Learning Greek, 2.0 (or “Mamma mia! Here we go again…”): Prologue

About a thousand years ago, I decided to learn Greek. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t get very far on that first attempt and even now, I’m still hovering somewhere between CEFR levels A1 and A2.

Why “unsurprisingly”?


  • Because laziness. Above all, I just didn’t put in enough effort to actually study the language or to find a teacher suited to my needs and preferences. I did take lessons for several months at a school in Cambridge with a good teacher; but as a language teacher, trainer and linguist myself, I can be quite a demanding student (!), and I just wasn’t invested enough to make the effort. I got busy with other things, couldn’t always attend, and didn’t always do my homework. Mea culpa!!
  • Because levels. The class I attended was quite mixed, containing near-beginners and linguaphobes as well as people like me, i.e. people who already knew the alphabet and, perhaps more significantly, were formally trained language teachers and/or linguists and more curious/motivated about linguistics in general, so picked things up faster than other students. Altogether, the lessons were a bit too easy for me at times and I started to get bored when I did attend, so was less motivated to come when I actually had the time.
  • Because loneliness. Outside of taking actual lessons, I think I knew all along I’d find it difficult to study on my own, especially without being surrounded by Greek every day. I know from experience that I personally learn languages best when I’m immersed and when there’s a teacher and/or fellow learners to interact with and plague with questions. As I said in my previous post (prophetically, as it turns out): “I’ve optimistically titled this post “part 1″…” and “Let’s hope it’s not too long before the next one…”
  • Because life. As I always tell my own students and teacher trainees, we’re people before we’re language learners. We bring our whole selves to the language-learning experience. In the past few years, in addition to wanting to learn Greek, I also moved cities, moved house several times, changed jobs, travelled extensively, went freelance, and went through a sudden bereavement. “Learning another language just for fun” simply slid way down my list of priorities.

Fast forward to September 2019 and I’m now in Athens, and planning to stay here for a couple of months! I have found myself a Greek housemate, forewarned all my local friends that I’ll be practising with (on) them, and this morning I signed up to take a course: three mornings per week, three hours per morning, for 6 weeks.

So here we are. Time to go again. Second attempt. Version 2.0!

As Howard Chen explains, adapting this originally techie term and relating it to his own industry (health care):

“Being 2.0 means embracing something brand new, something different, revolutionary, totally revamped from the old 1.0 that’s just not as good. […] The terminology we use for what software developers call a “major version release” is a popular way to address all things new and cool.”

But he also points out a very important caveat to this “new and cool” way of seeing things:

“The danger with 2.0 lies in its implicit recognition of a dramatic change, in the fact that you simply cannot call something 2.0 without first defining a 1.0 and then defining its shortcomings. The implication is that 1.0 can be fixed with an [sic] packaged solution. It makes a complex process that may otherwise require a gradual transition appear achievable with a simple technological update.”

And I’d agree. After over a decade in ELT and over 15 years in linguistics, I’m certainly not naive enough to think I can just pick up the complex process of learning Greek again simply by signing up to a course, without also changing my behaviour and habits.

I need to make more effort; I need to actually apply what I know to be effective from research and experience; I need to put in the hours (and be patient with myself); and I need to revisit my habits and strategies periodically with a view to iteratively changing and improving them, based on what I’m finding more or less useful to my own lived experience.

As Chen suggests, perhaps perpetual beta is a more useful and realistic metaphor. To paraphrase him one last time:

“The reality is that, like cloud-based technology, [my attempt to learn Greek] doesn’t really have a true “2.0.” [An effective language learning process] is in perpetual beta testing, as new knowledge incrementally accumulates and changes practice patterns.”

I started this post by defining version 1.0 of my Greek learning process and its shortcomings. Now more specifically (and empirically*), I am going to make a few resolutions that should dramatically increase my chances of learning success this time around:

  • Research shows that integrating new with existing knowledge is crucial to learning, so the evening before every lesson, I will revise what I learnt in the previous lesson(s). I will look for patterns and categories and re-organise my notes accordingly into advance organisers; and (as far as possible, given what is reasonably foreseeable from the class timetable and syllabus) I will brainstorm and/or write down what I already know about a given topic/language feature before we study it in class, so that I am primed to process it more effectively during class.
  • I will spend 30 minutes every morning testing myself on what I’ve learned recently, i.e. focusing on remembering previous learning content, not simply re-reading/re-studying it. And the good news is, it doesn’t even matter if I get the answers right; simply testing myself will ultimately improve my memory and promote learning.
  • I will do a little bit every day, rather than just one huge day of study; and I will make sure I get a good night’s sleep every night!

*Follow the hyperlinks in these bullet points if you’re interested in reading about some of the research my resolutions are based on.

Combined with the immersive environment I’m now living in, I hope and expect that these resolutions will lead me to enjoy greater success this time.

I’m also going to share my experiences right here on this blog at the end of every week. I’m very interested to see what sort of methodology my new Greek teacher will use, and just as interested to discover how applicable the course content is to my daily life in Athens!

After my placement test this morning, I was assigned to the Level 2 class. This is the syllabus I was shown:

Greek syllabus (Level 2)

My first impressions?

Grammar, grammar, grammar! And no mention of pronunciation… hmmm…

But I will reserve judgment until my first lesson… or maybe the second…

Stay tuned for more updates, coming soon!


English with a Russian accent

Over the years, my work has mostly appeared in English-language publications or events. But occasionally, I am consulted for projects in a different language.

Recently, I was approached by Yelena McCafferty, an award-winning Russian-English translator/interpreter from Talk Russian (по-русски) who was writing an article about speaking English with a Russian accent. Yelena specialises in business, trade and legal matters, and was interested to know what research tells us about the relationship between accent and identity. Although many Russians living in the UK may be concerned that they still sound Russian when speaking English, is it really so important to try and ‘neutralise’ or ‘lose’ one’s accent?

You can read the full article (in Russian) here. And if you’re not a Russian speaker, you might like to read a summary in English of the comments I shared with Yelena:

Our accents reveal where we are from and which social groups we belong to (or wish to belong to). They help reflect and project our identities. But research shows that there is no single accent of English which is most widely used, understood or accepted. And interestingly, in international English communicative contexts (such as in business or academia), it is very often the native speakers whose pronunciation is least clear to others.

Most of the world’s 2 billion English users are non-native and multilingual. Even in the UK, eight percent of the population has a main language other than English, and in London, over 35% of schoolchildren have a non-English home language. English users are characterised by their diversity, both in the UK and internationally. Awareness of our own and others’ pronunciation is certainly important for clear communication, but it is not at all necessary, realistic or desirable to try and ‘lose’ one’s accent entirely.

In short, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sounding Russian when you speak English. Like all effective international English users, there will be some pronunciation features that are important if you want to be widely understood, but there is also plenty of room for you to retain certain pronunciation features that “give you an accent”. That accent is part of your identity and that’s perfectly fine.

So which features of English are especially important for Russian speakers to focus on? Which things are going to help you be understood by a range of other English speakers from a range of different language backgrounds?

There are a number of key areas, but here are just three to get you started:

1. Aspiration of /p/, /t/ and /k/ sounds when followed by a vowel at the start of a stressed syllable.

For example: there are two syllables and two /p/ sounds in the word ‘paper’, with one /p/ at the start of each syllable. The first syllable is stressed, so this /p/ should be aspirated; but the second /p/ would not be aspirated. To aspirate a /p/, /t/ or /k/ sound, you need to release a little bit of air when you say the sound. (Don’t be too enthusiastic, or the words potatoes and pasta might come out like this!)

2. Length of vowel sounds before voiced consonants, especially at the ends of words.

For example: the vowel in had should be slightly longer than the vowel in hat; the vowel in back should be slightly longer than the vowel in bag; and the vowel in p should be slightly longer than the vowel in b. Russian speakers usually devoice consonants at the ends of words (compare English standard with Russian стандарт) and it can be very difficult to add this voicing when speaking English. But by lengthening the preceding vowel (so that had doesn’t sound like hat), you can create the same effect and help the listener.

3. The /ɜː/ vowel sound.

For example: work, bird. Try not to be distracted by the spelling. Both of these words have the same vowel sound, despite their different spellings. For Russian speakers, this sound might be particularly challenging when it follows a /w/ sound (as in work).

Moscow (author’s own photo, 2012)

I am based in London (UK) and work as a consultant, trainer, speaker and writer, focusing on how to use English clearly and effectively when communicating with international audiences.

If you are a Russian-accented English speaker, are based in London, and want to find out more about making your pronunciation as clear as possible for international communicative contexts (such as business, academia, media), contact me to discuss tuition opportunities.

I also work with speakers from other first-language backgrounds (including English), so feel free to get in touch even if you are not a Russian speaker.




British Academy (2013). Multilingual Britain. Published online at http://www.ucml.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Multilingual%20Britain%20Report.pdf

Crystal, D. (2008). ‘Two thousand million?’ English Today, 93, Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 3-6.

Jenkins, J. (2014). English as a lingua franca in the international university. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kalocsai, K. (2009). Erasmus exchange students: A behind-the-scenes view of an ELF community of practice. Apples – Journal of Applied Language Studies, 3/1, pp. 25-49.

Levis, J. (2007). Guidelines for promoting intelligibility. Paper presented at International TESOL, Seattle, WA March 2007.

McCafferty, Y. (2019). Как избавиться от иностранного акцента в английской речи. The Business Courier. Published online at https://thebusinesscourier.com/ru/kak-izbavitsya-ot-inostrannogo-akcenta-v-anglijskoj-rechi

Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1999).  Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 49 (supp. 1), pp. 285-310.

Ordin, M. (2010). ‘Russian’. In R. Walker, Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 127-130.

Smith, L. E. & Rafiqzad, K. (1979). English for cross-cultural communication: The question of intelligibility. TESOL Quarterly, 13/3, pp. 371-380.

Von Ahn, M., Lupton, R., Greenwood, C. and Wiggins, D. (2010). Languages, ethnicity and education in London. Institute of Education: Department of Quantitative Social Science. Published online at http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1012.pdf

Sweeney, E. and Zhu, Hua (2010). Accommodating towards your audience: do native speakers of English know how to accommodate their communication strategies towards non-native speakers of English? Journal of Business Communication 47 (4), pp. 477-504.

Macmillan webinar coming soon…

It’s been a while since I gave a webinar!

And what better way to make a comeback than via Macmillan’s ‘Advancing Learning’ series, which is devoting the next few months to “celebrating Women Advancing Learning with a fantastic line-up of prominent female experts and authors from the education and ELT world“?

In my webinar for this series on 7 November 2018, we’ll discuss the issue of “Teaching English pronunciation for the real world”. It’s gonna be fun. In fact, it’ll be so much fun, I’m doing it twice! Once at 10:00 and again at 16:00 (GMT); so, whatever time zone you’re in that day, I hope you can make it.

[Update, December 2018: you can now watch a recording of this webinar or read a summary by ELT Planning.]

Did you know, for example, that…

  • …there are billions of people using English today – and most of them are not native speakers?
  • …there is no single accent of English which is most widely understood?
  • …teaching pronunciation can be both practical and fun?
  • …teaching pronunciation will improve learners’ skills in all areas, not only speaking?

In the webinar, we’ll discuss these points and more, plus try some practical activities for teaching pron. Attendees will get a certificate from Macmillan afterwards.

Sign up now via the Macmillan English website.

Laura Patsko Macmillan webinar 7 Nov

Our new pronunciation book!

ELF Pronunciation

We are VERY excited to say that our new book, How To Write Pronunciation Activities, is now available on Smashwords, iBooks, and Amazon [affiliate link]. Find out more here.

Some of the things we cover in this book:

  • the challenges of writing pronunciation materials
  • how to support teachers in using pronunciation materials
  • dealing with diversity: ELF and different accents of English
  • pronunciation for listening vs. pronunciation for speaking
  • how to integrate pronunciation activities with other skills areas
  • how to design a syllabus for different levels
  • how to stage pronunciation activities
  • how to write rubrics
  • using the phonemic chart
  • beyond the student’s book: designing homework and supplementary materials
  • useful resources for further reading and resources

The book is very practical, with examples and explanations of all key points, plus exercises to guide the reader in his/her development as a writer of pronunciation materials.

Thank you to everyone…

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How to share research, Part 4: Live online Q and A

The horror!
Does the word “research” make you do this?

What do you think of when you hear the word “research”?

Many people who are not based in a very academic setting (e.g. a university) hear the word “research” and immediately think that it will be boring, dry, confusing, esoteric, irrelevant to “real life”, or that it will take them forever to read and understand a research publication. Of course, sometimes research is like this — but it doesn’t have to be! Continue reading