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Voltaire Learnt English in JUST three (3) months!

A new book by science writer David Bodanis entitled, Passionate Minds, (see below) records a fascinating account of Voltaire, a poet/philosopher of the French Enlightenment whose unprecedented effort to learn English is now included at the Roll & Shuffle. With the help of the bard and a few generous stage managers, Voltaire was conversing in English and exchanging letters with notable island luminaries, including Johnathan Swift and Alexander Pope, in just three (3) months. Read on to FIND OUT how he did it...

Passionate Minds

The great love affair of the Englightenment, featuring the scientist Émilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world
By David Bodanis


How French Enlightenment poet Voltaire became that horror of the English countryside, the House Guest Who Never Leaves, in Passionate Minds...

... As he later admitted to the one to whom he was always honest, Nicolas Thieriot, "I was without a penny, sick to death of a violent flu, a stranger, alone, helpless, in the midst of a city (London), wherein I was known nobody. I could not make bold to see our ambassador in so wretched a condition."

It was at this point that Voltaire's luck turned. In Paris the year before, he had met a passing English trader, Everard Fawkener, back from several years in Syria trading silk garments between Europe and India. Most educated Frenchmen had snubbed Fawkener for being a mere tradesman, but not Voltaire. He'd chatted with Fawkener about his business, and the archaeological sites he'd poked around in Syria, and now, in England, seemingly by chance - or with a little help from Voltaire - they met again. Fawkener had a mansion in the bucolic wonderland of Wandsworth, a country town with its own windmills outside of London. Voltaire needed a place to stay. He knew that there were a number of French-speaking emigres in London, and with his literary reputation he could probably find one among them to stay with. If he did that, though, he wouldn't learn much of England: he'd stay immersed in emigre politics, and emigre arguments, and an emigre's ever more out-of-date language. He was too proud to do that, yet he was too proud to scurry back to Paris and beg to be accepted by the French authorities again.

Why couldn't he learn English well enough to become a great author in England instead?

Fawkener had no idea what he was letting himself in for. Voltaire invited himself over and stayed for a week, and then another week, and then another, and yet another: he was transforming into that horror of the English countryside: The Guest Who Never Leaves. But he had one goal - to learn English perfectly - and he'd found the ideal place to do it.

He began ("thirty and one of july a thousand seven hundred twenty and six") by keeping a journal, carefully noting down verb of interest. "Mr. Scuttlars history," he slowly printed in English,"... He cured his wife of the spleen with a good fuking." Then Voltaire struck out the word fuking and above it thoughtfully wrote the shorter variant fuk, to be sure he got the spelling right. When he needed help in pronunication he made his way to the theatre at Drury Lane, where the prompter loaned him a copy of that night's Shakespeare script, so he could mouth the words to himself while listening to the actor's speak them.

He kept on going to the theatre, and he kept up his journal, and just three months after moving in with Fawkener, the no longer indolent Voltaire had it cracked. By October he casually wrote a firend the following note, in English: "I intend to send you two or three poems of Mr. Pope, the best poet of England, and at present, of all the world. I hope you are acquainted enough with the English tongue, to be sensible of all the charms of his works." ... (From Exile and Return, pgs. 54-55)

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Voltaire's Method For Advanced ESL Learning Today

Start with poetry. It's usually short and the focus is necessarily on verbs, those words used to describe action. Similarly, books on how to read and write poetry provide language's most authoritative guide to pronunication - the rhythm and rhyme of reason, if you will. Use PokerPulse Gambler's Guide to Poetry and Guide II - Tips from the Masters, featuring advice from actual writers, who are first of all, readers, for helpful sources.

Note: Whenever possible, we provide links to bilingual poetry texts, but this remains, unfortunately, a much neglected sector of publishing. Ditto poetry recordings. If ESL visitors know of any texts or recordings we should include, please email and we'll do our best to find links.

Again, focus your attention on verbs, the words used to describe action. Learning the names of places and things is a start but it's not enough. The trick is learning to apply the correct action word to the event being described. More on the importance of verbs here.

Become Voltaire. LISTEN to the audio recording WHILE YOU READ the book. To facilitate this, PokerPulse favors unabridged (unedited) recordings (many are listed below in the Advanced ESL Material Index). We also endeavor to provide samples of the narrator's voice whenever possible as well as a brief review noting the reader's English dialect, i.e., U.S. versus British English. We even have a post that features an English dialect peculiar to Newfoundland, Canada.

If a work is also available in video form, languish shamelessly before the TV screen. At PokerPulse, we do our best to provide links to the best performances widely available.

The next step from poetry is, of course, music. Search The Roll and Shuffle for your favorite recording artists as well as song lyrics, most of which are fully annotated to explain local idioms. Here's a sample of a couple of blues songs from the American South with references to several ubstances believed to contain magical properties. Our songlist is growing daily! Send favorites to

PokerPulse Quality Control: We have read, watched and/ or listened to ALL of the material included at The Roll and Shuffle, carefully excluding any we considered to be poorly recorded or performed. No second chances - UNLESS the publisher of a recording we've excluded RE-RECORDS the work and RE-ISSUES it AND it meets with our approval. Hint: How we wish Naxos would re-set a number of its recorded books, and we've said so the company, so far to no avail. Note, conversely, the cheerful response we received from Chivers Audio regarding a request for more recordings of the great British humorist, P.G. Wodehouse (here). We vow to continue to press for more and better recordings of audio books, including bilingual poetry recordings. Please send suggestions to

NEW!! Also see: Discover the pattern of your errors, get a dictionary and find out how it works, memorize four short spelling rules and focus on VERBS. More on the four lessons most useful to ESL students contained in this classic guide to basic college-entry English.


Advanced ESL Material Index:


Book of Guys    Narrated wonderfully by the author, Prairie Home Companion radio host, humorist and then some, Garrsion Keillor. Listen to him at the excellent Writer's Almanac

A few years ago in a poker game I won a membership in a club called The Sons of Bernie and last January, late one night, I drove my truck deep into the woods near River Falls to attend the annual Bernie campfire and drunken orgy of song and self-pity, standing arm in arm with other S.O.B.s around a bonfire under the birches, in a raw wind at twenty below zero, the snowbanks up to our waists, and there, under the Milky Way and a nearly full moon, we ate chili out of cans and drank bourbon whisky and sang mournful songs like Long Black Veil and Old Man River, and complained about women until six o'clock in the morning, when we retired to our homes to recuperate.

There were about thirty of us, and when I arrived ans saw them, I said to myself, "Let's get out of here. You were had in that poker game. This membership isn't worth half the five hundred dollars you gave him for it, the big cheater." It was not my crowd. They were the sort of desperate low-lifes who will tell you a long story for a five-dollar loan, guys who everything unfortunate has happened to, cruel fathers, treacherous friends, abject poverty, rejection by women, dust storms, prison, tuberculosis, car wrecks, the boll weevil, and poor career choices, all the disasters familiar to fans of the great Johnny Cash. Men peak at age nineteen and go downhill, we know that, but, I tell you, they looked so much older and sadder than you want people your own age to look. One glance at those beat-up faces and you could not imagine women loving them at all and I was by far the soberest and the handsomest one in the bunch. "Well, perhaps I will stay for awhile," I thought, "and gather impressions of them so that I can someday write about these poor guys so that they will not be completely forgot."...


Carmen    Opera based on the opera by Georges Bizet

View a sample at here.

Some dialog from the opera...

Gypsy: In love? That's no reason.

Gypsy girl: I'm in love but I do my duty.

Carm's pal: I've never seen you like this. Who are you waiting for?

Carmen: A soldier who helped me.

Pal: The one who went to jail?

Gypsy: He'll be scared. I bet he won't come.

Carmen: Don't bet. You'd lose.

HELP! I want to sound like a native ... How can I lose my accent?    Breakfast at Tiffany's By Truman Capote.

"I (actor's agent O.J. Berman)'m the first one saw her. Out at Santa Anita. She's hanging around the track every day. I'm interested: professionally. I find out she's some jock's regular, she's living with the shrimp. I get the jock told Drop It if he don't want conversation with the vice boys: see, the kid's fifteen. But stylish: she's okay, she comes across. Even when she's wearing glasses this thick; even when she opens her mouth and you don't know if she's a hillbilly or an Okie or what. I still don't. My guess, nobody'll ever know where she came from. She such a goddamn liar, maybe she don't know herself any more. But it took us a year to smooth out that accent. How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons: after she could imitate French, it wasn't so long she could imitate English.

Not Much Fun    The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker.


How do we cut for the deal?
That's so, we did it before.
Partner, we'll beat them, I feel -
Oh, I just hate keeping score!
Really, I don't understand,
Under the line or above?
Partner, just look at my hand!
I must be * lucky at love.

Ode Less Travelled    By British author/actor/adventurer Stephen Fry.

This is not an academic book. It is unlikely to become part of the core curriculum. It may help you with your English exams because it will certainly allow you to be a smart-arse in Practical Criticism papers (if such things still exist) and demonstrate that you know a trochee from a dactyl, a terza from an ottava rima and assonance from enjambment, in which case I am happy to be of service. It is over a quarter of a century since I did any teaching and I have no idea if such knowledge is considered good or useless these days; for all I know it will count against you.

I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it. You will be relieved to hear that I will not be burdening you with any of my actual poems (except sample verse specifically designed to help clarify form and metre): I do not write poetry for publication, I write it for the same reason that, according to Wilde, one should write a diary, to have something sensational to read on the train. And as a way of speaking to myself. But most importantly of all for pleasure.

Our favorite guide to English-language pronunciation    A Poetry Handbook by Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. poet Mary Oliver

To make a poem, we must make sounds. Not random sounds, but chosen sounds.

How much does it matter what kinds of sounds we make? How do we choose what sounds to make?

Our favorite guide to English-language metrical verse and syntax    Rules for the Dance, A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse Mary Oliver

Metrical poetry belongs to a certain era - a few centuries - and with every passing year that contained time grows more distant, its methods more estranged from our own. The reader of modern poetry feels at ease with the cadences of conversation. To read Chaucer's poems, now, requires a diligent and even extraordinary effort; it requires, indeed, a specialized knowledge of the language and the versification of Chaucer's time. The same thing, in our age, is happening to metrical poetry. It is no longer a safe bet that students will have been prepared for meter by having heard, over and over the rhythms of Mother Goose. In schools, students are encouraged to follow their own unpatterned expressions, and little if any memorization of metrical poems is now required.

run with the hunted    Masterfully edited by the poet's publisher, John Martin. Written and read by Charles Bukowski.


Once we were young at this machine
drinking smoking typing
it was a most splendid
miraculous time
still is
Only now instead of
moving toward time it moves
toward us makes each word
drill into the paper
feeding a closing space

Scandinavian Gamblers    Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike and many works of Shakespeare

Gertrude and Claudis

She wondered if her own motherlessness was discovered by gaps of motherly feeling within her. She allowed nursemaids, tutors, riding masters, fencing instructors to intervene between herself and the growing boy. His games seemed designed to repel and exclude her -- inscrutable, clattering games, with sticks and paddles, bows and arrows, dice and counters, noisy imitations of war in which he commanded, with his high-pitched voice and tense white face, the buffoon Yorik and some unwashed sons of the castle garrison's doxies. The quiet hoops and tops and dolls of Gerutha's girlhood had no place in this male world of projectile fantasy, of hits and thrusts and "getting even" -- for a strict tally was kept in the midst of the shouts and wrestling, she observed, as in the bloodier accountings of adult warfare, much as Horwendil boasted of how King Fortinbras, in being slain, had forfeited not only the invaded terrain in Jutland but certain coastal lands north of Halland on the coast of Sweathland, between the sea and the great lake of Vanern, lands held not for their worth, which was little, but as a gall to the opposing power, a canker of dishonor. (PART ONE, pgs. 34-35)

Discovering Hamlet

We have nothing but sympathy for ESL students undertaking the bard's timeless play - not a project for the feint-hearted. This excellent documentary provides a unique and effective method of attuning the ear to Shakespeare's elevated language. Watching and listening to some of the best Shakespearean actors as they prepare and rehearse their roles provides invaluable insights into the play and its complex characters.

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