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)!

Using Lang-8

Lang-8 (lang-8.com) is a free, collaborative language-learning resource focused on writing. If you’re studying English outside a formal classroom, this is a great resource to get immediate feedback from native and advanced speakers. If you’re taking a class, Lang-8 is a great supplement. But it has its drawbacks, and it can be a little tricky to get the hang of. In this post, I’ll only go through the basics of using Lang-8. In the next post, I’ll discuss it more generally in terms of pros and cons.

The basic premise of Lang-8 is that you correct other people’s writing and they correct yours. Every time you submit an entry to your journal, it shows up in two streams: the generic “every English (or any other language) post” stream, and the specific “every post from my friends” stream. In your home page, posts from your friends are at the top, with the entire tidal wave from the entire site below.

How journal entries from your Lang-8 friends look on your homepage.
How journal entries from your Lang-8 friends look on your homepage. On the right you can see your stats and your latest entries.
Scroll down and you'll see posts from the entire site, rather than just your friends.
Scroll down and you’ll see posts from the entire site, rather than just your friends.

Posting an entry is pretty straightforward. The tricky bits come with correcting other people’s writing, as the correcting interface is a little messy. Since everything is web-based—you write and you correct directly in the browser, instead of uploading or downloading documents—there isn’t a great built-in way to track or show changes. You have a WYSIWYG editor, with options for bold, strikeout, gray, red, and blue text. There are no official or even suggested guidelines for how to implement these particular typeface changes, so the corrections any given piece receives will be (relatively) inconsistently formatted. My biggest protip here is to make liberal use of the color options, especially for small mistakes like typos or capitalization. It makes things much easier for the author when they go back to look at the corrections.

Let’s take a closer look at the corrections menu. Many thanks to user Vera Vakhrusheva, whose recent essay on a LGBQT+ demonstration in Russia is featured in my screenshots. It’s kind of hard to show you how the website works if you obscure the entire text, but given that someone could have easily uploaded an exercise with the intent to keep it relatively private, I will only be using one or two extracts and blurring the rest.

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A journal entry on Lang-8 waiting for corrections.

If you click on a journal entry on your Lang-8 landing page, regardless of whether it’s from a friend’s journal or somewhere else, this is where you will end up. At the top you’ll see the title, and then the essay in its entirety. On the right are some stats: privacy level, how many people have viewed it, how many comments it has, how many corrections it has, what language it’s written in, etc. Here, we can see that this was a public entry with 7 views, no corrections, and no comments at the time of this screenshot. Sometimes an exercise will be given in the target language and the original language, but not always. This one was given only in English.

You can “like” a journal entry or not at the bottom. Clicking on the big blue button takes you to the text boxes where you’ll be doing your correcting. (You can also just scroll down.)

The corrections interface on Lang-8.
The corrections interface on Lang-8.

Here is where it gets a little tricky.

Every journal entry has two fields: the title and the body. The title is optional, and if you don’t have one, it just uses the first however many characters of your entry. The title stands on its own in the corrections interface (and disappears if there isn’t one given), but the body can get quite long: Lang-8 parses text into sentences and gives each sentence its own section. If you want to correct the sentence, you click the blue “Correct” button to open up the WYSIWYG editor. A green “Perfect” button also appears when you mouse over (making it hard to nab in a screen capture); select this if the sentence is fine. This image features the title of the piece and the first sentence of the body, both of which I’ve already begun to correct. As you can see, you don’t edit the text directly on Lang-8; you provide corrected copies.

You can only save your corrections all at once. You do this with the big orange button at the top or bottom of the corrections interface.

Sentences I haven't begun to correct yet in Lang-8.
Sentences I haven’t begun to correct yet in Lang-8.

Also note that at the bottom of the corrections interface is the option to comment, generally, on the entry itself. (You can also comment on specific corrections after you open the “Correct” menu.) You can comment without making corrections, if you really feel moved to do so, by typing a comment and then hitting “Post corrections,” but considering the fact that people post here for the explicit purpose of receiving grammatical instruction rather than social media style “wow cool!!” comments, corrections are very much appreciated.

If someone else has gotten to an entry before you, you can simply recommend their corrections instead of making the same correction again.  Their corrections and comments will appear right under the essay, before the corrections interface.

Corrections with comments and votes on a Lang-8 entry.
Corrections with comments and votes on a Lang-8 entry.

You can distinguish someone’s corrections from the actual corrections interface by the blue border. Here you can see the original (gray pencil icon), the correction underneath it (green checkmark icon), and the option to vote for a correction as “good” or to quote it (if you wish to discuss someone’s correction in the comments). You can also see in the gray box that this user left a comment explaining one of his corrections.

After you scroll past all of the corrections and comments, you’ll see the familiar corrections interface at the bottom of the page. This time, each section includes the original text and all of the corrections that other users have made. Once again, you have the option to vote for a good one in addition to providing your own. You also still have the option to mouse over for the green “Perfect” button if there’s nothing wrong with the sentence. If none of the corrections are good ones, then you can click the blue “Correct” button and add your corrections.

The corrections interface on Lang-8.
The corrections interface on Lang-8. Here, two different users made corrections to the first sentence and only one user made corrections to the second.

From the perspective of a Lang-8 user, it’s better to vote for good corrections instead of mindlessly entering in the same one. Things can quickly get cluttered otherwise. At least, I think it’s cluttered.

That about wraps up my guide to Lang-8! Tweet at me or comment if you have questions, confusions, or suggestions. Next time I’ll take a step back and discuss its pros and cons as a language-learning tool. Have a great weekend!