Lingua.ly offers learners an opportunity to look up and save words they come across when reading online articles in another language and then recommends relevant texts for the learners to read in order to extend their vocabulary and improve their reading skills.
Users can click on any word in an article they are reading online and, after showing a definition and playing an audio version of the word, the system stores the word in a user’s personal word collection or ‘inbox’. These words can then be practiced and repeated with activities that ask users to match the words with their translations. Practice sessions are available in 5, 15 and 30 minute chunks depending on how much time the user has available and the system recommends that users try and keep their inboxes clear (i.e. regular practice).
Lingua.ly stores data about the words that the user knows and how well and then uses that data to suggest texts that the user should read in order to reinforce and extend their lexical knowledge. All texts are also tagged and categorised so that learners can filter by topic or area of interest. The more time a user spends on the system, the better the recommendation that the system makes.
The system allows users to store words in English, Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic and works either as a browser plugin, a web app or android app.
One of the biggest plus points of the Lingua.ly platform is the amount of comprehensible input that the learners are exposed to. The algorithm builds up an understanding of the words that a user knows and aims to suggest articles to learners where they have around a 90% text coverage, allowing for acquisition of new words from context and with the help of the app. Although, it has to be said that some of the article choices are quite strange, maybe this would improve as the the system learned more about my profile.
Another strong point on the educational side is that of autonomy. The app allows user to take control of their learning by selecting the words that they would like to learn and read the texts that they would like to read. At the same time there is enough scaffolding and support to mean that the amount of control doesn’t put a significant stress or excess of cognitive load onto the learner. There is always the option to go back to a recommended text or to practice the saved words in familiar exercises.
This brings us to another excellent aspect of Lingua.ly, the opportunities for practice. The algorithms try to suggest articles which contain some of the words you have saved in the last 72 hours, in order to reinforce them. Plus spaced repetition algorithms take into account when you’ve seen the word, how well you know it and its connectedness to other words you know in order to decide how often you need to be tested on the word to maximise the chance of committing it to long-term memory.
The price, at completely free to all users (currently), is also an impressive selling point! This does mean that the translations that you see of a word are occasionally suspect (more on that later), and therefore you may be tested on these strange translations of saved words at a later date.
With so much reading happening online and on mobile these days, Lingua.ly acts as an important support for a real, everyday task that language learners face. Indeed the founders themselves learned langauges by manually following the Lingua.ly process of looking up words in articles and then using spaced repetition software to help them memorise the unknown words. Lingua.ly was created in order to make this process more efficient, and through article recommendation, more effective too. By helping with a very definite real word need, it’s likely that users will find the product helpful and use it enough to see some real benefit.
And finally, from looking at the team involved in the product, it is clear that they have an impressive amount of background knowledge and experience, including expertise in SLA, natural language processing, computational biology and cognitive psychology. And from looking at the Lingua.ly blog it’s clear that there is a lot of knowledge of teaching and learning and a real desire to help learners aquire language effectively and efficiently.
The main weakness, given the intended outcomes of the product, is the lack of chunking of the lexis. All words are treated individually, with no work on phrases, formulaic language or collocation. So when you click on a word to save it, the translation engine offers many different translations but automatically saves the first one, regardless of part of speech or the specific sense of the word (e.g. clicking on Spanish ‘general’ it saved ‘high ranking military officer’ even though the sense was ‘in general’). This makes it hard to make sense of phrases and sentences within the article and is less effective in terms of acquisition of the lexis. I wonder whether it might be possible for the system to parse the phrase and make better translation suggestions, or better still, show a translation of the phrase and allow users to save chunks of language. And if this were too problematic from a translation point of view, some of the exercises could possibly focus on example sentences, rather than the word in isolation.
Sticking with the translation theme, there are also some more general issues with the quality of the material. For example, clicking on Spanish word ‘el’ saved ‘elevated railway’ to my inbox and I was once asked to match the word ‘gate’ to the translation ‘Bill Gates’! These dud translations can easily be removed for your inbox, but you still don’t know what ‘el’ or ‘gates’ means and there may be more subtle problems that users aren’t aware of when using the product.
Another drawback of the product is the lack of opportunity for output. The words are learned passively, with no need to produce or use communicatively. The Lingua.ly blog does have a lot of really useful advice for learners and lots of encouragement to speak, listen and communicate, but in the product itself the output and communicative aspects of language learning are lacking. It’s true that incorporating this in would quite drastically alter the product and maybe detract from the quality of what it does well, but from an SLA perspective, some opportunities for output would be helpful.
This lack of production also results in a lack of opportunities for personalisation and creativity within the product. It’s possible for users to add their own words manually and create heir own ‘word pack’ but this is only possible in the language that they’re learning and therefore words they already have some knowledge of. The exercise types are repetitive and therefore also without much chance of the learner bringing anything of themselves or their personality to the experience.
4 thoughts on “Review: Lingua.ly”
I’ve just tried using lingua.ly to learn some Spanish and I’ve found so many bugs and issues that I’m wondering if your high rating of 3.5 stars needs to be reconsidered? In fact, I think this is he highest rated ‘app’ that you have reviewed, which is surprising.
Firstly, I’m using the web app on an iPad, and I can’t double click to add new words. It just zooms, so I have to add words manually. The audio player on the iPad doesn’t work, either, so I can’t hear the new words I’ve added. This suggests that they’ve made a mess of delivering to mobile devices, with quality access restricted to usage on a computer. Compromised access, in other words.
You noted the issue with poor translations, but the problems seem to be endemic: both in terms of the translations of items in the word bank, and in the larger text translations. Too many issues to list, often with the result that the instruction is wrong. Also, the images selected to support vocabulary in the word bank are often really poor, and sometimes crass, too (raunchy babe in bikini to illustrate ‘dulce’ as an example).
Next, there is very little control over the word bank. You need a vast and complete archive in order for the selection of texts to be useful, but there are no tools for the user to manage the list. It becomes a huge, scrolling list with no search function, no ability to arrange alphabetically, and no possibility to organise words into lexical groups. This is very poor personalisation. You can’t, also, select the words that you want to be drilled on.
As for the drills, there is only one template for testing you knowledge: a multiple choice template which asks the user to select the (hopefully) correct translation from a group of words. This is dull as dish water, and hardly likely to motivate the learner.
The above are typical problems with automated content, and I see this as a work in progress, which will probably improve with time. There are certainly some very good ideas at play here, but the ‘app’ is still very crude, limited and replete with multiple flaws. It exploits only a single medium (text), uses only a single interactive template, and fails to deliver on a major mobile device even though it claims to be a ‘web app’ – surely, this is well below par for modern software? The translations (and hence content/instruction) are often wrong, and personalisation of the vocabulary list is one-dimensional. And all this without even considering output. So … 3.5 stars? Really?
I just wanted to clarify that Lingua.ly doesn’t actually support iPads yet. It’s a very small startup that will be releasing IOS in the next few weeks- meaning this is the cause of many of the bugs you found. Hopefully you can review it again when your device is supported. Also, we are working on improving the quality of the Bing image search and translation control and will be introducing user-based measures to police content in the near future as well as vocabulary sorting tools to help manage word lists for the upcoming school year. In the meantime, it’s a free realia based platform that can be used on its own for independent learners or to compliment all other programs, apps and classes as part of a dynamic language learning eco-system. I would argue that finding a one-size fits all platform for every skill is near impossible and not necessarily recommended, particularly beyond a beginner level. Language is messy and language learning requires the individual to be active and to seek out comprehensible input from a variety of places, not just one app. This is a platform that teaches that skill via digital immersion vs. spoon-feeding clean language drills from pre-made content and resources. The advantage in an adaptive and flexible system like this is it can accompany a more traditional platform or it can serve as a vocabulary storage and maintenance tool to follow you from beginner to advanced proficiency and encourage engagement even when studying your language is not center-stage and becomes more of a hobby.
Director of ELearning, Lingua.ly
Thank you so much for taking the time to provide such a detailed reply. The added context is much appreciated.
I’m afraid I still operate with some uncertainty in terms of the classification of native and web apps. I generally assume that the latter can be more platform agnostic, which is only sometimes true. I look forward to trying lingua.ly on the iPad when it becomes IOS compatible. I’ll also have a go on my PC and keep plugging away at my elementary Spanish.
I’m with you, too, on the fact that language is messy, and that a one-size-fits-all approach is limited. And, importantly, that a technology-based tool can be used for specific purposes within a broader set of strategies. In this context, I think the work you are doing is both important and impressive.
Increasingly, we are seeing more and more ‘apps’ that utilise translation technologies to teach and/or present vocabulary. In the early days, imperfections are unavoidable, and will be common to any tool/app that uses this approach. Adding more tools to support user control over the word bank could go a long way towards addressing these issues, and I’m keen to see how you design and present flexibility in this area as a solution. I hope you don’t mind if I throw in a few suggestions?
Someone new to using the app will want very quickly to separate the words they know (the ones that are essential for appropriate text selection) from the words they want to be drilled on. It would be great if there was a function that could allow a quick and easy batch selection of known words, so that these aren’t recycled in the drills. In this way human knowledge can supplement the algorithm data. Additionally, allowing the user to organise words into groups, select which ones they want to practise, and even determine the length of the practice session would be very useful.
At the moment, I think a key problem is the dual functionality of the word bank: it’s there to provide a data reference for text selection, but also to support new vocabulary acquisition. It would be useful to separate thes functions, as indicated above.
Regarding the difficulties with translations and images, would it be possible for users to overwrite the translations if they are incorrect? Likewise with images: could users search and identify an image that they think represents the meaning of the word selected? This would be a nice personalisation touch, and would be useful for abstract concepts, where any visualisation of meaning is likely to be very subjective.
Finally, one or two more drill templates would be welcome to provide variety for the practice. It would be great if the audio and images could be recycled here, too, for a full multimedia experience.
I hope you don’t see these suggestions as overtly negative. I completely understand that you are a small start up and that budget doesn’t grow on trees, and … this is a free app, so it’s something we should all be grateful for. Also, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you probably haven’t discussed in greater detail in countless meetings already. I do really look forward, though, to seeing how lingualy develops – there is huge potential.