Learning Languages from Oceania: A Guide on How to Start

I would like to thank my friend Teddy Nee over at http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/ for having suggested this topic! Check out his webpage!

 

So maybe you saw that Fijian book at a store and you’re curious to learn more about the language. Maybe you found a guide to French Polynesia at your local library. Perhaps you ran into a Samoan at your friend’s party. Or you encountered Tongan women at the airport with unforgettable, colorful outfits.

Oceania is sadly a bit of a blind spot in terms of not only world politics but also the language-learning sphere in general. A lot of people don’t even give it a first glance. Perhaps it is because they think that native speakers will be hard to come by or that time would be better spent with other languages.

The fact is, any of these obstacles can be overcome and learning languages from the South Pacific (I’ll be focusing on Oceania and Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia in particular) is VERY rewarding indeed.

 

Why Learn Languages from Oceania?

 

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In Fiji there was a stark contrast to a lot of patterns I saw throughout Europe and Asia. Namely, the fact that my use of Fijian was HEAVILY encouraged on an hourly basis by native speakers. I even joked that “the janitors in Fiji were more useful and encouraging language tutors than academics in Iceland.”

(Maybe it isn’t the whole picture, but the fact is that given how quickly the world seems to be craving even MORE English, cultures throughout the world should be proud of their languages and cultures in a healthy way and be willing to encourage other people to study them as much as possible, rather than trying to force English on others as non-natives).

Palauans, Samoans and I-Kiribati were just as equally helpful for me. (Full disclosure: my Samoan is very, very weak).

In a sense, your ability to cast magic spells on people from these island nations will give you worlds upon worlds of bridges. And legendary hospitality and kindness is a cultural mainstay of many (if not all) of these countries.

On top of that, Oceania has a stronger influence on “mainstream pop culture” than meets the eye. The release of Moana / Vaiana and of Pokémon Sun and Moon (set in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region complete with Hawaiian place names and cultural references EVERYWHERE) further served to market cultures of the Pacific well outside their borders.

Even then, images of Kiribati, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and dozens of others would be recognizable to many Americans who may have not even thought too much of these places beyond “wow I’ve heard they’re beautiful islands”.

And I didn’t even touch on Maori culture still being a force of great influence well beyond Oceania.

 

Where to Start

If you want a good glimpse at a number of languages throughout Polynesia, the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook is a good introduction. Sadly it may not help you learn how to form your own sentences in every one of the languages, but it is a nice introduction to many of the locales of the South Pacific. What’s more, the sections are interspersed with local legends and cultural tips that help bring the places to life.

The book covers Fijian, Hawaiian, Kanak Languages (of New Caledonia) with a focus on Drehu,  New Zealand Maori, Niuean, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island and the island’s non-colonial name), Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan), Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan and tidbits of Fiji Hindi, French, Spanish and Norfuk / Pitkern.

Books for further reading are also located at the back of the book.

Now let’s go throughout the continent and see what we can find:

Fijian: Lonely Planet and Reise Know How both have phrasebooks of good quality, uTalk also has a course as well (very good for honing pronunciation). Not only that, but Cornell University hosts a free version of Ronald Gatty’s Fijian dictionary that covers any idiom, phrase and word that he could get his hands on. There are also good Fijian Memrise courses as well. And the Live Lingua Project has PDF’s for learners. You’re in good shape with this one.

Tongan: A fantastic Anki Deck I found from 2017 was taken off the server but I still have it and I can send it to you if you’d like it. A lot of Tongan materials are geared towards missionaries (as is the case for many languages of Oceania). Check out this PDF as well. Audio is also available on YouTube (alongside many other useful learning channels for Tongan made by enthusiastic native speakers): https://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/audio/languagelessons/tonga/TN_Tonga_Language_Lessons.pdf

Samoan: Two sources I can recommend. uTalk’s course and the Live Lingua Project. Both come with native speaker audio.

Maori: Reise Know How has a German-Language phrasebook for Maori. uTalk also has Maori as well (I think we’ve gone through all the uTalk courses for Oceania that I can think of right now, they only have Fijian, Samoan and Maori as of the time of writing). Quality materials in my experience are not scarce, thankfully.

Hawaiian: Fantastic Memrise Courses as well as Mango Languages’ Course should be a good introduction.

Cook Islands Maori: This is a hard one. So far not a lot of comprehensive user-friendly books exist, but a TON of sample sentences and words can be found at: http://cookislandsdictionary.com/ And don’t forget an introductory course at: http://cookislandslanguage.com/

Tahitian: Material from French is easy to come by, for English speakers D.T. Tryon’s book on “Conversational Tahitian” is FANTASTIC.

Marquesan Languages: You can buy a very thorough phrasebook for Marquesan from http://www.emilydonaldson.org/  (Look for the contact information and e-mail her asking about the phrasebook).

Rapa Nui: Good dictionaries can be found on the web. Concerning learning materials, omniglot.com has a good lineup (as it does for almost any language).

Niuean: http://www.learnniue.co.nz/ is a good bet, once you have the basics, see if you can find Tregear and Smith’s 1907 book with a very thorough dictionary and grammar points.

Drehu: I haven’t even studied this language on a surface level, but if you have anything to say about it…

Tok Pisin, Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin: The Lonely Planet Guide for Pidgin is EXCELLENT in getting you to start. For added supplements, consider the Live Lingua Project’s PDF’s for these languages. Memrise also has good courses for Tok Pisin and Bislama in particular. Sadly concerning Torres Strait Creole and Kriol (of the Australian Aborigines), it seems as though the landscape isn’t as favorable. Right now. But maybe new materials will come up.

Hiri Motu: Try this one: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/146613/1/PL-D24.pdf Or this one: https://exkiap.net/other/tok_pisin/Say_It_In_Motu.pdf

Palauan:  You need one website: http://tekinged.com/. This is the language website all others should aspire to be.

Marshallese: The Live Lingua Peace Corp Manual is a bit basic, but for more thorough studies look for Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese”, which will probably make you a master when you’re done with it. Provided you use audio well (and you’ll probably have to find them independently of those materials).

Nauruan: Oh my. I’m probably going to have to write about this next week. The landscape doesn’t look too clear at this point, I’ll say that. I did find a German-Language grammar book from 1913, I have a printed copy of it right here. You can get the PDF version from some universities from this link or just look at it online if you don’t have that: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

Next week is Nauru’s Independence Day and I’ll write a whole post on this topic.

Kiribati: http://trussel.com/ This website is VERY, VERY GOOD.

Tuvaluan: Geoffrey Jackson’s books are of very good quality. Sadly they exist in Google books only in pieces due to copyright restrictions. His Tuvaluan-English / English-Tuvaluan Dictionary is FANTASTIC and can be acquired from the University of the South Pacific in Suva. (Do they do mail-order stuff? I don’t even know. I got it when I went there in person). For those who like dense grammar, there is: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

Languages of the Federated States of Micronesia: A toughie. Basic Chuukese guides exist online, but for any of the others I’d recommend searching in https://www.twirpx.com/

Fiji Hindi: Live Lingua Project (look under “Fijian”).

Rotuman: http://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/LanguageLessons/lessons.htm And another site that seems to be dysfunctional at the moment. Also look for the “Rotuman Word List” in Google.

 

IF YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THIS LIST, write it in the comments belong.

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Other general tools to use include Glosbe (which has a HUGE translation memory in many of these languages) as well as SwiftKey Keyboard (which includes predictive text for SmartPhones in many of these languages as well).

 

Okay, Now I have the Materials, What Do I Do with Them?

I recommend a number of methods:

  • Writing sentences, then reading them out loud, and then recording them.
  • The 30-Day Speaking Challenge (see “Other Foreign Language Blogs” above and click on “Jonathan Huggins”) can be a good place to start.
  • Clozemaster Pro’s customization features. For this, pick a language that has the “Cloze-Collections” feature enabled. Then create a new collection, name it, and select the second option that indicates that, instead of using random words from the language, use random words from other answers (this will ensure that you don’t get one Yapese answer and three Hungarian words as the multiple-choice test selections). Insert the sentences from your book at your own volition. Now you have a custom course! If you use only sentences from the public domain, you can also SHARE it with others!
  • Social media posts. Need I say more?

And now what you’ve all be waiting for…

How to Find Native Speakers of Oceanic Languages

Paul Barbato of Geography Now said that the hardest nationalities for him to come into contact with were the Nauruans and the Tuvaluans. I don’t blame him.

There IS one way to do it and it surprisingly works but you’d have to get fairly … decent … at your target language first.

And that’s to make videos of yourself learning / using the language. With the name of the language and the title. And wait. (As of the time of writing, two Rotumans met each other in the comments section! Rotuma has a 2,000 inhabitants but significantly more outside of Rotuma, mostly in Fiji and Australia.).

You could also post it to various sub-reddits as well, but be careful. Don’t promote yourself too often otherwise you  may get locked out (this never happened to me). And contribute meaningfully to said sub-reddits as well.

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This is very much something like the post I wish I had read to “have all of my resources in one place” before choosing to study Oceanic Languages. Feel free to provide any variety of feedback or contribute any relevant projects you’re working on.

Onward!

When Do You Know You’re Good Enough in a Language to List in On Your (CV / Profile / Etc.?)

Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?

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Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?

There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).

  • Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
  • Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
  • Learning how gender works, if any.
  • Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
  • Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
  • Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
  • How prepositions / postpositions work.
  • The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
  • Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)

 

Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.

 

There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:

 

  • Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
  • Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
  • Writing exercises
  • Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)

 

Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?

The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.

Some boss fights would include things like:

 

  • Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
  • Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).

 

So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.

And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.

You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.

 

  • Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
  • Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).

 

A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.

Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.

Feel free to let me know what you think!

 

First Week of 2019: Review

Today was extremely difficult with me having had a translation job that literally ate up my entire day. That said, however short a post I have to write I thought I should write something now that 2019 is one week over.

Thoughts:

  • On free days (the likes of which the first days of 2019 were), I had absolutely no problem meeting my daily goals at all. Once I realized that my freelancing was going to be making an even BIGGER comeback shortly after the new year, I realized how I sometimes didn’t have enough time to manage putting in 50 Greenlandic sentences in a day. Daily goals are good if they are bit-sized, but sometimes things happen (whether that be illnesses or emergencies or suddenly finding yourself having to do something).
  • So my first week of Tibetan didn’t go particularly well. I credit this to material not being “fun”. It occurred to me that given that I have material from Mango Languages and uTalk for Dzongkha but not (yet) for Tibetan, maybe I should pivot with devoting the first half of 2019 to Dzongkha (Bhutanese) and the second half to Tibetan. Already I’ve been seeing results and poised to be able to have my first conversation in Dzongkha. Even a “field trip” with plans is in the cards! (…to another neighborhood in New York City. Not to Bhutan. Sorry.)
  • I figured that I should also adopt a “light version” of my goals on certain days.

With that in mind. Revised goals for January 2019:

  • 30 minutes of Dzongkha study every day (thanks to MTA never working this is easy).
  • 50 sentences of Greenlandic sentences into your Clozemaster Pro database (except for super-busy days).
  • 10 sentences of Greenlandic sentences to be reviewed every day in Clozemaster Pro.
  • 1 video of Dzongkha every day, no matter how long. Any level is good.

How are your goals going?

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Hello 2019! (And New Smaller Plans!)

For some odd reason I feel a certain flower of hope blooming in my life right now. Perhaps this New Year is going to provide a lot of healing as well as a lot of intrigue. Just the way I like it.

Inspired by All Japanese All the Time, I decided to implement a new strategy of learning in my life (and not just for languages). Namely, I have to have quantifiable goals that are either OVER or not.

“Be fluent in language X” is not one of those goals (if there is no test for it, anyhow, as would be the case for most languages of the developing world as far as I know).

However, “write X sentences a day” or “read a book for Y minutes every day of January” IS a quantifiable goal.

2018 saw me draw up a HUGE list of languages that I wanted to touch, very unrealistic precisely so that it would stretch me to my limits. It didn’t work out that way, so instead I’m going to focus on mastering two this year (or getting “good enough” at them).

2018 saw Hungarian and Fijian go on my resume, and while they both need improvement that will likely come with time and exercise (given that I can understand most material in either this will be a way to “cement” my skills, especially on the subway or while walking).

2019 may or may not see me forgetting languages (I was introduced to someone in December with the words “this man has forgotten more languages than most people speak fluently”. Okay, then. I’m happy.) But seeking to explore something new to invigorate my life (as well as something I can use in areas of New York City), I’m turning towards the Himalayas.

My two primary focuses for this year will be Tibetan and Dzongkha (which I will always spell correctly from now on).  With “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” looking at a release in the second half of 2019, I’m going to be focusing on that throughout the year (as well as using my Greenlandic studies to pay homage to the UN’s year of indigenous languages).

 

For Greenlandic, my goal is as follows for January:

  • Write in 50 sentences a day into your custom Clozemaster Pro course.
  • Do 10 of those sentences.

For Tibetan, my goal is as follows for January.

  • One YouTube video each day.
  • 30 minutes with the book.

 

When February comes around, I’lll adjust the goals so as to fit with my reality.

As for maintenance, I’ll be watching one video per week in each of my fluent languages, if possible. If I have a conversation in any of them, or have a class in any of them, I am exempt from the video.

Also, I know I say this every year on New Year’s Day, but happy birthday, Slovakia! This year I may even get to SEE YOU!

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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)

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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.