Happy Birthday!

And right after Midsommar, there’s me. ūüôā Today was a quiet day, with kladdkaka, tempura, and alcohol.

Kladdkaka poses another interesting translation challenge. It literally means something like “gooey cake,” but I think we can agree that reading that in a description of a party would be distracting at the very least! A “gooey cake,” in my mind, is a half-melted Carvel ice cream cake. (Though of course we all know those things never melt.)

Image courtesy Erik Borläv
Image courtesy Erik Borläv

This is not the kladdkaka I had, of course. This is perhaps a bit too dry and fluffy to be truly¬†kladdig,¬†but it’s close enough.

Kladdkakor are also traditionally chocolate. But a chocolate cake isn’t necessarily a kladdkaka. Because an inherent aspect of a kladdkaka is the gooey nature of it; “kladdig” just sounds a bit more exotic and appealing than “gooey.”

A brownie cake, perhaps? A fudge cake? A brownie fudge cake? Whatever you call it, it’s my favorite Swedish dessert.

Thoughts on Lang-8

If you’re confused about what Lang-8 is, you can refer to my (very!) brief Lang-8 orientation guide. But if you’ve given it a test drive and want my thoughts¬†on its value as an educational tool, read on!


First of all, when I talk about “Lang-8,” I’m talking exclusively about the free version. I don’t have a premium membership‚ÄĒquite frankly, I don’t feel I need one, and I’ll come back to that later‚ÄĒso everything in here refers to the free experience. The two aren’t really substantially different, anyway.

While language study is often broken down into four discrete arenas (speaking, writing, listening, and reading), the truth is that all four interact with each other. Even if your focus is on speaking or listening instead of writing, spending some time on your writing will help strengthen all other areas. And overall, Lang-8 is a great resource for practicing your writing. You can post a journal entry and for free it will show up in front of thousands of eyes. There are nearly 200,000 users who have given Russian as their native language and English as their language of study, for example. I can put up an exercise and get corrections within hours. My journal entries average something around 100 views (each), with corrections from 12 or 13 different people.

I don’t even know 12 native Russian speakers here in Stockholm!

But the biggest strength of Lang-8 for me is also related to its greatest drawback: anyone can join and correct your writing.

I have seen some poor English corrections in my day, and while some of this can be written off due to varying¬†levels of pedantry or different philosophies on which errors are “worth” correcting and the goals of writing (to be grammatically perfect? to be grammatically perfect¬†and natural-sounding? to just be comprehensible?), some of it seems to come down to the fact that native speakers don’t often have a firm grasp of the rules¬†of their own language.

Never mind how often a user has misunderstood the author’s intention and provided a correction that substantially changes the phrase’s intended meaning.

This means that you will sometimes get differing or even conflicting corrections. Sometimes users will comment on their corrections and explain their reasoning, but more often than not they don’t. If you don’t have a guide on hand, it can be impossible to understand which of these corrections is the best one, or is actually counter what you were trying to communicate in the first place.

This is where a good teacher or tutor comes in. They can sit with you in real time to make sure they understand exactly what you wanted to say and show you which corrections can help you say that, and which ones would mean something totally different.¬†They can explain why “go on a walk” and “take a walk” are okay but “take on a walk” isn’t. If you aren’t in a position to take a class or hire a private tutor, then you should¬†supplement your Lang-8 corrections with a good grammar book and a good usage guide. (More on those in a later post.)

Despite this, Lang-8 is a powerful tool for your language acquisition; even more so because it’s available for free. There are premium features available for paying users ($7 US/month or $63 US/year), some of which are quite useful, but the site is most definitely¬†very usable and helpful if you’d rather stick with the free version. These are the three features that would most likely get me to upgrade:

  1. The biggest limit on free users is probably the number of languages you’re allowed to study. For paying users, it’s unlimited; for free users, it’s just two. (I chose Russian and Korean.) Sure, there are other writing exchange networking sites out there, but Lang-8 is huge; it’d be easier to have all of your language learning on one site than cobbling together a patchwork of resources. For the price, I think it’s a good value for the language nerds out there.

2. Another premium option that might be worth paying for is the ability to download entries‚ÄĒweirdly enough, any entry, not just ones you wrote‚ÄĒalong with their corrections as PDFs, so that you can study them offline. While we live in a digital age, I’m the first to advocate for dead trees and pencils. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for taking notes and marking things by hand. And the PDFs are surprisingly well formatted and clear to follow, instead of some kind of ugly screen shot.

3. And finally, paying users have the ability to search their¬†own journal. I don’t have enough entries yet that I really need a search function, but if you give yourself a daily or even weekly writing goal, your journal entries are going to start racking up pretty quickly. I can see that being¬†very useful.

Overall, Lang-8 is a powerful free resource for developing your writing in English (or any other language you wish to study). It’s not without drawbacks, but in the absence a language course or tutor, it’s the next best thing for your writing.

Have you tried Lang-8? What do you think? Share your profile here or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish)!

Using Lang-8

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.

How journal entries from your Lang-8 friends look on your homepage.
How journal entries from your Lang-8 friends look on your homepage. On the right you can see your stats and your latest entries.
Scroll down and you'll see posts from the entire site, rather than just your friends.
Scroll down and you’ll see posts from the entire site, rather than just your friends.

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‚ÄĒyou write and you correct directly in the browser, instead of uploading or downloading documents‚ÄĒthere 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.

A journal entry on Lang-8 waiting for corrections.

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.)

The corrections interface on Lang-8.
The corrections interface on Lang-8.

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.

Sentences I haven't begun to correct yet in Lang-8.
Sentences I haven’t begun to correct yet in Lang-8.

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.

Corrections with comments and votes on a Lang-8 entry.
Corrections with comments and votes on a Lang-8 entry.

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.

The corrections interface on Lang-8.
The corrections interface on Lang-8. Here, two different users made corrections to the first sentence and only one user made corrections to the second.

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!


Book Review: Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary

Authors: Timothy Rasinski, Nacy Padak, Rick M. Newton, Evangeline Newton

Genre: Specialist non-fiction

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.44

Target audience: English teachers and etymology nerds

Topic matter: The classical roots of English vocabulary

In-depth thoughts:¬†If my affixes series didn’t make it abundantly clear, I’m a big fan of teaching (at appropriate levels) etymology along with vocabulary. A solid background in prefixes, suffixes, and¬†bases¬†helps EFL students learn words quicker and easier. This is the philosophy of Rasinski, Padak, Newton, and Newton, the authors of¬†Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary.

Image courtesy Shell Education
Image courtesy Shell Education

This is a must for any English teacher, EFL or otherwise. English looks random and chaotic on the surface, so the more systems teachers can provide for their students, the better.¬†Greek and Latin Roots does a very thorough job on how and why teachers of every grade and ability level should focus on classical roots when teaching English, with numerous activities and even a couple of sample lessons. They also provide a brief history of the development of English, useful for placing certain words and constructions in context. (My only quibble here is they have the usual breathless “Shakespeare invented so many words!” history¬†without considering the context in which he was writing, but this is a book on teaching vocabulary and not a comprehensive history of English, so it’s easily ignored.)

As Greek and Latin Roots¬†is a book for teachers, it might not be immediately useful for¬†students, except for the appendixes. Appendix A has recommendations for student resources, both digital and dead tree. The recommendations in Appendix B are¬†intended for teachers, but students might still find the word lists and puzzles helpful. Appendix C is a goldmine: a good, foundational list of classical word roots, arranged alphabetically. Finally, Appendix D has a collection¬†of English’s many loan words from other languages categorized by language or language family. (There’s also Appendix E, but that’s a professional development section intended specifically for teachers who want to hone their craft.)

If you’re a word nerd interested in the¬†history of English words rather than how to teach them, David Crystal has some recommendations.

Literal Translations Versus Fixed Phrases

When is a cup not a cup? When is a glass not a glass? Does it depend on what’s inside?¬†What is the balance between literal translation and the adoption of fixed, familiar phrases in the target language?

For example, if a native English speaker were to offer someone tea, there would be a number of different ways to do it. Outlining all of them here would be tedious and beside the point, but I want to focus on which vessel would be named (if named at all). Pop quiz! Fill in the blank:

“Would you like a _____ of tea?”

And let’s put aside partitives like “bit” or “spot”; let’s look specifically at “cup” and “glass.” Is there one you prefer?

For me, and I think for many native speakers, the appropriate semantic unit for tea is¬†a cup. It’s what flows (ha, ha) naturally. And, indeed, we usually have tea in solid, opaque drinking vessels that can’t rightly be said to be made of¬†glass.

Image courtesy Miya

So the discussion over on DuoLingo’s Russian partitive lesson about glass and tea is fascinating and (as of this blog post) has over 100 comments!

Here is the explanation of the vocabulary word “—Ā—ā–į–ļ–į–Ĺ” (stakan):

Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. –°—ā–į–ļ–į–Ĺ is what you call a “glass” in English: typically, a cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle.

But when faced with an expression that would literally be translated as “a glass of tea,” should you translate the words literally, or translate the concept of “a vessel of tea” into the most common and most likely English phrase?


Of course, the point of DuoLingo is to teach you vocabulary and¬†grammar, not to teach you how to translate longer pieces of writing in context. To that end, it sacrifices a natural-sounding English answer to drive home the difference (in Russian) between a “glass” and a “cup.”

But for many users (myself included) it just feels…wrong. This question has a few simultaneous discussions of essentially this issue; this one is the most typical and the most informative.

duolingo-glass-tea-2 duolingo-glass-tea-3


Things also segued into how tea is consumed globally, with users from other parts of the world (north Africa and Turkey, among others) pointing out that having tea in a glass‚ÄĒthe “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo‚ÄĒis commonplace where they live.

Black tea in Turkey. // Image courtesy Henri Bergius

So if DuoLingo is insisting on a subtlety that sounds unnatural to many English speakers because of the customs of our particular countries (to have tea in one kind of vessel but not other), how about in translation? If I’m reading a story where the character in the original Russian has a —Ā—ā–į–ļ–į–Ĺ of tea, has something of the nuance or subtlety been lost if the translator chose “cup of tea” instead of “glass of tea”? Is the purpose of a translation to remain as literally faithful as possible to an original (to translate), or to take a story and convey its concepts in the most natural way possible in a target language (to localize)?

I think the same day I stumbled over this thorny issue on DuoLingo, someone¬†shared an article from the New York Review of Books on new attitudes on Russian to English translation and the work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the same issue writ large; it’s moved from mere teacups and glasses to entire sentences and syntax.¬†It’s turtles all the way down, only instead of turtles it’s semantics.

There is also the question, again, of who an English translation is really for. Considering the prevalence of English worldwide (and the fact that non-native speakers vastly outnumber the native speakers), I don’t think we can rightly claim that an English translation is first and foremost for native speakers. Should native ear qualms over a¬†glass of tea, or larger issues of “awkwardness” or clunkiness, really matter?


My Favorite Books of 2015, According to GoodReads

It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking.¬†One of my favorite record-keeping¬†tools is GoodReads.¬†Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify.¬†Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite¬†books in a given year? What did I read the most of?

My Favorite Books of 2015

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles

I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite¬†recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and P√§r Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).

February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across¬†Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.

What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart:¬†The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic of Cancer, and¬†Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature.¬†Under the Volcano¬†is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.


May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I think the only reason¬†A Tale for the Time Being¬†isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.

In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.

Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.

Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five¬†different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.

A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)

If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy,¬†A Tale for the Time Being is for you.


December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library.¬†“Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of¬†The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like¬†A Tale for the Time Being, I think¬†We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.

We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s¬†Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample,¬†you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.


December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between.¬†Barabbas¬†is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.

Barabbas is the story of¬†Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.

What were your favorite books that you read in 2015? Are you on GoodReads? If you like, you can follow me there.