English language skills

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 2)

In the previous part, we began discussing some benefits of taking an unconventional approach to language learning – watching English movies or programmes with English subtitles on.

Here are some more reasons why this method can be both entertaining and productive.  

4. Building vocabulary

If there’s one thing that almost all English learners wish to have, it is a wide vocabulary. And one of the best sources of conversational phrases and idiomatic language is films and programmes made in English. While watching them, you are likely to come across tons of phrasal verbs, phrases and colloquialisms of the street that native English speakers commonly use in everyday conversations. The added advantage here is that you get to experience vocabulary in context, so you’d have a fair idea of how to use the lexical items you learn.

5. Bettering pronunciation

English pronunciation could be a nightmare, especially if your first language is syllable-timed and the idea of word stress is something you’re new to. Listening to words pronounced the right way is the easiest way to improve your diction, which is what you get to do when you watch something in English with subtitles on. When you see as well as hear words, you tend to learn pronunciation a lot faster. What’s more, you also get to watch the mouth of the speaker move, helping you produce difficult sounds that are perhaps absent in your first language. Subtitled content is also an excellent source of various intonation patterns in English.

6. Improving word recognition and grammar

Quite often films and TV programmes use less formal English that is common among native speakers. Exposure to such content is a great way for a learner to get introduced to chunks that form a key part of a native speaker’s spoken language. These can be lexical chunks like fixed collocations (e.g. crying shame) or grammatical chunks (e.g. If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive). On seeing and hearing the same chunks repeatedly, your brain begins to gradually recognise patterns and process language in real time.

Watching a favourite movie of yours again is a good idea – since you already know the plot well, it allows you to focus on subtitles. We aren’t done yet, so do read the final part in this segment.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 1)

Learning a new language, whether it be English or any other, doesn’t have to be drab and stressful, at least not in this day and age. Thanks to modern technology, there are now many ways to make the whole experience engaging.

In this segment of the series on ‘Fun Ways to Learn English’, we’ll see how watching a movie, documentary, or web series, in English with English subtitles on can be an enjoyable way of improving your language. Here’s why you should consider the idea.

1. Improving listening comprehension

If you’re someone from a non-English speaking background, understanding native English speakers can be tricky. Movies and programmes in English with a subtitles feature are an entertaining way to work on your listening skills. Unlike audio materials produced for language learners, conversations in movies are done the exact same way they happen in real life – fast and without long pauses. So, use subtitled content to better your listening skills: watch a scene first without subtitles, and then watch it again with subtitles on to check comprehension.   

2. Increasing reading speed

When you watch something in English that is subtitled, you are relentlessly trying to connect the English you hear to the English you read on screen. Subtitles typically flash by, allowing the viewer very little reading time. That said, some practice should make it easier to keep pace with the text. Little by little your brain learns to adapt to the task, that is speed reading, and you get quicker at deciphering information.   

3. Learning to speak naturally

If you live in a non-English speaking country, it might not always be easy to keep your English up-to-date. Occasionally, your English can sound a bit unnatural. Watching movies and programmes in English exposes you to the kind of natural language used in everyday situations by native English speakers. If you keep doing this over a period of time, it will help you avoid unnatural sounding language.    

If you’ve never tried learning with the help of subtitles, it may be best to start with short, subtitled videos; you wouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. We’ll be back soon with more on this topic.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 3)

So far in our series of blog posts on conditional sentences, we’ve discussed the zero, first and second conditionals.

In this final part, we’ll talk about the third conditional and then do a quick comparison of all four structures.  

Third conditional

Unlike the first and second conditionals, which talk about situations in the present or future, the third conditional is used to talk about a past situation that is unreal. In fact, we imagine a change in a past situation, where something did or did not happen, and then imagine a different result for it.

Examples

If Tom had played, he would have scored for sure.

If I had married her, I would have lived in Switzerland.

Sam wouldn’t have passed the test if his girlfriend hadn’t helped him.

The first example is about Tom, who did not play in a particular match. However, the speaker imagines just the opposite and then talks about an imaginary result, i.e. Tom getting his name on the score sheet. The third conditional is often used to express regret or to complain about something.

Structure

if + past perfectwould + have + past participle
conditional clausemain clause

Comparison

Even proficient language users would be quick to admit that it isn’t easy to get your head around the concept of conditionals. One thing to remember is to NOT focus on form, as it may be misleading. For instance, although the second conditional structure has the past tense, such sentences usually talk about the present or future.      

Here’s a quick comparison of the various conditional structures to help you decide when to use what:

ConditionalExampleTimeMeaning
ZeroIf you heat chocolate, it melts.AnyTalks about something that is always true
FirstIf I get this job, I’ll buy you a new phone.FutureTalks about something that is likely to happen
SecondIf I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari.Present or futureTalks about something that is unlikely to happen
ThirdIf I hadn’t drunk so much, I wouldn’t have got into trouble.PastTalks about an unreal past and its imaginary result

Conditional sentences can be hard to master, but remember, if you know how to use them well, you can talk about imaginary situations with confidence.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we began exploring conditional sentences, a set of grammar structures that describe situations and results. We also looked at some uses of the zero conditional.

In this part, we’ll take a closer look at the first and second conditional.

First conditional

The first conditional is used to talk about an imaginary situation in the future and its possible result. Even though the outcome here is likely, it is not guaranteed, as in the case of the zero conditional.

Examples

If it begins to rain, we’ll get a cab.

If you lie to the police, you might get into trouble.

You’ll miss your flight if you don’t wake up before sunrise.

Modal verbs other than will are sometimes used in the main clause to convey different shades of meaning. For instance, might can be used instead of will to show a slightly lesser degree of likelihood (see example 2 above).

Structure

if + present simplewill + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Second conditional

We use the second conditional to describe situations in the present or future that are imaginary. By choosing to use the second conditional, we are saying that the situation we are referring to is unlikely to happen in reality.

Examples

If I became president, I would abolish all taxes.

If I were you, I wouldn’t buy those shoes.

I would marry him if I were single.

Remember, in the second conditional, when if is followed by the verb be, it is common to use were in place of was (e.g. if I were, if he were, if she were, if it were). In fact, in the English-speaking world, the phrase ‘if I were you’ often accompanies a piece of informal advice (see example 2 above). You can use it to tell someone what you think they should do in a particular situation.

Structure

if + past simplewould + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Although the conditional clause here has a past tense, it does not indicate past time. The use of past tenses indicates a distance from present reality, thereby making what is being said imaginary.

Do make sure you come back to read the final part on conditional structures.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 1)

There’s little doubt that the primary purpose of using language is to communicate thoughts and ideas, but this can only be done effectively if the user has sufficient grammatical competence.  Poor use of grammar can cause confusion, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in communication.

Not surprisingly, a candidate’s ability to use grammatical features with precision is something that all English language tests assess. One way to show off your grammar skills in a test is by using conditional sentences, a set of structures that can communicate a range of ideas.

Basically, a conditional sentence has two parts, which describe a condition and its result. The if-clause (conditional clause) talks about the condition, whereas the main clause tells us about the result. Here’s an example:

If you do your homework,I’ll get you an ice cream.
conditionresult

The example sentence above begins with the if-clause, followed by the main clause. Alternatively, you may begin a conditional sentence with the main clause and then add the if-clause.

I’ll get you an ice cream if you do your homework.

A change in the order of the clauses does not alter the meaning of the sentence in any way. The only difference is punctuation: when we begin the sentence with the if-clause, we use a comma to separate it from the main clause.

There are several types of conditional sentences in English. Here, we’ll consider four basic structures that are commonly used.

Zero conditional

We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are generally true. What we mean to say by employing this structure is that something always leads to something else, and that the result is guaranteed. Zero conditionals are particularly useful for talking about scientific facts, or general truths connected to rules and laws.

Examples

If you heat iron, it turns red. (scientific fact)

If I drink tea at night, I don’t fall asleep. (general fact about an individual)

You get fined if you ride a motorbike without a helmet. (general truth connected to law)

Structure

if + present simplepresent simple
conditional clausemain clause

We’ll be back soon with another blog post on some more common conditional structures.  

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of three different types of noun – countable, uncountable, and collective.

Here are some more varieties that pop up in our everyday conversations.

Common and proper nouns

We use a common noun to refer to people, things, or places in a general sense. For instance, the word woman can mean any adult female, while the word restaurant can be used to talk about any place where you can buy and eat a meal.

By comparison, a proper noun refers to a specific person, thing, or place. It can be the name of an individual, a place, an organisation, etc. For instance, Emma Watson refers to a particular adult female, whereas Hard Rock Café is the name of a specific chain of theme restaurants.

As a general rule, proper nouns always begin with capital letters in written English. If a proper noun has more than one part (e.g. Martin Luther King, NOT Martin luther king), then the first letter in each gets capitalised.

Here’s a quick comparison to help you understand the difference between the two types:

Common noun Proper noun
woman Emma Watson
man Martin Luther King
city London
country Germany
restaurant Hard Rock Cafe
motorbike Suzuki Hayabusa

Concrete and abstract nouns

As the name suggests, a concrete noun refers to people or things that exist physically. In other words, they can be experienced using our senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Examples of such nouns include light, aroma, music, coffee, and cotton.

Abstract nouns, on the contrary, have no physical existence. They refer to ideas, qualities, and conditions, none of which can be experienced via senses. Words such as honesty, joy, friendship, sorrow, lies, and time are all abstract in nature.

Compound noun

A compound noun is formed by joining two or more words to make a single noun. It can be a single word, a hyphenated word, or two separate words. Here are some examples: sunrise, toothpaste, passer-by, mother-in-law, washing machine, fish hook.

Remember, a noun can fall into more than one category. Sydney, for example, is both a concrete noun and a proper noun. Being aware of various types of noun can help you use language more confidently and accurately.

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 1)

What is common to the words Philip, Melbourne, elephant, table, and love?

They are all nouns, words which are the central building blocks of English. It’s next to impossible to avoid nouns when using English, because we need them to refer to the subject of a sentence. A noun can refer to a person, a place, an animal, a thing, or an idea. Here are some quick explanations to help you understand some commonly used types of nouns.

Countable and uncountable nouns

In English, certain nouns are treated as separate items and so can be counted. For instance, we can count words such as camera (one camera, two cameras, three cameras, etc.), pen, book, and girl. We call such words countable nouns. They can appear in two forms – singular or plural. When a countable noun is in singular form, the indefinite article (a/an) is usually used before it.

Could I please have a pen? (Not Could I please have pen?)

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be treated as separate objects or items, as they are seen as a whole. Some examples of uncountable nouns are milk, juice, homework, luggage, advice, snow, feedback, and information. Naturally, such words are not used in plural form (milks, juices, homeworks, feedbacks). Also, the indefinite article (a/an) does not appear before uncountable nouns.

Could I please get some advice? (Not Could I please get an advice?)

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a word that we use to talk about a collection of people, animals, things, etc. as a single group. The words audience, family, team, police, orchestra, and council are all examples of collective nouns. One problem that learners face is to decide what verb to add after a collective noun – singular or plural. In British English, most collective nouns can be followed by the singular or plural verb, depending on the context. If in doubt, it’s best to consult a dictionary.

The next time you come across a new noun, try to understand what type it is. All good dictionaries list such information.

A Quick Guide to Articles (Part 3)

 

In part 2 of this series, we spoke of some situations when the definite article the is generally used.

 

Comparatively speaking, there are more rules for using the definite article than the indefinite variety, a or an. Another thing to remember is that the can appear before singular as well as plural nouns.

 

Here are some more rules to help you.

When to use the

6. Referring to an entire group of people

Examples:

The aged are generally reluctant to use any form of technology.  

[aged = a collective reference to people who are very old]

 

The Swiss are known for their ability to manufacture world-class watches.

[Swiss = a collective reference to citizens of Switzerland]  

 

7. Before the names of countries which have a common noun such as ‘republic’, ‘united’, ‘states’, or which sound plural

Examples:

Dubai is arguably the most popular city in the United Arab Emirates.

My cousin works in the Philippines.

 

8. Before the names of newspapers

Examples:

I met a journalist who works for the Independent at yesterday’s party.

The Sun is one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK.

 

9. Before the names of most hotels and restaurants

Examples:

I’ve booked us a table at the Canopy, owned by the famous chef Marcus.

Let’s meet at the Swan, the pub near Graeme’s house.

 

Remember, this rule does not apply if the hotel or restaurant is named after a person.

 

10. Before the names of families

Examples:

We’re having dinner with the Watsons tonight.

The Kanes are an amazingly talented bunch.

 

11. Before the names of rivers, seas, mountain groups, island groups, and deserts

Examples:

Debbie’s new apartment overlooks the Thames.

My uncle and aunt are holidaying in the West Indies.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world.

 

12. Before the names of most museums, art galleries, monuments, and famous buildings

Examples:

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is a spectacular structure.

Have you ever been to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra?

 

And here’s something interesting to end with: the definite article is pronounced differently depending on what word follows it. If it appears before a word beginning with a consonant sound, we pronounce it like ‘thuh’; if it is before a word beginning with a vowel sound, we pronounce it like ‘thee’.

A Quick Guide to Articles (Part 2)

 

 

 

In a previous post, we looked at the indefinite article, a or an, and when to use it. In this one, we’ll talk about the use of the definite article the.

 

When to use the

Unlike the indefinite variety, the definite article is used to talk about a noun that is specific. Its presence in a sentence suggests that the speaker and listener, or the writer and reader, both clearly understand which noun is being referred to.

 

Here are some situations when the indefinite article the is commonly used.

  1. Referring to something that has already been mentioned

Examples:

I had some pizza and a glass of lemonade. The pizza was so tasty!  

Did you know that a couple met with an accident right here yesterday? The woman is still in a coma.  

 

  1. Referring to something which the listener is already familiar with

Examples:

I’m going to the supermarket. Would you like something?

[The listener knows that the speaker is talking about a specific store, where they usually buy things]

 

Where is the cookery book? I can’t find it in the kitchen.

[The listener knows that the speaker is talking about a specific book which they usually keep in the kitchen]

 

  1. Before superlative forms (e.g. tallest, shortest, fastest, most beautiful), as there is generally just one in a group which can be the tallest, fastest, most beautiful, etc.

Examples:

My dad’s office is located in the tallest building in our city.

She is the most beautiful girl in my town.

 

  1. Assuming there is only one thing of a kind somewhere

Examples:

Excuse me, can you please direct me to the cafeteria?

[The speaker assumes that there is only one cafeteria in the area]

 

Let’s go to that new mall on Orchard Street. I’ll meet you in the car park at around 11.

[The speaker assumes that the mall has just one car park]

 

  1. Referring to unique people or things

Examples:

The principal has called for an emergency meeting.

[There is usually just one principal in a college/university]

 

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

[There is only one star by the name sun in the solar system]

 

The definite article is the most frequently used word in English, so we’ll be back soon with more on its use.

A Quick Guide to Articles (Part 1)


When learning a new language, the size of words doesn’t always matter. Sometimes using really small words accurately can be a real nightmare. Many English learners, for instance, find the use of articles confusing.

Articles – a, an, and the – are little words that go before nouns (i.e. person, place, thing, or idea). They help us identify if the noun we are referring to is definite or indefinite. A noun is definite when the speaker and the listener both know what is being spoken about. If not, it becomes an indefinite one.

 

Example 1: “Shall we watch a film tonight? How about an action flick?”

 

Example 2: “After a week, I watched the film again with my family at the local cinema.”

 

By choosing to use the indefinite article, a or an, we are referring to films in general: any film, or any action film. On the other hand, use of the definite article the indicates that we are referring to a specific film: the one the speaker saw a week ago.

As there are tons of rules stating when to use which type of article, and when to omit articles, learners commonly struggle with this area of language use. Here are some basic rules to help you better understand articles.

 

When to use a or an

Before getting to rules, it’s important to know the difference between the two indefinite articles, a and an. We use a before a word that begins with a consonant sound (e.g. nurse), while we use an before a word that begins with a vowel sound (e.g. engineer).

 

Now here are some situations when we generally use the indefinite article.

  1. Classifying people based on what job they do

Examples:

Katie’s sister is a nurse.

My daughter is studying to be an engineer.

 

  1. Referring to a singular countable noun which is not specific

Examples:

Can I have a pen, please?

[Any pen should do]

 

We should get ourselves a car.

[Any car, not one in particular]

 

Remember, we don’t use the indefinite article before plural (e.g. a nurses) or uncountable (e.g. an information) nouns. More about articles in later posts, so do watch this space.

 

Pin It on Pinterest