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Last week a woman called Marie Smith Jones died. She was 89 years old and she lived in Alaska in North America. Marie was the last person alive to speak a language called Eyak. Eyak is, or was, one of the native North American languages. Linguists have carefully recorded Eyak grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation. But no-one speaks Eyak any more. It is a dead language.

We do not have an official language in Britain, but most people of course speak English or a dialect of English. There are several other native or indigenous languages in Britain. They are descended from the languages spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Britain before the English arrived in the 4th and 5th centuries. The most important is Welsh, which is spoken by about more than half a million people in Wales, or about 20% of the population. Welsh and English now have equal official status in Wales. If you visit Wales, you will see that all road signs are in English and Welsh. Welsh is flourishing.

Two other Celtic languages, Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Irish Gaelic in Northern Ireland are spoken by only a few percent of the population. Another Celtic language in South-West England – called Cornish – died out completely in the 19th century, just like Eyak has died out. It was re-introduced about 100 years ago and today Cornish is spoken by a few thousand people.

It is interesting that we use some of the same words for languages as we use for plants and animals. Here are some examples:

  • We talk about native or indigenous plants or animals – that means the plants and animals which live naturally in a place, and have been there a long time. Similarly, we talk about native or indigenous languages, like English in England, or Irish Gaelic in Ireland.
  • We can say that modern horses are descended from wild horses. Similarly, we can say that modern Welsh is descended from an old Celtic language.
  • We can say, for instance, that wolves have died out in Britain. Similarly, we can say that the Eyak language has died out.
  • We can say that an animal like the rhinocerous is endangered; and we can also say that a language is endangered, if the number of people speaking it is very small.
  • Of course some species of animals are flourishing – probably their numbers are growing and they are not likely to die out. Similarly, we can say that today the Welsh language is flourishing.
  • And some species of animals or birds die out, but are then re-introduced into the wild. We have several examples of this in England, particularly a bird called the red kite. Similarly, we can say that the Cornish language has been re-introduced.

I have also read in the paper that some experts think that three quarters of the world’s languages will die out in the next 100 years. Do you think that this will happen? Perhaps languages and animals die out for similar reasons – reasons such as over-exploitation of natural resources, modern travel and tourism, and population movement. How many people will speak English one hundred years from now? English is widely spoken as a second language today, partly because of British colonial history, and partly because of American economic power. However, 100 years from now, British colonial history will be a long way in the past, and American economic power may be much less. What languages will your grandchildren and great-grandchildren learn? Chinese perhaps?

Photo by iwouldstay/flickr


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Swimming the Channel

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This week we meet the verb “to swim”; and we also meet a famous swimmer, called Captain Webb. The verb “to swim” is one of a very small group of English verbs where there are three different vowel sounds in three different tenses, like this:

  • I swim
  • I swam
  • I have swum

The other common verb which is like this is “to sing” (I sing, I sang, I have sung).

A few weeks ago, I watched a television programme. A woman who was on the programme said that, when she was younger, she had swum the Channel. What does that mean?

“The Channel” is the sea which lies between England and France. Its proper name is “The English Channel” but normally in English we talk about “The Channel”. We talk about “crossing the Channel”, which means that we are going to visit France or Belgium or another country on the mainland of Europe. The Channel is about 22 miles or 36 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, between Dover in England and Calais in France. There are regular ferries across the Channel, and a huge number of ships pass through the Channel on their way to ports in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. And some people swim across the Channel.

Speaking personally, I do not enjoy swimming very much and I think that people who swim the Channel must be either very brave or very foolish. The English Channel is cold. It is also not very clean, and there are lots of ships which might hit someone swimming. But the distance across the Channel is about as far as it is possible for someone to swim in the sea. So it is a bit like Mount Everest – it is the big challenge, the final goal, for people who are keen on long-distance swimming.

The first person to swim across the Channel was Captain Matthew Webb. He was 29 years old when he swam from England to France in August 1875. The crossing took him rather under 22 hours. His swim across the Channel made Captain Webb famous. There is a picture of him on the website, and – I hope – on your iPod screens. The Victorians liked their heroes to be tall, upright and handsome, and to wear a moustache; and you will see that Captain Webb is indeed tall, upright and handsome, and that he has a moustache. I think incidentally that the photographer who took the photo was working in a studio, and that the waves and the sea behind Captain Webb are painted and not real.

Fifty years after Captain Webb’s great swim, only about 10 other people had managed to swim the Channel. It is interesting that nearly always they swam from England to France, and not the other way. Why? I have no idea! Since the 1920s many more people – about 1000 altogether – have made the great swim, including some who have swum from England to France and then back again. Modern swimmers swim much faster than Captain Webb – the fastest swim, by Petar Stoychev in August last year, took under 7 hours, only a third of Captain Webb’s time. A woman called Alison Streeter has swum the Channel a record 43 times; in fact, in 1992 alone she swam the Channel 7 times.


And what happened to Captain Webb? Did he live to an old age, so that he could tell his grandchildren all about his great swim to France? I am afraid not. He became a professional swimmer, and wrote a book about – can you guess? – How to Swim. A brand of matches was named after him – there is a picture of a box of Captain Webb matches on the website. He did stunts like floating in a tank of water for 128 hours. And in 1883, 8 years after his Channel swim, he decided to swim across the Niagara River, between Canada and the USA, just below the Niagara Falls where the water is dangerous and fast flowing. Within a few minutes he had disappeared; his body was found four days later. It was a sad end for a very remarkable man.

It is a long time since we had any music on this podcast. So here is a song by Amy Kohn called “1977 Swimming Lessons”. She is I think remembering swimming lessons in a swimming pool when she was a child. I hope you enjoy it.


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To hold you, to hold you

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Grandmother and baby

Hello, everyone. It is very good to be making a new podcast. My internet connection is working again. Thank you very much for your patience, and a big thank you in particular to all those of you who sent me e-mails saying how sorry you were about my internet problems.

It is a long time since we had any poetry on the podcast. From time to time, I look at a book of English poetry and wonder whether I can use any of the poems. But very few poems are written in simple English which is easy to understand. My friend, Margaret Scorey, however writes poems which use simple and direct English, and are therefore very good for English learners. Here is a poem she wrote about a month ago. She wrote it for a woman who had recently become a grandmother. But the woman’s family, and the new grandchild, were in America, so grandmother travelled to America to hold her new grandchild in her arms for the first time. Margaret has called the poem “To Hold you, to hold you”.

My longing is to hold you,
to feel your soft cheeks against mine
to look into your gentle eyes
to touch your hair
and feel the warmth of your breath.

Soon I will.

But know that when I return,
the ache will be as great as it is now,
softened only by memories.

But one thing, I will be able to say is,
‘I’ve done it, I’ve done it, I’ve held you’.

Poem copyright Margaret Scorey, 2007, used with permission.

Photo of grandmother and new baby by Brian Hession/Flickr


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On the day after Christmas Day – the day we call Boxing Day in England – something terrible happened. My internet connection stopped working. I could not surf the net. I could not read my e-mails. I could not check my website or upload new podcasts. The internet is a bit like cigarettes. You become addicted, or “hooked” as we say in colloquial English. When suddenly you cannot use the internet, it is like wanting a cigarette, and finding that you do not have any cigarettes and that the shops are all closed. So, when my internet connection stopped working, how did I feel? What words can we use to describe my feelings?

Well, we could use words like “angry” or “furious”. But these words are too strong. If someone is angry or furious, they are shouting at people and banging the table. I was not shouting at people about my internet connection, nor was I banging the table. So “angry” and “furious” are not the right words.

Could we use the word “upset”? If something upsets you, it means that it has hurt you emotionally. You may be unable to discuss the upsetting thing without crying. You may not want to talk to people, or to eat your food. Well, my internet connection problem was not like that. So I was not “upset” when my internet connection stopped working.

We need some words that mean “a little bit angry”. There are several of them. We can say, for example, that I was cross when the train was late and I missed an important meeting. I was annoyed when I could not find my car keys. I was irritated when someone did not reply to an e-mail. Yes, all of these words would do – I was cross, and annoyed, and irritated, when my internet connection stopped working.

But there is another word that describes exactly how I felt. I wanted to do things – surfing the net, sending e-mails etc – but I could not. And I could do nothing to solve the problem. The only thing to do was to wait for my internet provider to mend the connection. And it was Christmas, so all of their engineers were on holiday. So I had to wait, and wait, and wait! I felt “frustrated”. The feeling we have when we cannot do something we normally do is “frustration”. If you break your leg, and you cannot play football for two months, you might find this “frustrating”. That is how it was with my internet connection – it was frustrating. I felt frustrated

The really bad news is that my internet connection still does not work. I have complained to my internet company. They say that there is nothing wrong. What do they mean, nothing is wrong? I can’t access the internet. Of course something is wrong. Now I am very frustrated. I am not just cross with my internet company, I am starting to be angry. I am shouting at the internet company and banging the table. I have cancelled my contract with them, and next week some nice people from the cable TV company will come and install a new fibre-optic cable to my house, and I will have the internet again.

And how will I feel then? “Happy” – yes, of course. But a really good word is “relieved”. Imagine that your teenage daughter goes out with some friends for the evening. She says she will be home at 10 o’clock. Ten o’clock comes and she is not home; 10.30, 11 o’clock. You get worried and anxious. What has happened? Should you telephone the police? Then at midnight, the phone rings. It is your daughter. She is at her friend’s house. How do you feel? You might be cross with your daughter because she did not telephone earlier. But mainly you would feel relieved – no more worries, no more problems, everything is OK again – relieved. That is how I shall feel when my internet connection is back – relieved.

In the meantime, I am using an internet cafe to upload my podcasts. It takes a lot longer to make and upload podcasts without an internet connnection at home. So, sorry, I do not have time to find a good picture to put on the website or your iPod screen to illustrate this podcast. And I may not be able to make another podcast until my internet connection is back. How will you feel about no new podcast next week? Will you be angry, or annoyed, or upset, or frustrated? Or will you feel relieved? I hope not!


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Eddie the Eagle

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Every four years, the Olympic Games are held. This year – 2008 – is an Olympic year. The games are to be held in Beijing in China. As well as the main Olympic Games, there are also the winter Olympics. The winter Olympics are for snow sports – things like ski-ing, ice-skating and bob-sleighing. Like the main Olympic Games, they take place every four years. They used to be held in the same year as the main Games; but now they are held in the year mid-way between the main Games. The last winter Olympics were in 2006; the next winter Olympics will be in 2010, in Vancouver in Canada.

Naturally, most of the winners in the sports at the winter Olympics are from countries with mountains and lots of snow – countries like Austria, Norway, Finland and Switzerland for example. In Britain, our mountains are quite small, and we do not have a lot of snow, so generally there are only a few British winners at the winter Olympics. But 20 years ago, in 1988, when the winter Olympics were held in Calgary in Canada, one of the British competitors became world famous. It happened like this.

Michael Edwards was 13 when he first when ski-ing on a school ski trip. He loved it. He also had a childhood ambition to be a stuntman. A stuntman is someone who acts the really dangerous bits in films – where people fall through windows, for example, or drive a car over a cliff. So Michael decided that ski-jumping should be his sport. In ski-jumping, the competitors ski very fast down a long, straight slope and onto a ramp. They then take off and fly though the air, and land 100 or 200 meters further on. It is slightly less dangerous than jumping out of an aeroplane with no parachute. You have to be very brave or very stupid to do ski-jumping.

It is not easy to be a ski-jumper in Britain. There are, to start with, no ski jumps where you can practice. Michael went to some of the top French and Austrian ski-jumping coaches to ask them for advice. However, as he did not speak any French or German, this did not help him much. Also, Michael was short-sighted. He had to wear thick glasses, that often steamed up as he went down the ski slope, so that he could hardly see where he was going. But he kept on practising and training, and in 1987 he entered the world ski-jumping championships in Obertsdorf. There were 98 competitors. Michael came 98th. The press started to call him “Eddie the Eagle”.

Eddie (as we will now call him) then asked the British Olympic Committee whether he could represent Britain in the ski-jumping event at the winter games in Calgary. There were no other British ski-jumpers. So the Committee agreed that he could go. He borrowed some skis, and set off for Calgary. In Calgary, Eddie was in competition with some of the finest ski-jumpers in the world. His best jump was 73.5 meters. To me, this seems a very long way to fly through the air with skis on one’s feet. But top-class ski-jumpers regularly jump 200 meters and more. So Eddie did spectacularly badly in the Games, but he became one of the best known people in Calgary. Everyone laughed about him; and wondered whether he would be taken away in an ambulance after his next jump. He waved to the television cameras, and shouted “Hello Mum, it’s me” before he set off down the ski slope. We British love a brave loser, so we loved Eddie.

The International Olympic Committee, the men in suits who run the Olympic Games, did not find Eddie amusing however. They changed the rules to make it much more difficult for someone like him to compete in future Games. The International Olympic Committee must be some of the most boring people in the world. So, at the next Winter Olympics in 2010, there will be some magnificent ski-ing, but there will be no-one like Eddie the Eagle.


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