I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:
Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen
They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!
The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.
While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher. This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.
This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!
I was taken by the whimsical art and semi-cooperative game play of Dixit since I saw it reviewed on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop YouTube series. (Video at the link is nearly 30 minutes long; if you’re in a hurry, save it to watch another time!) I put off getting a copy for years—we don’t have room for enough guests for a proper game—but I finally relented and accepted it as a birthday present this year. My reasoning was that it would be a great tutoring supplement, and it turns out I was right!
I mentioned in a review of the graphic novel Light that having a collection of whimsical, kid-friendly imagery would be a huge boon for tutoring young learners. Dixit brings the same kind of advantage, with the wrinkle of completely non-sequential, unrelated images. It’s not better or worse than having a thematic set of images from a story; it’s just different.
First of all, students respond really well to the art (from my admittedly small sample size). It’s worth having a deck on hand just for that. Taking a break from staring at words and thinking about words and manipulating words to just drink in some visual art is relaxing, but you can also put that art to good (and fun) language practice.
I’ll admit that some of these cards lend themselves better to some activities than others; I take a specially curated Dixit deck to my lessons, with the images that seem (to me) the most interesting and dramatic, as well as the ones my students really respond to.
Choose a card from the deck and give the student a few seconds to look at it. Take the card from them and ask them to describe as much as they can from memory. (If they’re lower level or if you’re feeling kind, you can ask them simple questions instead.) Switch up the roles to have students practice asking questions.
There’s so much dramatic tension and otherworldliness in so many of the cards that they lend themselves to creative writing practice! Beginners might want to start out just describing a scene, but more advanced students can tell the story behind an image, or offer a prediction.
Ideally, you’ll need space to lay out all of the cards, but in a pinch you can allow students to go through the deck in their hands. Name a category (“food” or “winter”), and their job is to go through the cards and find all of the options that fit. You can be as concrete or as abstract as you like (more advanced students can try to convince why an anchor in the middle of the desert might be “empty,” for example).
One person has a card, which they describe to another person (who has to draw it).
The minimum number of people you need for a regular game of Dixit is three, but it’s surprisingly easy to adapt the game for two players. No one holds any cards in their hand; instead, the “storyteller” either goes through the deck or draws three random cards from the top and places them face-up. The storyteller then chooses one of the cards (privately) to be the winning card and gives a hint to the other player. If the other player guesses the winning card right away, they get two points; if they guess it on the second try, each player gets one point. Otherwise, no points. Play can continue until the deck runs out or until a set number of points.
Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.
I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:
First drafts are not the final product.
It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.
Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.
How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.
She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.
The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).
My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.
The Art of Losing Things
The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.
One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,
a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –
The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.
What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?
This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:
The first draft of anything is shit.
This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?
But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:
Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.
Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.
Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?
Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:
It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.
Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)
It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.
My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.
And so are you.
Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.
Last time I brought up quotes, I talked about how to incorporate short phrases and clauses into your writing. Generally speaking, I would say that using a handful of words here and there is a more elegant solution than quoting an entire sentence wholesale, but sometimes nothing but a copy-and-paste job will do.
If you want to include an entire sentence from the source, rather than just selection, things are a little simpler. (A little.) You no longer have to worry about ellipses, brackets, or grammatical correctness. Your biggest issue is punctuation.
If you are introducing the quote with a complete sentence (“Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper.”), you should introduce the quote with a colon (:).
Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)
If you are introducing the quote with a short introductory phrase (“According to Abrams . . . “), you should introduce the quote with a comma (,). Something like this:
According to Abrams, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)
Be careful not to mix the two together. Something like this:
Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)
According to Abrams: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)
would be incorrect.
The trade-off, in my opinion, is the quality of the writing. There are certainly instances where quoting the entire sentence is effective (or even necessary), but there are many instances where it’s much more appropriate to highlight a phrase or a couple of words, or to simply paraphrase or summarize the original source. Regardless, make sure to cite the source! You wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, after all.
An essential part of high-level academic writing in any field is properly citing and quoting your research. There are lots of great resources already out there on different citation methods and how to avoid plagiarism; today I want to talk about how to properly integrate quotes into your writing. This entry will focus specifically on quotes that short phrases and less-than-complete sentences and clauses. Longer selections require slightly different strategies; I’ll be covering them in later posts.
Writers, both native and non-native English speakers, seem to struggle with how to include short selections into their writing. Hopefully this post will demystify the process a little bit — it’s actually quite simple, once you get the hang of it.
By far, the most common problem I see is something like this:
Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speed.” (Abrams, 2016)
Can you spot the problem here? What’s the grammatical misunderstanding the author has that’s led to the problem?
Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)
Here’s the big secret: when you want to integrate part of a sentence from your source into your own writing, you need to make sure that your entire sentence still works grammatically. One little word, like the above “which,” can throw a monkey wrench into things and turn what you thought was a proper sentence into something else (here, it’s a non-restrictive clause). You’ve probably already figured out how to fix this little boo-boo:
Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)
Sometimes, authors (correctly!) alter the original quote, but they fail to indicate that they have made alterations. This is a no-no; you should always let the reader know that you’ve made changes, even small ones, to the original material. A quick refresher on the two tools you need for this job:
ellipsis: used to indicate words or phrases omitted from the original quote, whether for brevity or for grammar; consists of three periods with a space between each one. ( . . . )
square brackets: used to indicate characters, words, or phrases altered or added to the original quote for the sake of orthography, grammar, comprehension, or readability. ()
For example, let’s say that the original quote from that Abrams paper was something like this:
Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.
(I know it’s not the most elegant example. Sorry.)
To do things 100% by the book, our citation would have to look something like this:
Scientists on the project were excited that “[s]ome photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)
Or like this, if you’re not a fan of the square brackets look:
Scientists on the project were excited that some “photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)
There is an aesthetics argument for avoiding square brackets as much as possible, as they have a tendency to slow the reader down. Here, the sentence can be recast without them, but sometimes that’s not possible.
If you’re not comfortable with omitting text in this way, or if doing so somehow significantly changes the meaning of the original, then you need to reword your writing. Sometimes this is tricky; in my fictional example above, however, it’s pretty straightforward:
Scientists on the project were excited about some “photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)
There are usually two or three different ways to recast a sentence in this way. If you’re having trouble figuring out how, a colleague (or professional editor) can often have the distance and perspective needed to see how to proceed.
Mystery solved! Hopefully, anyway. If you have any questions about this, or would like me to look over your work to check for these kinds of errors, you can contact me on Twitter or with the form over there on the right.
Tatoeba began as the brain child of Trang, inspired by the English–Japanese website alc.co.jp. The name “Tatoeba” even comes from the Japanese word for “for example.” You can read more about the history of Tatoeba.org on Trang’s blog, but the long and short of it is: Tatoeba is a collection of open source, community-generated sentences in multiple languages—something like a huge, global phrasebook. These sentences can be a great resource in your language study. But Tatoeba can also be overwhelming at first, so here are some tips to get you started.
1. You should probably register.
The nature of Tatoeba is such that everyone can browse it and look up sentences; registering allows you to contribute translations, add your own sentences, and (eventually, if you decide to ask for such privileges) tag and link sentences. If you’re just curious about a word now and then, you probably don’t need to sign up. But if you want to dig deeper, you’ll need a proper account. (It’s free!)
Note that Tatoeba, unlike Lang-8, doesn’t make a clear distinction between your native language and the languages you’re studying; rather, you list any languages you can speak, and then rate your fluency in them, from “almost no knowledge” to “native level.” So go ahead and add everything you’re interested in and know about. Here are mine, for example:
There is no limit to how many languages you can have in your account, and there’s no fluency requirement, so add as many as you like. My Korean, for example, is in absolute shambles, but since I at least know how to read Hangul, I listed it (and then put it at level 0: “almost no knowledge”).
2. Learn to use the search function.
Tatoeba uses Sphinx Search to account for all of the complexities of language. It’s mostly intuitive, but there are some wrinkles to be aware of. You can learn more at the Tatoeba Wiki.
Sphinx Search relates to the search bar at the top of the page. This search focuses just on the content of sentences, looking for actual, literal words. If you’re interested in a particular category of words, such as sports or politics or weather, you can search the tags instead. This search function is much less complex and does not use the same operators as Sphinx Search.
3. Add sentences.
If you want to improve Tatoeba (and of course you do, right?) and you have the time, you can also add sentences of your own. There are two ways to do that.
First, you can simply add a sentence directly to the corpus. Tatoeba even helpfully suggests vocabulary that hasn’t yet been featured on the site, so you can maximize your helpfulness by focusing specifically on those words.
The other way you can add sentences is by translating sentences already in the corpus.
When you’re looking at sentences on Tatoeba, you’ll see a little symbol in the upper left corner of every sentence, like this:
This is the option to translate. It’s not necessary (and even, arguably, flat-out unhelpful) to give a translation that’s identical to what’s already on the site. (Alas, there’s also no upvoting/approval system like there is on Lang-8, so there’s no good way to tell if a given translation is good or bad.) But if you look at sentence and see that it doesn’t have a translation in a language you know well, or the other translations are awkward or inadequate, then you can feel free to add one! When you click that symbol, a little box comes up:
Tatoeba also uses indirect (from L1 to L3 by way of L2) translations. It distinguishes between direct and indirect translations with blue arrows (indicating direct translations) and gray arrows (indirect translations). But you have to be careful: if you decide to translate something indirectly, make sure you click the translation you’re working from first. This will take you to a new page where that L2 translation is the “main sentence,” rather than just a translation. That way, your L3 translation is appropriately marked on the original L1 sentence as an indirect translation, and the code stays neat and tidy. (You can read more about Trang’s philosophy here.)
The principle of translating on Tatoeba is sentences and meaning, rather than word-for-word correspondence. “I’m 25 years old” is not, technically, a word-for-word translation of French (“I have 25 years.”) or Russian (“To me there are 25 years.”), but it’s how native speakers would express the idea of being 25 years old, so it’s the best (and only) possible choice.
4. Submit high-quality work.
Tatoeba is not a playground, or an opportunity for feedback/error correction. When you submit a translation or a sentence, you are submitting study material for other learners to use. This is why Tatoeba stresses that you only add translations and sentences only in languages in which you have fairly high levels of competency. Anything else—grammar or vocabulary practice, writing practice, proofreading—is better saved for elsewhere, such as Lang-8.
That’s Tatoeba in a nutshell! I’d like to shout out to my friend Yousef, who was the first to alert me to the existence of Tatoeba. It’s a great project but a little overwhelming, so if you need help (or if I missed anything), comment below or let me know on Twitter!
Lang-8 (lang-8.com) is a free, collaborative language-learning resource focused on writing. If you’re studying English outside a formal classroom, this is a great resource to get immediate feedback from native and advanced speakers. If you’re taking a class, Lang-8 is a great supplement. But it has its drawbacks, and it can be a little tricky to get the hang of. In this post, I’ll only go through the basics of using Lang-8. In the next post, I’ll discuss it more generally in terms of pros and cons.
The basic premise of Lang-8 is that you correct other people’s writing and they correct yours. Every time you submit an entry to your journal, it shows up in two streams: the generic “every English (or any other language) post” stream, and the specific “every post from my friends” stream. In your home page, posts from your friends are at the top, with the entire tidal wave from the entire site below.
Posting an entry is pretty straightforward. The tricky bits come with correcting other people’s writing, as the correcting interface is a little messy. Since everything is web-based—you write and you correct directly in the browser, instead of uploading or downloading documents—there isn’t a great built-in way to track or show changes. You have a WYSIWYG editor, with options for bold, strikeout, gray, red, and blue text. There are no official or even suggested guidelines for how to implement these particular typeface changes, so the corrections any given piece receives will be (relatively) inconsistently formatted. My biggest protip here is to make liberal use of the color options, especially for small mistakes like typos or capitalization. It makes things much easier for the author when they go back to look at the corrections.
Let’s take a closer look at the corrections menu. Many thanks to user Vera Vakhrusheva, whose recent essay on a LGBQT+ demonstration in Russia is featured in my screenshots. It’s kind of hard to show you how the website works if you obscure the entire text, but given that someone could have easily uploaded an exercise with the intent to keep it relatively private, I will only be using one or two extracts and blurring the rest.
If you click on a journal entry on your Lang-8 landing page, regardless of whether it’s from a friend’s journal or somewhere else, this is where you will end up. At the top you’ll see the title, and then the essay in its entirety. On the right are some stats: privacy level, how many people have viewed it, how many comments it has, how many corrections it has, what language it’s written in, etc. Here, we can see that this was a public entry with 7 views, no corrections, and no comments at the time of this screenshot. Sometimes an exercise will be given in the target language and the original language, but not always. This one was given only in English.
You can “like” a journal entry or not at the bottom. Clicking on the big blue button takes you to the text boxes where you’ll be doing your correcting. (You can also just scroll down.)
Here is where it gets a little tricky.
Every journal entry has two fields: the title and the body. The title is optional, and if you don’t have one, it just uses the first however many characters of your entry. The title stands on its own in the corrections interface (and disappears if there isn’t one given), but the body can get quite long: Lang-8 parses text into sentences and gives each sentence its own section. If you want to correct the sentence, you click the blue “Correct” button to open up the WYSIWYG editor. A green “Perfect” button also appears when you mouse over (making it hard to nab in a screen capture); select this if the sentence is fine. This image features the title of the piece and the first sentence of the body, both of which I’ve already begun to correct. As you can see, you don’t edit the text directly on Lang-8; you provide corrected copies.
You can only save your corrections all at once. You do this with the big orange button at the top or bottom of the corrections interface.
Also note that at the bottom of the corrections interface is the option to comment, generally, on the entry itself. (You can also comment on specific corrections after you open the “Correct” menu.) You can comment without making corrections, if you really feel moved to do so, by typing a comment and then hitting “Post corrections,” but considering the fact that people post here for the explicit purpose of receiving grammatical instruction rather than social media style “wow cool!!” comments, corrections are very much appreciated.
If someone else has gotten to an entry before you, you can simply recommend their corrections instead of making the same correction again. Their corrections and comments will appear right under the essay, before the corrections interface.
You can distinguish someone’s corrections from the actual corrections interface by the blue border. Here you can see the original (gray pencil icon), the correction underneath it (green checkmark icon), and the option to vote for a correction as “good” or to quote it (if you wish to discuss someone’s correction in the comments). You can also see in the gray box that this user left a comment explaining one of his corrections.
After you scroll past all of the corrections and comments, you’ll see the familiar corrections interface at the bottom of the page. This time, each section includes the original text and all of the corrections that other users have made. Once again, you have the option to vote for a good one in addition to providing your own. You also still have the option to mouse over for the green “Perfect” button if there’s nothing wrong with the sentence. If none of the corrections are good ones, then you can click the blue “Correct” button and add your corrections.
From the perspective of a Lang-8 user, it’s better to vote for good corrections instead of mindlessly entering in the same one. Things can quickly get cluttered otherwise. At least, I think it’s cluttered.
That about wraps up my guide to Lang-8! Tweet at me or comment if you have questions, confusions, or suggestions. Next time I’ll take a step back and discuss its pros and cons as a language-learning tool. Have a great weekend!
I first came across Anki in Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever. It’s a whole treasure trove of language-learning tips, but the bulk of Wyner’s philosophy revolves around flashcards, Anki, and spaced repetition. I couldn’t begin to summarize the book in a single blog post, so I’ll just recommend it. Wyner is sometimes a bit too gung-ho about all the great tools he wants to sell you, but Fluent Forever is no less helpful because of that.
Wyner sings the praises of Anki, and since the Droid version is free, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m currently studying Russian, so it came along at the perfect time. Once I got the hang of creating the cards, and got my smartphone synced up with my desktop version, things were a breeze.
Flashcards are for more than mere vocabulary, however. Here are a couple of different ways I would recommend using Anki in your English study—aside from vocabulary.
(Note: I assume that you have a copy of Anki and that you’re comfortable using it. If you’d like more details on how to customize Anki, you can refer to their manual. Another good guide is this one from Alex Vermeer.)
1. Spelling Help
If you struggle with English’s semi-random yet semi-predictable spelling, you can offload the problem on to Anki.
The first step is being aware of the mistakes you make the most consistently. Maybe you have issues with -sion versus -tion, for example. Or maybe you struggle with irregular verbs: not eated but ate? not runned but ran? Put them in Anki.
You can just use a basic card with, say “eat” on the front and “ate” on the back. Or maybe “b__t (thing on water)” on the front and “boat” on the back. If you feel comfortable typing within Anki, you can set up the card so that you have to type in an answer (rather than just think about it). Anki will then display the correct answer and highlight any mistakes you may have made. For more about how to design Anki cards with typing input, see this how-to video.
I would recommend this method if it all possible. If not, try to keep scrap paper on hand to write on while you study so you can write out the correct spelling yourself. If you don’t have that, then you can move your hand as if you were writing, or imagine writing the answer. Or spell out in your head, like in a spelling bee. The more you do something yourself, or the more you think through the steps of doing something yourself, the better you learn something and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of just assuming you know something.
2. Listening And Pronunciation
Learning the phonemes of a language—its individual, component sounds—is maybe one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. Usually we struggle with sounds in a language because we can’t distinguish them from other sounds, whether in our native language or the target language. I have a tough time with å and o in Swedish, for example. You can use an Anki deck to blitz the difference between them.
Wyner has a number of useful Anki card templates available for download from his site. The template you’d want for this would be his “minimal pairs” template. If you want to make your own, though, you can. But whether you’re customizing Wyner’s template or creating your own, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and input.
First, collect a bunch of words that share your “struggle sounds.” A typical pair of problem sounds in English for many learners is short “i” and long “e” (ship / sheep, chip / cheap), for example. Find recordings from Forvo.com, and then very carefully apply them to cards (you want your recordings to match their answers!) in a pattern like this:
Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: ship]
Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]
If you allow the cards to be reversed, you can practice your pronunciation as well as your listening: the word “ship” or “sheep” will come up, and you can compare your pronunciation with that of the recording. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to hear how close you are to a particular sound. That’s where a teacher comes in handy.
3. Grammar Blitz
There are so many ways you can do this. I’ll just share a small bit of my personal method and hopefully it will inspire you.
I use Anki to study Russian. Where modern English has only three cases (“grammar jobs,” for lack of a better word), Russian has six. Learning all of the ways that a personal pronoun can change depending on the job it has to do is just half the battle—when do you use each case?
First, I sat down and worked out a color scheme for all of the cases. So prepositions or verbs that require the accusative case (“him” in English) are dark blue, and prepositional cases (“by him”) in red, and so on.
Then, when it came to making the cards, I put phrases (“with him,” “without money,” “to the park,” and so on) on one side of the flashcard, with the Russian preposition in its appropriate color and whatever noun in its nominative form. The right answer is to 1) have a correct English translation of the preposition and 2) to know the proper form of the noun (and any attendant adjectives).
The other side of the card has the English translation of the preposition and the appropriate form of the noun (in its matching color). The right answer is the Russian translation of the preposition.
You can apply this similarly to English. If you struggle with catenative verbs and remembering which ones take a gerund, which ones take just the verb stem, and which ones take the “to” infinitive, you can come up with your own color code and little phrases and review those in a similar manner.
(I find it helpful to relate the color to the grammar point in some way. For example, my genitive case prepositions are in green, and instrumental in indigo. You want the color associations to be quick and easy! So in this case maybe green for gerund, taupe for “to” infinitive, and silver for stem. But it depends, of course, on the color names in your native language.)
So those are just a few ways you can use Anki beyond simple vocabulary. Do you have any other tips or tricks? Share them in the comments, or tweet @KobaEnglish!