Short Stories for EFL: 5 Online Resources

What do you do when newspaper articles are too short, but whole novels are too intimidating? Pick up a short story! And now, thanks to the Internet, there are plenty that you can find for free.

At least in the anglophone world, short stories aren’t quite as popular today as their longer counterparts. Not counting back issues of magazines like Analog or Asimov, I’ve read exactly one short story collection in the past three years and counting. I suspect this is a trend in most languages today: people are more interested in long-form novels rather than short fiction collections.

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles
Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles.

But while they might not be your usual cup of tea in your mother tongue, short stories are perfect for reading practice in a new language. The language isn’t scaled down like in typical journalism, so it’s a great place to find higher level or more niche vocabulary (useful if you’re studying for something like IELTS) and to grapple with the more complicated aspects of English grammar (again, useful if you’re studying for something like IELTS).

The Internet is absolutely full of free short stories. What follows here are the sites that I think are the best for EFL students, whether because they include audio files, simplified language, or just a large variety of writers and genres.

1. ManyThings.org
ManyThings.org takes a lot of its material from the Voice of America, which means that it’s inherently very America-centric. This is no less true for their selection of short stories, which are all also public domain. It would normally be a challenge to study such (relatively) old stories, but these are all presented in VOA’s “special English,” which is to say that they’ve been adapted (somewhat) into simpler, more modern English. This resource is especially useful for beginner and lower intermediate students. Advanced students might not find it particularly challenging, in which case they might want to find the original versions of the stories listed, or move on to one of the other sites on the list.

2. StoryNory.com
While the stories at ManyThings are adapted from literary short stories for adults, StoryNory features folk and fairy tales aimed at children. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting, however! Their stories come from all over the world, from Ghana to Russia to China to the Philippines. Like ManyThings, StoryNory also includes an audio file with each story.

3. ESLbits.net
ESLbits is a really fantastic resource. The short story collection is extensive and comes with sound files, and if you run out of those you can move on to novellas (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) or even full-length novels. None of the English in these has been adapted (as far as I can tell), so I would recommend this for the upper intermediate and advanced learners. Both British and American writers are represented, and the selection is a little more modern than on ManyThings.

4. ClassicShorts.com
ClassicShorts is a site targeted to native language readers rather than EFL readers, so they haven’t been adapted and also don’t include any sound files. You can search their library by story title or by author name. They have a lot of goodies that are somewhere between ManyThings and ESLbits in terms of age.

5. EServer.org
Eserver is a project of Iowa State University; their goal is to create an accessible online compendium of writing in a variety of topics. This includes a host of short stories, but they also have novels and poetry. Like ClassicShorts, this resource isn’t aimed exclusively at EFL learners, so you’ll find the pieces in their original English and without any sound files. This one and ClassicShorts.com are best saved for upper-intermediate and advanced learners.

So there you have it: more than enough short stories to round out your reading practice! Let me know which ones are your favorite! (My own favorite short stories are, of course, fodder for another post.)

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Phones

Does anyone like talking on the phone these days? It doesn’t seem like it.

I contributed more than my fair share to the phone bill as a teenager, thanks to summer camp friends who lived a few area codes over. I never stressed over making those calls, or having to exchange brief niceties with a parent or sibling, or leaving a message on the answering machine.

Image courtesy Lia
Image courtesy Lia

But something about the phone changed, and I don’t know what it was. Maybe the introduction of the cell phone–now people can be anywhere when you call them. That seems trivial and unrelated until you think about all of the new ambient noise that includes. Before, if you called someone’s landline, they would actually have to be home to take the call. Even the loudest family, I think, isn’t as loud or as sound distorting as traffic or crowds. Also, it might be my imagination, but the sound quality on a cell phone is a little (or a lot, depending on your reception) worse than a landline. Ambient noise + iffy quality + the never-ending problems with poor reception = a lot of “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Maybe it was growing up. By college I connected with friends via the Internet instead of the phone. The phone was now either for chores or for tedium: booking appointments, telemarketers, calling into work sick, etc. Phone calls meant I was getting called in to cover on my day off or something equally unpleasant.

Whatever the reason(s), by adulthood I had a proper aversion to using the phone. Anxiety, even, would not be far off the mark. Even as an introvert, my friends and social connections are important to me; much as I love my hidey-hole, once in a while I need some company to share it with. I love hosting parties and lecturing people about my niche interest. (Do you want to know about caves? The subjunctive mood? Greek mythology? I’m your woman.) This enthusiasm surprises people sometimes, and they wrongly assume I’m an extrovert. Nope nope nope. Outside of a controlled scenario that includes boundaries and scripts, I’m a mess. Surprise interactions with new people are stressful, not exhilarating. And “surprise interactions with new people” pretty much defines telephone calls.

Now I’m a freelancer. People need to be able to get in touch with me, so I include my phone number in all of my advertisements. This means I have to be open to random phone calls at any point during the day. Not only that, but phone calls from strangers and unknown numbers–calls that, as a student, I could afford to screen. Especially since an unknown number usually meant some kind of marketing scheme or other. Not anymore. Now that unknown number might help me pay the bills or have dinner. (Or it might be the tax office, which is not nearly as profitable but nonetheless important.) Someone once said that you should do one thing every day that scares you. For me, it’s answering my phone. (Hah, if only I were getting daily calls from new customers!)

Image courtesy DodgertonSkillhause
Image courtesy DodgertonSkillhause

Of course, with the advent of cell phones came texting. A godsend. A text message isn’t instantaneous–it’s only as fast as you can text–which is sometimes an issue, but it has the advantage of permanence. If you give me directions over the phone, I’ll have to scramble to write them down or ask you to repeat them a few times to make sure I won’t get lost. If you text me, I can just open up the message and access that information anytime I want. I can take all the time I need to formulate my response without seeming rude or inattentive.

Fortunately, most other people seem to be in the same boat as me. Whether it’s because of the tension in my tone, or because of their own personal preferences, a new customer almost immediately switches to text messages after the initial phone call. Is it because more and more people have developed an aversion to phone calls? Is it because we’re all immigrants struggling with a shared foreign language? Have I lucked out and attracted a client base with a similar temperament to mine?

I don’t know, but keep on texting.

 

Take This MOOC: Learning How to Learn

First of all, what is a MOOC? “MOOC” stands for Massive Open Online Course: free courses you can take online, usually alongside dozens, maybe hundreds of other classmates from around the world. They’re created by professors at prestigious universities and experts in the field and usually consist of video lectures, readings, and homework assignments.

Whenever I have a lull in my schedule, I like to see if there are any MOOCs coming up that pique my interest. I’m a member of Coursera.org, but I hear that edx.org also has a lot of great classes and will be looking into it in the future. MOOCs can be hit or miss, so I thought I’d collect some of the hits here.

The first MOOC I’d like to recommend is Coursera’s Learning How to Learn. It was created by Dr. Barb Oakley and Dr. Terry Sejnowski and is offered on Coursera via UC San Diego.

In my experience, it’s really easy for MOOCs to fail. There are two traps they end up falling into: (1) spoonfeeding you almost no information, or (2) throwing you in the deep end right away. Learning How to Learn charts a middle course; it might even err towards spoonfeeding, but because the information is immediately applicable to learning and habits generally, it maintained my interest throughout the course. The videos were short and punchy, making them the perfect thing to watch while taking a break from something else. There are quizzes with every module, but to be honest they are low stress and not excessively challenging. They’re clearly designed to repeat and reinforce information rather than to challenge students or freak them out.

Learning How to Learn covers these areas:

  • What is learning?
  • Chunking
  • Procrastination and memory
  • Renaissance learning and unlocking your potential

The video lectures are in English, but if you’re not comfortable enough to take an entire course in English, the subtitles have been translated into a variety of languages: Arabic, French, Russian, and Chinese (among others). As far as I’m aware, the quizzes are still in English, though I could be wrong.

The most helpful parts for me came in the third week (procrastination!) and in the weekly email digests. I finished the class long ago, but I still get the weekly “Cheery Friday Greetings” newsletter. Normally email newsletters are not my bag, but Dr. Oakley and Dr. Sejnowski manage to dig up a lot of great book recommendations on memory, learning, and psychology—it’s a really great free source, in my opinion, especially for anyone studying or teaching a foreign language.

Overall it’s a casual but nonetheless helpful MOOC that I think anyone, especially students, can immediately apply to their lives. Take it! Let me know what you think!

Happy Birthday!

And right after Midsommar, there’s me. 🙂 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!

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First of all, when I talk about “Lang-8,” I’m talking exclusively about the free version. I don’t have a premium membership—quite frankly, I don’t feel I need one, and I’ll come back to that later—so 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—weirdly enough, any entry, not just ones you wrote—along 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—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.

Lang83
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 “стакан” (stakan):

Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. Стакан 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?

duolingo-glass-tea

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—the “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo—is 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 стакан 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?