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 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!
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!
Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.
As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).
I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:
It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.
It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.
Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.
The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)
Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Did you make it? Regardless of if you got to 50,000 words or not, if you wrote at all during National Novel Writing Month, then congratulations! You have X more words than you had at the beginning of the month, and that’s the really important thing. Maybe you even established a daily “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” habit—even better!
My goal for this year was to finish a round of revisions on the first draft I finished in NaNoWriMo 2014. After not touching the manuscript for months, I finished the remaining chapters in a week. (See what kind of magic an arbitrary deadline can work?) As far as NaNoWriMo was concerned, the rest of November was a combination of sitting on my laurels, writing some escapist nonsense for kicks and giggles, and working on the third round of revisions. (Writing really is revising.)
I’m at a point with this story where I don’t know up from down. If I let myself get distracted from the very practical aspects of putting scenes in order and making sure they all either advance the plot or develop a character, it’s an endless, terrifying void: is this project worth pursuing? does it make sense? will people like it?
All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. One chapter after the next. I admit, it’s exhausting to not have a finished product after three years of (intermittent) labor. But I owe it to myself to finish this one, big thing. Just because I can. Do I need to publish it? No. Do I need anyone else to read it? Not really (except insofar as critiquing and editing is concerned!). I just need to prove to myself that I can put the time in to create something as sprawling and as weird and as complicated as this novel.
Those of you who crossed the November 30 finish line with me: take a rest. Take it easy. Be kind to yourself this December. See the friends you didn’t make time for, have a movie night with your spouse/child/pet, get back into running/yoga/meditation, cook a proper meal.
Speaking of meditation, allow me to share an analogy. This is, I believe, an old Rinzai Zen chestnut. It came to me by way of the priest at my zendo in the US, but I’m pretty sure he was quoting someone else.
Your mind is like a bird. And just like birds need to sit and rest in between long flights (even though some are capable of incredible journeys!), your mind also needs to rest in between states of focus. Otherwise you would lose touch with reality and burn out.
It’s originally an analogy about zazen, but it applies to anything you want to do well. We all just pushed through a mad 30-day flight over uncharted territory. It was exhilarating and terrifying and magical. But the bird needs to rest for a while, now, before the next mad dash.
And then, in January, we pick up our pens and sit down at our keyboards and begin again.
Full disclosure: I am one of Ediket’s freelance on-call editors. I was not asked or encouraged to write this review, and I do not benefit in any way from writing it. I just believe Ediket is a potential tool, among many, for independent English language learners.
It just has one drawback: any native speaker can correct your writing, and not all native speakers are created equal. Because it’s very likely that any given submission will be corrected by more than one reader, things get tricky:
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.
What about those who can’t afford to take a class or hire a tutor, or who otherwise don’t have access to personalized instruction? One option, at least as far as writing is concerned, is Ediket.
Ediket takes some of the guesswork out of online language correction. The editors (like myself) are, to some degree, vetted. We all have backgrounds in English language and were required to pass a brief editing test to join the site. Thus, Ediket can guarantee a certain level of professionalism and knowledge absent from Lang-8.
The other difference between Ediket and Lang-8 is how the entire site is structured. On Lang-8, any given English “diary entry” is visible to any given English native speaker. There are privacy levels, so that only your friend have access to it, but overall the site is designed to broadcast work to as large an audience as possible. Conversely, any piece you upload to Ediket will only be checked by one person. What you lose in exposure, you gain in consistency and, with any luck, clarity.
No piece on Ediket is checked without commentary from the editor, either. If an editor notices a consistent error on your part (maybe a problem with verb tense, or incorrect usage), they can provide instruction and guidance. It’s not a guarantee that all of them will, of course; rather that they are simply better equipped to be helpful than the typical Lang-8 user. Some editors will go into great detail in their comments, while others are more brief. I tend to be brief, unless I notice a recurring error or habit.
If you get especially helpful comments from a particular editor, or just like their style, you can choose to work exclusively with them by making a 1-to-1 request that will be funneled directly to the editor in question for them to either accept or reject, rather than the larger job pool. At this point, there isn’t a mechanism for making a particular editor your “default.” If you like someone enough to prefer them exclusively, you have to make a 1-to-1 request with every document you upload. Fortunately, each editor has their own profile page, so we’re easy to find!
The downside is that Ediket is not a free service; you have to pay for a given editor’s time and expertise. The rates are inexpensive enough that I think Ediket can be readily accessible for most students. Additionally, customers are able to earn free credits by referring friends to the service.
Of course, these low rates mean that from an editing standpoint, anything more than a light proofreading or two (with any additional comments, tips, and suggestions) is economically unfeasible. Ediket is in no way a replacement for hiring an attentive and thorough professional editor. As an English study tool, however, Ediket has a place for the independent learner.
The good news is that I took a little under one week to finish all of the revisions I intended to space out over a month.
The bad news is that over the course of reworking it for a second time, I’ve stumbled upon yet more changes I want to make. They’re smaller than the changes I made in the first round, but they’re not insignificant. Though, I also realized I wanted to effectively double the length of the story, which is quite significant. But it has to be done for the sake of the story.
The worst news is that I haven’t been working on it at all since the election results. A lot of my focus and energy has had to go elsewhere over the last few days. My postmodern epistolary anti-bildungsroman can take a back burner for now.
Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.
I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:
First drafts are not the final product.
It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.
Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.
How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.
She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.
The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).
My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.
The Art of Losing Things
The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.
One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,
a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –
The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.
What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?
This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:
The first draft of anything is shit.
This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?
But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:
Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.
Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.
Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?
Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:
It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.
Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)
It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.
My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.
And so are you.
Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.
November is almost here, and that means that writers around the world are getting ready for National Novel Writing Month. The tradition is so well-established by now that I’ll just leave a link to the official homepage here so you can read about it yourself if you haven’t heard of it, to avoid needlessly preaching to the choir. (Or is that preaching to the converted? I can never decide which version of that expression I like better.)
My own history with NaNoWriMo (as it’s colloquially known) is a rocky one, even though I’ve participated in, and “won,” most years since 2008 (exceptions are 2010 and 2012). My very first NaNo draft is lost forever, even though I distinctly remember emailing it to myself. One of my “winners” still isn’t a complete first draft. Last year’s project was just revising 2014’s draft. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle this year, as I’m juggling studying, editing work, tutoring, and helping run Stockholm NaNoWriMo’s events. A couple of options have crossed my mind:
1. Continue revising 2014’s NaNo into something I can shop around to publishers, literary agents, and/or developmental editors.
2. Rework/rewrite another old NaNo, just for fun.
3. Binge-write blog posts.
4. Jump head-first into Naomi Goldberg’s notebook practice.
5. Tackle an entirely new idea.
I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet. I do know that you’ll find me at Stockholm NaNoWriMo‘s events if you want to come by and say hello. I also know that if you decide to join NaNoWriMo and want another pair of eyes for your project, I’m here. (With some caveats.) I do know that I’ll be sharing my thoughts and feelings here, periodically, along with some advice.
Join me, won’t you? Let me know what you’re writing in the comments or on Twitter!