Nov 022018
positive and negative politeness

When I moved to the US from the UK, I had to adjust some of the vocabulary I was using and learn some new expressions, but it was fun. And of course the grammar was much the same, so that was easy. The tricky thing for me was learning a new style of politeness. Really! The US and UK have rather different styles of politeness.

In American English it’s often important to show warmth and friendliness. That’s true in British English too, but in the UK we sometimes place more emphasis on not intruding or interfering.

It’s not that one style of politeness is better than the other, but it can lead to some funny differences when it comes to when we give compliments and how we receive them.

There’s a branch of linguistics called pragmatics which studies the hidden or secret meanings behind the words we choose. It looks at the intentions behind the things we say, and as a result, it has prompted a lot of research and discussion about linguistic politeness.

In this video we look at some ways that face issues impact politeness when it comes to compliments.

We haven’t tried to go into the technicalities of positive and negative politeness, but we show some issues in action that we think will be useful for English learners.

If you’ve enjoyed this video, here are two more we’ve made on some pragmatic features of English.
Why it’s hard to understand English speakers:
3 ways to get what you want in English:

 Posted by at 8:22 pm
Aug 112017

There are a couple of reasons why English learners make mistakes with these words. Firstly, they’re false friends in many languages. They look like words that mean ‘currently’ or ‘at present’ when really they mean ‘in fact’. That can get confusing. If someone asks me for our actual sales figures I’ll think they mean real ones when in fact they may be wanting the current ones.

And the other reason these words are hard is it’s not always obvious when we use them. Do they indicate that what we’re about to say could be surprising? Do they indicate that we think our listeners won’t like our answers? Do we use them to correct something we’ve just said or maybe to correct someone else? Well, actually we use them in all these situations! In our latest video lesson we have examples of them all.

 Posted by at 8:09 pm
Jun 022017

Sometimes teachers or students ask us a question and I think, ‘Oh we can answer that quickly’. But then when I start, I realise there’s a lot to explain. The phrase ‘of course’ is one of those!
This time the question came from Saraswathi in India and they said:

Hi Vicki and Jay. You have produced good videos. So far, I have not understood when we use “of course”. Could you produce a video about ‘of course’.

Thank you so much for asking us this Saraswathi. It was a great question!
The thing is, ‘of course’ is not always polite. I expect other teachers have experienced this too. We’ve asked a question and our student has answered ‘Yes, of course’, but it wasn’t quite right. In fact sometimes it was down right rude! Here is our video about why that can happen.

 Posted by at 9:01 pm
Dec 272016

One of the things I love about video is it allows us to present language in context. We’re not limited to a classroom setting and we can venture outside and show a variety of people and different situations. We can show the relationship of the speakers and who has the power and that matters because it affects the language choices we make. So in my view, video is a wonderful medium for teaching pragmatics.

Lots of pragmatic research has been done on requests, not surprisingly, because they pose all sorts of potential for loss of face. We manage the possible social pitfalls in some interesting ways with pre-moves and indirectness, and of course anglo-Englishes have all the peculiar whimperatives structures like ‘Could you possibly…?’, and ‘Would you mind…?’

So I’ve been wanting to make some videos about requests for ages. Here’s an introductory video on the subject of directives that takes a broad sweep view of three basic ways we get people to do what we want. Hope you like it!

 Posted by at 6:51 pm
Sep 062016

It’s taken me years to work out how to teach negative questions. They’re so tricky! Here’s why…

1. The answers aren’t logical.

If someone says ‘Will you sit down?’, you say ‘yes’ if you plan to sit down. So why do you say ‘yes’ if they ask ‘Won’t you sit down?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘No, I will’?
There are other languages like Russian and Japanese where they are more logical about it. I didn’t understand this when I first started teaching in Tokyo and I caused lots of confusion.

Me: Can I have everyone’s homework?
(Hiroshi looks embarrassed)
Me: Haven’t you done your homework, Hiroshi?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘Yes, I haven’t done it’)
Me: Oh good, can I have it then?
(Hiroshi looks flustered)
Me: Sorry? Didn’t you say you’d done it?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘I didn’t say I’d done it’)
Me: Have you left it at home then?

When I went back to the UK, it took me a couple of years to re-learn how to answer negative questions the English way again. And actually, if you listen carefully you’ll sometimes hear native speakers answer them the other way round too.

2. If you use them in the wrong context, you can sound like you’re nagging.

In some Central European languages a negative form makes a question more polite. This can happen in English too, as in ‘Won’t you have another cup of tea?’ But more commonly we use negative questions to indicate that something is not quite what we expect it to be, and that means we can use them to express (mild) irritation. Compare ‘Can you hurry up?’ and ‘Can’t you hurry up?’ Which one is
In Slovak you might say things like ‘Haven’t you finished yet?’, and ‘Aren’t you ready yet?’ to enquire about someone’s progress when you want to sound extra pleasant. But if a native English speaker hears this they’ll think ‘Give us a chance!’ or ‘What are you breathing down my neck for?’ There’s potential for relationship damage here.

So all in all it would be jolly nice if we didn’t have to teach negative questions but there’s no getting round the fact that students will hear them and have to respond. So what to do? Well, let me show you how I now teach them…

 Posted by at 4:09 pm
Jul 292013

A class activity – write a transcript for either or both of these forthcoming movies.

Jay and I write the transcripts for the movie trailers at Simple English Videos and I think generally we do a pretty good job between us. I’m aware that we sometimes make mistakes, but it’s handy that I’m British and he’s American. There are phrases I struggle with in American movies that he gets and vice versa.

A few weeks back we had a very kind offer from Tomasz,  a teacher in Poland. He was teaching an advanced pronunciation course and wondered if we’d like him to ask his students to transcribe some trailers for us. ‘Oh, yes please’, we said and I sent over a list.  What I should have done is explained that we have to turn the videos over pretty quickly and given a deadline, so in the event I had to publish the movies before the transcripts arrived. Duh! But looking at the transcripts gave me an idea.  Tamasz’ students’ versions sometimes differed from ours in tiny ways – and sometimes I think they (not us!) got it right.

So it gave me an idea. I’ve just posted two movie trailer videos with NO transcript on the website and invited students to provide one. The deadline is midnight on Friday 16th August and we will be publishing the videos with the clickable transcripts we make (after reading any other versions) on August 19th and 20th.  We’ve no idea whether any classes might want to try it, but it seems like such a good listening task to me – either for classwork or homework. Plus hopefully we will all wind up with a better transcript!

A big thank you to Tomasz, Borys, and Sara for inspiring this idea and supporting the Simple English Videos site! It’s much appreciated.

 Posted by at 8:51 am
Jun 212013

Bad-model Good-model videos have a long history in management and business English training. The first time I came across the genre was in a series of management training videos from Video Arts (of John Cleese fame) but the technique was later employed very successfully in business English by Derek Utley and Jeremy Comfort of York Associates. Their early videos were picked up and remade by OUP and perhaps some of you will remember the resulting lovely’ Effective’ skills series? Those videos inspired me to play around with the genre myself so back in the 90s I wrote a little video called ‘Play it Again Sam’ for OUP.

But I digress. The way these videos work is you see someone performing a business task, but very badly. The class has to identify what they did wrong and decide how they could have done things better. They then act out a new and better version of the scenario before they get to see a second video where things go well. And if they haven’t got fed up by then, they can go on to compare the ‘good’ version they created with the ‘good’ version in the second video.

I wondered if it would be possible to do something similar again, but much shorter. Could we get something down to a minute? We couldn’t, but we got pretty close. Here are our attempts and I hope you find them useful for your small talk lessons.



I’ve now made these videos available with clickable transcripts (great for making comprehension tasks) on Simple English Videos dot com here and here.


 Posted by at 6:45 am
May 312013

As business English teachers, we often find ourselves helping our students to prepare to give a presentation. Critiquing them requires thinking about a lot more than did they use the best language and we have to think about much broader issues like did they engage and what sort of impression did they make and did they make their points in the most effective way.
The guy who emcees the TED presentations has seen a LOT of them – good ones and bad. He shares his thoughts here: It’s a jolly good read

 Posted by at 11:28 pm