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.

 

Myanmar Saga + Extra Double-Feature Daredevil Language Mission!

Tomorrow I head off to the Golden Land (Myanmar / Burma).

As a Yiddishist I am actually amused by the fact that a popular Yiddish name for the United States was (and remains) “di goldene medine” (also meaning “The Golden Land”, or somewhat more accurately, “the golden country”). I’m hopping one from Golden Country to another, so it seems.

On one hand, I feel significantly confident in my ability to say a lot of “touristy” things in Burmese, although I’m not fluent (and I have problems reading the Burmese script, too!).

This is my first tonal language that I’ve taken seriously since my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 or so, and as a result I’m quite worried about whether I’m getting it right but luckily the fact that I have a musical ear certainly hasn’t hurt.

Where am I? Well, let me put it this way: part of me feels that I’m walking into a test that I haven’t studied for. At all. And that this test determines my future.

But another part of me feels that I’m entering into the testing room with as many “cheat sheets” as I want.

Now, time for me to tell you that I got caught off guard!

Apparently I have layovers in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand (and Thailand only on the way there).

So you know what this means:

I’m also on a mission to see how much Gulf Arabic I can learn on the plane to Dubai, as well as elementary Thai on the way there.

(This, in addition to Burmese, which will be in quite good shape, I think, after three weeks).

Time for me to layout my plans:

 

Burmese:

myanmarsaga

I’m gonna have to memorize as many phrases in “Birmanisch für Myanmar – Wort für Wort” to the best of my ability, including how to put sentences together and all that fun stuff. The fact that my life may depend on knowing this stuff means that my memory is probably going to go into Jedi mode. I’ll see how well I do (or how badly I do).

What’s more, I also have five Burmese Memrise courses in offline mode on my phone, including a complete guide to the characters. I know that various Pali loan words are not pronounced the way they are spelled (see my previous post on Burmese here), but I expect to be able to read Burmese by the time I set foot in Mandalay for the first time.

Interestingly this is my least urgent mission. I got time for this. My most urgent mission would be.

 

Surprise Gulf Arabic EXTRAVAGANZA!

UAE

 

If only I found out that I was having a layover in Dubai literally two days ago, I would have a book (I wasn’t told this due to miscommunication. My parents are the ones that are bringing me along to play translator).

I managed to get the Lonely Planet Middle Eastern Phrasebook purchased online. It will come to me tomorrow, and I hope that it will arrive before the shuttle to the airport does.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I have other tools for Gulf Arabic, namely a Peace Corps Guide (primarily aimed at Saudi Arabia) that is 300 pages long, as well as a Japanese-based Gulf Arabic app, and the free preview for the Gulf Arabic Kauderwelsch book (I wouldn’t underestimate those free previews given how helpful one of them was for me in Iceland).

Thanks to me having done Dari on Mango Languages (to help improve Tajik), the Arabic alphabet isn’t as strange to me as, let’s say, Thai characters.

I’m focusing on the casual Gulf Arabic for this time. Will probably only use in the airplanes or on the airports. But at least that will be enough to write an article on. I hope.

I am reminded of one of my friends, a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic, who remarked that Gulf Arabic sounded like “frog talk”. Part of me has dreamed of learning it ever since.

What do I intend to do? Go through the books and the apps on the plane, and the book (that will hopefully arrive!) using mnemonics along the way. Write as much as I can. If there are native speakers I can interact with, great! This will be a challenge I remember!

 

Thai: Something New

 

thailand

 

Got an Italki language exchange partner who wanted to learn Northern Sami from me (which I forgot a while ago but am relearning bit-by-bit to prepare for the lessons). She’s teaching me elementary Thai in exchange and I’m enchanted by everything about it, the same way that I am enchanted with…pretty much every language I’ve ever studied.

Thanks to her help I’m headed into this situation with more wisdom than with my “see how much Gulf Arabic you can learn in a day” assignment.

I still have zilch idea how to read. At all.

But I am capable of speaking. A little bit, but I’m capable of that little bit.

And that is something.

PLAN: Same as for the Gulf Arabic one, except for I’ll be studying it on the plane from Dubai to Bangkok. I also won’t be studying this for the “way back” trip.

 

Vanishing for the Vacation.

 

I’m not going to be writing posts during my trip to Myanmar (May 10th – May 29th). I’ll even leave my computer at home.

I’ll miss all of you, but I really, REALLY look forward to sharing the results of my daredevilry with all of you!

 

Another announcement:

 

I WILL BE PRESENTING AT THE POLYGLOT CONFERENCE IN REYKJAVIK, 2017!

 

“Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages”.

 

I’ll get to that soon enough. But first I have to take on some adventures.

 

While I’m my adventures, I’ll be thinking of you, dear reader, and knowing that I can share my ventures as inspiration to make your linguistic dreams come true!

See you in June!

2015-08-20 14.50.06

“Is Tajikistan a Real Country?” – Introducing the Tajiki Language

Happy Persian New Year!

забони тоҷикӣ.jpg

 

The most money I’ve ever spent on a language learning book. Came with a CD. Can’t imagine there are too many books that can say that about themselves in 2017.

 

In Late 2016 and Early 2017 I thought it would be becoming of me to try to learn a language of a Muslim-majority country for the first time. Yes, I did get the Turkish trophy in Duolingo but I don’t count that because the amount of Turkish phrases I can say as of the time of writing can be counted on my fingers.

The same way that the Catholic world is very varied (you have Brazilians and Hungarians and Mexicans and too many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa to list), the Muslim world is just as equally varied with numerous flavors and internal conflicts that Hollywood and American pop culture not only doesn’t show very often but actively tries to hide (or so I feel).

While I am not fluent (nor do I even count myself as proficient) in Tajik, I am grateful for the fact that I can experience tidbits of this culture while being very far away from it, and it seems oddly familiar to me for reasons I can’t quite explain.

What’s more, Tajik is one of three Persian languages (the others being Farsi in Iran and Dari in Afghanistan), and so I can converse with speakers of all three with what little I have. I remember being shocked about how close Swedish, Norwegian and Danish were to each other (to those unaware: even closer than Spanish, Catalan and Italian), and I was even more shocked at how close these were. The three Persian languages are even closer—so close that there are those (both on the Internet and in my friend group) that consider them dialects of a single language (yes, I’ve had the same discussion with the Melanesian Creole languages!)

As a Jewish person myself (and an Ashkenazi Jew at that, for those unaware that means that my Jewish roots are traced to Central-Eastern Europe), I was intrigued by Tajik in particular as the language of the Bukharan Jewish community.

(Note: Bukhara is in contemporary Uzbekistan, and if you see where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet on a map and you have a hunch that imperialist meddling may have been responsible for those borders, then you’re absolutely right!)

What’s more, my father visited Iran and Afghanistan earlier in his life but when he was there the USSR was “still a thing”.

I also had a fascination with Central Asia as a teenager ever since I heard the words “Kazakhstan”, “Uzbekistan”, “Tajikistan”, etc. (despite the fact that I literally knew NOTHING about these places aside from their names, locations on a map, and capitals), and so between Persian languages I knew which one I would try first.

It has been hard, though! With Tajik I’ve noticed that there is a gap in online resources—a lot of stuff for beginners and for native speakers (e.g. online movies) and virtually NOTHING in between (save for the Transparent Language course that I’m working on).

Thankfully knowing that I have surmounted similar obstacles with other languages (e.g. with Solomon Islands Pijin) fills me with determination.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

 

I’m sorry. No more “Undertale” jokes for a while.

 

Anyhow, what make Tajik unique?

 

  1. Tajik is Sovietized

 

The obvious difference between the other Persian languages and Tajik is the fact that Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and much like Hebrew or Finnish, is pronounced the way that it is written with almost mathematical precision (despite some difficult-to-intuit shenanigans with syllable stress).

 

Thanks to not using the Arabic alphabet this obviously does make it a lot easier for speakers who may not be familiar with it.

 

Yes, in a lot of the countries in Central Asia (especially in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) there are some issues with what alphabet is used (and if you think that this has to do with dictators forcing or adopting certain systems, you’d be right!). Tajik I’ve noted is very consistent in usage of the Cyrillic alphabet, although obviously presences of the other two Persian languages e.g. on comment boards are present almost always whenever Tajik is.

 

But what exactly does “sovietization” entail? Well there are a lot of words that come from Russian in Tajik, and ones that were probably adopted because of administrative purposes. The words for an accident ( “avariya”) and toilet (“unitaz”), for example, are Russian loan words.

 

But unlike the Arabic / Turkic words in Tajik, a lot of these loan words refer specially to objects and things related to administration (the concept of the “Familia” [=family name], for example).

 

And this brings us to…

 

 

  1. There are a lot of Arabic loan words in Tajik.

This is something that is common to many languages spoken by Muslims.  As I noted in my interview with Tomedes, it occurred to me that the usage of Arabic words in a language like Tajik very eerily paralleled the usage of Hebrew words in Yiddish. Yiddish uses a Hebrew greeting frequently (Shulem-Aleikhem! / Aleikhem Shulem!), and Tajik uses its Arabic equivalent (Salom! / Assalomu alejkum! / va alajkum assalom!).

In case you are curious as to why the “o” is used in Tajik in the Arabic-loan phrase above, this has to do with the way that these words mutated when they entered Tajik, the same way that (wait for it!) Hebrew words changed their pronunciation a bit when they entered Yiddish! (Yaakov [Jacob] becoming “Yankev”, for example)

These Arabic loan words found themselves not only in the other Persian languages but also through Central Asia and in the Indo-Aryan languages (spoken in Northern India)!

 

  1. Tajik uses pronouns to indicate possessives

 

Should probably clarify this with an example:

Nomi man Jared (my name is Jared)

Kitobi shumo (Your book)

Zaboni Tojiki (Tajik Language)

 

Man = I

Shumo = you (polite form)

 

This means that forming possessives because easy once you grasp the concept of Izofat.

Cue the Tajiki Language book in the picture above (on page 135, to be precise)

 

“Izofat is used to connect a noun to any word that modifies it except numbers, demonstratives the superlative form of adjectives and a few other words. It consists of “I” following the noun and is always written joined to the noun. It is never stressed, the stress remains on the last syllable of the noun

 

Kitobi nav – a new book”

Madri khub – a good man

Zani zebo – a beautiful woman

Donishjui khasta = a tired student”

 

(And this is the point when it occurs to you that “Tajiki”, the name used of the language by some, uses Izofat. Tajik = person, Tajiki = language or general adjective, although enough people don’t make the distinction to the degree that even Google Translate refers to the language as “Tajik”)

Thanks to Izofat, a lot of the words are not extraordinarily long (much like in English), sparing you the pains of a language like German or Finnish (much less something like Greenlandic) in which a word may require you to dissect it.

 

  1. Hearing Tajik can be an Enchanting Experience for Those Who Know Iranian Persian or Dari

 

Ever heard someone with a stark generational difference to you use a word you can recognize but don’t use? (for me in my 20’s, this means someone using the word “billfolds” to refer to your wallets, “marks” for your grades, etc?)

 

In using my Tajik with speakers of the other two Persian languages, I’ve often heard “that makes sense to me, and its correct, but it has fallen out of usage in my country”, a bit like you might be able to understand idioms of Irish English or English as spoken in many Caribbean island nations, although you might not be able to use them yourself…including some you actually legitimately don’t know!

 

Unlike with, let’s say, speaking Danish to a Swedish person (did that only ONCE!) and not being understood, I haven’t had problems being understood in Tajik, although I usually have to explain why I speak Tajik and not Farsi (answer: curiosity + my father didn’t get to visit there, but maybe I will! + Central Asia and the -stan countries are KEWL

 

I would write more about how to learn it and how to use it, but the truth is that I’m sorta still a novice at Tajik, so maybe now’s not the best time.

But hey! September is Tajikistan’s independence day, so if I progress enough by then you’ll get treated to something!

Soli nav muborak! A Happy New Year!