Category Archives: Language Acquisition

Learning english prepositions – the smart way

In my review of WordChamp and LingQ I mentioned that an ideal language learning system would have deep support for the specifics of the learner’s target language. I was asked to clarify what I mean by that.

I have now found an example of what could be a step in the right direction. It is an online research system called WERTi from the Computational Linguistics and Language Technology group at The Ohio State University. The system allows anonymous access and it uses real English news sources.

In nutshell, the system finds interesting texts (using your keywords) and then identifies all propositions (at, in, by, through, etc.) in that text. It allows you to read the text with propositions highlighted; allows you to try picking propositions in the text and even allows you to test yourself by hiding the propositions in the text and letting you to fill your guesses.

The purpose of the system is to make the learner notice how the propositions are used in the text and through increased awareness speed up the memorisation process.

Obviously, WERTi is just one piece of the total language learning system, but – in my eyes – this is a good demonstration. I cannot wait until such systems will become available for commercial use.

Review of WordChamp, LingQ and their mashup

WordChamp and LingQ are competing online language learning services that use learner driven approach and try to support multiple languages. WordChamp is a (recently) free service. LingQ is free during the current beta stage, as it is a rewrite of the existing paid English-only service The Linguist. Because both services try to be language-agnostic, they use methods that are largely independent of the target language.

LingQ’s methodology (from my understanding) is based around repeated reading and listening to the target language material with the learning process based around finding new words, recording them down with their real-world usage and identifying known and new words in the texts. LingQ will suggest the consequent texts to read and the words to learn based on the learner’s individual collection of words to date. A basic dictionary lookup is available as well as simple flashcard facilities. A recent description of LingQ’s ideas is available from the founder’s blog.

WordChamp does not have a methodology as such, but instead concentrates on helping a learner to acquire words fast. It provides word lookups that include dictionary definitions and pronunciation of the word (where available). WordChamp also allows people to add the content to the system by writing down their own definitions for words and common phrases as well as by recording pronunciations of the words. The service provides a large number of different flashcard training methods. WordChamp, like LingQ, does not provide grammar rules of the language, but it does provide much stronger support for understanding and practicing verb conjugations of at least couple of languages.

WordChamp has several tools I have not seen in other language services yet. For a long time, it had a WebReader, which allowed to look at the text or an external website and have WordChamp automatically pop up definitions of the words under the cursor. Recently, this functionality became available as a FireFox plugin, so it could be activated on any website without needing to take a side-trip to the WordChamp’s own site. There is also an option for webmasters to embed the interface into their own webpage. I have an example of that on my website.

WordChamp also allows to export the list of words into an audio file – something like basic audio-flashcards. This allows to practice the word lists while not at the computer. LingQ does not have similar functionality, but it does have audio files corresponding to the texts, so a learner can listen and read at the same time.

Neither service is perfect and both require a dedicated learner to succeed. My preferences are currently with WordChamp, but I am hoping that LingQ will improve rapidly, as it has some interesting ideas in its core.

It is also possible to combine the services of the two systems in a mashup. At the moment, LingQ’s dictionary lookup is quite slow and it uses basic dictionary definitions that do not recognise common phrases the way WordChamp does. It is possible to install WordChamp’s FireFox plugin and activate it while on the reading page of the LingQ. This provides fast lookup of the WordChamp, with the methodology of the LingQ.

Unfortunately, at the moment there is a small problem with the mashup. After using LingQ’s dictionary lookup/word creation popup, the WordChamp toolbar stops working. Reloading the page and reenabling the toolbar is a quick solution, but is a bit annoying. My recommendation is to read the text once with WordChamp’s toolbar enabled and then read it the second time while extracting interesting words into the LingQ system. As the texts are supposed to be read several times anyway, this is not the biggest problem available.

I consider both LingQ and WordChamp to be the second generation web-based language-learning systems. They have started to discover what web allows them to do, but perhaps not yet explored all the possibilities. I also think that both system exhibit ‘Jack of all trades, master of none‘ problems due to their attempts at targeting multiple languages at once. I think the best system will combine great support tools like flashcards and read-and-listen activities with deep support for the specifics of the learner’s target language. That – to me – would be a real web-native language learning system.

On WordChamp’s embedded reader/translator

It is really good to see more and more companies offering services that can be embedded in one’s own webpage. YouTube is probably the most known example, but the concept is applicable to many other types of services. WordChamp’s new Reader API is a great example of this. Between their Web reader, their Firefox plugin and now the Reader API, translation is easy to get for learners, web surfers or content provider.

I believe the future of language learning methods is with the web. The standalone language packages (like Rosetta Stone) take too long to develop, are limited in the amount of material they can package and do not leverage community effort (which WordChamp does with user translations).

The biggest challenge with the web based services is to convince people to pay for them. As with many web 2.0 companies (e.g., MySpace, YouTube), WordChamp is currently free, but obviously this cannot continue forever. I hope they figure out the profitable and sustainable model soon, as I would hate for their service to disappear.

A problem specific to WordChamp is that they are trying to cover most of the languages of the world. However they only have language-specific grammar rules (e.g. conjugation tables) for some languages. This means that grammar specifics of other languages are not picked up and some words do not show the translation even though one exists for the same word in a different tense, conjugation or declension.

(This article is available with WordChamp’s embedded reader on its own page)