Monday, 24 December 2012

A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? - Sarah Ager

For my family, Advent was always heralded in by the arrival of the plastic tree from the dusty loft and the annual untangling of lights. As the years went by, I slowly overtook the tree in height but my role as chief artistic director remained unchallenged for over two decades. The little knitted stockings on the tree housed chocolate coins which my brother and I would hunt for every morning and, along with a chocolate Celebrations Advent calendar, these formed a staple part of my annual Christmas countdown.

Then, of course, all those glittery baubles went flying up in the air two years ago when I became a Muslim and Ramadan suddenly became my main festival. As I'd only been fasting for two years, I hadn't developed any traditions for that particular festival yet. I was stuck in an awkward transitional phase where I still felt a bit at a loss when Christmas came along and, much like my annual Christmas lights, found myself in a bit of a tangle!

The Plastic Tree I Eventually Outgrew

I'd always been very traditional when it came to Christmas. I wanted to uphold each family tradition, from opening one present on Christmas Eve to leaving a shoe outside the door for Santa to hide (to his day, I've got no idea where this concept came from!). Bearing this in mind, a shake up like my conversion was pretty unnerving. I began to question everything that had once been so stable. 

What traditions would I keep? What should I avoid? 

Certainly, it was with a heavy heart that I gave my portion of crispy pigs-in-blankets to my brother last Christmas. Although he seemed pretty happy to have discovered this unexpected upside to my conversion! 

My opinions were constantly evolving on the subject of Christmas. I found myself offering diverse views to different people depending on which day they asked me. Like a shaken up snowglobe, it takes a while for the flakes to settle back down again. In fact, I revisited last year's Christmas article and found I could no longer relate the opinions I'd expressed back then.

I no longer feel like I've lost something. Conversion or not, Christmas would never be the same as it was when I was a child. I'd been worried that converting would mean I'd never be able to relate to Christmas again. Instead, I found that the upheaval made me reflect on why Christmas was important to me in the first place. 

Christmas 6 Years Ago

Having a perfectly symmetrical and colour-coded Christmas tree just doesn't matter anymore. What matters is being able to board a flight to see my family over a thousand miles away. What matters is the seemingly banal - hearing my mum fret that I've lost or gained weight, catching up with my Grandparents over a cup of tea, and chatting late into the night with my brother about everything and nothing.

Just being there.

And that warm fuzzy feeling we get from being with those we love is something that transcends religious red tape or cultural baggage. Whether we're speaking about religious festivals or celebrations like Thanksgiving, in the end, they all boil down to two very simple concepts: being thankful and being together.

How has your views towards holiday traditions changed over the years? 

Monday, 10 December 2012

30 Ways To Say "Turtle"

Recently, I was kindly invited by Jeanette Kramer (@jeanettekramer) to write a Guest Post for Latitude International Education:

The article looks at the surprising benefits of learning a new language, the advantages of attending a language school and the first-hand experiences of an Erasmus student in Bologna. 

Other interesting articles on the Latitude Website include:

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Bologna Cioccoshow: Reinventing the Kebab!

As I write, I'm still basking in the warmth of a scrumptious hot chocolate. It was the perfect remedy for a chilly morning stroll around the Cioccoshow stalls lining Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna. As I wandered around, I noticed that Cioccoshow had certainly upped its game this year. Alongside the traditional blocks of chocolate and delicate truffles, there were also chocolate kebabs, chocolate i-pads (to scale), huge chocolate pizzas and even full nativity sets. 

A fully rotating chocolate kebab! 
The creamy chocolate shavings were then served on a slab of chocolate bread.

Typical Italian Breakfast immortalized in Chocolate: 
Cappuccino Cream & Chocolate Brioche (Italian: cornetto) on a White Chocolate Saucer

The Cutest Penguin ever! It was all on its lonesome and I was so 
tempted to give it a home (except that would have meant eating it...) 

Yogurt Truffles and the delicious Ricotta and Pear combination
(which is also incredibly refreshing as a gelato flavour during the summer)

Choose between Cinnamon (cannella) or Chilli (peperoncino) 
Dense & Creamy Cremino Chocolate Blocks

Have a Complete Chocolate Picnic: Salami, Bread Rolls & Cheese 

Italian Cheeses: Ricotta, Grana Padana & Parmeggiano 
not forgetting the chocolate grater!

Betty Boop, Asterix, Kung Fu Panda and Snoopy! 

Delicious Marrón Glacés (Glazed Chestnuts)

Some of the unusual flavours on offer: Parma Violets, Basil & Chilli

A nut cracker and a selection of nuts

A full make-up set including lipstick, eyeshadow, and mascara! 

Traditional Parma Violets from the Emilia-Romagna Region

And of course, Elegant Italian Shoes & Handbags
★  ★  

The Cioccoshow will be in Bologna from the 14th - 18th November. If you get the opportunity, do come and have a gander. Check out @cioccoshow for more info regarding the festival and events such as chocolate tasting, chocolate making and events for children throughout the next few days. 

★  ★  

If this has whet your appetite, you might also fancy a peep at Last Year's Chocolate Festival

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Italian vs English: 'False Friends'

Why is 'ciao' so deceptive and sneaky? 
Why do sensible Italians cry so easily?
Why are all Italian children interrogated at school for hours on end? 

Intrigued? Hopefully by the end of this post, you'll be able to feel pretty smug with your new collection of snippets which you can casually sprinkle into general conversation with your friends. 

★  ★  

So what is a 'false friend?' Well, linguistically speaking a 'false friend' is a pair of words that may look very similar and appear to be related but in fact have a different meaning or a completely different root and have nothing to do with each other. False Friends usually result in confusion such as the high likelihood that an Italian would describe the following object 'A Morbid Cake.'

Photo: Panforte via

Now for an English person, this cake doesn't look very morbid. After all, there's no blood, gore or risk of death. Instead, the phrase 'morbid cake' would probably conjure up this sort of image

This confusion can be explained by putting this pair of false friends side by side:


While morbid means gruesome, gloomy or deadly in English, in Italian 'morbido' simply means soft or pliable. So a cake described as 'morbido' is likely to be soft, gooey and yummy rather than covered in sugared skulls or marzipan gravestones! Or in a perfect world, a 'morbid cake' would look like these cupcakes - morbid and morbido! 

Photo: Cake via @knitticrafty
★  ★  

Here are some common examples of false friends in daily life. 

Everyday I hear at least one student say 'I need to cancel my answers' or a child asks me, 'teacher, shall I cancel the board?' I've become so used to this word being used that sometimes if I'm in a rush I momentarily forget and say, 'yes, cancel the board' before I correct myself.


The problem here is that the English cancel and Italian cancellare both have the same meaning. They both mean to delete or to erase.  The difficulty for Italians though is that English people don't just use 'cancel,' we also use three synonyms for specific situations. We use the verb 'erase' for removing information or pencil marks, we use 'rub out' for removing pen, pencil or chalk from surfaces and we use 'delete' in the context of removing information on a computer. But for Italians all of these concepts are encapsulated by the word 'cancellare' and so this complicates matters. 

Another really common pair of false friends is:


While in English 'control' is associated with imposing power on something, the Italian 'controllare' means to check or to look over something. So when an Italian says, 'I must control my answers' they are just being conscientious and not power-hungry! 
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But why is there such confusion with words ending in -are?

The reason is that so many words in Italian can be easily transformed into English words if you simply remove the 'are' suffix. So if Italians find themselves in a pickle over a word, they'll often be sneaky and try their luck by removing the end of the word. I'm guilty of the same sneakiness in reverse as I usually just add 'are' to English verbs in the hope that they mean something in Italian.

Either this trick results in a word that doesn't exist or you strike lucky and find the right word. More often than not though, it just creates complications and means that Italian and English words become confused or warped into a strange Italian-English hybrid which ends up confusing everyone.

★  ★  

Onto the next common false friend pairing. This pair is an example of words which are very close to each other but at some point there was a slight shift in meaning by the time it reached the English language.


If you're just skim-reading this page (tut tut!) or if your screen is a little bit grubby you might not even notice the extra 'i' in the second word. This little 'i' makes a huge semantic difference though as in English, sensible is an adjective which means using common sense or being rational. The Italian however, the word sensibile is an adjective which means you feel emotions strongly or perhaps you are overly emotional. You may have guessed already that 'sensibile' is actually the equivalent of the English word 'sensitive.'

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A now onto one of my favourite pair because it amuses me every time I hear it. 


I remember being rather alarmed when an Italian child told me that she had been interrogated for an hour by her teacher. I became slightly concerned about the goings on of this school, especially as more and more children informed me that they were being interrogated on a regular basis! It turns out that in Italian interrogare can simply mean that you were asked questions, as in an oral exam for example. Whereas in English, the meaning of interrogate has been narrowed down in our collective mind to police detectives questioning and intimidating criminals. 

This pairing leads me on to problematic words, ones that have the same meaning in one specific context but in other contexts are completely different. A perfect example of this is a pair of words which are both basic and fundamental to both languages.


The inclusion of these two might confuse you at first because even in English we use ciao to mean hello or hi (usually when we feel like sounding a bit continental). The problem lies in the fact that in Italian, 'ciao' can be used as 'hi' when you meet someone and as 'bye' when you leave. Italians are told very early on that 'hello' means 'ciao' (which has a double function that 'hello' doesn't). But this duel function concept is ingrained into Italian minds. This is all well and good when you exchange greetings at the beginning of a conversation but it does mean that I'll often have a student who waves to me at the end of a lesson and says 'hello!' rather than 'bye.' It's incredibly difficult at this moment to stop chuckling to myself and correct them, particularly as this mistake comes just as the student disappears though the door!

★  ★  

If you're interested in more on false friends, Pimsleur have a Comprehensive Guide to Italian-English False Friends which is great if you don't know which word to use

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You might also like 

Have you come across any false friends in Italian? 
Do you have an experiences with false friends in other languages you speak?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Bologna's Chocolate Festival

With Bologna's Annual Chocolate Festival (Fiera del Cioccolato) just around the corner (from the 14-16 November), here are some photos from previous years to whet your appetite! From thick hot chocolate (in a solid chocolate espresso cup) to beautifully crafted sculptures made from chocolate, there's something for everyone! 

Solid Chocolate Padlocks and Keys

Chocolate Violins

Chocolate Moka Pots, Espresso Cups and Spoons! 

For Cheese Lovers: Emmental, Salami, 
Bread and a Grater in chocolate form! 

Chocolate Ravioli 

Walnuts Dipped in Chocolate & Praline

For the medics in the family: 
Chocolate pills, plasters, syringes and medicine bottles

An endless array of flavours: basil, lemon, chilli, cinnamon, and balsamic vinegar!

Chocolate Tools complete with chocolate powder for a rusty look!

Chocolate Mice (They remind me of the mice I used to 
eat as a child from the National Trust Shop!) 

Hope you liked this post. Feel free to leave comments!
Is your city famous for food festivals? 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Ideas for Teachers: Picture Dictation

This is a low preparation fun activity that works well with large classes, especially with young learners and teens. All your students need is a blank piece of paper. It’s a fun and effective way to revise prepositions (in, on, under etc) and vocabulary. It's also a great activity to use as a game at the end of a lesson if students are lacking motivation to do written exercises as is often the case. 

  • Explain to the students that they are going to do a picture dictation, that you are going to describe a picture to them and that all they have to do is simply listen and draw what you describe.
  • For elementary and pre-intermediate students, describe a simple and easy-to-draw picture to them and ask them to draw it.
  • When you are describing the picture it's best to describe one object at a time slowly and to repeat each description two or three times.
  •  Make sure you give students enough time to finish drawing one object before you move onto the next object and it is a good idea to walk around and look at the students' drawings as they are drawing them so that you can see how well they are understanding your descriptions and then you can give them advice or change your description to make it clearer for them.
  • You can increase the level of difficulty where needed.
  • Note: This activity isn't limited to children! This also works well with adults who enjoy games too. I teach several doctors and businessmen who always request this game if they've had a hard day and work and want to enjoy themselves during the English lesson. In these cases, I often choose more difficult pictures depending on their level. 
★  ★  
  • This activity works very well in pairs. One student describes a picture to a partner and their partner draws what they hear. This means the student practices speaking as well as listening and comprehension. Describing unfamiliar objects or situations using phrases like ‘it’s a long object with four legs’ (table) helps students to be able to make themselves understood in real life situations when they can’t remember a word.
  • They then swap roles and can compare the pictures they drew with the original which is usually very entertaining.
  • You can also give a student a picture from a textbook or a picture of a painting and ask them to describe it to a partner. Surreal paintings by Salvador Dali or comical paintings by Fernando Botero often work well as they are entertaining to draw and the student has to remember vocabulary out of it’s usually context. For example: Dali’s painting of a ship with butterfly sails. See previous post: Tips for Motivating Young Learners

  • Another good variation is to give students a list of objects and ask them to draw their own pictures with those objects in them.

  • For younger students, you can ask them to draw simple objects or give them blank colouring sheets and then do Colour Dictation. For example, colour the roof of the house green, colour the door of the house red, or get students to label different objects by writing the name of the object underneath it, such as house, bird etc

  • You can also get students to write a description of the picture afterwards or for homework. 
★  ★  

Here are some more links related to picture dictation which you may find useful

University of Virginia: Picture Dictation

If you have another other variations that you use with your students, I'd love to hear from you!

Which activities do you find particularly useful for revising prepositions? 

What are your fail safe activities for use when young learners are tired or lacking motivation? 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Beauty of Book Shelves (& Italian 'Arry Potterr)

I have a confession (and quite a geeky one at that). Being away from my huge wooden bookshelf in the UK is proving to be quite a wrench. There's something so comforting about having all your books in order and knowing that you can revisit them at any time. It's no surprise then that they are the first things I unpack when I move to a new house! Well, this week I began to pine for my bookcase after spending an hour meandering round an Italian bookshop in search of new listening materials for my students. I came across several English books that had been translated into Italian but the most striking one was the Harry Potter series. 

Here is a photo of the series as there are sold in Italy. The top row contains the first four Harry Potter books in paperback (the equivalent of the adult version in the UK) and the bottom row has the final books in hardback with the children's illustrations. 

It's amazing the difference a cover can make to your perception of a book and your expectations before you read.  For example, the UK version of The Half-Blood Prince gives you a brief snapshot of book's climax which keeps you guessing til the end while the Italian cover gives nothing away. Then of course, the third and fourth books just aren't the same with a flying hippogriff and a huge fire breathing dragon respectively. The Italian versions seem a little dull by comparison. 

Maybe it's just that I reject anything unfamiliar. I mean, the Potter series and their colour-blocked spines are so recognizable on my bookshelf back in the UK (not least because it occupies nearly a whole shelf!) that they might as well be classed as furniture. And so, to restore the equilibrium and return the world to normal, here is the UK version for you to make your own judgement. 

★  ★  

If you love Harry Potter, you might also like to read: 
A Who's Who of Funny Names in Italian Harry Potter

If you're a bit of a book worm, you might like this article about bookshelves and how we organise them. 

Wolf Whistles & Ciao Bella's: Thoughts on From My Sisters' Lips

Recently, I started reading 'From My Sister's Lips' by Na'ima B. Robert which a really lovely Italian lady lent to me. It sparked some ideas which I thought I'd share. In the first few chapters the protagonist speaks about her modest attire ending 'unwanted male attention' which put an 'end to seeking male approval for my looks or clothes.'  This got me thinking about how my daily life in Italy has changed since my Erasmus days in Italy. 

At that time I remember assessing my attractiveness each day by a tally of the number of 'Ciao Bella's' I received when I walked in the street. It wasn't that I was parading myself  or strutting but it's a normal occurrence for a woman to receive such remarks in Italy. Particularly if you're quite clearly foreign (pale skin and shorts in Spring are a dead giveaway!) Even if you'd just woken up and were scrambling to get to a lecture with scruffy hair and bags under the eyes, you'd still get at least one 'ciao bella' from an Italian man. It was a handy pick-me-up on bad hair days. 

On the other hand, I've received a grand total of one 'ciao bella!' in the last year! and that particular one was from a newspaper vendor who got a bit flustered by my presence and went into panic mode! This really shocked me at first and I thought urgh! It's clearly a sign that I must look so bad that not even a stereotypically sleazy man says ciao bella to me anymore! My self-confidence took quite a hit I have to admit. Much like turning on your Twitter after a day away from the computer only to find no one has mentioned you! Sad times indeed. 

But after a while, and as my confidence increased, I realized that this wasn't a bad thing. Not being verbally harassed in the street or on the train is actually a positive thing. It removed the stress of relying on male approval to feel good about myself and in the end it's given me a greater sense of self respect because I'm treated respectfully by everyone I meet in my daily life, both at work and in the city. I still get some stares (see previous post: 11 Basic Facial Expressions) but usually from Muslim men who are so distracted by a hijabi in Italy that they stop their conversation just to stare in wide-eyed surprise. 

★  ★  

Some of you may have already read this novel and if so 
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Please leave any thoughts or your experiences below

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Ummah Beware: It's The 'H' Word!

The 'H' word of the title is, of course, the ubiquitous word 'hijab.'  This may fill you with excitement and anticipation or you may be fed up to the teeth with such articles and be looking for the nearest exit! In any case, hopefully you'll bear with me!

Even as I write this, I'm aware that any attempt to separate the idea of a Muslim woman and hijab is somewhat undermined by the prominence of so many articles, youtube videos, and blogs (this one included), which constantly clump 'Muslim woman' and 'hijab' together in the same breath. The more we put the word hijab and woman in the same sentence, the more hijab is cemented in people's minds as the be and end all when it comes to being a woman in Islam.

It's a worrying linguistic trend because it runs the risk of excluding sisters who don't wear the headscarf (hijab). It creates the assumption (whether verbalized or not) that somehow a Muslim woman without a headscarf is incomplete. It bypasses the fact that hijab is first and foremost a spiritual principal of modesty (and general morality) which goes for men just as much as for women. 

In this situation, the physical material is secondary. Think of it more as an outward sign of an inward attempt to nurture those inward qualities over a whole lifetime. So naturally, a 100% cotton pashmina cannot be considered an accurate gauge of whether that inner quality is there or not just as a lack of a visible signifier doesn't mean that the principles of hijab are not deeply rooted in that woman's heart. 

In any society such reliance on visible markers can be damaging and the Muslim community (Ummah) is no exception. Ultimately it runs the risk of creating a community based on superficiality where individuals feels pressured to look the part and worry about little else.

The fact that the real qualities of hijab are shown by a person's actions are borne out but the vast array of amazing Muslim women, scarfies and non-scarfies, who I've encountered over the last year. They've taught me so much just by their influence and I can't thank them enough for being so welcoming, encouraging and supportive. 

★  ★  

I hope there was something in here that you found interesting. 
Please feel free to leave any comments or questions below.
I'd love to hear what you think!

Do we (Muslims and non-Muslims) focus too much on what Muslim women wear? 
Is it unavoidable?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Grammar Notes: First & Second Conditionals

If you read this post, you'll soon know the difference between first and second conditionals (or 'if conditionals'). 

So if I were you, I would continue reading and by the end you'll know precisely when and how to use them. 

The sentences above are two examples of conditional sentences. Native English speakers use them all the time without even thinking but we often get them confused. It is no surprise then, that students learning English have difficulties knowing when to use them. So I will explain both conditionals individually and then compare the two using real life scenarios. 

First Conditional 

We use first conditional for real situations in the present or the future. We use them to show the likely consequence of a future event or action. 

Example:  'If I have time, I will help you' 
> We can infer that there is a possibility that the person speaking may have free time and so will be able to help. 
★  ★  

Second Conditional 

We use Second Conditional for improbable situations or where the conditions for the hypothetical future event do not exist

Look at the example from the box above >  If I had time, I would help you' 
> Here, we can infer that the person speaking does not have time or that they have a busy day and so it is unlikely that they will be able to help. 
★  ★  

Here is another example: 'If I were you, I would change jobs'  
> In this example, I am not you and obviously it is impossible that I will become you and so we use Second Conditional

But why do we use 'were' in this example? The past simple of 'I am' is 'I was' not 'I were' so why is it here? 

Well, here is the explanation...

Although the verb following the 'IF' clause looks like Past Simple it is actually the Imperfect SubjunctiveNow don't panic or stop reading! Imperfect Subjunctive sounds very complicated but it isn't (I promise!) 

Thankfully, the imperfect subjunctive and past simple are exactly the same. Phew! 

BUT there is one important exception --> The verb 'TO BE' 
So in the Imperfect Subjunctive, the verb 'To Be' is 'WERE' for all persons. 

Example:  'If I were you, I would wear a coat' (and not 'If I was you') 

Extra Note for Italian Speakers: We often use 'if I were you' for giving advice (consiglio) and for Italian speakers this translates as 'se io fossi te' 

★  ★  

Example #1

Example: 'If I win the lottery, I will buy a car' (First Conditional)
> I have a ticket and the lottery is today. Therefore there is a possibility that I could win. 

Example: 'If I won the lottery, I would buy a car' (Second Conditional) 
> I do not have a lottery ticket. The ticket does not exist. So this is hypothetical and very unlikely. 

★  ★  
Example #2

The first example was given by in his useful series of youtube videos. In one video he compares the first and second conditionals using the example of a teacher speaking to a good student and then a bad student. 

Teacher speaking to a Good Student >  'If you study, you'll pass your exams' 

> Here, the teacher knows the student will study because they are hard-working and they always listen to the teacher. 

> So in this example, we use the First Conditional because the future event is likely (the student is going to study) and therefore the consequence is likely to happen (the student will pass the exams). 

★  ★  

Teacher Speaking to a Bad Student > 'If you studied, you would pass your exams.'

> Here the teacher knows the student won't study (because he is lazy) and therefore the future consequence (passing exams) is unlikely. 

> So, in this example we use the Second Conditional because the future event is unlikely and therefore the possible consequence (passing exams) has a low probability. 

★  ★  

I hope you found this post useful. If you have any questions or problems, 
please let me know and I'll do my best you help. 

I'd also like to thank @effibold for her advice on this topic : D 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Grammar Notes: Present Perfect vs Present Perfect Continuous

I'm currently preparing a class for students going into Upper Intermediate (B2) who want to revise the Intermediate (B1) grammatical structures. One topic which often causes confusion is when to use Present Perfect or Present Perfect Continuous. The areas I'll focus on here are situations where you may want to emphasize different things (Duration vs Result) and what to do in a situation where both forms are valid. 

First, here's a quick review of the structure of both forms:

Present Perfect

Present Perfect Continuous

Note: Have and Has are often contracted. Have becomes 've or and has becomes 's respectively. 
> For example, 'I have' becomes 'I've' 

Result vs Duration

Present Perfect > 'I've made 24 cakes' 
  • The emphasis is on the final result, in this case the quantity of cakes.

Present Perfect Continuous > 'I've been making cakes all day' 
  • The emphasis is on the process or the duration of the event i.e. it took all day. 
★  ★  

Here is another comparison using homework as an example

Present Perfect >  'Woohoo! I've finished my homework!'
  • The emphasis is on the final result. In this example the task (homework) is done and the person shows satisfaction that the task is completed. 

Present Perfect Continuous >  'I've been doing my homework all day!'
  • Here the emphasis is on the activity and duration of the action. In the example, the focus is not whether the action is completed or still in progress but the fact that it is a long process. 

When Both Forms Are Valid 

Both Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous can be used in situations where the action started in the past and is ongoing. 

Exam Tip! If you are in an exam situation and you know that both options are valid, try to use present perfect continuous because it shows that you understand and can use a more complicated grammatical structure. 

Example #1

Present Perfect > 'I've lived in London for 30 years'
  • The action began in the past and is still true now

Present Perfect Continuous > 'I've been living in London for 30 years!' 
  • Shows an action (task, activity etc) in progress until recently or the time of speaking 

Therefore, if the person speaking still lives in London at the time of speaking then both forms are correct. 

Example #2 

Present Perfect > 'The economy has improved' 

> Comparing the past with the present and looking at the final result. 

Present Perfect Continuous > 'The economy has been improving over the years'

> An ongoing process or a series of repeated actions 

Again, both forms are valid but Present Perfect suggests that the event happened only once or on a specified numbers of occasions while Present Perfect Continuous suggests that the action was ongoing or continuous.

★  ★  

Next Post: Present Perfect (in more detail) 

Related Posts: English Pronunciation: The Letter H and How to Motivate Young Children in Class 

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