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.

Using Memrise on the Web

Another member of the spaced repetition flashcard family, Memrise isn’t quite as versatile as Anki, but it does offer more flexibility than Babadum. Memrise has a web interface and a free smartphone app. The two aren’t really integrated with each other, so I’ll come back to the app another time.

ETA: since I last wrote this, I either figured out how to use Memrise properly or they made some changes, because now my web account and my mobile account seem to be synchronized. More on the mobile version at a later date!

Today I just want to talk about the web-based program and familiarize you with it. Once you get into it, Memrise is pretty straightforward, but it can take a little getting used to. It took me some getting used to, at any rate!

Getting Started

You can sign up for Memrise with Google, Facebook, or email. I dislike using Google and Facebook for everything, so I chose a throwaway email address. When I later decided to try the smartphone app, however, I was unable to log in with my already-created account, which was annoying.

After you create your account, you’ll be greeted with a homepage that looks something like this:

Memrise home page.
Memrise home page.

On the left you can see your account summary, including the points and trophies you’ve earned. There’s also a countdown clock until the end of the day (midnight local time), and an option to sign up for Memrise Pro. It doesn’t look like much to start with until you sign up for a course, at which point the homepage is your portal into daily practice.

Memrise home page after you start a course.
Memrise home page after you start a course.

After you select a course, the Memrise homepage will helpfully show your progress on your homepage as well as give you suggestions for users you can follow—these are people taking the same or similar courses.

You can set Memrise to a limited number of languages in your account settings: English, German, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Polish, and Chinese. You access this portion by clicking on the blue portrait on the right-hand side of the blue toolbar and selecting “settings.”

Memrise account settings: selecting a language.
Memrise account settings: selecting a language.

The not-entirely-intuitive thing is that changing the language in your settings only has an effect on the site interface, not the content. If you don’t speak any of the above languages, don’t worry: there’s still plenty of content for you!

Courses

The meat and potatoes of Memrise is the courses. These are like decks in Anki. Each course is a list of words or phrases; some courses are put together by Memrise staff, while others are put together by Memrise users. Some users are individuals, some are teachers, and some are other organizations. It’s very common to find Memrise courses based around a particular textbook. If you’re taking an English course, you might want to see if someone’s created a course based on the book you’re using. Saves you the time of creating an Anki deck or a Memrise course yourself!

Memrise will, initially, suggest popular courses for you to take, right on your home page. If you want to see a more detailed list, select the “courses” tab (that’s the one in the middle) in the blue toolbar.

Memrise courses homepage.
Memrise courses homepage for Chinese speakers, including the most popular courses among Chinese speakers.

Once on the “courses” home page, you can select your native language (or preferred study language) on the left, under the “I speak” pull-down menu. As you can see, this list is much more exhaustive than languages available in your profile settings.

Memrise course language selection.
Memrise course language selection. Here you can see the English courses available for Korean speakers. The top three are courses created by Memrise, while the bottom three are courses created by the users (left to right) Mr.Kimchi, EasyAcademy, and newgosto.

When you find a course you want to take, just click it. You’ll be taken to the course’s homepage, which has an outline of the different lessons as well as a scoreboard. If it looks like something you want to study, just click the big green “start learning” button!

Diving In

Once you start a particular course, the course home page, much like your personal Memrise home page, will tell you how you’re doing.

Lesson progress in a Korean course on Memrise.
Lesson progress in a Korean course on Memrise. You can see that I’m in the middle of Lesson 4, and that I’ve looked at 54 out of 1568 words so far. Only 30 of those words are in long-term memory.

Within a course you will have a few activities based around vocabulary and phrases, similar to the games in Babadum:

  1. Hear the L2 word and select the L1 translation (multiple choice).
  2. See the L1 word and select the right recording of the L2 translation (multiple choice).
  3. See the L1 word and select the right L2 translation (multiple choice).
  4. See the L1 word and provide the right L2 translation (written).
  5. Hear the L2 word and write what you hear (dictation).

I’ve noticed that different courses will have different activities. The French 1 course for English speakers includes videos of native speakers, which is lacking in the above Korean course, for example. But all of the activities are taken from this pool of five.

Unlike Babadum, you’ll periodically have “cards” that involve no challenge or activity; they exist simply to introduce the new vocabulary.

memrise7
New French vocabulary in Memrise.

If you find yourself struggling with a particular word, you can elect to choose or create a “mem,” an image to help you remember the word, by selecting “Help me remember this” at the bottom. The lightning bolt is a premium option (allows you to mark a word as “difficult”), while the “no” button next to it tells Memrise to ignore this word because you already know it or don’t want to learn it. As you correctly answer questions about the word or phrase, the image in the circle will transform from a hand planting a seed, to a plant stem, to a flower. Seeds are new words, while flowers are words you know quite well.

You can set daily goals for a particular course: point amounts that are equivalent to 5, 15, or 45 minutes a day. Note that you can earn points either by learning new words or by reviewing the words you’ve already learned.

On Review

Memrise is based on the spaced repetition philosophy. If you delve into any particular lesson in a course, you’ll see a countdown with each word. This is a countdown to when you need to review the word to help maximize retention.

Detailed information about a lesson in a Korean Memrise course.
Detailed information about a lesson in a Korean Memrise course.

Here you can see that I’ll need to review most of this vocabulary in around 23 days, though I have two words that I should review right now.

Note that Memrise will not automatically remind you of the words you need to review; you choose between reviewing and learning new words at your own pace. To review words, select the blue “review” button. The review button will always have how many words you have left to review. It’s my preference to move on to new words when I don’t have any words left to review, but your mileage may vary.

Social

Memrise has a few limited social features: you can follow people, but following seems limited to seeing their scores on your homepage. There are also groups, but these are private and invite-only. Like following someone, being a member of a group allows you to compete with other group members in terms of scores, and that’s about it.

Courses once had their own forums; now all interaction between members seems to happen on a separate community page. I wish I could tell you more about the forums, but at this moment in time I’m unable to log in. They certainly look lively and robust. Note, however, that the forums center around Memrise and Memrise courses, rather than language exchange.

Premium

Memrise has a few features that are only available to paying members. You can purchase membership in bundles of 1 month, 3 months, or a year. Obviously, the larger the bundle, the better the unit price. A year-long membership is a little less than $5 US per month. Do I think it’s worth it? Hard to say. The ability to focus on difficult words is definitely a plus; while other people are enthusiastic about your learning patterns stats, I don’t know how important those actually are when it comes to improving your language acquisition.

That wraps up the basics of using Memrise! I’ll be back with a later post on how to get the most out of Memrise in your language studies, but until then feel free to ask any questions or share any tips/corrections here or on Twitter.

Thoughts on Babadum Flashcard Tool

Say what you will about rote memorization, vocabulary is the foundation upon which language fluency is built. While Anki remains the king of flashcard tools, there are other options. Maybe you don’t have time to learn the interface and make your own decks (you can download other people’s hard work, though!). Maybe you want something in addition to Anki, or maybe you’re just looking for a way to kill some time online. Enter Babadum.

Babadum is a free online flashcard tool that claims to use 5 games to teach you 1500 words. Not bad!

The “games” are nothing revolutionary: just standard flashcard training. To say that there are 5 is also a bit of a misnomer; in reality, there are 4 different activities. You can:

  • Match the spoken/written word to the correct picture (out of 4 given)
  • match the pictures to the correct word (out of 4 given)
  • Match the spoken word to the correct picture (out of 4 given)
  • Spell the word to match the picture

The fifth game is to just go through a mix of those 4 activities.

What makes Babadum stand out, for me, is the design quality. The website itself is attractive and intuitive (a rare find) and the artwork is cute. Every time I switch from this browser window to the one where I’m playing Babadum (for research purposes, you know), I get sucked into answering three or four more questions. The site is just that inviting. The audio is also fantastic: high quality recordings from native speakers in careers like broadcasting and teaching.

You can read more about the history and design of Babadum by the creators themselves. Unfortunately, the one area I’d like them to expound upon at length is the one they skip over: their word list and how the word-selecting algorithm functions. I can only assume that their “1500 words” are taken from frequency dictionaries or other similar sources. What’s clear from the behind-the-scenes-peak is that the 1500 word list is common across all languages. This is important: Babadum is a top-down programYou cannot add your own vocabulary into the corpus. This aspect does limit its usefulness, making it the most effective for beginners and early intermediates. More advanced learners won’t see as many benefits. Unless you’re like me and have some surprising gaps in your knowledge:

Babadum is free to use. There are no ads, and the only feature you unlock by donating is a progress bar. There is no minimum or recommended donation, so you can pay however much or little you like for that option.

Of course, learning whole bunch of words won’t make you fluent. Any site or app that boils down to flashcards can only take you so far. But used in conjunction with other tools (such as Lang-8), or to supplement a course, they can be the difference between knowing the word you want right away and having to scramble for it.

What flashcard apps do you use? What do you think of them? Let me know here or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish)!

An earlier version of this post said that there was an iOS version of  Babadum. This is incorrect; it is only available on the Web. The post has since been corrected.

Tatoeba Tips

Tatoeba began as the brain child of Trang, inspired by the English–Japanese website alc.co.jp. The name “Tatoeba” even comes from the Japanese word for “for example.” You can read more about the history of Tatoeba.org on Trang’s blog, but the long and short of it is: Tatoeba is a collection of open source, community-generated sentences in multiple languages—something like a huge, global phrasebook. These sentences can be a great resource in your language study. But Tatoeba can also be overwhelming at first, so here are some tips to get you started.

1. You should probably register.

The nature of Tatoeba is such that everyone can browse it and look up sentences; registering allows you to contribute translations, add your own sentences, and (eventually, if you decide to ask for such privileges) tag and link sentences. If you’re just curious about a word now and then, you probably don’t need to sign up. But if you want to dig deeper, you’ll need a proper account. (It’s free!)

Note that Tatoeba, unlike Lang-8, doesn’t make a clear distinction between your native language and the languages you’re studying; rather, you list any languages you can speak, and then rate your fluency in them, from “almost no knowledge” to “native level.” So go ahead and add everything you’re interested in and know about. Here are mine, for example:

tatoeba

There is no limit to how many languages you can have in your account, and there’s no fluency requirement, so add as many as you like. My Korean, for example, is in absolute shambles, but since I at least know how to read Hangul, I listed it (and then put it at level 0: “almost no knowledge”).

2. Learn to use the search function.

Tatoeba uses Sphinx Search to account for all of the complexities of language. It’s mostly intuitive, but there are some wrinkles to be aware of. You can learn more at the Tatoeba Wiki.

Sphinx Search relates to the search bar at the top of the page. This search focuses just on the content of sentences, looking for actual, literal words. If you’re interested in a particular category of words, such as sports or politics or weather, you can search the tags instead. This search function is much less complex and does not use the same operators as Sphinx Search.

3. Add sentences.

If you want to improve Tatoeba (and of course you do, right?) and you have the time, you can also add sentences of your own. There are two ways to do that.

First, you can simply add a sentence directly to the corpus. Tatoeba even helpfully suggests vocabulary that hasn’t yet been featured on the site, so you can maximize your helpfulness by focusing specifically on those words.

The other way you can add sentences is by translating sentences already in the corpus.

When you’re looking at sentences on Tatoeba, you’ll see a little symbol in the upper left corner of every sentence, like this:

tatoeba2

This is the option to translate. It’s not necessary (and even, arguably, flat-out unhelpful) to give a translation that’s identical to what’s already on the site. (Alas, there’s also no upvoting/approval system like there is on Lang-8, so there’s no good way to tell if a given translation is good or bad.) But if you look at sentence and see that it doesn’t have a translation in a language you know well, or the other translations are awkward or inadequate, then you can feel free to add one! When you click that symbol, a little box comes up:

tatoeba3
I’m not actually brave enough to try to translate this into English. Yet.

Tatoeba also uses indirect (from L1 to L3 by way of L2) translations. It distinguishes between direct and indirect translations with blue arrows (indicating direct translations) and gray arrows (indirect translations). But you have to be careful: if you decide to translate something indirectly, make sure you click the translation you’re working from first. This will take you to a new page where that L2 translation is the “main sentence,” rather than just a translation. That way, your L3 translation is appropriately marked on the original L1 sentence as an indirect translation, and the code stays neat and tidy. (You can read more about Trang’s philosophy here.)

The principle of translating on Tatoeba is sentences and meaning, rather than word-for-word correspondence. “I’m 25 years old” is not, technically, a word-for-word translation of French (“I have 25 years.”) or Russian (“To me there are 25 years.”), but it’s how native speakers would express the idea of being 25 years old, so it’s the best (and only) possible choice.

4. Submit high-quality work.

Tatoeba is not a playground, or an opportunity for feedback/error correction. When you submit a translation or a sentence, you are submitting study material for other learners to use. This is why Tatoeba stresses that you only add translations and sentences only in languages in which you have fairly high levels of competency. Anything else—grammar or vocabulary practice, writing practice, proofreading—is better saved for elsewhere, such as Lang-8.

That’s Tatoeba in a nutshell! I’d like to shout out to my friend Yousef, who was the first to alert me to the existence of Tatoeba. It’s a great project but a little overwhelming, so if you need help (or if I missed anything), comment below or let me know on Twitter!

 

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.)

National Poetry Month 2016: Great Lyricists

Musician On Stage
Music is a great way to enjoy poetry. // Image courtesy insouciance on Flickr.

In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.

There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:

The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.

or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:

When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.

Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.

Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.

It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:

My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:

Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.

You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.

(“Uncle Walter”)

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”

Twenty-five years,
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
It’s time.”

(“Fred Jones Part 2)

Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.

Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.

I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.

For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.

(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)

How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?

I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.

(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)

They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.

I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?

Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Anki

I first came across Anki in Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever. It’s a whole treasure trove of language-learning tips, but the bulk of Wyner’s philosophy revolves around flashcards, Anki, and spaced repetition. I couldn’t begin to summarize the book in a single blog post, so I’ll just recommend it. Wyner is sometimes a bit too gung-ho about all the great tools he wants to sell you, but Fluent Forever is no less helpful because of that.

Wyner sings the praises of Anki, and since the Droid version is free, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m currently studying Russian, so it came along at the perfect time. Once I got the hang of creating the cards, and got my smartphone synced up with my desktop version, things were a breeze.

Flashcards are for more than mere vocabulary, however. Here are a couple of different ways I would recommend using Anki in your English study—aside from vocabulary.

(Note: I assume that you have a copy of Anki and that you’re comfortable using it. If you’d like more details on how to customize Anki, you can refer to their manual. Another good guide is this one from Alex Vermeer.)

1. Spelling Help

600px-Spelling_icon.svg
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you struggle with English’s semi-random yet semi-predictable spelling, you can offload the problem on to Anki.

The first step is being aware of the mistakes you make the most consistently. Maybe you have issues with -sion versus -tion, for example. Or maybe you struggle with irregular verbs: not eated but ate? not runned but ran? Put them in Anki.

You can just use a basic card with, say “eat” on the front and “ate” on the back. Or maybe “b__t (thing on water)” on the front and “boat” on the back. If you feel comfortable typing within Anki, you can set up the card so that you have to type in an answer (rather than just think about it). Anki will then display the correct answer and highlight any mistakes you may have made. For more about how to design Anki cards with typing input, see this how-to video.

I would recommend this method if it all possible. If not, try to keep scrap paper on hand to write on while you study so you can write out the correct spelling yourself. If you don’t have that, then you can move your hand as if you were writing, or imagine writing the answer. Or spell out in your head, like in a spelling bee. The more you do something yourself, or the more you think through the steps of doing something yourself, the better you learn something and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of just assuming you know something.

 

2. Listening And Pronunciation

How's your English listening?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Håkan Dahlström

Learning the phonemes of a language—its individual, component sounds—is maybe one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. Usually we struggle with sounds in a language because we can’t distinguish them from other sounds, whether in our native language or the target language. I have a tough time with å and o in Swedish, for example. You can use an Anki deck to blitz the difference between them.

Wyner has a number of useful Anki card templates available for download from his site. The template you’d want for this would be his “minimal pairs” template. If you want to make your own, though, you can. But whether you’re customizing Wyner’s template or creating your own, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and input.

First, collect a bunch of words that share your “struggle sounds.” A typical pair of problem sounds in English for many learners is short “i” and long “e” (ship / sheep, chip / cheap), for example. Find recordings from Forvo.com, and then very carefully apply them to cards (you want your recordings to match their answers!) in a pattern like this:

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: ship]

Back: ship

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]

Back: sheep

If you allow the cards to be reversed, you can practice your pronunciation as well as your listening: the word “ship” or “sheep” will come up, and you can compare your pronunciation with that of the recording. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to hear how close you are to a particular sound. That’s where a teacher comes in handy.

 

3. Grammar Blitz

Tips for studying English grammar with Anki.

There are so many ways you can do this. I’ll just share a small bit of my personal method and hopefully it will inspire you.

I use Anki to study Russian. Where modern English has only three cases (“grammar jobs,” for lack of a better word), Russian has six. Learning all of the ways that a personal pronoun can change depending on the job it has to do is just half the battle—when do you use each case?

First, I sat down and worked out a color scheme for all of the cases. So prepositions or verbs that require the accusative case (“him” in English) are dark blue, and prepositional cases (“by him”) in red, and so on.

Then, when it came to making the cards, I put phrases (“with him,” “without money,” “to the park,” and so on) on one side of the flashcard, with the Russian preposition in its appropriate color and whatever noun in its nominative form. The right answer is to 1) have a correct English translation of the preposition and 2) to know the proper form of the noun (and any attendant adjectives).

The other side of the card has the English translation of the preposition and the appropriate form of the noun (in its matching color). The right answer is the Russian translation of the preposition.

You can apply this similarly to English. If you struggle with catenative verbs and remembering which ones take a gerund, which ones take just the verb stem, and which ones take the “to” infinitive, you can come up with your own color code and little phrases and review those in a similar manner.

(I find it helpful to relate the color to the grammar point in some way. For example, my genitive case prepositions are in green, and instrumental in indigo. You want the color associations to be quick and easy! So in this case maybe green for gerund, taupe for “to” infinitive, and silver for stem. But it depends, of course, on the color names in your native language.)

So those are just a few ways you can use Anki beyond simple vocabulary. Do you have any other tips or tricks? Share them in the comments, or tweet @KobaEnglish!