The Narrow Way to Improve Your English

Last week I gave a couple of tips on how to improve your English. If you haven’t read that, please read that now. (I’ll wait for you . . .)

In my post, I talked about “narrow reading,” where you read a lot of things about the same topic, in the same series of books (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight), or by the same author.

The advantage of this “narrow” (not wide) way is simple: The more you know about a topic, the easier it is to understand it in English. And the more you understand, the faster you will pick up new words and phrases.

This same idea can be applied (used) with listening as well. Narrow listening is listening to things on the same topic.

For example, if you listen to five different news stories in English about the situation in the Middle East, each new story will probably get easier and easier for you.

Better still, you’ll start acquiring (picking up; get into your brain) the vocabulary and grammar used in the stories, without any “studying” or “memorizing.”

You can find things on the web on related topics and try listening to them.

Another way is to use our 1800+ Daily and Cultural English lessons that come with our Unlimited English Membership.

In these lessons, I talk about several of the same topics in more than one episode.

Let’s say you want to improve your business meeting English. First, you search our website for the lessons you want by either entering “business meeting” into our search box, or by clicking on the Business topic on this page.

Now, select 4-6 episodes that look interesting related to business meetings. Here are four examples:

Listen and read the first lesson. Then the second, and so on.

Each lesson is different, of course, but you will start to hear some of the same or similar expressions in many of them. Understanding will get easier the more you listen.

You can listen first, read first, or read and listen at the same time – it doesn’t matter too much. The important thing is that you are comprehending a lot of business English.

When you do enough reading and listening, you’ll be able to start using that language in your conversations.

Warning: Getting from listening/reading to speaking/writing takes time! Be patient. Trust that with more listening and reading, your brain will take care of the rest.

~Jeff

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Top 2 Tips on Reading English the Easy Way

Listen and reading are the two main (most important) ways to improve your English.

Listening is important, but reading is also VERY powerful!

Reading will actually improve your English listening and speaking, as well as reading and writing.

To get the most out of (to take maximum advantage of) your reading, you need to
(a) pick English books or magazines that you mostly understand (more than 90%) AND
(b) pick books that you actually like reading, that you enjoy.

How do you do this? Here are two simple tips to help you:

TIP 1: Read the types of things you already read in your own language and on topics you’re already familiar with.

Knowing something about a topic will it make much easier to read about it in English.

For example, I read the news in English every day. You could call me a news junkie (someone who likes something a lot, perhaps too much).

When I read the news in French, especially on topics I already know something about, the French is much easier to understand.

If I read a story in French (or Italian or Spanish) about the United States, I can understand it very easily, since I already know something about the topic or subject.

And because I have read the news nearly every day of my adult life, I’m familiar with the format (organization) of newspapers. I know how news stories are organized. This experience makes reading the news in another language much easier.

If you don’t like to read in your own language, no problem. Consider what kinds of things you like to do instead.

Like soccer? Read books and articles about soccer.

Like playing video games? Read books and magazines about video games.

Like watching romantic comedies? Read romances in English!

TIP 2: Read what needs improving.

Here’s what I mean by that: If your goal is to improve your English conversation, read a lot of conversational English.

Pick fiction (made-up stories) that have a lot of dialogue rather than long descriptions.

The additional advantage of reading dialogue is that it is easier to understand, making it easier to read.

(Hint: Reading our lesson transcripts would be a good way to get that conversational English, of course!)

If you want to improve your English on a more specialized (on a smaller or more limited subject) topic, read things on that subject.

For example, if you want to do better business presentations, read more business books.

This type of reading is called “narrow reading,” reading on a limited topic.

Narrow reading will help you get the style and language you need.

Narrow reading works especially well for fiction books that are part of a series (books with the same characters), such as Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games.

I’m reading right now a series of young-adult novels (written for 8-12 year-olds) with a mystery and spy theme in French. The main characters in each book of the series are the same, so I already know something about them (see Tip 1).

If you read one Harry Potter book, the next one will be much easier to understand.

But remember that *all* reading on whatever topic is helpful, as long as you can understand 90%+ and you enjoy it.

If you pick your reading materials according to these tips, you are more likely to stick with it (continue) and not get bored, discouraged, and give up (stop trying).

So what are you waiting for? Start reading today!

~Jeff

P.S. It’s okay to “give up on” or stop reading a certain book if, after 20 pages or so, it seems too difficult or too boring. Just find another book!

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Who Wants to Wash My Car?

My car is really dirty.

I mean, it has a lot of dirt and dust on the outside.

Why so dirty?

Two reasons:
1. I live in Los Angeles, where it rains only rarely in the summer, so there is no rain to “clean” it.
2. I really, really hate washing my car.

When people in the United States want to wash their car, they have many choices. They can use hoses (long, thin tubes that carry water) and buckets (containers for water) in their driveway (the paved area between the street and a garage).

But many Americans (like me) are lazy and would rather (prefer to) pay someone else to do it.

So they take their car to a car wash.

The most basic type of car wash is the self-serve car wash. In a self-serve wash, the car is driven to an area where there are coin-operated machines (machines that do something when one puts round, metal pieces of money into them).

One machine has a hose that will produce (make; give) hot or cold water, with or without soap, depending on which buttons (small things that are pushed to make a machine do different things) are pushed.

Another machine is attached to a vacuum (machine that sucks dirt from carpets and floors) to clean a car’s interior.

People often use self-serve car washes if they don’t have a place (such as a driveway) where they live to wash their car.

Automatic car washes are more popular because they are easier. The driver simply drives through the car wash, which is a small building.

Hoses spray (send liquid into the air) water and soap onto the car. Then large roller brushes (long, round tubes with pieces of cloth that move quickly in a circle) rub the car until it is clean (see photo).

Next, hot air is used to dry it, although usually not perfectly. After the car leaves the car wash building, workers dry the rest of the car with towels.

Driving through the car wash takes only a minute or two and it usually works pretty well, unless the car is very dirty.

When people want their cars to be really clean, they pay more for a hand wash, where a person or a group of people wash the car by hand (manually, without a machine).

A hand wash usually comes with a wax, too. Wax is a material you put on your car to protect it. A hand wash takes longer and is more expensive, but it is the best way to get a car really clean.

So what will I do – self-serve, automatic, or hand wash?

Probably none of them. I’ll just wait until it rains again in the fall.

~Jeff

P.S. I forgot to mention that my first job as a teenager (I was 15 years old) was at . . . a car wash! It was “automatic” but my job was to wipe the cars dry. I worked there for three months and hated every minute.

P.P.S. If you like this little culture lesson, consider starting an Unlimited English Membership, where you can get more than 1,800 daily and cultural English lessons. See here for details: https://tv.eslpod.com

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Speak English by Killing Birds and Beating Horses

I don’t like animals, especially cats. If you’ve listened to our old podcasts and current Daily English lessons, you probably know that already.

But you can’t say you speak English fluently without knowing and using idioms that have animals in them.

Here then are a few that you can use, whether you’re an animal lover or not:

To kill two birds with one stone – The idea of this expression is that you are able to accomplish two goals or tasks with one single action. (Stone is another word for a rock.)

Let’s say you want to do two things: meet your friends for coffee at a café, and pick up your wife from work. If your wife works close to a café, you could ask her to meet you at the café with your friends so you can drive her home from there.

You’re doing one thing (going to a cafe) but accomplishing two tasks (meeting your friends and eventually taking your wife home).

Of course, your wife may not like you telling her to walk to a local café from work, but that’s another problem entirely.

To be a guinea pig – Guinea pigs (see photo) are often used in scientific experimentation for new drugs or other products. Companies and laboratories test the drug or substance on the animal first to make sure it is safe.

To be a guinea pig means to be the person who tries something for the first time without knowing if it works or even if it is safe.

If I invented a new way to cut your hair and I tried it on you before anyone else, not sure if it would work, then you would be a guinea pig for my hair cutting method.

To beat a dead horse – If the horse is dead, there’s no need to beat (hit) it so that it will do what you want. It’s too late for that – nothing will happen!

We use this expression when someone wants to do something that won’t make any difference. It is often used to describe people who want to talk about a problem that has already been solved or that no one else wants to talk about anymore.

Strangely, you’ll often hear people use this phrase after “not” and followed by “but”: “Not to beat a dead horse, but I think . . . ” They are essentially saying, “I know this is a useless thing to say, but I’m going to say it anyway!”

Take/Grab the bull by the horns – A bull is the male of the same species as a cow, which is female. Bulls have the reputation of being very difficult to manage and even dangerous (think about bullfighting in Spain or Mexico). The horns of the bull are things that come out of his head and are hard and sharp.

To take a bull by the horns is to try to take on or solve a very difficult problem directly. It may cause you trouble, but you attempt to deal with the situation in a straightforward (very direct) way.

Does your language have similar animal expressions?

~Jeff

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Congrats to the Grads!

June is the month for graduations, the completion of studies, both for high school and college/university students.

So what does a typical American graduation look like?

Most graduation ceremonies have two parts: (1) an awarding of degrees, where students come up and receive their diploma (certificate of graduation) from some school official; and (2) a speech, often by someone well known, called a commencement address.

These commencement addresses are usually 15-25 minutes long, and often contain advice to the graduates on how to live their lives.

For example, when I graduated from the University of Southern California, we had a former politician and vice-presidential candidate (Jack Kemp) give the commencement address. (I don’t remember anything he said.)

Actors, famous writers, and other celebrities are also sometimes invited by colleges to give these short speeches. Even the president of the United States gives commencement addresses.

At nearly every graduation ceremony (event), you’ll see graduating students wearing a cap and gown.

For high school students and college undergraduates (students earning a four-year degree), the “cap and gown” is the hat (cap) and robe (gown; like a dress) that a student wears to graduate.

The gown is typically black, but can also be the school colors, the colors that represent a school.

The cap can be different designs, but the most common one is what’s called a mortarboard (see photo), which is a hat with a flat, square top.

On top of the mortarboard is a tassel attached by a button at the center. A tassel is a decoration of loose threads (like strings) that are gathered or held together at one end, and worn hanging down over the brim or edge of the mortarboard.

At a graduation ceremony, the tradition is to let the tassel hang down from the mortarboard on the right-hand side at the start of the ceremony. When students receive their diploma, they move the tassel to the left side showing they’ve graduated.

After all of the students have received their diplomas, another tradition (but only in some schools) is for the students to throw their caps into the air to celebrate. Good luck finding your own cap again!

If you graduate with what we’d call a “higher degree” or “post-graduate” degree, such as a Master’s or Ph.D. (doctorate), the graduation ceremony is slightly different.

For these students, there is another part of the graduation gown called the hood.

Normally when we use the word “hood,” we mean a piece of material shaped like a half circle attached to the top of your jacket that goes over your head, either to protect the head or just to look cool.

A “hoodie” (also spelled “hoody”) is a sweatshirt (casual shirt usually made of thick cotton material) with a hood that is very popular in the U.S.

However, the hood that is part of the graduation gown doesn’t go over the head. Instead, it is a piece of colored and decorated fabric that is worn over the neck and hangs down the back of the graduation gown so that the “colors” show.

The color of the hood has special meaning. It is used to identify the type of degree you receive and your major (course of study). Different majors (sciences, humanities, education, etc.) have different colors.

That’s a brief look at American graduations. How are things different where you live? Do graduates also wear a cap and gown?

~Jeff

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Headline English: Tit-for-Tat

Today’s Headline English comes from a recent editorial (opinion article) in the Los Angeles Times newspaper:

Trump’s tit-for-tat trade war with China escalates again.

If you’ve been following (reading or watching) the news, you know that the United States is currently involved in a “trade war” with China.

Trade is the business of buying and selling.

International trade is trade between two or more countries.

So we are talking about what is allowed to be imported (brought into to sell) and exported (sent elsewhere to sell) and under what conditions.

A trade war isn’t a physical attack or conflict. It is when two countries decided to “punish” each other with what are called tariffs.

Tariffs are taxes, or amounts of money paid to the government, that an importer needs to pay to bring goods (items for sale) into a country.

Sometimes countries use tariffs to protect their own country’s companies from competition.

However, importers who have to pay tariffs for goods from China will just increase the price of those items when they sell them here in the U.S.

In other words (to put it in another way), consumers (those who buy things from companies) are the ones who really pay for these tariffs.

A country may also use tariffs to punish another country for some political or economic action it doesn’t like, even if it has nothing to do with trade.

Now back to the headline: “Trump’s tit-for-tat trade war with China escalates again.”

Tit-for-tat means to harm or hurt someone because her or she has done something to harm or hurt you.*

For example, if your office mate (person you work with) takes your coffee cup one day because she forgot her own at home, you might decide to take her pens from her desk in response to “punish” her for what she did to you.

That’s a tit-for-tat situation: You do something bad to me, and I’ll do something bad to you.

Another word for tit-for-tat is retaliation. To retaliate means to hurt someone else who has already hurt you.

If something escalates, it means that it increases or becomes worse or more serious, very quickly.

Let’s say your neighbor criticizes your new car. You are angry, so you respond (answer back) by saying that you think his wife is ugly.

Your neighbor then punches you in the face. The two of you fight. The police come and arrest you both (take you both to jail).

The situation started as a simple insult, something not very serious, but quickly escalated to both of you landing in (being put into) jail.

In this headline, the writer is saying that in the trade war between the U.S. and China, each side has taken actions to retaliate against the other’s actions.

Who knows how this trade war will be resolved (ended)?

Let’s just hope everyone comes to their senses (begins to think sensibly again) before things get out of hand (become out of control) and escalate further.

~Jeff

*The words “tit” and “tat” used in the expression “tit-for-tat” refer to types of blows (hits) in a fight. The expression has nothing to do with modern meanings of these words.

Tat in modern British English refers to junk or things that aren’t worth very much money. Tit in American English is a vulgar (dirty) term referring to a woman’s breast.

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Pizza Party in the U.S.A.

Americans love pizza.

We love it so much that there are actually TWO pizza museums in the U.S. One is in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and is part of a pizza restaurant.

The other is in Chicago (Illinois), opened by man who says he’s obsessed (thinking about something all the time) with pizza.

The founder (creator) of the Pizza Museum in Chicago is a man named Peter Regas. He has a life-long love of pizza and is a collector of pizza memorabilia (items people collect because they have historical importance).

He also wanted to write a book about the history of pizza. One of the things he wanted to find out was how pizza arrived in the United States.

The long-established (believed for a long time) story was that a man named Gennaro Lombardi started the first pizza restaurant in the U.S. in New York City in 1905. Regas searched archive records (documents from history) for over 10 years and found out that this was not true.

According to Regas, the man who brought pizza to the U.S. was instead named Filippo Milone.

Milone came to New York in the late 1800’s from Naples, Italy. He first opened two pizzerias (pizza restaurants). Both pizzerias are still in business today under different names. One of them is called Lombardi’s.

In 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi was supposed to have opened the first pizza restaurant in the U.S.A., he was only 18 years old and probably worked at the restaurant, not owned it.

We can get at the truth by looking at how Filippo Milone did business (operated).

He used to open pizzerias and then turn them over (gave responsibility for them or sold them) to other people. He then found a new location and opened more pizzerias.

He did this across Manhattan and Brooklyn, two large boroughs (sections) of New York City. So it’s likely that Lombardi eventually took over (became responsible for or bought) Milone’s restaurant, changing the name to Lombardi’s.

That’s the story of how pizza came to this country from Italy.

Grazie, Signore Milone!

~Jeff

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How to Say “No”

There are several commonly-used ways to say “no” in conversation when responding to a suggestion, request, invitation, or something similar.

Each is used a little differently depending on how firm or forceful you want to be. I’ve listed a few below.

These are, of course, not all of the possible ways to say “no,” but just some of the most useful ones.

I’ve listed them in the order of forcefulness (strength; emphasis). with the first being the weakest (least forceful).

However, it all depend on how you say it!

You can make “uh-uh” and “nah” just as strong as “no way” with the right tone of voice and emphasis (stress).

“Uh-uh”
(also pronounced “nuh-uh”) –
A: Do you feel like going to see a movie tonight?
B: Uh-uh. I’m tired. Let’s stay home.

“Nah”
A: Do you want to go with us for drinks after work today?
B: Nah, I’m working late tonight.

“No”
This is the most versatile and can be used for whatever occasion, of course.
A: Let’s take a vacation to Greece this year.
B: No, I’d rather go to Brazil.

“Nope”
This is informal and a curt (short) way to say “no.” It can sound impolite (rude) if refusing a request.
A: I have a date tomorrow night. Can I borrow your car?
B: Nope, never again after what happened last time.

“No way!”
This is very forceful and is used when there is no chance of the speaker changing his or her mind.
A: Why don’t I move in with you and we can be roommates.
B: No way, dude! You are too messy for me.

In a joking manner, we sometimes say “No way, José!” because the Spanish name José is pronounced “ho-say” and that rhymes with “way.”

“Not on your life!” / “Not in a million years!”
A: Will you write this report for me? I have so much other work to do.
B: Not on your life! / Not in a million years! I asked you for help last week and you said you were “too busy,” remember?

~Jeff

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Your English Challenge

“She told him that she loved him.”

This seems like an easy sentence in English. But is it?

What if I told you that you can make this sentence mean seven different things by adding just ONE word?

Weird, I know, but keep reading . . .

The one word you add is “only.”

Here’s the key: You add “only” in front of each word of the sentence.

When you do that, you get a new meaning each time!

Okay, first read the sentences and see if you can you figure out what they mean:

1. ONLY she told him that she loved him.

2. She ONLY told him that she loved him.

3. She told ONLY him that she loved him.

4. She told him ONLY that she loved him.

5. She told him that ONLY she loved him.

6. She told him that she ONLY loved him.

7. She told him that she loved ONLY him.

Now, some of these sentences have more than one meaning, but I’ve given you what I think is the most common meaning below.

1. ONLY she told him that she loved him.

She told him about her love for him. No one else told him that she loved him. She was the only one.

2. She ONLY told him that she loved him.

She did only one thing: tell him that she loved him. But she didn’t do anything else. (Sorry, no kiss!)

3. She told ONLY him that she loved him.

She has told no other person that she loves him. She only said it to him.

4. She told him ONLY that she loved him.

She didn’t tell him anything else, only that she loved him. This is admittedly very similar to #2. The difference, if there is one, is a matter of emphasis: #2 is emphasizing (making you pay attention to; stressing) that no other action was taken, while #4 is emphasizing what she did or did not actually say to him.

5. She told him that ONLY she loved him.

She is the only person who loves him. No one else loves him, not even his mother (okay, maybe his mother, too).

6. She told him that she ONLY loved him.

She loves him, but that’s all. She might not have other feelings for him. She might not even *like* him and might not be ready to do anything else, like marry him.

7. She told him that she loved ONLY him

He is the only person she loves. There’s no other person she loves. Notice this is not the same as #5. In #5, she is saying that no other woman loves him. But in #7, she’s saying that she doesn’t love any other man, only him.

Of course, all this is from the perspective (viewpoint; opinion of) the woman. What does the man think?

Maybe he doesn’t even know her. Maybe she was some crazy woman who came up to him on the street and started talking about loving him. Who knows?

Only he knows!

~Jeff

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A Fairy Tale for a Princess Not Named Megan

A fairy tale is a story for children about something magical. It always has a happy ending, and many times is about royalty (queens, kings, princesses, etc.).

Some say that the marriage of American actress Megan Markle to Prince Harry of England was a “fairy tale,” a story that now includes the birth of a baby boy.

American children, including I’m sure Markle, grow up hearing fairy tales from their parents and seeing them in movies.

One of the most famous fairy tales is Sleeping Beauty, originally written by the French author Charles Perrault.

But Americans are most familiar with the Disney movie version of the same name.

Sleeping Beauty is a classic (well known; traditional) fairy tale. In the story, three good fairies (magical creatures that can fly) come to bless (say something so that good things will happen) the baby Princess Aurora.

But an evil (bad) fairy curses (says something so that bad things will happen to) the baby.

Her curse is that when she turns 16, the princess will prick (have a small cut on) her finger on a spinning wheel (a machine used to turn sheep hair into yarn) and die (see illustration/drawing).

One of the good fairies uses her blessing to change the curse, so that the young princess will only fall into a deep sleep (very heavy sleep that is hard to wake up from).

The king demands that all spinning wheels be burned and the fairies take the baby away for 16 years.

But it is of no use: On her birthday, Princess Aurora pricks her finger on a spinning wheel anyway and falls into a deep sleep.

However, on that same day, she saw a prince and they fell in love!

When the fairies realize this, they work to bring the prince to Aurora. The prince has to fight against the bad fairy, who turns herself into a dragon (a large animal that breathes fire).

With the good fairies’ help, the prince kills the dragon and the bad fairy and then he goes to Princess Aurora.

As she sleeps, he kisses her. This breaks (ends) the curse.

Princess Aurora wakes up, and everyone lives “happily ever after” (a phrase used to end most fairy tales, meaning that everyone is happy from that time on).

We wish the Duchess of Sussex (Megan’s official title in Great Britain) and her family an equally happy future.

~Jeff

P.S. Much of this post is taken from one of our Daily English Culture Notes. These are part of the 15,000+ pages of English reading available in our Unlimited English Membership. Check it out here.

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