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.

 

How to Prepare a Particular Language for a Language Exchange Event: A Step-By-Step Guide

I would like to thank my friends at MundoLingo. Several recommended that I write a post about this, and here it is! Hope it helps! – Jared

Question 1: Can you understand a lot of the language passively?

Find a video or audio in your target language related to something you like to do, or general entertainment in that language of any sort.

If you can get the general point of almost anything that is said, or can understand a good 70% or more of what is said or written, proceed with the “Rehearse a Language I know Passively Step”.

Otherwise, go to question 2

Question 2: Have I mastered all of the following in my target language?

  1. The phrases from Omniglot.com?
  2. The present, future, and past forms? (Obviously some languages lack explicit tenses like this, but if you can say “I am”, “I will be” and “I was”, and do it with some regular and/or common verbs, you are in good shape!)
  3. Can you give a mini-stump-speech about who you are and what you do?

If you said no to any of these, I would recommend the following:

 

  • Write out all phrases you don’t know by hand.

 

  • Recite them out loud (to the best of your ability)

 

  • For each phrase you don’t know, develop a memory device for each. For example, I’m learning Welsh right now, and take the phrase “Bore da” = good morning. Mornings are boring, duh! So you get the idea. It gets harder (although it is possible) with languages with longer words. And just thinking about what I did for Greenlandic makes me cringe already!

 

If you don’t get it all done in time, that’s okay. The key is to be closer than where you were before.

If you said yes to all of these, then proceed to “Rehearse a Language that I know the basics of, but I can’t use actively quite yet …”

 

Rehearse a Language I Know Passively

 

Think about:

  • Where do I want to use this language?
  • How do I want to use this language?
  • What do I want to talk about?
  • What do I genuinely enjoy doing?

Remember you HAVE to engage with a spoken form of this language somehow, either with you speaking out loud (if reading) or, if you feel that maybe your accent can use improvement, a piece of media involving native/fluent speakers of your target language. (I use “fluent” in the case of languages that are used by a majority of non-natives, such as Indonesian or Cornish).

  • Keep a translator thing open at all times.
  • If you encounter a word that you do not recognize, put it into the translator thing. If you don’t know how to spell the word, take a guess. If you can’t guess, just say it out loud just in case you encounter it again. If you do guess in Google Translate, you may get autocorrected, so that’s helpful.
  • If possible, make a story about the word you learned.
  • Even if you don’t, you are likely to encounter that word in similar works by that same creator (author, YouTuber, TV show director, etc).
  • If you hear a phrase used that you RECOGNIZE but that you don’t think you use often, say it out loud. If you recognized it, chances are it is likely to be useful and have you sound like a local.
  • Continue until you either run out of time or feel that you’ve made a genuine improvement and get a “warm feeling” inside.

Then go to “conclusion”

 

Rehearse a Language that I Know the Basics of, but I Can’t Use Actively Quite yet

 

There are a lot of ways to learn words, here are some I would recommend.

  • Feel like reading? Paste a document about a topic in your target language that you would like to read.
  • Make each sentence its own paragraph
  • Highlight all words you don’t know what mean.
  • Look them up, put them in the glosses after each sentence.
  • Then read the entire article out loud, sentence by sentence. Don’t forget to read the glosses out loud as well, and develop stories for them, if you can.
  • But don’t feel too pressure to make stories for all of them if you think it is too time-intensive. For two reasons: (a) they may be related to words or roots in simpler words in your target language you already know and (b) there is the gift of context already.

 

You can also do this with song lyrics or dialogues.

Would you rather watch TV?

  • Make sure to “shadow”, so pause every now and then and repeat what the characters are saying. Even if you get it very wrong. Even if you KNOW you are getting it very wrong.
  • IF the show you are watching exists in a dubbed or an original version that is in your native language or in another language you know well, feel free to go through both shot-by-shot. Pay attention to the words! (This is one thing that really helped me with Finnish, which has a very large dubbing market for animated cartoons, usually for children but no less entertaining for older folks).
  • Would you like to watch something in subtitles? Pause after each bit and say the words out loud. Pay attention to what the word-by-word translation would be.
  • Again, context will help you remember that.

 

Go to “conclusion”

 

Conclusion

 

The biggest language learning struggle of 2016 was this: I could study all I wanted, but no matter how much I did it, I wouldn’t get anywhere unless (1) I genuinely was at ease with myself (2) I was willing to forgive myself for mistakes (which include accidentally mispronouncing something as a swearword to a minor phoneme off that doesn’t change any meaning) and (3) appreciating how far I’ve come.

While on the way to your language exchange event, keep yourself with positive thinking. There may be those who only want to talk to you in English if you attempt to speak their language (especially if you are a polyglot novice), but keep in mind that one day, if you truly wish it and with enough progress, you will speak enough of the language so that they will switch from English to their language with you.

And then all of the bad memories you may have had of your failures and slip-ups and embarrassments will be something to laugh at.

That day will come. Sooner than you think, actually…

jippi-mundolingo

5775: Where I Am, Where I Was, and Where I Want to Be

Two nights hence Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins. It is a time for me, and all others of my faith (heritage?) to reflect and consider the year to come.

This post will just be about my language acquisition/maintenance life, so don’t expect anything else besides.

For one, I think about where I was earlier this year, I feel that I have changed in the following regards:

  • Especially when in the United States, I don’t feel insulted anymore when someone chooses to speak English with me over another language that I know.

 

Earlier this year I used to take it as a personal insult to my skills if someone didn’t want to speak anything in English with me.

 

Luckily, thanks largely to the polyglot bar, this has changed. Even with many of my friendships, I balance the various languages used to all degrees so that “everyone is happy”.

 

It is true. There are some friendships that begin in something other than English and then it just feels awkward using any other language that the one I first used (Yiddish, German, Scandinavian Languages, mostly). But regarding ones began in English (let’s say, back when I began living in Sweden and really struggled with the Swedish Language), I didn’t have a hard time breaking out of English when I proved my skills in the language well enough (forming sentences without flinching is usually the best way to do this, as is a healthy degree of colloquialisms)

 

Maybe it is living New York, but there are plenty of polyglots to go around. I heard more Danish spoken in the past few weeks than I ever had heard by pedestrians in Heidelberg in over a year. Even in Paris I encountered Danes, Swedes, Israelis, Finns, Germans, Dutch, Flemings, Brazilians, and too many more to list.

 

I’m confident enough in my abilities now that I don’t take it as an insult. I used to be insecure, but after starting this blog and seeing my true potential in this American Metropolis, I don’t need to feel insecure anymore.

 

Now the real test is if I can keep that security when I leave this country…

 

…I expect that a year from now, I won’t even need to ask it or even consider it.

 

  • I felt afraid of judgment from people who spoke certain languages. I was actually afraid of the day that I would meet a real live Dane because I was certain that my pronunciation would never be good enough.

 

As it turns out, this past year I met both Danes and Danish learners from elsewhere in the world, and there wasn’t a hint of being judgmental from any of them.

 

And even when I met Finns back when I wasn’t particularly good with Finnish, they genuinely appreciated my efforts, perhaps sometimes with a laugh and always asking a question beginning with “miksi” (why) and another with “miten” (how)

 

And my funniest story with Finnish (back when I visited the country and knew it to a rudimentary degree, but impressive for a beginner):

 

“Wow, you really know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you get here?”

 

“…just a couple of hours ago…””

 

I may have encountered some degree of judgment, but literally never from any native speakers over the course of the past year. Before that, I might have, but that was a different Jared who definitely wasn’t as confident as he is now.

 

  • I learned to stop thinking that everyone saw me as a “stupid American” by default. When I shed this attitude (although sometimes it came back at unpredictable moments), then it worked wonders for my German conversational ability. Back when I had it, it hindered me every step of the way, and sometimes it was so bad that I felt that I couldn’t even hold any basic…anything…

 

I broke out of this almost near the very end of my stay in Heidelberg, although sometimes I used English in messages with bureaucrats because some of my friends, local and otherwise, told me that would be a good idea. But even then, the fact that I did that doesn’t say anything about the skills I may or may not have.

 

Those are the three major problems I had over the course of the past. I can say that, while some shred of these problems exists, I have sent them on their way.

Now for my own desires for the next year:

  • Stop worrying about what other people think is possible.

 

I worry that if my multilingual adventures reach a certain level, then people will cast doubt on my ability to have learned anything (although you are more than welcome to go ahead and test me in the comments).

 

With my current collection of languages, I’ve encountered people wondering “HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO THAT?!!?” and assume that I’m some variety of superhuman genius. Here’s the thing: I may forget a handful of my languages that I have now, but I’m not stopping learning new ones, certainly not now.

 

(Note to world: I really dislike it when you put me on a pedestal. Please, any of you can learn 15+ languages, too. Flash cards, Phrasebook [especially for a very rarely spoken language] and media intake, you know the drill…so what are you waiting for?)

 

What will my employers think? What will the folks on the “How to Learn Any Language” Forum think? What will my friends think…? (Well…actually, my friends are always very supportive of me…thanks, friends!)

 

What will everyone think?

 

As we say in Greenland, sussat! It doesn’t matter to me.

 

  • I Have to Follow my Desires

 

How did I learn Greenlandic, people ask me?

 

Simple: I had a desire. I acted on it.

 

The act of learning Greenlandic (or any language) is never complete. There may be a finite amount of words in the language (billions of them, actually), and, on a more realistic note for a human to learn, there are a finite amount of word pieces in the language (Oqaasileriffik lists 20162, to be precise).

 

I have plenty of other desires to act on as well. I don’t want my life to be complete without learning a bunch of other languages, most of which I haven’t even listed on my list in the “flirting” category (a reference to the aforementioned “How to Learn Any Language” forum).

 

Again, I didn’t care what people thought when I was learning stuff like Faroese or Greenlandic or Northern Sami. Now that I feel that I might have a bit “too much on my plate”, even with closely related languages, I’m beginning to rethink the “there’s always room for one more”.

 

But you know what? Sussat! There IS always room for one more! And even if one has to go for whatever reason, my passive understanding of it isn’t gone.

 

Only earlier today was I watching an episode of Pokémon in Polish and I understood a lot more than I knew I had active control over (and my active control of Polish may be enough to impress my Polish friends, but I deem it quite pathetic, especially in comparison to the languages I know well).

 

 The same occurred for the songs in my Russian music collection.

 

Now, I could convert that passive understanding to an active one just by virtue of switching my media input. I don’t need to relearn the grammar. I can recognize the parts of speech on sight or just by hearing the words.

 

But even if I have to forget some languages, I can rest assured that my passive understanding will remain strong, even through years of disuse, provided I gave it enough nurturing.

 

In Conclusion: right now I am living the polyglot life that I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid. It will only get better from here. Even with my best languages (English included!) there is a lot more for me to always learn, but I have to savor the fact that I’ve come a long way, one with discouragement, despair, and doubt.

 

And now I’m here.

 

But the journey doesn’t end.

 

The journey will continue, until the end of 5774 and well beyond it!

 

L’shana tovah!