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A great game to use in the English class is Taboo. While it’s very time-consuming to prepare (tip: get your students to write the cards themselves, so they have to think hard about related words), the students have tons of fun and it gets them to speak quickly.

Yet the best pay-off for me is hearing what is REALLY on students’ minds, when the time pressure makes them blurt out the first thing they can think of.

Here is a sampling of favorites:

1) When you take the elevator you are a ……

A. Wheelchair!

2) We all have it in our trousers.  (Me: Where is this going?!?!)

B. Cell phone! (Me: Phew!)

3) Americans are it!  (Me: Nobody can answer something like that!)

C. Overweight! (Me: Oh, COME ON!)

So for all the teaching about disregarding stereotypes, and speaking with care and political correctness, when the pressure’s on we can see what you’re really thinking!

Anyone else have favorite Taboo moments to add to this list?


“A” for Enthusiasm

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According to  an article on non-verbal communication, only 7% of communication is done through spoken words. That’s not great news for a language teacher.

55% occurs through body language. No wonder a firm handshake and eye contact are so important!

The remaining 38% of communication happens through the tone of your voice.

Now, I wonder if this is true for all languages, or just English. In German, it seems like people put more weight on the words themselves than on tone. If you say ‘That’s OK” in German, people nod and leave you alone. If you say “That’s OK” in English, we wonder, “Are you sure?? What’s wrong? Is it REALLY ok? It didn’t SOUND ok…”

My husband is an excellent cook, and loves trying out new recipes. A while ago he made a salad, and I am not the biggest salad eater, but this was divine. I could have eaten it all day. I told him it was the best salad I’d ever had.

Later that evening, he was expressing doubts about the meal:

“You didn’t like my salad very much.”

“What are you talking about?!”

“All you said was, ‘It’s the best salad I’ve ever had.’ But from my American wife, I expect, “IT IS THE BESSSTTTT SAALLADDD EEEVVEEEERRRRR!”

He used to tease me about my American enthusiasm (and get me in a room with my American friends, you will drown in exclamation marks…)  but I suppose he’s come to get used to it. For me, a simple, monotone “I like it” basically means it’s awful. There MUST be some emphasis on the “like” or even “love” to show any degree of preference. As far as I know, “Ich mag es” in German means you like it, no matter how you say it. (Native speakers, correct me if I’m wrong!)

So for every hour of English vocabulary I teach, should I be teaching 5 hours of American enthusiasm? (Or lack thereof – what if something is:                    THE.         WOOOOOORRRRRSSSTTTTTT?) How important is tone of voice when learning or teaching a new language?

What Do You See?

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What Do You See?

Photo © Michael Luger

As I wrote in Befriending the Beamer, I love me a lesson with an overhead projector. Since about Day 1 of teaching, when I discovered that foreign people automatically assume I am cool just because I used to live in New York City (sweet ignorance!), I have loved bringing in photos of the New York, and my hometown, so I can tell the students all about America.

I tell them all kinds of things, about the neighborhoods of Manhattan, the bagel toppings, the types of houses, the modes of transportation… They left the classroom with their heads stuffed full of info.

But then a few weeks ago a (non-teacher!) friend suggested that I show them a photo and ask them what they see.

Ask them?


I gathered some photos of seemingly simple scenes (all photographed by my amazing husband in Washington, D.C.) and showed them to a few different groups, from teenagers to nearly fluent adults. The output was incredible.

Take this photo. In my previous slide shows I would have narrated, “This is Arlington Cemetery,” and moved on. Enthralling. But I asked my students to list at least 10 things they could see. When they ran out of things they could list colors, shapes, dimensions, emotions.

Photo © Michael Luger

What did they see?

Shadows. White. Grey. A wall (hey, I didn’t see that!). Horizontal lines. A forest in the distance. Rows. Symmetry. Equality. Death. Sadness. Solitude. Soldiers. Marching. War. Peace. Death. Heaven.

I couldn’t write fast enough, filling the board with words.

Photo © Michael Luger

For this photo, at first it seems like the only logical response is “chairs!” but instead I got:


It was fascinating in each group to observe how the longer they looked at the photo, the closer they came to putting it in the right context. It went from “chairs” to “auditorium,” until someone detected the tiny blades of grass between the legs of the folding chairs. Outdoors. A wedding — no, too many people, and no aisle. A speech. Somebody famous is speaking. The Pope! With plastic folding chairs? The president. No… (Hint: it’s once a year.)

Well, I won’t give it away, but if you look long enough, perhaps you’ll see for yourself.

Befriending the Beamer

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Ah, Projector Day!

At most of the schools and companies I’ve taught at, the projector (or “Beamer” as German-speakers, and now I, forgetting it has a real English word, call it) is the Holy Grail of lesson planning. It is difficult to find (Does the school own one? Can I reserve it? Where is the sign-up sheet?) and nearly impossible to use (Are the right cables there? Do the cables fit my laptop? Is there a school laptop that works? Is the internet blocked in the building? Does the sound work) but if you persevere, you will be most rewarded.

However, the more experience I get (and I assure you, I am not pretending to be any sort of pedagogical expert, having a sum of zero hours of pedagogical training behind me; just trial and error, as my students can attest), the shorter my viewings become. At first it was full 90-minute films (with discussion questions, of course!), then 20-minute TV clips (note: intermediate students don’t really get jokes in the dialogue, but they LOVE seeing people fall down), and now a minute-long YouTube clip can spark enough conversation to last an entire period. Here are some of my favorite places to find good materials.

1), for example, is brilliant. I use the Super Chill Orangutan lesson as often as possible to review the different tenses. The best part is, there is no English at all used in the film. Just a soundtrack to a short clip showing an orangutan leaving his apartment to go to an audition, just like a regular aspiring actor in LA. Then the students have to use their own language (I suppose it’s easier to focus if they aren’t distracted by the dialogue) to narrate what he is doing: he is getting on the bus, he is sending a text message, etc. And watching an orangutan mail a letter is WAY better than repeating for the 10th time, “Sally IS MAILING a letter to John.”

2) Lessonstream got me thinking that any video that shows a lot of action (rather than dialogue) can be used for building vocabulary or reviewing tenses. Mr. Bean is a great example, or Monty Python (in fact, it’s probably better to show these clips with the sound off, as even I can’t explain all the British slang…). This Monty Python sketch is full of all those annoying verbs we use all the time but nobody bothers to teach you in class, like “reach” and “lean over” and “bounce”.

3) I have only used twice in a C1/C2 TOEFL preparation class, but the class loved it both times. We watched this talk and, though I had prepared questions for the entire thing, we could have spent an hour on the first three questions. After listening to several combined hours of “lectures” on the TOEFL preparation CD (some of which are really interesting, it’s true, but still they just feel so fake!) it was so refreshing for me and the students to listen to something equally challenging but at least real. The subtitles offered in several languages and interactive transcripts make them ideal for students to use at home. (Or so I think. I have yet to hear of anyone who has taken my advice and played one while cooking dinner.)

But I feel like I’m just a beginner in the world of technology. What other kinds of clips do you use, and how do you use them? I would love any feedback from students or teachers, though I find some of the best ideas come from those who have nothing to do with the education profession!


My Top Mistake

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Every now and then a student makes a hysterical mistake in class, prompting an outburst of laughter on my part. Usually the atmosphere is very positive and the students can laugh at their own mistakes too, but now and then I sense a bit of insecurity from the poor person who made the mistake, and I immediately regret making him/her feel uncomfortable.

That’s when I bring out the perfect antidote to their shame: My Top German Mistake.

1) Summer 2003. Family trip to western Austria. We are hiking around (notice I did not say “up”) the Großglockner, the highest peak in the Austrian Alps, when a sudden rainstorm comes through. We are near an information center and need to get quite a ways back to the parking lot where we left the car. I, with my straight-A+ report card in high school German, decide to take the initiative and ask the guy at the desk of they run shuttle buses between the information center and the parking lot.

Now, I wasn’t 100% about the plural form of “bus” and my pronunciation was not stellar, but I wasn’t top of my class for nothing, so I strode up to the counter and asked,

“Entschuldigung — haben Sie Busen?”

The large man’s face turned red, his eyebrows shot up and he stuttered, “N-n-nein!” I was perplexed at why he didn’t even have a bus schedule for me (some public transportation paradise!) when my brother, who also spoke German (at least the important words!), leaned over and said,

“Uh, Kate…? I think you just asked him if he had boobs.”






Welcome to Laughing Linguist

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Welcome to Laughing Linguist!

In 2007, I moved from the U.S. to Austria to become a teaching assistant for English as a Second Language. The first rule I was told at our orientation training was:

~ Never, ever laugh at your students. ~

Four-and-a-half years later, I have broken that Golden Rule perhaps hundreds of time. (What they should have told me was, ‘Don’t come to school with wet hair.’ Apparently, anyone outside of an American college campus thinks that’s gross.) Yet I think I might be a better teacher for all my outbursts. No, I am not an evil teacher who sets out to ridicule her students (like the kind everyone remembers having at some point in school). My frequent laughter in the classroom comes not from making fun of students, but from the pure joy of observing how much language can change situations. One wrong word, even syllable, can give a situation a completely different meaning, and it’s imagining these alternate realities that I find so amusing.

For me, this is what makes learning a language fun, something to look forward to every day or week. So I am all for more laughter — and yes, more mistakes! — in the classroom, because that means that students are taking more risks and realizing the power of their words.

Wow, that was a lot cheesier than I had intended…