Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

The Dirty Harry Method of Learning English

Welcome to the Dirty Harry Method of Learning English.

Passive language learning is for weaklings.  It is time to be assertive and aggressive like Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callaghan. It’s time to actively search out and dominate new vocabulary.  You are going to be a Vocabulary Vigilante.

Go ahead make my day, as Dirty Harry so eloquently says.

But what kind of day?  Do say: I had an exciting, busy, long, fulfilling, challenging, successful, frustrating, productive, illuminating, or stressful day. Don’t say: I had a nice day.

Don’t use the word nice.  No Mr Nice Guy. It’s a saccharine sweet word that can be replaced by more interesting terms. Yes we know it was a nice day, she’s really nice, the holiday was nice and it’s a nice job. You can replace nice with interesting,  satisfying, wonderful, rewarding, charming, pleasant, attractive, admirable, friendly, generous, kind, lovely, delightful, gracious, helpful…just to name a few.

Like Dirty Harry, you need a weapon. Your weapon of choice is large and heavy like Harry’s Magnum .44, and fires thousands of rounds of deadly interesting words. It’s called an English-to-English dictionary for English learners. Put your French-to-English dictionaries in the recycling bin. Upgrade to this wonderful 100% English-to-English weapon.  One model, much loved by discerning English word snipers, is the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Pick it up, feel the weight of it in your hand and fire off a few words. Also comes in handy down-loaded form, CD-Rom and can be concealed in your telephone. The on-line version is here.

Read, read and read

Don’t passively read texts in English and think this will help your vocabulary. When you read, have a dictionary or telephone dictionary in one hand and look up key words or phrases that you don’t know, or are not sure about. Remember you are a police inspector with a mind of steel. Check the word forensics (service médico-légal) in your dictionary.

A learner’s dictionary can give you a simple definition, information on pronunciation, and carefully chosen examples that show you how to use the word, as well as synonyms and antonyms.

Start a vocabulary book as this 1948 film beautifully illustrates. Write down your new words in sentences. Important: Use examples that are known to you.

For example: conceal (verb). Definition: to hide somebody/something. Example: The paintings were concealed behind a plaster wall. Tim could barely conceal his disappointment. She sat down to conceal the fact that she was trembling.  NB:  ill-concealed (of feelings or expressions of feeling) not hidden well from other people. Example: She looked at me with ill-concealed hate. Your sentence: My Dad tried to conceal the fact that he had lost his job, but my Mum quickly discovered the truth. Words that have similar meanings: hide, conceal, cover, disguise, mask, camouflage.

Set an objective: You want to learn and start using 10 words a week. Use flash cards or post-its. Leave them lying around the house where you can see each day.

Check out the word of the day in the on-line dictionaries.

Visit and watch your vocabulary grow, and help feed the hungry.

Other recommended words games:

Eight letters



Remember: the key to the Dirty Harry approach is to turn passive knowledge into active speech. Make these words your prisoners. Own them and USE THEM. Need some inspiration? Here’s Harry



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