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How to go from zero English to Bristol citizen

By Lucy Tilney on Sunday, 02 December, 2018

I want to tell you about Diego. Diego contacted me four years ago. He is Italian but had grown up in Argentina. He and his Argentinian wife lived in Milan but they wanted to relocate to Bristol. They decided that Diego would need to attend a language school and find a flat to start their new life in Bristol.

Starting a new life in Bristol

Diego at cafe in Bristol 2014

As Veronica was researching these options, she discovered that it was possible to live with an English teacher, in their home, while having a full immersion, one-to-one English course. Diego and Veronica immediately realised that this would be the perfect solution to their situation. Veronica searched on the internet, found my website and contacted me about a course for Diego

Diego arrived in September 2014, speaking no English. He told me that his first day in Bristol was like “walking around in a foreign film, with no subtitles”.

Diego needed help with the very basics of English. However, because he spoke both Italian and Spanish, he had a good grasp of the workings of language. We practised conjugation and pronunciation of irregular verbs every morning. I asked him to collect 10 words of vocabulary every day. Every morning, he chose five words and wrote them on the board, showing the parts of speech, the stress, the translation (into Italian or Spanish) and an example sentence, with the word of vocabulary in a different colour. This was to increase his vocabulary and to practise sentence writing.  His choice of words was always interesting for me.

Next I started to teach Diego how to use the phonemic system. That is the series of strange symbols that you see after a word when you look at it in a dictionary. This shows how the word SOUNDS and is extremely useful in English, since the letters in English words often have no direct connection with the pronunciation of the word.  I gave Diego a key, showing the symbols and the sounds. I explained to him that we were now focusing on the sound of the word, NOT the letters, and I created and exaggerated the sounds. First, I asked him to identify if the sound was a consonant or a vowel. Then, if a vowel, was it one, two or three sounds? This is introduces the idea of diphthongs and tripthongs (sounds made by connecting two or three vowel sounds). Then, if it was one sound, was it a long or a short sound? Diego had to give me the word from the key which corresponded to the sound. This way he gradually learned the phonemic alphabet and was able to connect the symbols with the sounds. This phonemic system is so helpful to non-native English speakers, whose languages are generally much more ‘transparent’.

He also wrote a daily diary, which we used as a grammar clinic. This activity is an extremely useful exercise because we naturally write sentences as we would in our own language, dropping in the foreign words in the same order as our own. In this way, we can organically notice grammar problems experienced while trying to create an English sentence. Some of these problems might be: word order in English sentences; subject verb agreements; regular and irregular verbs; adjectives; adverbs; prepositions and tenses (mainly past tenses since a diary is usually a reflection on what has happened). For all levels of English learners, it’s really good writing practice and helps them to process the grammar in a natural way. The more advanced students can create almost literary works, worthy of publication in a blog!

After the diary was completed and corrected, we recorded it and listened to the recording again. This way, the diary becomes a PRONUNCIATION activity. These days we use the student’s mobiIe phone but in those days, I used to record on a digital recorder and then sent Diego the audio file, so he could listen again, send it to friends or post it on a social media site.

I believe that the kinaesthetic activity of actually WRITING and CORRECTING the diary, and the visual aspect of SEEING the corrections helps embed the grammar into the subconscious. The diary also acts as a record of the student’s experience of their full immersion, intensive English course and their activities during their stay in Bristol. It's also much more interesting for me to hear my students expressing their observations and feelings than following an English course book. Since most students arrive with similar language problems, I am almost always reading the same units!

Diego's poster with verb & noun collocations

Diego and I worked on his English CV and I explained our conventions with CVs;  for example, you don’t include a photograph or your date of birth. I arranged for him to do some voluntary work at Oxfam, which gave him work experience in this country.


I also helped him to find a flat. It's impossible to know where to start looking when you move to a new city. I accompanied him on his visits to the estate agents and provided references. He was quite shocked at how expensive and difficult it was to find a flat in Bristol. He arrived in September and wanted to move in the following month. Since we have two universities in the city, he was competing with many university students.

I took Diego to listen to live jazz in pubs; we went to the Affordable Art Fair where I 'gave' him a budget of £1000 and asked him to choose art for his new flat. We went to meet my friends for coffee and dinner, and invited them to join us for walks or drinks. This way, he was able to meet and communicate with a range of different people and make friends.

Four weeks later, he was able to communicate comfortably and confidently, if not perfectly,  in English. My friends were amazed at his progress when they met him again, at the end of his month with me! Diego left at the beginning of October 2014 and has since started two successful businesses. Veronica joined him in January 2015 and is now working as a purchasing officer for a well-known company, having worked her way up from her first job as a food server in Burger King at Bristol Airport and later, for IKEA in their canteen. They feel that they are settled in well and are currently in the process of buying a house in Bristol. Diego and Veronica told me, ”You were the key to our successful move to Bristol.” Here is a photo of Diego and me, in a Bristol ferry, during this hot summer of 2018. Diego and Veronica have become good friends of mine, and I'm so proud and pleased to have been part of their successful relocation to Bristol.

Congratulations to a very brave and impressive couple, Diego and Veronica!

Diego & Lucy in Bristol ferry