Book Review: This One Summer

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels for a while, now. Fortunately they seem to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, making it easy to find something to suit your tastes. It’s not just tights and capes!

Moreover, graphic novels are a really great resource for EFL students. Especially ones that aren’t already bookworms to begin with. This One Summer is one that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the teenage section of my local branch of the Stockholm Public Library.

This One Summer cover
Image courtesy First Second and Jillian Tamaki

Author: Mariko Tamaki

Artist: Jillian Tamaki

My GoodReads Rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.65 stars

Language level: A2/B1+

Plot summary: Rose and her family are on vacation in the lake town of Awago, something they’ve done since Rose was 5. Rose and her friend Windy watch slasher movies, go swimming in the lake, and watch teenage and adult drama unfold around them.

Recommended audience: This One Summer is marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I think there’s a lot in here for adults to relate to. We were all teenagers once! The language is relatively simple but there is a lot of slang, which might throw some readers off. There’s also some profanity. The story focuses more on characters than on plot, so it’s not for people who prefer a lot of action and story.

In-depth thoughts: I suppose I had certain expectations, and they weren’t really met. There isn’t a whole lot of plot or character development: Windy and Rose are just teenage girls watching the world around them: the stories happen for other people, not for them. I spent most of the time waiting for something to happen, and then nothing really did.

But the art is gorgeous. My favorite part—the freeze frames of all the slash-y horror movies Rose and Windy watch are drawn almost hyperrealistically, while all of the “real” world is fairly cartoony. I like little touches like that.

My family often stayed in a hunting cabin up in the mountains near Rutland, Vermont during the summers, so all of the “lake vacation” elements touched on some of my own favorite lake memories. That said, we didn’t really get to know the other residents and vacationers, so I never had a “lake friend” like Rose did.

No, not a lot happens, and I guess at the end of the day how you feel about character-driven stories will affect how you feel about this book. The good news is that you can pick it up from Stockholm Public Library and see for yourself if you want to buy it or not!

Book Review: Snowfall

Author: Andy Coombs

Genre: Horror

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4 stars (mine is the only rating!)

Language scaling: High beginner / low intermediate (A2/B1)

Plot summary: Fourteen-year-old Reka and her family try to escape a natural disaster in New Zealand.

Recommended audience: This book is from a larger Swedish series (Polar Fish) written for younger ELLs (target audience: 12 and up) and published by the Natur och Kultur foundation here in Sweden. That said, the text is entirely in English, so there’s nothing particular here for Swedish ELLs.

In-depth thoughts: The English in Snowfall (and in the rest of the Polar Fish books) is quite simple, so intermediate and advanced learners might not find it particularly challenging. But the story was still quite good; even as an adult native English speaker I was engaged (and didn’t even see the plot twist coming). This is a great choice for a young learner with a penchant for horror movies and scary stories. (Though there is some salty language at one point.)

This is one of many middle grade/young adult English novels I picked up for a song at a library sale, and one of a few different ELL/young reader-specific series represented. Polar Fish in particular seems to be a little old and discontinued, but you can still find the books here and there.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

Author: Mary Doria Russell

Genre: Science fiction

My GoodReads Rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads Rating: 4.17 stars

Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)

Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.

Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children

In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.

As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!

That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.

Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.

 

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.

Graphic Novel Suggestions for ELLs

I’m a huge proponent of reading. I think it’s one of the best ways to acquire new vocabulary and to familiarize yourself with new language patterns. But sometimes making the leap from short sentences or paragraphs to full-length novels or even short stories is intimidating. Some students may have have a learning disability that makes it hard to focus on huge walls of text. In these cases, graphic novels can be a good stepping stone towards traditional novels—and they’re also just fun reading in their own right.

GetGraphic.org has an exhaustive list of graphic novels that might appeal to EFL students. They’re sorted alphabetically by title, and grade levels are given along with a brief summary. (Note: Grade 1 in the United States is typically 6–7 years old, and Grade 2 is 7–8, and so on.) Based on that list, and my own reading, I have a few recommendations.

For people who were or are cynical teenagers: Ghost World

The stress of college and an uncertain future lingers over outsider best friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer.

For people who love mythology and folklore: Fables

Beloved fairy tale characters have fled their homeland and try to make a new life in modern-day New York City.

For science nerds: Optical Allusions

From Jay Hosler’s own site: “Wrinkles the Wonder Brain has lost his bosses’ eye and now he has to search all of human imagination for it.” Eyes not your thing? Hosler also has graphic novels available on evolution and insects.

For history buffs: Boxers & Saints

This account of the Boxer Rebellion is told from two different fictional perspectives: a young Boxer and a Chinese convert to Catholicism.

For fans of the classics: The Last Knight

Comics giant Will Eisner takes on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

For people who feel like they don’t belong: Persepolis

The autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi and her youth in 1980s Iran. Volume 2 covers her years in Europe and return to Iran.

Do you have any favorite graphic novels? Share them in the comments or tweet me @KobaEnglish!

 

Book Review: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Genre: Literary fiction

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Language scaling: Advanced (C1+)

Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans

In-depth thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.

I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)

Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House

Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.

By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.

The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.

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.)