2018, or Every Great Story Has a Low Chapter

Last year I was so full of hope and energy that I drew up a HUGE list of languages that I wanted to at least touch in 2018.

This year, I look back and I see that I significantly underperformed. Yes, I finally managed to have Hungarian conversations on a weekly basis. Yes, I finally got conversationally fluent in Fijian (and even Tuvaluan for some time). But concerning my videos? Made a LOT fewer of them. Writing blog posts? The same.

That said, I really should look back and celebrate my success (and I’ll reveal my goals for 2019 tomorrow that are going to be VERY small. Perhaps too manageable, in a sense). I was watching Hungarian videos every day during my workout and understanding the general points of almost all of them. I practically didn’t need any more learner audio anymore. My grammar has a few rough edges but aside from that, very good.

Given that Hungarian is one of my heritage languages that I want to speak for the rest of my life, I am glad to know that I finally made significant progress in it.

As for Fijian, it was okay when I was in Fiji and just continued to get better as a result of listening to audio books (read: the Bible, because I sort of don’t have anything else…yet. Aside from songs) as well as my birthday present of Clozemaster Pro (which enabled me to add custom sentences).

But I digress.

The fact is that if you are reading this, you are some variety of achiever. Someone who sets very high standards for yourself. You should expect that one point in your life will be…underwhelming.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Perhaps one thing I also did this year that I’m “ashamed of” is the fact that I would announce a change of plans every month or so in the second half of 2018.

But you know what? That’s okay too. Because sometimes you need to experiment around with your grand visions.

As for my goals that I’ll be revealing tomorrow, well…I’ll be bound to them by oath, in a sense…to ensure that I get results.

A LOT MORE than what I got this year.

Here’s hoping all of your dreams come true!

Jared

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My Dictionary / Translation Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!

Inspired by my previous article in which I detailed the various strengths and weaknesses of my language learning apps, here I am in another direction—looking at my dictionary and translation apps.

And again, you can probably guess which one leads the list. Not in terms of quality, per se, but in terms of recognition…

Google Translate

Good: Excellent for phrases, alternate translations readily provided, text-to-speech very good when it is provided, enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues, some offline support available

Bad: Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin, transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing, not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power, the general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers), usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner.

I’ll go into each of these:

Excellent for phrases – This is the biggest drawcard of Google Translate. Simple things you may need in conversation (e.g. “I don’t feel well”, “you are beautiful”, “have fun!”) will be accurately provided and noted with a check-mark, indicating that the translation community of native speakers have found the phrase overwhelmingly accurate. (This can still have some issues e.g. with the Burmese gender-specific versions of “I” both being marked with a check, but if I refer to myself with a female pronoun then I would turn heads).

Alternate translations readily provided – Define a single word and you’ll get synonyms and related words. If you write a conjugated verb (e.g. “eaten”) you’ll get the infinitive form underneath (“to eat”). Helpful if you’re trying to wrap your head around complicated verb systems (such as in the Romance Languages or Finno-Ugric Languages).

Text-to-speech very good when it is provided – I also see no issues with the tones either (in Thai or Vietnamese, for example).

Enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues – I’ve gone ape on some of the Yiddish “translations” available and provided correct versions. You can do the same with your fluent languages as well.

Some offline support available – SUPER helpful if you’re doing “immersion” out of your home country and you don’t have coverage. The sad reality is that it doesn’t exist for every language available in Google Translate.

Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin – Burmese song lyrics look like word salad when machine translated into English. Languages like Samoan, Irish and Yiddish tend to not fare much better.

Transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing – So in Lao some of the vowels go before the letter and others go on top or after it. Google Translate has difficulty rendering this into transliteration so what it does it render ແຂວງ (the Lao word for “Province”, pronounced “khwε̌εŋ”) as “aekhuang” in transliteration. Urdu and Persian don’t even have transliteration as of the time of writing.

Not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power

machine translation says no

The general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers) – No further explanation needed.

Usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner – And I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

 

Glosbe

Good: Aims to be THE LARGEST collection of language combinations anywhere, HUGE translation memory, translation memory hugely reliable, indispensable for learning languages from the developing world.

Bad: Long list of languages that requires you to ctrl-f frequently, no telling which languages have good representation in the translation memory or not except by trial and error, sometimes the quotation mark function can be wonky and give you all forms of the words in quotes rather than the specific phrase you’re asking for.

A godsend for my studies of languages of Oceania, Glosbe is something I highly recommend to anyone whether you’re learning Spanish or whether you’re learning Marquesan. The translation memory, which includes collections of subtitles, phrase databases and missionary materials is VERY well put together with over 1 BILLION entries in it across hundreds of languages.

If you’re learning a language from the developed world, like Italian, Finnish or Bulgarian, you’ll find the collections from OpenSubtitles very useful as they are built into the translation memories. However, if you’re learning a rarer language with a developing country, don’t lose hope! A lot of materials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church have also been rendered into many of those languages as well. And even in English Creole languages like Tok Pisin, they’ll try to stay away from English loan words as much as humanly possible in their translations.

I haven’t noticed any significant issues with the translations themselves (although one time a Samoan sentence showed up in the Marshallese database!). You can also find very specific phrases as well and genuinely learn sentence structure. Even if you’re stuck with only using missionary material, you WILL find sentences that will be genuinely useful for conversations.

This is probably one of the most powerful language tools in existence right now and you NEED to be using this.

Freelang

Good: HUGE collection of languages, user-friendly, not a lot of typing required, a built-in quiz game, some of the dictionaries are VERY thorough (e.g. the Finnish-English one has scientific vocabulary), all dictionaries are reversible, dictionaries from English, Spanish and French all in huge quantities (some of them are unique to one particular language, e.g. Galician-Spanish), all dictionaries can be downloaded for offline usage, you can also print dictionaries from the computer (or use the print preview function to get them in another format).

Bad: Quiz game can be confusing, not a lot of grammar, some of the dictionaries are small but good nonetheless, some special characters get jarbled, transliterations can sometimes be an issue

Freelang dictionaries are VERY useful for advanced beginners to…well, advanced speakers, even. But it does depend on the language. Because your language can have anywhere from 400 entries to 40,000…but the entries are usually helpful regardless of how small the dictionary is!

Also the collection of languages is STAGGERING. And no problem with offline usage at all (provided you install the dictionaries you want while you’re online).

There is also an in-built quiz machine you can use. You can choose words from the dictionary to go on your study list. In older versions in the early 2010’s I could figure this feature out but not so much anymore. Maybe someone from Freelang is reading this. J

Overall a very good tool that has been, again, indispensable for my studies.

Anki

Not really a good bad anything: You can use it as a dictionary if you put enough flashcards in it. You can also convert Memrise courses to Anki as well and use THEM as dictionaries.

I can’t find of a decent way to end this article. Let me know what dictionary apps YOU find useful.

My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

ajunngila

Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.