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Typing IPA

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/ɔsəm/

Here’s an easy way to type those International Phonetic Alphabet symbols that aren’t included on a standard keyboard: IPA.typeit.org, which lets you just click to enter the symbols in a text box. You can even format what you type. This is particularly useful if you can’t install an IPA palette/virtual keyboard on a work computer and still need to enter IPA. Hat-tip to EFL Geek!

If you need a more long-term solution, checking Google for your operating system’s name + “typing IPA” should turn up something. In NeoOffice for OS X, I can get to IPA symbols by just going to Insert -> Special Character -> IPA Extensions, and other Mac applications have IPA under Special Characters -> Phonetic Symbols. You don’t need to install anything for this, although it’s not the most efficient way to enter symbols since you need to click for each one.

(While doing that I noticed that I can also go to Insert -> Special Character -> By Radical and see a list of Chinese characters sorted by radical, with English names for the radicals. Uh, awesome! Embroidery! Frog! Flute! Excuse me, I’ll be geeking out over this for the next 15 minutes.)

Redefining the Dictionary (Again)

by holder at morguefile

Dictionary upgrade?


I really want Wordnik, a new web-based “dictionary,” to work. Although I love an old-fashioned, unabridged, doorstop of a dictionary, traditional dictionaries are not that great for my students. Their examples are archaic and stilted, their definitions use words that are just as difficult as the word being looked up, they include too many almost-never-used synonyms, and they don’t include connotations. Learner’s dictionaries are better–for example, they may note that “childish” is insulting while “childlike” is neutral; they use simple definitions; they highlight most frequently used words in red or blue; they often include collocations such as which prepositions are usually used with a verb; and they use easier/shorter sentences. The definitions are more realistic, too. You’ll note that in the example below, several traditional dictionaries link the word “awesome” with the word “awful.” Really? Now, outside of the Bible or Tolkien, when was the last time you heard or wrote “awesome” and immediately thought “awful”? I wonder. I’m aware of the “awe” connection, but we just don’t use it that way on a day-to-day basis anymore. That’s why the Longman Dictionary of American English (the closest learner’s dictionary) says “very impressive, serious, or difficult” and “(spoken) extremely good.” It doesn’t mention “awful.”

Wordnik looks like it might be even better than learner’s dictionaries, someday, although possibly just for advanced learners. On the FAQ page, it says “Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context.” Ah … hmm … sound familiar, teachers? It pulls examples from novels and Twitter, definitions from several dictionaries (no learner dictionary, alas, since there aren’t any free ones online), images from Flickr (since let’s face it, that’s a much better way to define things like food items, colors, items of clothing, types of buildings, etc.), pronunciation files from American Heritage, and the thing I think is the coolest, statistics. The statistics function really fell down on the first word I put in, “awesome.” Check out the cool timeline under statistics–and notice how it says you might expect to see this word once per year. Hmmm. I don’t think that’s right!

Well, things are still under construction, so the statistics feature has the potential to be cool. When English learners are writing an e-mail or essay and are trying to pick the right new word, one thing that often trips them up is that they inadvertently pick a rare or archaic word, and it sounds out of place. (OK, I do this in Japanese and Chinese too–trying to pick the appropriate word out of an electronic dictionary, in particular, is like throwing darts at a dartboard!) Being able to look at a chart and tell that a word was often used in the 1800s but is rarely used now would be pretty nifty, I think. I hope this function gets up to speed soon.

Another nice function mentioned on the About page is collocations and associated vocabulary: “For instance, cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut are not synonyms, but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.” That would be really neat, but if you view the entry for “cheeseburger,” it hasn’t been implemented yet (though a LOLcat does currently appear in the Flickr entries).

Wordnik is collaborative and, since it’s brought to you by a group including Erin McKean, the speaker in the the TED talk on lexicography I linked to previously, they’re not picky about what’s considered a “real word.” If you’d like to contribute, sign up! Otherwise, keep an eye on it and we’ll see how it develops. I’m not going to link to it yet on my blog for students (ReadableBlog), but I’m hopeful–especially if someone can develop a CC-licensed learner’s dictionary. (Maybe I can get a grant…I’d actually really love to work on a project like that.)

Kindle 2: Caveat lector!

Well, I’m going to give Amazon a little tough love here. I do use Amazon Affiliate links here and at Readable Blog, but if you’re an EFL teacher who is interested in the Kindle 2, Amazon’s brand new e-book reader, watch out.

The Kindle 2 is a very appealing piece of technology for overseas English teachers. It’s thin and lightweight and can hold a ton of books, so you can keep up on your English-language reading during your commute on Taipei’s MRT or wherever. And just think of all the space you’ll save in your luggage, and all the postage you’ll save mailing books to yourself! (Even in the US, I struggle with how many books to pack in my carry-on, because I finish them quickly and they take up a lot of space.) For that matter, at the prices English-language novels sell for in many countries, the high price of the Kindle 2 may start to seem worth it.

I got to play with the one my friend just bought in anticipation of her new teaching job in Asia, and it’s rather nice. I wasn’t interested before, but I found myself wanting one after I tried it. The “electronic ink” makes reading feel different from an old-fashioned monitor or a laptop screen. It’s more comfortable, although you’ll have to use a booklight at night. One of my initial objections to the Kindle was that I could already download countless works of classic literature that are out of copyright for free through Project Gutenberg. As it turns out, a lot of these have been formatted for the Kindle and can be downloaded free through Amazon, and I had to admit that I would prefer to read them on a Kindle screen than on my MacBook Pro’s screen.

However, there’s a big problem with the Kindle 2 that I haven’t seen getting much or any press.

What’s the catch? Well, it’s a pretty big catch: The USB connection appears to be faulty on many Kindle 2s. Do not buy the Kindle 2 unless you have enough time to experiment before you go overseas, because one of the Kindle 2’s biggest selling points (wireless downloads) does not work overseas, and the backup method (USB) seems to be horribly glitchy. Amazon provides free wireless access to these Kindles (including a kind of rudimentary websurfing) that lets you shop Amazon and download Kindle titles quickly, which is the preferred and primary way to buy books. This access is through Amazon’s own network, “Whispernet,” not through your house’s wifi, etc. The backup method is to shop online with your computer and then transfer items by USB cable, which is also how the Kindle 2 charges. Whispernet is only available in the USA. If Whispernet is down, or if you’re not in the United States, you must use USB. As far as I understand it, there’s no other way to download items, transfer files, or retrieve your previously purchased items if the Kindle 2 crashes.

Unfortunately, many laptops don’t seem to recognize the Kindle 2 via USB. Despite a ton of theories on Amazon’s discussion boards, no one seems to have figured out why. For every plausible theory, there’s a disproof of the theory. My friend returned her original Kindle 2, received the first day they were available, and got a replacement, which worked on one computer but not another. She’s keeping it because it works just well enough and she’s still really excited about having 150 books in something the size of a memo pad. Still, it shows that you shouldn’t buy this unless you have time to establish that it works on your computer and aren’t going to change computers any time in the future. Best case scenario, of course, this is something they can fix via a firmware update. In that case I’ll try to post about it again, because I think the Kindle 2 (despite its high price) is going to be an excellent solution for some EFL professionals. Remember, if you do get one, you have to maintain a US-based credit card to buy things from Amazon.com. I hope they open this up eventually; the national restrictions are really irritating. In the meantime, check out Sony’s E-Reader, which I’ve heard is less restricted. I haven’t tried one myself so I can’t write about it.

(Amazon does have some TESOL books available for Kindle, by the way; the discounts are sometimes not substantial–though you can get From Corpus to Classroom for $18.70 instead of $89 hardback or $34 paperback. Of course, those TESOL books are sometimes heavy! The categories are a bit odd: here are some; here are some; and here are some more.)

P. S. Best wishes to my friend in her new job, and I hope she enjoys those Temaraire books and the other random things I recommended at the last minute! (And I hope she’ll write a guest post at some point.)

Delightful Lexicography

I think a lot of people have already seen this video from last year, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth it! Erin McKean is a lexicographer who gives an entertaining and surprisingly funny overview of the descriptivist (as opposed to prescriptivist) approach to dictionaries and lexicography. It’s made for non-linguists, so it’s a good one to show to your non-TESOL friends and family who may be still stuck on the notion that “it’s not a word if it’s not in the dictionary.”

Tame Info Overload with RSS

A big part of professional and personal development is staying current with research, news, and conversations among others in our fields. There are so many great and worthwhile blogs and blog-like sites that the ones in my blogroll here are just a drop in the bucket. How do you keep up with everything without clicking on 50 different blog addresses every day?

My preferred solution is to use RSS feeds. You can see the orange RSS logo on the right side of this page. Pages with RSS are kind of broadcasting their content in such a way that you can pull that format into your preferred reading place. You can get it sent to your e-mail (like old-school mailing lists, but one-way) or bundled into one place, which I think is the best solution. And yes, it’s all free.

Here’s a great little video that introduces the whole concept, by Lee LaFever. It’s less than 4 minutes long and really explains the basics of using RSS:

It’s actually even easier than that. Try it out with this site, my blog for EFL and ESL self-study, or any of the sites on the right, most of which have RSS feeds. Search for “feed” or “syndication” if you don’t immediately see a link. Most news publications have RSS feeds too, as well as some other often-updated sites such as real estate listings, and even Wikipedia. Some sites will let you create your own feed to send you updates with only the keywords you’re interested in. Students can use RSS to keep up with vocabulary sites, simple English news from various sources, podcasts, etc.

To find suggestions on the best RSS reader for you (since the above video is a little old), check out the brand-new post on Best RSS Newsreaders at Lifehacker.

Anyway, if you’re already an advanced RSS user, or if you’re really excited about it now and you’re using Google Reader, here are some Google Reader tips and tricks from LifeHacker. If you want to get more background, the Wikipedia article on RSS is a good place to start.

I think RSS is one of the most important tools for education professionals, since we really need to stay in touch and up to date without getting overwhelmed. If you have any questions, let me know and I’ll try to help!

English-Teaching Zombies

No, no, not me and my mentor-teacher after we graded a stack of 30 multi-draft essays–we’re talking about a videogame. English of the Dead is not a joke, but an honest-to-goodness game produced in Japan for all those gamers who would like to work on their English and destroy a few zombies.

You can even try out the demo yourself: Flash demo of English of the Dead! Wait for it to load. If you want to hear sound, click on the “No” symbol labeled “ON” in the upper right corner (how nice that it defaults to silent, if you’re in the office!). Then click on the bottom of the two screens displayed on the DS. When the zombies pop up, click on the correct English word to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, you may be at a disadvantage–my Flash doesn’t display the Japanese translation correctly, so I missed one due to two possible answers.

This probably isn’t the most pedagogically sound piece of software in the world, but if it’s entertaining and keeps a user interested in learning English, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. At the very least, it gave me a laugh, and I hope it amused you, too.

Japan is actually pretty serious about educational games. The DS is a perfect platform for this, because it’s very portable, has both button and stylus input, and is popular with people who’d otherwise be considered non-gamers. (It’s also relatively inexpensive, and I actually really recommend the DS Lite for English teachers who need to blow off some steam, particularly those who commute on public transportation. More on this later–and no, Nintendo’s not paying me! I spent my own money on that Wii.)

If you are dying (HA!) to know more, DS Fanboy has all of the relevant posts collected under a tag.

(N. B.: A quirk of DS Fanboy–besides the noninclusive blog name, darn them–is that links to external sites that are the main point of a post are hidden under the “Read” link at the bottom of the post.)