Thoughts on Lang-8

If you’re confused about what Lang-8 is, you can refer to my (very!) brief Lang-8 orientation guide. But if you’ve given it a test drive and want my thoughts on its value as an educational tool, read on!

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First of all, when I talk about “Lang-8,” I’m talking exclusively about the free version. I don’t have a premium membership—quite frankly, I don’t feel I need one, and I’ll come back to that later—so everything in here refers to the free experience. The two aren’t really substantially different, anyway.

While language study is often broken down into four discrete arenas (speaking, writing, listening, and reading), the truth is that all four interact with each other. Even if your focus is on speaking or listening instead of writing, spending some time on your writing will help strengthen all other areas. And overall, Lang-8 is a great resource for practicing your writing. You can post a journal entry and for free it will show up in front of thousands of eyes. There are nearly 200,000 users who have given Russian as their native language and English as their language of study, for example. I can put up an exercise and get corrections within hours. My journal entries average something around 100 views (each), with corrections from 12 or 13 different people.

I don’t even know 12 native Russian speakers here in Stockholm!

But the biggest strength of Lang-8 for me is also related to its greatest drawback: anyone can join and correct your writing.

I have seen some poor English corrections in my day, and while some of this can be written off due to varying levels of pedantry or different philosophies on which errors are “worth” correcting and the goals of writing (to be grammatically perfect? to be grammatically perfect and natural-sounding? to just be comprehensible?), some of it seems to come down to the fact that native speakers don’t often have a firm grasp of the rules of their own language.

Never mind how often a user has misunderstood the author’s intention and provided a correction that substantially changes the phrase’s intended meaning.

This means that you will sometimes get differing or even conflicting corrections. Sometimes users will comment on their corrections and explain their reasoning, but more often than not they don’t. If you don’t have a guide on hand, it can be impossible to understand which of these corrections is the best one, or is actually counter what you were trying to communicate in the first place.

This is where a good teacher or tutor comes in. They can sit with you in real time to make sure they understand exactly what you wanted to say and show you which corrections can help you say that, and which ones would mean something totally different. They can explain why “go on a walk” and “take a walk” are okay but “take on a walk” isn’t. If you aren’t in a position to take a class or hire a private tutor, then you should supplement your Lang-8 corrections with a good grammar book and a good usage guide. (More on those in a later post.)

Despite this, Lang-8 is a powerful tool for your language acquisition; even more so because it’s available for free. There are premium features available for paying users ($7 US/month or $63 US/year), some of which are quite useful, but the site is most definitely very usable and helpful if you’d rather stick with the free version. These are the three features that would most likely get me to upgrade:

  1. The biggest limit on free users is probably the number of languages you’re allowed to study. For paying users, it’s unlimited; for free users, it’s just two. (I chose Russian and Korean.) Sure, there are other writing exchange networking sites out there, but Lang-8 is huge; it’d be easier to have all of your language learning on one site than cobbling together a patchwork of resources. For the price, I think it’s a good value for the language nerds out there.

2. Another premium option that might be worth paying for is the ability to download entries—weirdly enough, any entry, not just ones you wrote—along with their corrections as PDFs, so that you can study them offline. While we live in a digital age, I’m the first to advocate for dead trees and pencils. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for taking notes and marking things by hand. And the PDFs are surprisingly well formatted and clear to follow, instead of some kind of ugly screen shot.

3. And finally, paying users have the ability to search their own journal. I don’t have enough entries yet that I really need a search function, but if you give yourself a daily or even weekly writing goal, your journal entries are going to start racking up pretty quickly. I can see that being very useful.

Overall, Lang-8 is a powerful free resource for developing your writing in English (or any other language you wish to study). It’s not without drawbacks, but in the absence a language course or tutor, it’s the next best thing for your writing.

Have you tried Lang-8? What do you think? Share your profile here or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish)!

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