Tuesday, December 30, 2014

English Lesson from Frank Underwood

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
No matter where you’re from or what you believe in, you may agree that those who hold power at any level, and especially those who hold political power have the upper hand on the effective use of language. Anywhere in the world. Any language. After all, language is the tool of choice that politicians use to gain support of their constituents.

The critically minded will usually agree that politicians use that language to tell a story.  The story people want to hear. About values, destiny and the national cause. Believers will buy it. Opponents obviously won’t. Others will not care so long as it doesn’t affect them. But a few out there will read between the lines and figure out that it’s mostly a game. A game where the politicians, their inner circle and business associates win and mostly everybody else loses. A victory achieved by carefully choosing the right words.

So what if a ruthless and cunning politician actually admitted that most of what he or she says was a lie… but only to you. What if this person revealed the truth about everything. The corruption, the deals, the hypocrisy and of course, his or her true goals. Well, that is one of the main drivers behind the success of the Netflix political drama House of Cards. The show follows the story of Frank and Claire Underwood, a Washington power couple on their way to the presidency of the United States.

In each episode, Frank stops for a moment and delivers his real vision of things… to you, the audience. In these confessionary moments, Frank is blunt, dramatic, often has a point, and uses all kinds of linguistic and literary devices to support his message. For the audience, it’s a moment to learn about Underwood’s true intentions. However, for English Users, it’s also a chance to understand the language of power and deception.

Here is a selection of some of these moments. The transcript of each one follows below:

  • “And the butchery begins.”
  • “Any pugilist worth his salt knows when someone's on the rope,that's when you throw a combination to the gut and a left hook to the jaw.”
  • “In Gaffney we had our own brand of diplomacy. Shake with your right hand and have a rock in your left.”
  • “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs.”
  • “The heart can choke the mind when all the blood flows back onto itself.”
  • “There can be no false steps now, the higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
  • “Good things happen to good people.”
  • “Avoid wars you can't win, and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery.”
  • “When the money’s coming your way, you don’t ask questions.”
  • “This hurts us both. It's not my wound to suture. Claire must be the surgeon. Only she can stop the bleeding.”
  • “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. Never regret.”
  • “It's not beginning the story I fear; it's not knowing how it will end. Everyone is fair game now.”
  • "There are two types of vice-presidents, doormats and Matadors, which one do you think I intend to be?"
  • "The only thing more satisfying than convincing someone to do what I want is failing to persuade them on purpose. It's like a do not enter sign, it just begs you to walk through the door."
  • "From the lion's den to a pack of wolves. When you're fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher."
  • “Even Achilles was only as strong as his heel.”
  • “Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first; small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule. Hunt or be hunted.”

      Who knows? Maybe more content like this (from around the world) will someday help the believers, the opponents and the indifferent open their eyes just a little so that - as the classic rock song from The Who used to say - “We won’t get fooled again”.

      WATCH House of Cards (Season 1) Trailer
      Discussion Questions for Students and Teachers:

      • Do you watch or have you seen House of Cards?
      • Are there any political dramas in your country which question the current system of politics? If not, would they be allowed?
      • If more people questioned their leadership and political systems, would it change anything?
      • How is fear used as a tool by politicians?
      • Does corruption undermine democracy? Why or why not?
      • Does power corrupt? Why or why not?
      • If you were the president, what's the first thing you would do?


      Write 10 sentences about political leaders or governmental systems using some of the vocabulary from this post. CHECK your writing here:

      Sunday, November 30, 2014

      ENGLISH & MUSIC: A RIDE Through the Future

      By Paul Ponce, PLS Teacher

      Songs are always a great way to learn a language in context. And when the song tells a story, the music acts like the soundtrack. The story behind this song takes us to a future where things are less than ideal.

      Of course, stories about future dystopian societies normally act as cautionary tales about what might happen one day. So they are usually not a lot of fun. However, this one is a little different.

      First of all, it’s a rock song by legendary Canadian power rock trio Rush, which means powerful music and thought-provoking poetic lyrics (hence, a chance to improve your vocabulary). Second, it’s about a guy that breaks the law by escaping from a gated city to visit his cool uncle and enjoy the freedom of driving a real car, something which is illegal in this place and time. But not just any car, a stylish Italian sports car from a bygone era: a Barchetta.

      SUGGESTED ACTIVITY:  First, READ and understand the lyrics. Next, WATCH the short animated film - based on the song - which tells the story as you listen to the lyrics. The lyrics are provided below and have links to the meaning of some words. Afterwards, proceed to QUESTIONS and DISCUSSION at the end.

      "Red Barchetta" Story Reel from Sant Arellano on Vimeo.

      GRAMMAR NOTE: The story is told in present tense narrative and in many cases omits the subject when the protagonist talks about what he does. This is a poetic decision which makes the lyrics easier to match to the music, while still maintaining clear storytelling.

      Red Barchetta by Rush

      My uncle has a country place
      That no one knows about
      He says it used to be a farm
      Before the Motor Law
      And now on Sundays I elude the eyes
      And hop the turbine freight
      To far outside the wire where my
      White-haired uncle waits

      (subject “I” omitted)
      Jump to the ground as the turbo slows
      To cross the borderline
      Run like the wind as excitement shivers
      Up and down my spine
      But down in his barn
      My uncle preserved for me
      An old machine
      For fifty-odd years
      To keep it as new
      Has been his dearest dream

      I strip away the old debris
      That hides a shining car
      A brilliant Red Barchetta
      From a better vanished time
      We'll fire up the willing engine
      Responding with a roar
      Tires spitting gravel
      I commit my weekly crime

      In my hair
      Shifting and drifting
      Mechanical music
      Adrenaline surge

      Well-oiled leather
      Hot metal and oil
      The scented country air

      Sunlight on chrome
      The blur of the landscape
      Every nerve aware

      Suddenly ahead of me
      Across the mountainside
      A gleaming alloy air-car
      Shoots towards me two lanes wide
      Oh, I spin around with shrieking tires
      To run the deadly race
      Go screaming through the valley
      As another joins the chase

      Ride like the wind
      Straining the limits
      Of machine and man
      Laughing out loud with fear and hope
      I've got a desperate plan

      At the one-lane bridge
      I leave the giants stranded
      At the riverside
      Race back to the farm
      To dream with my uncle

      At the fireside

      QUESTIONS: Use the vocabulary in the lyrics to answer:

      • What do we know about the boy's uncle’s country place?
      • When does he commit his weekly “crime”?
      • How long has his uncle kept the Barchetta?
      • How does the boy prepare the car before driving?
      • What are some of the sensations he feels as he drives?
      • What appears across the mountain side?
      • What's the boy's desperate plan to escape from the alloy air-cars?
      • What does the boy do when he gets back to the farm?

      SENTENCES: Create new sentences using some of the following: used to, elude, run like the wind, shiver, odd years, strip away, fire up, roar, gravel, surge, scented, chrome, allow, spin, shrieking, tires, straining, stranded

      • What are some of the major themes of this story and how do characters, actions and events represent these themes?
      • What does driving the car represent to the boy?
      • What does driving a car represent in other places?

      LIVE MUSIC: Here are Geddy Lee (bass, vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (drums, lyrics) of Rush performing the song live at a recent concert. By the way, these guys are like the boy's uncle. Not so young any more, but still firing up their machines and having fun.

      Origin: Rush drummer / lyricist Neil Peart was inspired to write this song after reading a futuristic short story titled "A Nice Morning Drive", by Richard Foster and published in the November 1973 issue of Road and Track magazine.

      Friday, October 31, 2014


      Yes, English Users, drinking is a necessary and often enjoyable fact of life.

      But beware, The verb drink only means to intake some form of liquid into your body, so we all drink something everyday. It's basic survival.

      However, if you say you enjoy drinking; well, that's a completely different thing. Which brings us to: what do people mean when they talk about beverages?

      In the context of what's available on the market, we say that a restaurant, store or supermarket sells beverages. More specifically, it sells non-alcoholic beverages, such as fruit juice or carbonated soft drinks like Coke and Sprite. And it also sells alcoholic beverages (beverages that contain alcohol), like wine, beer or spirits (which are distilled alcoholic beverages such as vodka, gin or soju). Now water is a liquid in pure form, so it is technically not considered a beverage. Although you will find bottled water (natural and carbonated) in the Beverage section of the store or on a restaurant menu.

      Here's how a conversation with a supermarket stocker might play out.

      - Excuse me, where can I find Coke?
      - In the Beverage section, across the frozen foods. Two aisles down to the left.
      - Great. What about water?
      - Same section right next to the soft drinks.
      - Will I also find whiskey there?
      - No, whiskey is in the Wine and Spirits section, all the way at the back. But you'll need to show the cashier your ID to prove you're over 21.
      - Oh, I see. Thanks

      At a party, there are many drinks you can ask for at the bar, whether it's a real bar or just a friend improvising. Some of those are drinks in the social sense of the word, meaning they're prepared with a mix of ingredients. Others are just a basic alcoholic beverage, like a glass of wine or beer. So if you order them, the bartender can serve them immediately. True drinks usually require that the bartender know the recipe and have the right tools like a blender or a cocktail mixer. Popular drinks from around the world include: Daiquiri, Piña Colada, Mojito, Bloody Mary, Rum and Coke or even a simple Whiskey on the Rocks. At the bar, you can also order a shot (very small glass) of something strong, usually a hard liquor such as whiskey, tequila, vodka or gin.

      You can read more about alcoholic beverages here.

      Glass of Wine
      Of course, sometimes we use a word that defines the kind of vessel or container where a beverage is served. You can ask for: a glass of coke, a glass of wine, a cup of tea, cup of coffee, a pint of beer, a pitcher of beer, a mug of beer, a shot of tequila. And the cool thing about English is that you can order "some" of anything when the way that it is being served is obvious.

      So if someone at a party is serving Sprite in plastic cups, you may say,
      - May I have some Sprite please?
      - Sure, here you are.
      - Thanks.

      And there in that context, it'll be obvious that the Sprite will be served in a plastic cup.

      Likewise, someone who is making coffee at home or at the office may offer you some. It will most likely be served in a cup.

      - Would you like some coffee?
      - Sounds great, thanks!

      But it would be incorrect to say: a water, a coffee, a wine. These are uncountable nouns and require a countable word (cup, glass, bottle) if we want to quantify them. The exception to this, especially in an informal situation, is with beer.

      - Want a beer?
      - Yeah, dude.
      - So get one. They're in the fridge.
      - Cool. Thanks.

      A Few Drinks
      Sometimes, adults offer each other a drink. But at some point in the conversation, someone will need to specify exactly what drink.

      - Would you like a drink?
      - Sure, what do you have?
      - Gin and Tonic sound good?
      - Hmm, not my cup of tea. Do you have Martini?
      - Of course. How would you like it?
      - Shaken, not stirred.

      Otherwise, the person won't know which drink to prepare for you.

      When people go out and socialize and part of that involves consuming alcoholic beverages, it is common to say:

      - Yeah, we went out and had a few drinks.


      - John and the boys went out for drinks.

      So in both cases, these people were drinking. In other words, they were consuming alcoholic beverages. But that doesn't mean they were getting drunk. This is when people become intoxicated by the alcohol they have consumed. Not a good idea.

      Hope that helps out a little bit.

      You can learn more about alcoholic beverages from this video produced by the folks at Let's Talk. Enjoy and remember if you drink, do it with great moderation and above all, remember NOT to drive.


      Tuesday, September 30, 2014

      REMEMBERING Cerati in English

      As English Users, we all listen to music. But the fact is that we don't always listen to music in English.

      However, that doesn't mean that songs in other languages don't offer the possibility of practicing English. They actually do.

      A fun and creative activity to do with songs in other languages is to "transcreate" the lyrics to English.

      In other words, to think about how the lyrics of a song would sound in English. In this case -because it's a song, it means taking into account the song's metric and rhyme structure so that the English lyrics would be "singable" in English.

      It's a fun exercise. But not just any exercise.

      ------ A Comparative Language Exercise ------

      So for this exercise, we chose to honor one of Argentina's cultural heroes, the late Argentine rock legend Gustavo Cerati, who leaves a legacy of beautiful songs and soundscapes, not just for Spanish speakers, but for the world. The song we chose is called Crimen (Crime), winner of multiple awards all over the Spanish-speaking music world and beyond, and one of the most successful in Cerati's solo career. 

      THE EXERCISE involves watching the following modified version of the VIDEO for Cerati's "Crimen". Click on this LINK to watch: http://goo.gl/Ae9UrE (make sure you hit HD for better quality) and to discuss it as a group.
      • Was there a better way to say it?
      • Could you make changes and still keep the lyrics within the song's metric and rhyme structure?
      Fair warning: if you're looking for a literary translation, you might be disappointed.

      TRANSCREATION is a form a translation that takes a detour from the conventional word-for-word approach, but rather goes for meaning, context and style. Bottom line, what you say simply has to work in the language it's being transcreated to. If it sounds translated, it's not quite there yet. 

      Interestingly, Cerati did his own of transcreation of the song "Bring on the Night" by The Police, called "Traeme la noche" and an amazing job he did! But transcreation is certainly not limited to music. 

      In fact, translators of books, advertising campaigns and of course films must transcreate words so that they sound good in the language of destination. So if you've ever read a text or watched a film that was poorly translated, it was probably poorly transcreated.

      SEQUENCING THE STORY: Coming back to Cerati's song and video, Cerati's "Crimen" tells a great detective story, but in a non-linear style. After watching the video, a good excercise is to create short sentences that put the story in order. This would require watching the video a few times and then comparing among students (if possible).  "Sequencing" is a great exercise to do for lower intermediate students, although you'd be surprised how much upper intermediate ones would benefit as well.

      ON TO YOU: In conclusion, if you're an English Useruse this material as an exercise in comparing two languages and enhancing your sense of why going from one language to another (any language) is never a word for word affair.

      After that, CHOOSE A SONG in your native language, transcreate it to English, share and discuss the results with peers. 

      As always, enjoy the journey!

      Gracias Totales, Gustavo! Your beautiful music will always be with us.


      You can get this great track from Cerati's "Ahi Vamos" album

      NOTE: The video was modified from the original to keep the story, but favor the comparison of lyrics in both languages. You may watch the original in FULL SCREEN here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLIs0j2WnlM

      DISCLAIMER: For Educational Use Only. No copyright Infringement intended. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

      Wednesday, August 27, 2014

      DRIVING Through the City in English

      As many English Users know, practical language learning is a journey that is best achieved in context. Well, this is language approach you'll find in HIT THE ROAD PAUL, a fun video-story course available for FREE to anyone with an internet connection.This course is designed for both students and teachers of English interested in learning or teaching authentic English in context.

      The Story: English teacher StoryPaul only has 45 minutes to get to an office downtown and pick up a document. In each episode, we focus on a different topic related to travel and traffic. At the end, we find out if he makes it to his destination on time. Along the way, students have a chance to learn and practice idioms & speaking patterns related to each episode.

      Episode 1 - In the Garage is about how to use the English language to talk about starting a car and getting out of a garage. See questions at the end.


      The Full Dashboard - Provides a space for key language elements like Questions and Target Language that the students can repeat by pausing the video.

      This board includes Time Remaining and Distance Remaining which track how much time and how many kilometers Paul has until he reaches his destination.

      VERB elements are usually in upper case letters for easy identification.

      The Standard Dashboard - Contains no time and distance information, but still includes Target Language and Name of Episode.

      Target Language - The language in each Dashboard is the target language of the lesson. They are modeled phrases and sentences that students can stop to repeat when watching the video a second time.

      Additional Language - Language that is not essential or does not constitute a learning objective is often shown on a smaller lower third graph that appears on the left side of the screen.

      While this is not the Target Language, students are just as welcome to learn it.

      Photos and Pictures are sometimes added to illustrate key ideas. A Time Clock may also appear on this lower third screen.

      (independently or as group / with a teacher or as self-study)

      1. WATCH it once without stopping. Don't worry if you miss something.
      2. ANSWER the General Questions.
      3. WATCH again and Stop, carefully Read and Repeat the Target Language on each Dashboard.
      4. ANSWER the Discussion Questions.
      5. WATCH one more time without stopping.
      6. As soon as you have a chance, tell a friend in English what the Episode is about. (Remember that Paul speaks in First Person; so a great exercise is to change his sentences to Third Person)


      General Questions

      1. Why is Paul going downtown? 
      2. How much time does Paul have to get to the office downtown?
      3. What's the first thing Paul does when he gets in the car?
      4. How does Paul start the car?
      5. What kind of car does Paul have?
      6. Why does Paul look in his mirror when he is driving inside the garage?
      7. What does Paul do when he gets out of his garage.
      8. What do we call people who walk in the street?

      Answer the same Questions in the Quiz below:
      Discussion Questions

      1. How do you travel around the city or town?
      2. If you or some in your family drives, what kind of car is it (stick shift or manual)?
      3. Do you like cars? Why or why not?
      4. Do you live in a big city? If not, where do you live? Is there a lot of traffic?
      5. Do you put on a seat belt when you travel in a car? Why or why not?
      6. Do you lock the doors? Why or why not?
      7. Do people in your country honk to tell pedestrians they're coming out of a building?
      8. Do you think Paul will make it on time to the office?

      There are more videos in the series, so be sure to check once in a while. Enjoy!