131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA


It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.


Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.


There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.


124. Think-Time in ELT class


As teachers, when you ask students to pair up, give them a context and tell them to have a conversation, do you ever wonder why the students usually produce shallow linguistic outputs?

I have done the same expecting the students to have a ‘great’ conversation where they use a variety of vocabulary items, complex construction and perfect grammatical forms. Most often than not, I would get disappointed with the types of sentences they would come up with.

And as Marc Helgesen explained in his session on “Think time” during his training titled “ELT and the science of happiness”, as teachers we give students very little time to think and construct answers. Similarly, he said that teachers tend to forget that ‘happiness’ is a very crucial factor that determines students’ capabilities to respond with well formed answers.

If we give students some moment to ‘think’, they can demonstrate increased fluency, increased complexity and increased accuracy. Likewise, they can use a range of vocabulary as well.

Here’s a sample activity:

Suppose you are making the students practice “WH-question” structures. First, show them these cues:

“Talk about a time….”

(are) very happy
(lose) something important
(hear) wonderful news
(take) a long trip
(get) a special present
(are) in a game or contest
(make) someone happy
(are) angry
(speak) English for the first time
(do) something stupid
(buy) something special
(go) to a wedding
(wear) special clothes
(find) something
(feel) sad
(eat) strange food

Now, here’s the tweak.

Ask them to choose only 5 out of the list. This way, they can choose the topics to talk about.
And ask them to think and visualize about those time.

Then in pairs of A and B, A asks B about those 5 moments, and vice versa.

This is a very simple yet effective activity to engage students in a very enriching way.

Key takeaways:

Don’t jump right into any task.
Engage students in warm up activities, happy activities to be specific.
Give them some time to think and form answers in their minds.
Then tell them to do the task.

(Marc Helgesen was one of the key speakers of NELTA International Conference 2015, held in February. I got to attend his pre-conference training session on Feb 14 and 15. Marc teaches in Japan and incorporates positive psychology in his language classroom. His website: www.eltandhappiness.com)

119. Delivering my first TOT session

On December 30, 2014 I had an amazing opportunity to deliver a master training session for the trainers of English language teachers, held at National Center for Education Development (NCED) Sanothimi. The training was a part of Ministry of Education’s continuous professional development for teachers.

Generally called the TOT, it was a new experience for me. It was more of a sharing session than a training session with these twenty experienced trainers. I can’t thank enough to my mentor Laxman sir for encouragement and the opportunity.







77. Easier said than done but if worse comes to worst, just hang in there!

Easier said than done but if worse comes to worst, just hang in there!
(Published on Nelta Choutari, December 2013 Issue)

Umes Shrestha
Lecturer, blogger and a podcaster

Right at the outset, let me state that I am taking a very controversial stance here. Because many supporters of World Englishes believe that for second language learners of English, gaining native like competence of English is a myth. It’s not possible, and, in essence, it’s not necessary. Let’s face it, they also tell you that the ‘coded-down’ version of English (or the English as Lingua Franca) is the only way forward because English will eventually lose its standard-ness.

Fine by me but here’s my stance. If a learner wants to speak (or write) English better, he/she has to try and learn how the native speakers of English use the language in real life context. In addition to acquiring the sense of vocabulary, structure, forms and semantics, the learner also has to develop the pragmatic fluency in English. (I am not talking about American accent or British accent or any such accent, though.) Therefore, I strongly believe that only by learning and acquiring unique characteristics and nuances of English language will the learners become more competent and proficient in it.

Some of the areas of such nuances in a language are the use of figurative expressions (idiomatic expressions, phrases, proverbs, etc). Similar to our own Nepali language, English language is also very rich in such figurative expressions. Using these expressions (let’s say: idioms) add color and imagination in speech and in writing. This obviously holds true for all the language. Nepali language would most certainly be pretty bland if it didn’t have any figurative expressions. So, by mastering the use of English idioms, one’s English can become more natural and less awkward, more articulated and less dull. Learners and users of English will be able to produce and interact in English at a different creative level.

Normally, we don’t find any trace of this concept in standard textbooks because the curriculum and syllabus are usually ‘water-downed’ for general learners of English. Just flip through Our English books for Class 9 and 10. Why there’s no focus on this aspect of English is quite beyond me. English magazines, newspapers, stories, TV shows, movies are however full of figurative expressions. Imagine the shock and dismay when learners discover the real English used in real contexts, when they find that the English in real life can be quite different than the English in textbooks. Hence there are always chances that students and learners know English language but do not know how to use and understand English language competently and fluently.

And even when students use or try to understand the meaning of idioms, they try to translate them word-for-word at a very literal level. But translating the idioms into one’s mother tongue will only compound the problem. Figurative expressions are unique properties of a language and when translated into another language, they usually lose their true essence and purpose.


For instance, let’s consider the sentence with a very common idiom:

Sentence 1: He insulted me and I lost my temper.

In Nepali the literal meaning of ‘to lose’ is ‘haraaunu’.

Sentence 2: I lost my money. (maile paisa haraaye)
Sentence 3: I lost my book yesterday. (maile hijo kitab haraaye)

These two sentences 2 and 3 make sense even when translated into Nepali. But. If a Nepali learner of English translates the Sentence 1 in the similar vein, he/she will only come up with confused and even nonsensical meaning. This is the reason why the figurative expressions are difficult to learn, acquire and eventually master.

Similarly, the following sentences can be difficult for Nepali learners to understand and to use in their real contexts because, again, translation doesn’t help.

Sentence 4:       I can’t stand Science class because it is way over my head.
Sentence 5:       You don’t stand a chance of getting good score in Science because it is
way over your head.

And, here are some real instances from my classroom.
Me:                  Alright students, let’s wrap up today’s lesson.
Student:            (with a confused face) Sir, wrap ta gift lai garne hoina?
Sir, we only wrap gifts, don’t we?

Me:                  Guys and girls, keep it down.
Student:            What to keep down?

Thus, unless a learner ‘develops a knack’ for figurative expressions through practice and enough exposure, it will be difficult for him/her to develop English language competency.

Moreover, using figurative expressions adds ‘fun’ to the English language. It’s thrilling and it’s entertaining. Many a times, it’s defamiliarizing. (Here’s the buzzword!). And it goes without saying that ‘enjoying the language’ is one of the most essential requirements to learning and acquiring a second language. We can also call this fun element an ‘intrinsic motivation’ or ‘internal drive’ to get better and to prosper in the language one is learning.

So, I request my fellow English language teachers to incorporate figurative expressions in their teaching as per their discretion. We all know… we will have to put in a little extra effort because it may not be in the textbooks. But don’t give it a second thought. Implement it. You’ll enjoy it. The students will enjoy it.

I hope you will just give it a shot!

Some links:

Devil’s Advocate vs Vicki Hollett on ELF

Chia Suan Chong speaks about English as a Lingua Franca

49. Nelta Janakpur Conference – Teaching English through Songs


We were to present just the  pecha-kucha during the Janakpur phase of the 18th International Nelta Conference, however, due to some luck (or bad luck) many presenters had backed out and that meant I too could present one more during the parallel sessions.

So my session would be “Teaching English through Songs”. Of lately, I’ve been incorporating songs in the classroom to teach English language from a fun-perspective so I was quite prepared to do this session.

– to discuss and come up with various ways to use a song in the class
– to discuss similarities of a song with poems: alliteration, rhyming words, rhythm, etc
– to use songs in both inductive and deductive ways to teach vocabulary, word chunks/collocation to the students
– to focus on grammar and sentence structures
– to make students write their own version of the lyrics based on the melody
– and in general, to make teaching more effective and interesting, to make the students feel at home and reduce any affective filters.

Ugly Kid Joe‘s beautiful song “Cloudy Skies” is one of the perfect songs that can be used in the classroom. It’s not that heavy, it is not ‘pop’ either. And, after a 40 min discussion and a demo, the participants were able to do this.

I was quite happy sharing these ideas with the future teachers and students in Janakpur.

36. English, Globish, Hinglish, Netglish

Some interesting reads:

Learn English online: How the internet is changing language

In Hinglish, a co-brother is a brother-in-law; eve-teasing means sexual harassment; an emergency crew responding to a crisis might be described as ‘airdashing’, and somewhat confusing to football fans, a ‘stadium’ refers to a bald man with a fringe of hair. There’s even a new concept of time – “pre-pone”, the opposite of postpone, meaning “to bring something forward”.

English or Hinglish – which will India choose?

The trouble with dysfunctional Hinglish is that it can cause havoc when clear and precise communication is required, whether on a simple taxi ride or in more serious situations like hospitals and law-courts. Young Indians still need better quality, standardised English teaching if they want to access the global knowledge economy and stay ahead of eager new English-speakers in China or Argentina.

Internet + English = Netglish

Crystal says the internet represents the biggest change in communication in the whole of human history. Changes underway, he says, “are immensely bigger” than those which followed the invention of the printing press.