Connected English

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“Got a minute?” Scientific American offers one every day.

Do you want to work on vocabulary, fluency, pitch range, or interpreting technical content to a lay audience?  Scientific American is a long-established magazine that publishes articles on a broad range of scientific topics for non-specialists. One of my students led me to the groovy “60-Second Science” daily audio podcast, which always starts with the question, “Got a minute?”  SAFrontPageAs I browsed the website, it quickly became clear that the Scientific American website offers a rich array of audio, video, and text articles. There are daily podcasts on “science” and then podcasts grouped by various broad topics within science, such as “the mind” or “technology.”

The search interface on the website is very nice, allowing users to refine a search by time period, by genre (podcast, video, article, etc.) or by broad topic area. In the app version (podcasts only), it appears that one can browse by broad topic area, but cannot search on keywords.

Because the content is intended for non-specialists, these brief pieces provide a great model of vocabulary and turns of phrase that allow us to explain technical content to friends, family, potential funders, policy-makers, administrators, managers, and students.

Articulation is crisp and clear, which makes for easier listening comprehension than one might find in less polished audio.

In the free app version (for podcasts only) and when you click on the title of a podcast on the website version, you’ll see a transcript, allowing you to grab phrases that might be hard to catch when just listening alone, and making it possible to speak along with the original to practice clear articulation and smooth delivery.

SATranscriptTo work on vocabulary, you might want to note down words or turns of phrase that seem useful in any one of the podcasts, and then maintain and practice them in a vocabulary.com wordlist (free account needed) or by using a free phone app like gFlash+ that lets you easily set up flashcards with your own content on your smart phone–even flashcards with more than two sides! This particular app (not related in any way to Scientific American) is available for Android, iPhone and iPad, Nooks, and at the Amazon.com App Store.

Another way to use the Scientific American site or podcast app to work on fluency is to search on a term of interest to you, listen to a couple of podcasts and read a short article, and then imagine what you’d say to tell someone in English about this content, synthesizing all three together. Practicing out loud even if you don’t have a real audience is helpful for fluency & solidifying new vocabulary.

There is one disappointment among the Scientific American resources. I wish that audio podcasts would provide an accurate model of intonation one might use in a conversation or presentation when not reading from notes, but intonation is typical of material read aloud by a dynamic speaker. These intonation patterns are certainly appropriate for the solo audio podcast genre, just not very helpful for types of speaking when others are physically present. Nonetheless, if you feel like your intonation in English is somewhat “flat,” it may be useful to imitate the original speakers’ intonation in order to explore a wider pitch range, because the intonation in the podcasts is quite expressive among both male and female speakers.

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Extraordinary academic English learning website

Monash University in Australia hosts an academic English language self-study website, Language and Learning Online, with vast breadth and depth in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and grammar.

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The challenge may be in deciding where to start. If you’d like an overview of everything offered, the site map may be helpful. The site is indexed not just by skill area. If you check out one of the Guides
on the left frame of the page, you can find resources organized by academic discipline (e.g. Medicine or Sociology) and by level (e.g. undergraduate or PhD). Searching the Resource Finder by exercise type today, I found 278 different interactive online exercises.  The site provides an excellent overview of writing genres in a variety of academic subject areas.

I particularly like the treatment of academic reading. Here is an example exercise that gives the user an opportunity to practice locating the specific definition of important terminology in an academic book or paper.

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What section of the Monash site did you find useful. Reply with your comment here!


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Pronunciation: SpeakAP displays pictures of your speech

SpeakAP is a fun little app for Android, iPhone, and iPad that offers a useful angle on pronunciation of individual words. Unlike software that seeks to tell you if you’ve matched the individual sounds in a word, SpeakAP focuses on the timing, intensity, and pitch of syllables in single words. This is a particularly good app for working on producing clearly marked word stress, because stressed syllables last longer (timing), are pronounced with more force and volume (intensity), and involve a change in tone (pitch). The app is produced by a firm that builds speech therapy technology, Aventusoft.

speakAPra-di-a-tionWhen you practice a single word (and there are several hundred on the first basic list), you see three graphs–one of volume over time, so you see the duration and loudness of each syllable, one of intensity over time, which is a similar measure represented by a continuous line, and then one of pitch. There is an original recording (which you can listen to) represented in blue, and then your recording is represented in yellow. You also get a percentage “score” as to your match to the reference recording on each of the three scales.

In this snapshot of my recording of “radiation” as ray[pause]-dee[pause]-yay[pause]-shun, you may be able to see down at the bottom of the screen that I got 79% speaking rate match, 54% energy match, and 65% pitch match. You can see in the middle graph in particular that my voice turned on and off because of the pauses in the word. While the app suggests aiming for at least 75% match in all categories, I found that In my experience with the app, pitch seemed to be the most sensitive score to incorrect syllable stress placement, and my “intensity” score was always low.  The images of the three superimposed graphs gave me more useful data than the percentage scores.

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You can pick a word by clicking on the three-bars icon at the top-right of the screen, or you can just take the next word in the queue. As you can see in this picture of me picking out the word “radiation,” most of the words on the basic list are multisyllabic and at least somewhat academic.

There are word lists and idiom lists; unfortunately, only the wordlists supply feedback. The app itself is free on all platforms. In the Android version, the long basic list is free. It looks like the basic list costs $1.99 in the iPhone and iPad app, but double-check that on your device.

If you try this app, add a comment here to share your experience.