More, Different Journaling

It kind of breaks my heart that I only found Lynda Barry’s journaling model  after my transition into full-time corporate translation, but nonetheless I’m glad I found it at all. The conceit is simple: you fill your diary with things you did, things you saw, things you overheard, and some doodles. Here’s Barry’s template:

Image courtesy Lynda Barry

As an avid journaler myself (my private online blog has been going since 2003!), this idea of breaking through the cruft of the daily grind to capture moments of presence really appeals to me. To quote directly:

What goes into your diary are things that you noticed when you became present—that is to say when the hamster wheel of thoughts and plans and worries stopped long enough for you to notice where you were and what was going on around you.

It goes without saying that this journaling model makes for an excellent EFL instructional tool as well. It seems that Barry includes drawings because this is an assignment for a comics class she teaches; in other words, it’s an activity that was designed with visual artists in mind. EFL students who aren’t so artistically inclined might prefer a different activity, maybe one like listing three things that they learned that day (the question my mother would ask me and my brother at dinner most days, and the reminder she gives us now and again as adults: “Don’t forget to learn three new things today!”). With younger learners it might also be fun to make it into a senses diary: three things you saw, three things you heard, three things you smelled, three things you touched, and three things you tasted.

Hat tip to The Englishist, one of my favorite teacher blogs to follow, for linking to this activity.

EFL Activities: Battleship

Bird's eye view of a sunken battleship in clear blue water.
Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

It seems a bit silly to post my one and only worthwhile contribution to EFL classroom activities after I’ve officially made the transition into full-time translation work, but here we are!

A thing that hung me up in my initial teaching days and throughout my training was drilling. (My old CELTA lesson plans have “DRILL BABY DRILL” sprinkled throughout, a testament to my natural inclination to go light on this part.) No one wants to bore students or waste their time with something they already know. Isn’t it more fun to get to the open-ended, communicative activities?

Well, sure, but those activities are a lot more fun once you’re confident in the target form or pattern, and building that confidence the raison d’etre of drilling. While I think the fear teachers have of boring students through drilling (no pun intended but I’m proud of myself) are largely overblown, there’s no denying it can get repetitive.

My own solution to this is simple: Battleship.

Battleship sample board (.doc) download.

I’m genuinely surprised I haven’t played more Battleship in my language studies. Out of easily a dozen language instructors I’ve had, only one teacher has ever bothered to use it. Hat tip to Herr Fuelling, then, I guess, for planting the seeds of this idea over half a lifetime ago!

You can adapt Battleship for any number of topics and use it in classes of any size, even one-on-one tutoring sessions. The original version is a great way to practice simple letters and numbers with beginners, while the sample above is what I use to practice regular verb conjugations (in particular, the present simple). With more complicated X- and Y-axis values you can tackle more advanced aspects like irregular verbs, prepositions, and conditional statements.

I find that Battleship is a helpful bridge between simple cloze exercises and totally open-ended student-produced speaking or writing, especially in students who need more work on their productive skills (or who simply need some training wheels to develop their confidence). It’s a little more demanding and creative than a simple worksheet, but by relieving students of the cognitive burden of “making stuff up” it helps them focus on how to use the language correctly. The game itself is also straightforward and easy to grasp; if a student hasn’t ever played Battleship before, they’ll get the hang of it after just a few rounds. There is a natural analogue in Bingo, but Battleship doesn’t require lots of fussy little pieces to bother with: just some printed board sheets and you’re good to go.

Haiku, Tanka, and Studying English

old pond / frog leaps in / water’s sound
 (Photo by Ghost Presenter on Unsplash)

So, yes, I’m not normally a big fan of poetry, either reading or writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize their usefulness. While originally Japanese,  haiku and tanka have become something of a new tradition in English poetry and are nonetheless useful for learning English.

For a quick refresher: haiku are the short, three-line poems with a strict syllabic pattern (5-7-5). Tanka are a slightly longer form (5-7-5-7-7). There are other rules and traditions about “cutting words” and referring to the seasons, but that’s some next-level haiku-ing. In teaching, I focus exclusively on syllable count.

Forcing students to count syllables in words has a couple of effects. More than anything else, it makes them slow down, and as a result they pay closer attention to the word: how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, how it sounds. This can be especially useful with students who struggle with spelling; seeing how multiple letters can combine into just one sound can help cement some of the trickier English graphemes in their memory. It can also help build morpheme awareness, since students will be focusing on each individual part of the word.

Reading and writing haiku or tanka is also a great moment to talk about stress and emphasis. Even if stress isn’t important in haiku itself, a natural follow-up question to something like “How many syllables are in ‘refreshing’?” is “Where is the emphasis?”.

Moving to a higher level of language instruction, the short nature of haiku and tanka, and the puzzle-like aspect of fitting words together to fit the prescribed length, make them great writing exercises for students who are less inherently verbal or who normally struggle with what to say. If you go a step further towards a “genuine” haiku and require a student to use a term from the saijiki, the prescribed word list that references a particular time of year (link is an Archive.org link to an English translation), then you can even provide a jumping-off point to get them started. Not to mention using the saijiki is a creative way for novice students to reinforce new vocabulary related to the natural world: seasons, plants, animals, the weather, etc.

And no matter what the language level, the arbitrary syllable count restrictions force students to search for different words and different ways to express things than what just initially comes to mind. If they want a 5-syllable line to read “beautiful summer day,” that won’t work, but can they think of any synonyms for “beautiful” that are only two syllables long? If they really want to keep “beautiful,” then they’ll have to compromise on “summer”  or even “day,” depending on what the rest of the poem is. How can they do it?

Finally, because they’re so short, writing tanka and haiku is just fun. It’s rewarding to be able to sit down and, a few minutes later, have a complete poem! It’s the perfect activity for when students (and teachers 😉 ) need encouragement or a bit of instant gratification.

Memorizing

A Caucasian hand holding a small sheet of paper with a typewritten poem.
Photo by Sarah Brink on Unsplash

Much like meditation a few years ago, enough disparate pieces that I’ve read have talked about the benefits of memorizing poetry that I’ve decided to give it a shot. Because I don’t have enough to do in my life!

Most of my experience with memorization has been with music. I took piano lessons for ten years, and during those ten years I had a piano recital every six months where I’d be expected to perform at least one, and usually two or three, pieces from memory. I also did a three-year stint in marching band, which involved memorizing music alongside drills.

Memorizing poetry? Not so much. It was part of an assignment for freshman year poetry class, and I can’t remember any of the poems I chose to memorize and recite in front of the class. (Except the William Carlos Williams one about the red wheelbarrow and the chickens. Everyone padded out their line count with that poem. The professor was real sick of it by the end of the semester.) The only other time was when I had to recite a short extract from Eugene Onegin for an intercollegiate Russian competition. I did poorly in the competition, but it stuck a little longer with me than the freshman year poetry. Years after my working knowledge of Russian all but vanished, it was still satisfying to be able to repeat the first two lines to myself. Vesna, vesna, pora lyubvi…

As it turns out, memorizing anything is just good brain practice. There’s no doubt a value in it for EFL and foreign language students as well: new vocabulary, examples of complex or confusing grammar points you can call to mind immediately, and engagement with the language culture on a more meaningful level. Wolf also nods to slightly more drastic reasoning in Proust and The Squid: 

On almost any occasion, [my children’s eighty-six-year-old Jewish grandmother, Lotte Noam] can supply an appropriate three-stanza poem from Rilke, a passage from Goethe, or a bawdy limerick—to the infinite delight of her grandsons. Once, in a burst of envy, I asked Lotte how she could ever memorize so many poems and jokes. She answered simply, “I always wanted to have something no one could take away if I was ever put into a concentration camp.”

So after reading about memorization, and specifically poetry memorization, I decided to make a point of committing a few poems to memory. Because I’m a classics nerd, I started with a handful of the Orphic Hymns. It went surprisingly well; the next challenge will probably be in a language besides English. Karin Boye? Goethe? Brushing up on my Pushkin?

Part of the trick is finding poetry I like, and that’s a pretty tall order.

Thoughts on Glossika

I first heard about Glossika from one of my fellow language nerds (who also happens to be a former English teacher). Glossika is the brain child of Mike Campbell, an EFL teacher based out of Taiwan. What started as a personal project to map Chinese dialects has become an online resource for language students in almost any language pair imaginable.

A screenshot of a pull-down menu full of source language options on Glossika.

Note that I haven’t looked at the English content specifically; this is based off of my own Korean studies. That’s where all my screenshots will be coming from.

Glossika’s learning model focuses explicitly on sentence level patterns. The foundation of the course is repeating, out loud, sentences in the target language (with a source language translation so you have a rough idea of what you’re saying).

A screenshot of a typical Glossika study session.

The recordings are native (or fluent) speakers reading the lines at a natural pace. This is a huge improvement over the sometimes-jerky robot voice in DuoLingo, and even slightly outshines the option in Clozemaster. But since Glossika’s philosophy is that language starts with speaking, it’s no surprise that they’d invest the time and money in high-quality audio files.

You can (and should) mark easy sentences with the smiley face in the lower right; you can mark sentences you want to really focus on with the heart in the upper right. The red flag can be used to signal when there’s something wrong with a sentence, and the gear icon opens the settings menu. From there, you can adjust the audio speed, whether or not you hear a recording of the source language as well, how quickly the audio plays, and how much time you have after to repeat the phrase out loud. I turned off the source language recording, kept the target language speed at 100%, and gave myself maximum time afterwards for repeating the target phrase (four times the length of the native speaker recording).

There are other exercises to reinforce what you’ve learned, including a cloze exercise:

Screenshot of a cloze exercise on Glossika

Translation:

Screenshot of a translation activity on Glossika

And dictation:

 

As you can probably infer from the “play” button featured in all of these exercises, audio is an integral part of this supplementary training. Glossika is big on speaking and big on listening.

Both the default sessions and the supplementary exercises drill very heavily, so you’ll hear the same sentences over and over again. This is a necessary evil, but it means that the sessions can sometimes feel a bit dull, or like you’re treading water. You need to find the right balance between losing motivation and marking too many sentences as “easy” for your own good, and that balance is different for everyone.

What’s surprising (and frustrating) is that there seems to be no connection between the sentences that you practice in a regular session and a sentence that you practice in one of the supplementary exercises. I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention and got my sentences out of sync, or if this is a deliberate design choice (maybe to keep students from getting bored), but I still found it disorienting. The dictation in particular is rough (especially for a model that’s based on listening and speaking rather than drilling writing) and doesn’t have much margin for error. There seems to be some wiggle room in terms of spacing, but none in terms of spelling, even for obvious typos! It feels unfair to be thrown in the deep end with completely new sentences rather than ones you’ve already familiarized yourself with, and the temptation to dial back the difficulty to something less appropriate just for a better hit/miss ratio is strong.

The other bummer is the cost. Glossika is free for up to 1000 repetitions (or about two hours of study). After that, it’s $30 US a month (or $25 US / month for an annual subscription). On the one hand, it takes time and money to get high-quality translations, and then to record and upload  audio of them, and out of all of the language-study tools out there, Glossika might be the one most worth paying for because of the way it makes you speak. The focus on listening is good, too, but in the Internet age, it’s fairly easy to come by listening practice from native speakers, geared for students or otherwise. Speaking is much more of a minefield, at least for perfectionist introverts like yours truly. Glossika is a good practice space for speaking, where you can get comfortable with the sounds of the language before you start speaking spontaneously with another human being.

On the other hand, $300 US, even spread out over the course of a year, might be a real burden on some students. DuoLingo Plus is around $10 US for an annual subscription, an annual Memrise subscription is around $65 US, and Clozemaster Pro is $8 US a month (which works out to $96 US annually, but they don’t seem to offer a bulk annual rate). Compared to those sorts of prices, $300 is a bitter pill to swallow.

Personally, I’m seriously considering upgrading my Glossika account, because it aligns with my own study goals in Korean. Whether or not it’s right for you is another question entirely. Give the free version a try, at least, and see how it goes!

DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.

Nudiustertian: Sesquipedalian Word Post

It’s Friday the 13th, so time for another sesquipedalian  paraskevidekatriaphobia word post! Despite the date on the post, I actually finished this early, on the nudiustertian morning.

The what?

Calendar image by alice10 at morguefile.com
Calendar image by alice10 at morguefile.com

When it comes to single-word expressions, English conceives of time and the relative positions of days in just three categories: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Other languages have single words for what are in English slightly more complex phrases; Korean has 모레 (rhymes with “moray” in “Moray eel”) and even 글피 (“geul-pi”) for “the day after tomorrow” and “two days after tomorrow,” respectively, and Russian and Swedish have позавчера (pozavchera) and i förrgår for “the day before yesterday.”*

The equivalents in English, on the other hand, are largely forgotten, including this obscure adjective dating back to the 1600s: nudiustertian.

The eagle-eyed among you, knowing that we’re talking about days, might wonder if the “diu” in the middle comes from the same word as “diurnal,” an adjective to describe daytime activities. (Some people tend to keep pretty nocturnal hours, but most humans are by default diurnal.) And you’d be correct! The base form of this word is actually dies, which you might remember from English teachers telling you to carpe diem, or from your requiem masses as Dies Irae.

There are two other bits of Latin in there: nu is from nunc, meaning “now,” though not seen often in English (and not to be confused with nuntiare in Old French, which relates to many speaking verbs: announce, denounce, pronounce, etc.). Ter, on the other hand, turns up in “tertiary” (after primary and secondary comes tertiary) and isn’t too far from the tri- morpheme for three-related words (triple, triangle, triune).

So we can see how the word has the most important bits of the original Latin phrase: nunc dies tertius est, or “now it is the third day.” As in, if the event happened on the first day, then the second day would be yesterday and the third day would be today, so “now it is the third day.”

It’s not hard to imagine why, when English already had the purely Germanic ereyesterday to do the same job. Why use a convoluted Latin mishmash instead of the much more intuitive Germanic option that’s already in use? It’s visually much cleaner and (to my mind) involves a less complicated numerical concept. (If the day before yesterday was two days ago, how can today be the third day?) What’s more puzzling is why ereyesterday hasn’t stuck around, either. Is “the day before yesterday” that much easier to say?

 

*I want to say that I’ve heard häromdagen much more often than i förrgår, but while the former is more like “the other day,” i förrgår refers specifically to “the day before yesterday.”

Thoughts on Using Simbi to Find Tutors or Editors

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Lucky for the student of English (or, indeed, a lot of other languages), Skype sessions with native and fluent speakers are one of the most popular options available. If you feel that you need a tutor’s input to take your language study to the next level and haven’t had any luck with any other language exchange site, you can find someone on Simbi. Likewise, since the vast majority of Simbi’s user base is anglophone, this is a golden opportunity for native speakers of languages besides English to provide an in-demand service in their native language, whether it’s video lessons, writing correction, or translation. In this case, I’d recommend joining the group Language Learners to find other language students to exchange with right away.

Less the case in Sweden (where I might be the only member?!), Simbi also actively encourages members to meet and exchange goods and items in real life, fostering local communities and bringing neighbors back in touch with each other. (These events are called “Simbi Swaps.”) Students, visitors, and new arrivals to English-speaking countries might find it helpful in meeting new people who self-select to be open, sociable, and curious.

(And, of course, Simbi has a “currency” called the simbi, so if you can’t barter directly with another user, you can still pay them for their time and effort!)

The downside is that to get much use out of Simbi for studying English, you’ll need to be at an A2/B1 level of English already; there isn’t a native version of the site in any other language. And since Simbi is a general service- and goods-exchanging platform and not strictly an educational platform, caveat emptor. Check someone’s profile to get a feel for how professional and knowledgeable they seem, including any outgoing links they provide.

Writers will also get a lot out of Simbi. If you want editing or proofreading for your manuscript but don’t have much of a budget, critique and editing is another one of the most popular services available. Again, joining a group like Writer’s Club will make it easier to find like-minded members who are more likely to be able to help you out.

I hope you’ll join me on Simbi! Perhaps I can entice you with one of the services I offer: turning your notes into a custom Anki deck or providing short story feedback.

The Value of Daily Classroom Journals

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!

A silver pen in a blank, open journal.

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!

Take This MOOC: Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts

My schedule was fairly hectic in 2017, so while I found room in my schedule for a good MOOC (Mindshift, from the same people behind Learning How to Learn), I didn’t find time to review it here. This year I’m managing my time a little better, and so I can sit down and give you my thoughts about Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts.

This course is offered on another MOOC website, FutureLearn. Like Coursera, FutureLearn offers courses for free but provides the ability to “upgrade” your participation, which includes a certificate of completion. Unlike Coursera, standard FutureLearn MOOCs aren’t available after their time runs out, even if you successfully complete them; for that, you need to purchase the upgrade. So a FutureLearn course is a little more time-sensitive than a Coursera course.

Inside IELTS is a well-organized, easy-to-digest look at the IELTS Academic test, one of the premiere international ESL tests. Many universities and employers use an IELTS score as part of their evaluation. (If you’re studying English to get into a university, this probably isn’t news to you!) Inside IELTS is a five-week program featuring video interviews, lectures, reading, and practice question. The material includes an explanation of the different assessment criteria and bands that the test evaluators will use as well as going through the test structure itself. The actual lessons break down into:

  • Academic Writing
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Putting It All Together

Inside IELTS is presented only in English; the course organizers recommend an English level of B1 or so to be able to understand the bulk of the material. However, all the videos are subtitled, and transcripts are also provided. The target audience is obviously EFL students, but instructors might also find it useful to go through to familiarize themselves with the IELTS test structure and format (if they aren’t already). Inside IELTS also goes over some test-taking tips that can be applied generally to any English test, rather than just the IELTS.

There are quizzes throughout, but they are low-stakes and aren’t tied to your completion of the course. You’ll also have the opportunity to evaluate sample responses yourself to get a feel for what the standards are.

Inside IELTS is five weeks long and, including the practice assignments, consists of three hours of work per week for a total of fifteen hours of instruction. The first week is already up, but it shouldn’t take long to catch up! Otherwise FutureLearn will send you an email when the course is ready to repeat itself.