Thoughts for serious language learners
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Grammar rules update

I have rewritten my article on grammar rules. The new article shares almost no text with the old version (except the introduction). Overall, the advice hasn’t changed that much (spoiler: it’s okay to use grammar rules, but only a little). However, the reasoning is improved and there are many more examples. The new version also answers the following questions:

  • Where do grammar rules come from? How do they differ from the rules of formal systems like programming languages?
  • Can grammar rules describe a language completely?
  • Are there any good ways to use grammar rules?

Why you shouldn’t rely on grammar rules

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Why it’s so difficult to speak English without mistakes

In a new page, “Using English correctly requires a massive amount of knowledge”, I carpet-bomb you with examples showing why speaking English without mistakes is so damn hard, and why vocabulary and so-called “grammar” are just a small part of the stuff that you have to put in your head.

Why is it so difficult to learn a language? The main reason is that speaking a language correctly requires a vast amount of knowledge – far greater than is necessary to be a competent doctor or lawyer. A large chunk of this knowledge is, of course, vocabulary. To speak English fluently, you have to know the meanings and pronunciations of at least 10,000 words and phrases (for comparison, the average college student in the US knows about 20,000 words).

But while most learners realize vocabulary is a major area that requires a lot of attention, fewer are aware that there is an equally large body of facts that is described with the word usage.

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Things you should know about phonetic transcription

It is natural to assume that phonetic transcriptions are precise instructions on how to pronounce English words. I remember a time when I thought so, too. Over the years, I have realized that they are more like statistics: they can lie, and when they don’t lie, they don’t tell the whole truth.

In my new article (complete with audio recordings), I explain why phonetic transcriptions don’t give you the whole picture and can even be harmful if you take them too literally.

Read more in: “Things you should know about phonetic transcription

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English pronunciation is a minefield

Many languages have sensible writing systems. If you look at a Spanish, German or Italian word, you can tell how to pronounce it – all you need to know is a handful of basic rules. But English is not one of those languages. English words with almost identical spellings often have different pronunciations, so looking at a word’s spelling doesn’t tell you very much.

In my new article, I try to pinpoint why English pronunciation is so difficult that even native speakers occasionally get in trouble. I put on a horror show of tricky pronunciation examples that will make you abandon all hope of learning to speak English without mistakes. Finally, I offer a ray of hope as I explain what you can do to survive.

Read more in “English pronunciation is a minefield — here’s how to survive

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Why it’s important to learn about the sounds of English

Hi! In the first of the promised updates, I take another look at the fact that English uses different sounds than your native language. It turns out that learning to distinguish between the sounds of English is not just something which helps you understand spoken English and to be understood when you speak. If your brain is not phonetically trained, you’re not using your English input fully.

The article includes audio examples and a brief explanation of why certain sounds seem different while others seem similar.

Read more in “Why it’s important to learn about the sounds of English

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Modernizing Antimoon

Hello Readers! I’ve recently gotten around to making a few much-needed technical updates to Antimoon. Here’s the list of the most important changes:

  • Click / tap / point cursor at any highlighted words to get a pop-up explanation (with additional links to online dictionaries). (Try it right now!)
  • Select any word or phrase to get a popup with links to the best online dictionaries, enabling you to quickly look it up. (Try selecting something.)
  • Completely new audio links and audio player code built around HTML5 and SoundManager — does not require Flash, works great on mobile devices. (Examples of new audio links and new audio player)
  • Wider layout for more comfortable reading of articles. More space for sidenotes (of which there are many) and large images.
  • Responsive layout for mobile devices (including blog, forum and wiki pages). Antimoon now works pretty damn well on tablets – in fact, probably the best way to read this site is sitting in an armchair, holding a tablet. As for smaller devices like smartphones… well, it works as well as it can. You’re not going to get great reading experience on a 5-inch screen anyway.
  • Much faster performance on blog pages and translation wiki, thanks to: optimized templates with fewer HTTP requests, optimized image size, database tuning, PHP cache & updated software.
  • A bunch of audio files have been re-recorded on new equipment for better quality.

New articles coming soon.

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YouGlish: A YouTube-based pronunciation dictionary

What do you do when you’re not sure how to pronounce an English word? You look it up in a dictionary. But what if you can’t find it in a dictionary because it’s a rare word like azure, a derived form like walked, a proper name like San Rafael, or a technical term like JSON? Until now, there were two options:

  1. Pronunciation dictionary. This works for 90% of words.
  2. Forvo. This has the advantage of giving you authentic pronunciations free from possible biases.

I was recently made aware of a third option – a website called YouGlish.com, designed by Dan Barhen. How does it work? There’s a huge mass of content available on YouTube. Some YouTube videos include transcripts. YouGlish lets you search those transcripts. Type a word, press Enter, and you get a video where someone is saying that word. The video will automatically start from the relevant sentence, so there’s no need to look for the right place. If you want more examples of your word being pronounced, simply click the big arrow button to go the next video result. You can also easily replay your sentence. It’s a very nice interface for browsing examples or real-life speech and congratulations are due to Dan for making it work so smoothly.

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