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 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Study Abroad in Italy: University Chaos

A Graduate with a traditional Laurel Crown 
(Photo: via John Ager)

Organisation (Or lack thereof!) 

The first thing you'll probably notice is that Italian universities don't tend to have clearly laid out welcome packs or itineraries when you arrive. You are well and truly thrown in at the deep end. Think of this as the initiation process into chaotic but ultimately entertaining Italian university life. 

The process began by meeting the Erasmus liaison at the university who welcomed. We rather naively expected to be given our timetables and list of modules but instead she advised us to go away and start organizing our own timetable. This meant going online and searching the university website. No problem.

We soon discovered however that modules were scattered higgledy-piggledy all over the place with no apparent logic or system. You'd find one course you liked but then discovered it clashed with another and so on. You'd then have to sacrifice some lectures in order to attend others and hope you didn't miss anything important. So it's worth taking your time though and scouring the whole site because there are many interesting and varied modules hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the sprawling university website. 

Italian vs English

As you'd expect, the majority of bachelor courses are in the native Italian. This can cause issues when it comes to choosing courses. My university, for instance, stipulated that my course had to be in Italian in order for the credits to be accepted back home (as it was an English degree). In theory this was fine, but naturally the reality was much more complicated. 

This proviso meant that although I was an undergraduate, I had to do several Masters courses in order to find the ones in English. As they were at a higher level they were challenging, but were incredibly rewarding. Choosing Masters courses allows students far more freedom and so I was able to pick topics ranging between Feminist Dystopias, Technology in the Second World War and the American City in Literature. The latter was so flexible that while I was dissecting Obama's inauguration speech my friend was writing about the architecture of Las Vegas. 

★  ★  

Although English was the official language of the course, this was strictly true in practise. Some professors would begin lectures in English but then switch halfway through when they grew a bit tired. The switch would usually be preceded with the announcement 'Erasmus students, you can sleep now. I will speak in Italian.' I once listened to a two hour lecture and only wrote down about five basic sentences. 

I remember once arriving late for a lecture where the professor was chatting away quite happily in Italian. He suddenly spotted the conspicuous group of Erasmus students shuffling in and his smile faded. He sighed, 'oh, now I must speak English'. The whole lecture theatre groaned and we had eyes drilling into the back of our heads for the whole class. I wished the earth could have swallowed me up! 

The good thing is though that the more you hear Italian, the more you'll learn and be able to comprehend. So although you may not be learning about Oscar Wilde, you'll still be learning something beneficial. 

General Confusion 

Italian professors are notoriously vague when it comes to informing students what is expected of them. They are also prone to changing their mind at the last minute according to their whims. One of my Italian professors was particularly vague when it came to, well, basically everything. Here is an excerpt from such a discussion with said professor. 

Students: Which novels can we choose from? 
Gino: err, the ones I spoke about in class. Or any novel you want from inside the period... or outside. 
Students: How long would you like the essay to be? 
Gino: Anything from 3... to um... 10 pages.
Students: OK. and when would you like it in by?
Gino: Any time before Christmas. Or after. That's fine. 


Chaos aside, count yourself lucky to be studying in Italy if you also want to have time to soak in as much Italian culture as possible. The workload for Erasmus students in Italy in generally far less that Erasmus students in say Germany or Holland. My university friends in Heidelberg found themselves writing the equivalent of several dissertations during their time there! 

The Benefits of Studying at A Foreign University

Erasmus is a great opportunity to learn new ideas and perspectives. The extra year of study can really make a difference in terms of preparation for your final year and if you make the most of your studies during Erasmus, it can really boost your overall degree. For instance, the modules I studied in Italy really opened my mind and eventually became the basis for my final dissertation. Erasmus students are often able to incorporate different critical viewpoints and ideas which make their work stand out from the non-Erasmus students back home. 

★  ★  

Let me know if you have any questions about doing Erasmus or living in Italy. 
Have you done Erasmus and had similar experiences? 
I'd love to hear from you! 

To read more about studying abroad, check out: 30 Ways to Say "Turtle" 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Study Abroad in Italy: Finding Accommodation

Once I'd made the decision to do the Erasmus programme as part of my degree, I went in search of anything that would help me to prepare. I found a French film called L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment) by Cedric Klapisch which showed many aspects of Erasmus life: the excitement, chaos, fun and above all the disasters. 

Many of the experiences rang true for me during my time in Bologna as an Erasmus student especially the idea that the disaster stories are the ones which you love to tell when you get back home! With that in mind, I've put together some advice for potential Erasmus students searching for accommodation  (especially in Bologna, Italy) so you that you might be able to learn from my mistakes!

1. Start Early (Don't risk being homeless like I did!) 

Italy is different to most other European countries as you are usually expected to organize your own accommodation. This is an incredibly daunting process but think of it as your initiation into the way Italy's mind works. You'll come across many problems but you really feel like you've achieved something incredible when you eventually move into your new apartment.

Ideally, try and find an apartment before you leave. At the very least have somewhere to live while you search for for an apartment. Sometimes it's not possible to choose an apartment if you haven't visited the city before, but having a place to live while you search is vital. We, my friends and I, were very naive and only booked two nights in a B&B thinking we could find an apartment in a day or two. Being in such a rush means that you might make snap decisions in a panic and limit yourself to only a few options. 

Photo: via @John1954Moi

2. There's No Shame in Rummaging Around Bins

You may be wondering why I've included a photo of some huge recycling bins in a post about accommodation. These bins are you best friend when it comes to finding a place to live, language lessons or even jobs. It's standard practice for students to plaster the bins in the Student Area of the city (via Zamboni) with posters and adverts . It's not unusual to have someone with a handful of posters approach you while you're looking at bin and ask if you need somewhere to live. 

My friends and I were searching the poster when we were approached by a lady who offered to take us and see her available apartment. We declined when we realized the apartment was a single room which included a kitchen, three beds and a flimsy partition leading on to a toilet. There's no denying however that the lady was accommodating. 'Don't worry we can put a fourth collapsible bed in front of the door!' she said. Needless to say, it wasn't for us.  

3. When and Where to Look

As well as the trusty bin system, there are also many useful websites you can search including:

Bakeca { } or you find them on Twitter: @bakecait
Bakeca Bologna } or on Twitter: @BO_bakeca
Erasmusu { }
Kijiji Italy { 
The latter has great information about housing, language courses and social activities.

In an ideal scenario, the best time to look for an apartment would be around July time before Italians go on holiday, it also means you'd have the whole Summer without a care in the world. Businesses tend to close for August and the residents go to the hills or seaside so it would be more difficult to find people. For most people however, the best time is at the start of September before University starts in October. This is when most Italians have returned from their Summer vacation and the majority of posters and adverts will be online or lining the bins and boards. 

4. Italians vs Email 

The temptation is to send emails rather than to face the fear of speaking on the phone in Italian. The problem is however that Italians generally prefer phone calls and face to face meetings rather than emails. I began my search by sending tens of emails but after only two or three people replied I realized that I had to bite the bullet and phone them up. 

When you do call people, you find that some people hang up when they hear you say the word Erasmus. This is normal as Erasmus students often have a reputation for being noisy and landlords often want someone who'll be there on a more permanent basis rather than for 6 to 10 months. Don't be put off though, there are hundreds of foreign students coming to Bologna every year so there is plenty of accommodation available.

5. Italian Landlords

My Italian friends inform me that I was conned into paying 340 euros a month for a shared room when I was Erasmus. This does not surprise me. The landlords noticed that we were desperate and that we couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. They probably winked knowingly to each other as we entered and saw euro symbols flashing before their eyes.

On the other hand, we were very lucky to find an agency who helped us. Going it alone was pretty stressful. If you allow more time to find an apartment rather than panicking as I did and you're able to understand Italian quite well, I'm sure you'll be able to find a good deal with an agency such as Unibo. They were very helpful when we had problems.

6. Expect Bizarre Things to Happen and Go with the Flow

Due to some strange reason, we were only shown one apartment (there were four of us in two neighbouring apartments) and as we were desperate for a place to live we agreed and hoped for the best. Thankfully, the other apartment was lovely. There was a corridor between our apartments and so we basically left the doors open between them when we were in and regarded it as one large apartment. However, on our first night, we only had access to the one apartment, This meant that we had to sleep with four students lying horizontally in the bare bed with our legs poking out. There was also a 6ft4 polish man sleeping on the marble floor...! (a long story)

We also shook hands with the landlord on the agreement that we'd have two single beds rather than the double that was already there. Of course, these single beds never materialised! I was very pleased that I was such good friends with the girl I was sharing with or it would have been a disaster! If I didn't know her before, I certainly did by the end of the year!

7. Health and Safety? What is that? 

Italians often turn a blind eye to safety. Smoke alarms don't come as standard and you'll need to adjust to the sight of electrical outlets in the bathroom from hairdryers to washing machines!

8. Enjoy Yourself! 

After reading some of my experiences you're either excited or feeling a little bit nervous but believe me I wouldn't change any of these experiences for the world. Erasmus completely changed me. I fell in love with the city and met my future husband in Bologna. Three years later, I'm still hear and loving every minute of it!  

Finally, just to excite you even more, here's an awesome video tour of Bologna from the perspective of  Erasmus Students

If you have any questions or experiences you'd like to share, 
please leave comments below and I'll get back to you

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Finding a Teaching Job in Italy

I've recently had several requests for information about finding teaching job in Italy and which qualifications are necessary. So here are some tips based on my own personal experience:

In terms of whether TEFL is necessary, for most schools it's considered the basic requirement which they'll expect from teachers applying for a position. Therefore, my official answer is YES you need a full TEFL qualification. 


If you were to press me, I'd lean in and whisper my unofficial answer.

It really depends on what the school is looking for. 

You can get by without a full TEFL but only if you're prepared for the fact that it will probably take longer to find a job and you'll much fewer options. 

My reason for saying this is that I was able to find a full time job in a well respected language school when I didn't have a full TEFL qualification. This lack of TEFL didn't come without its problem of course. I entered one school and asked if I could speak to the principal who promptly sent a message back with his secretary stating, "if she doesn't have a TEFL, I simply won't come down."  Visibly disappointed, I left looking rather sheepish while the embarrassed receptionists looked on as if to say 'don't worry, you may not have a job but we still have to work with this guy.' 

Rather than the full TEFL, I completed a 30-hour taster course at the British Study Centre [] which I found invaluable as a crash course in teaching and what to expect when I arrived in Italy. I didn't do the full TEFL as I wasn't sure at the time if teaching was the right career for me and I didn't want to spend the full £1000 unless I was certain. The taster course provided a great introduction into the world of teaching. Lessons included phonetics, classroom management and different teaching styles. It meant I had some ideas and resources to fall back on when I was plunged headfirst into the world of teaching. As a useful note, if you do choose to do the full course, the British Study Centre will reimburse the price of the week long taster course. Based on the quality of the brief TEFL course I attended, I would definitely recommend doing the full TEFL course if you have the means to do so as it provides you not only with a qualification but you'll also have hours of real teaching experience under your belt. 

For me, having a degree in English Literature or language was a great asset and English schools look favourably on this type of degree. I have several friends who moved to Japan and South Korea and have had no formal training but were able to find jobs based on their humanities degrees and being an British English speaker. This isn't always the case but it does happen. 

I certainly wasn't given my current job based on my level of Italian (which was dreadful at the time) but rather on the merit of my English degree and from the observations that the school made when I was let loose on several students. It's worth bearing in mind that schools are also looking for teachers who have the ability to create a good rapport with students. The ability to put students at ease is just as important as knowing when the difference between present continuous and past perfect.  

As a final note, being able to speak the native tongue is a definite bonus but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. I wasn't able to speak Italian very well when I started teaching but you'd be surprised how you can get by with mime, drawings and dictionaries when you get stuck. After a few weeks of teaching the same words or grammatical structures you quickly learn the words necessary for teaching and they become habitual. I'd definitely recommend taking a course in the native language before you go or when you arrive if you're able to though. Having a solid basis in the language boosts your confidence and will help you not only in your work and social life but also for your general appreciation of the country's culture.

★  ★  

I hope this may be useful to you if you're considering applying for TEFL or currently looking for a teaching job. If you have any questions or experiences you'd like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me on twitter at @SaritaAgerman

Venice Carnival (Tips for Tourists)

Typical Carnival Mask  (via @SaritaAgerman. Model: Sylvie) 

After writing a post about grabbing a gelato and then getting lost in Venice last month, I thought I'd follow it up with some practical advice for people visiting Venice at Carnival time.  

The first piece of advice probably goes without saying but it's still worth stressing: prepare yourself for crowds. The narrowness of the Venetian walkways and alleys are exaggerated during carnival as throngs of people squeeze through them trying to find the famous Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square). However, lots of people means that carnival always has a great atmosphere with the hustle and bustle of people dressed up in masks and costumes. 

Venice during the Carnival period is a completely different experience to Venice at any other time of year. Therefore I forewent going inside the main attractions such as the Doge's Palace and instead I indulged in people watching and took in the vibrant atmosphere and beautiful setting. It's often amusing trying to decide whether some ladies are dressed up to the nines for Carnival or if they are in fact just normal Italian women in their regular Winter fur coats (see the case in point below!)

Italians always joke that no Italians actually live in Venice. The majority of people live on the mainland (terraforma) in Mestre and Marghera rather than on the Venetian Lagoon. As a popular location for tourists, Venice is more expensive than most Italian cities and so you should bare this in mind and be savvy with your purchases. As a general rule, the further away you walk from the Venezia Santa Lucia station, the cheaper they will be. If you're buying from a stall or even some shops, there's a potential for haggling if you're buying a lot of items. Remember that for Venetian vendors, haggling is an art form and so really think about your price limit before you start the process of negotiating. 

Venice is famous for its Murano Glass which can be found in many forms such as the bracelet above which I was given as a gift. If you're thinking of buying an iconic Carnival Mask, the standard price is about 10 euros. It's rare to find one cheaper and of course, the more elaborate the mask, the more expensive it will be but I'm sure you'll find it a lovely keepsake to maybe put up on your wall (or on a giant IKEA elephant called Gino...) Speaking from experience, it can be pretty quite tricky to transport home in your suitcase as it will need a lot of padding to protect it from being squished.

In terms of transportation, the first thing you'll want to check out and take snaps of are the iconic gondolas for their romantic reputation and chirpy gondoliers in stripey tops and straw hats. The standard rate is 80 euros for 40 minutes. The gondoliers are open to negotiating the price but they'll also have no hesitation adding extra charges for singing or if the length of the ride increases. Do make sure you sort out the fine details before getting into the Gondola. 

Photo: via @John1954Moi 

Getting around Venice can be quite tricky as boats and ferries are often fully loaded. Venetian ferrymen working on the main ferries can become impatient at times and herd you onto the boat. I've heard many stories about ferrymen telling unwitting tourists that the ferry trip will take only short time but in reality it's more like forty minutes. So always leave plenty of time to get back to the main station! 

I remember arriving just in time for my train but I was unable to get on as there were so many people (mainly Erasmus students) clambering onboard. I saw a poor young lady inside one carriage with her face squidged up against the glass. Her eyes told me that she knew she'd made a gross error of judgement. My group of friends thought that we should learn from her mistake and so we graciously decided not to add to her lack of space by wedging ourselves into the carriage with her.

If you have any questions or comments about your trip to Venice please feel free to leave them below and I'l get back to you. I hope you have a wonderful time in Venice! 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Expat Arrivals: Life in Italy

In my Recent Interview with Expat Arrivals (, I answer specific questions about moving abroad and living in Bologna. I answer the important questions: why moving to the North means you'll have an abundance of friends from the South, why Brits bring a stash of paracetamol and cheddar with them in their luggage and how to prepare for bureacractical catch-22s. 

We might even bump into Romano Prodi along the way...  

★  ★  ★

The full interview can be found here

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Post-Ramadan Debrief: Back to Old Habits

Over a  fortnight has passed since the Ramadan celebrations ended and the hundreds of Instagram pics of sparkly Eid outfits, Starbucks Frappuccinos and mehndi patterns are long gone. Some are probably still basking in their puppy fat weight loss or bemoaning their unfortunate spare tyre after indulging in too much fried food for Iftar (the post-fasting meal). 

For me, I noted a striking sense of sadness among the Ummah (the global muslim family) when the month of Ramadan had finished. It’s quite difficult for non-Muslims to understand how the majority of Muslims can be excited about fasting. When I was 10 I did a 12-hour fast for Christian Aid (with as much water as I wanted) and thought I’d done something incredible. Now I feel a bit cheeky for accepting people’s money for something that Muslims do for free! I remembering thinking that Muslims were crazy for doing something so ‘unnatural’ but here I am two Ramadans later alhamdulillah and probably considered just as crazy by my workmates. For that reason, I always made an effort to smile around my boss during Ramadan and to refrain from complaining so that I could try and convey in a small way the fact that Muslims actually look forward to the challenges and blessings of Ramadan all year.  A shared activity such as fasting is such a powerful way of bringing people together and gives a renewed sense of unity to the billion plus people who partake in it.

One of the great things about Ramadan being thirty days is that it is a long enough period for your new routines to become a habit which you can then aim to carry on throughout the year. Whether this means you escape the shackles of caffeine addiction, smoking or even changing your sleep pattern so you can wake up and be productive in the morning. On the down side though, the rest of the year is pretty long too and it’s difficult to keep up the habits you’ve learned.

Firstly, I miss the excitement and group enthusiasm about the five daily prayers (Salah). I think this was indicated in the most modern of ways by the fact that #fajr (the first prayer of the day) was trending without fail for each of the thirty days of Ramadan. Obviously just because it’s not trending now doesn’t mean that people aren’t up and praying but for me at least, I do find it hard to keep up that Ramadan enthusiasm for Salah. Sometimes it feels like just another chore to fit into my busy schedule and becomes a bit robotic. So for myself, my aim for this month to make sure that prayer doesn’t play second fiddle to everything else in my life. Here are some of my main observations from the last month.

Unfortunately after less than a month I’ve found that I’m already addicted to Caffeine again. In fact, I’m more dehydrated now than when I was unable to drink during a 17-hour day! I was happily chugging away 8 pint glasses of purified water through the night whereas now I’m barely having a pint glass in between the ritual caffeine boosts. It's strange that while water was the only thing I could think about last month but only a month later I continually forget to drink all day!  
I've also realized that I need to re-focus my mind again to remind myself of what both the mind and body are capable of doing. One thing that surprised me during Ramadan was that my level of Thirst plateaued that you get used to. At work normally, my tummy rumbles after only two hours without a snack but during Ramadan it almost stopped making noise completely (except for brief whimper where lunch would normally be). So now I need to remind myself that there's a big difference between really needing food and just fancying that kinder bueno in the cupboard because it's there (staring at you!)

Finally, a note for those who know new reverts. Ramadan is a time when there is usually a sudden influx of New Muslims, many who were either researching during the month and then decided to make it official or those doing their very first fast. It's a really exciting time to become a Muslim during the fanfare and excitement of Ramadan but it's tough in the following months when you find yourself overwhelmed by so much to learn and often you don't know where to turn, especially if you're family and friends are coming to terms with the change too. So if you do know any new reverts you could always pop in and say hi or just send a quick message on Twitter or Facebook just to see how they're getting on. I'm sure it would be really appreciated. 

★  ★  

Inshallah (God Willing) this was helpful to some of you.
Please feel free to leave any comments or advice below

Are there are things that you find difficult to keep up throughout the year? 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Compilation of Student Mispronunciations

I'm currently compiling a list of my favourite student mispronunciations. More than just being amusing, they also serve the purpose of learning common mistakes that students make in English which can be invaluable when you're teaching.Some are a little bit rude but as they were innocent mistakes and happen quite frequently, I've included them. I'll update this page regularly as and when I hear more. 

"Oscar Wilde is bored in his grave" (buried)

'Is there any desecrated coconut?' (dessicated)

'I've got wind' (overheard while playing weather bingo with 6 year olds)

'I've had many problems with wind' (Note: Wind is the name of a major phone company in Italy) 

"Teacher! I love your herrings!" (ear rings) 

"My uncle has a big bird on his face" (beard) 

"If you go into the forest, you might be attacked by a big beer!" (bear) 

"I spend a lot of time in the chicken" (kitchen) 

"I've got piles. I will have bigger ones next week"  (Pies - she was making meat pies for a special lunch) 

Student: Do you like cocaine?" 
Me: "err could you repeat that please?" 
Student: "Yes, do you like coca... err... cooking" 

Child: 'The air conditioning is too cold. I feel like a polar bee!'  (bear) 

Student: "I am not a grape!" (Rather surprisingly this was meant to be "I don't agree")

"I've got the shits teacher" (sheets) 

"I have two chickens. Marco is my favourite chicken because we play football together" (cousins) 

An 80 year old man: "Can you explain what 'kinky' means? No scuse me, I mean kick off" (phew! That one could have been awkward) 

"I feel such a penis!"  (happiness) 

'He is my new poo'  (I never did work out what this child was trying to say...) 

I hope these tickled your funny bone! I'd love to hear your opinions or any snippets 

you've overheard in the classroom so feel free to leave comments in the box below.

For more amusing posts, check out Italian vs English: False Friends!
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