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.

Read more

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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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Antimoon en español

I’m still trying to get over a message I received from Santiago Madrigal, a user from Colombia, who wrote in to share some news about the Antimoon Translation wiki, the part of Antimoon where users contribute their translations of selected Antimoon content. Santiago was disappointed to see that the Spanish section of the wiki had only four articles and a half, so he made himself a large cup of presumably Colombian coffee and translated 96½ more – a number that any reasonable person would consider a misprint. I can, however, confirm that the total for the Spanish wiki is now 101 – an absolutely unreasonable number which is five times the figure for the next biggest wiki language, Portuguese. In today’s Twitter-dominated world, merely reading a hundred articles could be considered an achievement worthy of a trophy and a commemorative plaque, but Santiago not only read them (hopefully), but also rendered them in Spanish. I’m usually the last to suggest violent solutions, but I’m beginning to think the rest of humanity should find a way to discreetly get rid of Santiago because he makes us all look lazy. I mean, who does he think he is?

Anyway, if you have Spanish-speaking amigos who keep asking you “¿Cómo aprender inglés?“, do them a favor and point them to the Spanish wiki.

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Should you care about phonetic transcrip­tions?

Today, nearly all good English dictionaries have audio recordings. If you can listen to any English word as it is pronounced by a native speaker, why should you care about phonetic transcriptions? My latest update gives a few good reasons.

I’ve also added a section that describes why you shouldn’t take phonetic transcriptions too seriously.

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Solving the problem of typing foreign characters and phonetic symbols on a PC

typeit icon on desktopˈgʊd ˈnjuːz ˈevriwʌn! I just typed this directly into this blog post, using my new TypeIt App for Windows.

Ever since I started learning foreign languages, typing foreign characters and phonetic symbols has been a problem. When learning German, I had a problem with ä, ö, ü and ß; with English, an even bigger problem with IPA phonetic symbols. In order to use phonetic transcriptions in my SuperMemo collection in DOS, I had to design my own IPA screen font.

Today, of course, we have Unicode and the problem is largely solved on the fonts side: if you use a popular font, you can be sure it will include characters for practically all languages. Even more amazingly, all modern operating systems have at least one good font with a full set of IPA symbols.

But there is also the keyboard side. The characters are available, all right, but typing them comfortably is another matter.

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Cheap way to get the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE)

I recently learned that The Book Depository (a British online bookstore recently acquired by Amazon) has the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for about $24 with free worldwide delivery. This is the lowest price, online or offline, that I’ve seen for this excellent dictionary. Note that for this price you get the DVD only (no paper book). But who has the time to leaf through a huge book, right?

Of course, the first thing you should do after installing the LDOCE is download Taku Fukada’s unbelievable LDOCE5 Viewer which will turn your LDOCE from mediocre to amazing.

If you also need the book version for some reason, The Book Depository has the paperback+DVD for about $44 (free worldwide delivery). Amazon.co.uk has it for £23.79 (about $37) but delivery is not free, so it would probably end up costing more. (However, Amazon.co.uk has free delivery to some European countries if your order comes to more than £25, so you could order something else in addition to the LDOCE in order to qualify for free shipping.)

Thanks to commenter “michau” for the tip about The Book Depository.

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LDOCE5 Viewer is now free!

Taku Fukada’s fantastic viewer app for the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) is now available for free. Now even pathological misers who won’t spend five dollars on an awesome app can get one!

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Transcribing modern RP

Many of you know that the phonetic transcriptions that you can see in any modern British dictionary represent an accent called Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is, broadly speaking, the kind of accent that you have if your family has a coat of arms and an estate in Kent, or, at the very least, if you went to Oxford or Cambridge.

To describe RP pronunciations of words, dictionaries use a transcription system based on symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The system was developed by Daniel Jones in the early 20th century; the last significant change to this system occurred in 1967 when A. C. Gimson took on the job of editor of the English Pronouncing Dictionary.

Did you catch that date – 1967? That’s 46 years ago. But accents evolve all the time. The British upper classes speak differently than they did in the 1960s. Yet the transcription system has remained virtually unchanged.

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Another learner report

Kamil Oleksiak, a second-year student of English, is using the Antimoon Method to learn English. He was nice enough to share his experiences with Antimoon readers.

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How well do Antimoon visitors know the pronunciation of basic English words?

In September 2010, I published Test your English pronunciation, a 10-question quiz which tests your knowledge of the basics of English pronunciation. Today, we’re going to look at the results. How well do Antimoon visitors know basic pronunciation?

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What to read when you’re a beginner?

I’ve updated my reading recommendations for beginners with links to some great detective stories and my experiences learning German with simplified books (also known as “learner literature” or “graded readers”).

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Report from a beginner learner

Arkadiusz, who recently asked me a question about listening to two different dialects of English at the same time, has sent me a brief report on his experiences with the Antimoon Method. For a long time, I’ve been thinking about publishing more learner reports on Antimoon – not just reports from successful learners, but also people who are just starting to learn English seriously. It can be quite motivating to read about other people’s progress – perhaps more motivating than reading “you should do this” and “you should do that”…

So, I’ve decided to publish his short report. Hopefully, I’ll be able to publish some other learner feedback that has been lying around in my e-mail archive. Anyway, here’s the report:

Learner reports: Arkadiusz K.

 

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Can listening to American and British English at the same time be harmful?

Arkadiusz writes (and I translate):

I’ve started learning English with the Antimoon Method. After a very short time (just two months), I can already see considerable progress, which motivates me to keep working. I have a question about input. I use various sources: some of them American (mostly cartoons and TV series), some of them British (podcasts, radio). Can mixing two different kinds of English be harmful? Should I concentrate on just one dialect of English?

The only risk I can see is that you could pick up a “mid Atlantic” accent (a mixture of British and American pronunciation). This shouldn’t be a problem in any serious sense of the word, but if you’re interested in having a pure RP or GenAm accent, you should learn about the differences between British and American pronunciation (individual sounds and word pronunciations) and pay attention to those differences as you listen to content. This should help your brain keep the two pronunciation models separate.

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Survey for independent English learners

Raphey Holmes, a Master’s student at Boise State University, is doing research on the use of technology by independent English learners. If you are teaching yourself English and would like to help, the survey is here.

In order to participate in the survey, you have to meet the following requirements:

  • You are at least 18 years old.
  • You are a non-native English speaker.
  • You are currently working to improve some aspect of your English.
  • You are not currently enrolled in a formal English class and you are not taking private lessons.
  • You believe your overall English abilities are at a high intermediate or advanced level.
  • You use English on a regular basis.

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A few input-related updates

I’ve made a few small changes to the input section:

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Updated SRS section

The old SuperMemo section of “How to learn English” is now called the “SRS” section. The pages were previously SuperMemo-centric; they now cover the two most popular spaced-repetition systems: SuperMemo and Anki. I’ve rewritten the introduction to SRS (I’ve even drawn a nice graph to demonstrate the idea of spaced repetition), edited “Making SRS items (cards) for learning English” and added some notes on which SRS you should get.

Also added a short page on the advantages of listening over reading.

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Why do so many people master English, but not their second or third foreign language?

Brandon writes:

I have been reading about 40 pages a day and watching TV for about 2 hours a day. I have been coming across the new words and the new idioms that I learn over and over again, just like you said in one of your articles. It feels really good to know that I am making progress and to be able to use those new words and idioms in my conversations with native French speakers.

I have one more quick question, if you don’t mind. I know Polish is your dominant language, but it appears your English is as good (or nearly as good) as your native language. Do you think your German will ever be as good as your English?

It seems like there are so many people in this world who have mastered English. I have met Germans that could speak English as well as they could speak their native language, but all of the Germans learning French that I have met so far could not speak French very well (even though they learned it for many years). I know people from Japan that have learned English very well, but those learning French or German could not speak those languages very well.

Why do so many people master English, but not their 2nd or 3rd foreign language? Even those who can speak multiple languages, such as the polyglots on YouTube, tend to speak only their native language and English "fluently" and they are only at the advanced or intermediate level in the other languages they claim they speak.

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t have any scientific data on this, but I think my personal experience may be part of the answer.

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