Showing posts from 2011

History of English

The English language has 1.5 million words. Contrast this with Spanish, which has 80,000 words. How did English get so rich in vocabulary?

The English language is full of contradictions, exceptions and inexplicable irregularities. It is maddeningly difficult to teach and to lean English, because of its many inconsistencies and blurred rules. Often a particular English construction can't really be explained: all the teacher can say is, "that's how it is."

Why is English grammar so complicated? Why so complex and flexible, compared with other languages whose strict sentence structure (for example, German) makes it easy to build correct sentences? The history of English reveals the wayward nature of its development.

If the English language were a dog, it would be a mutt, not a purebred. If it were an ear of corn, it would be a hybrid, not a heritage strain. If it were a religion, it would be wide open, not orthodox. If it were a restaurant, it would be fusion, not ethni…

TOEFL woes

Since November 2010, I've been tutoring one of my Korean students for the TOEFL exam. He's taken the exam a couple of times and has done quite well. The biggest problem he has is the speaking section.

This makes me think. I have no trouble to understand what he says, and I find his vocabulary to be quite extensive and flexible, I think he speaks very well. But I am usually speaking to him face-to-face, where I can see his body language--the expressions on his face, how he is sitting, where his arms and legs are positioned, how he's arranged his hands, etc. All of these visual clues are completely lost in the TOEFL speaking section, which is just a recording of the student's voice.

It's a real pity that the TOEFL can't be changed so that the speaking section is Skyped or videotaped. Psychologists say that 90% of communication is done non-verbally (without words), in body language. All this richness of context and imagination is missing in the TOEFL audio recordi…

Is it easy for foreign students to study at college or university in the US?

This is a very good question, with several answers.

Here are some positives (YES answers):
1.The US has more than 4,000 public and private colleges and universities, ranging from technical colleges (where students learn a trade such as mechanical repair or hair care) all the way up to advanced degrees at prestigious universities (getting a PhD from Harvard, Yale or Princeton). The choice and variety of college and university educational programs is enormous, giving students the chance to go to the university of their dreams.

2. Most colleges and universities will accept any student who fits their admission criteria (TOEFL and SAT exam scores, secondary school grades, academic recommendations, and leadership experience), regardless of the student's ethnic or racial background. In the US, it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, age, country of origin or physical abilities. At least theoretically, all applicants have the same chance at being admitted, regar…

Study abroad: SAT and TOEFL exams

Every year over half a million foreign students attend colleges and universities in the US. These students come from countries around the world. The top two countries sending students to the US are India and China. Here is a map indicating which countries students come from to attend college or university in the US:

Each of these students had to take at least two major standardized exams in order to be admitted to a US college or university: TOEFL and SAT. Both tests are developed and administered by the College Board, a company bases in New Jersey.

Here is the website for TOEFL:

Here is the website for SAT:

Both websites have free practice questions, along with test dates and locations, information on which tests are needed for particular college admissions and other useful information. They are a good starting point for ex…

Winter and TOEFL/SAT lessons

Today there was some kind of white substance on the cars in the street outside my flat here in Prague. Was it snow? Ice? Hard to say. The sidewalks were wet, it was not as cold as it has been, and the air is still full of smog (smoke + fog). The stuff stayed on the stationery cars and the trees all day.

So it must be winter. Dec. 21 is the official first day of winter by the Western world's calendars, and it's only Nov. 16. But the first snow always ushers in winter, as I see it.

In the next few days I will post information about the American English Language Institute's Winter 2011-12 offerings. If you are interested in tutoring in English, please look at what we offer. Our main focus is on TOEFL and SAT test preparation for secondary school students. We also can help people with writing for academic purposes (at school or university) and have a few openings for Beginner's English, for qualified people.

I hope the smog goes away soon, as it's hard to breathe the s…

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is really a European religious event (October 31, All Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, when the Church commemorates the dead in Christ), but America really knows how to do it up right. You can read an ALOE newsletter on Halloween and Thanksgiving in America:

Halloween and Thanksgiving

Hoping you enjoy your Halloween, wherever you are!

Language and nationality

I just finished reading the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe.
This big book includes every European country that was in the former Soviet bloc. Since I live in Prague, I am very interested in this information--so far, Jarda and I have traveled mainly to Western Europe, and I'm fascinated to read about the countries to the east.

One fact that leaped out of the pages was the relationship between language and nationality. Sometimes nationality and language go hand-in-hand. French is spoken by the people of France, for example, and is the official language. This is simple and straightforward.

But when you move east, where people have moved and been moved from nation to nation for millennia, it's not so simple. For example, the people of Moldova speak Moldovan--why not? But according to the book, Moldovan is really just Romanian. Stalin made Moldovan a language when he created Moldavia as an autonomous Soviet republic. Giving the language a new name was a way to differentiate …

Bily Potok summer camp

Next week Jarda and I will join an international team of volunteer English instructors in Bily Potok, in the Jizersky Hory (a small mountain range) in northern Bohemia.

This kind of language camp is very popular here, as Czechs will use any excuse to get out of the city into nature. When you combine a nature vacation with some educational purpose, you have a winner.

We'll be working with university students from Prague, and really don't quite know what to expect. Our class is "beginners" which can mean anything from don't-know-a-word-of-English to know-a-lot-of-English-but-are-too-shy-to-speak.
So we've prepared a variety of lessons to cover any situation (we hope!). We'll post you on how the week progresses.

TOEFL: writing is the most difficult task for someone learning English

There are 4 sections of the TEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam: ReadingListeningSpeaking WritingThese sections are not arranged in the order of difficulty, in my opinion. Here's what I believe is the correct order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest:
ReadingListeningSpeakingWriting1. Reading is the easiest set of skills to master, as you are not interacting with a live person. The words on the page don't change, or move. You can look up any word you don't know in a dictionary, and can use a book of grammar for any sentence or word structure you don't understand.

2. Listening involves an intermediate skill set. It is passive, if you aren't trying to enter a conversation--you can concentrate on what the person is saying without simultaneously thinking about what you will say in return. Although you may not know all the words being said, or understand the verb tenses, pronouns, use of adjectives and adverbs, etc., you can make some good guesses and get…

I know why computers fail

Computers, as I understand, operate on a simple system: on/off. In numbers it's called the binary system: 0, 1 and nothing else.

In language this opposition is found in yes/no. You might think that the simplest possible communication would be yes/no. "Would you like some tea?" "Yes" or "no." "Will we have our lesson next week?" "Yes" or "no."

But in daily life, the yes/no distinction is constantly blurred, changed and misunderstood. Example: "I ask my husband if I can move the liquid soap from the bathroom to the kitchen. "Yes" or "no." Instead, he tells me a long story about how he uses the soap--which doesn't answer the question, as he could use the soap in the kitchen or the bathroom.

Example: "I can't teach your lesson next week" is heard as "I can teach your lesson next week." Even if I enunciate and say "I cannot teach your lesson next week," my student…

Teaching conversational English to Dana

This has been an interesting problem for me--how can I, as a tutor, help my client "Dana" become more comfortable in speaking English "without a script"? In other words, how can I structure our tutoring sessions so that Dana and I can just talk to each other?

It's not as easy as it sounds to have a normal, relaxed conversation in English with someone who's learning English. Dana studies English grammar for 5 hours a week with another tutor, and so has a good grasp of the fundamentals of English. But she wants to put her knowledge to practical use and talk with me in English.

The basic challenge is having something to talk about--something we are both interested in and that Dana has enough vocabulary about to have a good conversation. It would be hard, for example, to talk about geology, as neither of us has any deep interest in or specalized vocabulary about geology.

If we were in a group setting, it would be easier, as there wouldn't be so much pressur…

Children and language

Does language have an underlying structure that is "hard-wired" into the human brain? This intriguing, probably unanswerable question comes up when you talk about children's language acquisition. Does the human brain create language? Is there a universal grammar?

 Are the sounds of language tied to culture? Is the very idea of language as essential to human life as people sometimes believe? Most theories of child development and learning try to define language acquisition as one of the benchmarks of children's educational process. But what kind of language?

This book describes an educational approach that seeks to teach children many kinds of languages:
"The city-run early childhood program of Reggio Emilia, Italy, has become recognized and acclaimed as one of the best systems of education in the world. Over the past forty years, educators there have evolved a distinctive innovative approach that supports children's well-being and fosters their intellectual dev…

Baby talk

There's a baby living in my apartment house! He or she just moved in, and we can all hear the baby talk when the baby goes outside. "Ba-ba-ba", "da-da-da" and "ma-ma" are the basics of baby talk.

Besides being fun to listen to, baby talk reveals something about language. This baby is probably living with Czech-speaking parents, yet the baby talk is just like American English baby talk.

"A" is the first letter of both alphabets, because it's the first vowel in most European baby talk. "B" and "d" are early in the alphabet, and also early in baby talk. "Ma-ma" means mother in English, because it's one of first words babies say. "Da-da" sounds like Dad or Daddies, one American English word for "father." And "ba-ba" of course means "baby."

English for Social Purposes

Learning another language is a complex and time-consuming task. It takes a child 6 years of more to become fluent in his/her native tongue, so naturally learning a second or third language will not happen overnight!

Reading is, I believe, the easiest skill to master in a foreign language for an adult learner. When you read, you can take your time. A dictionary and thesaurus help you with unfamiliar words. You can work out verb tenses, sentence structure, pronoun references and other bits of grammar at your own pace.

What can be most challenging about learning a language is speaking: simple, daily talk with other people.Children aren't usually shy to speak even when they don't have a good command of grammar or extensive vocabulary. "Me want cookie," although it's grammatically atrocious, will get the point across.

Adults, though, hate to appear stupid, and will hesitate to speak until their skills are perfect. This is a huge mistake, as you learn best by actually …

It's Spring, and Summer is on the way

It's only March, but for educators, Summer is just around the corner. The American English Language Institute is pleased to announce that Spring 2011 tuition costs are in effect until May 31, 2011; after that time,  the Summer prices will be applied.

The Summer tuition costs are in noted on the left-hand side of the screen. (Please note that we are also offering a special Beginner's Course this Spring). We provide all educational materials for the courses unless noted in the costs.

Visit to Florida

Last week I visited Florida, where I lived for 17 years. One of my stops was Seminole State College, to see my former co-workers. They were most gracious and generous, as they were when I worked for them. I came home with some wonderful books for tutoring: American English grammar workbooks, the Longman Language Activator (a combination dictionary/thesaurus), collections of short stories and essays--a wide range of books indeed.

Children's books

If you have a limited vocabulary in English, and can best understand simple grammar, then consider reading children's book for practice in English. They usually have pictures, which can help you make inferences about words you don't know or sentences you can't understand.

TOEFL test tips

The TEFL test has 4 parts: reading, listening, speaking and writing. The parts are very different, but you can do well in all 4 parts if you do just three things when you are preparing and practicing:

1. Read all the instructions carefully
2. Practice a little bit at a time
3. Review every time you practice.
1. Read all the instructions carefully. As you read, ask yourself questions, to be sure you are understanding what you're reading:

what is the task I am supposed to do?are there any special ways to do the task?how much time will it take to do the task correctly? are there any penalties if I don't do all the parts of the task?what will a correctly-done task look like?2.Practice a little bit at a time. "Cramming" is a study habit that doesn't work well. A student crams when he or she tries to study a large amount of material in a very short time, usually right before a test. Cramming is not as effective as studying a little bit at a time, because your brain retains …

SAT Reasoning test prep course

The American English Language Institute offers SAT prep courses; our instructor has more than 10 years of experience in SAT prep tutoring. Please send an email to for the dates of the next course in Prague.

The SAT Reasoning test is a major international test. According to the College Board's website,

 "In the late 1800s, a group of leading American universities was concerned about not having a universal way to determine if students were prepared for college-level course work. They formed the College Entrance Examination Board, and working together they administered the first standardized exam in 1901. For the first time, students could take one entrance exam for several universities instead of taking a separate exam for each university to which they applied."

From this modest beginning, the SAT has grown into a huge enterprise, with hundreds of thousands of college-bound students all ovr the world taking it at each of the 7 offerings per year. The cu…

TOEFL prep--speaking vs listening

There's no question that speaking is more difficult than listening. When you listen to a language you don't know well, you can pick out words you know, or use the speaker's intonation to INFER the meaning of the entire sentence or group of words.

INFER means "an educated guess." You infer when make an assumption based on incomplete knowledge or evidence.

Examples of inferring:
if a person is stopped by a policeman while driving erratically, and he sees empty beer bottles in the care, he may infer that the person is drunk!if you see your friend Jana at the shopping center, and the next day she wears a new coat to school, you may infer that she bought it at the shopping center.if your teacher asks the class to hand in their homework, and you don't remember having any homework, you may infer that you weren't listening closely in class the day before.You make inferences every day. Many are based on words that you hear; many are based on things that you see. Wh…

TOEFL prep continues--LISTENING!

My tutoring student and I are having fun with our TOEFL prep. Yesterday we worked on the listening skills section of the TOEFL. It involved the practice CD ROM, headphones, built-in computer microphone and the enormous prep book. I am very proud to say that my student made 100% (7 correct out of 7) on his first Listening practice test!

Communication is key!

Life in the USA is fast, competitive and ever-changing. Communication must be equally quick and effective. Tweets, text messages, wifi, emails that work all the time, concise phone messages, and other electronic communication tools are absolutely necessary for daily life in the USA.

Good habits of effective communication include the following:
1. Take the initiative. Don't wait for people to get in touch with you--they might not!
2. Double-check and confirm all appointments. Just because you know that you've scheduled a meeting doesn't mean that the other person will remember it correctly. Things change, and new events can crowd out plans made yesterday.
3. Be in touch if you'll be late or need to change a plan. If you're more than 10 minutes late, you need to phone/text or email the other person.
4. Check your email/telephone messages frequently, and reply to other people's confirmations and new plans.
5. Always imagine what might go wrong, or be misunderstood…


Here is the schedule for this course, for Spring 2011 in Prague:

1. Saturday, January 22, 11am-12:30 pm
2. Saturday, January 29, 11 am-12:30 pm
3. Saturday, February 5, 11 am-12:30 pm4. Saturday, February12, 11 am-12:30 pm5. Saturday, February 19, 11 am-12:30 pm6. Saturday, February 26, 11 am-12:30 pm
7. Saturday, March 5, 11 am-12:30 pm8. Saturday, March 12, 11 am-12:30 pm9. Saturday, March 19, 11 am-12:30 pm10. Saturday, March 26, 11 am-12:30 pm11. Saturday, April 2, 11 am-12:30 pm12. Saturday, April 9, 11 am-12:30 pm
Cost of course is

Please call Sara Tusek at 731-150-780 for more details.

What American university admissions officers look for in successful applicants

Most good American universities have many, many more applicants than they have openings for new students. To sort out these applicants, three main parts of the application are examined very carefully:

1. Standardized tests. These are timed, objective tests that require test-takers to choose among 4-6 answers to written questions. The answers are scored by computer (credit is added for right answers and subtracted for wrong answers on most tests, to discourage guessing). This produces a number, which is easy to use to compare applicants. Some tests, such as the SAT, also have an essay section, which is subjective and must be read by a scorer, who then gives it a number.

2. Grade point average (GPA): this number is the average of the grades you received in secondary school. There are many ways to weight (change the value given) the GPA, giving more value to harder courses and leaving some classes out, if the university is not interested in those grades. Art, religion, physical education…