Anki Pronunciation Deck: Short “I” and Long “E”

It’s been a while but I’m happy to bring out another pronunciation deck for Anki! This is a minimal pair deck that focuses on short “I” and long “E.” If you’d prefer IPA notation, that’s /ɪ/ and /iː/.  (The difference between “hit” and “heat.”)

I originally put this deck together for a Spanish-speaking student, but I’m sure this will be of interest to a number of English students. These two vowel sounds can be tricky for many English students.

I’ve shared this deck publicly, so you should be able to download it from its main page: English Pronunciation Deck: /ɪ/ and /iː/.

If you already have Anki installed on your desktop, simply download the file and open it on your desktop (not on your phone!). Once you’ve opened it with desktop Anki, hit the “synch” button to add the downloaded deck to your cloud. Now you can practice it on your phone as well as on your computer.

A Caucasian child with a buzz cut yelling into a complicated, professional micorphone setup.

Jason Rosewell

I used the terminology “short ‘i'” and “long ‘e'” instead of the phonetic symbols because it was easier to type something like “short ‘i'” in a standard keyboard layout instead of futzing around with special characters, and also because not everyone is familiar with IPA. I’m very much in favor of English students learning IPA and I think it’s genuinely helpful, but I also recognize that its use among teachers is hardly universal or standardized. This is also not a vocabulary deck, so the words come without pictures or definitions.

The minimal pair examples are taken from a list at EnglishClub.com, with some modification on my part. The sound files are all from Forvo, and I used American English speakers whenever possible (since I’m American and obviously use/teach American English with my students). I used Gabriel Wyner’s “pronunciation” note format for this deck, specifically the “minimal pair” category.

You might also be interested in this initial “H” pronunciation deck, while you’re knocking around my shared decks on pronunciation. I plan to share more in the future. Hopefully they help you with your studies!

Thoughts on TinyCards: The DuoLingo Flashcard App

Students of mine and readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the flashcard app Anki. It’s powerful and flexible and can be a huge help in memorizing new vocabulary or grammar patterns.

The one drawback to Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to make your own decks. (This is why I’ve offered a few ready-made ESL ones here: phrasal verbs with “get,” a pronunciation deck with initial “H,” participial adjective practice, and phrasal verbs with “do” and “make.” More soon!) If you’re not the kind of person who’s already comfortable with markup language in other contexts, the card-creation interface might seem overwhelming. Even downloading pre-created decks can be a bit difficult if you don’t have good computer instincts.

The team behind DuoLingo has filled in that niche and set up TinyCards, which originally launched in iOS-only form in 2016. An Android version came out in April 2017 of this year, and I finally got around to trying it this week.

What is TinyCards?

TinyCards is a flashcard app from the same team behind DuoLingo. It’s available for iOS, Android, and in a web-based version. DuoLingo has released official flashcard decks for many (but not all) language trees on DuoLingo. (Availability might be tied to whether or not a particular tree is out of Beta.) You can also create your own decks, either for private use or to share with others. If you opt to share the deck you created with others, they’ll be able to see that you made it because your name and a small portrait of your user picture will turn up next to the deck when they search. (The official DuoLingo decks will have a picture of their mascot, Duo.)

Pictured are three official DuoLingo decks (Swedish, French, and Russian) and a user-created Korean one.

What do I like about it?

It’s very easy to create relatively flexible and information-dense cards. On one side you can include a word or picture; on the other side you include the target word and, optionally, extra information (referred to as “facts” in the creation tool).

TinyCards deck creation interface
Here are all the ways you can put together flashcards in TinyCards.

You can upload your own images, or you can search (in multiple languages!) a vast library that comes ready-made with TinyCards. I’m not sure what the source is: images uploaded by other users? Getty Images? whatever DuoLingo already has? An unexpected but very thoughtful feature is that within the card creation tool, you have the option to crop an image. That’s perfect if you don’t want to clog up your loading time with huge high-resolution pictures but also don’t want to manually resize images before you upload them.

It’s also easy to browse other decks and add them to (or remove them from) your own library as you like.

When you’re actually reviewing and using the decks, you have the option of selecting the “I was right” option to use if you get a technically incorrect answer, or of skipping a card you already know. The official DuoLingo decks also include the sound files from the DuoLingo course, so you get listening as well as reading. You also get hints if you struggle with a particular word (though who knows if that’s helpful or not). You also have the ability to report a card if it’s incorrect or inflammatory.

Since TinyCards is an offshoot of DuoLingo, it’s based on the same spaced repetition model, so it will visually signal to you how well you know a deck so you can decide when to review.

I’m doing pretty good in Korean Word Builder 1, but I need to work more on Korean Word Builder 2. And I’ve barely touched Russian.

That also means that TinyCards is free to use!

What don’t I like about it?

If you’re making your own deck, your only options are images and words. You can’t upload any of your own sound files (yet?), so if you want to study something outside one of the supported DuoLingo decks, you won’t be able to include audio. This is probably my biggest criticism. I find it immensely helpful to hear new vocabulary alongside seeing it.

To a lesser extent, if you want to use a deck that isn’t an official DuoLingo deck, you’re relying on the other user to actually know what they’re doing. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating. While you can easily report cards or even entire decks, I’m not sure what the protocol is on addressing reported cards or decks, especially since there’s no option for specific feedback or corrections. You can’t report decks on Anki at all, but shared decks can be reviewed and rated, so you can find out if a particular deck is broken or comes with mistakes.

The graphic for the spaced repetition review and learning new vocabulary (pictured above) is also ambiguous. I’ve studied all of the cards in Korean Word Builder 1; the yellow bar is telling me that I need to review. I haven’t studied all of the words in Korean Word Builder 2; the yellow bar is a progress bar. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have those two metrics combined into one graphic like that. Memrise, for example, will show you how well you know each lexical unit in a lesson, whether on the web or on mobile. TinyCards only addresses the “lesson” level, and each lesson can include multiple lexical units.

One of the most important features of Anki is that you can deliberately set how easy or a hard a vocabulary word was, which affects when it turns up again in the spaced repetition queue. The more difficult something is, the sooner you see it again. There’s no equivalent option in TinyCards: you either get it right or wrong. If you get something wrong a lot, you’ll repeat it in a practice session (and maybe even get hints), but I haven’t noticed words that I fail a lot repeating more often over the long-term. If there’s a secret sauce for bringing up the more difficult vocabulary more often, then it’s not working too well.

Verdict

For people who are too busy for Anki’s steep card-creation learning curve, TinyCards is an acceptable substitute. The simple, intuitive GUI makes it easy to create your own decks or to add other people’s decks to your own library, so you can get started right away. For people studying through DuoLingo, the official DuoLingo decks will feature the vocabulary from the lessons and help you retain the vocabulary that DuoLingo tends to brush over too quickly. But if you’re not using DuoLingo, or you’re already comfortable with Anki, TinyCards doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

Armchair BEA, Day 2, Part 2

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

I’m continuing with the prompts from Day 2 of the event. There were actually two questions, and I got so carried away with the first question about what makes a good book that I had to save the second question for another day. That day is today!

The online book community has changed so much over the years. How do we keep up within our own book-sphere as well as within the community as a whole (i.e., libraries, bookstores, authors, publishers, etc.)?

Generally speaking, I don’t like to follow actual authors on social media. Not fiction authors, anyway. It seems like a marketing model best described as “the cult of personality” has taken over the fiction market, where you buy someone’s books based on how much you like them as a persona rather than how interested you are in their writing. But nonfiction writers seem to be followed more as a nexus of information, and that’s perhaps more relevant to their writing than how they perform their personalities.

There are three ways that I stay plugged into the book world at large. And the phrase “plugged into” suggests a deliberate intention that I don’t really have, so I should be clear. I’m not invested in the book news world in any serious way. It’s more like a happy accident because I like to talk about books and writing.

The first is through my annual(ish) participation in ArmchairBEA. The blog hops and the Twitter chats always bring a few books or book bloggers (who then recommend new books) to my attention. An introvert can handle being social once a year! 😉

The second is through NetGalley and Blogging for Books. I don’t think any of the books I’ve read through them have gone on to be huge splashes (except for the comics series Monstress), but they are by far my biggest source for new releases. Limited shelf space and the knowledge that we’re going to eventually move out of this apartment means that I have become very conservative in my acquisition of new (physical) books, but I’ll take all the free ebooks I can get!

But mostly I keep tabs on the book world through a few book bloggers and BookTubers (booktubers? bookTubers? I wonder what CMOS has to say about that) who seem to have tastes similar to my own. They’re like my psychopomps in the realm of new books. It’s worth it, because that’s how I end up finding out about books like A Tale for the Time Being. There are some new things under the sun!

So, to that end, I’d love to know what book bloggers or BookTubers you follow! Who do you recommend? Comment or Tweet at me: @KobaEnglish.

Anki Vocabulary Decks: “Get” Phrasal Verbs

I’ve just shared another Anki vocabulary deck: phrasal verb expressions featuring “get.” “Get” is a high-coverage verb with a lot of uses and collocations; mastering it is an essential part of English fluency. A collocations deck will come later, but for now you can start familiarizing yourself with these assorted phrasal verbs (if you aren’t already)!

This, like my other Anki English vocabulary decks, is a pretty basic deck. I include front and reversed notes for learning the definitions of a given phrasal verb, and then cloze notes to familiarize yourself with their usage. No audio or images are provided, but you are welcome to edit the notes to include whatever you find most helpful. Many learners find it helpful to use images whenever possible; I avoid using images for my publicly shared decks because images work best when you select them for yourself (rather than me selecting them for you).

For information about how to import a shared Anki deck into your own library, you can refer to Anki’s extensive help manual or intro videos. You can also feel free to add any of my other shared Anki ESL decks to your library. Please rate them if you find them useful, and comment or Tweet at me (@KobaEnglish) if you have any suggestions, either for improvements or for future decks!

Anki Vocabulary Decks: “Do” and “Make” Phrasal Verbs

I’ve made it clear that I’m a big fan of Anki, but I’ll be the first to admit that the process of creating new decks can be tedious, especially if you’re a busy person. That’s why I’m here!

Here’s the first volume in my intermittent series of Anki decks for English phrasal verbs: “do” and “make.” Both decks include basic definitions as well as cloze exercises for each given meaning of a phrasal verb to provide an in-context usage example. My earlier decks include a pronunciation deck for initial “h” and a cloze practice deck for English participial adjectives.

All of the above decks are available to anyone who wants them. They are also all monolingual (English-only). Once you add them to your Anki library, feel free to edit or add to them as much as you like: add definitions in your native language, add pictures, add sound files, whatever! If you don’t know how to add shared decks to your personal Anki library, or how to edit cards, there are detailed instructions in a variety of languages here.

More decks are on the way, so keep an eye out! And if my humble decks were of any help to you, consider rating them? Thank you!

Anki Grammar Deck: Participial Adjectives

I’ve created and shared another Anki deck for EFL students. This cloze deck focuses on the grammar concept of participial adjectives (for example, interesting and interested). While these adjectives have an overlap in meaning because they come from the same verb, there is a difference between being bored and being boring! This is a grammar mistake that plagues many beginner and even intermediate English learners, but the good news is that participial adjectives can be mastered with some extra drilling and attention, like the cloze exercises in this deck.

This is not a vocabulary deck; it is for students who already know the vocabulary but have trouble knowing right away which form to use. I used this list from the University of Victoria as a reference: twenty of the most common verbs used as participial adjectives. I used the past and present participle of each verb, so there are 40 cards in all.

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Friday 5: Rest

When did you last need a few days of complete rest and nothing else?

I feel like that every day, to be honest. I had a really gnarly chest cold for most of February that kept me relatively housebound. I’m better now, but the first two weeks were unpleasant, to say the least.

 

How do you keep yourself occupied when you have to be in bed all day and night?

Music; reading; reviewing vocabulary on Anki, Memrise, DuoLingo, and Clozemaster; sleeping.

 

Who do you most want to hear from when you have to withdraw to your bed for a few days of rest?

It depends. Whenever I have to go into self-imposed quarantine, it means I have a lot of time to just think; often, I’ll remember a story or a question I had for someone in particular. But usually I can just send them a message on Gchat or Facebook, so I don’t have to make immediate plans to see them when I’m feeling better.

 

What adverse effects have you experienced while staying in bed for a few days?

I don’t like the deconditioning and loss of stamina/energy I notice when I feel better enough to go running again.

 

When you first notice a few symptoms, are you more likely to shut everything down right away, or try to power through until you don’t have a choice anymore?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I try to take it as easy as possible right from the beginning, including lots of garlic, zinc, and lemon tea.

Anki Pronunciation Deck: “H”

One of my tutees, a native French speaker, has a little trouble with “h” at the beginning of words. To help her (and anyone else with similar issues), I put together an Anki deck of “H” words with their respective pronunciations. This deck is not intended as a vocabulary deck; it is for people who know the vocabulary (or most of it) already but have a hard time pronouncing it.

There are 91 words in total, taken from the top 10,000 or so words in English, according to this list from MIT. To avoid repetition, I didn’t include compound words (so “him” but not “himself”). I also, as a rule, didn’t include an exhaustive list of verb conjugations (so “hate” but not “hated” or “hates”) unless there was a meaningful shift in spelling or pronunciation in the main word (so both “hear” and “heard”).

Some of the words are homophones: words with different spellings and meanings, but identical pronunciation. Those words are marked with an asterisk (*) for your convenience. This is to keep people from straining to hear differences in pronunciation where there are none.

Finally, all of the pronunciations are either from American speakers or sound American to my own ears. This is mostly for pronunciation issues when it comes to vowel sounds, rather than the “H” sound at the beginning. The single exception is the word “herb.” In American English, the preferred pronunciation is with a dropped “h” (/ɜːrb/); British English retains it (/hɜːrb/).

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Thoughts on Clozemaster

One of my friends, perpetual Swedish student Henny, brought Clozemaster to my attention. I’ve been using it for a week now—time to share my thoughts on it!

Clozemaster takes the free library of natural language translations available on Tatoeba and turns them into cloze exercises (“fill-in-the-blank” exercises, if you’re not in the ed biz). You can then go through these exercises on the website or the free smartphone app.

The Clozemaster dashboard before logging in.
The Clozemaster website dashboard before logging in.

It also has a nice 8-bit/16-bit aesthetic going on in both looks and sound effects, for anyone nostalgic for old school video games.

You can see that the variety of languages is pretty astounding, though of course some languages have more content than others. Like Tatoeba, you can create an account for free on Clozemaster, and it has no limits on how many languages you can choose to study.

Note: Clozemaster is not for beginners. You need some familiarity with the target language to benefit from the program. Generally, the developer touts Clozemaster as “the next step after DuoLingo.”

Clozemaster dashboard
Clozemaster dashboard

The data is cool, but for me it’s secondary. The important bits are towards the bottom: the section labeled “Fluency Fast Track” and then “Grouped by: Most Common Words.” That’s where you actually do the studying.

The basic difference is that Fluency Fast Track mixes clozes from easy to difficult (and from most common to least common), while the “Most Common Words” group will focus specifically on the 100, 500, 1000, etc. most common words. I like to keep things focused, so I prefer the latter, but either should be fine.

All of the exercises, in the app as well as most browsers, also include text-to-speech audio. It’s not entirely natural, so I wouldn’t use it for phrasing or intonation, but it’s fine for individual words. Also, the web version links every word in the phrase to Forvo (in addition to Google Translate, Wiktionary, and Tatoeba), where you can hear actual humans pronounce the word in question.

The wrinkle that I really appreciate is that you can play a cloze exercise in two modes: multiple choice or text input. The text input option is really important because it forces you to move a word from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. If you want to challenge yourself with the text input option, I’d recommend setting Clozemaster to show you the L1 translation along with the question (rather than after you answer), so you know if it’s “What’s his name?” or “What’s her name?”.

There is also a smartphone app that, like Anki, connects your browser-based account (and all of its progress) with your smartphone:

Clozemaster app dashboard
Clozemaster app dashboard

If you pay for a Clozemaster Pro account, you have the option of downloading the “Fast Track” lessons directly to your phone; otherwise everything is in the cloud, so the app is useless if you can’t connect to the Internet. There are other little bells and whistles you get in the pro account as well: listening comprehension practice, the ability to focus on specific parts of speech, more data, the ability to export into Anki, etc. At $60, it’s not a bad investment at all.

Do you use Clozemaster? Follow me!

Thoughts on Busuu Web Portal

Time for a long-overdue review of the Busuu language-learning portal!

What is busuu?

Busuu is a language-learning website as well as a smartphone app. It offers courses in 12 languages, including English.  You can focus on business, travel, or culture. The lessons typically include flashcard drilling, short dialogues, writing practice (corrected by other site users) and speaking practice (also evaluated by other users). This review will focus exclusively on the web version, though it looks like the web and mobile version are identical in content and presentation.

The main menu on Busuu after you create an account and start learning.

What do I like about busuu?

The site design is crisp and intuitive. It’s easy to find your way around. The lessons themselves are nicely varied, and they provide recordings as well as images for every new word or phrase. Additionally, when the lexical target is just a single word, they provide a sample sentence along with the word, the recording, and the image. Overall, the presentation is fairly thorough.

Unlike its free competitors, busuu is officially partnered with McGraw-Hill, one of the biggest educational companies and textbook publishers in the business. Busuu subscribers have the option to take a certification test from McGraw-Hill that will officially (or at least, in some capacity) grade the user on a particular CEFR level (from A1 to B2). This might be of value to anyone who needs English for a job, though of course you should check with your employer (or whoever) about whether or not they would recognize such a certificate. I’m not aware of any other language-learning portal that has such a partnership.

What don’t I like about busuu?

Busuu leans heavily on the user subscription model. If you look at the menu image again, you’ll note that some of the lesson icons have a small crown icon next to them. That means those lessons aren’t available until I subscribe.

The vast majority of material in this lesson is only available to subscribers.

Additionally, none of the quizzes or tests are available without a subscription, and learning research has repeatedly demonstrated that testing is one of the most efficient ways to learn new material. Another review has put those assessments on blast, however, so take that for what you will. Moreover, there are numerous complaints about just how difficult it is to cancel a subscription if you decide you no longer want it.

Of course I believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. (I’m a writer and an artist in my other lives–I know how easy it is for work to be devalued!) But I personally prefer the Coursera model: you get the information for free but have to pay for the certification. Especially when you consider the glut of EFL instruction material on the Internet (and the raw amount of English-language content), and the fact that their partnership with McGraw-Hill gives their certificate some serious brand recognition, the Coursera model seems both the most effective and the most fair.

They also like to tout the “22.5 hours of busuu is like a university level course!” all over the place, without giving the full context. The “22.5 hours” number is taken from one study that busuu funded at CUNY and University of South Carolina. I’m not going to go into a discussion of this particular study here; I just want to point out that (1) this was a single study (2) funded by busuu. As far as I know, the data hasn’t been replicated in other independent research. Personally, I’m skeptical about how this claim would hold up in the wild, if only because the material presented is generally limited in scope (especially in the free version), even if the presentation itself is varied and thorough.

Verdict

If it turns out their McGraw-Hill certification will help you land a job or a promotion, then go for it (or don’t), but otherwise? There are better options out there.