Alert English speakers at every level can learn new words every day. If we’re reading and listening actively, we’ll come across unfamiliar or forgotten terms. And with a little conscious effort, we can remember them long-term. We can do this by taking three simple steps.

Recently, I heard a word on the radio that I’d never heard before: janky. The speaker was describing a type of low-cost DYI (Do-It-Yourself) air purifier that people are building to help ventilate school classrooms this fall. He said the home-built purifier was a “janky box” with various filters and fans attached with tape.

“Janky”? That’s a word I’d like to know! Note-taking isn’t always convenient when we’re concentrating on listening, but this word seemed worth catching before it escaped. That’s the first step in remembering vocabulary: catch words that interest you by writing them down.

Looks a Bit Janky Back There, by Lloyd Bishop

“Janky” got me scrambling for a pen because I liked its sound — JANG-key — and I wondered if its meaning might be a blend of “junky” and “jangly,” with a bit of “funky” and “wacky” mixed in. Also, the context in which it came up seemed to confirm my hunch: calling a homemade machine a “janky box” suggested it looked junky and funky, and maybe those taped-on fans and filters even jangled as they whirled and whirred!

Looking the word up, I found “janky” is a casual American adjective meaning “low quality; unreliable.” That’s pretty close to “junky” (“of poor quality or little value”), and could relate to things with metal parts that jangle (“make high-pitched metal-on-metal or harsh ringing sounds”).

But wait a minute! The speaker on the radio called those home-built air purifiers “janky,” but the report went on to emphasize how well they work — even better than expensive factory-made items. So why call them “janky”?

Since I could look up the original radio report on the internet, I could replay it and listen more carefully to the context. That’s the second step in remembering new words: notice the context in which you hear or read them.

Replaying the report, I heard the speaker’s exact words: “It looks like a sort of janky box that has ….” So he’s not saying the purifier “is” janky. Instead, he qualifies (softens) the word with “sort of” and says it “looks” janky — “like a sort of” boxy contraption — and this sort-of-janky-looking thing can clean the air in a classroom continuously for a whole school year! He’s having fun with this jaunty word, tossing it lightly at a goofy-looking gadget that turns out to be a highly effective, cost-efficient device.

Since this is my first experience with “janky,” it’s prudent for me to try using it the way I heard it. That’s the third step in remembering new words: do something with them, use them, starting in ways you’re already familiar with, in contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them. 

So for now, I won’t call anything “janky” outright. Instead, I’ll qualify and downplay the word, and use it to describe appearances: “That looks sort of janky,” or “Well, it’s a little janky, but ….” 

Dictionary.com (see source notes below) labels “janky” as slang and lists more meanings: “not working or operating properly; untrustworthy or disreputable [person]; undesirable; dilapidated, run-down.” With such negative meanings, it’s probably best for me to delay applying my new word directly to things people might actually like or value, or to people themselves!

Interestingly, “janky” is followed by “(ph)” in the transcript of the radio report I mentioned. The “(ph)” means “phonetically”: a note that the transcriber was unfamiliar with the word and guessed its spelling based on its sound. So “janky” was new to that professional listener, too.

Let’s review our three steps for reinforcing new words in your long-term memory:

-1- Catch words that interest you by writing them down.

-2- Notice the context in which you hear or read them.

-3- Use them! Aim for contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them.

What new word have you learned lately? What did you find attractive or intriguing about it? Asking yourself (and others) these questions can inspire you to “get vocal” with your new verbal tools!

* * * * *

SOURCES: National Public Radio, Morning Edition program (NPR.com: “Delta Variant Makes It Even More Important To Have Improved Air Quality In Schools,” August 25, 2021); Google dictionary (google.com: “janky,” “junky”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “janky,” “jangle”); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “ph” [Adverb entry]).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2021.

What Word Speaks to You?

August 30, 2021

Vagabonding in France with Friends, by Lloyd Bishop

You know how a particular smell can evoke a vivid memory or powerful feeling? Is there a word in English that does that for you? 

Emotional connections and mental associations with words vary from person to person: a word I find exotic may disgust you, or a word you enjoy saying might embarrass me!

It can be fun knowing certain words speak to you; that is, they represent or express something meaningful to you. Finding them, becoming aware of their “powers,” and using them deliberately are satisfying experiences in themselves. 

There’s a practical benefit, too: doing this helps you become a word cultivator, a grower of vocabulary. You’ll become more conscious about which words you choose to use, and more eager to add new words to your active supply.  

To inspire you on this word-seeking journey, I’ll share an example of my own. Recently, the word vagabond caught my eye, and then it lingered in my mind. I realized I really like that word, and I wondered why. 

Looking carefully at some dictionary entries, however, I saw negative aspects indicating that some people might not share my enthusiasm. Readers of this article may have diverse reactions to “vagabond.” 

The basic meaning of “vagabond” is “a person who wanders from place to place; a wanderer.” I’ll mention its less pleasant nuances in a moment. Right now, I invite you to say the word aloud, stressing the first syllable: 

VAA-guh-bond 

Or if you prefer phonetic symbols: gə bɑnd

When you say it, do you have any particular feeling or association? If so, note it now, before I discuss my own, so you can accurately recall your immediate reaction.

For me, “vagabond” is an alluring word. The idea of wandering has an old, familiar charm. I was a restless kid who fell in love with outdoor travel and adventure. “Vagabond” vibrates with the excitement of the unknown, the romance of the road, discoveries to be made just over the horizon and, best of all, along the way. 

In fact, the word literally vibrates: all eight of its letters are voiced; that is, our vocal cords vibrate to produce consonants v, g, b, n, d, and vowels are always voiced. That’s why I ask you to say it aloud: give it your voice and you’ll feel it vibrate! 

Also, I find the ONE-two-three rhythm, with its unstressed but long final syllable, resonant and satisfying: VAA-guh-bonnnd.

“Vagabond” evokes memories of bicycle trips I took as a teenager, which featured a lot of improvising and plan-changing, and roundabout walks I’ve often taken with no destination in mind. More broadly, “vagabond” is a vision of “the wanderer,” the wayfaring mystic, someone who knows that magic still exists and can be found, if we only look for it. 

Dictionaries offer meanings and synonyms of “vagabond” that range from neutral — “a person who travels from place to place” — to unstable or unpleasant — “unsettled or aimless wanderer, drifter, hobo, tramp, vagrant, irresponsible idler, loafer, loiterer, street person, beggar, bum.” 

My thinking is that with all those other words to express degrees of disdain, why lump “vagabond” in with the rest? It has its own distinct open-air, open-road free spirit! 

I wonder how perceptions of the word vary across cultures. For example, I’ve heard Great Britain permits overland walking: cross-country rambling, hiking between towns, along farmers’ fields, and through woods, whether public and private. Meanwhile, in the USA, “No Trespassing” signs abound on private property — a slight improvement over “Trespassers Will Be Shot” versions, but threatening nevertheless.

As security concerns and social distrust mount, and human life retreats indoors, “vagabond” could be losing its appeal. And with its associations ranging from unhoused people to social parasites, “vagabond” may require judicious use in public. That’s OK with me. I’ll give “my” word the special treatment it deserves, and choose contexts that welcome its promise of a story.

*  *  *  *  *  

SOURCES: Google dictionary (google.com: “vagabond,” “vagrant,” and related entries); Cambridge English Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org: “vagabond,” “vagrant”); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (merriam-webster.com: “vagabond”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “vagabond”).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 26, 2021.

In a recent post, we discussed how indefinite article a/an introduces a singular count noun for listeners/readers who are NOT expected to be familiar with it yet:

I bought a bicycle yesterday.

Such a first mention of a noun often starts a story or description: 

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.  The bike is built for long-distance riding, so it’s really sturdy.  I plan to take trips with it on country backroads.

… or a conversation:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did the bicycle cost?

After introducing “a bicycle,” we can switch to definite article the, since the bicycle is now familiar in context.

Here’s some good news: the is used in the same way for singular, plural & noncount nouns, so you don’t have to worry about grammatical number:

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were the eagles doing?

—————————————————

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was the advice about?

—————————————————

And no worries about grammatical gender, either — no feminine, masculine, or neuter forms to keep track of (as in French, where the-equivalents la & le apply to feminine & masculine nouns, respectively). Thankfully, in modern English, the is always just the 

More good news: the is similar to its “th-cousins” this, that, these, those, which helps us understand WHY we use it.  All five words point at specific nouns or definite concepts, and their th– spelling suggests a close relationship.  This, that, these & those point more emphatically at their target nouns than the, but all five words’ pointing function — indicating something specific or definite — is often similar.

So it can be useful to consider the a short form of this, that, these, those.  Notice the meanings of this, that & those in the dialogs below are nearly identical with the preceding the-versions:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did this bicycle cost? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the bicycle”)

————————————————–

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were those eagles doing? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the eagles”)

————————————————–

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was that advice about?

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the advice”)

————————————————–

However, sometimes the is not exactly equivalent to this, that, these, those.  This happens when we refer to generally understood concepts/institutions or nouns that listeners/readers are expected to be familiar with.  

For example, if I say I’m going to “the bank” today, I usually mean “some branch or other of whatever bank I use”; “one of those places we call ‘bank,’” NOT “this bank” or “that bank.”

This leads to more good news: you can use the the first time you refer to nouns in such ways! Here are some examples:

a) Unique or ubiquitous nouns:

The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth.

I love the night sky when the air is clear and the stars are bright.

The weather is getting warmer as the environment is changing fast.

————————————————–

b) Common/familiar concepts, types of places & institutions in everyday life:

In the morning, I plan to go to the post office and the library. 

Would you rather live in the city, the suburbs or the country?

I prefer the beach: I love gazing at the ocean.  

————————————————–

c) Nouns referred to generically (general, abstract meaning):

The giraffe is known for its long neck, and the elephant for its long trunk.

Was the harpsichord an early version of the piano?

Tech companies plan to further miniaturize the smartwatch and implant it in the human body.

One interesting note: this meaning of the can sometimes be conveyed by a/an in its generic meaning of “any”:

The unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

A unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

As definitions of “unicycle,” these two sentences are interchangeable.  They both express “unicycle as a concept; any unicycle.”

————————————————–

d) Nouns immediately understood in context (in a particular situation or given scenario):

What’s the problem?

Pass me the dictionary, please.

Turn off the lights and come down to the lobby.

————————————————–

If you can enjoy understanding & using the, then here’s some final good news: it’s the most commonly occurring word in English — so that’s about a thousand bits of enjoyment in an average English-speaking day!


An earlier version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on May 13, 2021.

A/An, Anyone?

April 30, 2021

Look at these little words:

a

an

any

one

Notice any similarities?  These common old words are closely related, and they’re literally Old English: the earliest form of English spoken in the centuries before the language was transformed by an infusion of Latin (via early French) starting about a thousand years ago.  

The similarities in spelling and meaning of a, an, any, and one help explain how to use our indefinite article a/an.  Consider these three simplified uses:

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

So a/an means one, any, or a blend of one & any!  

__________________________________

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

“I” am aware of my new bicycle, but I know you’re not: you’re hearing/reading about it for the first time.  Even so, you immediately understand that it’s one particular bicycle, NOT just any bicycle.  

Such first-time references to singular count nouns that listeners or readers are not yet (or not fully) familiar with are usually introduced with a/an.  

More examples:

— We saw an eagle in Central Park = We saw one eagle in Central Park 

“We” know something about this eagle, but you’re NOT expected to know anything about it, so the first time we mention it, we introduce it with an.   

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for one web design company 

This is one of many web design companies, NOT any web design company: it’s a certain web design company that goes unnamed here.  The phrase “a certain” often conveys this meaning of a/an = one — “a particular one; one of many possible ones”: 

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for a certain [unnamed] web design company. 

So useful!  A/An is extremely efficient when you want to introduce a quick reference to a particular noun without bothering to name or describe it specifically in the same sentence

— Spinach is a leafy green vegetable = Spinach is one leafy green vegetable

Spinach is defined here as one type of leafy green vegetable.  There are many varieties of “leafy green vegetable,” and “Spinach” is just one of many.  Here, a/an = one means “a type of; one type among many possible types within a particular category.”  This reference to type is more abstract than our previous examples, which indicated one actual individual among many, but it still does NOT mean any type.

__________________________________

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

Here, “A bicycle” is an abstraction, a generic concept of any bicycle.  This is not about “a certain” or “a particular” bicycle; it’s the general idea of the pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicle we call “bicycle.”

More examples:

— You should try a unicycle: it’s even more fun to ride = You should try any unicycle … 

I’m NOT thinking of a particular unicycle for you; I’m just making a quick remark about any member of the category of pedal-powered one-wheeled vehicles we call “unicycle.”

— I’d rather learn how to ride a horse = I’d rather learn how to ride any horse

For the purposes of this sentence, any horse will do.  No need to discuss particular horses or types of horse.  Here, horse means “horse in general; the concept of horse.”  

__________________________________

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

This sentence blends the general idea of any bicycle and a degree of concreteness in the sense of one bicycle I could own in the future: a potentially particular bike!  It’s not one actual bike yet, but it’s not just any bike either: only certain types of bike will suit my purposes.  

More examples:

— We’re looking for a new apartment = We’re looking for one/any new apartment

One apartment?  Yes, of course: one is all we need, but we haven’t found the right one yet.  Any apartment?  Not exactly; we’re interested in size X, location Y, and price range Z.  But we’ll consider almost any apartment fitting our X/Y/Z description.  

— You should send her an email about that = You should send her one/any email about that

This is the mere thought of a hypothetical (any) email + a suggested actual (future one) email with a certain type of content.  So “an” has a blended one/any meaning here.

— I take a bath every evening = I take one/any bath every evening

This one-bath-per-evening is a recurring one, not a particular/individual one, so as a conceptual bath, it has a spirit of any.  It’s the idea (abstraction) of one of this type of NOUN (bath) per recurring time (any given evening).

__________________________________

A quick review of the three simplified meanings of a/an:

-1- a/an = one = a certain; one particular; an actual/tangible individual; one among many; a type of 

-2- a/an = any = generic concept of; general idea of; abstract/hypothetical vision of 

-3- a/an = one/any = a potentially particular; hypothetical (any) but actualizable (one); a future one; a recurring one  

__________________________________

An important point: a/an is for singular count nouns only.  Plural nouns can’t use it, since it refers to one, not more than one.  Noncount nouns can’t use it, since they can’t be counted with one or any other number.

As for a vs. an — for smooth pronunciation, article a partners with nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and an with nouns beginning with a vowel sound.  One tricky consonant issue is the hidden y- sound in some words beginning with the letter u, as in university (yu-nih-VER-sih-tee).  Remember to say “a university” and “a union.”

And watch out for silent initial h: words like honor begin with a vowel sound (for example, ah in honor or ow in hour).  Say “an honor” and “an hour.”  Finally, a couple of initial h words may be pronounced in different ways, like historian: a historian (with consonant h- sound) and an historian (with silent initial h) are both acceptable.  

If you’re wondering, “Hey, what about the — the other article in English?” link to my post on that topic here: The Good News About “The”!

__________________________________

An earlier version of this article appeared as two posts (part 1, part 2) in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 22 & 29, 2021.

English language coaching

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

This is small talk: a useful conversation-starter, or just an add-on to “Hi, how are you?”  Notice the comment (“Yankees cap”) + question (“you a fan?”) structure — we’ll come back to that soon when we discuss techniques.

But first — why bother reading about small talk?  After all, you probably do it naturally with people you want to interact with.  That’s great … but remember those awkward times when you wanted to interact with someone but couldn’t think of the right thing to say? 

Small talk can be a BIG challenge for anyone facing new or anxiety-inducing situations, including many key moments in our careers.  And small talk can be a BIG deal in relationship-building: people prefer to socialize and do business with others they feel comfortable with, and this sense of comfort can be established & maintained through light conversation that feels natural and builds rapport.

So strengthening your small talk skills can enhance your personal & professional encounters.  Here’s a simple formula that can remind us what small talk is, and what it’s for:

small talk = SHOWING INTEREST

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too new to make me feel “interested” yet?

I hear you!  That’s why the key word SHOWING is helpful.  Showing interest can come from (a) having genuine interest and expressing it … or (b) making an effort: finding something — anything — to comment on!

In the “Yankees cap” example, (b) is likely to apply to me, as I’m not a Yankees fan; I’m not even a baseball fan, and I have no natural interest in discussing baseball or baseball hats … but hey: I’m making an effort by noticing something and remarking on it!

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too intimidating or tense, and I feel literally frozen?

I know — I’ve been there too!  Sometimes we have to “break the icebefore showing interest.  (The “ice” in this idiom indicates the initial frozen state of a new social situation; the awkward paralysis of people together not communicating.)

One of the easiest ways to break the ice is asking about the weather.  This works even for remote video-conferencing and phone calls:

“How’s the weather where you are?”

Notice this question doesn’t even require knowing where the other person is, which makes it very easy to use.  It leads naturally to discussing where the other person is, where you are, and suddenly the “ice” is broken, the conversational stream is flowing, and now you can show interest!

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

That’s another example of the comment + question structure.  Comments set context for questions, and sometimes even prompt them: I may say “you’re from Italy” without knowing what else to say … and “What part?” naturally emerges!  

And by adding space between questions, comments create more comfortable pacing: focus on me (comment); then you (question); me; then you.  And you, I hope, do the same!  Asking questions only turns small talk into an interrogation, which can be unpleasant for your partner.

The “Italy” example features an information question (“What part?”), which unlocks more conversational potential than most yes/no questions do.  Information questions — those beginning with who, what, where, when, why, which, how — elicit specific and often revealing responses.  In contrast, yes/no questions may result in one-word answers: “Yes.”  Or “No.”  And nothing more!

As your small talk warms up, think of simple questions — especially information questions and yes/no questions with like — to follow up on what your partner says:

— “Did you like growing up there?”

— “Oh really?  Why?”

— “When was that?”

— “Where was that?”

— “That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

— “Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Follow-ups are short, easy to generate, and more fun to answer.  Since they demonstrate you’re listening and showing interest, they encourage meaningful conversation and transform small talk into real engagement.


A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 1, 2021.

As you know, vowel sounds in English can be confusing: we have so many different ways to spell them!  Consonant sounds can be challenging too.  And stressing the right syllables in words is especially important in English.

Refining your pronunciation is a long-term process, and the older you are, the more modest your expectations of progress must be.  Children can mimic and reproduce the sounds of second languages quickly and accurately, but if you’re past your teenage years, you’ll likely find pronunciation work a challenge.  However, you can learn to make subtle adjustments that will improve the way you sound in English!

One exercise you can start with is reviewing SINGLE vs. DOUBLE vowel sounds — read ALOUD the words that begin with the same consonant (for example, “f“) on the LEFT side below … immediately followed by the word(s) that begin(s) with that same consonant on the RIGHT side:

Notice how the two vowel sounds on the LEFT side are added together for the blended double sound on the RIGHT.

Now read ALOUD the words in the charts below in the same way:

If you’re color-oriented, notice that the two primary colors on the LEFT side of each chart are the “ingredients” for the blended complementary color on the RIGHT side — this visual reference may help reinforce the skill you’re working on: blending two “pure” vowels into a double vowel (diphthong).

Here’s another single-to-double-sound chart for you to practice reading ALOUD:

How do you like working on your English pronunciation skills? It can be fun — like working on music or singing skills — and even more fun with an instructor, whether in person or remotely.

If you’re an adult second-language learner, keep your expectations for progress modest … and if you practice skills one by one (as illustrated above), you’ll find that gradual, modest progress is not only possible, but enjoyable!

If you’d like individual coaching/instruction on your English pronunciation, please contact me directly (see my “About Lloyd” page — link at top right of this page).

Enjoy learning!

~ Lloyd ~

Stories in the Sand, by Bonnie Bishop

With so much content on the internet to use for refining your English language skills, the choices can seem overwhelming!  One site to include in your listening diet is The Moth (TheMoth.org), a public radio program / website / podcast dedicated to storytelling: people tell true personal stories in front of a live audience.  Like moths drawn to a flame, we humans are powerfully attracted to stories told “around the campfire” (actual or proverbial), so a storytelling-focused site is likely to entertain and enlighten YOU … as you hone your listening skills. 

Here are some tips on using Moth stories for language practice:

-1- Visit TheMoth.org and browse the most recent episode of The Moth Radio Hour (“See This Episode”), which usually includes 3-4 stories: scroll down to see titles, storytellers’ names, and one-sentence summaries.  The length of each story is listed in minutes:seconds (e.g., 12:47).  Browse other links on the site to find additional programs and stories.

-2- Some — but NOT most — stories offer a transcript, which can help you confirm your comprehension and study details like new vocabulary.  When you use a computer and link to a story title, a “Read Transcript” link may appear below, along with the more common links “Listen Now” and “Add to Playlist.”  You can also search the site for the key word “transcript” — a list of stories with transcripts will appear. 

-3- Consider borrowing a “The Moth Presents” transcript book from the library, featuring full scripts of popular stories: the two latest editions are Occasional Magic (2019) and All These Wonders (2017).  You can look over the first part of a transcript to identify a story you like, and then locate the audio at TheMoth.org.  To vary your practice, listen to stories with — and without — the transcript.

-4- Listen to the first 2-3 minutes of a story to discover whether you like the content and speaker’s voice — if you’re not interested within 3 minutes, try a different story.

-5- When you find a story that interests you, listen to all of it … and then listen again for details you missed the first time.  If possible, use a transcript to study new vocabulary in detail.  

-6- When you’re familiar with the content, use the story AGAIN for pronunciation practice by playing it phrase by phrase: PAUSE after each short phrase (a short sentence, or one part of a longer sentence), REPEAT it ALOUD … play the next phrase, PAUSE, and repeat!  

-7- If you like The Moth and want to receive the latest programs and episodes on your smartphone, subscribe to the podcast version.

Although professional performers sometimes appear on The Moth, most storytellers are ordinary people who have compelling stories to tell: their “pitches” are screened by Moth staffers, and if they’re selected to perform, storytellers receive tips and coaching on effective ways to present their stories.  The result for YOU is well-told tales that may make you laugh, cry, or both … and worthwhile content to help you enhance your own English language skills!


This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on March 18, 2020.

Sandscape, by Bonnie Bishop

Near the end of my English language listening/speaking-focused courses, students often ask me, “How can I continue building my skills on my own?”  

You’re probably already using audiovisual resources, but visual “eye candy” can consume so much of your attention that you don’t concentrate enough on language issues.  Consider audio-only resources, which focus your mind on listening: you immediately notice aspects of vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation, and grammar that demand your attention.

Try public radio sites like NPR.org (National Public Radio) and WNYC.org (NYC’s own station), which offer top-quality news and feature stories you can use to boost your language skills. 

ACTIVE listening with NPR.org:

a) Search for key words of interest or particular shows — click the menu icon (with three short horizontal bars); shows like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” offer new reports and stories every day, and archives of past shows.  Most features are 3-8 minutes long; choose one.

b) Listen without pausing to get acquainted with overall content.

c) Listen again and pause as needed; notice things you missed the first time.

d) Read the transcript to see how well you understood everything.  Transcripts offer immediate feedback on your listening accuracy.  Research the meanings of unfamiliar words.

e) Listen again while reading the transcript to reinforce the content in your mind and focus your ears & eyes together on language issues.  

f) Listen again, pause after each short sentence and in the middle of longer sentences, and repeat what you just heard.  Imitate pronunciation & intonation to refine your speaking skills.

g) Each day, repeat these steps; follow your instincts, adjust as needed, and trust your judgment.

PASSIVE listening with WNYC.org:

a) Subscribe to the WNYC app or other podcast platform offering WNYC content.  

b) Listen to live broadcasts while doing other things, like exercising, preparing meals, or washing dishes.  

c) Don’t worry about missing content — you’re busy and cannot possibly catch all the words.  You can miss 90% and still benefit from English streaming into your ears.  And don’t worry about transcripts when listening passively — just allow quality audiocasts to become part of your daily routine.  


This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on December 11, 2019.

English language coaching

You’re not going to magically become a better writer just by reading.  After all, would you expect to become a better speaker just by listening?  If you want to build your writing skills, you have to do one thing: write!  Doing assignments for a class is important, and revising after receiving feedback is especially important.  But if you really want to improve your skills, challenge yourself to write regularly … not for class, but for yourself.  Give yourself writing tasks:

Try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity (follow the steps for this process outlined in my post “A Good Time for Writing”).

Keep a writing journal: Write for 15-30 minutes every day, no matter what.  Write about anything that comes to mind; if nothing comes to mind, write about nothing coming to mind!  It’s good language practice, and writing about “nothing” is still writing; after a few minutes, the very act of writing can stimulate your idea flow.  Journal writing can improve your abilities to organize your thoughts and express yourself precisely, abilities that apply to both writing and speech.

Self-Dictation: Choose an article or story you enjoyed, and record your voice reading it aloud, and then play back the recording as a self-dictation.  Write each sentence, pausing or replaying the recording in the same way a teacher delivers a dictation in class.  Finally, check your spelling and punctuation against the original text.  Regular dictations/self-dictations will improve your writing skills.

Copy good sample paragraphs and entire essays or other documents: Get deeply acquainted with a writer’s word choices and sentence structures.  The text you choose serves as your “tutor” — it demonstrates good writing, and you absorb the lesson well because you’re doing it … not just thinking about it.

As a learning tool, copying is not taboo!  If you consider a particular sentence, paragraph, or essay well written, analyze what makes it well written.  If you want to learn to write like that, copy it!  Copying is a natural way to learn any craft.  Most human skills are acquired largely through imitation: artists copy masters to learn their techniques; musicians practice the works of other musicians and composers; babies learn to speak by imitating adults; second-language learners imitate first-language models.  Unfortunately, the taboo against copying other people’s ideas inhibits many student writers from using copying as a tool for building writing skills.  But this kind of copying is entirely different from plagiarism; private writing practice exercises are not the same as false public presentations of others’ ideas as your own.  Copying is a natural way to boost your writing competence.

Follow Good Examples

Start noticing how writers write.  When you like a piece of writing, examine it closely.  What part did you like the most?  Why?  Did you like certain words/phrases, or the simplicity or complexity of a particular sentence?  What kinds of sentence structures impressed you?

In addition to pieces by professional writers, documents written by your boss, your teachers, your faculty advisor — anyone whose writing you’d like to emulate — are worth considering.  And be sure to examine published articles, brochures, websites, and reports that relate to your field or specialty.  Such documents may serve as excellent models for your own professional writing.  Imitate good models — not just by reading them, but by moving your fingers: respond to them in your writing journal, record and use them for self-dictations, or copy them!

Avoiding Writer’s Block

April 26, 2020

Writing coaching

The Writing Process

Do you suffer from writer’s block — the inability to write when you desperately want or need to write?  If so, you may be mixing your two distinct roles as creator and critic.

Writing requires creative efforts (planning and drafting) and critical efforts (reviewing, refining, checking, and changing).  These two efforts complement each other when applied at different times, but compete with each other when applied at the same time.  Writer’s block often results from trying to create and criticize simultaneously.  It’s as if two parts of our brain were at war with each other!

Creativity is about “What if…” “How about…” “Let’s try…” “Maybe…” “Yes!”  

Criticism is about “That’s awkward.” “Too simple.” “Doesn’t work.” “Not right.” “No!”

For a smoother, more enjoyable writing experience, and to help yourself produce your best writing, separate your creative efforts from your critical efforts.  The next time you’re facing a professional, academic, official, or creative writing task, try this approach:

CREATE
-1- Plan
-2- Draft

Take a break!

CRITIQUE
-3- Refine
-4- Check

Here are some thoughts on each step in the process:

A. CREATE

1. Plan: Think, make notes, sketch, outline, or roughly map out your basic ideas.  Focus on your purpose — why are you writing this particular document?  What do you want the reader to understand?  What is your main message?  What are other key points you want your reader to know?  If you’re stuck, try five minutes of freewriting.*

*Freewriting means writing whatever words and thoughts come into your mind — without editing at all.  Such freestyle writing can be completely off the topic: irrelevant personal thoughts, disorganized sentences, even silly ideas.  Sentences like “Well, I’m supposed to write but I have no idea how to start” are welcome.  This technique helps some writers establish a connection between their natural thoughts and the artificial act of writing.  After a few minutes, more relevant ideas will flow and the paralysis of writer’s block will be broken!

2. Draft.  Focus on your goal and purpose.  Don’t think too much about writing well — it’s too early in the process to worry about being clear, concise, courteous, complete, or correct.  Let your ideas flow into your fingers spontaneously, roughly, awkwardly, messily, and quickly.

* * * STOP.  Take a break.  You need to relax your creative engine and let a calmer, more critical perspective return.  Even a 3-minute break will help you see your rough draft with a fresh eye.  Don’t mix the creative and critical processes. * * *

B. CRITIQUE

3. Refine: Review and revise.  Move sentences, paragraphs, and entire sections.  Take another break and do it again.  Put yourself in your reader’s place and slowly read from the beginning: are the order and flow of your ideas logical and clear?  Are your paragraphs easy to read?  Are your sentences easy to understand? 

If not, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite — several times, if necessary.  Professional writers rewrite extensively, so how can you expect not to rewrite?  Ask another person to review and comment on your revised draft. 

4. Check: Only when you’re sure your latest revision is the best possible one, make final adjustments and edits.  Finally, check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.  Discipline yourself to postpone this final check until the last possible moment.  If you do it too early, you may be wasting your time, as your refining efforts (Step 3) may not be complete, and you may end up rewriting entire sections of your draft. 

*  *  *  *  *

Try to apply this process to your next writing task.  The most profitable part is the first one: planning.  Most people want to get writing tasks done as quickly as possible, so they begin writing what they think will be their final version.  If they’re wise, they begin to realize that what they’re writing is just a first draft, which will need refining and checking.  

Planning allows you to discover, organize, and structure your ideas in advance to save time in drafting, not spend extra time!  Give yourself the gift of planning, and know that your initial “writing” is really drafting — and you’ll immediately become a better writer.