Think in English with Adah

A TEFL blog: You have to train yourself to think in English

A Phrase A Week: To be on one’s toes


To be concentrated so that you are ready to deal with anything that might happen.



1.      He keeps changing the rules just to keep us on our toes.

2.      Seven managers attended the project meeting last Friday and I was the only one reporting for our team. It really got me on my toes.


A Phrase A Week: Fish Out of Water


A person who is awkward and out of place.

If someone is a fish out of water, they are placed in a situation that is completely new to them and confuses them.


1.      She is like a fish out of water at these blind dates her mother makes her attend.

2.      After retirement, my father has nothing to do except spending most of his time surfing on the Internet. He is such a fish out of water!


How to Be an Effective Multitasker?

Believe it or not, all of us are natural multitaskers. It is all part of life. When we have breakfast, how many of us do not read news from digital media such as cellphones or iPads? We walk when we talk on the phone. We microblog when we are talking to our parents or attending a dull meeting. This is extremely true when you cook in your kitchen. You don’t just spend 2 hours waiting for the long-poached Cantonese soup and doing nothing but staring at the pot!

We are just never too tired to multitask, aren’t we? But multitasking isn’t a bed of roses. 

Researchers at Stanford University warn us that over-multitasking may impair our cognitive control. After running a series of tests, they got a shocking result that high-tech jugglers who always do a lot of media multitasking actually underperformed light multitaskers who rarely do 2 things at the same time. The reasons are probably that the heavy multitaskers were not able to ignore irrelevant information or keep things separate in their minds. It is more difficult for them to concentrate on the chosen information than the light multitaskers.

Maybe it is time to retract my earlier thoughts and rethink how multitasking can do us good.

So here are some tips to help you achieve more when multitasking:

1. To learn to control the beast

Our brain is so good at deluding itself that we think we can be masters of multitasking as long as we practice it more. The temptation to do many things at once is like a beast that we unleash whenever we need to do a lot of tasks within limited time. Though our brain is complex and able to perform various tasks, what we really do when we multitask is shifting our focus from one task to another with high speed. We think we are paying attention to two tasks simultaneously, but we are just switching between them. The more tasks we take on at the same time, the more likely we get stressed by alternating between several tasks; the more errors we tend to make, not to mention the valuable time lost in the switching process because our brain is forced to pause and refocus after each single switch.

So when you feel you become less efficient while doing too many tasks at the same time, you need to chain the beast and keep it in the cage. 

2. To learn to ignore just for a short time

Though a lot of people use the term prioritizing tasks, I prefer ignoring tasks temporarily that are not so important or urgent. To ignore things means you are more able to get fully concentrated on one thing at one time. We have a limited ability to retain information, which gets worse when a lot of information comes in at the same time. The capability to filter out irrelevant information and to focus on one task is really important for achieving high-quality work. Less is more. This also helps us maintain a peaceful and focused mind by ignoring distractions.

3. To do ONLY non-interfering tasks at once

Whether you can multitask effectively or not also depends on whether you make the right choices in what you plan to do at the same time.

If the tasks that we choose to do simultaneously are from the same category, for example, writing an email and talking on the phone at the same time, there is going to be a lot of conflict between the two tasks because both of them involve the speech function of our brain. Similar tasks compete to use the same part of our brain and interfere with each other. But we can be much better off if we do tasks that do not use similar skills at the same time, such as walking and talking with a friend, brushing teeth and listening to news, watching TV and folding laundry, doing computer programming and listening to rock and roll music as one trainee mentioned at class and so on.

4. To practice switchtasking rapidly

We can train ourselves to multitask by practicing switching between tasks fast. Being able to alternate between tasks swiftly is a basic capability that receptionists must have. We can also do well at this if we learn to pause and restart our mind using the shortest time when we switch focus. There are a lot of organizational tools that can help us do speedy switching, such as sticky notes, Outlook alerts, cell phone reminders or even a personal assistant.

5. To unitask when possible

Multitasking isn’t all of our life. There are a lot of other aspects of our life that do not require us to juggle so much, such like art, painting, writing a blog entry just like this one! We deserve to enjoy the simplicity of unitasking and give ourselves a break from time to time.

Word Bank:

1.   long-poached: boiled in liquid gently for a long time

2.  to juggle: to handle two or more tasks at the same time (original meaning: to keep several objects such as balls in the air simultaneously by tossing and catching)

3.   juggler: a person who juggles

4.   to underperform (someone): to perform worse than (someone)

5. to retract: to take back something you have said

6. to delude: to mislead or deceive

7. to alternate: to keep changing between 2 or more things

8. to retain: to keep something in your mind

9. to interfere with (something/ someone): to get involved or involve oneself, causing disturbance switchtask: to switch between tasks unitask: to carry out only one task at one time

A Phrase A Week: On the fly


In oral English, to do something “on the fly” means to do something when needed in a very quick and informal way, or on the run.


The phrase can also mean changes that are made during the execution of some activity. It usually means automatically completing one action without stopping the first action.


1.      We grabbed some lunch on the fly.

2.      I picked up some groceries on the fly. 

3.      On-the-fly online Help means that you don’t have to stop using a software program in order to use the online Help. 

                                             On-the-fly testing….

A Phrase A Week: To sit on the edge of one’s chair


If a show, performance or sports game is really exciting, the spectators get very excited and interested in it because they want to know what happens next. When you wait for the results eagerly or anxiously, you sit on the front edge of your chair or seat.


1.      The game was so exciting that the audience sat on the edge of their chairs during the entire match.

2.      The movie Inception had me on the edge of my seat right from the beginning!


Why Should Men Pay for Dinner on a Date?

You are on a dinner date with a guy that a close friend introduced to you at a nice and cozy restaurant. You two talk all the time and you find out that you have a lot in common. He seems to be your type – smart, humorous and easy-going. You think you two can use a second date.

You have just finished dinner and it is time to leave the restaurant because he suggests that you two see a movie after this.

Now you shouldn’t worry about getting the bill because the guy is definitely going to pick up the tab.

This guy-paying-for-dinner thing is typical everywhere on the surface of this planet.  Most men want to pay and be “the man” just to impress the ladies.  However, after I gave it a little thought, there are others reasons that women, even the most independent women prefer their date to pay for dinner.

1. Guys paying ups the romance

Think about how much hours the girl spent on her make-up, hair and outfit. Look at the dim glow of the candles and the scrumptious food. Hear the violin music in the background and feel the attractive smile of the woman sitting right in front of you. It is a romantic evening during which guys don’t expect any step to go wrong.  They want to make it a full experience.

But money can be a big spoiler of the night. Talking about the bill may just shatter what you have been trying to build up. It is definitely a natural solution for guys to pay without letting the money issue ruin the night. For a smart guy, paying the bill should not even be noticed by the woman.

2. Going against the social protocol is not worth the risk

There is an abiding social rule with first dates - a man is actually entitled to contributing towards the bill by a woman on a first date. This paying privilege comes from the pre-condition that the woman likes the guy.  In other words, the man should feel lucky to be able to pay for the dinner.

If you think it is unfair, just imagine that if the woman insists on paying the entire bill or splitting the bill, the man may feel that she is not interested in him and she just wants to end up being friends.  On the other hand, letting the man pay sends a signal that she’d like a second date. So if the woman really likes the man but she still offers to pick up the tab, this may send a wrong message to the man that she is not really into him. It is too risky to go against the social expectations about the financial aspects of dating.

3. Feminine independence vs. the old-fashioned social protocol 

I have been raised by my parents to be an independent girl. While some girls may take it for granted that they deserve to be treated to dinner, to be honest, I don’t usually feel very comfortable with male friends treating me. The social status of women in China has changed so radically since the mid-20th century that most modern women can support themselves financially. Women in China don’t necessarily have to settle on marriage to a man simply because of financial reasons like women in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.  Chinese women have a career and are fully able to function as independent and responsible human beings.

However, can this sense of feminine independence be strong enough to override the social etiquette? I am not an extreme feminist so I have no problem in obeying the male-dominated order of the society. But following the social rules does not mean you need to become one part of the system. You just climb up the staircases like the others do and pursue a future of your own choosing right after you enter the door. You should be free to pick and choose the man that you truly love and want to marry for no other reason except love.

Word Bank:

  1. cozy (adj) warm, comfortable and making you feel relaxed
  2. to pick up the tab (phrase) to pay the bill
  3. outfit (n) a set of clothes that are worn together especially for a special occasion or activity
  4. scrumptious (adj) of food, tasting good
  5. spoiler (n) something that is produced to compete with something else and make it less successful
  6. abiding (adj) an abiding feeling, rule, or belief is one that you have had for a long time and that is not likely to change
  7. protocol  /ˈprəʊtəkɒl/ (n) the system of rules and acceptable behavior used at official ceremonies and occasions
  8. to split the bill (phrase) to go Dutch
  9. to insist on doing sth. (phrase) to say very firmly that something must happen or must be done
  10. to override (v) to be much more important than something else
  11. etiquette  /`etiket/ (n) a set of rules for behaving correctly in social situations

A Phrase A Week: To Be Cut from the Same Cloth


If two people are cut from the same cloth, it means they share a lot of similarities and seem to have been created, reared, or fashioned in the same way.


If you’re making a suit, the jacket and trousers should be cut from the same piece of cloth to ensure a perfect match, since there may be differences in color, weave etc. between batches of fabric. Only if the whole suite is cut from the same piece of cloth can we be sure of the match.


1.      She and her brother are cut from the same cloth. They both tell lies all the time.

2.      Fathers and sons are cut from the same cloth and even sound alike on the telephone.

3.      He’s cut from the same cloth as Walter Smith when it comes to making the most of what you have – and that can only be a good thing right now.

4.      These new songs are clearly cut from the same cloth as the band’s earlier tunes.





A Difference Made to Get Better from the Worst: My 20-hour Ordeal on the Worst Train in China

The worst train that I had ever taken set off at about 3:00p.m. on February 20, 2010 at the very peak travel period of the so-called Spring Festival transport rush. It was the Saturday before the first work week when most people came back to work from Western and Middle-eastern China to Eastern China.  

Now let me list the dire conditions of this temporarily utilized train.  

First, the train was way overloaded. There were more than 90 passengers (not including small babies) who bought a standing -room ticket whereas the number of seats was only 120 in one compartment. There were people in every conceivable corner of the train! I even started thinking about renovating the train so they could hang people on the ceiling or walls!  

Second, hot water for drinking became unavailable just several hours after we boarded the train. There were mothers who needed hot water to prepare the formula for their babies to drink. Holding babies less than 1 year old on average in their arms and sitting on the floor of the over-crowded aisle, they looked helpless and the only solution was to use bottled mineral water to make some cold formula drink for their babies on a winter day.


Third, the train attendant of our compartment, a young lad with acnes on his face, never showed up again after some male passengers jumped together to make noises in order to get him opening the windows to let some air in when the train paused at a temporary stop for 2 hours. Because there were no air-conditioners, ventilation was really poor unless passengers kept opening the windows when the train stopped and shutting them down when it moved again. This repetitious practice could drive people crazy for the train paused ad hoc for more than a dozen times!

Next, all the lights went off at night so it was completely dark, which made it very easy for thieves to get their jobs done. Ironically, when all the passengers had decided to immerge themselves silently in this complete darkness, some loud disco music started to be broadcasted from midnight to about 2:00a.m. Was this an act of vandalism conducted by the young train attendant when he felt bored in his nice clean rest room?

An annoying food cart selling distasteful and roughly cooked meals kept going back and forth through the standing crowd even at 2:00am. Who would buy meals in early morning? Each time the cart passed, it stirred up a great turmoil among the standing passengers. Standing passengers needed to climb up the seats in order to spare some space for the food cart. Children cried and adults grumbled. This ridiculous schedule of the food cart had pushed most people to an edgy state. The cart may have been seized by the angry passengers and the service people may even have been beaten up by the resentful. My imagination dared not to go on.


Then some deliberate black humor happened in the compartment at around 3:00a.m. The train stopped at a station and some passengers squeezed themselves in this packed-out compartment. One of the 2 toilets of the compartment was occupied by 3 passengers who decided to stay there over night despite the unpleasant smell. These people knew it profoundly that the toilet was actually the least crowded place on that train. Usually, train attendants didn’t even bother to drive these people out because they would come into the washing room again anyway. A foreseeable but helpless consequence was that more than 200 people lined up to use 1 toilet. This toilet could be called the most used toilet in the world if there was such a record.

Finally, the train had been delayed for 4 hours. There was no formal apology notices except that an informal announcement was broadcasted when the train stopped for the first time for about 2 hours.

I do not like making complaints but all these tiny things added up and it came to a point that I couldn’t neglect the bad service I had received. If I just got off the train like the rest of the passengers, I may not even talk about my ordeal on this train with my friends. But what about the mothers and the babies who needed hot water for making drinks on the next similar train? Would they have to drink cold formula again? I just couldn’t forget the helpless and tired looks on those mothers’ faces. It was time to change, even a little. I suddenly remembered a hotline number for making complaints about the railway system.

I got this hotline number (010-5184 3418) based in Beijing in late January accidentally when I was surfing on the Internet. So I dialed this number with little hope for having the current situation changed at around 8:00a.m the next morning with many seemingly calm eyes staring at me. They were actively speculating the outcome of the call, probably negative from their passive point of view. They have got used to this unfair treatment during Spring Festival transport rush so my attempt to break this ridiculous loop seemed feeble and naive. But I still wanted to do this for them and for myself. In my call, I used a very clear structure and listed the above conditions in a priority order.

The outcome of this complaint was so surreal that I even doubted the realness of it. I never expected that the railway system reacted in 1.5 hours to my complaint in such a serious way, which was beyond my fondest hopes. The female chief conductor of the train called me and came to our compartment in order to understand the real situation. This middle-aged woman with black curly hair listened to my reasons for making the complaint with great patience. Her eyes had an earnest twinkle. It appeared that she cared about my words more than anyone else on the train.

After the chief conductor understood everything, she explained some reasons for the bad service that we got and apologized sincerely. She revealed that most train attendants are underpaid and the lad we had in this compartment was temporarily assigned so he didn’t really care about the passengers. The power supply was in extreme shortage at midnight. The electricity power wasn’t enough to keep up the lights,  let alone broadcast further announcements about the delay. The train attendants did boil hot water. But there were too many people sitting on the aisle so they were afraid to scald the passengers if they moved hot water jugs from one compartment to another.

All these explanations sounded really reasonable. But weren’t they excuses? Now take a look at this insanely overloaded compartment. Everyone was not treated as a real passenger or a service buyer. We were like goods being transported in a big metal boxcar moving on wheels! This even reminded me of the inhuman treatment that the Jews got in WWII. Why did the train system sell overly excessive standing tickets when they knew clearly that the train service couldn’t accommodate this huge amount of passengers? If they set a reasonable upper limit on the number of the standing tickets they could sell, there would be far less passengers on this train. And everybody would be having a pleasant journey and getting basic on-board service! Basic train service was all we asked for for Confucius’s sake! Of course there would be passengers who couldn’t buy the standing tickets of this train if the railway system cut down on the amount of the tickets.  Instead, they would rather travel by alternative transportation tools (such as long-distance buses) in order to take a comfortable and safe trip. 

This Chinese poor people’s typical ordeal on a train could have been avoided if the railway system reduced the number of the standing tickets. This would mean less income for the railway system but it would be a really simple solution to this long-term conundrum that poor people in China always get poor train service during Spring Festival transport rush every year. Getting more money or taking care of passengers, these choices unfortunately never comes to the railway leaders’ mind when they make decisions, because they simply do not consider the railway system as part of the service industry. Now why would they care about these people from the lowest social class of China? They don’t complain. They just get off the train and get on another packed bus like sardines. They have got used to this packedness. So why bother?

Now let’s get back to our story and see what happened on the train after the chief conductor gave her sincerely worded explanations. She came to the occupied toilet and drove the 3 guys who occupied the toilet for the entire night out. Several train attendants carried 2 bottles of hot boiled water to our compartment very soon after the chief conductor gave her orders. The chief conductor also proposed that she will take out some measures in order to punish the train attendant who was supposed to serve the passengers in our compartment but did actually nothing. She suggested that she will decrease the train attendant’s salary for this month and ask him to write an apology letter and send it to my by fax as evidence for the punishment. This was getting really interesting! Nobody had ever written an apology letter to me so far. I would certainly frame it and hang it on my wall!

But the story didn’t end here. Astonishingly, the leader of Nanchang Railway Station, where the train set off from, gave me another apology phone call. This leader should be much more superior to the chief conductor. He used such a serious and hearty tone that it sounded like he was reporting to me. What he said was really not expected. He expressed his anger with the train attendant in our compartment and he would just fire him and ask him to make a verbal apology in front of all the passengers in my compartment!

However, I didn’t make the complaint call in hope of that the train attendant would lose his job because some parts of my complaint were not totally his fault. But the leader of the railway station made such an abrupt decision and I can sense that he wanted to impress me with his strong willingness to make the passengers happy. I guess my complaint had been reported to the national railway system so the leader of the railway station had been reprehended by his boss. I guess he needed to get this complaint handled fast so he wouldn’t lose his opportunities of getting a future promotion or something.

At last, 3 minutes after the train arrived in Guangzhou East Railway Station, this irresponsible train attendant came reluctantly. He pretended to be ignorant of the passengers’ complaints against him. But after the chief conductor scolded him, he realized that there was no way out so he apologized to all the passengers and bowed. The passengers, mostly migrant workers, got excited because they never expected this kind of treatment. However, this should be the way how things are run in a service industry even in our highly populated China.

After all this, the chief conductor and the other leads required me to make a return call to the railway hotline to basically eulogize their ways of dealing with the complaint. This step of making a follow-up call must be designed by the National Railway System as a way to urge the train leaders to take actions and to keep them under surveillance. Then all the leaders shook hands with me and thanked me for “helping them to improve their service quality” before I got off the train. This was certainly an once-in-a-life-time experience for me.

I knew from that day that a complaint call can make a difference in China but certainly my call had been escalated to a certain level of management so that it could have this kind of exaggerated impact on the train staff.

Nevertheless, one thing did change in my mind. I started to understand the difference between ignoring these things and noticing them and not letting them go, even though I didn’t feel hopeful at the beginning.

Now I hope that the railway system can learn something from the Chinese army in terms of their attitude of serving the people if such an analogy stands.



This is a statue made of GRP created by Xu Hongfei in an effort to praise the Chinese army’s selfless spirit of serving the people. These 4 soldiers fell asleep while leaning against a railing during their short break when they were assigned to accommodate the passengers who got stuck in the railway stations after severe snowstorms left the railway system paralyzed in South China in 2008.

Now when will they set such a statue for train attendants? Let’s hope for the best while we have to tolerate the worst.

(Thanks for reading this article. All the photos used in the article were found online because photos were forbidden to be taken on this train after the complaint was made. This is an original article written by Adah Huang. Please contact the author before you cite the article. My email adress is

Lesson Plan on the Movie Inception

I’d like to share with you a lesson plan that I created for the movie sessions that we did 2 weeks ago. This wasn’t the first time for me to design a lesson plan based on a movie. So far I’ve gained enough experience in designing English training worksheets on family-friendly movies such as Kung Fu Panda, Romona and Beezus, and this time, the ultimate intellectual heist movie – Inception.  Call me an avid movie fan of Christopher Nolan!

Worksheet on the Movie Inception – Created by Adah Huang 

1.      Warm-up discussion

(1)   What do you like about the movie Inception? You may talk about the plot, action, visual effects,  emotions and music,  etc.

(2)   Which scene is your favorite? Describe what happens before, during and after. Explain why it is your favorite scene.

2.     Characters and roles match-up

 Draw lines between the characters and their corresponding roles in the heist dream: 

Question: Who is your favorite character? Why? Describe this person by mentioning their physical appearance, personality and how they remind you of someone in your real life.

3.      Analysis of the various layers of the heist dream 

The following graph is designed by me based on the director Christopher Nolan’s graph detailing the team’s path through the various layers of the heist dream.  

Please fill in the blanks in the graph marked by a question mark “?”by recalling what you have seen in the movie and getting information from your partner(s). I have filled in some suggested answers that are highlighted in blue.  

4.      Hypothetical questions “If I were/ could …, I would…”

(1)     If you were Cobb who is capable of entering the dream of a target person, whose dream would you go into? What information would you extract from that person’s subconscious mind?

(2)     If you were Cobb, would you shoot Mal who is just a projection in the hospital? 

(3)     If you could design a totem for yourself, what would it be?

(4)     If you could build your own world in your dreams, would you refuse to wake up to the real world and choose to live in your dreams? How long would you live in your dreams?

 Vocabulary list:

1.       heist [haist] n. the act of stealing or robbery

2.       point man: a soldier who goes in front of the others to look for danger

3.       to take point: to take the first and most dangerous position in a military team; to lead the challenge

4.      forger n. a person who makes illegal copies of money, documents, etc. in order to deceive people

5.      projection n. a form or structure for inner thoughts and feelings

6.      to sabotage /ˈsæbətɑːʒ/ v. to deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct (something)

7.      architect  n. a person who is responsible for planning or creating a building, an idea or a situation

8.      labyrinth /ˈlæbərɪnθ/ n. a maze; a complicated series of paths, which it is difficult to find your way through

9.      to con: to trick somebody, especially in order to get money from them or persuade them to do something for you

10.   sedative /ˈsedətɪv/ n. a drug that makes somebody go to sleep or makes them feel calm and relaxed

11.   kick n. the sensation of falling, hitting water or a sudden rough movement that can wake the sleeper up

12.   corporate hotel (phrase) a hotel that belongs to a company

13.   avalanche /ˈævəlɑːnʃ/ n. a mass of snow, ice and rock that falls down the side of a mountain

14.   limbo n. a deep subconscious level where they may lose their grip on reality and be trapped indefinitely

15.   totem n. a personalized small object whose behavior is unpredictable to anyone except its owner to determine whether they are in another person’s dream


Tree Diagram of Love

I created the following tree diagram as a visual aid in my training sessions last week when we talked about love and relationships – the kind of topics that most people keep thinking on their mind on Valentine’s Day.  

The tree grows right from one’s heart. There are many “branches” growing out from the main “stem”. On each branch, “leaves” and “flowers” grow along the way. But there is only 1 “fruit” that this love tree bears, which is “celebrating golden anniversary (50 years of marriage)” leading to a joyful shout ”You win!”. This tree diagram gave my trainees a very clear vision of how a romantic relationship evolves in different ways. Most of my trainees loved it!

Now can you find out where your current relationship status are in this tree diagram? I hope you are not too far from the winning branch!

Click on the picture below and you will see it coming up in its original size.

Whenever you hit “You lose!”, remember to go back to the beginning – your heart and start looking for your Mr. / Ms. Right again!

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