B1 · B2 · culture

How much do you know about British Christmas?

Trafalgar_Square_Christmas_tree8
Picture from Wikipedia

I say British because Christmas is celebrated almost all over the world and obviously, everybody has their way of doing this. If you’re from a country but you live in another one (like me), you will most probably blend both traditions which means that on Christmas Day you might eat a typical Majorcan soup for starters and have turkey as main dish, just to set an example. It might also mean that you have to behave extra-well if you want both, Santa and the Three Kings to call round, but it will also sound a bit awkward for relatives back in England when you tell them that you are still feasting and celebrating when they have already got back to their daily routine at the workplace and have probably been on a diet for the last fortnight (getting rid of those extra Christmas calories). Anyway, whatever you do and whatever your beliefs are, I think Christmas is a lovely moment to enjoy time with your loved ones and to reach out to those you haven’t seen for some time just to remind them how much you love and care for them. That for me is what really matters at Christmas, don’t you agree?

Here you have a Christmas quiz on some cultural aspects from British Christmas. I hope you enjoy it.

Ho, ho, ho!!!!

Take the quiz
B2 · C1 · C2 · culture · Word formation

Why do Brits talk about the weather so much?

People walikng in the rain with umbrellas, UK: Wet and windy weekend for Britain
Photo from The Telegraph

Is it actually true that the British spend a lot of their time talking about the weather, or this just another one of those beliefs like ‘we have to have tea at five on the dot or we’ll go bananas ’,  sort of stuff ?  And, if it is true, is this feature shared by other cultures?

Well, I must say that we are particularly fond of talking about the weather, although I would also say that  it’s  a common topic of conversation in Spain too. However, what I do seem to notice is that people from these countries have a different way to approach this subject even when both typically use it as an icebreaker.

Where I live, people usually make exclamations about it. Sort of like ‘Vaya frio! Where a Brit would most probably make a tactfully brief statement of one or two words and polish it off with a question tag, ‘Cold, isn’t it?

Looking into this aspect of British culture, I found this really interesting article  that I’ve used to create a word formation activity for higher levels of English (C1 more or less).

The  article is from the BBC by Linda Geddes

Read the text and focus on each blank  using the words in brackets. The missing words are either adjectives or adverbs as the focus here is to practise with the different types of prefixes (yes, there are a couple of negative ones), and suffixes used to form these words.

Click for word formation activity

culture

Viking words

The English language is the result of many different cultures moving into the British Isles throughout history. One of them were  ‘the Danes’. At first, when this new group of people arrived, it was only for the purpose of plunder or rather, ‘to go a viking’ and this is the reason why these people were eventually called Vikings. The people from the British Isles were terrified of the violent attacks that these people from the north raged on them. However, not all the newcomers were violent and many stayed, settled down and farmed the land peacefully. They built towns, brought their own cultural aspects into the new land and of course, their language too. Here’s a very funny video from ‘Horrible Histories’ giving some examples of these Viking words that are in present-day English.

A2 · B1 · culture · Listening

Why countries don’t use purple on their flags

Ever wondered why purple doesn’t appear on flags, or why there are always four strawberry flavoured yogurts in a packet of eight? I can’t explain the second question, but here’s a really interesting video that explains the reason why countries traditionally didn’t use purple on their national flags. The video is from After Skool Youtube channel. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

CLICK FOR ACTIVITY

B2 · C1 · culture · Listening

Skara Brae

Skara_Brae

So you thought you  knew all about interior design and comfort at home, right? You thought that we, modern-day humans, had invented comfortable beds, hygienic bathrooms and all those things that make our homes tasteful and cosy. Well I have some news for you, because that is what I thought until I discovered Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement consisting of eight stone-built houses located on the coast of Mainland (the Orkney Islands). Its origin dates from 3180 BC and was occupied by families for about 600 years. The theories that explain why its inhabitants left the village are several.  Some historians say that this was caused by an abrupt climate change, while others claim that a violent storm forced the inhabitants to flee from the village leaving behind many of their belongings.  Whatever the reason was, the result was that the village remained covered with sand and earth for many centuries and was forgotten until 1850 when a severe storm hit Scotland, stripping a large tract of land off the coast and consequently, uncovering the village.
It was then when the locals discovered the settlement that was in such a good state of preservation that it has provided a wide insight into the lifestyle of the people who lived there. Thanks to this, we now know what these people ate and did for a living. We also know that they had stone-made furniture and a primitive form of toilets. These folks really knew about comfort!

Skara Brae gained Unesco World Heritage Site status and is probably older than the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. It is also known as the Scottish Pompeii and is a ‘must visit’ whenever going to Scotland. However, when visiting, have in mind that strict rules are applied to visitors as the settlement is extremely sensitive to the effects of these, which could cause irreversible damage.

The video is from Archaeosoup productions Youtube

CLICK FOR ACTIVITY

B2 · songs

The Sailorman’s Hymn

This beautiful, although extremely sad ballad by Kamelot, tells the story of a woman hopefully waiting for her lover who may have died at sea in a shipwreck. Although she feels lost and lonely, she never loses hope and lights a candle every night to guide him back home to her. Why the man went away, is not clear in the lyrics, but the reference to the ‘resounding sirens’ bring to mind something that at first  looked tempting, but finally had a tragic outcome.

The song may also be a romantic reference to smuggling, which during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was very common in the British Isles as many were those that at night, risked their lives in an attempt to earn a living.

Anyway, whatever the ballad is about, Kamelot’s vocalist, Roy Khan,  has such  a wonderful voice that I want to share it with you, so as to bring to mind a bard-like story of  remote Ireland.

I hope you enjoy the song.

Idioms · Vocabulary

Something on idioms

You could spend a lifetime learning English, but when visiting an English-speaking country, you’d be almost horrified to realise that its people seem to be blurting out whole sentences of stuff you have never heard in your life; not to mention that you don’t even know what they are talking about. So you consequently sigh to yourself and politely pretend that you’re deep in the conversation, smiling when your interlocutor smiles and frowning when you believe this is the correct face expression one should adopt at that moment. Meanwhile, you’ll surely be planning  a future visit to the bathroom where you’ll  look up those new terms on your mobile phone. It won’t be until then when you discover that what they said was something called ‘an idiom’ As if you weren’t having a hard time already with all those phrasal verbs!!!!! Then you may suddenly become suspicious of the English, wondering if they are deliberately making ‘your learning’ of ‘their language’ as complicated as possible for some strange reason you fail to grasp.

Idioms form part of everyday speech and they are extremely  productive. Meaning by this, that even if you speak the language very well, you can quickly become obsolete concerning the vast idiom repertoire if you don’t live among English-speaking people. There isn’t much we can do about it, rather than watch TV, read books or mix with British tourists.  On my behalf, I’m reading Zadie Smith’s latest novel, and yes, I have to  consult the meaning of many of the expressions I come across (fortunately, I have an e-book, so this isn’t such a tedious job). But even Zadie Smith’s narrator acknowledges that having been away from Britain for a certain amount of time, means that she no longer can keep up with the amount of idioms that are being constantly fired at her by Londoners.

Anyway, idioms are fun, and somehow say a lot about the British mentality. However, they usually belong to a colloquial register and will seldom appear in a piece of writing such as an essay  so, just to keep on the safe side, careful using them in formal writing.

There are idioms about almost everything, some of them are quite old and others are of recent usage, but what’s really interesting about them is that they don’t have to rely on an official organism, to become part of everyday speech. Fancy learning some just for a laugh and a cultural note?

To begin with, today we’re going to see a couple of food idioms and you’ll be surprised to find out that the meaning of them, doesn’t have much to do with food.

It’s not my cup of tea

TEA_CUP

Meaning that we are not really interested in  something or somebody.

‘I suppose Jane’s new boyfriend is nice, but he’s not really my cup of tea.’

‘As a writer, he’s really not my cup of tea’

To spill the beans

If somebody spills the beans, they have told somebody a secret or something that should have been kept private.

‘Trust Maria to spill the beans about Jane’s surprise party!’

Not a sausage

not_a_sausage

If somebody says that there wasn’t a sausage somewhere, they mean there was nothing or nobody there.

‘A- Did you go to that new restaurant across the road last night?’

‘B- Yes, but there wasn’t a sausage and so we had to leave early.’

The best thing since sliced bread

sliced_bread

Means that you think something is very good and interesting

‘I think electric cars are the best thing since sliced bread.’

 

To know which side your bread is buttered

butter

Meaning that you know how to get an advantage for yourself.

‘John always stays at work until late. He knows which side of his bread is buttered.’