Michelle's independent resources for ESL Students at Vancouver Community College

This is a Canadian ESL blog for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons, tutorials and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, speaking, writing and editing. Some of the resources are Canadian. Others are from around the world.

The resources on this Canadian blog are all free, and I spend a lot of my time working on it, so please consider becoming a SUPPORTER. I appreciate all the support I get. It is the fuel that keeps me going.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Choosing Baby's Gender

Dear readers, 
I've been so busy lately that I've taken a little break from posting; however I will be back soon, probably within the next week. If there is anything you would like me to write about or discuss, please let me know in the comment box, or email me. 

Choosing Baby's Gender? 

In the meantime, here is writing question to give you a chance to practice expressing and supporting an opinion with valid, logical reasons.

In 2004 Canada prohibited  medical methods that would allow parents to choose their baby's sex. However, the United States has clinics that make it possible for families select the gender of their child. As a result, many Canadians  are traveling to the United States to make sure their baby is a boy OR a girl.

Countries such as China, South Korea and India have  practiced sex section for some time; however  according to an analysis in the CMAJ  Canadian Medical Association Journal  in the next 20 years, there will be 10% to 20% more young men than women in large parts of China and India because of sex selection. According to the study, this surplus of boys will have serious effects social effects


Do you think parents should have the right to choose whether their baby will be a boy or a girl, and to get rid of the baby if they find out they are having a girl?  Explain your reasons.

Write your opinion in the comment box below.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Language Usage Problems in ESL Writing

When you write or speak English, it is important to know how to use words that go together. We call this collocation  in English. 

When you use words that are naturally used together, your fluency increases dramatically because  you sound like a native speaker or writer. But when you use unusual word combinations - especially of basic vocabulary - these expressions immediately jump out as WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Not only do they not sound English, they make your writing or speaking sound noticeably unnatural. They also destroy the flow of your writing. 

Although using correct grammar is important when you write, it is just as important to use words that go together because words convey meaning. When used improperly, they cause confusion, or sometimes laughter.  

The best way to learn vocabulary is to learn new words with the words they are usually, or always used with.  This applies to ALL words, especially the ordinary every day words you use all the time. A classic example is to learn the expression "commit a crime" as  one expression, or chunk. If you start out using word combinations incorrectly. you will develop the bad habit of always speaking and wiring them incorrectly.
Whenever you make "expression or vocabulary usage"  mistakes, try to learn from them. Rewrite the correct way of using the words together many times in as many different contexts as possible. Say them out loud as often as you can. That way they are much more likely to stay with you. 

If you are at the advanced level in your English learning, or trying to find a job in an English company or setting, these basic vocabulary errors can  prevent you from moving ahead much more than if you use a comma incorrectly or forget an article or two.  Words - even little words need to be used correctly 

The following English usage errors come from my own students' writing during different terms. I am using them because t hey are very representative of usage errors commonly made by ESL students. 

Starting this week I will regularly post common English usage errors I find in student writing  and the correct English way to use them.  I hope they are useful!

Not English Usage                   Correct English Usage 

Make homework                                         Do homework                         
Do a mistake                                              Make a mistake  
Make a resume                                           Write a resume 
Make my job properly                                 Do my job properly
Make good work                                         Do good work/ do a good job              
It gave me a lesson                                    It taught me a lesson/ I learned a lesson   

 Learn an article                                         Read an article 
Get a good result in school                       Get or obtain good marks 
Get improvement                                        Improve 
It made me hurt                                         It hurt me, it caused me pain 
Pass in front of the line                             Cut in line 
I need to support my living                       I need to support myself, my family  
We get knowledge                                     We acquire knowledge, OR we learn
Learn knowledge                                        Learn    
All my family, all my city                             My whole family. my whole city, BUT all                                                                         my friends                                                                             
To find out more about how to use "make, do, have, get, go to the Vocabulary pages and scroll down for exercises in the collocation section. Read about collocations first.

If you have any comments, or other expressions or word combinations, you want to know about, leave a comment.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Improve Your Writing: Don't Translate

If you really want really to improve your writing, stop thinking in your own language and translating the words into English.

I know this seems like an impossible task, and if you are at the beginner or intermediate level, you will have a lot of problems doing this.

But, if you are at an advanced level, you absolutely MUST force yourself to think in English when you are speaking or writing -  even if the words and ideas seem too simple when you do.

I know that many of you don't believe me. You feel that that if you think in your own language and then translate your thoughts into English, your ideas will appear to be more sophisticated and thoughtful than if you only think in English.

Unfortunately, you are completely wrong.  Your method will never work. No matter how much you want this to be true, you are just fooling yourself.

The reality is that if you continue to think in your own language and translate into English, your writing will remain just as bad as it is now, no matter how long you practice. .

Translation doesn't work

Translation simply does not work. Many English words and expressions simply do not translate or even exist in your language, and many of your words and expressions cannot be translated into English. As well, the basic sentence structure, word order and even basic grammar is often completely different.

When you use the Russian, Korean, Chinese, Farsi or Spanish way of expressing yourself, the words themselves might be English, and the sentence structure may look English - especially if you see sentences that seem to have subjects and verbs, but the meaning will be either funny, confusing or both.

Sometimes, your ideas might make some sense if the reader really tries hard to understand what you are trying to say. But, they won't sound English.  They will read and sound like exactly like what they are: a group of awkward sentences that are " sort of" English, Chinglish, Spanglish, Koringlish, etc.

Unfortunately, most of the time your ideas will simply come across as English word salad. - a confusing group  of words that happen to be English.

How to Help Yourself Think in English

There are several ways you can learn to stop translating when you write. They all involve practice, and they all involve not giving up after the first few attempts.

  • Practice rapid writing every single day.  By this I mean write about any topic that comes into your head for 10 solid minutes without stopping to lift your pencil off the paper. If you do this, you will not have time to stop and think in your own language and then translate.  If you continue doing this, you will eventually naturally start thinking in English. You will still make mistakes, but at least your sentences will be English sentences. 

  • Speak out loud when you write in English. Start at the sentence level, especially if you are simply doing grammar exercises that require complete sentences. In this way, you are training your brain to hear and understand English phrasing. You are also subconsciously teaching yourself correct English sentence structure by using four parts of your body instead of two: your eyes, your hands, your ears, and your mouth.

  • Then, start saying the words and sentences in your paragraphs essays out loud AS you write. As soon as you find yourself switching back to thinking in Chinese, or Spanish, Korean or Russian, stop yourself immediately.  Go back to the English. Listen to how your words sound. They won't sound perfect, but if you are at the advanced level, you will certainly know if your sentence sounds English or not - especially if doesn't make sense.
  • If you are at home, you can speak as loudly as you want. If you are in class, mumble or whisper. The point is to prevent yourself from thinking in your language. When you speak the words and sentence structure in English, you will NOT be translating.  When you catch  
A Successful Method:  
I know this method sound crazy, but believe me, it works. I've been teaching students how to write in English for almost 20 years, and those who actually try this method and continue to use it improve dramatically.
The most important point to remember about this method is not to give up too soon. Accept that you WILL feel uncomfortable and even a little embarrassed at first. Most of us normally don't like to hear ourselves think. 

But, there IS a reward. Once you get used to the idea, it will seem quite natural.  The real pay off is that you will have found a way to stop yourself from translating.

As you become more comfortable thinking in English and using it automatically when you write, you will also notice a much greater degree of fluency emerging in  your speaking,  listening and even reading.  Why? This is because you will have finally accepted that your own language and  English are two separate things and should be used separately.

It's all about attitude:

Once you accept that it pays to think in English when you need to, you will find that your are improving more quickly than you thought you could.  You will have adopted the attitude that all good language learners require to truly enjoy and master the new language.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vancouver's Cherry Blossom Festival

"Under the cherry tree, there are no strangers," Issa ( a Japanese poet 1763-1867)
I can't  say this often enough. I LOVE living in Vancouver. Not only is this a spectacularly beautiful city, but where else can you experience multiculturalism at its very best?  In Vancouver,  everywhere you go, you can find living proof of a multicultural society that is constantly growing and changing.

Let's take Vancouver's Cherry Blossom Festival, which is now in full swing. Inspired by the age old Sakura festivals of Japan, the Vancouver's festival uplifts spirits of the city after a long rainy winter.  It also allows us to celebrate ancient Japanese traditions along with a dash of customs from a variety of other cultures that also live here.

If you are a newcomer to Vancouver, you simply have to jump on the bandwagon.  Who knows, you might make a few new friends. After all, the festival's theme is "Under the cherry tree, there are no strangers." 

This year's Cherry Blossom Festival, which began April 5th and ends April 28th, promises to be bigger and better than ever. Celebrating Vancouver's more than 40,000 cherry trees, the festival is seen as the perfect symbol of spring and a wonderful way to celebrate life and renewal.

Organizers feel that the theme of  cherry tree inspires new poetry, art, music, film, design, crafts, photography, and cuisine while inspiring the artist in everyone.

The festival includes a wide variety of events including: Cherry Jam Downtown, Haiku Invitational, Bike the Blossoms, Japan Fair, BC Blossom Watch Photo Contest, Cherry Scouts Program, Tree Talks and Walks and the Cherry Blossom Viewing Map.  

The Haiku invitational has become so popular that poets from more than 36 countries in North America, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America now send entries. Meanwhile, photographers from all over the world visit the city to take pictures of the city in its full glory.  

Something New: Umbrella Flash Mob Dance 

This year, the festival has added an entirely new component. On April 14th  thousands of Vancouverites will participate in a flash mob dance in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to  celebrate the blossoms, the rain and everything else spring has to offer. 

A Flash Mob is a large group of people who gather at a public location to perform a pre-defined action, typically a brief dance, and disperse rapidly after the event has concluded.

Flash Mobs are an Internet phenomenon of the 21st century that use organized social media, viral emails, or websites to invite people to show up for the very public dance. One famous flash mob dance took place in Chicago when 20,000 people danced to the Black Eye Peas singing I Gotta a Feeling as a surprise Oprah's 24th season opening show.

What makes the Cherry Blossom Festival dance unique is that rather than dancing to ordinary rock and roll, the dancers will be moving and grooving to a Bollywood     Bhangra dance  dance called Zoobie Doobie - from the music and lyrics of a popular Bollywood film: " The 3 Idiots".

According to the organizers, the expression refers to the feeling "you have when you fall in love and you're crazy, out of your head.Since we're crazy for cherry blossoms, Zoobie Doobie is perfect." they say.   Given that Vancouver has a very large Indian population, mainly from the Punjab, it is not surprising that some of its dances have caught on here.

Umbrella Dance choreographer Shimak Davar says," we're bringing cultures and communities together through dance:  

Watch the video and learn the steps to the Zoobie Doobie Umbrella Dance. Enjoy!

Join in the Fun

If you live in Vancouver, or plan to visit the city this month  why don't you join in the joyous city-wide celebration. Come down and watch the umbrella dance on April 14th,  participate in any of the other great events, or simply choose a spot in one of the city's superb parks that feature hundreds of ornamental cherry trees lo experience this miracle of nature. 

What better way can you take a little time to celebrate life in a wonderfully multicultural city, and make some new friends from every culture under the sun. There is no better way to meet people than when you are all having fun and celebrating the beauty that surrounds you.

For more information on various events in the festival go to  Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival

Check out some of the the 900
locations of ornamental cherries on Cherry Blossom Viewing Map .The map opens showing you what is in bloom right now. Search by neighbourhood or Cultivar, or a combination of those, to see all the trees we have on the map. Or change the dates to see what is in bloom when you plan to go out sightseeing.

Write about it 

For all of  you who want to practice your writing this is a great opportunity for you to report on an event. Send in your comments or reports about any of the events you attend, particularly the Flash Dance. Tell us what you saw, heard and felt. Did you meet anyone? Did you have fun? Why?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Should ESL classes be free?

Last week when I told my students that academic ESL classes would now be free for Canadian citizens and immigrants living in BC, I expected them to be  overjoyed . Instead, their first reaction was quite different. 

Many of them were worried that the courses would be turned into "party classes," and that some of their fellow students would no longer take them seriously - coming late, leaving early or just skipping entirely if they didn't feel like attending.  

"Does this mean you won't be teaching grammar anymore?" asked one of my Advanced level students. " I can't get a better job if I don't improve the grammar in my writing." " Is this the end of academic reading and writing practice?" asked another." 

Although I was a little surprised at their reaction, I laughed and told them that nothing would change - at least for now. I would still be teaching exactly what I had been teaching for the past 15 years.

Still, their questions were quite valid.

Up until this week, British Columbia has offered free settlement ESL classes to beginner and intermediate students in a program called ELSA (English Language Service for Adults) Students in other more "academic" programs have had to pay tuition fees. Those who couldn't afford the fees have been given government sponsored "grants", which they have not had to repay. However, starting this April, these "academic" classes have become  tuition free for citizens and landed immigrants.  

Of course, "free" doesn't really mean "free."  The federal government will be covering the cost. That means ALL Canadians will be paying for these classes through their taxes. This is the reason foreign students will NOT be getting the same deal. Neither they or their parents have ever paid Canadian taxes, so they will have to pay for the privilege of learning English in Canada, just as they always have. 

The question of whether or not ESL classes should be entirely free right up to the highest level is a controversial  one.

Would the Chinese, Korean, or Indian  government offer language education to any adults  immigrating to their countries, or would the immigrants have to pay for their own instruction? 

Will students who can get this language education for free take it as seriously, and do the same amount of work as they would if they were paying for it?  Even my own students were worried that this might be a problem. 

 How do YOU feel about this?


I would like my readers to voice their own opinion on this issue. I don't care if you live in Canada or any other country, whether you are immigrants, citizens, people with working visas (caregivers, etc) or international students. 

What is YOUR OPINION?   
  • Should  ALL ESL classes be free?  Why or why not?
  • Who, if anyone, should have to pay? Why or why not? 
  • If people should pay, how much should they pay? 
  • What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of free ESL classes? 
  • Include your reasons about whether you think this is a good thing, or whether it will have negative consequences. 

 Write your answers and opinions in the comment box below. If you are not sure how to do this, read the article on How to Post a Comment on the left hand side. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Happy April Fool's Day

Free Orkut and My Space April Fool Graphics Glitters Has anyone told you they saw you on TV,  or told you they're pregnant with triplets, only to turn around and shout "April Fools" when you looked surprised? 

My husband pulled the first practical joke on a co-worker today. My niece shocked her husband with the second one.

He even believed her until he saw the huge smile on her face. 

Today is April 1st, April Fool's Day, or All Fool's Day as some people call it. 

Although April Fool's Day  is celebrated in many countries, it is not a national holiday. It IS, however, a well known day when people play practical jokes and  tricks on each other.

For hundreds of years, April Fool's Day has focused on individuals trying to trick each other. When I was a child, my parents once shouted "Fire" at 5 A.M in the morning.

After all six children had jumped out of bed, raced down the stairs and opened the front door to escape, they finally shouted "April Fool's."  We certainly had been fooled.

For the past few years, the increasing popularity of the media, particularly the Internet, has led to even larger hoaxes and jokes. Everyone - even large companies - wants to participate in the fun.

Today, the BBC was the first big organization to play a practical joke on the world when it announced on line that the world had ended and that we were all dead.

If you were able to read it, you obviously knew that it was a joke. But, isn't it nice to know that even broadcasters who constantly tell us how terrible things are in the world, have a sense of humour and can take a few minutes to make us laugh. 

Other companies also decided to join in the fun. Canada's West Jet Airline announced  its new "child free" cabins. Anyone travelling with children can now put place them in the Kargo Kid department, where they will travel along with your luggage. Here is the  video that shows potential customers how the system would work.

Of course, Google, which has a tradition of creating online pranks for the first April 1st, came through with several good hoaxes. For April 1, 2012  Google came up with the so-called 8-bit Google Maps designed to take you back to the days of Nintendo. In fact, the company brought out  a version of Google Maps that appears to have been generated by an old-school 8-bit gaming console, making every route you search for look like something out of the Legend of Zelda.

During the day Google came up with several other programs including the Really Advanced Search, Google Racing and several more. To find out more  go to the round up of Google April Fools' pranks

Elsewhere, AdBlock – the popular browser extension that keeps one's Web surfing experience free of irritating advertisements – announced that it's now expanding its services to block cat pictures as well.

But Kodak's took it one step further by announcing its latest creation, a machine that actually allows you to print a real-life kitten from the comfort of your home. 

Toshiba jumped on the bandwagon with its promotion of a new   Shapes Notepad .If you watch carefully, you will notice the world April Fools on the record the DJ plays towards the end of he video.

No April Fools Day post would be complete unless I mention the greatest hoax of them all: the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest  documentary.

According to the Museum of Hoaxes 100 Greatest April Fools' Hoaxes, on April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland.

Now, we all know that spaghetti doesn't grow on trees, but don't forget this was 1957 and television was still quite new. People believed the story. Hundreds of people called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

To this day the Panorama broadcast remains one of the most famous and popular April Fool's Day hoaxes of all time. It is also believed to be the first time the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool's Day hoax

See if you can answer the following questions: 

1.  Why is this going to be a bumper year in spaghetti production?
2.  What was the weather like that winter? 
3.  Why were the farmers worried?
4.  What countries grows spaghetti as an industry?
5.  Why are the spaghetti noodles all the same length? 
6.  What is done with the spaghetti after it is picked?
7.  What can happen to the spaghetti if there is a late frost?

If you want to know more about the history of April Fools Day, go to the History of April Fool's,  or watch the video Origins of April Fools' Day