DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.

Thoughts on Using Simbi to Find Tutors or Editors

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Lucky for the student of English (or, indeed, a lot of other languages), Skype sessions with native and fluent speakers are one of the most popular options available. If you feel that you need a tutor’s input to take your language study to the next level and haven’t had any luck with any other language exchange site, you can find someone on Simbi. Likewise, since the vast majority of Simbi’s user base is anglophone, this is a golden opportunity for native speakers of languages besides English to provide an in-demand service in their native language, whether it’s video lessons, writing correction, or translation. In this case, I’d recommend joining the group Language Learners to find other language students to exchange with right away.

Less the case in Sweden (where I might be the only member?!), Simbi also actively encourages members to meet and exchange goods and items in real life, fostering local communities and bringing neighbors back in touch with each other. (These events are called “Simbi Swaps.”) Students, visitors, and new arrivals to English-speaking countries might find it helpful in meeting new people who self-select to be open, sociable, and curious.

(And, of course, Simbi has a “currency” called the simbi, so if you can’t barter directly with another user, you can still pay them for their time and effort!)

The downside is that to get much use out of Simbi for studying English, you’ll need to be at an A2/B1 level of English already; there isn’t a native version of the site in any other language. And since Simbi is a general service- and goods-exchanging platform and not strictly an educational platform, caveat emptor. Check someone’s profile to get a feel for how professional and knowledgeable they seem, including any outgoing links they provide.

Writers will also get a lot out of Simbi. If you want editing or proofreading for your manuscript but don’t have much of a budget, critique and editing is another one of the most popular services available. Again, joining a group like Writer’s Club will make it easier to find like-minded members who are more likely to be able to help you out.

I hope you’ll join me on Simbi! Perhaps I can entice you with one of the services I offer: turning your notes into a custom Anki deck or providing short story feedback.

Anki Pronunciation Deck: Short “I” and Long “E”

It’s been a while but I’m happy to bring out another pronunciation deck for Anki! This is a minimal pair deck that focuses on short “I” and long “E.” If you’d prefer IPA notation, that’s /ɪ/ and /iː/.  (The difference between “hit” and “heat.”)

I originally put this deck together for a Spanish-speaking student, but I’m sure this will be of interest to a number of English students. These two vowel sounds can be tricky for many English students.

I’ve shared this deck publicly, so you should be able to download it from its main page: English Pronunciation Deck: /ɪ/ and /iː/.

If you already have Anki installed on your desktop, simply download the file and open it on your desktop (not on your phone!). Once you’ve opened it with desktop Anki, hit the “synch” button to add the downloaded deck to your cloud. Now you can practice it on your phone as well as on your computer.

A Caucasian child with a buzz cut yelling into a complicated, professional micorphone setup.

Jason Rosewell

I used the terminology “short ‘i'” and “long ‘e'” instead of the phonetic symbols because it was easier to type something like “short ‘i'” in a standard keyboard layout instead of futzing around with special characters, and also because not everyone is familiar with IPA. I’m very much in favor of English students learning IPA and I think it’s genuinely helpful, but I also recognize that its use among teachers is hardly universal or standardized. This is also not a vocabulary deck, so the words come without pictures or definitions.

The minimal pair examples are taken from a list at EnglishClub.com, with some modification on my part. The sound files are all from Forvo, and I used American English speakers whenever possible (since I’m American and obviously use/teach American English with my students). I used Gabriel Wyner’s “pronunciation” note format for this deck, specifically the “minimal pair” category.

You might also be interested in this initial “H” pronunciation deck, while you’re knocking around my shared decks on pronunciation. I plan to share more in the future. Hopefully they help you with your studies!

Thoughts on TinyCards: The DuoLingo Flashcard App

Students of mine and readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the flashcard app Anki. It’s powerful and flexible and can be a huge help in memorizing new vocabulary or grammar patterns.

The one drawback to Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to make your own decks. (This is why I’ve offered a few ready-made ESL ones here: phrasal verbs with “get,” a pronunciation deck with initial “H,” participial adjective practice, and phrasal verbs with “do” and “make.” More soon!) If you’re not the kind of person who’s already comfortable with markup language in other contexts, the card-creation interface might seem overwhelming. Even downloading pre-created decks can be a bit difficult if you don’t have good computer instincts.

The team behind DuoLingo has filled in that niche and set up TinyCards, which originally launched in iOS-only form in 2016. An Android version came out in April 2017 of this year, and I finally got around to trying it this week.

What is TinyCards?

TinyCards is a flashcard app from the same team behind DuoLingo. It’s available for iOS, Android, and in a web-based version. DuoLingo has released official flashcard decks for many (but not all) language trees on DuoLingo. (Availability might be tied to whether or not a particular tree is out of Beta.) You can also create your own decks, either for private use or to share with others. If you opt to share the deck you created with others, they’ll be able to see that you made it because your name and a small portrait of your user picture will turn up next to the deck when they search. (The official DuoLingo decks will have a picture of their mascot, Duo.)

Pictured are three official DuoLingo decks (Swedish, French, and Russian) and a user-created Korean one.

What do I like about it?

It’s very easy to create relatively flexible and information-dense cards. On one side you can include a word or picture; on the other side you include the target word and, optionally, extra information (referred to as “facts” in the creation tool).

TinyCards deck creation interface
Here are all the ways you can put together flashcards in TinyCards.

You can upload your own images, or you can search (in multiple languages!) a vast library that comes ready-made with TinyCards. I’m not sure what the source is: images uploaded by other users? Getty Images? whatever DuoLingo already has? An unexpected but very thoughtful feature is that within the card creation tool, you have the option to crop an image. That’s perfect if you don’t want to clog up your loading time with huge high-resolution pictures but also don’t want to manually resize images before you upload them.

It’s also easy to browse other decks and add them to (or remove them from) your own library as you like.

When you’re actually reviewing and using the decks, you have the option of selecting the “I was right” option to use if you get a technically incorrect answer, or of skipping a card you already know. The official DuoLingo decks also include the sound files from the DuoLingo course, so you get listening as well as reading. You also get hints if you struggle with a particular word (though who knows if that’s helpful or not). You also have the ability to report a card if it’s incorrect or inflammatory.

Since TinyCards is an offshoot of DuoLingo, it’s based on the same spaced repetition model, so it will visually signal to you how well you know a deck so you can decide when to review.

I’m doing pretty good in Korean Word Builder 1, but I need to work more on Korean Word Builder 2. And I’ve barely touched Russian.

That also means that TinyCards is free to use!

What don’t I like about it?

If you’re making your own deck, your only options are images and words. You can’t upload any of your own sound files (yet?), so if you want to study something outside one of the supported DuoLingo decks, you won’t be able to include audio. This is probably my biggest criticism. I find it immensely helpful to hear new vocabulary alongside seeing it.

To a lesser extent, if you want to use a deck that isn’t an official DuoLingo deck, you’re relying on the other user to actually know what they’re doing. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating. While you can easily report cards or even entire decks, I’m not sure what the protocol is on addressing reported cards or decks, especially since there’s no option for specific feedback or corrections. You can’t report decks on Anki at all, but shared decks can be reviewed and rated, so you can find out if a particular deck is broken or comes with mistakes.

The graphic for the spaced repetition review and learning new vocabulary (pictured above) is also ambiguous. I’ve studied all of the cards in Korean Word Builder 1; the yellow bar is telling me that I need to review. I haven’t studied all of the words in Korean Word Builder 2; the yellow bar is a progress bar. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have those two metrics combined into one graphic like that. Memrise, for example, will show you how well you know each lexical unit in a lesson, whether on the web or on mobile. TinyCards only addresses the “lesson” level, and each lesson can include multiple lexical units.

One of the most important features of Anki is that you can deliberately set how easy or a hard a vocabulary word was, which affects when it turns up again in the spaced repetition queue. The more difficult something is, the sooner you see it again. There’s no equivalent option in TinyCards: you either get it right or wrong. If you get something wrong a lot, you’ll repeat it in a practice session (and maybe even get hints), but I haven’t noticed words that I fail a lot repeating more often over the long-term. If there’s a secret sauce for bringing up the more difficult vocabulary more often, then it’s not working too well.

Verdict

For people who are too busy for Anki’s steep card-creation learning curve, TinyCards is an acceptable substitute. The simple, intuitive GUI makes it easy to create your own decks or to add other people’s decks to your own library, so you can get started right away. For people studying through DuoLingo, the official DuoLingo decks will feature the vocabulary from the lessons and help you retain the vocabulary that DuoLingo tends to brush over too quickly. But if you’re not using DuoLingo, or you’re already comfortable with Anki, TinyCards doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

Armchair BEA, Day 2, Part 2

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

I’m continuing with the prompts from Day 2 of the event. There were actually two questions, and I got so carried away with the first question about what makes a good book that I had to save the second question for another day. That day is today!

The online book community has changed so much over the years. How do we keep up within our own book-sphere as well as within the community as a whole (i.e., libraries, bookstores, authors, publishers, etc.)?

Generally speaking, I don’t like to follow actual authors on social media. Not fiction authors, anyway. It seems like a marketing model best described as “the cult of personality” has taken over the fiction market, where you buy someone’s books based on how much you like them as a persona rather than how interested you are in their writing. But nonfiction writers seem to be followed more as a nexus of information, and that’s perhaps more relevant to their writing than how they perform their personalities.

There are three ways that I stay plugged into the book world at large. And the phrase “plugged into” suggests a deliberate intention that I don’t really have, so I should be clear. I’m not invested in the book news world in any serious way. It’s more like a happy accident because I like to talk about books and writing.

The first is through my annual(ish) participation in ArmchairBEA. The blog hops and the Twitter chats always bring a few books or book bloggers (who then recommend new books) to my attention. An introvert can handle being social once a year! 😉

The second is through NetGalley and Blogging for Books. I don’t think any of the books I’ve read through them have gone on to be huge splashes (except for the comics series Monstress), but they are by far my biggest source for new releases. Limited shelf space and the knowledge that we’re going to eventually move out of this apartment means that I have become very conservative in my acquisition of new (physical) books, but I’ll take all the free ebooks I can get!

But mostly I keep tabs on the book world through a few book bloggers and BookTubers (booktubers? bookTubers? I wonder what CMOS has to say about that) who seem to have tastes similar to my own. They’re like my psychopomps in the realm of new books. It’s worth it, because that’s how I end up finding out about books like A Tale for the Time Being. There are some new things under the sun!

So, to that end, I’d love to know what book bloggers or BookTubers you follow! Who do you recommend? Comment or Tweet at me: @KobaEnglish.

Anki Vocabulary Decks: “Get” Phrasal Verbs

I’ve just shared another Anki vocabulary deck: phrasal verb expressions featuring “get.” “Get” is a high-coverage verb with a lot of uses and collocations; mastering it is an essential part of English fluency. A collocations deck will come later, but for now you can start familiarizing yourself with these assorted phrasal verbs (if you aren’t already)!

This, like my other Anki English vocabulary decks, is a pretty basic deck. I include front and reversed notes for learning the definitions of a given phrasal verb, and then cloze notes to familiarize yourself with their usage. No audio or images are provided, but you are welcome to edit the notes to include whatever you find most helpful. Many learners find it helpful to use images whenever possible; I avoid using images for my publicly shared decks because images work best when you select them for yourself (rather than me selecting them for you).

For information about how to import a shared Anki deck into your own library, you can refer to Anki’s extensive help manual or intro videos. You can also feel free to add any of my other shared Anki ESL decks to your library. Please rate them if you find them useful, and comment or Tweet at me (@KobaEnglish) if you have any suggestions, either for improvements or for future decks!

Anki Vocabulary Decks: “Do” and “Make” Phrasal Verbs

I’ve made it clear that I’m a big fan of Anki, but I’ll be the first to admit that the process of creating new decks can be tedious, especially if you’re a busy person. That’s why I’m here!

Here’s the first volume in my intermittent series of Anki decks for English phrasal verbs: “do” and “make.” Both decks include basic definitions as well as cloze exercises for each given meaning of a phrasal verb to provide an in-context usage example. My earlier decks include a pronunciation deck for initial “h” and a cloze practice deck for English participial adjectives.

All of the above decks are available to anyone who wants them. They are also all monolingual (English-only). Once you add them to your Anki library, feel free to edit or add to them as much as you like: add definitions in your native language, add pictures, add sound files, whatever! If you don’t know how to add shared decks to your personal Anki library, or how to edit cards, there are detailed instructions in a variety of languages here.

More decks are on the way, so keep an eye out! And if my humble decks were of any help to you, consider rating them? Thank you!

Anki Grammar Deck: Participial Adjectives

I’ve created and shared another Anki deck for EFL students. This cloze deck focuses on the grammar concept of participial adjectives (for example, interesting and interested). While these adjectives have an overlap in meaning because they come from the same verb, there is a difference between being bored and being boring! This is a grammar mistake that plagues many beginner and even intermediate English learners, but the good news is that participial adjectives can be mastered with some extra drilling and attention, like the cloze exercises in this deck.

This is not a vocabulary deck; it is for students who already know the vocabulary but have trouble knowing right away which form to use. I used this list from the University of Victoria as a reference: twenty of the most common verbs used as participial adjectives. I used the past and present participle of each verb, so there are 40 cards in all.

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Friday 5: Rest

When did you last need a few days of complete rest and nothing else?

I feel like that every day, to be honest. I had a really gnarly chest cold for most of February that kept me relatively housebound. I’m better now, but the first two weeks were unpleasant, to say the least.

 

How do you keep yourself occupied when you have to be in bed all day and night?

Music; reading; reviewing vocabulary on Anki, Memrise, DuoLingo, and Clozemaster; sleeping.

 

Who do you most want to hear from when you have to withdraw to your bed for a few days of rest?

It depends. Whenever I have to go into self-imposed quarantine, it means I have a lot of time to just think; often, I’ll remember a story or a question I had for someone in particular. But usually I can just send them a message on Gchat or Facebook, so I don’t have to make immediate plans to see them when I’m feeling better.

 

What adverse effects have you experienced while staying in bed for a few days?

I don’t like the deconditioning and loss of stamina/energy I notice when I feel better enough to go running again.

 

When you first notice a few symptoms, are you more likely to shut everything down right away, or try to power through until you don’t have a choice anymore?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I try to take it as easy as possible right from the beginning, including lots of garlic, zinc, and lemon tea.

Anki Pronunciation Deck: “H”

One of my tutees, a native French speaker, has a little trouble with “h” at the beginning of words. To help her (and anyone else with similar issues), I put together an Anki deck of “H” words with their respective pronunciations. This deck is not intended as a vocabulary deck; it is for people who know the vocabulary (or most of it) already but have a hard time pronouncing it.

There are 91 words in total, taken from the top 10,000 or so words in English, according to this list from MIT. To avoid repetition, I didn’t include compound words (so “him” but not “himself”). I also, as a rule, didn’t include an exhaustive list of verb conjugations (so “hate” but not “hated” or “hates”) unless there was a meaningful shift in spelling or pronunciation in the main word (so both “hear” and “heard”).

Some of the words are homophones: words with different spellings and meanings, but identical pronunciation. Those words are marked with an asterisk (*) for your convenience. This is to keep people from straining to hear differences in pronunciation where there are none.

Finally, all of the pronunciations are either from American speakers or sound American to my own ears. This is mostly for pronunciation issues when it comes to vowel sounds, rather than the “H” sound at the beginning. The single exception is the word “herb.” In American English, the preferred pronunciation is with a dropped “h” (/ɜːrb/); British English retains it (/hɜːrb/).

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.