Month: November, 2015

Apps for learning Czech

This last week or so I’ve been looking at and assessing notable apps for language learning (Czech). These are really awesome, probably the best way to study a language on your own—fun, engaging, and easy to get into. They include lots of spoken content, start at a basic level, elicit positive knowledge in a variety of ways, and used spaced repetition and other cognitive techniques. All of these are better for absolute beginners intereted in self-study than nearly any book, podcasts, CD, or other software I have seen. They are heavily gamified, and are relatively fun and easy to come back to, an ideal way to study a few minutes a day or more. This is a relatively new format, though, with a bunch of competition, and there is a lot of variety.

So far I’ve tested these with languages that I have some knowledge of (French, which I studied in high school/college, or Czech, which I have been learning over the summer), so they are very easy for me at present. However, I would like to also test them with languages that I am unfamiliar with, such as Irish or Indonesian. I avoided tools that didn’t have Czech (such as Babbel and Busuu, which offer other popular European languages as well as Indonesian and Turkish/Arabic respectively), except Duolingo, which I had an old French account for from some time ago.

  • Duolingo has the best software. The iOS app is slick and works well. Duolingo is free to use; their original business model was based around crowdsourced translation, but they have shifted to language certification. The content appears to be very high quality, but it has a relatively limited number of languages relative to some of the other software below. However, this would be fantastic for the mostly large international languages Duolino covers (Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Esperanto, Turkish, Norweigian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch). Here’s the Duolino intro video. “Lessons” are broken into tiny chunks of a dozens questions or so, and involve varied translation-based activities that involve listening, speaking, typing, and identifying words and sentences (although there is a bias towards listening and reading/typing). According to an in-house study, it only takes a Duolingo user an average of 34 hours to learn the equivalent of a first college semester’s worth of Spanish ( PDF ). Now take that with a grain of salt: a single freshman college semester amounts to about 45-48 hours of in-class instructional time, and does not constitute a particularly high level of proficiency. This is still an average of 16 minutes per day for 18 weeks, that you schedule on your own.
  • Mondly Languages has a Web and iOS app with an interface approach similar to Duolingo’s, although the software is much more flaky. Sometimes the lessons fail to progress, so you may accidentally repeat levels unless you quit and restart the app. There is plenty of translation, but words are also matched to pictures and there is much less typing and speaking. It’s also, at the early levels, much “easier” than Duolingo (since many of the answers are fairly obvious). Mondly has a different business model than Duolingo, and the app costs $15-20 past the trial levels. Still, it has many of the benefits of an app like Duolingo: interactivity, integrated audio, extensive gamification. Moreover, it supports more languages, including Czech (as well as German, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Romanian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Korean, Swedish, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Afrikaans). The Czech app consists of about 18 eight-section lessons organized by topic, as well as a daily vocabulary lesson.
  • Memrise is somewhat different, and is a freemium Web and mobile app with advertising and premium features. Memrise comes out of the spaced-repetition arena, but includes most user-generated content. So, it has some similarities to Anki, without the expectation that you spend a lot of time making your own cards and hours reviewing flashcards. Its software also leaves SRS way behind. The Basic Czech course, for example, is highly gamified, including flash cards, exercises, spoken audio recordings, and other interactive content, and there is plenty of other Czech material. Since Memrise is older and has user-generated content, there is a very wide selection of languages and courses (probably of very varying quality)—for example, there are a number of courses on Native American languages, and user-generated adaptations of textbooks like Complete Czech. See also this discussion of the app, Plant a New Language in Your Mind.

After a week, Duolingo remains very good. Mondly’s problems are increasing. Mondly’s execution is not as good: Mondly’s content more closely resembles a phrasebook, and the learning curve a few lessons in goes up quite steeply. Mondly also doesn’t have a clear interface to review old material. And for exercises that require the user to speak speak a phrase, Mondly’s speech recognition is very frustrating for more complex words and phrases. Memrise is the only one that doesn’t require any speaking (only headphones). Memrise is probably better, at least until Duolingo Czech comes out.

All of these are essentially old-fashioned translation exercises dressed up in interactive, gamified apps with audio.


A clock for 500 generations

It’s been almost six years since the the post communicating with folk 500 generations hence, but it’s been so transformational in how I think about the world.

Finally there’s a video about the 10,000-year clock (h/t kottke):

Language learning apps in the New York Times

Some of the new language learning apps have been covered in the New York Times over the past few years; here are some links to the overviews/discussions there.

  • The Web Way to Learn a Language: 2010 overview of consumer language learning technology, including,,,,, other sites such as Learn German, and, and apps such as Lonely Planet Phrasebooks, Oxford Translator Travel Pro, World Nomads, and Ultralingua Translation Dictionary.
  • On Language: Chunking: Ben Zimmer in 2010 discusses lexical chunks in language pedagogy: ‘Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary. …In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.”’
  • Powerful Tools for Learning a Language, or Several: 2012 endorsement of the Babbel (and Busuu) apps: “The different language apps are all similar, and they’re free on iOS and Android. You can set up a free account to keep track of your learning, and this will let you try the full fee-carrying online program.”
  • A Start-Up Bets on Human Translators Over Machines: A 2012 profile on the launch of Duolingo.
  • Translation Service Enlists Web Users to Do the Work: Another 2012 profile of Duolingo looks deeper into the technology.
  • Room for Debate: Is Learning a Language Other Than English Worthwhile? : A 2012 debate
  • 10 Paths to a More Fluent Vacation: 2012 overview of some language learning resources, from the cheap (, Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break French,, French in Action,,, and to the expensive (,, and
  • Measuring the Success of Online Education: 2013—”Duolingo, a free Web-based language learning system that grew out of a Carnegie Mellon University research project, is not an example of a traditional MOOC. However, the system, which now teaches German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and English, has roughly one million users and about 100,000 people spend time on the site daily. The firm’s business is based on the possibility of using students to translate documents in a crowd-sourced fashion. Seventy-five percent of the students are outside of United States, and Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Luis von Ahn notes that the foreign students are significantly more motivated and have a higher completion rate than their American counterparts. The firm, which was founded by Dr. von Ahn and his students, commissioned a study of the effectiveness of the language training system that indicates that students may learn languages more quickly online…”
  • Inventive, Cheaper Tools for Learning a Language: 2014 overview of Chineasy, Duolingo, (which focuses on the news), and Mango Premiere (which uses feature films), as well as Anki,, and Rosetta Stone’s travel app. is pronouncing dictionary with user-generated pronunciations.
  • Spanish as a Second Language, With the Accent on Fun: Duolingo, Busuu and Other Apps Teach Languages on Phones: 2014 overview of Spanish-learning apps for iOS and Android from MindSnacks, Duolingo, Busuu, and SpeakTribe, as well as Cat Spanish.
  • The Benefits of Failing at French: 2014 discussion of cognitive improvement from studying French but not learning it well enough to converse with a three-year-old “…after a year of intense study, including at least two hours a day with Rosetta Stone, Fluenz and other self-instruction software, Meetup groups, an intensive weekend class and a steady diet of French movies, television and radio, followed by what I’d hoped would be the coup de grâce: two weeks of immersion at one of the top language schools in France. …to reassure myself that nothing was amiss, just before tackling French I took a cognitive assessment called CNS Vital Signs, recommended by a psychologist friend. The results were anything but reassuring: I scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories, notably landing in the bottom 10th percentile on the composite memory test and in the lowest 5 percent on the visual memory test. …After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.”
  • Learning a New Language: Challenges and Joys: 2014 letters to the editor in response.

Czech is a lesser-studied language, and almost none of these tools have resources for the language: Not LiveMocha, Babbel, Busuu,, Rosetta Stone, MindSnacks, SpeakTribe, or Duolingo Czech for English speakers is in the incubator headed toward beta release. and Mango Languages support Czech, and DigitalDialects has basic material in Flash. Italki is a means of connecting with language teachers. It looks like Mondly Languages is attempting to compete with Duolingo and Rosetta Stone ( Tumblr, YT ), with many more languages.

Thoughts on Pimsleur Conversational Czech

The Pimsleur language learning system may not be highly regarded in formal language education, but it remains a best-selling language self-study course. I have never used a Pimsleur-branded product, so I went through the 16-lesson Conversational Czech course. Couldn’t hurt, and there are relatively few competing resources out there for self-study of Czech.

Mostly Pimsleur sells 30-lesson courses downloadable as MP3s for about $100 (or on CD for $300). These lessons are intended to be listened to once or twice a day, to take advantage of spaced repetition/graduated interval learning. The lessons are purely audio, involving listen-and-repeat and simple translation exercises. Conversational Czech is kind of a holdover, since it provided the first 16 lessons on CD for about $35.

The first few lessons were very easy for me, even as a novice, but quickly became difficult enough that it became worthwhile to listen to each half-hour episode twice per day. The rate of speech was appropriately challenging, and Czech pronunciation is difficult enough for me to make lots of this kind of practice worthwhile. However, I never fully grasped some of the question-forming patterns they used, and the format makes questions or further exploration of difficult points impossible. This is what started throwing me off the course. Also, I was listening to these programs on my commute, but an interruption in my schedule after lesson 10 led me to skip lessons for almost two weeks. After coming back to it, my knowledge was very stale, and I largely gave up on the course and burned through it to finish it off. The later lessons focused more on numbers, which I know fairly well already. The vocabulary and phrases taught are unquestionably valuable, if slight. There are several dozen words taught, perhaps over 100, along with maybe a dozen high-frequency and useful verbs. The situations covered are all very useful and practical. The format, with one male speaker and one female speaker, can make some of the gender distinctions more subtle: the course repeatedly puts the user in the shoes of the male speaker.

A couple of interesting sound changes were apparent in the audio, as well. In some non-standard usage (according to Naughton [13]), is changed to . This can make the distinction between words such as kde “where” and kdi “when” fairly subtle.

All in all, I can see some value to this, especially for beginning learners who do not have access to native-language teachers or conversation partners, and who have a means to extend their learning immediately after the course. But doing a whole 30-lesson course in a month sounds like it would be a long slog. The ideal case would probably be a person flying to the country in a fortnight or month, who can begin interacting with native speakers immediately after completing several days of lessons. The course doesn’t try more than basic active fluency in common, practical situations, but that is still a good goal. But it’s no more than a means of jump-starting the gradual acquisition of a language in conversation with other speakers.