How to speak better English than Donald Trump

Would you (or your students) like to speak better English than a “native speaker”*? Wouldn’t it be great if your command of the language could be superior to that of the most powerful English speaker on the planet? Granted, Donald Trump is not noted for his articulacy. Possibly as a result of a degenerative brain disease, his fluency, coherence and range of vocabulary have deteriorated considerably over the years, as this 1992 interview demonstrates and this article explains in detail. He used to be able to follow a train of thought; now listening to him is more like witnessing a syntactical train crash. Half-ideas cascade chaotically like carriages piling up on top of one another, deafening explosions of total incoherence reverberate down the track while anyone with any regard for their personal safety runs away screaming.

The very latest indication that Trump’s mastery of standard (or, rather, sane) English is slipping out of his tiny grasp came yesterday, in the tweet he posted in the wake of yet another NRA-sponsored massacre**. His tweet offered his “warmest condolences” to the victims (and, obviously, no condemnation of the culprit – Trump hasn’t expressed any anger at the killings). Cue howls of ridicule across social media: why? Well, no one talks about “warm condolences”. You might offer warm congratulations to a friend who’s just found a job, or sincere or heartfelt condolences to someone who’s just lost a loved one. But the adjective ‘warm’ just doesn’t go with the noun ‘condolences’. Or, in other words, it doesn’t collocate.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve spoken (and, more importantly, read) English all my life (and taught it for nearly 20 years). I’ve never seen or heard that expression before. The fact that Trump thought that ‘warm’ was an appropriate word in response to a mass shooting may be some indication of how such events make him feel deep down. But it’s also an indication that he’s not in control of what he’s saying. Maybe the fact that he boasts of never reading books has something to do with it.

So, how can you acquire a better command of the language than him? Well, you could buy yourself a collocations dictionary, which will tell you which adjectives are commonly used with which nouns, which nouns collocate with which verbs, etc. (Better language coursebooks also put a great deal of emphasis on what many now call ‘word grammar’.) Or, you could use this website. As you can see, it has a really simple interface, and is free. I urge all my students to use it, and it has an immediate and dramatic impact on the quality of their writing in particular. A smattering of collocations can easily raise any IELTS score from 6.5 to 7.0, for example. I’m sure Trump would struggle to write a coherent 250-word essay; he probably hasn’t composed anything longer than 140 characters since he was cheating his way through college. (As for writing in a foreign language, he’s probably barely aware at this point that such things exist.) In the speaking test, he’s probably get a 4.0: links basic sentences but with repetitious use of simple connectives and some breakdowns in coherence; can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics; errors are frequent and may lead to misunderstanding and/or nuclear war.

*This is in inverted commas as it’s a highly problematic term, its use punishable by stoning in some quarters.
**Trump is also sponsored by the NRA, to the tune of more than $30 million.

Something I apparently wrote for my students about learning languages

38I don’t remember using or even writing this but I obviously did at some point because it’s here in my My Documents folder on my computer and it’s exactly what I think about learning languages. Hopefully it will be of use to someone.

Up to a certain point, it’s easy to learn a language. Okay, of course you’re sometimes tongue-tied when you don’t know the word, and it can be very embarrassing when you use the wrong one, or completely miss the point of what someone has just said – plus obviously it’s frustrating when things you read and listen to are simply beyond your current level of understanding. However, in all these situations you can go away and think about what went wrong, and work hard on acquiring the words you need and learning how to put them in the right order when talking to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Then, hey presto, you’ll be able to understand about 90% of what you read and hear, and people will be able to understand you pretty much all the time.

And then what? Your language skills are now good enough for you to be able to make friends with people, read what you want to read, do a job, study a new subject, and so on. You’ve finished! Except, er, you haven’t. Not even nearly. Slowly you discover that despite all your hard work and dedication, your careful acquisition of skills, knowledge and the confidence to put them to good use, despite all your careful study of grammar and your acquisition of all the vocabulary you could possibly need, there are still occasions on which you think: I don’t get this. Or: I wish I had exactly the right words in order to say what I want to say. You feel frustrated. Is there some secret classroom in which people are learning all this stuff, and if so how where do you sign up for the course?!

So what do you do? Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a job which stretches your skills and challenges you to learn new things. Or you might have a hobby which stimulates you to acquire lots of nuanced vocabulary expressing very specific things which you don’t need even know how to say in your own language, along with the complex grammar which allows you to express all sorts of very particular meanings. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be living in a country in which the language is widely spoken, in which case you have the opportunity to engage with the local culture: hang out with the locals, follow the local news, become a fully-paid up member of this other society, which will mean learning all sorts of new things, many of which, as I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t know how to express in your own language. You’ll make lots of friends with whom you never speak your own language, and discover new things with and through them. You’ll be using the language as a medium to explore and engage with the wider world, in addition to just your ‘target’ culture.

Does all of this mean that your language skills will inevitably improve? Well, yes, it does. Your vocabulary will expand immeasurably, meaning that you will be able to understand even more of what you see and hear. Some things may get stuck, of course. Most probably you will have developed your own grammar in the language, finding shortcuts which simply seem to make more sense than all those fiddly structural elements which you can never quite see the purpose of. You might be one of those people who finds it easier to use grammar accurately when you write rather than when you speak. In any case, given that you are using the language in order to carry out increasing number of complex and demanding tasks, whether at work or play, the only criticism that anyone might make of your language is that you ‘have a bit of an accent’, which is what people say when they encounter non-standard syntax and word grammar which, although it expresses things in a slightly different way, does the job pretty well pretty much all the time.

But what about that other accent, all those sounds that never come out quite like when the locals say them? What if people ever find out that you’re (shock horror) a foreigner?! Well, your accent might disappear eventually. It might not. Research has discovered countless times that the key issue here is identification with the target language community. If you happen to be learning English, then problem solved: the English language speaking community is one of which you are already a member. Depending on where you live and who you live with, you might end up speaking standard English with a Scottish accent, a South African one, or even a Brazilian accent. Which would clearly be no bad thing, especially if you yourself happen to be Brazilian. The most important thing is that you sound like yourself – after, wasn’t wanting to express yourself the very reason you started out learning a language in the first place?

So what can you do while you’re waiting for all these things to fall into place? Well, if you’re worried about your grammar, try to pay careful attention to how you speak and how your grammar is different from how other people around you express the same thoughts. The same goes for your vocabulary and pronunciation, obviously. Try to copy those around you, and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t copy everybody, of course, otherwise you might end up sounding like someone three times older and two times posher than you. Identify people who you want to speak more like, and copy them. If you’re mixing with people and using the language in a variety of situations this will happen naturally, of course. But it certainly helps to give it a bit of a push if you’re in a hurry.

Two fun activities for very high-level classes

In celebration of my having recently welcomed my 2,000th visitor to this now two-month-old site, I decided to share two of my favourite activities for EFL classes.

A rejoinder: these activities are for very high level classes with whom you have an excellent rapport and who are immune to a bit of very bad language (NB do not do the first activity if you might lose your job as a result).

Activity 1: Why?

The first activity is great for getting the students to practise thinking on their feet, quickly applying whatever language they have in order to negotiate subjects they probably haven’t discussed in English before.


1. Warmer: Ask the class if they have kids, younger siblings, etc. Elicit any examples of stupid or awkward questions they’ve been asked. Have a couple of your own examples to hand in case they can’t think of any. Tell them they’re going to play a game related to this theme, and you’re going to start by showing them someone demonstrating how the game works.

2. Show them this:

3. Ask them if they liked it and deal with any language issues (this may involve asking them if they want to watch it again – I’ve also made you a transcript and it’s here). Then tell them you’re going to start and then it’ll be their turns.

4. Tell them something random about yourself or the world, eg ‘It’s a nice day today’ or ‘I’m going to get my hair cut after class’ (ie. start with something light. If you begin with ‘I’m worried about Trump’ or ‘I read something about climate change that really scared me’ things will get very, very depressing very, very quickly). Elicit the question ‘Why?’. Try to answer each question in an entertaining way. You need to keep going until the whole thing collapses into absurdity, hopefully in the form of laughter.

5. Choose the most able student in the group to go first. Before they start, explain the rules: they can’t say ‘I don’t know’ and they can’t repeat an answer.

6. Feel free to step in if it seems that they’re being tortured – it needs to be in a spirit of fun.

If it works well (and this depends on your choosing the right class and ‘selling’ the idea to them by being entertaining when demonstrating it), this game can very rapidly lead to extremely profound (and silly) conversations about topics such as philosophy, psychology, history, science, etc. Then, if you (and they) like, you could use the questions that come up as the basis for a writing assignment or (if it is a nice day) prepare a questionnaire with the most impossible-to-answer questions that emerged and send them out onto the street. I’ve done this before and it works well, as people tend, when faced with EFL students with clipboards, to expect questions like ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ rather than ‘What is history?’ or ‘Why do numbers exist?’. You can easily get them to (consensually) film the voxpops they do and then use them in class in multifarious ways. Etc.

Activity 2: Sentence Stress Game

This activity is very easy to set up and huge fun to do.


1. Write up on the board:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher. (Make sure you get the right number of ‘hads’ – it’s 11.)

2. Tell them this is a meaningful sentence, but there’s something missing – get them to tell you what it is (A: punctuation). Explain that they will be able to make sense of the sentence if they practise saying it out loud, thinking about which words to stress and where to pause.

3.Put them in pairs and get them to practise. Rotate the pairs every three or so minutes for about ten minutes or so, or until most of them have more or less got it.

4. Elicit the punctuated version (James, while John had had “had had”, had had “had”. “Had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.) and put it on the board. Check their understanding by asking who got the right answer (A: John). Drill it as you go.

5. Write up the following sentence:

The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.

6. Put them in pairs and ask them to rewrite the sentence.

7. Monitor carefully, not offering any specific suggestions. See who ‘gets’ it first.

8. Elicit the correct answer (something along the lines of ‘the dog bit the cat, which chased the rat, but the rat escaped’). Write up the original sentence in the following form and then drill it, moving your hands up and down to demonstrate the right ‘tone’ – encourage them to do the same:

the rat escaped.

the cat chased

the dog bit

9. If you have time and your students seem to be enjoying it, write up the following sentence:

What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?

10. Ask if anyone has seen this sentence before (one or two might have, but tell them not to give the game away). Put them in pairs and ask them to talk about who is speaking, to whom, and when. Give them three minutes or so, rotate them if they’re struggling.

11. Elicit the ‘real’ context (young child talking to parent at bedtime). Drill the sentence.

12. For a final whole-class activity, get them to identify the purpose of each preposition.

Et voilà! Feel free to let me know how it goes (except if you get sacked). And thanks for visiting my site :-).