Games and movies for study? Why not?

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As you know, I believe in using enjoyable things to study. Movies and computer games are two great sources of English that can also be fun. Lots of English learners use movies to practice listening to English dialogue. The most popular way to do this is to watch a DVD with English dialogue and English subtitles. However, another technique that you can use is combining watching the movie and reading the script. The Internet Movie Script Database has hundreds of scripts to movies, and you can read them online without registering or downloading anything.

Play This Thing posts links to free games. Some of the games are just downloadable “demo” games, which don’t include the entire game. Others are full games, or cames that can be played entirely online. Most of the games are for computers, but there are a few others, including at least one “tabletop RPG” (role-playing game). The explanations use complicated English, and some of the games do too. But if you are a serious computer game-player, maybe you’ll find something you like. Playing games can be very motivating. Actually, many Americans my age practice their Japanese by playing videogames like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy in Japanese.

In a future post, I’ll write about working on your English by playing role-playing games (Wikipedia link; look on the bottom left for explanations in other languages).

Good Words: Genre

Genre: The online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines this as

a particular type or style of literature, art, film or music that you can recognize because of its special features

This is a pretty good definition. Check the linked word entry for its pronunciation, because this word is still pronounced in a somewhat French way.

The usefulness of this word in ordinary conversations is when you’re talking about your favorite kinds of books and movies. Different cultures have different genres, so it’s useful to know what the categories you like are called in English. In addition, it can be confusing if you don’t realize that what you think of as “romance” is not what someone else thinks of as “romance.”

My favorite fiction genres include science fiction and fantasy. Other common genres include romance, mystery, Western, horror, and historical fiction. My favorite movie genres include historical drama, comedy, and science fiction. Action, romance, horror, fantasy, and thriller are some other film genres. (I’ve linked each genre’s name to its Wikipedia page so that you can see several examples of each genre.)

There are also “sub-genres” (or “subgenres”), which are smaller categories. For example, my favorite sub-genres of fantasy are historical fantasy and contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy. For science fiction, my favorite sub-genre is cyberpunk.

I really don’t like the entire genre of horror books or movies, with a few exceptions. I also don’t like romance books or movies very much, but I have enjoyed a few romantic comedies (that’s another sub-genre). Even though I like some fantasy novels, I find that fantasy movies are often too silly to enjoy. Some exceptions include the film versions of Harry Potter (contemporary fantasy), The Lord of the Rings (high fantasy), and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a mix of high and contemporary fantasy). I thought all of those were well done.

Genres are interesting because they are different in different countries. For example, Japan has both women’s romance and men’s romance genres within comic books, but the US doesn’t (because there are not enough romance comics in the US to even have such a category). The US has a genre of Western novels (set in the Old West, with cowboys), whereas China has wuxia novels (set in earlier China, with martial artists). When I was writing this post, I found out that in British bookstores, there is a “Crime Fiction” section, which would be called the “Mystery” or “Mystery/Suspense” section in the US.

People within one culture often argue about genres, too. For example, is Star Wars science fiction? Most people agree that science fiction should include speculation about the future, but Star Wars is set in the past and doesn’t really involve thinking about how our society could change. However, it does have high technology and space travel. Because of this, some people place it in the science fiction/fantasy sub-genre of space opera. Some fans will argue about this kind of thing for a long time. Because genres are not officially defined, it sometimes means that a book or movie is not in the section I expect to find it in at the store, and I have to ask.

Sometimes people use the phrase “genre fiction” to refer to books that are highly identified with their genre, such as science fiction and horror. This is to set apart those kinds of books from, mainstream or literary books. Mainstream and literary books are not thought of as being part of a special category. For example, at a Borders bookstore, you’ll find genre sections including Romance, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Horror, and Mystery/Thriller. These are all genre fiction. The books found in the Borders Literature/Fiction sections are considered not to be genre fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite genres? What genres do you avoid? Are there any genres that you like but can’t find in English?

Happy Labor Day!

Monday, September 3, is Labor Day in the United States (and Labour Day in Canada too). Although the idea was originally to celebrate ordinary working people, now it’s usually just another day off. Many Americans enjoy their long weekend by going to the beach, picnicking, having a barbecue, etc. Some cities have parades or other city-wide events. Although summer doesn’t officially end until the autumn equinox, this day feels like the end of summer to many people. Of course, in many parts of North America, hot weather may last until late September, too.

Fashionable and “proper” people used to believe that no one should wear white shoes after Labor Day, because white shoes were thought of as being for spring and summer only. This rule is commonly ignored now, though some older or more traditional people may still think of it.

You can read about the history of Labor Day at the U. S. Department of Labor’s website. Check Flickr for some photos from parades and other events from Canada and the USA.

Listen to news that’s free and up-to-date

The Voice of America (VOA) is a radio project by the United States government. It was started in 1942, and it’s still going. One way it’s changed is that you can now use VOA’s English-studying resources any time you want, thanks to the internet. VOA News: Special English Programs are recorded radio news stories using “special English.” This means that the stories use basic vocabulary, simple sentences, and no idioms. It’s a good way to start confidently understanding spoken English. Best of all, the stories are updated regularly and frequently, so there’s usually something new when you check.

Each episode or program is about 30 minutes long, so they are long enough that it’s worth putting them on your iPod or other mp3 player. They have different themes on different days, so be sure to pick a theme that is interesting to you.

Here are direct links to some of the most useful parts of the project:

If you look around the VOA website, you’ll find lots of other interesting and useful things. I’m glad we have this resource; since it has the support of the government, it can be updated regularly and frequently.

Good words: Hole in the wall

A hole in the wall, in current American English at least, usually refers to a small restaurant that may be dark, not well decorated, and otherwise not fancy. Most people use it in an affectionate way to refer to a place that is small and may not look nice, but has tasty food.

When I search for the phrase “hole in the wall” on, a reviewing website, I get restaurant reviews like “a great hole-in-the-wall kind of place” and “a hole-in-the-wall gem.” As you can see, most people use it positively. At Chowhound, a very popular international food discussion website, there are countless posts looking for good “holes in the wall” all over the world. This is probably because many people think of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant as being authentic, not very crowded, and inexpensive.

If you want to take your friend to your favorite restaurant but you’re afraid it’s a little too old and small, you can say something like “The food is good, but the place is really a hole in the wall. Is that okay?” If your friend loves food, he or she should be happy to go. (But it might not be a good choice for a first date…)

In addition, it’s not a good phrase to use when you talk to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant’s owner. After all, no restaurant owner likes to think of his or her place as small or shabby, even if you mean it as a compliment.

What’s your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant? Mine might be the Chinese deli near my apartment. My husband likes the bittermelon, and I like the sesame balls.

Halloween/Image Test

I’ve recently connected my flickr photo account with this blog account. I’m going to see if posting a photo this way works correctly. If it does, then I can more easily take pictures of daily life topics such as my apartment, cooking, holidays, etc., and share them with you.

You might be thinking “Wait, isn’t this a Halloween picture?” Yes, it is. It’s from last Halloween. Since it’s already late August, though, I’m thinking about this year’s Halloween. We usually have a party, and I’m looking forward to it. I love Halloween, so you’ll hear more from me about that!

If you have additional topics you’d like me to write about, please leave a comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to help individual readers on Skype or IM, but I can try to write a blog post on your topic.

Free games from Cambridge

Recently I started using a new textbook with someone I’m tutoring. When I looked up the book’s website, I found out that the publisher (Cambridge) has put lots of free games online. You can practice with these games even if you don’t have the book, or to decide if you’d like to buy the book (naturally, the books are not free!). Although Cambridge is a British publisher, they publish both British English and North American English books. They’ve created a huge database of real North American English language in use, and many of their newer books are based on this source. The language in these books is more authentic and more useful because it’s based on the way people actually talk and write.

  • This is the Level 1 book in the series I’m using with my student now:
    Interchange Student's Book 1 with Audio CD (Interchange Third Edition)

    To play the games, go to the Interchange Arcade. Choose your level from the left. Then click on Unit or Sort by Activity, and choose what you want to practice. The games are simple, but have good graphics and sound. You can practice grammar, listening comprehension, and more.

  • Touchstone is another series from Cambridge:
    Touchstone: Student's Book with Audio CD/CD-ROM, Level 1

    You can try out the Touchstone Arcade. Again, pick your level of difficulty (1-4), and then try the activities. They even have some good listening/pronunciation activities, such as choosing which vowel in a word is silent. There’s a “Report” button that lets you see your progress.

  • I haven’t used the Connect series with any students, because it’s for kids. But if you know a younger learner of English, maybe he or she would enjoy the Connect Arcade.
  • Another book I use is Business Vocabulary in Use. It includes both American and British English, and is meant for self-study (so you can use it on your own). If you use English in your career, I really recommend these books. There are three levels. There’s no game site, which is too bad, because I think businesspeople like to play games, too! Oh, well. The activities in the books are creative and interesting, so give the series a try. Right now, I’m using the Intermediate book:
    Business Vocabulary in Use

If you have a recent English textbook or dictionary from a major publisher, try looking up the title on the publisher’s website. You might find free downloadable worksheets, games, etc. These games are a nice change of pace from using a book all the time!

Academics: Success with Research Papers/Contacting Professors

Today I found a good article about how to do research for university-level papers. Most undergraduates and nearly all graduate students in American universities will write several long “research papers” before they graduate. These papers are big projects, with two important parts: the research and the writing.

Most students are so worried about the writing part that they don’t think about the research part very much. The research is not original research–you don’t do any experiments, dig up any bones, or run any tests. This is “library research.” Many students don’t do well on this part of the paper, because they don’t know where to start, choose sources that are not high-level, or get lost and spend too much time trying to find sources.

Dustin Wax, at, has written a good article on “10 Steps Toward Better Research.” He mentions that it’s important to talk to your professor and to librarians to help you with your topic. I would add that it’s really important to talk to your professor at the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out your topic. Discussions by either e-mail or in person are fine, depending on your and your professor’s preferences.

Another article that I read recently said that American students at American universities and international students and American universities talk to their professors differently. American students tended to e-mail their professors specific questions, such as “Do you think the question of (blah blah blah) would be a good paper topic? Or would it be better for me to focus more on (blah blah blah)?” On the other hand, international students asked more general questions such as “What kind of topic should I pick?”

Although the international students probably thought of their questions as more polite, very general questions are difficult for professors to answer over e-mail. The result was that the American students received their answers quickly, but it took a long time for the international students and the professors to finish their e-mail conversations. Because of this, the American students had more time to work on their papers.

The more general question would be fine for an in-person talk with the professor. However, the international students in the article also had problems setting up a time by e-mail to visit their professor in person. The American students checked the office hours on the syllabus, and then e-mailed the professor to say things like “I can’t come during your office hours, but do you have any free time Tuesday or Thursday afternoons? I could come in any time between 2 PM and 4 PM.” This lets the professor respond with a specific time, such as “How about Thursday at 3 PM?” or suggest an alternate such as “I’m busy then, but we could meet 15 minutes before class on Wednesday.”

The international students again were more general, asking questions such as “When can I go to your office?” Again, this probably seemed more polite to the students than giving a suggestion. The result, though, was that it took many e-mails and more time for the professor and the international student to arrange their meeting.

This is not to say that it’s always better to be more direct. Also, the local way of doing things (American, in this case) is not always the best way to do something. Still, it’s a good idea to be aware of how things like this are done wherever you are, whether it’s the US, Canada, Australia, etc. Even if you feel a little uncomfortable using the local style, it might be able to help you succeed in school.

Recipe: Lemon Chess Pie

No one is sure where the name or recipe for “chess pie” comes from, but it’s not related to the game of chess. (Read more about the possible origins of chess pie at Wikipedia.) It’s a traditional dessert in the American South. In fact, people outside of the South sometimes haven’t heard of it! It’s really delicious, but extremely sweet. You should make sure to cut the pie into at least 8 pieces, maybe 12, and share with your friends. My favorite kind of chess pie is lemon chess pie, because the lemon flavor makes it taste more balanced. It’s also very pretty–here are some photos of lemon chess pies at Flickr.

These instructions use American measurements, which are not weight-based. (Many American professional chefs use weight-based measurements–e.g., grams–but few home cooks do.) The Metric Kitchen: Conversion Basics explains how to convert the measurements and temperatures to metric systems. If you’re not in the US and you don’t want to do conversions, you may be able to buy American measuring cups and spoons at a specialty cooking store or international store.

If you live outside of North America, some of the ingredients might need to be bought at a specialty grocery store aimed at international residents. In America recipes, “milk” always means cow’s milk unless specified otherwise. “Eggs” means chicken eggs. A “pinch” of something is a very small amount, like if you just took a little bit of salt between your thumb and index finger.

Common American cooking measurement abbreviations:
C = cup (this is a specific amount, not just a drinking cup)
T or tbs = tablespoon (again, a specific amount)
t or tsp = teaspoon (also a specific amount)

Lemon Chess Pie

This recipe is based on one from a friend of my mother-in-law’s. It’s delicious! It has a pretty brown top and is a beautiful yellow inside. The pie is very sweet, so make sure you have something such as tea, coffee, or milk to drink while you eat it.


Filling Ingredients
2 C granulated sugar
1 tbs all-purpose flour
1 tsp cornmeal
4 unbeaten eggs
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup whole milk or 2% milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
Pinch of salt (only if you use unsalted butter)

Pie Crust
1 unbaked pie crust (flour-based, not graham cracker–buy frozen, or make it yourself)

Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl and stir until evenly mixed. Everything should be one color. Press the unbaked pie crust into a pie pan (if it didn’t come in a pan originally). Pour the filling into the pie crust. Bake the pie in an oven at 375 F about 35 mins, or until filling is set. The filling will be set when the top is brown and the center moves only a little when the pie is moved. When done, the pie filling will be soft, but not liquid. Take the pie out and let it cool for at least twenty minutes. Put it on a trivet, rack, or upside-down plate (not plastic) to cool. After that, you can either chill it in a refrigerator to eat it cold, or slice it and eat it warm right away!

Checking in

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to follow up on the cooking post. I’m looking forward to posting recipes and so on. However, I’m visiting my family, and they have very slow internet access. I think I’m going to have to wait till I return to California to post again. I’ll see you next week!