Language learning online

This page has advice on the various ways that the internet can help you learn English.

Introduction

There are very many websites or apps where learners can learn, practise and test their English online. For example, this site has thousands of interactive quizzes and games.

Another way that the internet can support the learning of English is that it allows learners to do their own analysis of the results returned by a search engine such as Google Of course, Google is not the only search engine. All the advice on this page applies also to other search engines such as Bing or Duck Duck Go. .

Of course, everyone knows how useful Google is in finding information on the internet. And most learners know that typing "searchword definition" (e.g. "superstitious definition ") into the Google search box will return a list of online dictionaries showing the definition of the search word, together with examples of the word in context.

@ Not all learners, however, realize how useful Google can also be in checking grammar, idioms or common word combinations (collocations). ~ In fact, Google provides access to a vast corpus (or store) of English text. This corpus contains data on virtually every aspect of the English language as it is used in real-world contexts.

In other words, the corpus contains text that people produce in real-world contexts. This is in contrast to much of the text that is created for language learning materials with the purpose of exemplifying grammar rules.

Researching grammar

Imagine, for example, that the learner wants to know whether she should write: at the beginning of the book or in the beginning of the book.

If she types in these two search strings, she will get 331,00 hits for the first and 121,00 for the second. She can deduce, therefore, that both expressions are possible but that at the beginning of the book is the safer choice.

Similarly, the learner may not know the grammar of the verb to suggest and want to check the construction "suggested him to .. see a doctor / stop smoking / etc. ". If she types in the words suggested him to .. , she will get only 200 hits, which is suspiciously low. The string "suggested that he .. " returns 54,800 hits - and clearly this is the preferred construction.

Researching collocations

Collocations are combinations of words that 'go together' and sound natural to a native speaker. For example, asleep goes together with fall, not with go or any other verb. And we say wide awake not very awake.

An internet search on word combinations such as these is helpful to determine which of two or more alternatives returns the greatest number of results. You can be reasonably sure that this is the preferred collocation.

Here you can read more on collocation.

Google Ngrams

A more specialised way to research English language grammar and usage than a simple Google search is with Google's Ngram viewer. nGram allows you to search in Google Books and compare two words or expressions.

You enter the words or phrases in the input box and click Search lots of books. Google returns your search as a graph, showing the relative popularity (or use) of the words in the books that Google has digitized.

Below is an Ngram comparison of tall man (blue line) and high man (red line):

ngram example

It is clear which is the more common collocation.

Concordancers

A second specialised way to research English is to use a concordancer. Concordancers are computer programs that run searches on a vast amount of written or (transcribed) spoken text.

When you type words into a concordancer, it shows you examples of those words in short sentence extracts.

On this website there is a simple concordancer. Here is a short extract of a concordance of the word eye from that page.

concordance example

There is also a list of the major online English language corpora such as Collins Cobuild or the British National Corpus.

Research suggestions

Keen English learners might wish to try out one or more of the research methods explained above.

Task: Which one in each of the following groups of expressions is grammatical English or the more common collocation?

  • I don't hope she will .. / I hope she won't ..
  • everybody has to .. / everybody have to ..
  • I need informations about .. / I need an information about .. / I need information about ..
  • (he) insisted me to .. / (he) insisted that I ..
  • (it isn't) worth repairing .. / (it isn't) worth to be repaired ..
  • a tall mountain / a high mountain
  • a little interesting / quite interesting
  • strong smoker / serious smoker / heavy smoker
  • completely beautiful / incredibly beautiful
  • you get in my nose / you get up my nose

Question and answer sites

There are various sites where you can ask native speakers (including teachers) about English. They are listed on the page Getting answers to English language questions.

Important caveat

@@ There are millions of pages in English on the internet that contain faulty grammar and usage. ~~ There are three main reason for this:

  • The writer of the page is not a native-speaker of English.
  • The writer of the page is a poorly-educated native-speaker of English.
  • The writer of the page did not write with any care or attention to accuracy.

Learners are recommended, therefore, to restrict their online language research to the .edu domain. They can then be more confident that the pages returned will not contain grammatical or usage errors.