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562 Topics: Famous Americans – Alexander Graham Bell; Famous Songs – “At Last”; pluralizing “fish,” all things considered; to talk tech

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 562.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 562. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast and download the Learning Guide for this episode that will help you improve your English even faster. Even faster than drinking alcohol every day. Actually, that probably won’t help your English too much, but our Learning Guide certainly will. You can also like us on Facebook. We’re at facebook.com/eslpod. You can follow us on Twitter at @eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of the great inventors of the nineteenth century, Alexander Graham Bell. We’re also going to talk about a famous song from the twentieth century, “At Last.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Why not? Let’s get started.

Alexander Graham Bell was born in March of 1847 in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Scotland, of course, is part of the United Kingdom. Bell’s mother was nearly deaf. His father taught elocution to deaf people. “Deaf” (deaf) means you are unable to hear for some medical reason. Sometimes we use the term, nowadays, “hearing impaired” to describe people who either have a difficulty hearing or can’t hear at all.

“Elocution” (elocution) describes the skill of speaking clearly, of pronouncing your words clearly. Bell’s mother was almost deaf and his father, as I mentioned, taught elocution to deaf people. So, Bell had a lot of experience working with the deaf as he grew up, and not surprisingly, it’s a topic that interested him as an adult.

One thing that did not interest Bell very much, however, was going to high school. In fact, he left high school at the age of 15 without graduating. His family later moved to London, England, in 1865, and 1868 Bell became a student at University College London. Once again, however, he did not graduate. The main reason was that his family had decided to move to Canada in 1870 after two of Bell’s brothers died of tuberculosis, a disease that effects the lungs.

Shortly after moving to Canada, Bell left and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. There, he began teaching at a local school for the deaf. In fact, he taught at a couple of different schools in the northeast part of the United States, eventually moving to a school in Hartford, Connecticut, which is not too far from New York City.

It was there at the American School for the Deaf that Bell met a young student, the daughter of the person who started the school, a woman by the name of Gardiner Greene Hubbard. Even though Bell was 10 years older than Gardiner, he fell in love and the two of them married, eventually having four children, although only two of those survived into adulthood. That is, two of the children that the Bell family had died very young.

While Bell was teaching, he got interested in researching new technology – that is, new ways of doing things with machines and equipment by applying his scientific knowledge to the world of technology. Scotland has a long history of famous inventors, and Alexander Graham Bell continued in that tradition, getting interested in invention.

In the late nineteenth century, there were many prominent inventors who not only worked in one area of science and technology, but often took their interest in science and applied it to a number of different areas. Thomas Edison is a famous example of that. Alexander Graham Bell is another. The technology that Alexander Graham Bell got interested in initially – at first – was telegraph technology.

The “telegraph” (telegraph) was one of the primary modes of communication during the nineteenth century, especially the late nineteenth century. Basically a “telegraph,” if you don’t know, is a way of sending communication, sending messages, across a wire – a long piece of thin metal. The telegraph technology allowed people to send messages using electrical signals going across or traveling across the wires.

This allowed people to communicate quickly over long distances, something that had not been possible before this time. As the telegraph became more popular in the middle of the nineteenth century, people began to look for ways of improving the technology, of making it possible not only to send messages going in one direction, but in both directions – and even more, the ability to send multiple messages at the same time across the telegraph wires.

One of the first people to invent a way of doing this was another famous American inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison found a way of sending up to four messages simultaneously – that is, at the same time – across a telegraph wire. But some people, including Alexander Graham Bell, said, “Well, why should we stop at four? Maybe we should try to have even more messages sent back and forth.”

Several inventors including Alexander Graham Bell and another man by the name of Elisha (Elisha) Gray (Gray) tried to beat Edison’s accomplishment of four signals. They tried to get as many as 10 signals. Now, Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law, whose last name was Hubbard, decided to give Bell some money so he could work on these new inventions, especially with telegraph machines.

However, Bell, as happens often to inventors, got bored of the idea of just inventing ways of sending more messages across the telegraph wire. He got interested in the idea of sending voice messages across the wires. Both he and his rival, or his competing inventor, Elisha Gray, tried to invent a way of sending voice messages across the wire.

Finally, in early February of 1876, Bell felt that he had a good idea, so he went to the U.S. government and tried to get a patent for his idea. A “patent” (patent) is basically a government license – an official government document – that says you invented this technology and therefore you own this technology. No one else can use it without your permission. Bell went to the U.S. Government Patent Office and gave his patent idea to the office on February 14th, 1876.

Just a couple of hours later on that same day, Elisha Gray came with his patent idea, but he was too late. Bell had arrived at the office a few hours before Elisha Gray, and therefore the government gave Alexander Graham Bell the patent. Some people call this the most valuable patent in the history of modern technology. And if you walk down the street of any city or town in the world nowadays, you can see people talking on telephones thanks to the patent and ideas of Alexander Graham Bell.

It took a few more weeks for Bell to actually make a telephone that would communicate a message. The first telephone signal was sent on March 10th, 1876. It was the first phone call. Bell had called his assistant, Thomas Watson, from another room in the same house. His message was quite simple: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

Over the next few months, Bell developed his technology, and eventually he and his father-in-law started a company that would use this technology. I mentioned earlier that inventors sometimes get bored with their new invention and decide to go and work on something else. This is exactly what happened to Alexander Graham Bell. Even though he had made a lot of money from his invention with the help of his father-in-law’s investment, he decided to sell his part of the company and work on something else different.

In fact, by the mid-1880s, Bell wasn’t really involved in the telephone industry at all, even though his name continues to be associated with the telephone. He didn’t make as much money as he could have had he stayed involved in the telephone business. But as I said, Bell got bored and decided to do something different. He wanted to work instead on an invention that Thomas Edison had created – the phonograph.

The “phonograph” was one of the earliest machines that could record and play sound back, such as music or speech. Edison had invented the phonograph about the same time that the telephone was being invented in 1877, but it wasn’t a very good design. Alexander Graham Bell thought he could make it better. I used the word “design” (design) in that last sentence. A “design” is a plan of how something works or what something looks like.

The problem with Edison’s phonograph is that it wasn’t the best design possible for recording and producing speech. So, Bell started working on this invention and eventually, in the mid-1880s, he, his cousin, and another inventor came up with an improvement on the phonograph. They called it the “Graphophone,” and they of course went to the U.S. government and got a patent for their invention.

The group started a new company called the “Volta Graphophone Company.” They, however, sold their patents to another company the very next year, in 1887. That company later became the Columbia Phonograph Company, which in later years changed its name to the Columbia Record Company. Nowadays it’s called Columbia Music and is still around here in Los Angeles, though it’s owned by Sony Entertainment in Japan.

Bell took the money he made from this Graphophone invention and invested it in new research projects in a company he called the Volta Laboratory. Bell had actually already been working on other inventions even when he was working on the Graphophone. For example, he invented a way for doctors to be able to find bullets that had been shot into the body. The reason he invented this machine was that the president of the United States, James Garfield, had been shot in July of 1881, but the doctors couldn’t find the bullet in his body.

Bell tried to use his new invention to find that bullet. He failed and Garfield died, but his invention was later used by doctors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to help save soldiers who were shot during wars, including the Boer War and World War I. Bell had an inventive mind. In addition to working on electrical and electromagnetic inventions, he also got interested in flight, in flying. He decided to try to improve some of the inventions that the Wright Brothers had come up with, although he wasn’t ultimately very successful.

Bell used his money not just for himself, but also to encourage others to do scientific research. One of the ways he did that was to help start something called the National Geographic Society, which is still around today. He was president of that society from 1898 to 1903. He also gave money to a scientific journal which we now know as Science – one of the best scientific journals in the world.

Bell died in Canada at a house he had built for himself in 1903. He was not only an extraordinary inventor but a man who loved science and technology that helped change the world in ways that we can still see and hear today.

We turn now briefly to one of the more famous songs from the middle part of the twentieth century that has become even more famous in recent years. That song is “At Last.” “At last” means the same as “finally.” If you are waiting for someone to meet you at a restaurant, and the person is 30 minutes late, when they finally arrive you may say, “At last, you’re here.”

The song “At Last” was written in 1941 by two composers, two writers of songs, Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. It was written to be part of a film – of a movie – called Sun Valley Serenade. A “serenade” (serenade) is a piece of music usually sung or played outdoors, sung by a man to a woman. Well, not just any woman, but to a woman he loves, of course.

The movie told the story of an orchestra leader – a person who was the leader of a group of musicians – who falls in love with a woman while playing a show, while being part of a performance in Sun Valley. Sun Valley is located in the state of Idaho and is somewhat famous for being a place to go skiing, to go downhill skiing on the mountains in that area. Idaho is located in the western part of the United States, on the border of Canada between the states of Montana and Oregon and Washington.

“At Last” was recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, one of the most famous bands or musical groups of the 1930s and early 1940s. It was recorded in 1942 and became a very popular song on the radio. It was also used for another movie that same year, strangely. The most well-known version of the song, however, was recorded several years later, in 1961, by the singer Etta James.

Etta James was a rhythm and blues singer who usually didn’t sing songs like this – songs that we would describe as being “ballads.” A “ballad” (ballad) is a slow, emotional song that is often romantic or about love. Etta James was an African American singer who was famous for singing the kinds of songs called “rhythm and blues” that were popular in the African American community and eventually became the inspiration for rock music.

In any case, the song tells the story of two people, a man and a woman who have found love together. The most famous part of the song comes at the beginning where the singer sings the first two words in a very dramatic fashion, where the word “last” continues for a very long time.

At last

My love has come along

My lonely days are over

And life is like a song

Well, Etta James does it a lot better. You can Google her. Go to YouTube, put in “Etta” (Etta) “James” (James) “At Last,” and you’ll hear a much better version. This song of course begins by talking about how “my love has come along.” “To come along” here means to come to you or to arrive where you are. The singer says, “My lonely days are over.” I will no longer be by myself. I will no longer be sad because I am alone.

James’s version of the song became very popular, and was in fact the second-most popular R & B, or “rhythm and blues,” song that year. It also became a very popular song to sing at weddings. The song was recorded later by many well-known singers including Celine Dion, Gladys Knight, and others. Perhaps the most famous recent performance of the song, the reason why the song has become popular in recent years, was one done by Beyoncé – the singer, the American singer.

Beyoncé sang the song for the first dance between President Obama and his wife, Michelle, after President Obama became president in January of 2009. That performance was broadcast and millions of Americans saw it – this African American president dancing with his wife to a song that had become famous by an African American.

Of course, the meaning of the words “at last” for that performance was not about romance. It wasn’t about love. It was about the fact that finally – at last – there was an African American president. So it took on a different meaning, a very powerful meaning to be sure.

Now let’s – at last – answer your questions.

Our first question comes from Cae (Cae) in Japan. The question has to do with the noun “fish.” The question is: “What is the plural form of fish (fish)?” In 99.9 percent of the cases, the plural of “fish” is “fish.” There’s no “es” at the end of the word. We don’t say “fishes.” We instead say “pieces of fish.” The plural of “fish,” then, is almost always spelled the same as the singular form, which is “fish.” Why is this so?

The reason is that “fish” is what we call an “uncountable” or “non-count” noun. A “non-count noun” is a noun that you don’t count the same way as you count most things. For example, “I have a pen. I have ten pens.” Notice the “s” at the end. “I have five computers.” Once again, the “s” sound at the end. For most nouns in English, the plural is formed – that is, the plural is spoken and written – with the “s” at the end, or the “s” sound (some nouns, the sound is written as an “es”).

Most nouns in English are “count nouns.” You can count them and you make it plural by adding an “s” sound at the end. However, there are some nouns that are called “non-count nouns,” and “fish” is an example of a non-count noun. Another example of a non-count noun is “milk.” Traditionally, liquid has been considered non-count in the cases of “milk,” “tea,” and “coffee.” However, those have changed a little bit in recent years. People talk about getting “two coffees” even when they really mean “two cups of coffee.”

So, English has changed over the years, but there are still nouns that are definitely non-count nouns in all cases. For example, “fun” and “happiness.” We don’t talk about “funs” or “happinesses.” We talk about “fun” as a noun as a non-count entity – something that is not made plural by adding an “s” sound at the end. I said that 99.9 percent of the time, the plural of “fish” will be “fish.” However, in scientific use, sometimes we talk about different kinds of fish, “different species of fish,” in a way that reflects a count noun. So we’ll say “fishes” – but this is very, very rare.

And as I say, for most cases you can simply use “fish” for both singular and plural. If you want to express a plural idea with “fish,” you’ll have to add another phrase such as “pieces of fish” or “types of fish.” If you go to a restaurant, you may get two pieces of fish, or you and your girlfriend might both get pieces of fish. The plural is expressed by “pieces,” which has of course an “s” sound at the end because “piece” is a count noun and “fish” is a non-count noun.

Our next question comes from Ali (Ali) in Iran, who apparently has been listening to American radio, especially National Public Radio, which is a national radio system in the U.S. I say “public” – that doesn’t mean it is the government’s system. It’s actually a private collection of radio stations that receives very little money from the U.S. government. The U.S. government does have its own radio service that’s called Voice of America. NPR or National Public Radio is radio that is supported by private companies and organizations and individuals.

In any case, one of the most famous radio programs on NPR is called All Things Considered. “What does that phrase ‘all things considered’ mean?” Ali asks. “All things considered” means after carefully thinking about all the facts and the opinions that are out there. It’s used in conversational English actually at the beginning of an expression or at the beginning of a sentence to mean “I have thought about everything” or “taking everything into consideration” – if we think about all the different factors and variables.

“All things considered, I think today has been a good podcast.” This episode has been pretty good, all things considered. There, “all things considered” means when we think about all the different parts. Oh sure, there have been good things and there have been bad things, but all things considered, I think it’s been pretty good.

Often when we use this phrase “all things considered,” there are both good and bad elements in the situation that we’re talking about. So, we’re trying to give our opinion considering, or thinking about, all those different elements. It could be a good thing. It could be a bad thing. You could say, “All things considered, I think the election of 2016 for president is the worst election we’ve ever had in our history.” I look at good things. I look at bad things. But “all things considered,” it’s pretty terrible.

That would be an example of using that phrase in conversational English. It’s used by NPR as the name of a radio program that’s on every day that gives you the news for that day as well as other special reports.

Finally Jady (Jady) In South Korea wants to know the meaning of the phrase “to talk tech” (tech). “Tech” is short for “technology” and often refers to either computers or internet-related topics. “To talk” something means to talk about it or to have a discussion about it.

If you say to someone, “Let’s talk tech,” you mean let’s talk about technology. Maybe you want to talk about your new computer, or maybe you have questions for the other person about some internet website or social media service. You could also say, “I want to talk business,” “I want to talk California.” Whatever the topic is that you want to talk about could be followed by that verb “talk,” especially in the expression “let’s talk” or “I’m going to talk.”

You could also say “talk about.” That, grammatically, would be more correct. It would be more correct grammatically, or at least more acceptable according to formal grammar rules, to use a preposition after “talk” – “Let’s talk about tech.” “Let’s talk about love.” There was a song not too long ago, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” but we’re not going to talk about that here.

However, in more informal English, people sometimes don’t use the word “about” and just put the subject of what would be the prepositional phrase, beginning with the preposition “about,” right after the verb “talk.” So, “Let’s talk tech” means “Let’s talk about technology.” There’s no difference between using the “about” and not using the “about” – it’s just become a little bit more common recently to not use the preposition “about,” at least among some English speakers.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

deaf – unable to hear for medical reasons; not able to hear due to physical problems

* The child was born deaf and grew up learning sign language and how to read lips.

elocution – the study and skill of having clear pronunciation and speech

* Many actors take elocution lessons so that when they speak on stage, they are clear and easy to understand.

technology – the machines and equipment that are created using scientific knowledge

* Technology is all around us in the form of computers, cellular phones, and televisions.

wire – metal that is stretched into a thin line, used to send electricity or information

* There are so many wires behind the desk that it is difficult to find the one attached to the printer.

patent – a government license that permits someone to be the only person to make or produce a piece of equipment or use a particular idea

* Samuel filed a patent for his new haircutting and shaving machine and hopes to make millions.

phonograph – an early machine that can record and play back sound, such as music or speech

* Phonographs were commonplace in many homes in the 1930s and 1940s, and families would gather around them to listen to music.

design – the drawing or plan of what an object looks like and how it works

* The chair was a beautiful design that was both comfortable and attractive.

to transmit – to send something from one person to another or from one place to another, usually heat, light, sound, or electricity

* This electric blanket transmits heat at the same temperature throughout the night and keeps us warm.

serenade – a piece of music sung or played outdoors, typically by a man, to the person he loves

* The man stood outside the woman’s window and sang a song about new and lost love.

orchestra – a large group of musicians playing instruments together, such as violins, cellos, flutes, and trumpets

* The orchestra played a Beethoven symphony for an audience of several hundred.

ballad – a slow and emotional song that is often romantic or about love

* The ballad told the story of two people who loved each other, but who couldn’t be together because they came from different worlds.

lonely – a feeling of sadness because one does not have the companionship of other people

* Andrew’s family was away for the weekend and he felt quite lonely in the house all by himself.

fish – an animal that lives in water, breathes with organs called gills, and has fins (a flat part at the end of the body) and scales (many small hard flat plates over the skin); the meat of a fish eaten as food

* While on vacation in the Caribbean, we saw fish of many different types, colors, and sizes.

all things considered – taking everything into account; after carefully thinking about all the facts or opinions

* All things considered, the storm damage wasn’t as bad as we expected, only causing minor damage to a few cars.

to talk tech – to discuss matters relating to technology or technical ideas

* Everyone in my family is an engineer, so when we get together, we like to talk tech.

What Insiders Know
The Prefix 555

In the U.S., all phone numbers are formatted with seven “digits” (any number between 0 and 9) in this format: XXX-XXX-XXXX. The first three digits is the “area code,” which indicates the general location within the U.S. and the second three digits is the “prefix (a partial word that comes before the main word, but in this case, a set of numbers before the main numbers). When telephone numbers are spoken or “shown” (displayed in writing) in a television show or movie, they almost always begin with the “prefix” of 555.

The main reason television and movie phone numbers begin with a 555 prefix is to avoid “viewers” (people who watch a TV show or movie) calling a real phone number displayed on the screen, which would be “annoying” (bothersome, troublesome, and inconvenient) for the people and businesses that actually had those numbers. Would anyone really “bother” (use the time and effort needed) to call “fictitious” (not real; related to an imaginative story) telephone numbers? Unfortunately, yes. For example, in 1982, singer Tommy Tutone had a “hit” (a very popular song) called “867-5309/Jenny,” and even today, people who have that number in many different area codes continue to receive “prank” (meant to be a funny joke) phone calls from people asking for Jenny.
Having all fictitious numbers begin with 555 seemed like a good idea, but some people and companies wanted an actual number beginning with 555. As a result, some of the 555 numbers have been “assigned” (given to someone for a particular purpose), but the phone numbers from 555-0100 through 555-0199 are “reserved” (set aside for a specific purpose) only for fictional use.

The most common 555 number is 555-1212, which is known as “directory assistance.” People who “dial” (enter a series of numbers on a telephone) that number within their area code can receive assistance in “looking up” (finding; identifying) the phone number associated with the name of a person or business.