Connected English

Get connected—English language learning websites, apps, and ideas at your fingertips

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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 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 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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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.


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.


Improve English fluency with the Mind Games app for Android

Mind Games (Android only) from Mindware Consulting, Inc is an app designed for improving cognition, not designed to promote language learning, but it offers a few fruitful games to improve fluency in English.

This post only reviews the free version, playing as a guest, not as a registered player. The app only requires limited permissions, which I like. Ads do get annoying, as they sometimes jump to half the screen size, but you can click “hide ad” to dismiss these.

A subset of these games involve high-level use of English: Speed Trivia, Vocabulary Star, Word Memory, Abstraction, and Vocabulary Power. Here is a description of these games and how you might use them to enhance your fluency in English.

Speed Trivia (unlimited play in free version) Answer questions by sorting the four mixed-up letters (or letter sequences) in the answer. Thus there is vocabulary retrieval and spelling knowledge tested. Here is an example item. “What activity other than jumping are kangaroos good at? oxi   g   n   b  → boxing.” I wish that the letter combinations were divided by syllables–it’s much harder (and probably not as productive for making sound/spelling connections and memory) to compose words with groups of letters that cross syllable boundaries. Nonetheless, this is a fun game that does involve a wide variety of vocabulary.

vocabularystarfrommindwareVocabulary Star (unlimited play in free version) Each round is three minutes. The game interface is just like Speed Trivia, but instead of a trivia question & mixed-up answer, you get a definition and a mixed-up word.  This one may be more useful for fluency if you try to think of possible answers before looking at the four sets of letters at the bottom of the screen.

Word Memory (unlimited play in free version) This game is designed to train “working memory” to hold lots of words at-the-ready. Whether it achieves that is questionable, but it is likely to be much harder to do this game in a second language, and if you can make connections between words or combine them in sentences to remember them, you may actually have a positive impact on your English fluency & vocabulary retrieval. So, you get three lists of ten words to memorize, for a total of 30. Then in the next part of the game, you see a word on your screen and have to tap a button to indicate if the word was on the lists or not. One of the words on my list the first time I played was “peen,” which I’ve never seen before, but which I remembered was on one of the lists. This helped me remember to look it up later. It’s part of the head of a hammer.

Abstraction (only available 3 times free) You see a bunch of words, and for each one, you press a button “abstract” or “concrete” to categorize the primary meaning. This is a useful vocabulary game, because it forces you to apply a binary sort on a broad variety of nouns based on their meaning, and thus can improve retrieval of those words when you need them for speaking. The game can also be helpful for grammar–when to use a/an and when is it unnecessary? Most abstract nouns are non-count, and articles work differently in English for count and non-count nouns, so this game is useful for distinguishing and remembering count and non-count nouns. (Some concrete nouns, especially those that denote substances, are also non-count, like “water.” Conversely, some abstract nouns have both a countable and an uncountable meaning: “The only thing to fear is fear itself” uses the verb and the non-count noun for a generalization, while “I have many fears about my future” uses the count noun. Many abstract nouns, in fact, have a count and a non-count version. There are also abstract ideas like “an attitude” which are countable, so this is only a tendency, not a rule). Pay attention to the suffixes (word endings) that are frequent in the abstract nouns. When you hit play, you get text instructions. There are some weird words, like “double-hung window,” which is only relevant if you need to buy a window-mounted air conditioner or buy new windows, and “propinquity,” which I’ve never had occasion to use, but most words are relatively frequent, with a combination of everyday and more academic terms. The first time I played, I scored in the 18th percentile, so don’t get discouraged.

Vocabulary Power (only available 3 times free) While this app does have solid definitions/synonyms, it’s just a multiple choice meaning matching game, and there are dozens of these out there, so nothing special. I’d play it three times and be done.