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.

 

An Afternoon with Jared Gimbel: Your Questions Answered!

Happy 4th birthday, World With Little Worlds!

To honor all of my readers and those who have provided me praise and constructive feedback throughout the years, these are your questions, answered with love and consideration by yours truly.

 

What do you look for in a mentor?

Five things:

  • Someone who opens doors rather than closes them.
  • Someone who doesn’t pull emotional hot-buttons or regularly cause me to feel distressed, downtrodden, or discouraged.
  • Someone who, when I am done meeting with him or her, makes me feel elevated and ready to enter my life with renewed motivation.
  • Someone who acknowledges the progress I have made in addition to that I have yet to make.
  • Someone who isn’t over jealous or guarded of me.

How learn any language from scratch in my own?

The first thing to ask yourself is how much you can PRONOUNCE, how much you can READ (and understand what you’re reading), and how much you can UNDERSTAND. Depending on which combination of the three you have, your approach will have to be different. However, the more prior knowledge you have in a related language, the easier it is to get “lazy”.

Generally, I would start with “hello, how are you? What is your name? My name is… Where are you from? I am from…” and then go onto “I have, you have…” “Do you have…?” and then the same with “to want”, “to go”.

I’ve spoken about this in the interview I did with Luke Truman of Full Time Fluency a few months back:

This should help.

What was the catalyst for your interest in languages of the Pacific in general and Palauan in particular?

Climate change in the case of Oceania in general, a childhood fascination with that area of the world, and, in the case of Palau, the sound of the language as well as how it looked on paper. Oh, and the flag. Who could forget the flag? As a kid I could look at it for hours. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.

How much Japanese do you understand with your Palauan knowledge?

Same as how much Latin you would understand from English.

Apart from Yiddish and Hebrew what other Jewish languages have you studied?

A tiny bit of Ladino in college and a handful of words from Jewish Languages of Azerbaijan in the early 2010’s, but aside from that, pretty much nothing seriously.

Have you ever looked into Krymchak or the Udmurt-influenced dialect of Yiddish?

Now I may have to!

When studying Breton, do you prefer the artificial French-influenced “standard” or one of the dialects?

The KLT (Kerne-Leon-Treger ) variety used in the Colloquial Breton book and in the Kauderwelsch book is my go-to. It seems fairly consistent with what is used on Wikipedia although there are some songs that have “curveball” elements for those overly accustomed to KLT.

Apart from Northern Sami, Finnish, and Hungarian, do you plan on learning any other Uralic languages?

I never say I won’t plan on it. Right now I do feel “overloaded”, however.

When you were in Israel, did you encounter any Circassians or Hungarian Jews? If yes, did they speak their ethnic languages?

Possibly and yes respectively. My Hungarian was limited to a few words in 2009 but my efforts were appreciated. What’s more, do keep in mind that I had heavy limiting beliefs about language learning back in those times. Odd, because my experience in the Ulpan should have actively proved those beliefs wrong.

How often do you encounter peoples of the Pacific in real life apart from the times you actually go there?

Hawaiians about once every three months or so, same with people who have been expatriates in places like Fiji and Samoa. Aside from Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, I haven’t met anyone in person from Oceania yet. That will change this year, I hope.

Will your RPG “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” be playable in Greenlandic?\

I’m going on record: YES.

Have you ever written poetry in the languages you learn?

I believe I did once or twice in Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center. I also have done improvisational singing in Tok Pisin. I may have also written a piece or two in Hebrew while at Wesleyan University but I have no recollection of it. I did write an absurdist play about talking jellyfish in that same Hebrew class that makes most internet memes look tame by comparison.

How do you deal with the blurry boundary between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is, in my view, taking one element of a culture (let’s say, clothing) and claiming it as your own without having a basic understanding of where, why and how that culture or cultural element exists.

If I were to wear a national costume in public with holy significance, that would possibly be breaching a boundary in that culture that I may be unaware of. But obviously me wearing a shirt with a Greenlandic flag on it despite not being Greenlandic or Inuit (or any Native American at all) does not make me a cultural appropriator. It is a mark of solidarity and appreciation.

On this note, I would like to say for the first time that I am fully aware of the fact that there are people who are prepared to call “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” cultural appropriation despite the deep involvement of actual Greenlanders at every stage of its production. I look at the Greenlandic story as a whole in a way that contemporary American pop culture and its sad legacy of cartoonish national caricatures will probably never do otherwise.

If you would prefer Greenlandic culture would remain a virtually unknown mystery in much of the rest of the world instead of appreciated for the wonderful slice of the human story that it is, then I have nothing to say to you.

What was, to you, the most easily graspable non-Latin orthographic system in any non-L1 language you’ve studied? What was the least?

From Easiest to Hardest:

  1. Greek
  2. Cyrillic
  3. Hebrew
  4. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary
  5. Arabic
  6. Lao
  7. Burmese

Have you ever SAVED SOMEONES LIFE with language?

The answer is: yes. And surprisingly, my own. Several times.

For one, my decision to become a tutor of several languages actually ended up saving my life. Shortly after graduating from JTS, I fell ill for a while. My own parents, who hold medical degrees, misdiagnosed me several times.

What ended up saving my life was one of my students of Swedish, who casually recommended based on my symptoms that I had Lyme Disease. Thanks to his suggestion, the disease was caught in time and my life was saved.

There is also the story about how Greenlandic saved my life, but I will relate that in future interviews when “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” is released. There is a specific reason I chose Greenland as the setting for my first video game (well, one of several specific reasons) and one of them in particular may come as a shocker to many of you.

Speaking of which, I’m going to continue doing character sketches for Nuuk Adventures right now!

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Happy Birthday, O Beloved Blog of Mine!

I Want to Learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. What Do I Do?

No, the answer is not “settle for less”. Perish the thought!

Yes, I am aware that there are some polyglots out there that think about “how many languages it is possible to know” and while I admire the work of all of them in helping other people fulfill their dreams, I think that posturing out that topic is pointless.

There are just too many variables at hand and often I’ve noticed a lot of them address the topic in very defensive terms (e.g. if my friends say it takes X amount of time to reach level Y, that’s what it is. Done. Don’t argue with it).

I’m amazed by the human mind and I think that we haven’t even harnessed 1/10th of its true power. Given how much of my career I’ve spent flying in the face of the word “can’t”, I’m going to continue to do so and give no regard as to how many “can’t”’s or “won’t”’s I hear about.

Personally, I may want to learn 100 languages of the course of my life. Who knows? Maybe new technology would make it possible. You can never be too sure!

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Right now, however, I’d like to address a topic that WAY too many people have asked me about: namely, “I want to learn (lists twelve languages)”, and I really want all of them but I can’t choose! Help!

I’d like to thank Jon “Iron Jon” Richardson and Luke Truman for providing the inspiration for this post. You guys are an inspiration for me! Keep it up!

The one thing you should definitely know is that it is possible to sate your curiosity.

If you want to get on the road to being a polyglot, I would recommend the following course of action that I heard about from the one-and-only Olly Richards (someone who I have to thank for my success!):

30-minutes a day -> your dream language.

Engage with it in some fashion.

Right now, I’m focusing on Hungarian during my time that is not spent in front of a camera. This means that while I’m in the subway, I’ll be listening to Hungarian language learning materials and soon I’ll be able to graduate to music and podcasts before I know it.

If I’m sick of listening to things or looking at screens, I have book as well. If I need a break from work, I have the fantastic world of television and cartoons to explore in Hungarian. My Facebook and Pinterest accounts are currently translated in it.

So feel free to pick the one that pulls at your heartstrings the most (ask yourself!) and set aside a routine. Set up decorations in your room or on your desktop wallpaper to remind yourself. Set up “reward loops” (e.g. 15 days in a row of my 30-minute routine and I get a new book / video game / phone / fancy dinner)

However, during this time, you probably have the eleven-odd other languages that I want to learn at least a little about, and so I’ll write some techniques to keep you “sated” during that time.

  • Use the Memrise Mobile App

 

As of 2017, Memrise’s Mobile App can be significantly less stressful than the Desktop App (even though the Desktop version is higher reward, I should say).

 

As a result, use it to explore various languages that are “on your hit list” while you’re focusing on the one you want most.

 

It will give you an extraordinary head start when you actually decide you know your other languages well enough to start focusing on a new one.

 

  • Travel Literature

 

This will help you learn about the various places attached to your dream languages (although there are a handful of languages with which you can’t really do this, Esperanto comes to mind immediately because it was deliberately designed to be a language rooted in no specific place).

If you can go to the library, go to the travel section and read about these places there. The place-names will definitely help you learn the local language to a small degree of manageable bites. There may also be phrasebooks incorporated not only in the appendices but also throughout the text sometimes!

 

  • Learning the Pronunciation

 

Yes, some languages have more difficult pronunciation than others, but this is definitely the easiest part of learning a language (in my opinion) and virtually impossible to forget (according to my experience).

You may not be able to learn 11 languages at the same time very effectively (although maybe you can! If you have a routine, let me know!) but you would definitely be able to master their pronunciations, especially if they are phonetic (which the majority of languages in the world are. For those you don’t know what phonetic is, this means that words are always spelled the way they are written. English is not Phonetic. Every Creole Language I’ve ever encountered is…well, those that have standardized written forms, that is).

  • Learn Grammatical Tidbits.

Learning the new words of a new language takes significantly more work than actually paying attention to the grammatical quirks of a language.

I’m not really actively learning Khmer at this point, but I’ve been paying attention to the sentence structure and what sort of grammar I can expect when I actually dive into the language.

This is especially helpful if the grammar has a notorious reputation for being impenetrable (such as those of the Finno-Ugric Languages).

“Oh, this suffix means ‘in’, this suffix means ‘into’, this suffix means ‘from’…what fun!”

Oh, and those “suffixes” that I actually spoke of are the cases. That’s really all that those 15+ cases in those languages actually are. Most of them are straight-up prepositions. I bet you entire worldview has changed now, hasn’t it?

  • Make a List

Right now on my desktop I have a huge document of all the languages I’d like to learn in my lifetime. It is way too large, and who knows if it is actually realistic or not (most of my friends would probably say it isn’t, although I don’t intend to learn all of those languages to fluency…)

But one thing that would help you “sate your thirst” is making a list, given that it will make you more attentive to your long-term goals, as well as pay more attention when the language or culture comes up in conversation with your friends or at a meeting.

But what if I want to actually learn eleven languages at the same time?

 

Granted, nothing is stopping you, although perhaps you are likely to get burned out easily. I’ve certainly tried that once and felt it.

However, one thing I’ve noticed even during that not-particularly productive time is that I tended to focus on a handful of languages within the eleven that I was learning. This may come to happen by default, because equally loving eleven things is going to come by with difficulty.

You’re welcome to try it, but unless you have extraordinary mental discipline it would be like walking into a tornado, and while you’d make progress with all of the languages you’re studying at once you’d feel as though it is just a bit slow.

So I would definitely recommend studying one or two at once and sating your curiosity with the rest of them using the methods above and with tiny pieces here and there.

That said, I’ll conclude with one thought: that it is possible to get your brain to do almost anything if you can somehow trick your brain into thinking that the skill you want to learn is essential to your survival (think about how often you may have forgotten a VERY important address, for example…)

Keep in mind that none of the theory that I present in this article is absolute, and I’m very much open for debate in all of this.

What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you? Let me know!

Happy learning!