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Reading a document

December 9, 2016

Reading a formal document in a foreign language can be difficult, regardless of whether this is a legal text, or a report on some technical matter. This can hold true even for native speakers. Here are some ways in.

Before you read

Get an overview of the document as a whole (titles, headings, paragraphs, lists, appendices). Look for the structure of the document. There may be clues in the titles as to how the writer would like you to proceed.

Know why you are reading. Are you reading for a specific piece of information, or for gist?

Know what you are going to do with this information. Are you going to need to parse this to another with more or less technical knowhow, or is there a specific action which needs to be taken based on this document?

Ensure the font, and font size are comfortable. Your eyes will soon grow tired if you have to strain them. The more comfortable you are, the better.

As you read

Look out for lists. Example signal words are the following, if, either, or, none of, some of the above, such as

Match your expectations with the document. What are you expecting from the document? Is the document likely to agree with you? Is it based on a  standard purchase agreement or other contract?

Check for connectors. How the ideas are connected will inform you of their relationship. Typical connection words are for addition and, additionally, while, for contrast they are however, although,


If there are any key sections of the text which you are not sure about, use a coworker and tell them what you believe the document to mean. If they understand it, then you understand it. of course this is no guarantee that your understanding is the one intended by the author, but you are at least on the right path.

If there are any new words or phrases which particularly spark your interest, then put them into your language map and make a note to use them the next time you are in an appropriate situation.

Slow down your fast speakers

December 7, 2016

I often get complaints that speakers, and usually these are native speakers, are uncaring about the language and pace of language that they use. Some of these complaints even have the plaintiff blaming themselves for not understanding fast-paced and idiomatic language. 
Here is my take on the matter.

Firstly, do not blame yourself, it is your speaking partner’s job to make themselves understood. If they do not do this then they have failed, not you.

Secondly, here is a list of useful pieces of advice which may help you find a way to slow down your speaking partner.

1. Ask for repetition or rephrasing. If data is being exchanged, then repeat each unit of data before moving one. This is particularly effective for names and addresses and code numbers. 

2. Anticipate the answer. There are no surprises. If your question is what are the fees, listen out for a number and a term, such as “ten thousand dollars per year”, or if you are asking for directions, be prepared to hear directions phrases such as “turn left, then go straight on and the manager’s office is on the right.” 

3. Ask a  double-barrelled question leaving one of the barrels redundant for your purposes. An example is it looks expensive, what are the fees? Here the small talk comment in the answer (“we had it decorated recently”) is not necessary for your primary concern of the fees. 

I hope this helps. Let me know in the comments how you get on.


November 29, 2016

Sometimes life deals you with the unexpected or surprising. Here is an easy way in to express such new information.

I would not have thought/ expected/ known

The other side of this third conditional is “if you had asked me”

Here are a few examples

I wouldn’t have thought you were able to do that with only a few days’ training.

I wouldn’t have expected it to be quite so expensive.

I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told me.


Have fun with these now that you are ready to express your surprise.

​In or at the beginning and end

November 6, 2016

Well, both, actually. Here is the gen.

In the beginning is the precondition without which there cannot be the following. So in the beginning of Romeo and Juliette  (a well-known Shakespeare play) the are two families which despise each other. Without this hatred there would be no story. Compare this with at the beginning of Romeo and Juliette which is what happens, and you get Romeo falls in love with Juliette. This would not be a problem is the families were friendly towards each other. 

At the other end of the play you have at the end, which is what happens: at the end of the play both Romeo and Juliette die. The result of this tragedy is in the end, as in the end the two families are reconciled. It is the deaths which bring the families together. 

In summary

In is a condition, in the beginning we were asked to build a bridge. 

In the end is a result: in the end we abandoned the project. 

At is a place

At the beginning we carried out a careful study. 

At the end we encountered too many costs for our budget to cover. 
Usually you use at the beginning and at the end. Use in the end for the result of your efforts. 

​No surprises language planning

October 27, 2016

There are never any real surprises, only a lack of preparation. This has been said by many people for many situations. Today I would like to use it to demonstrate the fact that it is possible to prepare for your language encounters, particularly where meetings are concerned. Meetings may be either virtual or face-to-face. Here is my guide. 

For the unexpected

I’m afraid I am in the middle of something. Could you call/ come back in ten minutes. 

Put this on a sticky note on your computer monitor so that initially you only need to read it off. This buys you ten minutes of time in which to prepare. 
Before the meeting

Listen to Internet radio for the accent

Add your language planning to the meeting invitation. Use to find the right word. Beware of false friends and mistranslations. 

On the way to the meeting start thinking in English
At the start of the meeting

Start with small talk so that you can hear how they speak: how was your weekend? How is your week going? And what are you doing this weekend?

Ask open questions and listen for the rhythm of the language and how they pronounce numbers. 


Recap/ summarise which gives you a mini break and ensures that evrything has been communicated correctly

Ask How do you understand that? Which demands that the person answering gives you a full account of their understanding. The answer to do you understand is, of course, a rather unhelpful, and perhaps untruthful, yes. 

Unpick the activity with an appropriate selection of who, what, where, when, how, and why. So ask who are you going to ask, what are you going to save in the folder, where are you going to get resources, and so on. 

After the meeting
Perform a self-review. How was your planning?

  • What do you keep (which language worked for you and you can use it again for the next time)
  • What do you throw (because it does not work for you)
  • What should you do next time (perhaps you forgot a key piece of vocabulary, or needed a phrase for next time)

This prepares you for your next encounter. 

Also, when you engage your next English teacher, you can tell them exactly where your weak points are and what kind of language you need to acquire and rehearse.

When the future is perfect

October 27, 2016

An often overlooked piece of grammar describes, or, more often, asks for when something is going to be complete. That is to say, in the future something is going to be perfect. Here are three typical scenarios. In the examples do note the uses of by and until. They are not the same. 

When is a resource (such as a meeting room) going to be free?

When will you have finished with this meeting room?

We will have finished by a quarter past three. 

We won’t have finished until half past.
When is the deliverable going to be ready?

When will you have written the report?

I will have written the report by Tuesday.

I won’t have written the report until Wednesday.
When is an action going to be complete?

When will the parcel have arrived?

The parcel will have arrived by Thursday. 

The parcel won’t have arrived until Friday. 
I hope this helps.

Creativity and professionalism and CVs

October 13, 2016

Can I be creative with my CV, or do I have to be professional? Was a query posted in a recent LinkedIn article. Here is my take on this matter.

What has prompted me to write is that being creative and being professional are not mutually exclusive, and they are not opposites. First of all there is the matter of creativity. In my experience as a freelancer, people often see creativity as being disruptive and something to be afraid, or at the least, wary of.

The red flag with being too creative, and advertising yourself as such, is that it smacks of being maverick. The recruiter does not want to risk hiring a Top Gun, a corner-cutting maverick. The fact is that creativity in this area is not an opportunity, but rather a threat. Most of the time you are being recruited for a 9 to 5 position. For a “9 to 5” job which demands predictability, consistency, and fitting well into the organisation by following processes and procedures; there is little room for the maverick creativity which is both hit and miss, and costly.

Which brings me to professionalism and the CV, a matter I have written on before now, and I am sure it will crop up again. Regarding the CV, note that professionalism means different things to different people. Professional, at its best, is all about care. So do you care? A document such as a CV is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that care. Not least spelling, and grammar, but also consistency, and effort, and the time you have put into your document, all shine out when such care is taken.

This brings me to the related question of how creative one should be. I would answer this by saying be as creative as you need to be in order to demonstrate that you can solve their problem by hiring you. Demonstrate your successes in as tangible a way as possible. Add metrics where you can.

Such a focus on tangible successes is for the CV a professional way to put yourself across. Clearly answer how you can solve your prospective employer’s problem in hiring you. The result will be that your creativity in managing the workload will shine through without being viewed as a risk.