Thoughts on Glossika

I first heard about Glossika from one of my fellow language nerds (who also happens to be a former English teacher). Glossika is the brain child of Mike Campbell, an EFL teacher based out of Taiwan. What started as a personal project to map Chinese dialects has become an online resource for language students in almost any language pair imaginable.

A screenshot of a pull-down menu full of source language options on Glossika.

Note that I haven’t looked at the English content specifically; this is based off of my own Korean studies. That’s where all my screenshots will be coming from.

Glossika’s learning model focuses explicitly on sentence level patterns. The foundation of the course is repeating, out loud, sentences in the target language (with a source language translation so you have a rough idea of what you’re saying).

A screenshot of a typical Glossika study session.

The recordings are native (or fluent) speakers reading the lines at a natural pace. This is a huge improvement over the sometimes-jerky robot voice in DuoLingo, and even slightly outshines the option in Clozemaster. But since Glossika’s philosophy is that language starts with speaking, it’s no surprise that they’d invest the time and money in high-quality audio files.

You can (and should) mark easy sentences with the smiley face in the lower right; you can mark sentences you want to really focus on with the heart in the upper right. The red flag can be used to signal when there’s something wrong with a sentence, and the gear icon opens the settings menu. From there, you can adjust the audio speed, whether or not you hear a recording of the source language as well, how quickly the audio plays, and how much time you have after to repeat the phrase out loud. I turned off the source language recording, kept the target language speed at 100%, and gave myself maximum time afterwards for repeating the target phrase (four times the length of the native speaker recording).

There are other exercises to reinforce what you’ve learned, including a cloze exercise:

Screenshot of a cloze exercise on Glossika

Translation:

Screenshot of a translation activity on Glossika

And dictation:

 

As you can probably infer from the “play” button featured in all of these exercises, audio is an integral part of this supplementary training. Glossika is big on speaking and big on listening.

Both the default sessions and the supplementary exercises drill very heavily, so you’ll hear the same sentences over and over again. This is a necessary evil, but it means that the sessions can sometimes feel a bit dull, or like you’re treading water. You need to find the right balance between losing motivation and marking too many sentences as “easy” for your own good, and that balance is different for everyone.

What’s surprising (and frustrating) is that there seems to be no connection between the sentences that you practice in a regular session and a sentence that you practice in one of the supplementary exercises. I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention and got my sentences out of sync, or if this is a deliberate design choice (maybe to keep students from getting bored), but I still found it disorienting. The dictation in particular is rough (especially for a model that’s based on listening and speaking rather than drilling writing) and doesn’t have much margin for error. There seems to be some wiggle room in terms of spacing, but none in terms of spelling, even for obvious typos! It feels unfair to be thrown in the deep end with completely new sentences rather than ones you’ve already familiarized yourself with, and the temptation to dial back the difficulty to something less appropriate just for a better hit/miss ratio is strong.

The other bummer is the cost. Glossika is free for up to 1000 repetitions (or about two hours of study). After that, it’s $30 US a month (or $25 US / month for an annual subscription). On the one hand, it takes time and money to get high-quality translations, and then to record and upload  audio of them, and out of all of the language-study tools out there, Glossika might be the one most worth paying for because of the way it makes you speak. The focus on listening is good, too, but in the Internet age, it’s fairly easy to come by listening practice from native speakers, geared for students or otherwise. Speaking is much more of a minefield, at least for perfectionist introverts like yours truly. Glossika is a good practice space for speaking, where you can get comfortable with the sounds of the language before you start speaking spontaneously with another human being.

On the other hand, $300 US, even spread out over the course of a year, might be a real burden on some students. DuoLingo Plus is around $10 US for an annual subscription, an annual Memrise subscription is around $65 US, and Clozemaster Pro is $8 US a month (which works out to $96 US annually, but they don’t seem to offer a bulk annual rate). Compared to those sorts of prices, $300 is a bitter pill to swallow.

Personally, I’m seriously considering upgrading my Glossika account, because it aligns with my own study goals in Korean. Whether or not it’s right for you is another question entirely. Give the free version a try, at least, and see how it goes!

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 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.

Thoughts on Busuu Web Portal

Time for a long-overdue review of the Busuu language-learning portal!

What is busuu?

Busuu is a language-learning website as well as a smartphone app. It offers courses in 12 languages, including English.  You can focus on business, travel, or culture. The lessons typically include flashcard drilling, short dialogues, writing practice (corrected by other site users) and speaking practice (also evaluated by other users). This review will focus exclusively on the web version, though it looks like the web and mobile version are identical in content and presentation.

The main menu on Busuu after you create an account and start learning.

What do I like about busuu?

The site design is crisp and intuitive. It’s easy to find your way around. The lessons themselves are nicely varied, and they provide recordings as well as images for every new word or phrase. Additionally, when the lexical target is just a single word, they provide a sample sentence along with the word, the recording, and the image. Overall, the presentation is fairly thorough.

Unlike its free competitors, busuu is officially partnered with McGraw-Hill, one of the biggest educational companies and textbook publishers in the business. Busuu subscribers have the option to take a certification test from McGraw-Hill that will officially (or at least, in some capacity) grade the user on a particular CEFR level (from A1 to B2). This might be of value to anyone who needs English for a job, though of course you should check with your employer (or whoever) about whether or not they would recognize such a certificate. I’m not aware of any other language-learning portal that has such a partnership.

What don’t I like about busuu?

Busuu leans heavily on the user subscription model. If you look at the menu image again, you’ll note that some of the lesson icons have a small crown icon next to them. That means those lessons aren’t available until I subscribe.

The vast majority of material in this lesson is only available to subscribers.

Additionally, none of the quizzes or tests are available without a subscription, and learning research has repeatedly demonstrated that testing is one of the most efficient ways to learn new material. Another review has put those assessments on blast, however, so take that for what you will. Moreover, there are numerous complaints about just how difficult it is to cancel a subscription if you decide you no longer want it.

Of course I believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. (I’m a writer and an artist in my other lives–I know how easy it is for work to be devalued!) But I personally prefer the Coursera model: you get the information for free but have to pay for the certification. Especially when you consider the glut of EFL instruction material on the Internet (and the raw amount of English-language content), and the fact that their partnership with McGraw-Hill gives their certificate some serious brand recognition, the Coursera model seems both the most effective and the most fair.

They also like to tout the “22.5 hours of busuu is like a university level course!” all over the place, without giving the full context. The “22.5 hours” number is taken from one study that busuu funded at CUNY and University of South Carolina. I’m not going to go into a discussion of this particular study here; I just want to point out that (1) this was a single study (2) funded by busuu. As far as I know, the data hasn’t been replicated in other independent research. Personally, I’m skeptical about how this claim would hold up in the wild, if only because the material presented is generally limited in scope (especially in the free version), even if the presentation itself is varied and thorough.

Verdict

If it turns out their McGraw-Hill certification will help you land a job or a promotion, then go for it (or don’t), but otherwise? There are better options out there.

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Conversation Classes

People having conversations.
Image courtesy Sascha Kohlmann.

Conversation classes are a popular genre of language courses. People are often insecure when it comes to spontaneous language production (i.e., speaking) and the bravest among them sign up for conversation courses to improve this aspect of their language.

For me, conversation classes are stressful. I’ll be honest with you. As an introvert I have a rich inner life, full of thoughts and observations, but that does not always translate into engaging conversation. In fact, conversation classes are where I’ve felt the most awkward and the least competent.

I’ve developed a method to combat this, but it’s a method that requires some level of student input. If you book me for a conversation class, here’s what will happen.

1. Before our first meeting, I’ll ask you to take a brief online assessment to rate your level within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and send me the results. “Online assessment” sounds scary, but the whole thing only takes around 20 minutes.

2. Our first meeting will be something like a casual interview. I’ll ask about your history with English, your general interests, and your language goals. Take some time before our first meeting to think about your thoughts on these topics (write them down if you want!). Other follow-up questions may naturally occur, but these are the three areas I want to cover first. Specific questions I will touch on include:

  • How do you want me to address error correction? (As it happens? At the end of every lesson? Once a month?)
  • Are you trying to improve your social English? Interviewing? Business presentations? Traveling? Pronunciation?
  • What kind of work, if any, do you want outside of class?
  • Are you currently studying English elsewhere? If so, at what level? What material? What do you like and dislike about the class?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite classes in school? Why?
  • What hobbies and interests do you have? How do you like to spend your free time?
  • How are you currently using English in your everyday life? (E.g. reading blogs, watching movies, meetings with coworkers, etc.)
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of studying?

3. As someone who is not always a sparkling conversationalist, I base my conversation classes (especially in one-on-one classes) on short readings (one page or less). I make every effort to tailor these readings to your interests: beauty, science, health, etc.

Hot tip: you can contribute, too! This is the secret to English conversation class success: bring in material of your own that you felt was interesting, or that you found difficult or confusing. (The Internet is a great resource for English-language material about literally anything.) Have questions prepared for your conversation class sessions, whether about grammar, vocabulary, or just how they spent their weekend. Things are much less awkward that way, especially if you’re studying one-on-one.

4. I will periodically bring grammar or vocabulary exercises based on gaps in knowledge I’ve observed in our conversations. The idea of quizzes, worksheets, and tests can intimidate people—some students opt for “conversation classes” because they find tests and assessments stressful—but periodic testing is one of the most efficient ways to retain and remember new material. This also gives my introvert side a chance to be still and reflect for a few minutes. Don’t worry: the focus of a conversation class with me is still always on speaking and conversing.

My goal in any conversation class is two-fold: to build up and maintain your confidence in speaking, and to provide you with tools that will enable you to speak more fluently and more precisely.

If this sounds like a conversation class that’s your speed, you can email me (in the right-hand column over there) and book a time. I hope to see you soon!