Rock Mclimbing*

February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment


“Climbing to the top demands strength, whether it is to the top of Mount Everest, or to the top of your career.”

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, one-time President of India

To this above quote, I’d add learning a language. It can be a long, arduous climb.

I did a bit of rock-climbing at school. Ideally, you’re told, keep three points in contact with the rock face at any one time. Two feet and one hand; two hands, one foot. Only once you’re an expert should you consider dangling over a precipice by a fingertip or two.

I’ve been spending some time over the last 6 months or so, on and off, learning Arabic, mostly by myself, with YouTube videos and a grammar book, but with a few hours, one-to-one, in the company of a couple of Arabic tutors. It’s the structure of the language I’m particularly interested in, and the writing system.

Here is what I’ve found:

At first I couldn’t even work out where one letter started and the other finished. I didn’t know which dots belonged to which squiggles. Some English ex-pats I know in the Middle East call it spaghetti writing.

I see a word, I hear it. A few days later, not only have I forgotten it, I have no recollection of ever meeting the word. I’m convinced I’ve never met it before, until I flick back through my Arabic notebook and see I’ve written it down.

It takes me numerous sighting before I even begin to recognise the word as a whole, to “know it on sight”. Usually, I have to sound out the letters, getting many wrong, so my offering is often largely inaccurate. A dot above a short squiggle is obviously pronounced differently from a dot below a slightly longer squiggle. Obvious in hindsight, or rather hindhearing.

Arabic doesn’t have to show the vowels in the word (it can do, with diacritics), only the consonants, so I am basically guessing the vowel sounds. If it were English, I’d be saying things like “ilafont” instead of “elephant”, “fatbil” for “football”. Some of you will spot the similarity between me and the English policeman in “Allo Allo”.

One set of YouTube videos I found was quite good, they’re just a collection of phrases with say 6 or 7 words. At first, I can pick out a word or two. After literally 20 playbacks, I can hear every sound and every syllable, understand every word and say it back, and know what I’m saying. Progress. Very much so. But also very much slow.

So, what do I want, need, as a language learner, at least as a self-access resource, something I can use by myself?

Well, actually, I want language plants.

What are these?

A way of presenting collocations, lots of them, and the interactive ones have lots of listening practice, changing a word here, another there, keeping three words out of four, say, at any one time. What I don’t want is to hear a sentence, then another one, then another, and another, in a seemingly never-ending stream of “engaging” content. That’s like hanging off a cliff face by my fingernails.

Image*The title, “Rock Mclimbing” is a reference to the McNuggets view of grammar splicing.

The Passing of Time

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment


“Autumn is a second spring
when every leaf is a flower.”
Albert Camus

We all know that February stands brave and alone in being the shortest month of the year, a mere 28 days (normally). It’s a shame there isn’t a longest month. Or is there??


“I must govern the clock,
not be governed by it.”
Golda Meir

In fact, at least here in England, there is a longest month! It’s October. The clocks just went back an hour last Saturday, so we gained an extra hour. October is therefore 31 days and 1 hour. Congratulations October, you’re the winner! If not a bit blustery.


June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment


“Teaching is less about navigating the container ship of the class
through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus
than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats,
in all weathers, across the open sea,
in whatever direction and at whatever speed
they’ve elected to go.”
Scott Thornbury

And so, the A-Z of ELT finally closes its eyes one last time and drifts to sleep.

At the British Council ELTons last year, Scott admitted how proud he was of the above quotation, which he’d conjured up for his post P is for Postmodern method, and which he saved till last in his latest, and last post, The End.

I had brought it up first that evening with him, saying how vivid an image it conjured up, and feeling his enthusiasm for it, I couldn’t resist making it into a language plant some time after.”Brilliant!”, he replied, when I sent it to him, so I post it now as a thank you from me for all the fascinating reads he has brought us all.

Sweet Dreams.

Happy New Year

January 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

Happy new year to my friends
and happy new year to my family.
Happy new year to those I am close to
and happy new year to those I am not close to.
Happy new year to those I hope to meet this year.
Happy new year to those who I will meet this year
and happy new year to those who I will never meet.
In fact, happy new year to everyone,
and of course, happy new year to you!

Happy Christmas!

December 20, 2012 § 3 Comments


It’s Christmas!
The season of peace
and goodwill to humankind;
a time to rest the body
and relax the mind.

The season when
there’s a nip in the air,
when temperatures drop,
when nature battens
down the hatches
and shuts up shop.

A time to look back with fondness,
to look forward with eagerness,
to know spring will soon be here;
and I’m sure winter wishes us
a happy and enjoyable Christmas
and a successful and rewarding New Year.

Tears of joy

July 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

So, it all started like this. Maria Alejandra Pinardi and I had been commenting on some of the lovely language plants that members of the Facebook group had made, and she said that she had been using the free resources with her daughter, and that they were really enjoying working together. I asked what her name was, it was Sofía, so I made the little plant above for her.

Here’s Maria’s response:

I´M REALLY HONORED BY THIS LOVELY PLANT! You’ve made me cry, David! thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m so glad we have met! I’ll show Sofía as soon as she comes back from school! BEAUTIFUL!

Tears of joy, I hope 🙂

Yes, David, tears of joy!!! My daughter has just seen your present: she’s clapping and saying: “This is FANTASTIC!” You’ve made our day, David! Thank you!!!!!!

Well, of course, it made my day too. And the good thing is, with the plant maker, she’s started to make language plants herself, like the one below, and loving it, as Maria describes again:

She is beginning with the Present Continuous. Working and playing with plants is a great way to learn spelling and to remember the meaning of verbs. She had to write the words a million times before publishing her plant as it had to be “perfect”! Amazing practice. Thank you!!!!!

Nice plants, Sofia 😉

Aha! hardworking student!!!!!lovely works! I love you Sofia…VIVA ARGENTINA!

well done Sofia, this is FANTASTIC!!! You are doing lots of things :))

So go on, make someone’s day by clicking here. Just make sure they’ve got a tissue to hand first 😉

Seek and Ye shall find

July 5, 2012 § 6 Comments

“What I am looking for is not out there.
It is in me.”
Helen Keller

Parallelism is one of my favourite words. Well, the idea of parallelism, what it signifies. Probably the two words I highlight most when I’m training teachers here in the UK are “collocation”, closely followed by “parallelism”.

It’s a feature of good writing, good rhetoric, and once you’re aware of it, you can’t help but notice it cropping up everywhere.

Not only that, in normal speech, we often repeat, rephrase and paraphrase, so here too, parallelism is very common.

Visit the Facebook group! It’s alive with activity!!

Here’s an example, an extract from Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I have a dream” speech:

“I have a dream that
every mountain shall be made low
every valley shall be exalted
the rough places shall be made plain
and the crooked places shall be made straight
and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
and all flesh shall see it together.”

Can you see how each line follows a similar pattern? That’s parallelism.

Sign up for free resources

Keep an ear out for it in speeches, or an eye out in writing, look for it in poetry especially, but also in everyday prose. Turn over a stone and you’ll find it lurking underneath, pull apart the branches and you’ll discover it hiding behind, peer up overhead and it’ll be hovering above, it’s everywhere!

And fortunately, for language learners, it’s inspiring and perfect language to study.

The art of branching

July 2, 2012 § 8 Comments

I had a Skype chat earlier with an Italian teacher who came across Language Garden on Facebook just a few days ago, and immediately grasped the concept. She got it, intuitively, it appealed at an emotional level, but she wanted to understand the rationale, the theory, left-brain understanding.

So for her, and anyone else who likes the colourful bendy words and somewhere inside, you feel they make sense but you can’t quite put it into words, please watch this simple, two-minute video showing a couple of things.

It’s for learners of English, how to use “for” and “since” after the present perfect. As we teachers know, it often causes confusion. This language plant is for language learners, perhaps ones you teach. Secondly, it’s a typical language plant in the sense that words branch off from different nodes so, in my eyes, it really does look like a little tree made of words.

Branching reduces the repetition of unnecessary words, not when we say them, but when we write them. So instead of a list running down the page that I find uneasy on the eye, you get a bushy plant, and you can pick and choose your route as you go. That’s really the essence of language plants. Well, the ones I make 😉

The king is dead…

June 25, 2012 § 14 Comments

“The king is dead!
Long live the king!”

For quite a few years, I have been the world’s leading expert, some might say the king of language plants. It wasn’t difficult, seeing as the royal household consisted solely of me, with no apparent heirs to the throne. Behind the castle walls, whilst the garden was adorned with beauty and gave me immense satisfaction, it was an existence lived in solitude.

But my! how things have changed! Like a desert land, barren and forlorn, bursting into life at the first drop of rain, the language garden is starting to flourish, and it is with immense pleasure that I remove my crown and pass it on to others, as a mark of their skill, creativity and passion.

The Language Garden Facebook group is the perfect place for language gardeners to congregate. You can post your latest work of art, step back and watch the comments flood in, gushing with praise and friendship. Here is just a small selection of their work that has really made my eyes wide with excitement over the last few days. I hope they inspire you to join in with the fun. You are most welcome.

I want to make a language plant too!

Visit the Facebook Group

I really should see more of these beautiful works of art!

These are fantastic! Can I make one too, please!

Don’t you think these are wonderful? They’ve come from all over the world! And don’t forget, if you’d like some Free resources, you can get those too. Hope to see you soon 🙂

Reap what you sow

June 17, 2012 § 7 Comments

“If you have plans for a year, sow rice.
If you have them for a decade, plant trees.
If you have them for all your life, educate a person.”
Chinese saying

I like it when art brushes against science, when science questions art. The two seem to go hand in hand.

Making the Spanish plant earlier today, as I pieced together the words, I was looking for rules, inquiring about structure. Here are some of the things that caught my attention, and which made me think about how I wanted to express them.

“Arroz” and “árboles” both start with “ar”, although “árboles” has an accent, which I’ve positioned high up off the “a” so it doesn’t attach to “arroz”.

“Para” and “por” are variants of each other. I don’t know what the rule is but I’ve learned the phrases as chunks; perhaps it’s based on singular or plural. It doesn’t seem to be whether it’s masculine or feminine, because “vida” and “año” both take “para”.

The imperative seems to end in “a”: “planta”, “siembra”, “educa”. I decided to share this letter, and make it big to emphasise this rule (and allow the three verbs to fit nicely into it).

The pronoun “los”, substituting for “planes” comes before the verb. You can choose one or the other of the (pro)nouns, the blue words, but not both together.

Language plants are scientific. They aim to demonstrate rules, linguistic rules.

A piece of art has no reason for being, other than to exist as itself, and give pleasure. Language plants certainly brighten up my life, and they seem to make others smile too, which I find immensely gratifying.

So whether you’re first and foremost an artist or whether you’re a scientist, please consider making a language plant with the plant maker, and popping it in the new Language Gardening facebook group for everyone to go “ooh” and “aah”, like María Inés has so kindly done. It’s her very first plant as well! A big round of applause for her, don’t you think (if you’re a scientist), or feel (if you’re an artist)?