal verbs in English, and I could make podcasts about different phrasal verbs for the next year ( but don’t worry, I won’t!) However today, we are going to have a podcast containing lots of phrasal verbs with the word “up”. You know what “up” means, of course. “Up” is the opposite of “down”. You can climb up the stairs, and you can climb down the stairs again. However, lots of phrases and expressions containing the word “up” have nothing to do with “up” in the sense of “not down”, and this is very confusing.

I am sure that you already know several phrasal verbs containing “up”. In the morning, you wake up. Then you get up. After that, perhaps you have some breakfast. When you have finished eating breakfast, you stand up, and clear the table, and wash up the dishes.

And then perhaps you notice that your room is in a terrible mess – there are clothes and books and CDs on the floor. So you tidy up your room. Yesterday you spilled some coffee on the table. Now you clean it up, and you sweep up some cake crumbs that are on the floor.

Then you set off for school. Today there are some roadworks near your house – some workmen are digging up the road, to repair a broken water pipe. The roadworks hold the traffic up, and you are nearly late for school.

In your English lesson,your teacher asks the class to make up a story about a family going on holiday. First you make some notes about words and phrases which you might use. Then you start to write up your story. You have to look up some of the words in the dictionary. At the end of the lesson, your teacher says, “The time is up – please give me your stories and clear up your things before you leave.”

It is time for lunch. Your friend calls out to you, but there are so many people making so much noise that you cannot hear what he says. “Speak up,” you shout, “I can’t hear you”. “Hurry up”, he says, “I don’t want to be late.” You are hungry, and you eat up all your lunch.

After school, you have just got home when your cousin turns up. She has recently broken up with her boyfriend. You never liked her boyfriend – in your opinion he was silly and immature and needed to grow up. You don’t understand why she put up with him for so long. You try to cheer your cousin up by telling her all this, but it just makes your cousin more upset. You decide to shut up and change the subject. You suggest a trip to the cinema together. But your cousin says she is hard up and can’t afford to go. So you end up offering to pay for her cinema ticket.

And now I am fed up with finding phrases containing the word “up”. I am sure there are many, many more of them. If you want to tell me, and all the other visitors to the Listen to English website, about your day, using phrasal verbs containing “up”, then please post a comment on the website. On the website, you will also find a short grammar and vocabulary note.


Mar 11, 2008

On Budget Day 2007, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, leaving 11 Downing Street with the red box containing his budget papers. Gordon Brown is now the Prime Minister. The new Chancellor, Alastair Darling, will take the red box to Parliament later today.

Today we are going to find out about the English word “budget”.

But first, I asked you a question at the end of the last podcast. I told you about the supermarket check-out for people who are buying only a few things. I asked you whether the sign above this checkout should say “10 items or less” or “10 items or fewer”.

Well, I think it should say “10 items or fewer”. We can count items – one item, two items etc – and “fewer” is a word which we use with things we can count, while “less” is a word we use with things we cannot count. But many people – and several supermarkets – say “10 items or less”. That is the problem with English – English people don’t speak it properly.

But now lets talk about budgets. What is a budget? Suppose you make a list of everything you need to spend money on in the next month – rent, food, clothes, bus fares etc. Then you work out how much money you will earn. And then you compare these two – your income and your expenditure – to see whether you will have enough money. This is a “budget” – a look into the future to see how much money will come in and how much will go out. It is a financial plan, in other words.

We use the word “budget” in other ways too. For example, suppose you want to buy a new computer. You work out how much money you have, and how much you will need to spend on other things. Then you calculate that you could afford to pay £450 for a new computer. £450 is your “budget” for the new computer.

We can use the word “budget” as a verb. “To budget” means to plan what you will spend money on. You might say, for example “I don’t have a lot of money. I need to budget carefully”.

Sometimes “budget” just means “cheap”. The problem with the word “cheap” is that it implies poor quality as well as low price. So shops don’t like to advertise their goods as “cheap”. They look for other words instead. They talk about “our value tinned tomatoes”, “our bargain sofas” or “our budget range of computers”. You see how much better it sounds to say “budget” instead of “cheap”. I should be an advertising executive, not a podcaster.

And why are we talking about budgets in this podcast? Well, today is “budget day”, one of the great events of British politics. This afternoon our Finance Minister (or “Chancellor of the Exchequer” as we call him) will leave his home at number 11 Downing Street, next door to where the Prime Minister lives, carrying a red box. He will travel in his official car to Parliament, which is about 200 meters away. (I don’t know why he cannot walk, like a normal person.) When he gets to Parliament, he will open the red box and take out a file of papers. He will then tell Parliament about the government’s budget for the next financial year – how much the government will spend and how much it will take from us in taxes. He will tell us about tax increases and tax cuts, and say how wise and careful the government is, and how the British economy is doing really well. And then the opposition parties will say that the government is spending too much, or too little, or that taxes are too high, or too low, and that the British economy is in a terrible mess. And by this evening, we will all be able to work out whether the budget has made us better off or worse off. I can hardly wait.

Budget – Vocabulary Note

Mar 11, 2008

Here are some useful words and expression from the podcast.

to work out means “to calculate”. For example:

* I worked out that I could pay £450 fo a new computer.

* Kevin worked out that if United won their next 4 games, they would win the championship.

* Here is a maths problem. Can you work out the answer?

Work out also has another, more modern meaning. If you go to a gym, and use the equipment – the heavy weights, the bicycle that doesn’t go antwhere – to are “working out”. For example:

* Joanne works out in the gym twice a week.

To be well off means to have plenty of money. For example:

* Tuscany (in Italy) is a favourite place for well-off British people to go for a holiday.

And to be badly off means to have only a little money. For example:

* Badly-off people cannot afford to go on holiday at all.

And if I am better off it means that I have more money, or that I have some other advantage. For example:

* George has a well-paid job. He is better off than Kevin.

* Will today’s budget make me better off?

* Joan lives a long way from her work. She would be better off if she moved so that she did not have so far to travel.

And, of course, worse off is the opposite of better off. For example:

* People in the north of England are generally worse off (ie they earn less) than people in the south.

* If the Chancellor of the Exchequer increases the tax on beer in the budget, Kevin will be worse off.

I can hardly wait means I am very excited and I am counting the minutes until I can work out how much more tax I will have to pay next year!

How many apples? How much sugar?

Mar 4, 2008

We can count apples ……

What is the difference between apples and sugar?

What is the difference between light-bulbs and electricity?

What is the difference between trees and rain?

What do you think? Do you give up? Shall I tell you?

The difference between apples and sugar is simply this. You can count apples – one apple, two apples, three apples etc. You cannot count sugar. You can weigh sugar, you can measure sugar, but you cannot count sugar. And it is the same with lightbulbs and electricity, and trees and rain. You can count lightbulbs and trees; you cannot count electricity or rain.

Does this matter, you may be asking? Why is he telling us these things?

Well, dear listeners, often we want to say “how many?” or “how much?” of something there is. And when we do this we need to remember that there are some words which we can use only with things we can count, and other words which we can use only with things we cannot count. Here are some examples.

We can count cars – one car, two cars etc. We can say:

* there are only a few cars on the road today

* there are many cars on the road today

* there are several cars parked outside my house

* there are fewer cars than there were yesterday

Few”, “many”, “several” and “fewer” are words that we can use with things we can count, like cars. But we cannot use them with things that we cannot count.


… but we cannot count water

Photo by rogilde/flickr

Or, imagine that you are painting your house. We cannot count paint. We can weigh paint, and we can measure paint, but we cannot count paint. We can say:

* I need a little paint for the kitchen (or a little bit of paint for the kitchen).

* so I do not need to buy much paint.

* but I need a large amount of paint for living room.

* I need less paint for the bathroom than for the bedroom.

A little”, “much”, “a large amount of” and “less” are words that we can use with things that we cannot count like paint, but not with things that we can count.

How do you know what things we can count and what things we cannot count? Well, generally, if a noun is a plural noun (if it has an “-s” on the end), then it is the name of something we can count, like apples or cars. And if the noun is singular (no “-s” on the end) then it is the name of something that we cannot count, like electricity or rain. If you find it easier, think “plural or singular” instead of “countable or not countable”. And remember that there are also lots of words and expressions that you can use both with things you can count and with things that you cannot count (“lots of..” is one of them).

There is a grammar note on the podcast website with a PDF file which you can download. And there is also a quiz, so that you can test whether you have understood the podcast.

Finally, here is a problem for you to think about. In many supermarkets in England, they have a check-out which is specially for people who only want to buy a few things. This is so that they do not have to wait a long time behind people who are buying a whole month’s groceries for a family of 12 people. There is a sign to show which is the check-out for people who are buying only a few things. In some supermarkets, the sign says “10 items or less”. But in one supermarket, it says “10 items or fewer”. Which one is right? Answer next time.

The Market Rasen Earthquake

Feb 29, 2008

Some chimneys were damaged in Yorkshire …

The big news story this week was the great Market Rasen earthquake.

We have lots of earthquakes in Britain. There are about 200 every year, but most of them are so small that people do not notice them

The earthquake this week – in the early hours [ie between midnight and about 4am] of Wednesday morning – was different, however. It was of course, very small compared with earthquakes in other countries. But it was the biggest earthquake in Britain for 25 years, and people could feel it over a large part of England.

The epicentre of the earthquake was close to a small town in eastern England called Market Rasen. Very little happens in Market Rasen. It is famous for …well, it isn’t famous for anything really. There is a racecourse and a man who wrote the lyrics for one of Michael Jackson’s songs once went to school there. Several web-sites tell me that Charles Dickens, the famous 19th century novelist, described Market Rasen as “the sleepiest town in England”. However, I can’t find where Charles Dickens said this, so I don’t know if it is true.

But everyone, and everywhere, can be world famous for 15 minutes. Market Rasen’s 15 minutes of fame was this week. On Wednesday, newspaper and TV reporters set to work to write the story of the great Market Rasen earthquake. Here are some of the things that they found :

* teacups rattled in Bedfordshire;

* toothpaste fell off a bathroom shelf in Halifax;

* cupboard doors flew open in Tipton, near Birmingham;

* a radio jumped up and down in London;

* a glass of water rattled on a bedside table in Chester;

* some chimneys were damaged in Yorkshire;

* a piece of stone fell off the church at Market Rasen.

…and a glass of water rattled on a bedside table in Chester.

As you can see, there was no story for the journalists to find. No-one was killed; only 1 person was injured; and damage to buildings was small. So why was the Market Rasen earthquake the big news story of the week?

I think it is because the earthquake was an experience which everyone shared. On Wednesday morning, everyone had a personal story to tell. Some people could say how they woke up in the night. Their houses shook, and they heard a deep rumbling sound. Some people knew immediately that it was an earthquake. Other people said that they were frightened because they did not know what had happened. Some people ran out of their houses to see what was happening. Other people stayed in bed and went back to sleep. And other people said that they had not woken up at all – they had slept straight through the earthquake. So, for a few hours on Wednesday morning, everyone in England could talk about the same thing.

When people try to describe something like an earthquake, they often use the expressions “it was like…” or “it was as if…”. I found these descriptions in the newspapers:

* it was as if a giant was shaking my house;

* it was like a bomb had exploded;

* it was like a train very close to the house;

* it was as if someone had hit the house;

* it was like a plane had crashed;

* it was like a heavy lorry passing the house;

* it was as if a train was going under the house;

* it was like there was a big animal on the roof.

Listen to English will be back next week with more important news stories.

A Gruesome Discovery

Feb 26, 2008

Today we visit the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands are a group of islands in the English Channel, close to the north coast of France. But they are not part of France. And they are not really part of Britain either. The British Queen is also ruler of the Channel Islands, and the British government looks after their defence and foreign affairs. But in other respects, the islands are tiny independent states – they have their own Parliaments and governments and their own laws. Until about 100 years ago, most people on the islands spoke a dialect of French, but today the main language is English.

The Channel Islands are famous for cows, potatoes and income tax. The Jersey and Guernsey breeds of cattle – which come from the Channel Islands – produce a creamy milk with lots of butterfat. At one time, we could buy Channel Islands milk in England – people said how good it was for you, because it had so much cream. Today, everyone is afraid of getting too fat, so we don’t want milk with lots of cream in it. And the potatoes? Well, many farmers in the Channel Islands grow potatoes which are ready to be harvested and eaten several weeks before potatoes grown in England. These Channel Island potatoes are called Jersey Royals and you can buy them in English supermarkets in April and May. And the income tax? Well, there isn’t any income tax in the Channel Islands. In fact, the Channel Islands is a good place to live if you are very rich. And lots of rich people live there, and the harbours in the islands are full of their yachts.

However, in the last few days the Channel Islands have been in the news for a very different reason. About 12 months ago, the police in Jersey – the largest of the Channel Islands – received reports about the abuse of children in care on the island. I need to explain what this means. “Abuse” means very bad treatment of someone, like violence, or emotional or sexual bad treatment. And “children in care” means children who can no longer live with their parents, but live with foster parents or in a children’s home instead. About 150 people have now told the Jersey police about abuse of children in care on the island, over a period of many years. Many of their reports are about abuse at a children’s home called Haut de la Garenne. The Haut de la Garenne children’s home closed in 1986, and the building is now a youth hostel. A few days ago, the police made a gruesome discovery there. Using a police sniffer dog , they found the remains of a child buried under a concrete floor. The police think that there may be several more bodies to be found.

Jersey is a relatively small community of under 100,000 people. The stories about child abuse have become a major political issue on the island. People are asking how could abuse of children have continued for so long? Who knew about the abuse at Haut de la Garenne? Who was responsible for the bad treatment of children? Why is it that it is only today – 20 years after the Haut de la Garenne children’s home closed – that the police are investigating?

I guess that if you live somewhere like the Channel Islands, it is easy to think that you live in a little paradise, and that the problems of the rest of the world – crime, poverty, war, disease – do not really affect you. The child’s body at Haut de la Garenne tells us that this is, unfortunately, not true.

Painting the Forth Bridge

Feb 19, 2008

My last podcast was about a motorway junction. But today I am going to talk about something much more romantic. When I think about it, a dreamy look comes into my eyes and my heart begins to flutter. Yes, dear listeners, I am going to talk about a railway bridge.

If you look at a map of Scotland, you will see that on the east coast there are several wide river estuaries. The Scots word for a river estuary is a “firth”. Just north of Edinburgh is the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the river Forth. Further north, there is the Firth of Tay, the estuary of the river Tay. Until late in the 19th century, people crossed these estuaries by ferry, or they made a long detour by road to a bridge over the river. But when the railway companies arrived in Scotland, they wanted to build fast, direct railway lines between the towns and citites. They needed to build bridges over the firths.

The first bridge was over the Firth of Tay. It was completed in 1877, but it was destroyed in a storm two years later. A train was passing over the bridge when it collapsed, and many people were killed. The collapse of the Tay Bridge was a great disaster, at became an important political issue in Britain at the time. The engineers responsible for the second bridge, over the Firth of Forth, decided that their bridge had to be much stronger. So they built it with steel. It was in fact the first big steel bridge in the world. About 4000 workmen worked on the bridge, which was opened in 1890.

And the bridge which they built still stands today. About 200 trains cross the bridge every day. If you travel on one of these trains, you will often see people working on the bridge. They are always there. They are scraping off old paint, or repairing the bridge, or painting or welding. People say that the painters who work on the Forth Bridge start at one end of the bridge and gradually work their way across [ie they go forward, slowly, as they paint]. By the time they reach the other side, several years later, it is time to start painting again. This was never actually true, but everyone believed that it was. In English, if we say that something is “like painting the Forth Bridge”, we mean that it is a job that never ends. By the time you have finished, you have to start again. In our house, doing the ironing is like painting the Forth Bridge. What is it like in your home?

However, in today’s newspapers there is a report that the engineering company that maintains the bridge is painting it with a new sort of paint. They have tested the paint on oil rigs in the North Sea. It will last for 20 or 30 years, without repainting. So another great British tradititon has gone. In future, painting the Forth Bridge will no longer be – well – like painting the Forth Bridge.

Spaghetti Junction

Feb 12, 2008

If you are a regular listener to these podcasts, you will know that I live in BIrmingham. In Birmingham, we have the most famous landmark in the whole of Britain. What is a landmark? It means a place, or a building, or a natural feature like a river or a mountain, that everyone knows about. And what is Birmingham’s famous landmark? An ancient castle, perhaps, or a cathedral, or a statue on the top of a hill? No. None of these. Our famous landmark is called Spaghetti Junction. It is not, as you might think, an Italian restaurant. It is an interchange, or junction, on the M6 motorway about 5km north of the centre of Birmingham. If you look at the picture on the website, or on your iPod screen, you will see why people call it Spaghetti Junction. It looks like a plate of spaghetti.

Now, please don’t send me e-mails to say that you have a motorway junction called Spaghetti Junction in your country too. I don’t care about your Spaghetti Junction. Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction was the first Spaghetti Junction, and it is still the largest motorway junction in Europe. Work on Spaghetti Junction started 40 years ago, in 1968, and was finished four years later. About 150,000 vehicles, and 5 million tons of freight, pass through Spaghetti Junction every day.

Everyone in Britain knows about Spaghetti Junction and where it is, even people who have never visited Birmingham itself. It is so well-known because it is unavoidable. If you travel by road in Britain, sooner or later you will pass Spaghetti Junction. You will remember it because it is the place where the traffic gets really bad, where the journey gets really boring and where the children start fighting in the back of the car. And if by accident you take the wrong road at Spaghetti Junction, you will find yourself in London instead of Manchester. Some people who took the wrong road at Spaghetti Junction five years ago are still trying to find their way home. So be careful.

Here are some other interesting things about Spaghetti Junction. It is not just a motorway junction. Underneath the motorway there are two railway lines, three canals, a river and several footpaths. There is a Birmingham joke that two of the roads at Spaghetti Junction are dead-ends. [A dead-end road means a road that goes nowhere]. And another Birmingham joke that there is a beach underneath the concrete arches of the motorway. A beach? It is in fact just a bank of dirt and gravel, with a view over a smelly river and an old factory. You are welcome to come to Birmingham for a beach holiday if you like, but you may find that Spain would be better.

More seriously, it was necessary to demolish a few hundred houses and other buildings to build the motorway and Spaghetti Junction. The motorway created a barrier which cuts off the northern suburbs of the city from the city centre. The vehicles on the motorway create noise and pollution over a wide area. Birmingham today – more than any other British city – is a city of roads and cars, of heavy lorries and multi-storey car-parks and poor public transport. So perhaps it is appropriate that Birmingham’s most famous landmark is a motorway junction.

Whether the weather is fine …

Feb 8, 2008

A listener to these podcasts who lives in Brazil has sent me an e-mail to say, please can I make a podcast about when we say “if” and when we say “whether”. I have thought very hard about this, because it is not easy to explain. The trouble is that you do not think about grammar rules for your own language. You just know what word is correct and what word is wrong.

At one time, perhaps 50 years ago, there were clear rules about when we should use “if” and when we should use “whether”. I shall explain these rules first, because if you stick to these rules, your English will be correct. But I will also tell you that, unfortunately, we English often do not obey the rules.

Here are some sentences where we use the word “if”.

* If the sun shines tomorrow, we will go for a picnic.

* If the train is late, I will miss the meeting.

* If I have time, I will drink some coffee and read the newspaper.

* If I had remembered my umbrella, I would not have got so wet.

Now here are some sentences with “whether”.

* Whether the sun shines tomorrow or not, we will have a picnic.

* Whether or not the train is late, I will still miss the meeting.

* I go for a walk every day, whether it is summer or winter.

Now do you see the difference between “if” and “whether”. “If” introduces a single condition. It talks about only one possible thing that might happen – if the sun shines tomorrow, if the train is late and so on. A sentence with “whether” talks about two or more different things that might happen – maybe the sun will shine tomorrow, maybe it will not, but we will go for a picnic whether or not the sun is shining. Very often “whether” sentences contain the words “or not”; or they say “or not” indirectly, like the last example I gave you.

We also use the word “whether” to begin a noun clause that describes a question or a problem or an issue. Let’s look at some examples, so that you can see what I mean.

* John asked me whether I could go to a party on Saturday. (“Whether” tells us that there is a question or problem – can you come to the party?)

* I told him that it depended on whether I finished my homework in time. (“Whether” tells us that there is a question or problem – will I finish my homework in time?)

* I do not know whether the train goes at 3pm or at 3.15pm. (“Whether” tells us that there is a question or problem – what time does the train go?)

* I need to find out whether my mother is coming at the weekend.(“Whether” tells us that there is a question or problem – is my mother coming at the weekend?)

* Joanne asked her boss whether she could go home early. (“Whether” tells us that there is a question or problem – can I go home early?)

So – here is our simple rule.

* “If” introduces a single condition.

* “Whether” introduces alternatives, and is often followed by “or not”.

* And “whether” starts noun clauses that tell us that there is a question or a problem.

The trouble is, however, that in modern English, particularly spoken English, people often say “if” when they should say “whether”. In particular, people often start noun clauses about questions or problems with “if” instead of “whether”. It is very common to hear people say for example “He asked me if I could go to his party on Saturday”. In some languages, like French, there is a central institute or academy which decides what the proper rules for the language are. We do not have anything like this for English. Good English is simply the English that educated and intelligent English people speak. So if people say “if” instead of “whether”, then “if” is correct!

I hope this is not too confusing. I have made a little quiz so that you can practice “if” and “whether” – you will find a link on the website.

Finally, here is a little poem about “whether”. You will have to listen carefully, because there are two words in English that we pronounce “whether”. There is the word “whether” which we have been talking about in today’s podcast, and there is the “weather” – rain, wind, sunshine and so on.

Whether the weather is fine Or whether the weather is not

Whether the weather is cold/ Or whether the weather is hot

We’ll weather the weather/ Whatever the weather

Whether we like it or not.


Jan 29, 2008

Last week a woman called Marie Smith Jones died. She was 89 years old and she lived in Alaska in North America. Marie was the last person alive to speak a language called Eyak. Eyak is, or was, one of the native North American languages. Linguists have carefully recorded Eyak grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation. But no-one speaks Eyak any more. It is a dead language.

We do not have an official language in Britain, but most people of course speak English or a dialect of English. There are several other native or indigenous languages in Britain. They are descended from the languages spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Britain before the English arrived in the 4th and 5th centuries. The most important is Welsh, which is spoken by about more than half a million people in Wales, or about 20% of the population. Welsh and English now have equal official status in Wales. If you visit Wales, you will see that all road signs are in English and Welsh. Welsh is flourishing.

Two other Celtic languages, Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Irish Gaelic in Northern Ireland are spoken by only a few percent of the population. Another Celtic language in South-West England – called Cornish – died out completely in the 19th century, just like Eyak has died out. It was re-introduced about 100 years ago and today Cornish is spoken by a few thousand people.

It is interesting that we use some of the same words for languages as we use for plants and animals. Here are some examples:

* We talk about native or indigenous plants or animals – that means the plants and animals which live naturally in a place, and have been there a long time. Similarly, we talk about native or indigenous languages, like English in England, or Irish Gaelic in Ireland.

* We can say that modern horses are descended from wild horses. Similarly, we can say that modern Welsh is descended from an old Celtic language.

* We can say, for instance, that wolves have died out in Britain. Similarly, we can say that the Eyak language has died out.

* We can say that an animal like the rhinocerous is endangered; and we can also say that a language is endangered, if the number of people speaking it is very small.

* Of course some species of animals are flourishing – probably their numbers are growing and they are not likely to die out. Similarly, we can say that today the Welsh language is flourishing.

* And some species of animals or birds die out, but are then re-introduced into the wild. We have several examples of this in England, particularly a bird called the red kite. Similarly, we can say that the Cornish language has been re-introduced.

I have also read in the paper that some experts think that three quarters of the world’s languages will die out in the next 100 years. Do you think that this will happen? Perhaps languages and animals die out for similar reasons – reasons such as over-exploitation of natural resources, modern travel and tourism, and population movement. How many people will speak English one hundred years from now? English is widely spoken as a second language today, partly because of British colonial history, and partly because of American economic power. However, 100 years from now, British colonial history will be a long way in the past, and American economic power may be much less. What languages will your grandchildren and great-grandchildren learn? Chinese perhaps?

Swimming the Channel

Jan 25, 2008

This week we meet the verb “to swim”; and we also meet a famous swimmer, called Captain Webb. The verb “to swim” is one of a very small group of English verbs where there are three different vowel sounds in three different tenses, like this:

* I swim

* I swam

* I have swum

The other common verb which is like this is “to sing” (I sing, I sang, I have sung).

A few weeks ago, I watched a television programme. A woman who was on the programme said that, when she was younger, she had swum the Channel. What does that mean?

The Channel” is the sea which lies between England and France. Its proper name is “The English Channel” but normally in English we talk about “The Channel”. We talk about “crossing the Channel”, which means that we are going to visit France or Belgium or another country on the mainland of Europe. The Channel is about 22 miles or 36 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, between Dover in England and Calais in France. There are regular ferries across the Channel, and a huge number of ships pass through the Channel on their way to ports in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. And some people swim across the Channel.

Speaking personally, I do not enjoy swimming very much and I think that people who swim the Channel must be either very brave or very foolish. The English Channel is cold. It is also not very clean, and there are lots of ships which might hit someone swimming. But the distance across the Channel is about as far as it is possible for someone to swim in the sea. So it is a bit like Mount Everest – it is the big challenge, the final goal, for people who are keen on long-distance swimming.

The first person to swim across the Channel was Captain Matthew Webb. He was 29 years old when he swam from England to France in August 1875. The crossing took him rather under 22 hours. His swim across the Channel made Captain Webb famous. There is a picture of him on the website, and – I hope – on your iPod screens. The Victorians liked their heroes to be tall, upright and handsome, and to wear a moustache; and you will see that Captain Webb is indeed tall, upright and handsome, and that he has a moustache. I think incidentally that the photographer who took the photo was working in a studio, and that the waves and the sea behind Captain Webb are painted and not real.

Fifty years after Captain Webb’s great swim, only about 10 other people had managed to swim the Channel. It is interesting that nearly always they swam from England to France, and not the other way. Why? I have no idea! Since the 1920s many more people – about 1000 altogether – have made the great swim, including some who have swum from England to France and then back again. Modern swimmers swim much faster than Captain Webb – the fastest swim, by Petar Stoychev in August last year, took under 7 hours, only a third of Captain Webb’s time. A woman called Alison Streeter has swum the Channel a record 43 times; in fact, in 1992 alone she swam the Channel 7 times.

And what happened to Captain Webb? Did he live to an old age, so that he could tell his grandchildren all about his great swim to France? I am afraid not. He became a professional swimmer, and wrote a book about – can you guess? – How to Swim. A brand of matches was named after him – there is a picture of a box of Captain Webb matches on the website. He did stunts like floating in a tank of water for 128 hours. And in 1883, 8 years after his Channel swim, he decided to swim across the Niagara River, between Canada and the USA, just below the Niagara Falls where the water is dangerous and fast flowing. Within a few minutes he had disappeared; his body was found four days later. It was a sad end for a very remarkable man.

It is a long time since we had any music on this podcast. So here is a song by Amy Kohn called “1977 Swimming Lessons”. She is I think remembering swimming lessons in a swimming pool when she was a child. I hope you enjoy it.

To hold you, to hold you

Jan 21, 2008

Hello, everyone. It is very good to be making a new podcast. My internet connection is working again. Thank you very much for your patience, and a big thank you in particular to all those of you who sent me e-mails saying how sorry you were about my internet problems.

It is a long time since we had any poetry on the podcast. From time to time, I look at a book of English poetry and wonder whether I can use any of the poems. But very few poems are written in simple English which is easy to understand. My friend, Margaret Scorey, however writes poems which use simple and direct English, and are therefore very good for English learners. Here is a poem she wrote about a month ago. She wrote it for a woman who had recently become a grandmother. But the woman’s family, and the new grandchild, were in America, so grandmother travelled to America to hold her new grandchild in her arms for the first time. Margaret has called the poem “To Hold you, to hold you”.

My longing is to hold you,

to feel your soft cheeks against mine

to look into your gentle eyes

to touch your hair

and feel the warmth of your breath.

Soon I will.

But know that when I return,

the ache will be as great as it is now,

softened only by memories.

But one thing, I will be able to say is,

I’ve done it, I’ve done it, I’ve held you’.


Jan 11, 2008

On the day after Christmas Day – the day we call Boxing Day in England – something terrible happened. My internet connection stopped working. I could not surf the net. I could not read my e-mails. I could not check my website or upload new podcasts. The internet is a bit like cigarettes. You become addicted, or “hooked” as we say in colloquial English. When suddenly you cannot use the internet, it is like wanting a cigarette, and finding that you do not have any cigarettes and that the shops are all closed. So, when my internet connection stopped working, how did I feel? What words can we use to describe my feelings?

Well, we could use words like “angry” or “furious”. But these words are too strong. If someone is angry or furious, they are shouting at people and banging the table. I was not shouting at people about my internet connection, nor was I banging the table. So “angry” and “furious” are not the right words.

Could we use the word “upset”? If something upsets you, it means that it has hurt you emotionally. You may be unable to discuss the upsetting thing without crying. You may not want to talk to people, or to eat your food. Well, my internet connection problem was not like that. So I was not “upset” when my internet connection stopped working.

We need some words that mean “a little bit angry”. There are several of them. We can say, for example, that I was cross when the train was late and I missed an important meeting. I was annoyed when I could not find my car keys. I was irritated when someone did not reply to an e-mail. Yes, all of these words would do – I was cross, and annoyed, and irritated, when my internet connection stopped working.

But there is another word that describes exactly how I felt. I wanted to do things – surfing the net, sending e-mails etc – but I could not. And I could do nothing to solve the problem. The only thing to do was to wait for my internet provider to mend the connection. And it was Christmas, so all of their engineers were on holiday. So I had to wait, and wait, and wait! I felt “frustrated”. The feeling we have when we cannot do something we normally do is “frustration”. If you break your leg, and you cannot play football for two months, you might find this “frustrating”. That is how it was with my internet connection – it was frustrating. I felt frustrated

The really bad news is that my internet connection still does not work. I have complained to my internet company. They say that there is nothing wrong. What do they mean, nothing is wrong? I can’t access the internet. Of course something is wrong. Now I am very frustrated. I am not just cross with my internet company, I am starting to be angry. I am shouting at the internet company and banging the table. I have cancelled my contract with them, and next week some nice people from the cable TV company will come and install a new fibre-optic cable to my house, and I will have the internet again.

And how will I feel then? “Happy” – yes, of course. But a really good word is “relieved”. Imagine that your teenage daughter goes out with some friends for the evening. She says she will be home at 10 o’clock. Ten o’clock comes and she is not home; 10.30, 11 o’clock. You get worried and anxious. What has happened? Should you telephone the police? Then at midnight, the phone rings. It is your daughter. She is at her friend’s house. How do you feel? You might be cross with your daughter because she did not telephone earlier. But mainly you would feel relieved – no more worries, no more problems, everything is OK again – relieved. That is how I shall feel when my internet connection is back – relieved.

In the meantime, I am using an internet cafe to upload my podcasts. It takes a lot longer to make and upload podcasts without an internet connnection at home. So, sorry, I do not have time to find a good picture to put on the website or your iPod screen to illustrate this podcast. And I may not be able to make another podcast until my internet connection is back. How will you feel about no new podcast next week? Will you be angry, or annoyed, or upset, or frustrated? Or will you feel relieved? I hope not!

Eddie the Eagle

Jan 7, 2008

Every four years, the Olympic Games are held. This year – 2008 – is an Olympic year. The games are to be held in Beijing in China. As well as the main Olympic Games, there are also the winter Olympics. The winter Olympics are for snow sports – things like ski-ing, ice-skating and bob-sleighing. Like the main Olympic Games, they take place every four years. They used to be held in the same year as the main Games; but now they are held in the year mid-way between the main Games. The last winter Olympics were in 2006; the next winter Olympics will be in 2010, in Vancouver in Canada.

Naturally, most of the winners in the sports at the winter Olympics are from countries with mountains and lots of snow – countries like Austria, Norway, Finland and Switzerland for example. In Britain, our mountains are quite small, and we do not have a lot of snow, so generally there are only a few British winners at the winter Olympics. But 20 years ago, in 1988, when the winter Olympics were held in Calgary in Canada, one of the British competitors became world famous. It happened like this.

Michael Edwards was 13 when he first when ski-ing on a school ski trip. He loved it. He also had a childhood ambition to be a stuntman. A stuntman is someone who acts the really dangerous bits in films – where people fall through windows, for example, or drive a car over a cliff. So Michael decided that ski-jumping should be his sport. In ski-jumping, the competitors ski very fast down a long, straight slope and onto a ramp. They then take off and fly though the air, and land 100 or 200 meters further on. It is slightly less dangerous than jumping out of an aeroplane with no parachute. You have to be very brave or very stupid to do ski-jumping.

It is not easy to be a ski-jumper in Britain. There are, to start with, no ski jumps where you can practice. Michael went to some of the top French and Austrian ski-jumping coaches to ask them for advice. However, as he did not speak any French or German, this did not help him much. Also, Michael was short-sighted. He had to wear thick glasses, that often steamed up as he went down the ski slope, so that he could hardly see where he was going. But he kept on practising and training, and in 1987 he entered the world ski-jumping championships in Obertsdorf. There were 98 competitors. Michael came 98th. The press started to call him “Eddie the Eagle”.

Eddie (as we will now call him) then asked the British Olympic Committee whether he could represent Britain in the ski-jumping event at the winter games in Calgary. There were no other British ski-jumpers. So the Committee agreed that he could go. He borrowed some skis, and set off for Calgary. In Calgary, Eddie was in competition with some of the finest ski-jumpers in the world. His best jump was 73.5 meters. To me, this seems a very long way to fly through the air with skis on one’s feet. But top-class ski-jumpers regularly jump 200 meters and more. So Eddie did spectacularly badly in the Games, but he became one of the best known people in Calgary. Everyone laughed about him; and wondered whether he would be taken away in an ambulance after his next jump. He waved to the television cameras, and shouted “Hello Mum, it’s me” before he set off down the ski slope. We British love a brave loser, so we loved Eddie.

The International Olympic Committee, the men in suits who run the Olympic Games, did not find Eddie amusing however. They changed the rules to make it much more difficult for someone like him to compete in future Games. The International Olympic Committee must be some of the most boring people in the world. So, at the next Winter Olympics in 2010, there will be some magnificent ski-ing, but there will be no-one like Eddie the Eagle.