Listening practise 01



'Gironella’s inventive solution' Listening by The Urbanist

Many English learners struggle the most with listening, particularly on the phone. You might be very comfortable with your teacher or colleagues' accents but when there is an unfamiliar situation or phone call your brain wipes out, which feels like this:

The solution to this problem is exposing yourself meaningfully to different topics, accents and situations to develop your ability to respond to these situations. Fortunately for you, you're learning in 2017 with everything the internet has available!

Let me talk you through an example of how you can use short clips from podcasts, youtube etc to quickly improve your listening and also your vocabulary.

This week some of you have already done this exercise with me, but if you want another go (woohoo!) or for those of you who haven't and fancy a challenge, here is an extended version.

You can repeat this type of exercise with any podcast or interview, I like the monocle series because they’re always interesting and current and are split into ‘chapters’ roughly 6 minutes long. I think I’ve learnt more about things I want to see/do in my city (Madrid) through Monocle than any other source!


Today, we’re using

'Gironella’s inventive solution' Chapter 1 from Monocle's The Urbanist podcast, episode 292
  1. To start with have a listen to chapter one of the podcast - click on the link here.
  2. Read the questions below and see which ones you can answer:
  • What do you know about the town of Gironella?
  • What was the problem? 
  • What was the solution to the problem?
  • How did it work?
  • What were peoples worries about the solution?
  • How did the Mayor and the Architect resolve these worries?
  • How has the town dynamic been impacted by the elevator?
  • What other (perhaps unexpected) benefits has the elevator brought?

3. If you can’t answer everything, don’t worry - you’ve only listened once! Listen again and try to catch more information.

4. The next step is to start to ‘steal’ phrases that you like the sound of, and swap out the words you already knew for some more complex alternatives. 

For example ‘they live on top of a hill’ for ‘they live atop a steep climb'

5. To solidify the new vocabulary try using it it to write some thoughts down about the next three questions:

  • Can you think of alternative solutions to the problem?
  • Can you think of any problems with his solution?
  • Where in your city could we use this type of implementation (if at all!)?

6. Finally - have a look at the real thing here! Does it match up to your idea? I’d imagined a cable car covered in army camouflage textiles 😔 So I was VERY pleasantly surprised to see such an elegant and beautifully designed structure!

Here are some bits and pieces of vocabulary and expressions that I caught when I was listening, feel free to add to the list!




atop a steep embankment

stay put


cliff side

upper/lower part

revitalise and regenerate

obviously there were concerns about ……. 

ruining the aesthetic

reject something

remarkable landscape

what I had in my mind


Has it been embraced by the people?


Have a more in-depth look at the lift with a look at this dezeen article about it here and sign up for their newsletter to get some English sent to your inbox every week!

What do you think? Is it how you imagined it?







How to be listened to



As I child I was hooked on audiobooks, my parents had to play tapes in the car on long journeys, while I read along with my paper books. I had lots of different ones, but my favourites were always anything by Roald Dahl. 

He's a large figure in British literary history, writing books for children that didn't treat them like children. The characters were strange, gruesome, magical and heroic. Talking foxes, witches with no toes and magic soups made from everything in the house. I've since heard from multiple sources since that he didn't really like kids that much ironically and was pretty grumpy when he had to visit schools giving talks. 

However, that didn't affect me and like thousands of other kids I was captivated by the voice telling the story.

If you want three minutes of escapism and a flashback to childhood then listen to an extract of the giraffe the pelly and me, read by Hugh Laurie here.

Today, people in business think about body language, their clothes, the location of their meetings, their online presence and image. What many neglect to think about is their voice, how you sound, the pauses you use. Your voice is in fact your most powerful tool for communicating, persuading and influencing. 

In your first language this is something people forget about, but when English is your second language it is often the very last thing you think about. After all, by the time your brain has organised the grammar, the correct vocabulary, the pronunciation - often you're ready for a rest and a beer!

Each week I'll introduce you to a speaking hero, someone who specialises in the voice, and how people use them to be heard effectively and powerfully the first is:

Julian Treasure

This man is easily one of my favourite people, if you're not familiar with him then take a look at his TED talk here.

To get the best out of him, you can sign up to his resource library and peruse it in your own time, or he has a course on udemy that you can complete. Why? Well as always, it's great to kill two birds with one stone. Doing a course in English means you get the benefits of exercising the English bit of your brain and at the same time you get a great new qualification that you can apply to your life!



Practical Skills 01 - Make friends with your phone.


I don't think I've met a single student who feels phone calls or conference calls are their strong point, they seem to make everybody stressed and uncomfortable. 

Living in Madrid and working freelance has meant a lot of phone calls in Spanish with varying degrees of success. The first six months where I had virtually no Spanish I would panic when the phone rang, ignoring it unless I absolutely HAD to answer. There was one incident where I received my medical check up results which could only be accessed by a code given over the phone.  I think the poor man who had to walk me through the steps with my pigeon English was more traumatised than me. I still felt like an idiot days later

One year later I'm happy to open bank accounts, do phone interviews and arrange deliveries in Spanish by phone, it's not always smooth but I definitely feel confident about the process!

People think that conversations are all different and complex. In reality, we are repetitive creatures and most conversations follow a fairly set script. This works to your advantage when you're in your second language. If you prepare a cheat sheet before each planned phone call over the next few weeks and add to it during and after the phone call; you'll feel much more confident and even start to enjoy making efficient phone or conference calls.

So based on my personal experiences and those of my students here are some strategies for handling phone/conference calls:


- At the end of the blogpost you can download a cheatsheet template to put these ideas into practise!-


1. Refresh the alphabet and numbers and remind yourself of very basic punctuation @ . / etc

Sounds basic, but it's incredible how many people (me included!) are suddenly silent when they're asked for their email address or mobile number in language 2.

2. Keep a record of useful expressions in the notes section of your phone,

for example it took me a number of awkward callbacks before I remembered to learn the Spanish for 'Hi, I have a missed call from....' I only remembered I needed this phrase when I was already inelegantly shouting - 'give me Ana, Ana call me!'.

3. Are you making the call or receiving it? This affects the language you're going to use. 

If you're making the call, think about your aims for the call, what information do you need? Simple things like this disappear from your memory when you're concentrating on understanding somebody without any physical gestures or facial expressions to help you.

If you're receiving the call, what questions can you expect? Try to anticipate as many as possible to prevent any nasty surprises. 

4. Don't apologise for your English.

My friend Carmen taught me this, for my first year in Spain I started every conversation with 'Hello, I'm sorry but my Spanish is very bad'. This puts you in a defensive position that you just shouldn't be in. Anyone attempting another language is already doing a great job. 

5. Who are you talking to? What accent do they have?

Use youtube to listen to the target accent and note down any characteristics of the accent that can help you.

This blog is a great resource for Native accents.

For non-native accents, there are many generalities. However, for sure, Spanish speakers find other Spanish speakers easier to understand as well as the French, Italian and Portuguese in English. 

The key is to identify what happens to the vowels and the ends of words, do they miss the -ed endings? How pronounced are the /r/ sounds? What happens to their intonation? How connected is their speech? Identifying just a couple of these elements will lead to a much smoother experience on the phone!

6. What are the typical errors you make when speaking? 

Most people forget to use the past tense when they're speaking, I'm not entirely sure why but this is something I've noticed myself and almost all of my students do. 

Question forms disappear also, remember if you want to make 'So, see you next Tuesday' into a question rather than a flat statement, you need to use INTONATION, or you could sound robotic. Which is ok, but not ideal for building relationships with people.

7. can you prepare any Key Vocabulary?

If the call is with someone from Human Resources, get a list of human resources vocabulary and review the key terminology before the call. This gives you the chance to anticipate any 'jargon' (area specific language) and note the pronunciation. The same goes for Acronyms - are there any you have in your language that are different in English?  Take 30 seconds to check on google!