Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn: Hallowe'en

Tonight is the night when dead leaves fly...
The main calendar event of autumn, crouching at the end of October like a black cat peering into November and the beginning of winter is Hallowe’en (a term which derives from “All Hallows Eve”).

Originally a Celtic festival, Hallowe’en is now particularly associated with America, and elements of the US version have become globalised, mainly through our familiarity with films and TV shows. The key elements of Hallowe’en are now quite familiar, although some of their significance has been lost (or mangled) in cultural translation:

(S)mashing Pumpkins
Look in the window of any shop at this time of year and the chances are you will see a sinister grinning face cut out of an enormous pumpkin – perhaps with a light inside producing a supernatural glow from the eyes and serrated teeth. (This is known in North America as a Jack-o'-lantern.)

Although pumpkins are fairly common throughout Europe and North America throughout the year they seem to come into their own at Hallowe’en. Part of the botanical family that includes zucchini, courgettes and marrows, pumpkins make excellent autumn/ winter dishes and can be sliced, diced, mashed, boiled and baked. As well as making great comfort food (something hot and filling which is quite simple and unsophisticated), pumpkins feature in the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in North America.

In Italy, pumpkins seem significant merely for their seeds - and as the source material for self-consciously foreign Jack-o'-lanterns, visible mainly in shops and bars. Zucca (Italian for pumpkin) happens to be the name of the iconic café in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, where Gaspare Campari launched his eponymous drink.)

Trick or treat?
Trick or treat (often used in the phrase "to go trick or treating") is the main activity associated with Hallowe'en. Let's have a quick look at the what the words trick and treat mean first:

  • A treat is something very nice (and usually unexpected). For example, if a child at school gets excellent grades in the end of year tests, their parents may take them to a theme park or the cinema as a treat. You can also treat someone to something, such as a free meal in a restaurant – or, indeed, you can treat yourself, or give yourself a treat.
    (Note that treat also has the completely different meaning of “give medical attention / care to”, e.g. a doctor can treat a patient for a disease or other condition, such as chronic (long-term) backache.)
  • A trick is the complete opposite. If you trick someone (or play a trick on them) it means you do something horrible to upset that person.
On Hallowe’en children wearing fancy dress (including witches' hats, vampire teeth, skeleton costumes, devil masks and anything else supernatural or creepy) knock on people’s doors and shout “Trick or treat!”. The person inside the house can either choose to give the children a small gift or risk having a trick played on them. Typical tricks might include strewing toilet paper all over their garden, spraying silly string over their front door, knocking over their rubbish bins or sealing up their letter box with wax. (In Britain, depending on the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood and the region the occupant of the house may either put this down (attribute) to youthful exuberance or start an argument which can escalate into a full-scale dispute with the police being called.
Conversely, trick or treat is a well-established and accepted part of North American culture (where it originates from in its modern form). People prepare for the arrival of the trick or treaters by baking little cakes and making sweets which they hand out to their ghoulish visitors. In Britain the tradition has never really been integrated into the cultural life of the nation, so people are uncertain how to react to having a gang of vampires and ghouls turn up (arrive) on their doorstep. A lot of children simply take the occasion as an opportunity to demand some loose change, while those in more deprived areas might actually use the situation as a chance to settle scores on unpopular neighbours or to terrorise older residents, many of whom don’t really understand what the whole thing is about.

(On the topic of socially-accepted forms of manic but non-threatening behaviour, I have to say that I found the celebrations in Milan for Carnevale in February something of a revelation. The soft-centred - and largely alcohol-free - daytime festivities in Piazza Duomo (intended mainly for children) are a riot with thousands of people "attacking" each other with confetti (coriandoli) and silly string – but without any of the associated tensions or public order problems that usually marr similar events in the UK (in particular the Notting Hill Carnival). I think this will be a future (seasonal) blog post.)
Monster Munch
Hallowe’en parties seem to be mainly either the preserve of either children or an excuse for clubbers to dress up as ghouls and vampires at a themed event. As with 5th November, there isn’t an associated holiday, widely-observed religious festival like Christmas (but see All Saints Day below) or critical secular moment, such as New Year’s Eve (particularly on the following day) so the prospect of a wild celebration followed by what could be a working day has little appeal to people who have already left school or have only just heard of Facebook.
However, a few traditions survive, notably traditional Hallowe’en games, such as “bobbing for apples”, which involves biting an apple floating around in a bowl of water – try it: it’s harder than it sounds.
Incidentally, All Saints Day on the 1st November and All Souls Day on the 2nd are purely religious occasions for churchgoers in the UK – very much a minority of the population. All Souls Day, which is hugely significant here in Italy, seems to be a particularly Catholic occasion. There is no UK equivalent of the streams of Italian families tidying up relatives' graves and placing bunches of fresh flowers on them in preparation for the main All Souls Day - or the all-night graveside vigils held throughout the (particularly Spanish-speaking) Catholic world.)

Is there anyone there?
Both Hallowe’en and All Souls Day are characterised by radically different ways of thinking about death, the after-life and the “other side” in general. Whereas Hallowe’en is treated as a bit of a laugh – with kids dressing up as characters from the Adams Family – All Souls Day is a serious, sombre occasion in countries where the Church is still highly influential. However, in a largely secular country like Britain – and in the non-religious sections of North American society – the “big questions” still need to be addressed: life, the universe and everything. Perhaps the folk culture of the past, pagan traditions and modern horror films that draw on ancient superstitions and legends seem more palatable to those who have little or no connection with conventional organised religion. Just as Dan Brown tapped into a vast subterranean reservoir of secular interest in things spiritual and religious by means of the best-selling mystery thrillerThe Da Vinci Code” – so the appearance of miniature mummies, ghosts and Freddie Krugers at Hallowe’en could represent one aspect of a nagging secular suspicion that there might be something more to life than PSPs, Nikes and Chicken McNuggets®.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Autumn: Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving

Bringing in the sheaves
Living in a city you have a hugely distorted sense of the traditional significance of the seasons. The end of the summer and the beginning of autumn is when crops are harvested and all sorts of vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, leeks, turnips, marrows and pumpkins reach maturity. Since most types of food are available all year round (such as strawberries flown in at Christmas time) we city-dwellers have little appreciation of how the seasons shape life in the country.

The custom of the harvest festival still survives in churches (and some schools). Produce from the fields and from gardens is brought into the church and the congregation offer thanks for the natural bounty supplied by the Lord (or whoever you think supplies it – perhaps for most people in Britain it is now Tesco’s, the UK’s largest supermarket chain).

While many schools and schoolteachers are reluctant to promote religion when they lack religious convictions themselves, the harvest festival is still a feature of British school life (with or without religious overtones). It seems like a good idea to not take the food we eat for granted and to at least consider that while food may be abundant in the rich countries of the west and the northern hemisphere its scarcity is a fact of life in many other parts of the less developed (or poor) world.

I remember when I was at school that everyone would bring something from home – perhaps a tin of baked beans or a packet of biscuits and it would all be stacked on the stage for a full-school assembly (which, looking back now, must have made the headmaster and the senior teachers look slightly like delegates at a trade fair promoting a range of household brands). After the service the food would be donated to a local old people’s home or children’s home. I actually still think that’s a good thing to do – whether or not there’s an accompanying religious service.

In a similar vein, the American festival of Thanksgiving, held in November, marks the first harvest produced by the Pilgrim Fathers – the Puritan settlers who left Europe and landed in New England. Thanksgiving is only celebrated in the US (and Canada) and is a bit of a mystery to most Brits who only really know about it from films and TV programmes or the fact that Wall Street is closed for a public holiday. Thanksgiving dinner features a turkey (which is what the British have for Christmas dinner) with cranberry sauce (ditto) and pumpkin pie (which doesn’t really exist in the UK).

With a significant North American expatriate population in (west) London (due mainly, but not entirely to the phenomenal success of the romantic comedy “Notting Hill”*), some shops now cater for customers in search of typical Thanksgiving fare. A posh (high-class) butcher near Holland Park tube station (close to the London School of English, where I used to teach) has a sign in the window at this time of year advising its well-heeled stateside clientele that they can now order their Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure a similar offer must be made to the Americans and Canadians in Milan by at least one enterprising butcher, but I haven’t seen any firsthand evidence of this. (If you’re an American or Canadian in Milan, or a butcher, I’d love to hear.)

*Click here to see a picture of Notting Hill Underground station and other picture postcard views of London.

Answers to Autumn comprehension questions

How did you do? (How successful were you?) Here are the answers to the comprehension questions:

Click here to read the article on Autumn.

To read the vocabulary notes for this article click here.

  • What does it mean if you say the nights are drawing in?
    If you say "the nights are drawing in" it means that it's starting to get dark earlier. Draw in is a phrasal verb. It can also mean to lure or entice, e.g. you can draw someone into a trap. You can also avoid being drawn into a long conversation with someone if you are in a hurry.
  • What are customs?
    Customs are the traditional forms of behaviour belonging to a particular society or culture. If something is customary it means its normal for people in that society / culture to do it, e.g. it’s customary to shake hands when you meet someone.
    (The word customs can also mean the gate or barrier at an aiport or border where you have to declare whether you are bringing any goods (products) into the country. You may have to pay duty on these.)
  • What’s the difference between autumn and fall?
    Autumn is British English, while fall is American English.
    (Read an article on British English vs American English.)
  • When does autumn officially begin?
    Around the time of the autumnal equinox (21st September)
  • Why (according to the article) does the summer seem to end too quickly?
    It always feels like autumn comes too soon because we don’t really want the summer holidays to end, but we have to return to work or school anyway. Autumn invariably marks the end of the long summer days as it starts to get darker sooner and becomes colder.
    (invariably means without change, always the same)
  • Which events traditionally take place (happen) in the autumn? (Some of these are covered in other areas of the Milan English blog.)
    The beginning of the school (and university) year; the conference season (the time when the British political parties have week-long get-togthers, usually at the seaside - although the Tory (or Conservative) party broke with tradition this year by holding its annual conference in Manchester); Parliament reassembles.

    Religious events include: the Jewish New Year (followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and Succoth – the Jewish equivalent of the harvest festival); the Christian Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving in North America; Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light; and the Muslim holy (sacred) month of Ramadan, when people fast (don’t eat).

    Hallowe’en is on the 31st October, while the 5th November is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night (in Britain).

    The most autumnal event, the article suggests, is when the clocks go back and we gain one hour: the sudden change to much shorter days and longer nights means that the summer really is over.

Vocabulary for Autumn

Here are some useful words and expressions used in the first article on Autumn in this blog:

  • To get shorter means to become shorter
  • If you say "the nights are drawing in" it means that it's starting to get dark earlier
  • Turn yellow means become yellow. (You also say that someone has "turned thirty/forty etc" to mean they are now thirty/forty years old.)
  • "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" is the first line of "To Autumn", a poem by John Keats.
  • A fashionista is someone who is actively involved in the fashion industry as a designer, stylist, critic or journalist. (A person who carefully follows the newest trends in clothes and always wears the latest styles can be referred to (humorously) as a fashion victim or “a dedicated follower of fashion” from the 1966 hit song by The Kinks.)
  • The word cover in the expression "that covers most people" means include here.
  • Note that autumn is one of those English words with a silent letter. Don’t say the “n” at the end of autumn. (It’s almost impossible to pronounce autumn with a final /n/ sound, anyway). However, in the adjective autumnal you do say the “n”.
  • Another word with a final silent “n” is hymn - a song you sing in church – not to be confused with an anthem, meaning a national song, e.g. God Save the Queen, the National Anthem of the UK. (The national anthem is often played on state occasions, at major sporting events and at some cultural events such as the Last Night of the Proms, a concert of patriotic music held in the Albert Hall in London closing the annual season of Promenade concerts.)
  • If you opt for something, you choose it. (Think of the word option - a possible choice.)
  • I was going to start explaining what the autumnal equinox is. I then realised that I didn't really know what it was (a common situation for English teachers in class, who despite all appearances don't know everything) although I knew it was something to do with the position of the sun. So I looked it up and read about the autumnal equinox on Wikipedia which I suggest you do yourself - and see if you can fare any better. Note that its springtime equivalent is called the vernal equinox.
  • (See previous note) If you look something up it means you (try and) find it in a dictionary, encyclopedia, etc. The word fare in the phrase to fare well / badly / better / worse means do or succeed / fail, e.g. The governing party fared badly in the election, losing to the main opposition party by 23%.
  • trust their own senses: Your senses include your sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. If you trust your (own) senses it means you rely on the physical impressions you receive from the world around you (e.g. if you see the leaves turning yellow this a good indication that it is autumn)
  • Bureaucratic: always with a negative connotation in English. The nouns bureaucracy and bureaucrats are generally used with the implication that all this "red tape" (a synonym for bureaucracy) isn’t really necessary. Note that civil servants in Brussels are often referred to disparagingly (in a rather offensive way) as eurocrats in British newspapers and by some politicians.
  • A calendar is a printed "book" with one page for each month showing all the days of the month in rows representing weeks. You usually hang a calendar on the wall and they can be illustrated with pictures of nature, cityscapes, Jennifer Lopez, etc. A diary is a small book you write your appointments in. (Be careful! This is not an agenda, which is, in fact, a list of topics you have to discuss at a meeting).
  • The seasons are spring, summer, autumn / fall and winter. If you buy a ticket to watch your football team during the football season or an annual train ticket this is known as a season ticket. “The season” is an old-fashioned phrase referring to the calendar of high class British sporting and social events, such as Royal Ascot, the Boat Race and various balls and parties (originally for aristocrats but now featuring a large number of celebrities, models and reality TV contestants).
  • A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in various combinations of stanzas (verses) and displaying complex rhyming patterns. (Both Shakespeare and Petrarch wrote sonnets). Shakespeare’s sonnets are a cycle of poems dealing mainly with love and mortality (death), which feature his famous “Dark Lady” (most probably not his wife). Sonnet 18 (arguably the most famous love poem in English opens with the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. (Thee means you and is the old “familiar” form of the 2nd person, equivalent to Italian “tu”. Note that shall is normally used – as here – in a question form to make a suggestion.) Shakespeare compares his lover to a day in summer, finding that she (or he, as some critics argue) is “more lovely and more temperate”. The image of “summer’s lease” refers to a legal contract for a house which has a fixed date on it. (People in Britain usually buy leasehold houses, which means that when the lease expires (ends) the property returns to the leaseholder. A lease is typically for 99 or 999 years, although leases for commercial properties can be as short as 15 or even 10 years. You can sometimes buy the lease, in which case the property is called freehold.) When Shakespeare says that the lease of summer "hath (has) all too short a date" it means that the summer ends too quickly. The summer also refers to the period in the lover's life when they are young and beautiful. Sonnet 18 concludes (finishes) with the couplet (a pair of rhyming lines – the standard way that Shakespeare ends his sonnets):

    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

    This means that as long as men (people) can use their senses and can read this poem then Shakespeare’s lover will continue to live through the sonnet – because when people read the poem they will think about the lover. (This linguistically complex and psychologically adroit (skilful) style is typical of Shakespeare’s sonnets and of Elizabethan poetry in general.


The days are getting shorter and the nights are drawing in; the leaves on the trees are turning yellow, red and brown; and nearly everyone has gone back to work or to school: it’s autumn. In the first of a series of articles English teacher Robert Dennis looks at some of the customs and festivals associated with the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

Click here to see the vocabulary notes for this article. There are also some comprehension questions on this page at the end of the article (and you can see the answers here).

Autumn or fall?
In British English we call this season autumn; in the United States it’s generally known as fall. If you’re a keen “fashionista” (and here in Milan that covers most people) you will notice that some brands have an autumn/ winter collection, while others opt for a fall/winter one. (The collections, of course, have been presented long before autumn - or fall - arrives). Luckily, spring and summer have the same names on both sides of the Atlantic.

When does autumn actually begin?
There are, in fact, “official” dates for when the seasons start: technically, autumn starts at around the time of the autumnal equinox (21st September). However, most people will probably trust their own senses rather than a bureaucratic calendar to tell them when the seasons change.

The end of summer always seems to come quite quickly. As Shakespeare noted in Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) "summer’s lease hath all too short a date”. Perhaps because it signals the end of the holidays and the return to normality, we all psychologically will the summer to continue; but it never does. For me, seeing shop windows full of new school uniforms, pencil cases and geometry sets is the sign that summer is about to end and the autumn set to begin.

Even though it is closer to the end of the calendar year, autumn marks the beginning of the academic year for schools and universities. It is also the period when politicians return to Westminster after the party conference season for the pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament (when the Queen rides in a gold coach drawn by six white horses and reads a speech written for her by the Prime Minister). This is also when the Jewish New Year begins, the Hindu festival of Diwali is celebrated and the month-long fast of Ramadan occurs.

But maybe the most dramatic change that really marks the end of summer and the start of autumn proper is the end of British Summer Time (BST) when the clocks go back one hour, returning to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT): the sudden, premature curtailing of the day earlier in the evening has the psychological effect of a curfew or blackout being imposed; in effect, the long summer nights have been cut in half and there is little attraction in braving the low temperatures and gloom of the night simply for the benefit of being outside. (Although if you’re in the centre of Milan at this time of year you can sit under a canopy outside one of the swanky bars in Corso Vittorio Emmanule II (a pedestrianised shopping street near the Duomo) and roast in the crimson glow of a patio heater while you sip your coffee – and breathe in other people's cigarette smoke, which (thankfully) is unnecessary if you are inside the bar itself.)

Read the vocabulary notes for this article.

Comprehension questions for Autumn:
How much of this article did you understand? See if you can answer these questions and then look at the answers:
  • What does it mean if you say the nights are drawing in?
  • What are customs?
  • What’s the difference between autumn and fall?
  • When does autumn officially begin?
  • Why (according to the article) does the summer seem to end too quickly?
  • Which events traditionally take place (happen) in the autumn? (Some of these are covered in other areas of the Milan English blog).
Click here now to see the answers to these comprehension questions.

Check out the vocabulary for this article or read the next article in the series: Autumn: Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Vocabulary for Milan English blog

Here are some of the most useful phrases from Milan English blog with explanations and language notes.

based in
If you are "based in" a country, city or town it means you live and work there.
I am based in Milan.

check out (phrasal verb)
This means to look at / examine / try / sample / evaluate.
Check out this article on British English v American English.

This means "now / at the moment" (attualmente in Italian). Don't confuse this with "actually" which means "really" (veramente / infatti / davvero etc).
Fluent (as in "She speaks fluent English" translates Italian "corrente".

Janice is currently based in Singapore.
I thought he was single, but actually he's married.
Keith is a fluent Portuguese speaker.

British English vs American English

Nations divided by a common language?
Trousers or pants? Lift or elevator? Colour or color? Are you confused by the differences between British and American English? Here’s a handy guide to help you understand and use English on both sides of the Atlantic:

It is often said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. Yes, we both speak English: but sometimes there seem to be more differences than similarities between the way the language is used on either side of the Atlantic.

Trousers or pants?
One of the most common areas of confusion is in the words we use for clothes. For example, an Englishman wears trousers, while an American wears pants. In Britain ‘pants’ are what you wear under your trousers, but American men wear shorts. But just to make things really confusing, ‘shorts’ are what the English wear when they play sport, while in the US people wear short pants.

Just as confusing is what you wear to work. In Britain an executive wears a jacket; but in America this would be called a coat. Now, an English person also wears a coat – but this is the long garment you wear over your suit in the winter. Some men wear a waistcoat in Britain (a “jacket” without sleeves) under their jacket; Americans wear a vest. As you can see, lot of the confusion comes from the fact that the same words are used on both sides of the Atlantic with different meanings.

Chips with everything
Food words can cause a lot of problems as well. The English, as everyone knows, enjoy eating fish and chips. But if you ask for chips in America you will get thin slices of potato fried in oil in a bag, which we call crisps. To get (British) chips in the United States you should ask for fries (or French fries).Our biscuits are called cookies in America, and what we call jam (preserved fruit you put on bread) is jelly in the US. (Our ‘jelly’ is American jello – a wobbly dessert often served at children’s parties).

Drive my car (or automobile)
Americans have two words for a car: the word ‘car’ itself (which we use) and the rather grand-sounding automobile which is hardly ever used here. (An old-fashioned word for car in Britain is motor-car, but no American would use this). If you want to look at the engine of the car you need to open the bonnet (at the front); an American opens the hood. At the back there is the boot (English) or the trunk (American) where you put your luggage. And if you want to go anywhere you need to put petrol in your car here in Britain, while “over there” in the States you need gas (or gasoline).

The first thing to note about buildings in the US and the UK is that American buildings are one floor shorter than British ones. (Or to be more precise, our ground floor is their first floor, our first floor is their second floor, etc). English people who live in the city usually have a flat; the equivalent in the States is an apartment. To reach your flat / apartment you might climb the stairs – but it’s quicker if you take the lift (GB) or the elevator (US). Oh – and if you need to “answer the call of nature”, ask your host for the toilet (UK) or the bathroom (US). (This can be quite confusing for Brits, as it sometimes sounds like their American guests want to take a bath. It gets even more confusing when Americans ask for the rest room – which is just another way of avoiding saying the word ‘toilet’, which many Americans find very embarrassing).

Just seen or just saw?
Most of the differences between British and American English are differences of vocabulary. There are, however, some small but important grammatical differences as well. The main one is that while an English person would say, “I have just seen him” (present perfect), an American can say, “I just saw him” (past simple). (If you say this in a British English class, your teacher will probably correct you – because we don’t use the past simple with words like just and already – we use the present perfect.

How do you spell that?
There are also some important spelling differences. Some nouns that end in –our in British English (e.g. colour, honour, humour, labour, etc) lose the ‘u’ in American English: color, honor, humor, labor. Travelling in Britain is traveling (with one ‘l’) in America. You will also find that some verbs ending in –ise in British English (e.g. specialise) nearly always end in –ize in American English (specialize). (Although you can spell specialize with a ‘z’ in British English as well).

A game of two halves
Both Britons and Americans have a game called football. Our game (played by nearly every country in the world) uses a round ball and you kick the ball into a net. In America this is called soccer. American football is more like rugby, with an oval-shaped ball that you can touch with your hand. While rugby has yet to make any impact in America (probably because American football is so well-established), soccer is becoming increasingly popular (especially since David Beckham joined LA Galaxy). Soccer in America is seen mainly as a game for children (who are often taken to matches by soccer moms – middle class women with children). A significant cultural difference between our two countries is that the concept of the football hooligan doesn’t yet exist in the US.

Global language
As you can see, there are quite a few differences between British and American English – and with more new words being added to the language almost every day, the list of differences keeps growing. Of course, British English is like every other language in the world since many American English expressions (e.g. coffee-shop rather than café, and movie as an alternative to the more British film) are becoming standardised in the language. (Or should that be ’standardized’?)

© Robert Dennis 2007

Pictures of Milan

Check out (look at / examine) some of my photos of Milan on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, and read the comments / captions. (The Italian words stamped over the images are all verb forms, which I used as watermarks).

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Choosing a good dictionary

If you are serious about learning English, it's a really good idea to invest in a modern monolingual (English-English) learner’s dictionary. As you would expect for the “global language” there is a huge market in English dictionaries for learners. It’s not vitally important which one you choose because most of the learner's dictionaries from the major UK publishers are quite similar. Two of the most popular, however, seem to be the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) and the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) so I’ll make a few observations here about these two bestsellers, but my comments can apply generally to any learner’s dictionary you may be considering buying.

As with most products aimed at a mass market the Longman Contemporary and Oxford Advanced learner’s dictionaries are both much of a muchness (similar). (If you are interested in marketing you will probably recognise a very familiar phenomenon: that the market leader and market challenger (or follower) distinguish themselves in terms of additional features and branding because they are essentially the same product or commodity.)

Go into the bookshop and compare some different dictionaries. Selecting a dictionary is a bit like choosing a mobile phone: most of them have similar functions and design features, but you have to go with the one that feels right for you. You can actually develop a very personal relationship with a dictionary – you will spend a lot of time thumbing and leafing your way through it; you may carry it round with you; and at odd moments you can often find yourself flicking through it at random, spotting unfamiliar words and re-reading definitions of words you already know – but with the added depth and richness of familiarity that comes with studying English over time. (It’s a bit like fiddling with your mobile phone when you’re waiting for a train and by chance you discover the function that turns predictive text on and off or changes the menu language to Finnish – which of course makes it almost impossible to change it back to the original language).

A key consideration when buying a dictionary is the size – and the weight! Are you going to carry it round with you in your bag? Is it going to sit on your desk within easy reach when you are studying? It may perhaps be a good idea to have a larger desk dictionary for home (or at the office) and a smaller one that you can keep on you when you’re out and about. (If you have an iPhone, a smart-phone or a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) you can also download software for accessing a portable, mobile dictionary).

As with all self-study materials, the basic rule of thumb is go and look at the books, pick them up and find something you like. Ask your friends and colleagues if they can recommend useful resources. (And, of course, if you find something really good, don’t keep it to yourself. Post a comment here on the Milan English blog!)

Note: You can access both of the dictionaries discussed here by clicking on the links above. Both have websites that allow you to search for any word in the dictionary and get (complete?) results, including pronunciation.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Welcome to the Milan English blog

Hi! This is the first post on the Milan English blog, created by Robert Dennis, an English teacher based in Milan. If you are studying English - or if you are an EFL teacher - you may find this blog useful. (The level of the language is quite high, so beginners may want to try something a little easier.)

The Milan English blog will cover lots of English-related topics, such as:

  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Using English
  • Where to find online materials
  • Self-study resources
  • Links to useful English-language websites and blogs
  • Cultural notes and discussions about Britain and the US
  • Anything that crops up (Phrasal verb: happens / appears by chance) in class

Please feel free to comment, ask questions about English, make suggestions about how to use the material on this blog and post links to anything you think other learners (or teachers) might find useful.

A few quick points about netiquette (good manners on the web):

  • Keep comments relevant and related to English, learning English and related topics.
  • This is a publically-viewable blog, so anything you write here can be viewed by anyone.
  • In the spirit of Web 2.0 (the "social web") all the ideas and comments will be of benefit to people studying English anywhere in the world - so if you comment here you are contributing to a global conversation about English.
  • Talk about yourself and your interests, but remember that once that you publish something to the web anyone can read it - and it will always be out there.
  • Obviously, avoid making derrogatory or inflammatory remarks that could cause offence.
  • Please respect copyright. Don't cut and paste huge chunks of copyright material from existing websites or blogs. Write a short introduction and use a link to the site or blog you are referring to. (Similarly, if you reading this on the web, please don't copy whole blocks of text. Show some link love by using a hyperlink to the Milan English blog. Thanks.)

Have fun! The most important thing about learning English is to enjoy it. Get involved in the discussions, ask an English-related question and practise expressing your opinions.

I hope you will find this blog useful and I welcome any comments or queries you may have about any of the English topics raised here.

Best wishes,
Robert Dennis

Milan, October 2009