Does your English accent matter? Does British English really exist? How can you become more confident in your English speaking skills? On today’s episode, Dan Sensei joins us to discuss some of these questions and give you all some great advice and motivation!
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bits and bobs (phrase) – small things or jobs of different types
I spent yesterday doing some bits and bobs around the house
Take the jump (phrase) – commit yourself to a course of action which you are nervous about
I wasn’t sure whether to sign up to the competition, but in the end I decided to take the jump
Not the end of the world (phrase) – often used to mean that something bad that happens is not too serious
If I make a mistake, it is not the end of the the world
Innately (adv) – an innate quality or ability is one that you were born with, not one you have learned
Cyril is innately good
Variable (n) – a number, amount, or situation that can change
Variable in my study include age and gender
Inhibition (n) – a feeling of embarrassment or worry that prevents you from saying or doing what you want
He is normally very shy, but after drinking beer he loses all his inhibitions
Americanism (n) – a word or expression that was first used in the US but is now used by people in other countries, especially those where English is spoken.
OK is an Americanism
Old fashioned (adj) – not modern; belonging to the past
She has very old-fashioned opinions of marriage
Badge of pride (phrase) – mark or expression of pride
He wore his identity as a badge of pride
RP (n) – (Received pronunciation) the standard way of speaking in which middle-class speakers of southern British English pronounce words
So many students want to study RP, but I can’t speak it!
Intimate (adj) – private and personal
We had dinner at an intimate restaurant
Nod (v) – to move your head down and then up, especially to show approval, agreement, or a greeting
Many people in the audience nodded in agreement
Good humoured (adj) – friendly or in a good mood
Despite the bad weather, we were all good-humoured
Kick-start (v) – to make something start to happen or start to develop more quickly
The government cut taxes to try to kick-start the economy
Terminology (n) – special words or expressions used in relation to a particular subject or activity
I don’t know much scientific terminology
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Who is Dan Sensei?
How are you?
I’m doing pretty well. Thank you very much for having me on. I’m pretty excited about it. How are you doing?
I’m OK. Thank you I was actually vaccinated against COVID-19 for the third, or technically fourth, time this yesterday. So I had a bit of a headache, but I’m feeling much better now.
Can you give us a short introduction to who you are and what you do?
Sure, so my name is Dan. Some people might have seen me online as Dan Sensei. I’m an English teacher, I’ve been teaching English in Japan for the last six years. I think about six years. And before that I taught in England a little as well. I teach all ages, all levels from little kids right through to old grandmas -It’s a very fun experience!
Other than that, I’m from Sheffield in England. I’m married to my Brazilian wife, and I’ve got 2 cats – called Melon-kun and Pan-chan.
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Why Become an English Teacher?
Why did you become an English teacher? Or maybe how did you become an English teacher?
That’s a good question. So yes, I studied sound engineering at university at about the same time that people started building home studios very cheaply, so by the time I’d finished university, most of the jobs had just disappeared.
Then I worked in IT for a while, and I got bored of sitting at a computer all day so decided to go back to university and get some qualifications for teaching English.
I did a Celta and some other bits and bobs. And then I decided I like talking to people. I like meeting new people. I like helping people learn a skill or better themselves in some way, so I decided to take the jump and become an English teacher.
England doesn’t particularly need English teachers and one of the first jobs that came up was a job in Japan. I applied and got it – so I came here.
I think a very similar story to mine! Did you speak Japanese when you first arrived here?
Very very little. I could ask where the station is, but I couldn’t understand the answers.
I came with nothing so and if you want to hear more of my language learning story, I’ll be recording an episode on Dan Podcast as well. So I’ll make sure to link that everywhere.
What are some of the challenges of teaching English in Japan?
A thing that I notice with a lot of students, especially younger students, they are terrified of making a mistake, especially in a group. If they can’t say something perfectly, they kind of don’t say anything.
So building the confidence enough that they realise it’s OK to make a mistake and it’s not the end of the world if that happens is hard work at first, but once you build that rapport with somebody and once you’ve got them to come out of their shell a little it’s much easier.
Other challenges are basically the differences between the language you know, things like articles that don’t exist in Japanese are really difficult for them to use.
“the”, “a”, “an”! These are almost impossible to explain because it’s something you learn innately as a child, and you learn the right context as a native English speaker. For learners, although the rule exists, it’s so hard to apply in natural conversation.
There’s so many avenues that you have and things you have to think about when you’re deciding which one to use. I once tried to make a flowchart to show the decision-making process. It just took so long like all the different variables were too hard.
I think the confidence and not making a mistake point that you made is really important. Earlier this week I was taking a public speaking Japanese public speaking class at the university I research at. After the class a lot of people came up to me and said, “wow, your Japanese is so good.”
It’s not. You heard me speak and I made more mistakes than everyone else in this class, probably combined. I’m really not perfect when I speak. But I just don’t care anymore.
I lived in the countryside where no one spoke English and I had to just speak Japanese for two years and I lost all my inhibitions, all my fear of speaking in Japanese. The only thing I had to do was speak and if I didn’t speak, I wouldn’t survive!
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Does Your English Accent Really Matter?
Let’s move on to the real reason I invited you onto the podcast today!
We both come from the UK and there’s this concept in English learning of British English and I get a lot of messages and requests of people saying, “I really want to learn your accent. I really want to learn the British English accent.”
Dan, you also speak British English, that’s right, but the guys listening at home probably realised that we speak very differently.
For sure. It’s such a big thing when people say British English. What do they mean? Do they mean like what you hear on BBC Radio? Do they mean people from Newcastle, people from Liverpool?
Anyway, it’s totally different, no matter where you go. What do you mean when you say British English?
Within the UK you can travel 10 kilometres between different villages and your accent completely changes to almost a different language, right?
Sure, sure sure.
You mentioned earlier you come from Sheffield in the UK. Can you give everyone if they don’t know where Sheffield is?
Oh, if you take from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England, it’s almost exactly the centre of that. It’s in Yorkshire, so it’s near Leeds and Doncaster in places like that.
Usually in Japan, nobody has heard of it, so I say, “oh, it’s like an hour from Manchester” – that is the best I can usually give most people. It’s an industrial city famous for steel. And that’s about it.
They’ve got, they’ve got some successful football teams.
Once Upon a time.
You still have a tinge of Sheffield accent, but how has your accent changed over the last six or seven years you’ve not been in the UK?
Oh my God completely. When I first came to Japan, I still had a very strong Yorkshire accent. And I knew I was in trouble when the teachers from Australia couldn’t understand what I was saying. Like if the other teachers can’t understand what I’m saying, the students have no chance!
So slowly it’s morphed into this weird mix of like kind of some Americanisms because it’s so common to hear American English here, and some more clear pronunciation of words.
If anybody ever heard Yorkshire dialect, you’ll know that like the letter “H” doesn’t exist, the word “the” disappears. Forcing myself to over pronounce these things so that people can understand what I’m saying has become kind of normal now.
The only time I really sound like I’m from Yorkshire is if I talked to my brother on the phone and then instantly it kind of clicks back.
But if I’m talking to people, whether it’s students or my wife or when I’m doing anything teaching based online, on Instagram or whatever it’s kind of a teacher voice which is designed to be easier to understand, designed to be easier to understand
How Has Your Accent Affected You?
Do you think your Yorkshire accent has maybe affected your career, your profession? Because a lot of people are really, really worried about their accent when they’re learning English. So how has your accent affected you?
When you have a Yorkshire accent, people think of you as being kind of old fashioned. It’s kind of a stereotype of Yorkshire people, right?
We are a very manual labour, working class kind of area and this becomes kind of a badge of pride as well, like that’s where I’m from. That’s who I am, and I quite enjoy the Yorkshire accent! I think it’s kind of fun, it’s interesting and I like that it’s kind of unique.
I think that’s really important. I tell that to people all the time who are really worried about their accent. I like to say “don’t lose your Japanese accent or your Korean accent or your Italian accent” because that’s your unique identity, and if you lose that, you just become generic in another language.
You lose that part of you which connects you to your original culture and your original upbringing.
Sounding a little bit Japanese or Korean or Italian or whatever, when you’re speaking English is not a problem.
Not at all.
Not at all! Unless you suddenly decide you want to become a BBC Newsreader or something, but you don’t need this perfect accent. We don’t all want to sound like Harry Potter.
Why do you want to sound like that? Sound like you! Because that’s who you are and if I can understand you, that’s all that matters.
Many European countries changed their teaching styles, probably about 20 or so years ago, to move away from teaching accent and pronunciation perfectly and instead spending that time teaching vocabulary and grammar because that is so much more important.
The ability to be understood and comprehended relies more on your grammar and vocabulary than it does on your pronunciation. As long as your pronunciation is clear, accent doesn’t matter.
I agree completely that being understood is the goal. Having some picture-perfect accent of whatever you think British English is fine if that’s what you want to dedicate your life to, but it’s not important. I’m gonna understand you either way, so it doesn’t really matter.
Does British English actually exist?
Do you think British English actually exists?
No! What people think is British English is maybe a Hollywood version of English or BBC English or RP or whatever you want to call it. We don’t all sound like the Queen – nobody really speaks like that.
You can go 10 kilometres in any direction and you’re going to encounter different sounds, different words, different dialects. When you say British English, what do you mean?
Even in Yorkshire, different towns have different words and different sounds and different dialects, and we are 10 minutes apart. If there’s that many dialects and that many different sounds being made in England, how can you say that that one is British English?
It doesn’t exist.
I half agree with you!
British English does exist when written. In a written form, we spell words slightly differently to American English, we do have slightly different grammar rules as well, and I’m sure that if myself and Dan were to write something, we’d probably follow the same rules.
But if we’re having a conversation we’re not following exactly the same rules of speaking in terms of accent and in terms of vocabulary.
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Sheffield Slang Terms!
There are lots of slang terms in the UK and I want to share with you some Sheffield slang terms! I’m going to say the word to Dan, and I want to see whether or not he can explain what these words mean.
I found these all on an article online so hopefully they are really Sheffield slang terms, and I’ve not been tricked.
OK, so the first word is “nowt”
Where I’m from, it’s pronounced more like “nought”. It basically means nothing.
“What are you doing tomorrow? Nowt – I’m not doing anything.
I think what happens in Yorkshire, “owt” becomes anything, so anything we say “owt”. So if you put “not on “owt” you get “nowt”.
You can already see there are some big vocabulary differences here.
OK, the next word, this is one I’ve never heard before “chuddy”
Chuddy, yes. It means Chewing gum.
I’m not really sure where this one comes from, but when we were in school you’d often say to your friends – “have you got a chuddy?” Have you got a piece of chewing gum?
That I didn’t realise was a Yorkshire thing until I talked to people from outside. Growing up that was so normal that I just thought that’s what people called it.
There’s a lot of this in British English. especially when you grow up in one place! I moved from Milton Keynes to Nottingham for University, and yeah, they speak differently in Nottingham, and I was surrounded by people from different parts of the country who all use different words.
One of the things people described differently are “bread cakes.” What is a bread cake?
This word is quite controversial. If you go to Yorkshire and you want to start an argument with a group of young people, show thema picture of this and be like what’s this called?
You’re going to get 10 answers in an argument, but a bread cake is basically a small bread roll, sometimes called a bapp.
I would call it a roll.
But we call it a bread cake which is stupid ’cause it’s not a cake but bread! At least 50% right. When we grew up we called it a bread cake. It’s also called a Cobb in some places, a bap, a bun, a cob, barm cake!
I don’t know why we got so many words for this one thing. It is the kind of thing you’d put a burger inside, right?
It just means a casual greeting. This feels a little more old-fashioned Yorkshire. I often say, “alright?” which is kind of “Are you alright?”
OK, how about sound?
you can say that a person is sound i means they’re like a nice person, they’re easy to get on with. It also kind of means like, “OK, I understand.”
For example, your friend says, OK, “we’re going to meet at the pub at 8:00 o’clock.” “OK, sound.”
That’s quite a common one as well.
OK, and the final word on my list is jennel.
Yeah, this is one of those that people argue about, but jennel is basically a walking space between two houses. Kind of an alleyway I guess.
It’s like between two houses, a place that you can walk.
Dan’s Language Learning Journey!
Can you tell us a bit about your language learning journey?
Obviously living in Japan, I learned Japanese. I say “learned” – still learning.
Even though I’m an English teacher, I am not the best language student you are going to find. I’m not great at learning languages. I find it quite difficult!
I’ve broken down English, I understand everything because I’m trying to teach it to people. So when I don’t understand everything in another language, it’s kind of hard for me to put it together in my head.
When I came here, I spoke very, very little and a few experiences later, like 2 1/2 hours trying to open a bank account where it resulted in the woman telling me that my passport was wrong. I realised I need to learn some Japanese pretty quickly.
I’d learn a new phrase or some new words, or something conversational, and I’d go to the standing bar near my house, and I would say that expression to everyone.
I would just see what they said, and I would kind of memorise what they said. I learned how to respond if somebody else said it to me and basically built up a conversational kind of database that I could call up.
There are some similarities between us because I also came to Japan with very little Japanese – both written and spoken. It was all a process of learning as fast as I can and learning what is most necessary first.
Something I’ve been doing recently is also going to the local bar and practising! Over the last few months, I’ve been spending more time at my local coffee shop, which also turns into a bar at night and just speaking to people.
It’s just a really nice thing to do, and it gives you an opportunity to practice, so I encourage anyone listening who has the opportunity to go somewhere to do it
Maybe you live in an English-speaking country and you can go to a small intimate bar or pub. If you go to a bigger place, you have your own table and you’re not near anyone. The place I go to has only two chairs and everyone else has to stand around, so that’s why I like it.
You can’t help but make eye contact with people and then you’ve got an open door. To anyone listening – we both mentioned we make a lot of mistakes, but we don’t care and I think having that opportunity to feel free to express yourself in a language that you’re learning is important
As long as the other person is kind of nodding and smiling, you’re going to build your confidence. And that’s going to lead to you being more outgoing and trying new situations, and you’re going to naturally spend more time in the language, which means you’re going to learn more of that language just by doing it.
You’re going to make mistakes! But it is a good story when you look back on it. I’ve made a lot. I accidentally became a Santa Claus for a kindergarten because I didn’t understand the question I was being asked. I’ve also had some terrible haircuts here.
But it’s part of the journey, yes, and if you should take it all in good humour, you know!
Have you ever had embarrassing incidents during your Japanese learning?
Yeah, well there was one big experience that made me learn.
During a trip to the doctor, a camera was introduced to me in a way that I was not prepared for… but I would have been prepared for had I understood what they were saying.
Then next thing I lay on the bed… and then I knew I was in trouble.
Now that really kick started my studying! let’s buy a textbook, let’s learn some words.
But it is often these experiences that you learn most from!
You are also learning another language, right?
Recently I started learning Portuguese because, like I mentioned earlier, my wife is from Brazil even though we met in Japan and most of our communication is in English.
I recently started trying to learn Portuguese, and I say recently I mean you know two months ago maximum, so it’s Interesting because being an English speaker there’s a lot of similarity in sounds and words that even if you don’t know the word, maybe it sounds enough like the English where you can guess what it means.
There’s also some stuff that just blows my mind ’cause I’ve never really tried to learn European languages – the masculine and feminine nouns and the amount of different articles and stuff they’ve got is mind-blowing.
At the moment, I’m just trying to acquire vocabulary and the core of 2000 thousand words and then take it from there.
Do you have a language learning plan or goal?
When I first started learning Japanese, I had some textbooks that I would use every day after I finished work. I studied every day pretty much for two years basically and I managed to go from nothing to passing the third level of the Japanese language Proficiency test and I was probably a lot better than that actually.
But for the last four years, I’ve had no plan in my language studies and I have just been studying occasionally without really any focus, and my Japanese has gotten much worse.
It’s just declined consistently. Even though I’m in Japan, I live in basically an English environment as I research and study primarily in English.
Have you got a plan or are you just free studying like I am?
At first I learned survival Japanese – like what do I need to survive. So I did the same as you. Probably we studied the same textbooks everybody studies.
But also like you, the pandemic has stopped me from interacting with people outside. I work in English teaching, so I’m English all the time and I speak to my wife in English, so my Japanese also over the last two years has declined.
But in terms of Portuguese, I decided to kind of approach it as a language learner would – learn the core vocabulary first, then pick up the grammar and then start to input as much as you can and then deal with output later.
Then I think definitely when you become proficient in a language the need for textbooks and stuff disappears pretty quick.
At that point, you transition to you know native media and being part of the language rather than actively trying to learn it. So very much like you said in Japanese – you studied very hard for a couple of years, got to a certain level, then “OK now I’m just going to take it as it comes.”
Once you’ve got the building blocks and you build the house however you want.
Thinking in English is designed to plug the gap between the textbook and the native media, especially for really advanced articles and advanced topics.
There is a big gap between an English textbook written by an English teacher, and a Financial Times article, but a lot of people don’t care about the English textbook they want to read the Financial Times article or The Economist article or The Guardian article, right?
Most English teachers know grammar and they know vocabulary, but they can’t explain the complicated theories of world politics or sociology or philosophy, which is what you need to be able to understand these more advanced media.
At that point as well, it becomes just as much about context and knowing the terminology of that situation as it does about knowing the language, right?
I’m a native English teacher. You could give me a scientific article and although I could read it, I’m not necessarily going to understand it. And that’s nothing to do with English. That’s to do with my knowledge of the subject matter.
Doing something in English that you are actually interested in is so much more powerful than learning from a textbook. If you love politics or if you love travel or cooking or playing video games or whatever it is you love, get to a point where you can love that in English.
That’s going to be the best thing you can do to interact with the language that you’re learning.
Where can you find Dan?
Thank you so much for coming on to Thinking in English today! Please promote yourself and tell people where they can find you.
OK, so if you want to find out more about what I do, you can go to dansenseienglish.com. There’s lessons and podcasts and videos and all sorts of stuff on there. But other than that you can find me pretty much everywhere if you try – Dan sensei.
Come and say hello, I’d love to hear from you guys.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure!
I’d like to say a big thank you to Dan for joining us on today’s episode of Thinking in English. I think we covered a lot of different issues, and hopefully reassured you all and gave you some tips to keep improving.
Most importantly, don’t worry too much about your accent. Like Dan said, as long as we can understand you, that is all that matters! Focus on clear and understandable English, instead of trying to copy my way of speaking!
Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Mistakes are natural, important, and an excellent way to improve your English. And if you ever find the opportunity to speak English, make sure you take that opportunity!
You can find Dan on Instagram at Dansensei or on his website!
Have you ever made an embarrassing mistake in English?
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