Thoughts for serious language learners
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Entries from December 26th, 2010

Correct English Search

Correct English logoThere are two problems with using Google to check your English:

  1. The Web is full of bad English written by non-native speakers and verbally incompetent native speakers. This is a serious problem when you’re looking for correct example sentences to learn the usage of a word or when you’re trying to check if some phrase is correct, because you cannot trust the information you get from the general Web. In each case, you have to examine the source of the sentence to check if it’s trustworthy.
  2. Google routinely reports the wrong number of hits, especially for phrases. It may tell you that “I have a question for you” occurs on 1,600,000 pages, but the actual number is 473. This means you cannot trust the reported number of hits when you want to check if some phrase is correct. The only solution is to find the last search results page, but this can be hard if there are a lot of hits. (Bing used to be accurate, but now has the same issues.)

The Correct English search engine (based on Google) solves the first problem. It includes a subset of the Web — a hand-picked list of sources which are known to contain good English: online dictionaries, news sites, selected blogs and communities, Wikipedia, movie scripts, government sites, and others. Of course, the content is not 100% “pure”, but the quality is vastly better than on the general Web. Correct English contains practically no sentences written in bad English.

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1-minute review: Extreme English

My friend Michał recently asked me for an opinion on Extreme English, the flagship English-learning course at SuperMemo.net. He has moved to England and is eager to improve his English.

Michał is a smart guy. He realizes that just living in England will not make him a good English speaker. As a case in point, the Polish family he is currently staying with has lived in England for five years and speaks hardly any English. They watch Polish channels on TV, they talk mostly to each other and to other Poles, and they do jobs that require little communication skills, so they don’t get enough input to make progress.

So he is simply continuing the English-learning strategy that he used in Poland. He listens to English radio, watches English TV, reads English newspapers, and develops his own SuperMemo collection. The only difference is that now his future depends on how well he can learn English. This leads to more intensity (he’s now learning for several hours a day), but also a lot of pressure.

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A better LDOCE

Added May 2012: See here for a better solution to problems with the LDOCE.

In last week’s episode, I decided to say goodbye to the PC version of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) after months of putting up with its slowness, missing features, and — most of all — random bugs. Today, I am pleased to report that I seem to have found a satisfactory solution.

Every copy of the LDOCE comes with an access code to the online version of the dictionary, available at www.longmandictionariesonline.com.

Web applications give the programmer much less freedom than native Windows applications. In this case, that’s a good thing, because it means that Longman’s developers have had much less freedom to screw up basic features like scrolling or copy-and-paste.

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I’ve had it with LDOCE

LDOCE entry for "pain"

Since I wrote my enormous comparison of English dictionaries for learners, I’ve been using the LDOCE (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) for Windows as my main dictionary. And you know what? I can’t stand the pain anymore.

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Updated articles on pronunciation

I have updated and reorganized two of my articles on pronunciation:

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Test your English pronunciation

Do you pronounce basic English words correctly? Take this short test to find out:

Test your English pronunciation

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New IPA fonts in Windows 7

Did you know Windows 7 ships with a set of good-looking fonts with a full complement of IPA symbols?

Microsoft has been making great strides on the IPA front. In Windows XP, the only IPA-enabled font was Lucida Sans Unicode. Windows Vista also had Arial, Tahoma and Times New Roman, which had been updated to include phonetic symbols, and the beautiful new system font – Segoe UI. Windows 7 extends IPA support to two good-looking fonts that first appeared in Windows Vista — Cambria and Calibri.

Here is a sample of the new and old IPA-enabled fonts available on Windows Vista and Windows 7:

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Monkey Island 2

Monkey Island 2 cover imageIn September last year, I was happy to report that LucasArts had finally decided to revisit its legacy of highly original graphic adventure games and released a Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, updated with high-resolution graphics, voice acting and a re-recorded orchestral score.

Now there is more good news. They’ve just released a remake of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge! Having earned his pirate stripes in the first game, our hero Guybrush Threepwood is now a confident young buccaneer with a stylish beard, new clothes and a small fortune. Wanting to prove himself once again, he has come to Scabb Island in search of a legendary treasure called Big Whoop.

Alongside Monkey 1, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, Monkey 2 was a game which gave me my most memorable gaming experiences in my teen years. There was a time when I would spend most of my free time thinking about how to solve another puzzle in the game. Those of you who have played Monkey 1, be advised: this is a much longer and harder game than its predecessor.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is available for €10 on PC (on Steam), Xbox, PS3, and iPhone/iPad. You can turn on subtitles in English, German, Italian, Spanish and French. Check out the official site.

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Two interesting videos for geeks

If you’re a fan of computer games or geeky topics in general, check out these two videos from the newly launched tech site Motherboard.tv:

  • Richard Garriott: King Of All Nerds: A 20-minute documentary on Richard Garriott, better known as Lord British, author of the classic RPG game Ultima.
  • Game Godfather Sid Meier and the 48-Hour Game: Sid Meier, the legendary game designer (Civilization, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Colonization, Alpha Centauri), takes part in a college competition to design and code a game in 48 hours. In the documentary, Sid Meier talks about the early days of the video game industry.

Both videos in fairly advanced American English.

Game Godfather Sid Meier and the 48-Hour Game

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Spanish Only

Spanish Only logo

Antimoon is a site for English learners, but the Antimoon Method can be used to learn any language. Of course, you will need to make some tweaks — for example, not every language will require as much focus on pronunciation as English.

If you are interested in specific advice for learning Spanish using the Antimoon Method, you should check out Spanish Only, a relatively new blog written by Ramses, a smart young guy from the Netherlands. Ramses has spent the past few years learning Spanish on his own by immersing himself in Spanish content. The man is full of interesting thoughts and tips, some of which will be relevant to serious learners of all languages.

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Would you let your mom learn from this?

question: a movable panel (flat piece of wood) for closing off an entrance; answer: door

This is a typical item from the free Basic English collection at SuperMemo.net, which is supposed to teach elementary English vocabulary to beginners. Unfortunately, I lack the wordpower to describe the stupidity of expecting someone who doesn’t know the word door to understand that definition.

To be fair, SuperMemo does offer the same collection in several language versions (for a monthly subscription fee), in which the complicated English definitions are replaced with Polish, German, etc. translations. Still, the purpose of providing a free version that is clearly unusable is something I can’t figure out.

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Formal and informal English

My new article explains the difference between formal and informal English and shows where you can get formal and informal input.

The most important piece of advice for an English learner is to get lots of input. But not all input is the same. There are, roughly speaking, two basic types of English input: formal and informal.

Formal English is used in “serious” texts and situations — for example, in official documents, books, news reports, articles, business letters or official speeches. Informal English is used in everyday conversations and in personal letters.

Read more…

I have also updated my article “Reading is easier than listening”, refining my discussion of why it is easier to understand written English than spoken English.

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Best of Ask Antimoon in February & March

Ask Antimoon has been around for over a month (it launched on Feb 17). Here is a subjective list of my favorite questions:

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Why you need to take charge of your English learning

In this article, I will argue that English classes simply do not give you enough input to speak English fluently, and that you need to get English input outside of the classroom if you want to be fluent. I will also give two other reasons to take things into your own hands and get English input on your own.

From my new article “Why you need to take charge of your English learning”.

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Bing better than Google for checking grammar

Bing LogoA few years ago, I wrote a popular forum post that showed how to use Google to check the correctness of your English sentences. Here’s the gist of it:

Let’s suppose I’m wondering whether it is correct to write “to have a question for someone” or “to have a question to someone”. I can easily answer this question with Google by doing a search on “have a question to” and “have a question for” (note the quotes).

When I search for “have a question to”, Google displays sentences taken out of the pages which contained the phrase. In the first few results, I see phrases like “have a question to ask Richard”, which is not what I was interested in. So I change the original query to “have a question to you” and find 416 pages. I notice that the first few results are from ESL websites, so they are not reliable.

The search for “have a question for you” returns 28,600 pages.
I conclude that “have a question for someone” is the correct phrase.

Ask Antimoon user Johnny has recently shocked me by pointing out that the number of results given by Google is horribly inaccurate. For example, when you search for “open the books on page”, Google tells you there are 497,000 results. But when you take a closer look, you see that there are only 11 results (10 on the first page, 1 on the second page)! I was always aware that the figure is an estimate, but I had no idea it could be off by 4 orders of magnitude!

(If you’re getting different results due to changes in the Google index, check out this screenshot.)

It appears that the numbers given by Bing are much more accurate, so if you’ve been using Google to answer grammar questions, you would do well to switch to Bing. Added 26 Dec 2010: Bing appears to suffer from the same problem now.

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What to read?

I’ve updated my article with tips on what to read in English and added a new page with specific reading recommendations.

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How much input do you need to speak English fluently?

In my newest article, I try to estimate how much input is actually necessary to get from basic English skills to fluency.

Few people realize that learning a language fluently is a much more memory-intensive task than, say, learning organic chemistry or the history of Europe at an expert level.

Let’s consider the number of facts you need to know to produce correct English sentences with ease. Certainly you must know the meanings and pronunciations of something like 10,000 words and phrases — something like the contents of a medium-sized dictionary. But this is only half the picture. The other half are thousands upon thousands of little facts which tell you when to use different words and how to combine them with other words.

Read more…

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1-minute review of SuperMemo.net

Here’s my one-line review of SuperMemo.net:

And I thought SuperMemo for Windows was hard to use.

First off, there are many bugs due to insufficient testing. I tried SuperMemo.net on two browsers: Firefox 3.6 and Internet Explorer 8. In the first case, I was unable to add sounds to my items (Firefox reported an “outdated plugin”). Is it so hard to use Flash the way every other website does it?

In the second case, SuperMemo refused to enable rich-text editing, claiming that I need IE 7. Guess they forgot that there are newer versions of IE out there.

But the worst thing is the half-baked interface. Adding new items, editing items and browsing through your items all take way too many clicks. The system names every item “New item”, which makes it impossible to locate an item in the list of items (and there is no way to go to the next/previous item!). Setting a font size for all your items is impossible.

If using SuperMemo had been this hard back when I was in high school, I would have never become a SuperMemo user. In its current state, SuperMemo.net is absolutely unsuitable for learners who want to build their own collections.

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Ask Antimoon

Thumbnail of the Ask Antimoon homepageTime for the big announcement that I promised you a few days ago. I have just launched an awesome new site for questions about the English language, other languages, and language learning methods. It’s called Ask Antimoon.

If you are learning a foreign language (and taking it seriously) and/or like helping others with their language questions, Ask Antimoon will be the perfect place for you.

What’s so exciting about this new site, you ask? For starters, it’s not a discussion forum. It’s a Q&A site, also called a “knowledge exchange”. Here’s how it’s different:

  • Every new topic is a question.
  • Everyone posts only one answer.
  • Everyone replies to the original question (not other people’s answers), so the communication stays on topic.
  • If you want to add something to your answer, you edit it.
  • The best answers (as voted by users) are moved to the top of the page.

The second exciting thing are the community features:

  • You can vote on questions and answers, flag them as spam/offensive, etc.
  • If other people find your questions and answers valuable, you will get reputation points.
  • Reputation points enable you to do more things on Ask Antimoon, e.g. edit other people’s posts or close questions. Users with a lot of reputation have moderator-like powers.

So if you have a great question about any language or about language-learning methods, ask it on Ask Antimoon! And one more thing: make sure you read the Ask Antimoon FAQ before posting to prevent unpleasant surprises :)

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Money vs. freedom – a short story

Here’s a nice short story for intermediate to advanced learners, posted by madmax_br5 on Reddit:

An American investment banker was walking by the pier of a coastal Mexican village when a fisherman docked his small boat nearby and tossed several large yellow fin tuna onto the dock.

The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked, “How long does it take to catch them?”

The Mexican replied: “Not very long — maybe a couple of hours, senor.”

The American then asked why the fisherman didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish.

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs and was happy with that.

The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life which I enjoy very much.”

Read more…

BTW, I will be making a major announcement about a new Antimoon feature in the next few days, so stay tuned!

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