Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers' Certificate of Achievement in Handspinning I got bitten by the handspinning bug just over a year ago now. Pure wool clothes are snuggly, good knitting wool is hard to's a trap that's all too easy to fall into. And there's a certificate you can work for that shows you can do it properly. I'm a teacher, I like certificates. It just had to happen. In order to get the certificate you have to complete a portfolio charting your progress and achievements as a handspinner over the course of a couple of years. I have NO idea how to do this. I've never studied anything arty in my life, just foreign languages and sciencey stuff. I'm having to ask my kids for advice, for heaven's sake! Anyway, my husband (who has taught himself how to do woodwork in order to build Daleks) recommends using a blog to record daily progress, so here goes. Right now I'm spinning sock yarn. I love sock yarn. In fact, that's what prompted me to start spinning in the first place, the inability to afford the posh, real wool sock yarns I crave. I've been spinning blue faced Leicester lambs wool, which I've got from a local farmer. It is beautiful, soft like Shetland and shiny like silk, doesn't want to felt and wears like iron. The only downside is that it is an utter beast to prepare. You have to sit with a cat comb and flick these tiny, wavy little locks one at a time. Even a dog comb is too coarse. It's pure masochism. I have found what seems to be a good compromise. I bought a lovely Dorset Down shearling fleece from Rampisham Hill Farm. It is the cleanest fleece I have even bought, hardly and VM or dirty bits. I could have spun it in the grease, but I prefer to wash wool,so I'm washing it in laundry bags. It's very nearly as soft as the BFL lambswool, but chalky looking, not shiny, and very sproingy. There is almost no fibre prep involved. I hardly need to touch the locks to a carder to flick them out to spin. And I can spin it 3 ply, so that it looks almost the same as the Regia sock yarn I bought over the summer. Funnily, it's only 2.5 m/g while the Regia is 4 m/g. How is that possible? Is it because mine is more tightly spun? Does that mean mine is the harder wearing yarn? I hope so.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Book Review: Kir Bulichev, Secrets of Rus

Tainy Rusi (in Russian)Tainy Rusi by Mozheiko Igor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm reading this book to improve my Russian reading. I've imported it, chapter by chapter, into LingQ ( and studying all the new words. In total about 20% of all the words in it are new to me, which is about right.

As well as learning the Russian language, I'm learning about Russian history. This book is good for me because it's directed at Russian school children, middle-schoolers I should imagine. That keeps the language fairly simple, with often-repeated words and phrases and the use of extended metaphors kept to a minimum.

For a Russian learner this book is a little trickier than his other books on history aimed at teenagers. That's because he does assume that the reader has a middle-school knowledge of Russian history, as well as a fair grasp of Russian geography (and I couldn't point to Novgorod on a map) There's also quite a lot of social comment (comparisons of Stalin with Ivan the Terrible, for instance).

All in all a splendid book, highly recommended for Russian learners at middle B2 or Russian natives of about 12 - 16 years of age.

Эта книга о русском истории, то есть, о истории Руси и истории Российской империи, написанная для русских отрокоб. Это очень интересно для иностранниих читателей, но надо иметь хорошую карту России! Её мне очень нравился. Поразительно видеть, как протяжении всей истории Россия короли, цары и императоры действовали как шестилетними детьми под влиянием слишком много сахара.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 12 May 2011

My bio from ELF English

Helen is an experienced university lecturer and English teacher from the UK. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Physics and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. She has a post-graduate certificate in Teaching from Derby University. Her industry background is in the Information Technology and Telecommunications sector.

Helen has been teaching English for more than 15 years. She is particularly experienced at helping people who need English for their business or study. She encourages them to practice difficult situations such as interviews and examinations through role-play.

Helen’s TOEFL, IELTS and EIKEN students have a 100% pass rate and even report enjoying the examination. Helen uses the internet widely to find real learning materials that are relevant to the student’s needs, level and interests.

Helen encourages students to listen to real natives speaking in natural situations, as soon as they can, using radio podcasts, blog articles, news sites, YouTube clips and so on. Her gentle, calm approach makes her a very supportive and friendly teacher for those new to study, out of practice with English, and those who are downright scared of speaking with foreigners.

Helen knows Russian, German, French and a little Japanese. She also writes humorous stories about time travel, the post-living community and dodo-keeping. These stories are fictional.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Great Undercover Semantics Operation

Security cleared and spell-checked: to be read with your eyes only

I have finally been given permission, by Her Majesty's Semantics Office, to reveal that I have been taking part in an undercover language operation for the British Intelligence Services.

The language which I have kept under observation for the last two years cannot be named for security reasons, nor can the nationalities of its masters or the political powers which it serves. It can only be referred to as the “target language”.

Most of my surveillance work has been done at a known meeting place for semantics agents and words of all nationalities, known to the Grammar Squad as “Steve's Speak-Easy”.

Initially I sought out the most common words, the small fry, the ones to be seen hanging out in every paragraph. I made notes on them as I encountered them.

To begin with my notes looked something like this:

“[man]: noun, masculine: an adult male.”

(Note: for security reasons all words under surveillance must be referred to using English code names in square brackets.)

My handler (who I may only refer to as Inspector S****x from the Grammar Squad) said this was a good start, but they needed more.

“We need to know the company these words keep,” he said, ”The disguises they adopt and the different roles they are known to play. We need to get enough intelligence to convict at least a thousand of the most active operators.”

Holy infinitive! To get a full dossier on the known activities of a thousand words at large in society would take a lot of work. I put the kettle on and sent out for emergency rations of biscuits.

Fortunately I could rely on informants. These were people who, while in the service of foreign powers, were prepared for a price (500 points per 15 minutes) to pass on their information about the 'target language' to our agents.

After several months of gruelling tea-drinking, meetings with informants, reading dossiers and listening to surveillance recordings, I had more to report.

“I've seen the word [man] in several disguises, playing a variety of roles within different sentences,” I told my 'handler'.

“Such as?” asked Inspector S****x, stirring two sugars into his tea.

“Nominative, accusative and genitive,” I answered. “Plus one sighting as a prepositional. I have photographs and example phrases for each one. I've seen [man] in the singular, and also hanging around in the plural.”

Inspector S****x nodded in approval. “That's the kind of information we need,” he said. “But it goes deeper than that. Does a woman refer to the person she is married to as a [man]? What about the person your mother is married to? We need to know if [man] works alone or with synonyms."

More long hours of undercover work. I stiffened my upper lip and set the line of my jaw more firmly as I refilled the tea caddy.

A few more months later I had more to report.

“[man] doesn't work alone,” I said. “I've observed him swapping places with [husband], [father], [uncle], [son], [person], lad and even [hunk]. He also keeps company with [woman], [wife], [mother], [daughter], [girl] and [babe].”

“You have examples?” asked my handler.

“Oh yes!” I said smugly. “In all his various guises, playing all his favourite roles in sentences, in different settings, formal and informal registers. There's no doubt about it. We have our [man] just where we want him!”

“Excellent work!” beamed the Inspector. “Now all we have to do is to lure him out into the open. I want you to use him in conversation with enemy agents, as much as you can. We need hard evidence of his operations in daily conversation so that we can secure a conviction and make it stick. Get him nailed down in writing too. Our informants will check your work.”

The operation was moving fast. From the passive to the active phase so soon! My heart was beating at 150 words per minute.

“I won't fail you!” I promised my handler. “I shall submit 150 words every week for checking. We will soon get this “target language” just where we want it!”

“On the tip of our tongues,” nodded Inspector S****x in approval. “Soon we will be in a position to make any demands we want to in our 'target language'.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

When in doubt, call out the Grammar Squad.

Someone asked me recently to explain the nature of doubt. It sounded like a job for a priest rather than an English teacher. I asked her what she meant.

"Doubt can be an uncountable noun, as in 'doubt'", she said. "It can also be used in the singular, as in 'a doubt' or 'the doubt'. It can be used in the plural, as 'doubts', as well as in the negative as 'no doubt', 'without a doubt', 'without doubts' or 'without doubt'. How do you know which form to use?"

I saw her point. It's a tricky question. I considered consulting a priest, but decided instead to call the police.

Inspector Syntax of the Grammar Squad answered my call and was round my house before the kettle had boiled.

"Evening!" he said. "What seems to be the problem?"

"There's been an incident involving nouns. Can you help?"

Inspector Syntax looked thoughtful. "It all depends on getting a positive identification. If you can identify the noun in question and pick it out of a line-up then we can arrest it and charge it with Disturbing the Piece. If you can give us a general description then we can give it a warning, maybe even apply for an Anti-Semantic Behaviour Order. But if you can't provide us with any description at all, there is nothing the police can do. All we can do with the uncountable nouns like Truth and Life is give them a capital letter and keep them under observation."

"I've had a complaint about Society," I answered.

"Which society would that be, Madam? he asked. "Did you get its name and address?"

"No," I said regretfully. "I think it was just Society in general, the tendency of human people to live in organised groups."

"These uncountable nouns are slippery customers," mused the Inspector. "We know they're out there causing no end of trouble, but no-one ever gets a good enough look at them to make a positive identification. The undercover boys keep them under surveillance, but it's hard to get enough on them to get an arrest."

I nodded, and reflected.

"We've been having trouble with computers," I said. "Apparently they are a necessary evil in modern Society".

PC Syntax took out his notebook and pencil (a 2B).

"Could you identify these computers if you saw them again, Madam?"

"I think they must be the computers owned by individual, schools, businesses and organisations," I answered. "I'm afraid I can't be more specific because I didn't get a very close look at them."

"Computers, several of them, definitely existing, but with no clear description," said Inspector Syntax, writing."That's enough information for us to go round their house and give them a warning. We can't charge them without a clearer description."

"Then there's all the trouble I've been having with doubt," I said, watching him write.

"Which doubt was it, Madam? Did you get its number?"

"Well," I said. "I have some doubts about English grammar."

"Sounds more promising", said Inspector Syntax, making notes. "Doubts about grammar. Can you be more specific? What did they look like?"

"Most of them are just doubts in general," I answered. "Although I do have one particular doubt."

"Now we're getting somewhere! Can you describe your doubt for me, Madam? What was it wearing?"

"The doubt that I'm talking about concerns whether doubt, when used as an uncountable noun should be spelled with a capital letter, like Truth, Beauty, Life, Death, Man, Woman and God."

"We should be able to take steps against your doubt about uncountable nouns", said PC Syntax. "Your description of that particular doubt is quite clear. We should be able to take it into custody, set up an identity parade, make a positive identification and charge it. Once charged, we can refer to it as 'the doubt' or even 'that doubt', as in 'that nasty-looking little doubt we've got locked up in cell number four'."

"But what if it turns out that there is no doubt?" I asked.

"Well, we can't arrest a doubt that doesn't exist, Madam!" said PC Syntax in his best Dealing with the Stupid manner. "Whether it's no doubt, no doubts or not a doubt, it's all the same to me. If it's not there I can't charge it with anything."

"So doubt doesn't get a capital 'D' if it doesn't exist?" I asked.

"Not much point really, Madam", he answered.

I  nodded. No sense in wasting police time with unnecessary paperwork.

"Well, I must be off," said the Inspector, pocketing his notebook and standing up. "We've had a complaint about loose word order over in the LingQ forum. We need to get it all safely fixed down before someone trips over a dangling participle and hurts themselves."

"A grammar policeman's work is never done," I nodded sympathetically as I opened the door for him.

"Mind how you conjugate 'to go'", were his parting words.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Submission for The Polyglot Project

This is my draft for Claude (see

My language learning journey; or: How I learned Russian despite the cultural handicap of being British

skyblueteapot, United Kingdom.

I went to school in England in the 1970s and 1980s and therefore have am handicapped with foreign language learning. It was taught very  badly, you see. French, German and Latin were taught using the Classical Method, which mainly consists of writing irregular verbs up on the board and making everyone learn them for homework. I was startled, on visiting France at the age of eleven, to discover French children speaking French, easily and naturally and without even having to look words up in textbooks. The idea that it was anyone's mother tongue simply hadn't occurred to me.

The turning point for me was an exchange programme with a German school. I was shy and nerdy and therefore had no friends among the English kids who went over with me; I was, therefore, forced to hang out with the German kids. It was a revelation! I learned that for them, language learning was a much easier, natural and pleasant process than it had been for me. They listened to English pop music, watched English films and wore jeans with English labels on them. I came home exhilarated and determined to learn to speak proper German, song lyrics, swear words and all.

I didn't have much time left. The unnecessarily restrictive English school system mean that, at the age of 16, I had to stop studying all languages to concentrate on physics, my university subject. And that was that. I was branded a scientist, an asocial computer-botherer, an art and culture-free zone. It was a life sentence  Or so I thought.

At the age of....erm...well, I was married and had two kids anyway.....I found myself suddenly out of a job. I had been a computer programmer, and as it turned out, a bad one. Why? I was hard working and I loved learning and using languages.  It ought to have been the ideal job. Perhaps talking to computers in their language simply isn't as rewarding as talking to people in theirs. I resolved to restart my language learning, focussing on communicating with real people this time. Maybe failing as a technical person gave me a second chance to try out at being an arts person.

But where to start? The local adult education courses weren't much help. I was already overqualified for beginners' French and German classess, and nothing else was available. I tried local universities, libraries, and schools. None of them included helping mature learners to learn a foreign language within their remit. Even wasn't expecially forthcoming on language learning books and CDs beyond the very basics. Maybe I could find some learning materials on the internet?

After a lot of searching and frustration (and grumbling about it to penfriends in slowly-improving German ), I found a site called It claimed to offer Russian , which caught my attention straight away. Russian had been on offer at my school, but sadly not to those studying science. (Perhaps they were afraid we would defect to the Soviet Union and take the secrets of the Trident missile programme with us). Was this at last my chance to learn it? The danger of me defecting now and taking with me the secrets of really poor programming really shouldn't keep the Intelligence Services awake at nights.

 I studied the so-called “natural language learning method” carefully. It looked too easy to be effective. You sign up for an account, help yourself to free lessons (mp3 + transcript), and study them. There is software to keep track of the words you have learned, the lessons you have studied, the time you have spent on listening, etc. You can learn new words using flashcards. Ah, but what happens when you have studied all the lessons in the library?

I studied the contents of the library. There were, as it turned out, a LOT of lessons, some of them really quite tricky. It didn't look as though I would run out of material any time soon.

I still suspected a catch. I lurked in the forum. It seemed to consist of a lot of clever, funny, people, people who were well aware of the value of a dollar and very clear that they were getting value for money. Some of them were even learning Russian, including, it appeared. the founder of the site.

I decided to Skype him to find out what the catch was. We had a very pleasant conversation. It turned out that LingQ is the brainchild and baby of a former Canadian diplomat, who loves learning languages and is learning Russian as his tenth or eleventh one. Making money does not seem to be a major goal for him: spreading the word that learning languages can be fun does.

“But you DO want my money, don't you​?” I asked. “You won't get much out of me. I'm unemployed!”

Steve shrugged. “I'm sure you can find a Russian who's keen to learn English,” he said. “You can do a language exchange”.

“What happens if I run out of lessons?” I asked.

“You use your own material,” he answered. “Have you seen the size of the internet? Anything you can download in mp3 format you can put on your mp3 player and listen to; any text you can copy and paste you can import and use as a lesson.”

“What about Dracula?” I asked. “I've got that as an e-book.”

“Dracula's be fine,” he answered. “You can write pieces in Russian about vampires and have conversations with Russians about vampire-staking.”

This was an intriguing idea.

“How about hobbits?” I asked.

“If you must!” he answered.

“Heavy metal song lyrics?”

“Fine!” he said.

Well, this just had to be tried. Learning what you want, when you want,, where and how you want, and asking for help only as and when you want to. That's flexible enough even for a stressed out housewife and mother of three to cope with.

Two years on and I have to say, the “natural”, “input-based” learning methods certainly work for me. I listen to audiobooks, podcasts and radio programmes in Russian, I read articles harvested from all corners of the web and, when I feel like it, I discuss my progress with a native Russian. I keep a diary in Russian and get feedback on bits of it when I want it. In two years I have reached about A level standard. Also I have found the time to learn a bit of Japanese and brush up on my French and German.

So encouraged have I been by my progress that I have signed my children up. The eldest is 12 and is learning French, without noticeable enthusiasm, at school. The youngest is 9 and has been taught to count up to ten in French. Once shown how to download lessons and play mp3s, operate the online dictionary and work the flashcard system, I set them a competition. Whoever learns the most in 3 weeks wins ten shiny new British pounds and the respect of all. The betting stands at evens: ten more days to go!

The sad fact is that English schools still make learning languages boring. Not only that, but the number of language teachers and the number of languages available in state schools has dropped since my day. Now it is only compulsory to learn 3 years of French, and impossible to learn any other language, in my son's comprehensive school.

I am determined to show my children how to become independent language learners; to show them that, no matter how poor the language teaching provision in their schools is, no matter how restrictive the timetables or dismissive our society may be of the value of speaking a second language, nevertheless the process of learning a second language can be fun, rewarding and useful. Even for scientists. After all, Einstein could speak English well enough to work in America as a university professor. I bet no-one ever told him that scientists couldn't learn foreign languages!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Do you get British humour?

I was told a joke last night and I didn't laugh. (Sorry about that!). The joke was:

"What's the difference between a wife and a mistress? - About 30 pounds!"

"That's an American joke", I said.

"How can you tell?"  I was asked.

"Because you can predict the answer from the question," I answered. "Assuming that a middle-aged man, with a middle-aged wife, takes a younger mistress, you can list all the probable differences between the two women. A British person wouldn't laugh, because British jokes typically depend on the question leading you to predict a certain answer, and then the answer is a surprise twist."

To illustrate I told The Chicken Joke:

Qu: "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

The teller of this joke often makes up their own answer, which must be a) original and b) slightly absurd. For instance:

"Because it was the hedgehog's day off"
(ie, that it is the JOB of a particular animal to cross that road each day, and the job happened to fall to the chicken that day)

"Because the pheasant wanted too much money"
(Pheasants, being luxury meat, probably demand higher wages than chickens)

"Because the peacock was too busy posing for photographers"
Peacocks, being beautiful, are probably the celebrities of the bird world)

"Because the kangaroo couldn't get a Green card"
(here the animal who was first offered the job was a foreigner, who then wasn't allowed into the country)

"Because the jellyfish couldn't"
(jellyfish don't have legs, so would be an unsuitable candidate for the job)

"Because the dodo had died"
(they gave the job to an animal from an extinct species)

Because the unicorn.....oh, I expect you get the idea.

This ancient British joke is one of my son's favourites:

"What's black and white and red all over?"
The original answer was a newspaper: printed in black and white (this is an OLD joke) and read (sounds like red) all over. Everyone expects to hear the original answer, so nobody gives it. Unexpected answers include:

a sunburned penguin
an embarrassed panda
A nun swimming in a pot of red paint
A newspaper wrapped round a pound of liver


The classic British joke, which many foreigners have heard but few see the humour of, can be found in Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is asked:

"Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"

She can't guess, so she asks what the answer is. But the questioner hasn't got one! Even British people expect a riddle (a joke in the form of a question and "surprise" answer) to actually HAVE an answer. As always, Carroll is a step ahead of his readers.

More examples of British humour would be very welcome! I will add some more when I think of them.