Lingua.ly is an Israeli start-up which, in its own words, ‘is an innovative new learning solution that helps you learn a language from the open web’. Its platform ‘uses big-data paired with spaced repetition to help users bootstrap their way to fluency’. You can read more of this kind of adspeak at the Lingua.ly blog or the Wikipedia entry which seems to have been written by someone from the company.
How does it work? First of all, state the language you want to study (currently there are 10 available) and the language you already speak (currently there are 18 available). Then, there are three possible starting points: insert a word which you want to study, click on a word in any web text or click on a word in one of the suggested reading texts. This then brings up a bilingual dictionary entry which, depending on the word, will offer a number of parts of speech and a number of translated word senses. Click on the appropriate part of speech and the appropriate word sense, and the item will be added to your personal word list. Once you have a handful of words in your word list, you can begin practising these words. Here there are two options. The first is a spaced repetition flashcard system. It presents the target word and 8 different translations in your own language, and you have to click on the correct option. Like most flashcard apps, spaced repetition software determines when and how often you will be re-presented with the item.
The second option is to read an authentic web text which contains one or more of your target items. The company calls this ‘digital language immersion, a method of employing a virtual learning environment to simulate the language learning environment’. The app ‘relies on a number of applied linguistics principles, including the Natural Approach and Krashen’s Input Hypothesis’, according to the Wikipedia entry. Apparently, the more you use the app, the more it knows about you as a learner, and the better able it is to select texts that are appropriate for you. As you read these texts, of course, you can click on more words and add them to your word list.
I tried out Lingua.ly, logging on as a French speaker wanting to learn English, and clicking on words as the fancy took me. I soon had a selection of texts to read. Users are offered a topic menu which consisted of the following: arts, business, education, entertainment, food, weird, beginners, green, health, living, news, politics, psychology, religion, science, sports, style. The sources are varied and not at all bad – Christian Science Monitor, The Grauniad, Huffington Post, Time, for example –and there are many very recent articles. Some texts were interesting; others seemed very niche. I began clicking on more words that I thought would be interesting to explore and here my problems began.
I quickly discovered that the system could only deal with single words, so phrasal verbs were off limits. One text I looked at had the phrasal verb ‘ripping off’, and although I could get translations for ‘ripping’ and ‘off’, this was obviously not terribly helpful. Learners who don’t know the phrasal verb ‘ripped off’ do not necessarily know that it is a phrasal verb, so the translations offered for the two parts of the verb are worse than unhelpful; they are actually misleading. Proper nouns were also a problem, although some of the more common ones were recognised. But the system failed to recognise many proper nouns for what they were, and offered me translations of homonymous nouns. With some words (e.g. ‘stablemate’), the dictionary offered only one translation (in this case, the literal translation), but not the translation (the much more common idiomatic one) that was needed in the context in which I came across the word. With others (e.g. ‘pertain’), I was offered a list of translations which included the one that was appropriate in the context, but, unfortunately, this is the French word ‘porter’, which has so many possible meanings that, if you genuinely didn’t know the word, you would be none the wiser.
Once you’ve clicked on an appropriate part of speech and translation (if you can find one), the dictionary look-up function offers both photos and example sentences. Here again there were problems. I’d clicked on the verb ‘pan’ which I’d encountered in the context of a critic panning a book they’d read. I was able to select an appropriate translation, but when I got to the photos, I was offered only multiple pictures of frying pans. There were no example sentences for my meaning of ‘pan’: instead, I was offered multiple sentences about cooking pans, and one about Peter Pan. In other cases, the example sentences were either unhelpful (e.g. the example for ‘deal’ was ‘I deal with that’) or bizarre (e.g. the example sentence for ‘deemed’ was ‘The boy deemed that he cheated in the examination’). For some words, there were no example sentences at all.
Primed in this way, I was intrigued to see how the system would deal with the phrase ‘heaving bosoms’ which came up in one text. ‘Heaving bosoms’ is an interesting case. It’s a strong collocation, and, statistically, ‘heaving bosoms’ plural are much more frequent than ‘a heaving bosom’ singular. ‘Heaving’, as an adjective, only really collocates with ‘bosoms’. You don’t find ‘heaving’ collocating with any of the synonyms for ‘bosoms’. The phrase is also heavily connoted, strongly associated with romance novels, and often used with humorous intent. Finally, there is also a problem of usage with ‘bosom’ / ‘bosoms’: men or women, one or two – all in all, it’s a tricky word.
Lingua.ly was no help at all. There was no dictionary entry for an adjectival ‘heaving’, and the translations for the verb ‘heave’ were amusing, but less than appropriate. As for ‘bosom’, there were appropriate translations (‘sein’ and ‘poitrine’), but absolutely no help with how the word is actually used. Example sentences, which are clearly not tagged to the translation which has been chosen, included ‘Or whether he shall die in the bosom of his family or neglected and despised in a foreign land’ and ‘Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?’
Lingua.ly has a number of problems. First off, its software hinges on a dictionary (it’s a Babylon dictionary) which can only deal with single words, is incomplete, and does not deal with collocation, connotation, style or register. As such, it can only be of limited value for receptive use, and of no value whatsoever for productive use. Secondly, the web corpus that it is using simply isn’t big enough. Thirdly, it doesn’t seem to have any Natural Language Processing tool which could enable it to deal with meanings in context. It can’t disambiguate words automatically. Such software does now exist, and Lingua.ly desperately needs it.
Unfortunately, there are other problems, too. The flashcard practice is very repetitive and soon becomes boring. With eight translations to choose from, you have to scroll down the page to see them all. But there’s a timer mechanism, and I frequently timed out before being able to select the correct translation (partly because words are presented with no context, so you have to remember the meaning which you clicked in an earlier study session). The texts do not seem to be graded for level. There is no indication of word frequency or word sense frequency. There is just one gamification element (a score card), but there is no indication of how scores are achieved. Last, but certainly not least, the system is buggy. My word list disappeared into the cloud earlier today, and has not been seen since.
I think it’s a pity that Lingua.ly is not better. The idea behind it is good – even if the references to Krashen are a little unfortunate. The company says that they have raised $800,000 in funding, but with their freemium model they’ll be desperately needing more, and they’ve gone to market too soon. One reviewer, Language Surfer, wrote a withering review of Lingua.ly’s Arabic program (‘it will do more harm than good to the Arabic student’), and Brendan Wightman, commenting at eltjam, called it ‘dull as dish water, […] still very crude, limited and replete with multiple flaws’. But, at least, it’s free.