Run Out of Ideas in the Middle of Your Essay?

Image courtesy spydermurp at freeimages.com
Image courtesy spydermurp at FreeImages.com

Essays are one of the most common ways to evaluate a student’s capacity for the written language, but when misapplied they can be unfair. You can have a thorough knowledge of grammar and even a sense of style, but time and again I find that some students struggle with essays because they don’t know what to say–in any language. Is it really fair, then, to judge their foreign language writing ability by the fact that they ran out of ideas?

I’ve seen this happen with students working on short-form writing assignments. They might ask me for a word here or there, or ask me if a particular sentence is okay, but I would say 80% to 90% of our discussion during writing practice is based on the problem of “I don’t know what to say.” My job, at that point, is no longer about providing the right vocabulary or grammatical structure. My job is to help students think: to organize and isolate particular arguments or reasons; to look at things from another perspective; to help them cultivate and express their opinions, knowledge, and experiences.

If you often feel “stuck” on essay prompts, try these tips on for size.

 

Prove it! / Image courtesy FreeImages.com and Miguel Ugalde.
Prove it! / Image courtesy FreeImages.com and Miguel Ugalde.

1. Why? So what? Can you prove it? Those are the questions you should be answering every paragraph. I find people most often get stuck when they think that what they’re saying is self-evident. This is rarely the case! If you’re writing an analytical essay about a novel or short story, for example, you obviously shouldn’t explain the basics like the plot or characters. You’re writing for someone who’s read the same book as you, but who can’t read your mind. You think that the black pearl in the eponymous John Steinbeck story symbolizes wealth; you think it’s so obvious it doesn’t require explanation. But maybe your reader thinks it represents greed, or capitalism.

Good critical thinkers know how to play devil's advocate.
Good critical thinkers know how to play devil’s advocate.

2. Play devil’s advocate. If you’ve thoroughly explained your case but still find yourself coming up short, take a moment to argue against yourself. Where are the holes or inconsistencies in your interpretation? If someone wanted to prove you wrong, what would they say? Build those arguments as well as you would build your own, and then take the time to address them.

You can even take this method to the extreme by writing an essay that you actually disagree with. This is naturally more difficult to do (unless you’re trying to write something satirical, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”), but it can be a rewarding exercise.

details
It’s the little differences.

3. Use details. Similar to #1, I find students get stuck when they think that details would be boring or nonessential. Taken to an extreme, this is true. Your reader is going to know your game if every time they read about “the issue” it’s “the pressing, complicated, and difficult issue.” But proving an assertion requires details. For example, it might be tempting to summarize Cinderella’s life prior to the intervention of her fairy godmother like this:

Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince.

Sure, this is true, and we’re all familiar enough with the story of Cinderella to be able to fill in the gaps ourselves. But specific details can flesh out your writing, remind the reader of things they’d forgotten, and maybe even bring a fresh perspective to things.

Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince. Her stepmother and stepsisters browbeat her into submission. In some versions of the story, her father still remains as a comfort, but in others he dies soon after his second marriage, leaving Cinderella a defenseless orphan. She has no quarters of her own and spends most of her days hard at work, covered in soot. Not only that, but after she meets the prince, her stepsisters do all they can to keep the two from marrying.

This refreshes the reader’s memory, but from a teaching perspective, it also demonstrates that you’ve actually read the assigned text(s). From a language teaching perspective, it gives us more more opportunities to see you actually use the language.

Watch out! When using details to support an argument, make sure to only choose details relevant to your argument. In other words, resist the urge to summarize the entire novel or essay.

 

Pinocchio

4. Lie. I had a student in my South Korean hagwon days who was usually sullen and unresponsive. Then, one day, after I asked how their weekend was, he started telling me the most ridiculous whopper about having to turn down dates from Beyonce and piloting an aircraft into a crash landing and more that I, sadly, no longer remember. It made my week.

As a language teacher, I don’t care if what you’re writing (especially in a personal essay) is true. Unless we’re doing a unit on research or writing nonfiction, or unless you’re writing a personal essay for admittance to a university or postgraduate program, accuracy is not of primary importance. I just want you to use the language and be comfortable and confident in it.

One thing at a time. / Image courtesy Ryan McGuire.
One thing at a time. / Image courtesy Ryan McGuire.

5. One thing at a time. Your sentence should be about one idea. Your paragraph should be about one idea. The more you narrow your focus on one sentence or paragraph, the more material you can gather for another sentence or paragraph. When you first start writing, especially during a timed assignment, you’ll probably just start to write whatever comes into your mind, in whatever order. It’s important to get it all down first, but you should spend a few minutes to make sure it’s all organized. If your first body paragraph is about the causes of World War I (Franz Ferdinand, secret treaties), there shouldn’t be a stray reason (budding nationalism in the early 20th century) that crops up in paragraph three. If your entire essay is about the causes of World War 1, then give the treaties, the Archduke, and the nationalism each their own paragraph. And so on.

That’s it for my tips on what to do when you run out of ideas in the middle of your essay. Do you have any more tried and true “essay hacks”? Share in the comments or Tweet at me!

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Conversation Classes

People having conversations.
Image courtesy Sascha Kohlmann.

Conversation classes are a popular genre of language courses. People are often insecure when it comes to spontaneous language production (i.e., speaking) and the bravest among them sign up for conversation courses to improve this aspect of their language.

For me, conversation classes are stressful. I’ll be honest with you. As an introvert I have a rich inner life, full of thoughts and observations, but that does not always translate into engaging conversation. In fact, conversation classes are where I’ve felt the most awkward and the least competent.

I’ve developed a method to combat this, but it’s a method that requires some level of student input. If you book me for a conversation class, here’s what will happen.

1. Before our first meeting, I’ll ask you to take a brief online assessment to rate your level within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and send me the results. “Online assessment” sounds scary, but the whole thing only takes around 20 minutes.

2. Our first meeting will be something like a casual interview. I’ll ask about your history with English, your general interests, and your language goals. Take some time before our first meeting to think about your thoughts on these topics (write them down if you want!). Other follow-up questions may naturally occur, but these are the three areas I want to cover first. Specific questions I will touch on include:

  • How do you want me to address error correction? (As it happens? At the end of every lesson? Once a month?)
  • Are you trying to improve your social English? Interviewing? Business presentations? Traveling? Pronunciation?
  • What kind of work, if any, do you want outside of class?
  • Are you currently studying English elsewhere? If so, at what level? What material? What do you like and dislike about the class?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite classes in school? Why?
  • What hobbies and interests do you have? How do you like to spend your free time?
  • How are you currently using English in your everyday life? (E.g. reading blogs, watching movies, meetings with coworkers, etc.)
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of studying?

3. As someone who is not always a sparkling conversationalist, I base my conversation classes (especially in one-on-one classes) on short readings (one page or less). I make every effort to tailor these readings to your interests: beauty, science, health, etc.

Hot tip: you can contribute, too! This is the secret to English conversation class success: bring in material of your own that you felt was interesting, or that you found difficult or confusing. (The Internet is a great resource for English-language material about literally anything.) Have questions prepared for your conversation class sessions, whether about grammar, vocabulary, or just how they spent their weekend. Things are much less awkward that way, especially if you’re studying one-on-one.

4. I will periodically bring grammar or vocabulary exercises based on gaps in knowledge I’ve observed in our conversations. The idea of quizzes, worksheets, and tests can intimidate people—some students opt for “conversation classes” because they find tests and assessments stressful—but periodic testing is one of the most efficient ways to retain and remember new material. This also gives my introvert side a chance to be still and reflect for a few minutes. Don’t worry: the focus of a conversation class with me is still always on speaking and conversing.

My goal in any conversation class is two-fold: to build up and maintain your confidence in speaking, and to provide you with tools that will enable you to speak more fluently and more precisely.

If this sounds like a conversation class that’s your speed, you can email me (in the right-hand column over there) and book a time. I hope to see you soon!

Thoughts on DuoLingo

There are lots of free online language-learning tools, but the one I see used most often is DuoLingo, so that’s where I’m going to start in my survey of web-based language portals.

What Is DuoLingo?

DuoLingo is a free language-learning website and app. Today, I’m only focusing on the website, as that’s what I use myself.

As of now, you can use the site in 21 different languages and study up to 16. It looks like the native English version of the site has the most languages available out of any other, including niche offerings like Welsh or Esperanto. For everyone else, the choice is a little more limited and is usually English. I think it’s pretty safe to infer that many of DuoLingo’s users are using it to learn English.

Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo
Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo

DuoLingo is built on translating simple sentences. Exactly what is available seems to depend on the language, but the basics include:

  • translating a sentence from the target language into your native language, and vice versa
  • multiple choice questions
  • simple clozes (fill-in-the-blanks)
  • dictation

In some lessons there’s also a speaking portion, if you care to use your mic. (I don’t have it in Russian, but my partner has it in Italian.)

DuoLingo is free to use.

What Do I Like About DuoLingo?

It’s free! And for being free it’s a pretty great resource. It attempts to address all four areas of language acquisition (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and every exercise has a discussion thread attached to it, allowing you to get feedback from experts and native speakers about why a particular answer is or isn’t correct. DuoLingo’s userbase is so large that any question you ask will probably be answered fairly quickly.

Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.
Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.

The focus of each lesson is also sufficiently narrow to keep from overwhelming the true beginner, while the level tests allow a false beginner to skip ahead to an appropriate level/lesson instead of going over the basics yet again. And it generally seems pretty forgiving on spelling (unless spelling is an essential part of the grammar).

DuoLingo also encourages daily practice. In whichever language you study, you set yourself a goal of how many points you want to earn a day. You can set it low if you want to keep things casual, or if you’re serious you can set it quite high. If you use Chrome (or Chromium) and allow DuoLingo to use your alerts, the site will nag you if you haven’t hit your daily goal yet. You also get rewarded for streaks.

DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.
DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.

Finally, the whole thing is built on daily practice and a spaced repetition model. The site shows you exactly which areas you need to review and which you don’t, according to models that I assume are based on your previous performance and how long it’s been since you reviewed a particular lesson.

How I'm doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review "prepositions and place," "family," "people 2," and "nature."
How I’m doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review “Prepositions and Place,” “Family,” “People 2,” and “Nature.”

What Don’t I Like About DuoLingo?

It focuses almost exclusively on simple sentences, or at most two or three. This is fine for learning new vocabulary or grammatical structures, but won’t help your long-form reading (or writing) skills. Also, some of the sentences are surreal to the point of uselessness. (“There are many problems from his houses.” is one that springs to mind from the Russian for English speakers series.)

I believe language acquisition works best when you’re able to use it talk about, well, you! Yourself and things you care about. With DuoLingo, you are an incredibly passive participant, with zero input into the direction of the lessons.

The quality of lessons also seem to be inconsistent across languages. There are lots of cool options available to my partner in the Italian tree that I don’t have in Russian, like using lingots to purchase bonus lessons on idioms or pick-up lines. Likewise, I can’t guarantee the quality of any other lesson, because it seems to depend at least partially on your native language.

Verdict

DuoLingo is really good for learning vocabulary and essential grammar concepts. But no matter what your level is, you should be supplementing it with other material: music, movies, or podcasts; short stories, essays, or news articles; conversation classes or Skype sessions; writing your own work. These last options require clear and useful feedback, something a good teacher can provide.

Want conversation practice or feedback on your writing? Email me from the sidebar or tweet @KobaEnglish and we can set something up.

National Poetry Month 2016: Great Lyricists

Musician On Stage
Music is a great way to enjoy poetry. // Image courtesy insouciance on Flickr.

In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.

There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:

The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.

or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:

When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.

Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.

Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.

It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:

My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:

Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.

You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.

(“Uncle Walter”)

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”

Twenty-five years,
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
It’s time.”

(“Fred Jones Part 2)

Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.

Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.

I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.

For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.

(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)

How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?

I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.

(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)

They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.

I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?

Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Anki

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

600px-Spelling_icon.svg
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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

How's your English listening?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Håkan Dahlström

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]

Back: ship

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]

Back: 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

Tips for studying English grammar with Anki.

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!

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Doors

I was an introvert before it was cool. It’s something I intuitively knew about myself almost from the beginning, though I didn’t find the word for it until a quiz I took in a glossy preteen magazine: “Are you an innie or an outie?”

open-sky
No one in sight? Finally, I can relax! (Image courtesy Ryan McGuire at Gratisography)

This means a lot of things for teaching in general and how I run my business specifically, but for now I want to touch on one of the smaller aspects of it: doors.

I bring all of my tutoring to you. That’s one of the conveniences of hiring a private tutor. And in my work I’ve been to a lot of apartment buildings, and all of those buildings have doors. Self-evident. Not all of these buildings have the same philosophy about front doors. Not so self-evident.

Sometimes the front doors are unlocked when I come to visit, and I can just let myself in. (My own apartment building, for example, locks the front door at something like 8:30 or 9:00 PM.) Other times the front doors need a key code to unlock them. In this case, people give me the code ahead of time and I can let myself in as if it were unlocked. These are my favorite front door philosophies: minimal fuss.

Other buildings have no means of allowing a non-resident instantaneous access. This is where I start to sweat things. Not because I always have to contact a customer to get in—after a few lessons, it feels as natural to text a customer as it does one of my friends. What sets my introvert nerves on edge is that there is always the possibility for a wildcard factor to disrupt the routine: someone else trying to let me into the building.

Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions.
Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Dakota L.)

In this kind of front door situation, the “let me in” text message functions as a sort of courtesy: “I’m here! Time to put your pants on and clean up a bit!” It quickly becomes expected (at least, it would feel that way for me, if the roles were reversed). Bypassing that courtesy and showing right up at the door feels a little…untoward. Unfair. But then ignoring someone holding the door open for me also feels rude, and simply telling them, “Nej, det är lugnt, tack.” opens up a whole possible conversation that I am not prepared to have. “Yes, it IS biting cold out, but the person I’m here to see will let me in soon and I’d rather she let me in on her own terms than I turn up randomly on her doorstep. Yes, she’s expecting me, but still.” So far, I’ve just said nothing and fiddled with my phone, like I’m waiting for someone to come meet me. It’s worked pretty well.

Every time I arrive at an apartment complex of this last variety I experience a small moment of panic: will I have those five or ten seconds to myself? Or will I have to navigate an imaginary conflict of manners over the door?

Why The Raven?

The logo you see on the site here and on Twitter is a silhouette of a bird. If you’re a birding type, you might recognize it as a raven. It’s a choice that can seem random and unrelated to English, but upon closer inspection makes sense on a couple of levels.

“Koba,” my family name, is a lot of things in a lot of languages; one of them is reportedly an old Slavic word for “raven.” (Not being an expert in Slavic linguistics, I can neither confirm nor deny this.)

But more than that, they are also intelligent and chatty little things. Did you know that they can be taught to mimic human speech? A quick search on YouTube will turn up pages of videos of talking ravens. By all measurable accounts, they also display theory of mind — a complex cognitive progress that requires fairly high-level, abstract thinking.

800px-Common_Raven_at_Byrce_National_Park
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Peter Wallack

But even before we started putting them in box experiments, humans seemed to understand that ravens were crafty. In Norse mythology, Odin’s two ravens (Hugin and Mugin, representing “thought” and “memory”) scoured Midgard and reported all the latest news and happenings back to him. In the American Indian tribes of the Southwest, raven is part of the creation myth, bringing light to humans out of the cosmos. Other nations see the raven as a clever trickster. In Greek mythology, before Athena kept the owl as her sacred animal, it was the raven. (Raven lost the job because he couldn’t keep secrets!)

Illuminating birds tied to communication, memory, and thought — all very appropriate for language-related endeavors, yes?

Koba English is Born

Welcome to the new home on the web for Koba English (that’s me!). While the important stuff, like editing rates, tutoring availability, and contact information, will stay on the static pages, this blog space will be for news and other transient things: thoughts on language, book recommendations and reviews, the occasional goofy photo. I’ll get the ball rolling with a goofy photo:

bloggerprofile

There I am, out visiting the sheep on a farm in Uppsala in 2010. Très chic, n’est-ce pas?