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TOEFL Tip #88: Translation Program Pitfalls

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 25, 2011

We’ve recently heard about students using translation programs to help them study for the TOEFL. Using translation programs is what an EFL speaker would do; it is not what someone who’s trying to become an ESL speaker would do. Two weeks ago, we discussed the differences between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). We pointed out that the more of your native language you hear, speak, and read every day, the less success you will have on the TOEFL. To excel on the TOEFL, you have to not only passively surround yourself with English in as many formats as possible (news, entertainment, casual conversation, internet reading, and so on), but you also have to actively communicate complicated ideas in English every day. (Sorry, but ordering coffee doesn’t count!).

Perhaps you’re already using a lot of English in your everyday life, but consider whether you are using software such as Google Translate to switch material into your native language in order to understand a difficult passage in a news article, for example. This is not helpful overall for learning English, and it can be even worse if you’re studying to take the TOEFL exam, for two reasons.

First, translation software can be good if you want to check the meaning of a particular word or phrase, or if you already have a sense of what it means, but if you do not have a general idea of the meaning already, you might get a completely wrong translation and never know it. Translation software is often wrong–for example, it will leave out important words, and change the meaning of the passage–and unless you’re fluent in both languages, you’ll never know. Therefore, only use translation programs to fine tune a meaning you already mostly understand.

Second–and this is the bigger problem–if you are in the habit of using translation software when you come across a hard passage of English, you’re not going to have the skills to handle the difficult materials on the TOEFL exam. Figuring out words from context, recognizing metaphorical language, remembering the different forms of each part of speech (especially verbs!) are all skills that take a lot of practice to master, even for students whose first language is English. If instead of practicing these skills you’ve been letting a translation program do all the work, then you won’t suddenly be able to use these skills on test day.

So minimize your use of translation software. Otherwise, you might save time now, but you’ll very likely lose TOEFL points later.

TOEFL Tip #87: “Less is more”

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 18, 2011

Always remember that the TOEFL values the idea that “Less is more.” The phrase means that, in some situations, doing less will bring a better result than trying to do too much. The key is that what you actually DO has to be good in order to be effective. Obviously, doing less and being careless will not bring the result that you want.

“Less is more” on the TOEFL, too. Although this post will discuss the written section of the test, you can apply this approach to the speaking section, too.

Both essays on the Writing section of the iBT have a word count. This is there for a reason! The Integrated Writing Task (informally called the 20 minute essay) should have about 200 words, and the Independent Task (informally called the 30 minute essay) requires a minimum of 300 words, but don’t go too far beyond that. Keep these word counts in mind, and focus on making your essays perfect, not longer.

One way to think about “less is more” is to use the word count as a guideline for how long each part of your essay should be. For the Integrated Task, if the reading and the listening make 3 points about the topic, you should have about 50 words per paragraph. (For example, the two sentences I just wrote = 50 words). It’s the same for the Independent Task. If you have 3 reasons/examples to support what you want to say, the introduction and conclusion paragraph might each have about 50 words, and the 3 paragraphs with your reasons might each have about 65 words. (Of course, one paragraph might have 60 words, and another might have 75 words, but you get the overall idea.) If every paragraph has 80 words, you’re trying to cram too much into the essay!

Another way to think about “less is more” is remembering the purpose of each writing task. The Integrated Task asks you to compare an academic reading passage with a spoken lecture on the same topic. That’s all you have to do – state the topic of the reading and the listening, and then compare what each says. Your goal is to summarize the main points made in the reading and listening and offer a FEW details to explain these main points. Do not try to repeat all of the details! That takes up too much space and time, and it does not necessarily improve your essay.

The purpose of the Independent Task is to respond to a question using only enough details to support your point. The key here is to focus! Be sure that your reasons and examples are direct and succinctly show the point you are trying to make. Details themselves will not gain you points. Only the details that matter will. Also, do not say things like, “And that is why I think ….” Remember, your essay has already been explaining what you think; that the reader knows that anything you write is “what you think”.

TOEFL Tip #86: ESL vs. EFL: Why the difference matters on the TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 11, 2011

Today’s post highlights the differences between ESL and EFL, and why that matters for the TOEFL exam. Even though the “F” in the name TOEFL indicates that the test is for English as a “foreign” language, it’s really a test of English as a SECOND language. Understanding this difference will help you do well on the test.

So what’s the difference between ESL and EFL? Both terms refer to someone whose first language is not English. ESL stands for English as a Second Language and EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. Both terms refer to how important English is in the country where the speaker lives – how often someone has to speak or read English to get through a typical day. The ESL speaker lives in a country where English is the primary language, and the EFL speaker lives in a country where there is a different primary language, although some English is spoken. We usually think that EFL students live in a country where English isn’t spoken very much, and that ESL students are surrounded by English all of the time.

But that isn’t always true – it depends a lot on the choices students make.

Sometimes, our students who live in America – and who should be learning English as a Second Language – don’t do well on the TOEFL because they are actually living as if English were a Foreign Language. Any one or more of the following situations keep English as a foreign language for these students, rather than making English their second language:

• They live with family or friends who speak their native language
• Their computer’s operating system is in their native language
• They use search engines (like Google and Yahoo) in their native language
• They rent movies in their native language
• They read the news (in print or on the web) in their native language

In all of these examples – as well as many others – students do not hear spoken English, and do not read written English as part of their daily lives. They have an English class for 1 hour a day, a few times a week, which is more like an EFL experience than an ESL experience. Unless students choose to read and speak English throughout the day, every day, they will not learn enough English to count it as a second language.

This is why our clients who live in countries where English isn’t part of daily life often do better on the TOEFL: they purposefully force themselves to live an ESL lifestyle. They KNOW they have little English around them, so they hunt it out constantly. Ironically, students who live where English is the main language think that their American address alone counts as an ESL experience. But it doesn’t. Passive reception of English is not the same as active production of English – for example, thinking in it, speaking in it, reading and writing in it.

If you live in an English-speaking country but haven’t been performing as well on the TOEFL as you expected, check the list above. Changing as many of those items as you can, so that you’re surrounded by English all of the time, will very likely help your score on the next test.

TOEFL Tip #85: Understanding Idioms: It’s A Piece Of Cake

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 3, 2011

Back in August, we wrote a blog article that identified three different kinds of idioms: metaphoric (for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verbs (for example, to LOOK UP means “to research”), and idiomatic conventions (articles, prepositions, and so on that may not be properly called idioms, yet their usage is definitely idiomatic). The advice in that post was that your focus should be on the second and third category of idioms, because you will use many more of those in the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL than you’ll use of metaphoric idioms.

Although Strictly English still encourages you to avoid metaphoric idioms when writing and speaking on the TOEFL, you do need knowledge of them because they often appear in the Listening sections of the test, and only the Listening section. That is, the listening section will have common phrases in English (idioms) that use colorful or descriptive language to make a point. These phrases are not meant literally; instead, they make a comparison by drawing a picture in your mind (that is to say, they use metaphor). Metaphoric idioms are always in the questions that start with the instructions to “listen to part of the lecture again.” The question will then replay part of the lecture when the teacher uses an idiom.

Here are two common metaphoric idioms in English:

• The female manager was angry that she had hit a glass ceiling at her company.
• “The groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty (when “predicting” if winter is over).” (This example comes from the 2nd edition of the Longman TOEFL prep book)

You can figure out idioms like these by thinking about the separate pieces of the phrase, and seeing how they might work together.

Glass ceiling: The first thing to do is VISUALIZE a glass ceiling. You’re looking at the ceiling in your living room and it’s glass. You think that’s pretty because you can see the birds flying over your head and you can see the clouds go by. So is a glass ceiling a *good* thing? Well our sentence says that the female manager felt ANGRY. So that’s a bad thing. How can this beautiful ceiling be bad? Therefore, we might have to think about it differently. Let’s imagine you’re a child walking past a candy store, and you see chocolate, and cake, and licorice in the shop window. You want it, but you can’t have it because the glass is separating you from the candy. See, glass can both (1) let you see what you want and (2) be a barrier to having it. So now we understand the “glass” part of “glass ceiling”, but why is it a ceiling and not a window or a floor? Well, now we have to think about the difference between a floor (which is below us) and a ceiling (which is above us). The manager is looking UP to see the ceiling. Just like the child wants the candy, the manager wants to go “up”. But what does that mean? Does she want to fly in a plane? No. She wants to go *up* at work. She wants a promotion. So just like the child who sees candy and is denied it, the female manager can see a promotion but is denied it. This is why we use the term glass ceiling when talking about minorities. Very often women, or homosexuals, or racial minorities, are denied the ability to get a better job, even though they can see the possibility of having that job.

Batting fifty-fifty: Start with batting. Which sports in the United States use a bat? Only baseball. What do you do with the bat in baseball? Swing at the ball; sometimes you hit the ball, sometimes you miss it. The more often you hit the ball, the more likely you are to score a run for your team. If you don’t hit the ball very often, you’re not a good baseball player. Now on to fifty-fifty. If something is split 50-50, that means it’s divided in two equal halves. When you combine the image of swinging at a baseball together with the idea of something being split in two equal halves, you see that batting fifty-fifty means that you hit the ball about half of the times you swing at it, and you miss about half of the times. So, by extension, someone who correctly does something about half of the time is batting fifty-fifty. If the groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty when predicting that winter is over, that means the groundhog is right in its prediction more often than it is wrong, but only by a little bit. Maybe the groundhog is batting 55-45.

So, if you have a question on the TOEFL with a metaphoric idiom you’ve never heard before, try to figure out the literal meaning behind the words. We know that you can’t think through a metaphor as carefully as the explanations above when you’re actually taking the TOEFL, because of its time limits, but (1) if you practice doing this when reading and listening in general, then you’ll get faster for the test and (2) writing out the thought process is MUCH SLOWER than the thought process itself. If it takes 3 minutes to read one of the explanations above it might only take 45 seconds to think about it. PLUS you have the four answer choices to help guide you in your thinking. Practice idioms, and soon you’ll take to them like a duck to water!