Thoughts for serious language learners
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Holy crap! A ninja has just turned LDOCE into the best dictionary ever

As many of you know, in my 2009 review of English dictionaries for learners, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) won in every content category. No other dictionary I tested has more example sentences, friendlier definitions, more accurate pronunciations, better coverage of American English or better-quality recordings.

But the dictionary has a fatal flaw: the software is awful. I had to write a cathartic rant about it just to keep myself from sending a mail bomb to the Pearson Longman headquarters. If you think I’m some kind of grouch with unrealistic expectations… well, yes, maybe I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Let me just list the most important problems: the 10-second start-up time, lack of mousewheel or trackpad support, slow and buggy scrolling, and pointless clicking required to do anything. In many ways, LDOCE feels like a university – lots of valuable knowledge, but hopelessly inefficient and full of pointless hurdles.

Enter Taku Fukada, an English learner from Japan. Like many other people, he read my dictionary review, decided to buy the LDOCE, and discovered that he hated using it. But, instead of whining about it like I did, he did what ninjas do: he silently solved the problem.



Learning ‘everyday English’ without living in an English-speaking country

If you’re an English learner living in a non-English-speaking country, your English input will be different from the input of someone who lives in, say, America. A learner in America (assuming he interacts with people on an everyday basis) will get most of his input by listening to everyday, informal conversations between people. A learner in Germany or Brazil will get most of his input from “content” – books, movies, videogames, songs, Web articles, discussion forums, TV shows, podcasts, etc. – things that are printed, recorded and published somewhere.

It’s hard to imagine learning English well without access to English-language content. Reading a book or watching a movie in English is an incredibly motivating and powerful experience that can produce a dramatic growth in the number of words, phrases and grammar structures that you can use.

However, there is a small catch. Relying on content can create a gap in your knowledge of “everyday English”. You can read dozens of books, watch hundreds of movies and read thousands of Web pages, and still not know what to say when you’re handing something to someone (There you go), how to say that your favorite show will be on TV at 5 pm (It’s coming on at 5.), or how to use phrases like Looks like it, Fat chance or Dibs on the cake.



Practice pronouncing English words

In my brand-new article, I offer some advice and tips on practicing English pronunciation. I hope you find it useful.


Checking the pronunciations of English words

In the latest update, I write about the importance of checking the pronunciations of English words and offer a few tips about that.


Corpus-based frequency and collocation information from

Mark Davies, creator of the largest freely available corpus of English, has built another tool, called What does it do? You type in an English word and it shows you the following information:

  • the word’s rank in the COCA corpus (for example, perform is the 954th most frequent word in the corpus)
  • the word’s relative frequency in spoken English, fiction, magazines, newspapers and academic texts; for example, sullen (=angry and silent) is used almost exclusively in fiction writing and practically never in spoken English
  • collocates, sorted by part of speech and by frequency; for example, perform often occurs together with words such as task, function, well, better, able and poorly
  • example sentences containing the word

If you type * into the search box, you can also get a list of the most frequent English words.


Most readable Antimoon ever

You should be looking at a redesigned Antimoon, the project I’ve been working on for the past month or so. If it looks wrong, you may have to reload the page to get the newest styles.

If anything seems wrong after you reload the page, please let me know.

Here’s a rundown of the most important changes:

  • More readable, better-looking text
  • Navigation bar on every page
  • Coordinated color scheme
  • (articles and blog pages only) Dictionary lookup feature — double-click any word to look it up in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (includes phonetic transcription, recordings and of course example sentences)
  • (articles only) Google Translate link for people who have difficulty reading in English and whose languages are not included in the Translation Wiki.
  • (articles and blog pages only) Buttons for sharing an article on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Awesome print stylesheet — if you print an article, it will look almost as good as a page from a book. No ads, no site navigation, just pure text set in a nice font.



How many items per day should you add to your SRS?

Brandon writes:

I was wondering how many items we should add to SuperMemo per day. What average worked well for you and your friends when you were in high school?

I was a heavy SuperMemo user for about 2.5 years. In that period, I added 6,000 items to my English collection. Therefore, my daily average was about 6 items per day. The typical scenario was that, every few days, I would sit down and add anywhere between 10 and 50 words and phrases to my English collection. In addition to that, I added an average of 4 items per day to my German collection.

Doesn’t sound impressive at all, does it? If there ever was a conference for users of spaced repetition software (SRS), I think 6,000 items would get me laughed out of the room. I personally know people who have memorized more than 20,000 English items. My friend and ex-partner at Antimoon, Michal Ryszard Wojcik, added twice as many items as me.



Is “pause and think” worth it?

Michał B. writes:

I’ve recently started to use Your method (especially SRSing, getting a lot of input and learning to pronounce things) and since then I’ve been observing a big improvement in my comprehension. However, I still have many problems with grammar, so a week ago I decided to give “Pause and Think method” a try. When reading a book I’m trying to analyse grammar structures, collocations, word orders etc. I’m also looking up most words I don’t understand in a dictionary (since I read mostly when using public transportation I use a cell-phone dictionary). The method seems fine, but the problem is, it’s horribly time-consuming. To read a single page using this method I usually need some 15-20 minutes. During this time I could probably read 10 pages. So here’s the question: wouldn’t it be more (or similarly) beneficial to read several books (=to get much more input) instead of reading one, but more carefully?



Ask Antimoon won’t be coming back

Quick update for those of you who care:

After spending weeks trying to configure a replacement for Ask Antimoon, I’ve convinced myself that the project is not really worth the effort. I’ve got to face the facts here: the site never took off the way I hoped it would. The number of visitors was minuscule next to the total number of Antimoon visitors and, while there was an upward trend, it was barely detectable. I know there was a small group of people who really liked Ask Antimoon (I still get enquiries from former users). There were also some insightful discussions there and I’m sorry they’re no longer accessible. Still, setting up, maintaining and administering Ask Antimoon takes really unpleasant work. Since I suck at making money on the Interwebs, there would be zero financial payoff to that work. Of course I like doing stuff for the community, but I think my time is better spent on things other than providing and policing a discussion board.

I apologize to those of you who were waiting for the site to come back up. And no, there will be no revival of the old forum. No way I’m going back to that level of discussion.


Learn English pronunciation as soon as possible

I spent a week improving the pronunciation section of How to learn English. The main pronunciation page now contains more concrete advice.

I plan to make several updates to the pronunciation section in the near future. Here’s the first one: Learn to pronounce English words as soon as possible. The gist of the article is that you shouldn’t put off studying English pronunciation because doing so puts you at risk of developing fossilized mistakes (bad habits). The article also explains the concept of “getting it right in your head” when pronouncing English words.

Learn to pronounce English words as soon as possible
Learn to pronounce English words as soon as possible


English vowel chart

I needed to find an online vowel chart for English, but I couldn’t find one I liked, so I made one myself. Here it is: English vowel chart

miniature of vowel chart


Learning German in Germany: to speak or not to speak?

Danilo writes:

I was raised and spent my whole childhood and school years in Serbia where I graduated from the faculty of Pharmacy. Six moths ago I moved to Germany. I am looking for job opportunities here.

All of a sudden everyone expects me to be fluent in German because they heard that immersion is going to do wonders. My wife is also here and she came a year and a half ago but she is still not fluent in German. We both understand a lot of things but we make mistakes when we speak and we have problems to “find the words” during conversation.

No one is forcing us to speak in German and we speak mostly English at home because we have a roommate from Netherlands.

What really bugs me is the pressure from language schools (where I had 28 classes with 20 people who can barely say anything normal or without a lot of mistakes) and my family. Somehow, everyone thinks that we should magically pick up phrases and start talking effortlessly and correctly only because we are in Germany. (…)



How to start learning a language

Dan writes:

I’m trying to use your method to better learn Spanish. I speak some Spanish having lived abroad for a couple years, but I can’t watch a movie, read a book, or participate in a conversation without getting lost very quickly. I have tried to start “getting input” – reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a videogame in Spanish, however it’s very difficult and confusing and like I said – I  get lost pretty quick. And this is with enough skill with the language that I can “get by” (ask questions, order food, etc.) in Spanish already.

I’m sure you’ve counseled people in the past who’ve started out with a language at the very beginning or at least earlier than me. What am I missing? Is it just patience to pore through movies and books and make whatever sense of them I can for much more time? Or is there some other method I should be supplementing at the very beginning (e.g. Pimsleur) until I am able to get through a movie & use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary?



Totally like whatever, you know?

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

I thought you might enjoy this typographically animated version of “Totally like whatever, you know?”, a poem by Taylor Mali (text version here). The poem satirizes the use of like, you know, and the rising, “questiony” intonation at the ends of a sentences, which are found in the speech of many young people in the United States.


How many English words do you know?

Have you ever wondered how many English words you know? The question is not very precise — what does it mean to ‘know’ a word? is teacup a word or a combination of two words? how about tick off? is game (something you play) a different word from game (wild animals)? Nevertheless, it feels good to put some kind of number on your vocabulary. will estimate the size of your passive English vocabulary (the words that you can understand; not necessarily use in a sentence) by showing you a sample of words from a dictionary to determine your general level, and then another sample to get a more precise measurement. You can then compare your result with native speakers and non-native speakers of various ages.

The authors have also published some interesting charts based on the data they’ve collected.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, my score was 26,400.


Where’s Ask Antimoon?

For those of you wondering why you cannot access Ask Antimoon anymore, here’s the deal: Ask Antimoon was on a server that was set to expire on Monday. (By the way, I would like to thank Fog Creek Software for hosting the site free of charge for almost 2 years.)

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on setting up a clone of Ask Antimoon on my own server. I made dozens of UI customizations to make the new site behave in roughly the same way as the old site (which I was generally happy with). When I finally got around to the problem of getting the actual data from the old site to the new site, it turned out that this doesn’t work. There are bugs and missing features to deal with. Yes, the data import should have been the first thing that I tested, but I was an idiot.

To make things worse, I will be mostly unavailable for the next 10 days or so, so it might take a while before the site is back up.


Tom’s List (high-quality sources of regular audio/video input for English learners)

If you want to learn fluent English, you should probably get about 6 hours of spoken input a week. This usually means that you need a constant supply of interesting audio/video content to listen to/watch at home.

It is not always easy to find new sources of input every week, so it is a good idea to watch and listen to episodic content. That way, rather than wonder “What movie am I going to watch today?”, you can just tune in to your favorite show regularly and get your dose of English.

With this in mind, I have decided to publish a list of episodic content (TV shows, podcasts, etc.) that I have found exceptionally entertaining or informative. I will add to this list as I discover new shows, so check back in a while.



Full episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report available to everyone for free

screencap of The Daily ShowThanks to the great people at Comedy Central, everyone can now watch full episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report online for free! (That is, everyone except people in a few countries, like the UK, in which these shows are aired on TV.)

As you know, I am a big fan of watching TV series and shows because they are a constant source of input that gives you the intensity you need to build your English. So if you have a sense of humor and you are at all interested in US politics, follow these shows for some excellent English practice.

(You probably know that you can watch all the South Park episodes online, but here’s a link just in case.)


Corpuses for Spanish and Portuguese

Mark Davies, who developed the invaluable Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), recently launched two new language corpuses: Corpus del Español and Corpus do Português.

Once you get the hang of the query syntax and the user interface (which can be daunting at first), you can search through a large database of Spanish and Portuguese sentences to answer lots of different questions about these two languages, e.g. which preposition goes with insistir, which synonym of duro is most commonly used with trabajo, and many others.

Unlike Google, Mark’s corpuses allow you to search for all the grammatical forms of a word (just put the base form of the word in [brackets]), specify parts of speech (e.g. [v*] stands for any verb in any form), or search by proximity (e.g. find all adjectives within 5 words of ojos). They will also sort the results by frequency, which can be a real time-saver.


Full IPA support on TypeIt

screenshot of the IPA keyboard

I have just rolled out a full IPA “keyboard” which lets you type IPA phonetic symbols for any language (not just English).

You will find it useful if you ever need to type phonetic transcriptions for a language other than English. You will also like it if you’re a phonetics geek and always wanted to transcribe tree as [tʰɹ̥ʷiː] or heel as [ç̞iəɫ].

There are other online solutions for IPA input, but this one is easily the fastest, allowing both quick access to buttons and intuitive keyboard shortcuts. There is almost no learning curve — just hold Ctrl and press the letter that most resembles the IPA symbol you want to type; keep pressing the letter until you get the symbol you want.

You will need Windows Vista/7 or a third-party IPA font to see all the symbols. Works best with Firefox, Internet Explorer 8 and Safari on Mac.