How to get the most out of online language classes

Have your language lessons moved online? Or have you started taking a new course with an online platform? Learning online is becoming more and more popular, and in many areas it may be the only way to take classes at the moment. However, it can feel a little different to a face-to-face course, so I’ve put together a checklist to help you get the most out of your online classes.

Practice makes perfect

Before starting online lessons, check what platform you’re going to use. Find out if you need to download any software and if possible, test it before the lesson. There are also lots of YouTube tutorials on how to use platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Webex or Hangouts.

Equipment

If you can, it’s best to use a laptop or desktop computer. The screen is bigger and it’s easier to type or share documents. However, a phone or tablet will also work well with most platforms.

Headsets can help to make sure you can hear your teacher well and they can hear you. They also reduce background noise. The headset that came with your mobile phone is fine for this!

If possible, connect to the internet with an ethernet cable rather than wifi. This will make the connection more stable by linking your computer directly to the router.

Lights, camera, action!

It will help your teacher if you use a camera. They can see if you understand well, and it makes the lesson more natural. If you’re in a group, it’s also nice to see your classmates. It’s best to sit somewhere light, and position your camera at eye-level. Don’t sit too close to the camera.

Preparation is key

Aim to come to the ‘classroom’ five minutes before the lesson starts. That way, if you have problems connecting, you won’t lose any lesson time. This is especially important for the first online lesson.

Close any documents or programmes you don’t need as they can slow down your device.

Prepare your workspace as you would if you went to class: make sure you have paper and a pen, a drink, and switch your phone to silent.

Keep calm and carry on

Don’t worry if you have problems with the platform or your device. Often leaving the platform and coming back again solves the problem. If there’s a problem with your device, you could try restarting it. If the connection is bad, try using an ethernet cable or turning the router off and on again.

If you can’t hear the teacher or other students well, try using the chat box to ask for help or give others tips. Here are some useful phrases to use in online classes.

Organisation

Check with your teacher which notes they will send you, so you know what you should write down during the lesson. Your teacher may send you notes or homework after your lesson, so it’s a good idea to have a folder where you save all these documents together. Some students like to print them out too.

Staying in touch

Check you know how to contact your teacher or school outside of the lessons. This is important in case you have questions, can’t come to a lesson or have technical problems.

If you don’t already have one, you could set up a group chat on an instant messaging app for everyone in your class. This is a good way to catch up on anything you miss in class or homework. It’s also great for practising the language with your classmates.


Learning online may feel different to face-to-face lessons, but it can be a great opportunity to stay in touch with others and keep learning while many of us are at home.

Do you have any other tips for online language classes?

Present perfect or past simple?

I have gone or I went? I saw or I have seen? How do I talk about experiences in the past? And how do I use for to describe past events? The English language is famous for its different tenses, and it can be difficult to know when to use which. Here are some questions we can ask to decide if we should use the present perfect or the past simple.

Form

As a quick reminder, this is how we form the past simple:

  • I visited my friend. (Regular verbs add -ed; irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. went.)
  • I didn’t visit my brother.
  • Did you visit your friend?

To ask questions and form negative sentences, we need the helping verb did or didn’t. In these sentences we use the base form of the main verb; we don’t need both verbs in the past.

The present perfect looks like this:

  • I have visited Japan. (As with the past simple, regular verbs add -ed, irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. gone.)
  • I haven’t visited Thailand.
  • Have you visited Japan?

In every sentence in the present perfect, we always need the helping verb have or has. These are often shortened to ‘ve or ‘s, especially when we speak. We also need the past participle of the main verb (also known as the third form).

Is the action still happening now?

We use the present perfect to talk about things that are still happening now.

  • I lived in Rome in 2015. (not ongoing – I don’t live there now)
  • I have lived in Madrid since 2016. (ongoing – I still live there now)
  • He worked at the company last summer. (not ongoing – he doesn’t work there now)
  • He has worked at the company for one year. (ongoing – he still works there now)
  • We played tennis at that club for two years. (not ongoing – we don’t play now)
  • We have played tennis at this club for six months. (ongoing – we still play)

Is the time point important?

We often use the present perfect to talk about experiences and things that have happened at some point in our lives. Here, the time is not important. However, when we talk about a specific event or give a time point (e.g. yesterday, last week, in 2018), we use the past simple.

  • I have visited Japan. (at some point but the time is not important)
  • I visited Japan in 2013. (specific event)
  • Have you ever been to Canada? (at some point)
  • I went to Canada last summer. (specific event)
  • I have seen the new James Bond film. (at some point)
  • I saw it at the cinema with my friend. (specific event)

Can we see the results of the action now?

If that action is important for the present, we often use the present perfect. For example:

  • I lost my keys. (not relevant for now)
  • I have found my keys. (I have them now)
  • Last week I baked a cake. (not relevant for now)
  • I have baked some brownies. (they are here now)
  • I passed my driving test first time. (not relevant for now)
  • I have passed my exam. (this is news now)

Are there signal words?

There are some words that we often use with either the present perfect or past simple. These include:

  • Present perfect: since, already, yet, just, ever
  • Past simple: last week, yesterday, last week, in 2018, in February, on Tuesday

The preposition for is often used with both the present perfect and the past simple, as well as with other tenses. It is used to show how something lasts, for example:

  • I have studied French for two years. (ongoing – I still study French)
  • I studied French for two years. (not ongoing – I don’t study French now)

These are some of the main things to think about when we’re not sure if we should use the present perfect or past simple. Do you have any other tips to help you remember which tense to use?

How to say the ‘-ed’ sound like a native speaker

Pronunciation is one of the hardest things about learning English. You have practised using the past tense and know that regular verbs add -ed. Writing these verbs is easy, but saying them can be difficult because -ed can have different sounds. Here are the three different sounds and how to know when to use them.

/ɪd/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in a d or t sound. This /ɪd/ sound makes another syllable at the end of the verb.

  • wanted: “want-id”
  • found: “found-id”
  • ground: “ground-id”
  • land: “land-id”
  • visit: “visit-id”
  • paint: “paint-id”

What counts is the last sound, so even if the last letter of the verb is an e, if it sounds like a d or a t, we add /ɪd/ .

  • taste: “taste-id”
  • waste: “waste-id”
  • promote: “promote-id”
  • code: “code-id”
  • shade: “shade-id”

/d/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in voiced sounds. A voiced sound is a sound we use our voice box (in the throat) to create. There is a simple test to check if a sound is voiced. Place your fingers across the front of your neck and say one sound or letter. If you feel a vibration in your throat, the sound is voiced. All vowel sounds are voiced. The other voiced sounds are:

  • /b/ “b”
  • /d/ “d”
  • /g/ “g”
  • /ʤ/ “j”
  • /l/ “l”
  • /m/ “m”
  • /n/ “n”
  • /r/ “r”
  • /v/ “v”
  • /w/ “w”
  • /j/ “y”
  • /z/ “z”
  • /ð/ “th” in this
  • /ʒ/ “s” in vision
  • /ŋ/ “ng”

When we add the /d/ sound, there is no extra syllable, so a verb with one syllable still only has one syllable in the past form. Some examples of verbs that ended in a voiced sound and add the /d/ sound are:

  • logged: “log-d”
  • thrived: “thrive-d”
  • advised: “advise-d”
  • planned: “plan-d”
  • called: “call-d”
  • played: “play-d”
  • tried: “try-d”
  • measure: “measure-d”

/t/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in unvoiced sounds. An unvoiced sound is a sound we do not use our voice box (in the throat) to create. We just use air and the shape of our mouth, tongue and lips to make the sound. If you place a finger across the front of your neck and say an unvoiced letter or sound, there is no vibration. Unvoiced sounds are:

  • /f/ “f”
  • /h/ “h”
  • /k/ “k”
  • /p/ “p”
  • /s/ “s”
  • /t/ “t”
  • /ʧ/ “ch”
  • /ʃ/ “sh”
  • /θ/ “th” in three

If a verb ends with one of the above sounds, we say the -ed as a /t/. Again, we do not add an extra syllable in the past tense, just the /t/ sound. Here are some examples:

  • packed: “pack-t”
  • stopped: “stop-t”
  • missed: “miss-t”
  • watched: “watch-t”
  • wished: “wish-t”
  • mixed: “mix-t”
Extra practice: When you learn new verbs, practise using them in
the past too. Here are more tips on learning vocabulary.

How to say any date in English

Do you have an important event coming up? Do you need to invite someone to a meeting? Or maybe you need to arrange an appointment? Here is your guide to using dates in English.

Weekdays

There are four possible parts to a date: the day, the ordinal number, the month and the year. We’ll start with the weekdays. As a reminder, here they are:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday (“Wensday”)
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Saturday
  • Sunday

It can be difficult to remember the difference between Tuesday and Thursday. Tip: Tuesday has seven letters and Thursday has eight. Thursday is longer so it comes later in the week.

Ordinal numbers

Once you’ve mastered the seven days, you can move on to the date in the month. Often we just add ‘th’ to the number to say the date, e.g. nineth, tenth. However, there are a few special numbers to watch out for:

  • first (twenty-first, thirty-first)
  • second (twenty-second)
  • third (twenty-third)
  • fifth – we swap the ‘ve’ in five for an ‘f’, but when we say it, we make it easier: “fith
  • sixth – we turn the ‘x’ into a ‘k’ sound: “sikth
  • twelfth is pronounced “twelth
  • twentieth is pronounced as three syllables: “twen-ti-uth

Months

The next element is the months. Lots of the months are very close to other Latin-based languages. Here are a few tips to help with pronunciation:

  • January: “jan-yu-ry” (3 syllables)
  • February: “feb-yu-ry” (3 syllables)
  • March
  • April: stress the beginning
  • May: like pay or stay
  • June: one syllable
  • July: “ju-lie” (stress second syllable)
  • August: “OR-gust”
  • September, October, November, December: all stress the second syllable

Years

In British English we say the years as follows:

  • 1900: nineteen hundred
  • 1905: nineteen-oh-five
  • 1998: nineteen ninety-eight
  • 2000: two thousand
  • 2003: two thousand and three
  • 2012: two thousand and twelve (also twenty-twelve)
  • 2020: two thousand and twenty (twenty-twenty)

In American English, the and is often left out. For example:

  • 2003: two thousand three
  • 2012: two thousand twelve

Putting it all together

In British English, the day comes before the month. When we write the date in numbers, it’s 14/06/09. We usually write the full date like this: Monday 14th June or Monday 14 June. However, we say: “Monday the 14th of June“.

In American English, the day is often after the month: 06/14/09 or June 14th. You could say this as either “June 14th” or “June the 14th“.

Extra practice: Change the language settings on the calendar on your 
phone so you regularly review months and weekdays in English. 
You could also go through some important dates for you and practise 
writing and saying them in English. 

Which days or months do you find it hardest to remember? Do you normally say dates in British or American English?

Building negative sentences

So you’ve mastered the tenses, you know the difference between the present simple, perfect and continuous, but negative sentences are still difficult? When do we use an extra helping verb and when can just add not? Here is a brief guide to building negative sentences in English.

Present simple

When we form negative sentences in the present and past simple, we need a helping verb as well as the word not followed by the main verb. In the present, we use do or does:

I do not like chocolate. / I don’t like chocolate.

He does not like chocolate. / He doesn’t like chocolate.

do(es) + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing or to)

As we can see from these examples, we can shorten do not or does not to don’t or doesn’t. We do this a lot when we speak or write informally.

It’s not important what the main verb is, we nearly always need the helping verb to make a negative sentence. Sometimes we can have the verb do twice in once sentence, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb:

She does not do her homework. / She doesn’t do her homework.

This rule also applies to the verb have:

We do not have time. / We don’t have time.

Past simple

It’s the same with the past simple too, but this time we use did not or the short form didn’t:

I did not go to the meeting. / I didn’t go to the meeting.

We did not do the work. / We didn’t do the work.

He did not eat at home. / He didn’t eat at home.

did + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing, -ed or to)

The helping verb stays the same here; we don’t need to change it for he/she/it. Another important point to remember is that we don’t need to put the main verb in the past. The did is enough to show we’re talking about the past.

Exceptions

The only time we don’t need a helping verb with the simple tenses are with the verb be or modal verbs (e.g. can, must, should, might, may, will, shall, etc).

I am not at school. / I’m not at school.

He was not in Spain. / He wasn’t in Spain.

We must not open the door. / We mustn’t open the door.

They cannot pass the test. / They can’t pass the test.

She should not drive. / She shouldn’t drive.

Here, we simply add not after be or the modal verb.

Present continuous

Because we already have a helping verb in the sentence, we just add not between the helping verb and the main verb:

I am not going to the party. / I‘m not going to the party.

We are not giving the presentation. / We‘re not giving the presentation.

He is not learning Japanese. / He‘s not learning Japanese.

Other past tenses

Similarly in other past tenses, we already have a helping verb in the sentence (a form of either have or be). This means we just add not after the helping verb and we’re good to go.

We have not been to the cinema. / We haven’t been to the cinema.

I was not talking to my friend. / I wasn’t talking to my friend.

He had not visited Greece before. / He hadn’t visited Greece before.

Future tenses

When we use the helping verb will, we also just add not to the sentence:

I will not go the conference. / I won’t go the conference.

It will not rain tomorrow. / It won’t rain tomorrow.

Summary

The general rule is that if we already have a helping verb in a sentence, we just add not after the helping verb to make a sentence negative. If there is no helping verb (like in the present or past simple), we need to add one (e.g. do or did). There are, however, some exceptions, such as with the verb be or modal verbs.


Do you have other helpful tips for building negative sentences? Or do you have more questions? Feel free to post them in the comments below.

Five common mistakes when learning English

Learning a language is not always easy. There are new words to learn, grammar structures to master and different situations to practise using our new skills. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when speaking a new language; it’s part of the learning process. I’ve collected five common mistakes when learning English and some tips on how to correct them.

1. If + will/would

If sentences can be confusing. There are lots of different types of if sentences and we can even mix them. However, one important rule is that will or would do not go in the same part of the sentence as if. They do not like each other! Here are some examples:

If I will see her, I will tell her.
If I see her, I will tell her.

If I would get the job, I would be very happy.

If I got the job, I would be very happy.

2. Double past tense

When we make negative sentences or questions in the past tense, we normally use the helping verb did or didn’t. This verb shows we are talking about the past. That means we don’t add -ed or use the past form of the main verb. For example:

I didn’t went to the show.
I didn’t go to the show.

Did you saw the email?
Did you see the email?

More tips on building negative sentences.

3. When to use present perfect

There are several rules that help us to decide if we need present perfect or simple past. Probably the most important one is that we cannot use present perfect with time words that show that something is finished, such as:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • last month
  • on Tuesday
  • in October
  • in 2017
  • in the morning

Have you gone to the gym yesterday?
Did you go to the gym yesterday?

Has she called the client last week?
Did she call the client last week?

I’ve written on more tips on using the present perfect and past simple here.

4. Negative modal verbs

Modal verbs are special helping verbs. When we make a negative sentence with a modal verb (can, must, may, should, must, might, etc) we do not use don’t. Instead, we just add not after the modal verb.

I don’t can speak Spanish.
I can’t speak Spanish.

You don’t should wear your hat inside.
You shouldn’t wear your hat inside.

Must has special rules!

We don’t must finish the presentation today.
We don’t have to finish the presentation today.
(We can, but it’s not necessary.)

Note: We mustn’t smoke in the office.
(It is forbidden.)

5. Present simple or continuous?

This is a common mistake for both beginners and advanced learners. If an action is repeated, we use simple present. If an action is right now or for a short time around now, we use present continuous.

Every day I’m starting work at 8am.
Every day I start work at 8am.

At the moment I learn Russian.
At the moment I’m learning Russian.

More tips about present tenses can be found here.


Do you have any other tips to help with these topics? What do you find most difficult in English?

Essential phrases for your English class

Starting a new class can be scary. What if I don’t understand the teacher? What if I forget how to ask for something? What if I can’t talk to the other students? Being prepared can help us feel more confident in a new situation. Here are some phrases to help you in the classroom.

To the teacher

  • What does… mean? (You don’t understand a word.)
  • How do you spell…..? (You don’t know how to write a word.)
  • How do you say this word? (You don’t know how the word sounds.)
  • Can you repeat it?
  • I’ve finished.
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • I don’t understand this question.
  • Where is….?
  • I didn’t hear…
  • What page are we on?

Getting to know other students

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your job?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Have you been to this school before?
  • Have you long have you been learning English?

Working together with other students

  • Shall we work together?
  • What do you think about question …?
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • Would you like to do question/role …?
  • Do you have a pen/piece of paper?

Discussions

  • What do you think about…?
  • What’s your opinion?
  • I agree/disagree.
  • I see your point, but …
  • That’s a good point.
  • Have you thought about …?

Online classes

  • Can you hear/see me?
  • How do I turn on the microphone/camera?
  • How do I leave the meeting?
  • How do I mute the microphone?
  • I can’t hear/see you (clearly).
  • The connection is poor.
  • The connection stopped.
  • I will re-start the meeting.

Which of these phrases do you use in class? Can you think of more to add to the list?

Say or tell?

Many languages have just one verb to express both say and tell, but in English there is an important difference between the two. Confusing the two can sometimes change the meaning of the sentence. But, don’t fear! There is a simple trick to remember when to use each verb.

The basic rule is we say something, but we tell someone something.

I said (that) I was leaving.

I told my friend (that) I was leaving.

That is optional in these sentences.

If we use the verb say and wanted to include the person, we need to before the person’s name.

I said to my friend (that) I was leaving.

More example sentences:

We said (that) the meeting room was booked.

We told our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

We said to our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

They said (that) they would go.

They told us (that) they would go.

They said to us (that) they would go.

Phrases with tell

There are also some special phrases with the verb tell, for example:

  • to tell the truth
  • to tell a lie
  • to tell the difference
  • to tell the time
  • to tell tales

Can you think of more examples?

Are there any other verbs you find difficult to use in English?

15 English/German false friends

One challenge – and source of confusion – for all language-learners is false friends. German and English do share many words which have either been adopted from the other language or which have similar linguistic roots. However, so-called false friends look or sound similar in two languages but have entirely different meanings! Here are 15 common false friends in English and German that often catch learners out.

eventuell/eventually

eventuell = perhaps

eventually = schließlich/letztendlich

irritieren/to irritate

This one could cause offence if misunderstood: if you are ‘irritiert’ in German, you are not irritated but confused!

irritieren = to confuse

to irritate = nerven

weil/while

weil = because

while = während (noun = die Weile)

das Gift/gift

das Gift = poison

gift = das Geschenk

aktuell/actual

aktuell = current

actual = tatsächlich

When spoken, different syllables are stressed: aktuell vs actual

sensibel/sensible

sensibel = sensitive

sensible = vernünftig

Note that the stress is different here too: sensibel vs sensible

Who/wer/where/wo

This four-way false cognate is particularly confusing for beginners!

wo = where

wer = who

spenden/spend

The German ‘spenden’ has a more charitable meaning than the false friend ‘spend’.

spenden = to donate

to spend = ausgeben

die Milliarde/million

Numbers are also a sticking point when learning a new language. Mixing these two words completely changes the amount you are talking about!

die Milliarde = billion

million = die Million

(die Billion = trillion)

der Chef/chef

These two professions have very different roles in the workplace!

der Chef = boss

chef = der Koch

das Gymnasium/gymnasium

And these two locations have very different functions!

das Gymnasium = grammar school

gymnasium = die Sporthalle

kontrollieren/to control

Though these two words can sometimes have a similar meaning, for example in the sense of ‘quality control’, they are often confused by learners of both languages.

kontrollieren = to check

to control = steuern/leiten/beeinflussen

checken/to check

checken = to understand/get it

to check = prüfen/kontrollieren

Note that ‘checken’ is a colloquial word most often used by younger people. It can also be used in the context of checking emails (‘meine E-Mails checken’).

die Nudeln/noodles

German uses ‘Nudeln’ to describe both noodles and pasta. To avoid confusion, you can specify that you’re talking about ‘asiatische Nudeln’ when you mean noodles.

die Nudeln = pasta/noodles

noodles = asiatische Nudeln

bekommen/to become

Lastly, the ultimate English/German false friend:

bekommen = to receive

to become = werden


I hope you find these tips helpful. 🙂 Do you know any other English/German false friends? If so, feel free to share them below.

Top podcasts to learn English

Podcasts are an excellent way to practise listening skills. There are podcasts out there for every level and interest, and often they are short, so you can listen more than once to understand as much as possible. Many podcasts also come with an audio script or even interactive activities, so you can read along as you listen or test your understanding. Another great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else, like travelling to work or cooking dinner. This means you can practise English without finding extra time in your day.

My top tip for working with podcasts would be not to worry about understanding every word. Even when we listen in our native language, we miss words or we don’t understand a phrase. It doesn’t matter because we understand enough information to know what the presenter is talking about. This is the same when we’re learning a new language: we don’t need to know every word. Instead, it’s better to try and understand the main ideas. If we listen again a second or third time, we can pick up more details.

There are plenty of podcasts specifically for learners on particular topics or grammar structures, but we can also use more general interest podcasts in English to help improve our skills. I have collected some of my favourite podcasts for English learners below.

British Council

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate +
  • These podcasts are like radio shows.
  • The LearnEnglish podcasts discuss different topics from every life and also follow the story of a student moving to the UK.
  • There are also podcasts aimed at professionals, as well as ones focusing on writing skills and British culture.
  • On the website there are online activities and transcripts (can also be downloaded as a PDF).
  • The LearnEnglish Podcasts app shows the script of the podcast and highlights the sentence so you can read along. It’s possible to make the audio slower. There are also interactive activities for each episode.
  • Average length: 5-30 minutes

BBC 6 Minute English

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate + (depending on grammar topic)
  • 6 Minute Grammar podcasts are short, understandable podcasts from the BBC are a great way to help you understand tricky grammar topics. Each episode includes a short, clear description, lots of examples and a short quiz at the end.
  • 6 Minute English is like a short radio show on general interest topics, such as politics, the economy and psychology. There are also notes on key vocabulary and a question to answer when listening.
  • 6 Minute Vocabulary focuses on different vocabulary topics, such as words for particular situations or words easily confused. It also gives tips on how to use the new words.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are also available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 6 minutes

BBC The English We Speak

  • Aimed at upper intermediate +
  • These are short podcasts on special expressions or idioms to help you sound more natural when speaking English.
  • The transcripts are available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 2-3 minutes

TED

  • Aimed at native speakers, for upper intermediate and advanced students.
  • These talks are on a range of topics, including science, technology, the economy, society, the environment and personal development.
  • The talks are usually clearly spoken and well structured, making them easier to follow. They are also a good way to get used to different accents.
  • In the app, it’s possible to shows subtitles in a language of your choice (I recommend English) and to reduce the speed.
  • Average length: 15-20 mins (Radio hour 60 mins)

Luke’s English Podcast

  • Aimed at intermediate +
  • Relaxed talk shows on a variety of topics, including British culture,general interest and the presenter Luke’s life.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are available in the app.
  • Most of the podcasts are free, but there is some premium content.
  • Average length: 1 hour

Which podcasts do you listen to? Share your favourites in the comments below.