Macmillan Dictionary gadget

What do you think of the Macmillan Dictionary gadget on the right? It provides definitions in English and sample sentences to see the words used in another context. You can even listen to them. If a word you look up is a “red” word, you’ll know it’s one of just 7,500 words that speakers of English use 90% of the time  in speech and writing. If it’s a “black” word, it’s a little more rare – but perhaps it’s worth adding to your personal vocabulary “treasure chest”.

Actually, I’m a little confused myself by a word here: I thought a little tool like this was called a “widget”. But look that up in the Macmillan Dictionary and you’ll find that a “widget” is “a small object or piece of equipment that you do not know the name of.” Google calls these tools “gadgets”, the term we use for fun little technical devices that help us while away the hours. (Go ahead, look up “while away”!) So the language is changing. Let’s see how well Macmillan keeps up. They’re looking good: They’ve got “mPulse – Living language”, “Open Dictionary” (user generated definitions) and a “Word of the day” on their nice website – OK, I’m sold on it!

Podcasts are better than lectures

Students have been handed another excuse to skip class from an unusual quarter. New psychological research suggests that university students who download a podcast lecture achieve substantially higher exam results than those who attend the lecture in person. Podcasted lectures offer students the chance to replay difficult parts of a lecture and therefore take better notes, says Dani McKinney, a psychologist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who led the study. “It isn’t so much that you have a podcast, it’s what you do with it,” she says. Launched less than two years ago, Apple’s iTunes university offers college lectures on everything from Proust to particle physics to students and the public. Some universities make their lectures available to all, while others restrict access to enrolled students. Some professors even limit downloads to encourage class attendance, McKinney says.
New Scientist 18 February 2009; tip from Georg Holzer

Hmmm… nice. Beats huge, overcrowded lecture halls, for sure. When I was studying in Berlin the professors there were so strange or difficult for me to relate to that I only managed to stay awake by eating candy bars and drinking coffee. How many times did I wish I could hear something again because I’d missed it, my mind off on a tangent. I wouldn’t want to replace all lessons with remote learning. Seminars and workshops are so much more effective face to face, where you can use all of the vibes that a group of interested people create. But it’s the mix of doing things on your own terms, alone and with others, and using those moments alone when your system says “go! now! I’m ready!” that feels so right.

You know, it’s a pity that the only real money is in face to face training. Or do you see things differently?


Wijng is an emerging online platform for learning English, and currently it’s free. I’ve looked at a few of the units, including one on skiffle, that nice music of the 50s, and here are a few thoughts:

  • The makers of this platform are taking existing videos, e.g. on YouTube. These are not skripted or specifically spoken and produced for language learners, so they contain “real” English. This is not “good” or “bad”, it all depends on how the media is taken apart to allow the learner to process the language. The makers then transcribe the spoken text. Some of the videos have subtitles in the video – a function allowed by YouTube.
  • Other lessons are made out of news articles that are simplified for the learner.
  • Still others present a tense or other grammar point with explanations in German
  • The makers provide vocabulary lists at the bottom of the transcript/text.
  • The explanations and questions/ responses are in German.
  • There are four kinds of exercises, content-based multiple choice and true/false/no information questions, plus vocabulary or grammar drag and drop or type in.
  • A very nice feature: Extra tips or hints are provided in the language exercises themselves to help the learner make his or her decision.
  • However, there are no explanations with the feedback to the exercises – just “right/wrong”. Not good.
  • There seem to be some bugs in the software compiling the results; the system told me I hadn’t completed the exercise.
  • They have introduced tracking and evaluation of the learner’s overall work and progress, perhaps similar to what Dalango, the Spotlight Verlag learning platform I introduced recently, does, but I haven’t seen how either works and what the user gets out of it.

Overall a nice and friendly approach. We all know how much time and money goes into producing a good video, so this is an attempt to keep it simple. The makers of the site could, however, improve it in the following ways without incurring any real costs:

  • provide simple questions and answers in English.
  • accompany the feedback with explanations.
  • add pictures and charts to the grammar lessons

A bigger problem is the didactic concept of placing “grammar lessons” in the basic level (A) and “comprehension lessons” in the section for more advanced learners (B). That’s quite oldfashioned, dear Wijngers! But yes, it is very hard to find videos with “simple” language for lower level learners. I personally don’t think that web-based training is suitable for the (A) level learner. I do include video extensively in my own lower-level classes. I show the same videos – the students and I just process them very differently!

A huge problem for any public media-based project such as Wijng is that they simply can’t compete for content and methodology with a fabulous platform such as the BBC Learning English, which has masses of good journalism and didactic expertise in-house, all available online for free. This is something that an established learners’ magazine such as Spotlight is up against, too. So Wijng needs to develop its own profile and personality to find its audience, just like any media product. I’m all for good free content on the internet (that’s a no-brainer) and am curious to see whether Wijng finds a way to make it work. Their project blog is here.

David Crystal: Keep your English up to date

David Crystal has a lovely series of short and amusing talks about words that are popular but not yet in the dictionary, such as “hoodie” and “get a life” and “in your dreams” and “wired” and “gobsmacked” and “clueless” and “wannabe” and “blog”… so all of my favorite words, actually.

Includes audio, pdf lesson plan, transcript. Favorite it at BBC Learning English.