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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Humor, idioms, fluency, and … science?

Sandra Tsing Loh hosts a 90-second radio show called the “Loh Down on Science” http://www.lohdownonscience.org/–the show is dedicated to finding humorous ways to introduce the general public to interesting science. Every episode is transcribed with about 95% accuracy. lohdownonscienceYou can work on fluency in two ways:
1. Practice telling someone else in English what you heard about. Speak and/or write without looking at the transcript. Even better, actually tell someone else, by speaking or in an email.
2. Figure out what’s intended to be funny in the episode you listen to. Often, the humor is a “play on words,” or two different meanings of the same phrase. The title of the website is an example: Sandra Tsing Loh is the name of the scientist/writer/performer who leads the site, and “the low down” means the real information about something.
3. Look up an idiom that you find in the episode, by putting the idiom in quote marks ” ” followed by the word definition in your favorite search engine. For example, in an episode  about babies in utero learning which syllables are meaningful in the language of the grownups around them, Loh said “watch your language, parents.” I looked up “watch your language” definition. This gave me multiple views of definitions and related idioms, and let me explore which idiom and dictionary sites I liked.watchyourlanguagedefinition

The Loh Down on Science website isn’t very easy to navigate, but if you click on “FUN CONTENT TROLLER” you can see a list of categories, or if you find the tiny VIEW ALL button in the middle of the left-margin frame, you can see a chronological listing of over 1,800 episodes. To search for topics that interest you, you can use the search box at the top of the page.

When you find an episode that interests you, you can just click the play button to hear it with no transcript, or you can click on the title of the episode to get to the transcript and play the episode too.