The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Recommended Brain Workout: Flex Your Multilingual “Muscles”

¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français? 你会说中文吗?
If you answered, “sí,” “oui,” or “会” and you’re watching this in English,
chances are you belong to the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority.
And besides having an easier time traveling
or watching movies without subtitles,
knowing two or more languages means that your brain
may actually look and work differently than those of your monolingual friends.
So what does it really mean to know a language?
Language ability is typically measured in two active parts, speaking and writing,
and two passive parts, listening and reading.
While a balanced bilingual has near equal
abilities across the board in two languages,
most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages
in varying proportions.
And depending on their situation and how they acquired each language,
they can be classified into three general types.
For example, let’s take Gabriella,
whose family immigrates to the US from Peru when she’s two-years old.
As a compound bilingual,
Gabriella develops two linguistic codes simultaneously,
with a single set of concepts,
learning both English and Spanish
as she begins to process the world around her.
Her teenage brother, on the other hand, might be a coordinate bilingual,
working with two sets of concepts,
learning English in school,
while continuing to speak Spanish at home and with friends.
Finally, Gabriella’s parents are likely to be subordinate bilinguals
who learn a secondary language
by filtering it through their primary language.
Because all types of bilingual people can become fully proficient in a language
regardless of accent or pronunciation,
the difference may not be apparent to a casual observer.
But recent advances in brain imaging technology
have given neurolinguists a glimpse
into how specific aspects of language learning affect the bilingual brain.
It’s well known that the brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant
and analytical in logical processes,
while the right hemisphere is more active in emotional and social ones,
though this is a matter of degree, not an absolute split.
The fact that language involves both types of functions
while lateralization develops gradually with age,
has lead to the critical period hypothesis.
According to this theory,
children learn languages more easily
because the plasticity of their developing brains
lets them use both hemispheres in language acquisition,
while in most adults, language is lateralized to one hemisphere,
usually the left.
If this is true, learning a language in childhood
may give you a more holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts.
Conversely, recent research showed
that people who learned a second language in adulthood
exhibit less emotional bias and a more rational approach
when confronting problems in the second language
than in their native one.
But regardless of when you acquire additional languages,
being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
Some of these are even visible,
such as higher density of the grey matter
that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses,
and more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language.
The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life
can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia
by as much as five years.
The idea of major cognitive benefits to bilingualism
may seem intuitive now,
but it would have surprised earlier experts.
Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap
that slowed a child’s development
by forcing them to spend too much energy distinguishing between languages,
a view based largely on flawed studies.
And while a more recent study did show
that reaction times and errors increase for some bilingual students
in cross-language tests,
it also showed that the effort and attention needed
to switch between languages triggered more activity in,
and potentially strengthened, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
This is the part of the brain that plays a large role
in executive function, problem solving, switching between tasks,
and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information.
So, while bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,
it does make your brain more healthy, complex and actively engaged,
and even if you didn’t have the good fortune
of learning a second language as a child,
it’s never too late to do yourself a favor
and make the linguistic leap from, “Hello,”
to, “Hola,” “Bonjour” or “你好’s”
because when it comes to our brains a little exercise can go a long way.

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►WRITE

1, 2, 3, Think, Read, Speak!!!

Like most students, Millenials or otherwise, mine love to stay current & be able to discuss the latest trends, so here’s a Think & Read three-pack I came up with to help the discussion flow & connect present to future technologically as well as linguistically. The texts below are taken from Content Loop, one of our latest favourites here at the ELB.

Have a fab Feb and keep your mind well fed with valuable information!

(Further reading suggested:

click the numbers pics 4 extra reads on senses, skating & L o V e <3.)



 THINK about your TOP 3 most annoying habits people have connected with technology in your opinion (like spending time checking the phone during face-to-face meetings) and think of ways people should/could change those habits.
READ this article on technology etiquette for the emerging generation, write down any tricky words, phrases & questions you might have for further discussion.


 No.THINK about the specific traits of our generation, the Millennials. (In what ways are we different from other generations?)
READ this article on  how to grab the attention of Millenials via email and compare your ideas against the ideas presented in the text. Would you read mails written in the styles suggested in the text? Which style(s) would you find more appealing? Why? Why not? Be ready to speak your mind on the issues you find most relevant to you, your life & living today.


No.THINK about the type of content/topics/styles/genres you like to read about and describe it/them briefly. Then try to analyse why  you are attracted to these types of content?
READ this text about the link between viral content and emotional intelligence. What do you agree and disagree with, and why?

Filed under: 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, ■ Communicate, ■ CONTENT LOOP, ■ Generations, ■ Inspiration, ■ Physics, ■ Relation ships, ■ Science & Technology, ■ Technology & Our Generation, ■ The W W WEB, ■ The World, ■ Thinking Space

Last Classes, New Ideas :)

Happy summer holiday 2013!!!

Happy summer holiday 2013!!!


This school year is rapidly drawing to a close, so I will take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful summer and to reassure you that the ELB is going to still benefit from new thoughts in the summer, just like before. After all, life’s lessons never seem to go on holiday like we do. They are always there, for us to take our pick and share. 🙂

I am writing this post below, to share some thoughts with you, yes, as I have been known to do,  on prejudice and intolerance, the lack of which will help us maintain and cultivate broad-mindedness. Or open-mindedness, if you will. 🙂 Now, what is different about this post is that, in truth, it hasn’t happened yet, by which I mean that the activities I will describe and the links I am about to recommend below are going to be put to work with the students in one of my adult learners groups later today for the first time. Imagine their surprise when I will disclose to them the existence of this article at the end of the class. 🙂 I will be back with impressions in a little while, so hang on.

“Things Should Be as I Think


I Know Best About This (Whatever This Might Be)”


The first two activities I have come up with sprang from a dialog I witnessed at a class one week ago between two of my students. The general topic of the dialogue was good manners around the world, and the more specific aspect discussed was ways of spending Christmas in Poland. I was surprised to discover how certain one of these students was about THE way of spending Christmas in Poland, the one and only PROPER way. The discussion turned out to be very insightful, as it showed that even open-minded people can have strict ideas and views on certain topics. There is, or there may be prejudice, my dears, even in areas we least expect it to appear. The good part is that once exposed hovering around some ideas in our minds, it can easily go out in a splash, like a candle blown out by a kid at bedtime.



– that you were offered an all-inclusive opportunity to travel to an area in your country or to an area that you have never visited beforein a poor country. What would you choose and why? 

– that you were living in a slum (a poor urban area in a big city, sometimes found in  developing countries). How would you feel? What would your celebrations/ anniversaries look like? Would you miss anything?

– that you are a CNN reporter who is given an assignment to interview one of the following people: a trainer from India, an Australian writer or a famous person in your country. Who would you choose to interview and why?


Use the words below to frame or express your own idea about your outlook on the world, on personal success, values and lifestyle:

passion           (a sense of)  purpose             humour              the voice within                   generations                

inhibitions                failures                 disabilities                         problems                          

(passing on) legacies                  (ways of )speaking                  sensitivity (to various issues)                   

Would you cross out any of these words as unnecessary? How about adding anything else to the ones you selected? Explain.


Watch the recently published TED video below (one of the 29,409 vids currently on the TEDx Youtube channel), in which the stand-up Indian comedian from Bangalore, Sandeep Rao, uses the concepts in Activity 2 above, to shape his own view of life and living. 

Do his views differ from yours? In what ways?


This is another video to watch and analyse, which is the second part in a CNN series called Talk Asia. It is a very special video to me, because it is a brief, 9-minute guided tour of the Indian universe described in one of my favourite books, Shantaram, a tour given by the author himself, the Australian-born,  controversial and very charming Gregory David Roberts.

There are a zillion questions I could think of asking after watching this video, but the ones that I would probably go for at my class, a few hours from now, are:

  • Can Christians, Muslims and Hindus celebrate together? Can people, in other words, celebrate together if their beliefs, background, and outlooks are very different?
  • Would you like to be able to be “adopted” by a society that is very different from the one you were born in?
  • Do you think you would be able to “adopt” someone who comes from a society very different from yours? How would you welcome them into your world as you know it?
  • How long do you think a society can last? Can societies disappear completely or do they change into something else? What can they change into, if they do and how are these changes possible?

* * * 

Enjoy and be back for extras!

Good day to you all!

 Alina Alens

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►LIFE, ■ Celebrations, ■ Christmas, ■ Compassion, ■ Empathy, ■ Gregory David Roberts, ■ Inspiration, ■ Meet my friends, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ The Path of Metaphor, ■ The Voice Within, ■ Travel, ■ Voice Matters, ■ Writers, ►META PHORS▼

Happy New Year 2013!!!

Alina How would you

fill in my New Year’s wish below?

Solve and apply! 🙂

“May the ………………… ( best / worst ) of 2012 be the …………………. ( best / worst ) of 2013 – in test scores and much more!”

Done? 🙂 Good work! 🙂

Kliny Christmas Talk - 14.12.12 - 11 

Christmas Thoughts is a PowerPoint presentation of a talk on Christmas I delivered two weeks ago, to be downloaded for your delight and inspiration.  

Happy New Year, everyone!!!


Filed under: 2►READ, 9►EXTRA, ■ Celebrations, ■ Christmas, ■ Talks & Conferences

Back to School

Catching up with old colleagues, summer plans and post-summer thoughts for the future, all while meeting the new-comers, getting your schedule set. Truly, September is all about getting back into business, regardless of whether you’re a teacher or a student.  Top that with some yummie pizzas, a view of the Siberian Ural Mountains and their beautifully peaceful lakes, and a presentation about the use of “Ah!” suspense in teaching and there you have it, the beginning of a new year. There are still a few days before I’m going to meet my new Kliny students, which, everybody knows, is when the real fun begins, so, in the meantime, I’m off picking up some remarkable brains at the conferences and workshops that never seem to let the teaching community down in the busy month of that same old cloudy September.  At the workshop artfully led by Mr Gregorz Spiewak today, we slalomed past eight suspense-filled activities that opened new trails to more creative lesson content and filled our inspiration baggage with thoughts like 1000 ways to fill in these gaps:

“The world is controlled by (1)……………….. (let’s say: teachers) with the help of (2)………………. (maybe, an arsenal of pedagogical purposes, why not?)…” and so on.

Joking aside, and there WAS a lot of laughter we gave in to today, my favourite activity was the so-called “mental” dictation, which can be used to reconstruct images such as a famous painting of your liking. What you have to do is make sure you keep this painting of your choosing a secret until the very end, while spoon-feeding the students descriptive sentences only, one  after the next, asking them to imagine and possibly add more visual details to them, progressively. This activity reminded me of a little experiment of one of my University literary theory professors’. At one of our lectures I and my colleagues were asked to describe the sweet little Red Riding Hood. How does she look? Hmm, she’s tiny, wears braids or one pony-tail, she might be blonde, red- or even dark-haired. We were speculating on various possibilities until we soon enough realised  what the point of the exercise, or experiment, as you may wish to call it, actually was. You’ve guessed, it’s the “imagining” part that is the most important, and this is an utterly personal experience, different with every reader.  This, my friends, is the beauty of reading. From experience, I can say the same about reading your own writings – more on the topic later,  here and there. The musing and sense of wonder remains, that’s a given.       

What’s next on my brain-picking list? The very interesting workshops at the ELT Pearson Conference scheduled tomorrow – see the scheduled activities below, movie treat included! 

 10:30 – 11:30

              Speak Out! Successful Communication in the Classroom, Robert Dean

 12:00 – 13:00 Grammar Practice is Boring – or is it?, Daniel Brayshaw
 13:30 – 15:30    

Cinema treat, where we’ll be watching:

Rebecca Hall-Led Chiller’s “The Awakening”

Haunted by the death of the fiancé, Florence spends her time debunking supernatural claims, using methodical and rational explanations to disprove the notion that the dead can still haunt us. She feels compelled to accept a request to go to Rookwood, a boarding school in the countryside where a boy has recently been found dead and rumours about a ghostly boy haunting the school are causing panic amongst pupils and parents alike.

and the ELTea MASTERS IN ACTION Conference recommended and organised by Mr Grzegorz Spiewak himself, and the DOS Training Solutions team this coming Sunday in Krakow. 

ELTea Masters in Action autumn 2012 – to mark the start of the new school year, we are bringing the very best that Canada has to offer the world ELT: the one and only Ken Lackman, with a practical-ideas-packed programme on teaching vocabulary. Totally unmissable! 

 Brain picking, anyone? Some herbal ELTea, maybe?

Filed under: 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, ■ Conference Speakers, ■ Talks & Conferences

Inspiration::Summer 2012

A little while ago I got this lovely message from my former Jagiellonian student, Patrycja, which brought back wonderful memories of my first year of teaching English in Poland (2006-2007).

Hey, Famous Alina! 😀
I haven’t heard from you for a long time and lately, I don’t know why, the thought of you keeps popping in my head. So, because I am a fond reader of Coelho’s books, and because I have been your student , I feel like I need to tell you (write to you would be more accurate :P) that you have been one of these people who really and truly inspired me. I am pretty sure it may seem funny and bit chaotic, but sometimes the world gives you signs and I think I am having a sign that I should assure you that you are an inspiring person! So I hope everything is excellent in your life. 🙂Hugs!

Most definitely one of the most inspiring students I have had the pleasure of teaching, Patrycja is an extremely resourceful person, brimming with optimism and enthusiasm, with a confessed love for English language, and a passion for sharing her knowledge in this field.

In her second year as a Law student at the Jagiellonian University where we met, she set out to organise an English camp for the young students she was privately tutoring at that time, and invited me to join her in what looked like a pioneering summer adventure. I happily agreed, and what followed was an experience to be remembered. From the location – a wonderful little mansion in the picturesque village of Marcowka, the general atmosphere to the tailored daily activities and the last day festivities, the English camp organised by Patrycja in 2007 was a great success. Personally, I may add, Marcowka is the birthplace of one of my favourite poems from my debut book of poetry, which you can read here.

The memory of this first camp experience on Polish soil 🙂 is all the more  dear to me at this time, a few days before starting on a new adventure with yet another English camp, this time organised by the Kliny English Courses School in Bieszczady. I will be back with photos, new memories and impressions from the camp in July.

In the meantime, there is room for celebration, as Kliny English Courses, the school I have been cooperating with since 2011, celebrates twenty years of excellence in English language teaching in Krakow.

Inspiring, isn’t it?    

Filed under: 1►TO DO, 2►READ, ■ Inspiration, ■ Meet my friends, ■ Thinking Space

Read and Rate: Role Models

Have you ever felt inspired by someone? Who was it and why?

Read what my young and talented Kliny English Course students wrote about their role models.

Rate the three compositions below and share your own role model with other English learners by leaving a comment with your view on the topic. Have fun!


 I have decided to write about

my grandfather

who is my role model because of his charismatic personality.

 He is the funniest and the most easy-going person that I know. With his jokes and amazing stories from his life he always makes a nice atmosphere  so that everyone around him feels good. My grandfather is a  painter, so he is really creative and imaginative too. Now a former teacher, he  knows  how to be patient, and when I want to talk with him about my troubles, he  listens to me carefully and always gives me good  advice.

 I think that I am really lucky because I have got the best grandfather in the world!


My role-model I decided to write here about

my sister.

She has got very long hair which I would like to have as well, because long hair is

funny. She is very obedient, never rude and I want to be like her because parents buy presents to obedient children. She is very moody and I’m going to be just like that, because moody people have lots of friends. She is very ambitious and determined and I hope I will be too one day, because people who are ambitious and determined usually have good grades. She is very social too, and maybe I will be as social as she is, because I will get on well with my friends. However, I don’t like her very much and this makes it all rather difficult.


My role model is

my mom.

She’s really responsible and ambitious because she has own dressmaking company. Of course sometimes she is really as stubborn as I am, and sometimes we argue, but I love her.  And what I like best about her is that I think she’s sensitive. I don’t know why she is the way she is, but I know that I want be like my mom in the future. The End 🙂

Filed under: 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 6▼ Questionnaires

Is it wrong to speak with your mouth full?

I came across this interesting post by David Crystal, who discusses the case of a particular kind of speech: the mouth-filled speech.

You can read this DCblog article in full below.

A correspondent writes with an enquiry that needs to be quoted in full:

‘This morning I tried simultaneously to brush my teeth and talk.  I tried saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and the listener managed to understand my muffled ‘words’.  Actually, they could be thought less of words and more as pulsated approximations of words, three throbs with the first one neutral, the second a bit higher, and the third ending on a lilt.  Since the words ‘I don’t know’ are used so often in English, it wasn’t difficult for my listener to guess what I meant.  And that got me thinking, how much does this sort of ‘speech’—hummed, or pulsated approximations of real words— factor into the English language, as well as others?  I imagine that for any language, the most common words and phrases would, even if intonated in such a ‘muddy’ manner, still be understood because of their familiarity and frequency of use.  Is this sort of speech ever used for histrionic or comic effect?  Or have any authors ever exploited it for inventive literary purposes?’

This is an area which, in phonetics, would fall under the heading ofparalinguistics – though I have to say mouth-filled speech isn’t one of the categories recognized when Quirk and I first studied vocal effects back in the 60s. It just didn’t turn up in the corpus – unsurprising, really, as ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’ is a (?universal) pragmatic prohibition that we learn from our parents at around age 3, and the recordings of relatively formal situations we were using then simply didn’t present the relevant situations. The surreptitious recording of bathroom or dining-room speech wasn’t a top priority at the time. 

It’s more than just politeness that’s at stake. There is a risk of choking. And unintelligibility. But etiquette is a dominant factor. Some people, if asked a question at exactly the point where they have taken a mouthful on board, simply refuse to speak until they have swallowed, which can produce an awkward silence in the conversation (though the mouth-filled one will usually use facial expression or hand gesture to explain what’s happening). Listeners understand the problem if they’ve been brought up in that way. (I muse over my parenthesis above. Is it etiquette in all languages? It is in all the language situations I’ve experienced.) 

Despite the lack of examples in corpora, mouth-filled speech is really rather common. I suspect most people do it, from time to time, in informal eating situations, when they feel the urgent need to make a point. And eating is only one of the relevant situations. Other examples, in addition to speaking while brushing the teeth, are 

– speaking while holding a writing implement in the mouth (while the hands are otherwise engaged), as I’ve often seen in business meetings
– speaking (or trying to) when the dentist, just having filled your mouth with implements, asks you if you had a nice holiday
– and relatedly, speaking after having had your gums filled with anaesthetic
– speaking with pins in the mouth, while sewing
– speaking with a pipe or cigarette in the mouth
– speaking with a hand or finger in the mouth, sucking it better after a hurt
– speaking with ill-fitting false teeth
– little (and sometimes not-so-little) children, sometimes try to speak while keeping a dummy (pacifier) in the mouth
– speaking with a decorative item in the mouth, such as a pierced tongue
– for boxers, speaking with a gum-shield
– in old-style elocution, speaking with a pebble in the mouth to improve one’s pronunciation – a technique supposedly used by Demosthenes to overcome a stammer
– more dramatically, movies regularly show us someone trying to speak with a gag in the mouth
– or talking while someone else is in their mouth, as with a passionate kissing scene. 

These situations are common enough to have made me role-play mouth-filled speech in listening comprehension exercises, when I used to do some EFL teaching in summer schools. Solo, I hasten to add, in view of the last example.

Linguists are well aware of the importance of avoiding situations where something interferes with natural speech production. Field linguists watch out for any physical limitations in their informants – it would be unwise, for example, to rely greatly on the phonology produced by an aged speaker who had lost all his teeth. And some of the semiotic transcriptions of body behaviour from the 1960s include symbols for such effects as ‘speaking through clenched teeth’, ‘speaking while licking one’s lips’, and ‘speaking with mouth pursed’. However, these are just general markers. I don’t know of any phonetic descriptions at the level of the segment.

Do authors do it? I haven’t come across any. They seem to leave the effect to the reader’s imagination. Here’s J. M. Barrie in A Widow in Thrums (Chapter 3): 

‘ “Ye daur to speak aboot openin’ the door, an’ you sic a mess!” cried Jess, with pins in her mouth.’

The character has that accent throughout; no special effort is made to represent the effect of the pin-holding. Here’s George Eliot, in Scenes of Clerical Life (Chapter 1): 

‘ “So,” said Mr. Pilgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, “you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday.” ‘

That sentence would certainly have sounded differently. And even Charles Dickens, so good at depicting the idiosyncrasies in an individual’s speech, leaves this effect to the reader, as in Nicholas Nickleby (Chapter 5): 

‘ “This is the way we inculcate strength of mind, Mr Nickleby,” said the schoolmaster, turning to Nicholas, and speaking with his mouth very full of beef and toast.’

A rare example of an author trying to represent the segmental phonetics of mouth-filled speech is Anna Pickard in The Guardian(27 April 2006) which begins:

‘ “Fankky, i’s ow-wajus. I fine i’ affo-uuti owajus. Va figiss … hangom, suwee, nee to swa-oh.” Frankly, it’s outrageous…’ 

And she goes on:

‘And what, I ask, is so wrong with talking with your mouth full? In an age where multitasking is a marketable skill, surely the ability to eat and keep up your end of the conversation at the same time should be positively commended. ‘

She specifies three benefits:

‘Time management
There simply isn’t time in the day to set aside a separate amount for eating and for talking. By combining the two activities, an incredible amount of time can be saved. Also, none of your companions will ever need to ask what you had for lunch again. They will know, because they can see.

Portion control 
The process of eating while talking can do wonders for the figure. Anatomically speaking, the act of sucking in air for the talking while holding food in the oratory position should, in theory, bring more air into the food, thus inflating it, and making you feel more full (if slightly gassy). While this hasn’t been scientifically proven as far as I know, speaking as a university graduate, it certainly sounds like a convincing theory. My degree is in dramaturgy.

By the simple act of talking while eating, you can easily ensure that you will be memorable to everyone you meet. While what you were saying might have been otherwise forgettable, no one will ever forget you if you gave them a good eyeful of bolognese while you were saying it.’

It’s nice to have the opportunity of resurrecting this piece from the journalistic past.

If readers of this post have come across any other examples of mouth-filled speech, especially in literature and in languages other than English, I’d love to know of them, as I’m sure would my correspondent.

Filed under: 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼

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