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International Kindle at Last

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So, previously I posted some caveats about the Kindle, but the fact remained that it was and is a very appealing piece of technology for internationally travelling teachers who don’t want to carry suitcases full of books with them. Even if you didn’t experience the USB issue that my friend experienced, though, the fact was that you couldn’t use its wireless purchasing ability outside of the US–that’s the delightful and financially dangerous ability to think “Oh, I’d really like to read XYZ…” while you’re sitting on a subway platform somewhere, pull out your Kindle, buy it even though there’s not a wifi connection there (because essentially Amazon’s paying for you to use cell networks), and start reading it in just a couple of minutes.

Anyway, good news–the new Amazon Kindle International edition has you covered if you are in Europe, South America, and Asia (scroll for Asia), excepting Finland, Lithuania, Mongolia, Vietnam, Iran, and some other areas that don’t run on 3G or EDGE/GPRS, etc. Some parts of Africa are included. Popular EFL destinations like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan look to be well covered. They will ship the Kindle itself to you–to Japan, for example, the cost is $20.98 (ouch, but it’s “priority courier” and will arrive in 2 to 4 days [!!!] after it’s shipped).

But don’t get this if you’re a bookworm with poor impulse control and a maxed out credit card…Me, I’m not getting one for various reasons, one of which is that I can’t take it in the bathtub. (Get back to me when it’s waterproof.) Plus I live in an English-speaking country and can buy books at Half-Price Books for $1 each, so I hesitate to spend this much money on a gadget–but at the prices English books cost in places like Japan, it might be worth it. Never mind the space you’d save in a small apartment…

If you get one or think you might, don’t forget to click the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link on the left, under the product image, when you’re browsing on Amazon. TESOL books, in particular, could use more representation on the Kindle. Clicking on it doesn’t commit you to anything; it just lets Amazon and the publisher know that people are interested in seeing that book in a Kindle version.

If you’ve come up with a creative way to use your Kindle, let us know about it and I’ll post again later, because I think the international functionality means that these will become much more common items among EFL teachers. I may write about it over on Readable Blog, too; for a really serious English learner, it could be a good tool. (To my surprise, Cambridge graded readers are available on Kindle! AWESOME.)

Temporary Free Journal Access

I received this message on the AAAL mailing list, and as it says “free free to forward to colleagues,” I believe it should be okay to post it here. (If not, I’ll be happy to take it down.)

Here’s the message:

“Get acquainted with SAGE’s journals in Languages and Linguistics now during our free online access period. We are currently offering free full-text access to the following 14 journals until 30th September 2009.
Child Language Teaching and Therapy
Discourse & Communication
Discourse & Society
Discourse Studies
First Language
International Journal of Bilingualism
Language and Literature
Language and Speech
Language Testing
Language Teaching Research
Journal of Commonwealth Literature
Journal of English Linguistics
RELC Journal
Second Language Research

Register here.”

This is a rare opportunity to gain access to these peer-reviewed journals, so I suggest that you check it out. Institutions and libraries who don’t currently subscribe should also go take a good look, too–in this economy it’s important to make sure that your limited subscription money is going to the most useful places possible.

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.)

Simple English Wikipedia

In this post, let’s not debate the validity of Wikipedia as a useful tool (though I will pause to recommend my online friend’s new book, How Wikipedia Works). What I want to talk about is the Simple English version of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is available in many languages. Sometimes, if I need to explain a complex subject to someone quickly, I look up the topic in Wikipedia and then check the sidebar on the left to see if their language is listed. If so, I click on that, eyeball the article to see if it looks like it’s probably okay, and then pass it on. It’s very convenient for times when a direct translation doesn’t suffice–if the article exists in the language you need. Logically enough, many topics that are specific to English-speaking areas (such a town in Scotland or a landmark in California) have not been translated into other languages.

An option that shows up on some pages is the “language” of Simple English. Simple English pages are supposed to be written in a direct, straightforward way, without complex grammar; a limited vocabulary should be used. This is a terrific idea in theory. Those US-specific topics and others can be presented here, or a user can practice reading English by reading an article in her native language and then in Simple English. Ideally, it could be the richest free source of reading for beginning and lower-intermediate English learners in the world.

In practice, though, there are not a lot of good Simple English articles. Some are just a sentence or two. Others have been written by users who clearly didn’t read the guidelines for Simple English, and are just doing their own versions of “toning it down.” This is understandable–it’s hard to realize how and how much to simplify your language when you first start working with beginners. I know I’m still learning how to write for beginners, especially since I tend toward really long, overly complex sentences. Writing with a restricted vocabulary is also extremely difficult, particularly if you still want your topic to remain interesting (as anyone who’s tried to write a leveled reader knows!).

My sense from reading discussion pages at Simple English Wikipedia is that most editors mean well but do not have teaching or linguistics backgrounds, as evidenced by the user who claimed that the English place name “Rochester” is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled and thus needs no IPA pronunciation guide. Never mind how many ways the letter combination “ro” can be pronounced in English, for starters … Many editors are not personally familiar with the needs of English learners, I suspect, or have not had experience with non-European learners (though SE Wikipedia does have many non-native speakers of English serving as editors, which is excellent). At any rate, Simple English Wikipedia could use your attention.

One of my projects for next year will be adding new Simple English articles and trying to improve existing ones. I hope other TESOL professionals who have experience in writing beginner-friendly English will join me. Many of you have a lot more experience doing this than I do, and you could make wonderful contributions here. This is a great way to help aspiring English learners, almost like volunteer work for those of us who are short on time or money. If you want to get started right now, check out How to Write Simple English articles. See you there!

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!