Friday, January 24, 2014

Newly Popular Words from 2013

Happy 2014, everybody! Every year at this time, I like to look back at how English has changed—especially, the new vocabulary I have noticed being used. Here is my annual list of newly popular words from the past year.

Many of these new words are slang and will probably sound old-fashioned in a few years. The one I've heard the most is “cray cray” (a shortening of crazy crazy), meaning really crazy. Another popular word is “soof”, an acronym for “Swear On Our Friendship” that is used to emphasize the speaker is telling the truth. “Salty” is a now used to describe someone who is bad-tempered or annoying.

I also hear young people calling their friends “fam” (short for family) instead of the well-known “bro” (short for brother.)

Many words were popularized by the media. The Oxford Dictionary chose “selfie”—a self portrait usually taken with a cell-phone camera—as their word of the year. Even Obama and Pople Francis were seen taking selfies. It beat out “twerk”, the sexy dance move where you squat and thrust you bottom up and down, made famous by Miley Cyrus at the MTV Awards.

Several new words this year were portmanteaus (combining two words into one new word.) The big tech trend for 2014 is predicted to be oversized smartphones or “phablets”—phone + tablet. Another new portmanteau is “glamping” (glamour + camping), which is camping with more comfortable accommodation and facilities.

Some new words have been created using traditional suffixes (letters added to the end of a word to create a new word.) “Bigorexia” is the obsession to become more muscular. And “nomophobia” was created from no-mobile-phone phobia to describe when a person is afraid of being out of cell phone contact. We can also use the related adjective “nomophobic” and the noun for a person with the condition, “nomophobe”.

Some “new” words are actually old words with a new meaning. “Fade-out” has traditionally meant the technique in film where an image or sound gradually disappears; today it can also mean when lovers or friends slowly stop meeting and communicating with each other. And “sketchy” has come to mean strange, suspicious, dangerous, or illegal in addition to its traditional meaning of lacking details.

The English language has a long history changing nouns into verbs (just read Shakespeare), and this has created new words such as “showrooming”—the practice of looking for a product in a shop before buying it on-line—and “astroturfing”—hiding an organized political or corporate campaign as a popular movement.

There were a couple of words for money that became popular in 2013. “Bitcoin” is a purely virtual currency, but now some stores accept bitcoins for purchases and there are even bitcoin ATMs. A word that's more likely slang is “guap”, used to mean a lot of money.

Listen for these words in 2014; I'm sure you'll be hearing them more and more.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to Improve Your Listening Skills

Listening is the most difficult language skill to learn. When we read something, we can go back and read it again, and use a dictionary for difficult vocabulary. When we speak, we control the speed, grammar and vocabulary of the message. But, when we listen, the speaker chooses the message and usually we only have one chance to understand the meaning.

Unfortunately, listening is also the most important language skill to learn. Without listening there is no communication. We receive much more information through listening than we do through reading.

So, what can you do to improve your listening? As with every other skill, it comes down practice, practice, practice!

  1. Try to have English in the background all the time when you are at home. This can be a TV news channel or talk radio. You don’t have to listen to it, but it will help you get a feeling for the rhythm of the language.
  2. The internet is a great source of listening material. You can download podcasts or watch Youtube videos. If you listen to things you really enjoy, you are more likely to understand them.
  3. Find lyrics on the internet to English songs that you like. Then read them as you listen to the songs.
  4. English movies are also an excellent way to improve your listening skills. First, watch them without subtitles and a second time with the subtitles on.
  5. Borrow audio books from the library. You can listen while reading along. If you have time, you can even take notes while listening. Then, compare the passage in the book with your notes.

More Listening Tips
  • When listening to people, focus on what they are saying, and avoid distractions. Using body language to show that you are listening can help you to pay attention. Repeating words in your mind is a good way to stay focused too.
  • Try not to translate English speech into your language. This will distract you from the speaker and you will miss much of the message.
  • With longer speeches, listen for the main idea and don’t get stuck on the details. Listen for key words to help you understand the general idea.
  • “Listen” to people’s body language as well as their words. Over 80% of communication is nonverbal.
  • Occasionally, ask questions or summarize what the speaker says. You can ask “What do you mean by...?” or say “So you mean....”
  • Reading can also help you improve your listening. Pick up one of the free newspapers everyday and read articles that interest you. By increasing your knowledge of current events and your vocabulary, it will become easier to understand what people are talking about.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Public Speaking

"There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars."—Mark Twain

According to the book of lists, the fear of speaking in public is #1—the fear of dying is only #7! Yet, in every English class, students are forced to stand up in front of their peers and make a presentation. What can you do to control those fears?

First, you need to know what you are talking about. If you don’t really understand what you are saying, you will be more nervous. Be prepared not only for your speech, but to answer questions about it. Also, use language that you normally use so that you won’t forget what to say.

If it’s available, use a projector with PowerPoint slides of your main ideas and visuals to support them. This can help you to get your message across, because the audience can see your points as you explain them. It also helps you to remember what your points are. Don’t write out your whole speech though; then nobody will need to listen to you. And don’t try to hide by speaking to your screen instead of your audience!

Practicing your speech is very important. Rehearse it out loud over and over again. If it’s a timed presentation, practice with a timer. If possible, try to practice in the actual location where you are going to speak and with any equipment you plan to use.

It’s a good idea not to rehearse on the day of your presentation, however. Try to do something else to help you relax instead. You can ease your stress by doing some stretching and some breathing exercises. Imagine yourself standing in front of your audience and speaking loudly, clearly and confidently.

When it’s time to speak, begin by addressing the audience and making eye contact with them. Remember that they are on your side—they want you to do well, too. They are hoping to hear something informative and interesting.

You will be nervous, but usually the audience can’t see that. They also don’t know what you are planning to say, so don’t apologize if your nervousness causes you to miss something—you’ll only be calling attention to it. Just go back and say what you had planned to say and move on. Nobody will know you made a mistake.

The more you speak in public, the more experienced you will become at controlling the butterflies in your stomach. Although the nervousness will never disappear completely, you will become a more confident speaker over time.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Students often ask me if they should take a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) English assessment test. The first question I ask is, “What do you need the test for?”

For immigration, the Canadian government will grant up to 8 points in language proficiency based on an IELTS score. Canadian universities now accept IELTS results, although many US universities will still only accept a TOEFL score. For professional accreditation, the TOEFL is still a little more accepted in North America.

There are two types of IELTS: an academic version and an easier general version. The TOEFL only has an academic test. If a general IELTS score is acceptable, do that test. This may even be possible when applying to a graduate school in Canada.

On the academic level, both tests are usually accepted today; so, deciding which one to take depends on individual strengths and preferences. Both the IELTS and TOEFL have 4 sections—reading, listening, speaking and writing—but the formats of these sections are different.

The TOEFL listening and reading sections use multiple choice questions, but the IELTS uses a variety of different question types. The TOEFL reading and listening passages are on academic topics, while the IELTS has a variety of topics. Also, the TOEFL listening passages use a standard American accent; however, on the IELTS test, many different English accents from around the world can be heard.

Both the IELTS and TOEFL writing sections have a short essay, but the IELTS essay is marked individually for word choice, grammar, logic, fluency and cohesion. The TOEFL essay, meanwhile, emphasizes overall clarity and does not penalize the odd grammar or spelling mistake. Both tests have a summary task, but the IELTS’ is based on a graph or chart while the TOEFL summary requires combining information from a short academic reading and lecture. One more difference is IELTS tasks can be written by hand, but TOEFL tasks must be typed on a keyboard.

It is on the speaking section that the two tests are most different. IELTS' speaking section is a face-to-face interview with an evaluator, but TOEFL test-takers speak into a microphone. Although the IELTS has a time limit, timing is flexible. On the TOEFL, speakers have a strict time limit and must finish exactly on time or be penalized. Also, two of the TOEFL speaking tasks are to summarize academic lectures; if a test-taker doesn’t understand the lecture, it is very difficult to speak for a minute about it.

One advantage of the TOEFL is that it is more structured than the IELTS and, therefore, practicing the test over and over will improve scores. The IELTS is harder to prepare for.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top 10 (Almost) New English Words

At the close of each year, we often see lists of new English words. Many of them reflect the events and mood of the year. For example, the word “funemployed”—people who welcome their new unemployed status as a vacation—became popular because of the economic crisis in 2009. Similarly, using “green-collar” to describe jobs which benefit the environment shows people’s increased concern for our mother earth.

Some of these new words will continue to be used and become standard English vocabulary; others will not. “Obamanation,” used by critics of the American president to describe those policies they disagree with (i.e. all of them), will become a side note of history once he is no longer in office. Likewise, “recessionistas,” who started looking for their fashionable clothes at chain stores in 2009, will begin shopping at pricey boutiques again as the economy improves.

Here are my picks for the top 10 of new words that I think will continue to be used over the new decade:

App: An abbreviation of application—software that performs a specific task—this word has been used by computer programmers since the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until Apple opened its App Store in 2008 that the word began to be used by everyone.

Bromance: A close relationship between two straight males, or “bros.”

Chillaxing: A blend of chilling and relaxing, it means really enjoying doing nothing.

Flash mob: A group of people organized through text messaging to gather at a specific location, perform a specific action and then leave—like the group that moonwalked at Dundas Square after Michael Jackson’s death.

Frankenfood: What critics call genetically modified food.

Freemium: A business model which offers free basic services, but value added services are sold for a premium. Skype uses this strategy.

Netbook: A small, cheap laptop.

Shovel-ready: An adjective to describe a construction project that can be started immediately. This word has become a favorite of politicians, especially those who are looking for money for a project.

Tweet: A noun or verb, tweet refers to an online posting by a Twitter user. In fact, I could write a whole column about all the new “twitter” words that appeared last year, but I won’t.

Unfriend: To remove someone from your friends list on a social networking site. It was named “word of the year” by the Oxford Dictionary.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Phrasal Verbs

Last week, the Canadian Academic Success School's Sunday Seminar was on phrasal verbs.

Here's an activity using phrasal verbs for the classroom. Give each student a copy of the following:

Find someone who:

1. _______________ resembles his/her mother.

2. _______________ checked his/her homework carefully.

3. _______________ tolerates the cold weather in Toronto.

4. _______________ borrowed a book from a library.

5. _______________ put something in the garbage.

6. _______________ didn’t come to class last time.

7. _______________ exited a bus at school today.

8. _______________ has the same name as

......his/her grandmother/father.

9. _______________ has shown a classmate a mistake in

......his/her homework.

10._______________ has finished this exercise.

Now, restate your answers using the phrasal verbs below:

check out
get off
get through
go over
name after
point out
put up with
show up
take after
throw away

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Math Memory Game

Preparation: On 3x5 inch index cards, write out 12 or 16 equations appropriate to the level of study. Each equation should be different, but pairs should have the same solution (eg. 4+8 / 15–3).

To Play: Place the cards face down in rows of four. Take turns turning up two cards at time and reading the equations aloud. If the solutions to the equations on the two cards are equal, the player keeps them and takes a second turn. If they do not match, the cards are replaced face down in the same position and the next player takes a turn. Don’t tell the players if they have a match. It is important that the players recognize matches themselves. Play until all the cards are matched. The player with the most pairs wins.