Thoughts for serious language learners
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Entries from December 15th, 2009

News from the world of SuperMemo

SuperMemo World has quietly released SuperMemo 2008. Most of the new features are clearly designed for incremental reading fanatics, but there is one feature that might be somewhat useful to language learners: You can now input your sleeping hours and SuperMemo will try to estimate whether you are sleepy or fresh when you’re reviewing your items. If it determines you are sleepy, it will assume that your grades are below your normal ability, and will give them a small bump to adjust for the sleepiness.

In other SuperMemo news, there may finally be a way to edit items comfortably on SuperMemo for Pocket PC. Zaid Ahmad wrote to me saying that he has used a free app called MyMobiler to control his Pocket PC from his desktop, including copying & pasting text from his PC to his Pocket PC. This would mean that you can create and edit items remotely on your Pocket PC, while taking advantage of a real keyboard and software dictionaries.

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The Google English Dictionary

Cropped screenshot of the Google DictionaryThis took me completely by surprise: The Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary is now available from Google for free!

Of course there are better choices for English learners. Google did not include the example sentences from the COBUILD Wordbank, which means that all the other major dictionaries for advanced learners have more example sentences than the Google Dictionary — the best one in this respect (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) has more than twice as many examples, if you count those in the “extra examples” section.

The phonetic transcriptions have been copied from the COBUILD, so some of them are misleading. Some important phonetic information related to American English is missing. There are no audio recordings.

On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the fact that you can now access Collins COBUILD’s friendly definitions and example sentences completely free of charge. You get reasonably good IPA transcriptions (in Unicode) that you can easily copy wherever you want. And, you avoid all the annoyances of recent software dictionaries: cluttered layout, slow scrolling, long startup time, poor mousewheel support, problems copying text to other applications. Google’s dictionary has a fast, minimalistic interface that Just Works. What more can you wish for?

It is not as comprehensive as dictionaries on DVD and its phonetics are not always trustworthy, but it is pleasant to use and has enough content to keep you busy for years. I suspect that few English learners will decide to spend money on a traditional dictionary when they can get 90% of what they need online for free. Is this the beginning of the end for dictionary publishers?

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The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

If you have read my story, you know that adventure games were the first source of English input that I used outside of English classes. These games showed me how much fun I could have with English and opened my eyes to the power of reading English sentences on your own.

Cropped screenshot from The Secret of Monkey Island opening titlesOne of those games was The Secret of Monkey Island. I had played a few adventures before, but The Secret of Monkey Island I really enjoyed. The difficulty level was not too hard, you could not kill your character (no “Game Over” screen), and the game’s premise (you are a young lad with a funny name who came to an island in the Caribbean to become a pirate) sucked me right in. Monkey Island had the right mix of originality, quirky humor and mystery to make it a cult classic and one my best childhood memories.

And now LucasArts has released a remake. They re-created the hand-drawn graphics, re-recorded the beautiful music, and added voice dialogue, while remaining 100% faithful to the original. Finally a way to experience the great adventure on modern computers with big screens. I bought the game on Steam (it’s only €9!) and finished it in two days, but it could take you weeks if you have never played it before.

The Secret of Monkey Island is a great way to learn English, especially if you like video games and have the patience to solve some light-weight puzzles. The dialogue is clearer than what you hear in movies, there are subtitles (in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish), and you can run the game in a window, pause it, and look up words in your dictionary. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is available for PC, Xbox and iPhone. Take a look at the trailer and the official site.

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Review of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th edition)

cover of the Cambridge English Pronouncing DictionaryReview of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th edition):

the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary is useful in those situations where you have reasons to doubt your regular dictionary (or dictionaries). If the EPD lists a pronunciation first, it is probably the most common one. If the EPD does not list a pronunciation, it is probably quite rare.

Review of the CD-ROM version:

If you’re learning British pronunciation (RP), the exercises in the dictionary will help you learn the British sounds and their phonetic symbols. The dictionary will also give you easy access to British and American recordings and will let you practice imitating them with the voice recording feature.

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The best of the Antimoon Forum in 2005

I’ve finally posted my selection of the best Antimoon Forum topics of 2005. The list has 358 topics, which means that the forum had close to one useful topic per day. I see the glass half full :-)

For those of you who are short on time, here is a handful of topics that caught my eye as I was looking through the archive:

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Comparative review of dictionaries for English learners

Small collage of dictionary screenshotsIt took me ages to write it, but here it is. Probably the only (and certainly the best) comparative review of dictionaries for English learners on the Web. I’ve tested the following dictionaries:

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary (5th edition)
  • Collins COBUILD Advanced Dictionary (6th edition)
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (5th edition, 2009)
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Which dictionaries are best for serious English learners? Read the review to find out.

Sep 3: Updated review and scores based on the patch that Longman has published for the LDOCE.

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New websites with English pronunciation exercises

I have discovered a couple great new websites with audio exercises to practice the pronunciation of English sounds:

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Should you learn American or British pronunciation?

Images of the US and UK flagsIf you are an English learner who has just started taking pronunciation seriously, should you learn American or British pronunciation? My latest article gives you some pointers and practical information that will hopefully help you answer this question for yourself. It also has recordings of some of the best American and British audiobook narrators.

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TypeIt 2.0

I have just launched version 2.0 of TypeIt, my popular online editor for typing foreign characters and IPA symbols. This overhauled version sports the following new features:

  • Full keyboard support for Internet Explorer 6/7/8, Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome
  • You can switch between languages while typing
  • Boldface, italics and underlines in all editors
  • You can choose the font face and size that looks good to you
  • Easily type professional-looking “curly” quotes, apostrophes ― and nice long dashes, too!

Screenshot of the TypeIt homepageThe following editors are currently available: Czech, Danish (new), Dutch (new), Finnish (new), French, German, Hungarian, IPA (English), Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. If you write stuff in one of these languages or you use phonetic transcriptions in your study of English, I invite you to give TypeIt a try!

July 17 update: Russian keyboard added!

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The Antimoon Translation Project

You know that story about a box which said “see inside for opening instructions”? It was about Antimoon. You see, Antimoon tells you how to learn English effectively. But to understand Antimoon, you have to know English. Classic chicken-and-egg problem.

Of course some learners can understand the articles on Antimoon and the advice can help them take their English to the next level. But that does not change the fact that people need two things to benefit from Antimoon:

  1. They need to find it.
  2. They must be able to read and understand short articles in English.

Let’s face it: These are significant barriers. Most beginner and intermediate learners are not in the habit of searching Google for English phrases like How to learn English — they search for phrases in their native languages and Antimoon never comes up in those searches. And even if they somehow come across this site, they do not have the skills or patience to read so much English text. The idea of reading in English arouses terror in many, if not most, learners.

Enter the Antimoon Translation Project. Thanks to the inspiration and cooperation of Eun-Deok Jin, an enthusiastic English learner from Korea, I have set up a wiki where anyone can post their translations of Antimoon articles. The goal is to bring effective learning methods to beginners all around the world.

If your native language is other than English and you can understand English well, you can contribute to the project by translating something — either a whole article or part of an article — into your native language. As in Wikipedia, anyone can add a page or edit an existing one.

So far, Jin has translated 10 articles into Korean and Michal Stanislaw Wojcik has translated 2 into Polish.

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The role of mistakes in language learning

Of all the advice on Antimoon, “Do not make mistakes” is by far the most controversial. Hardly a month goes by without an e-mail or forum post from an angered English teacher, letting me know how stupid I am for telling learners to avoid mistakes. Don’t I realize that mistakes are a necessary element of all learning? Haven’t I heard the phrase “learn from your mistakes”? And why am I scaring learners into silence?

With this article, I hope to clear up the confusion once and for all.

Read more:
The role of mistakes in language learning

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The worst dictionary in existence

In July, I wrote that the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary had been dropped from the Collins product line. I have since found out that I was wrong. HarperCollins has partnered with an American educational company called Cengage to release a new (sixth) edition of this landmark dictionary. I suppose the complicated business relationship with Cengage is one reason why it is so hard to find any information on this edition on Collins’ websites.

Anyway, I have installed the sixth edition on my PC and I must say it is the most bloated, slowest, buggiest software dictionary that I have ever used. Looking up a word takes 1-5 seconds on a fast machine, the dictionary takes up over 300 MB of memory, there are no phonetic transcriptions, and the recordings are of a quality that we used to have before CDs came along. It is painfully obvious that this product was written by incompetent programmers, tested by no one, and approved by managers who didn’t care. Avoid like the plague!

If you want to buy a Collins COBUILD, get the previous (fifth) edition. It is a solid piece of software developed by a completely different company. It runs fast, has phonetic transcriptions and good-quality audio. It has been discontinued, but the Elearnaid store has enough copies to last a year.

For more information, read the updated reviews of the Collins COBUILD Dictionary (book version and CD-ROM).

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