Bliu Bliu: ‘the only company in the world that teaches languages we don’t even know’

Posted: December 29, 2014 in apps
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In the words of its founder and CEO, self-declared ‘visionary’ Claudio Santori, Bliu Bliu is ‘the only company in the world that teaches languages we don’t even know’. This claim, which was made during a pitch  for funding in October 2014, tells us a lot about the Bliu Bliu approach. It assumes that there exists a system by which all languages can be learnt / taught, and the particular features of any given language are not of any great importance. It’s questionable, to say the least, and Santori fails to inspire confidence when he says, in the same pitch, ‘you join Bliu Bliu, you use it, we make something magical, and after a few weeks you can understand the language’.

The basic idea behind Bliu Bliu is that a language is learnt by using it (e.g. by reading or listening to texts), but that the texts need to be selected so that you know the great majority of words within them. The technological challenge, therefore, is to find (online) texts that contain the vocabulary that is appropriate for you. After that, Santori explains , ‘you progress, you input more words and you will get more text that you can understand. Hours and hours of conversations you can fully understand and listen. Not just stupid exercise from stupid grammar book. Real conversation. And in all of them you know 100% of the words. […] So basically you will have the same opportunity that a kid has when learning his native language. Listen hours and hours of native language being naturally spoken at you…at a level he/she can understand plus some challenge, everyday some more challenge, until he can pick up words very very fast’ (sic).

test4

On entering the site, you are invited to take a test. In this, you are shown a series of words and asked to say if you find them ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’. There were 12 words in total, and each time I clicked ‘easy’. The system then tells you how many words it thinks you know, and offers you one or more words to click on. Here are the words I was presented with and, to the right, the number of words that Bliu Blu thinks I know, after clicking ‘easy’ on the preceding word.

hello 4145
teenager 5960
soap, grape 7863
receipt, washing, skateboard 9638
motorway, tram, luggage, footballer, weekday 11061

test7

Finally, I was asked about my knowledge of other languages. I said that my French was advanced and that my Spanish and German were intermediate. On the basis of this answer, I was now told that Bliu Bliu thinks that I know 11,073 words.

Eight of the words in the test are starred in the Macmillan dictionaries, meaning they are within the most frequent 7,500 words in English. Of the other four, skateboard, footballer and tram are very international words. The last, weekday, is a readily understandable compound made up of two extremely high frequency words. How could Bliu Bliu know, with such uncanny precision, that I know 11,073 words from a test like this? I decided to try the test for French. Again, I clicked ‘easy’ for each of the twelve words that was offered. This time, I was offered a very different set of words, with low frequency items like polynôme, toponymie, diaspora, vectoriel (all of which are cognate with English words), along with the rather surprising vichy (which should have had a capital letter, as it is a proper noun). Despite finding all these words easy, I was mortified to be told that I only knew 6546 words in French.

I needn’t have bothered with the test, anyway. Irrespective of level, you are offered vocabulary sets of high frequency words. Examples of sets I was offered included [the, be, of, and, to], [way, state, say, world, two], [may, man, hear, said, call] and [life, down, any, show, t]. Bliu Bliu then gives you a series of short texts that include the target words. You can click on any word you don’t know and you are given either a definition or a translation (I opted for French translations). There is no task beyond simply reading these texts. Putting aside for the moment the question of why I was being offered these particular words when my level is advanced, how does the software perform?

The vast majority of the texts are short quotes from brainyquote.com, and here is the first problem. Quotes tend to be pithy and often play with words: their comprehensibility is not always a function of the frequency of the words they contain. For the word ‘say’, for example, the texts included the Shakespearean quote It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood. For the word ‘world’, I was offered this line from Alexander Pope: The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Not, perhaps, the best way of learning a couple of very simple, high-frequency words. But this was the least of the problems.

The system operates on a word level. It doesn’t recognise phrases or chunks, or even phrasal verbs. So, a word like ‘down’ (in one of the lists above) is presented without consideration of its multiple senses. The first set of sentences I was asked to read for ‘down’ included: I never regretted what I turned down, You get old, you slow down, I’m Creole, and I’m down to earth, I never fall down. I always fight, I like seeing girls throw down and I don’t take criticism lying down. Not exactly the best way of getting to grips with the word ‘down’ if you don’t know it!

bliubliu2You may have noticed the inclusion of the word ‘t’ in one of the lists above. Here are the example sentences for practising this word: (1) Knock the ‘t’ off the ‘can’t’, (2) Sometimes reality T.V. can be stressful, (3) Argentina Debt Swap Won’t Avoid Default, (4) OK, I just don’t understand Nethanyahu, (5) Venezuela: Hell on Earth by Walter T Molano and (6) Work will win when wishy washy wishing won t. I paid €7.99 for one month of this!

The translation function is equally awful. With high frequency words with multiple meanings, you get a long list of possible translations, but no indication of which one is appropriate for the context you are looking at. With other words, it is sometimes, simply, wrong. For example, in the sentence, Heaven lent you a soul, Earth will lend a grave, the translation for ‘grave’ was only for the homonymous adjective. In the sentence There’s a bright spot in every dark cloud, the translation for ‘spot’ was only for verbs. And the translation for ‘but’ in We love but once, for once only are we perfectly equipped for loving was ‘mais’ (not at all what it means here!). The translation tool couldn’t handle the first ‘for’ in this sentence, either.

Bliu Bliu’s claim that Bliu Bliu knows you very well, every single word you know or don’t know is manifest nonsense and reveals a serious lack of understanding about what it means to know a word. However, as you spend more time on the system, a picture of your vocabulary knowledge is certainly built up. The texts that are offered begin to move away from the one-liners from brainyquote.com. As reading (or listening to recorded texts) is the only learning task that is offered, the intrinsic interest of the texts is crucial. Here, again, I was disappointed. Texts that I was offered were sourced from IEEE Spectrum (The World’s Largest Professional Association for the Advancement of Technology), infowars.com (the home of the #1 Internet News Show in the World), Latin America News and Analysis, the Google official blog (Meet 15 Finalists and Science in Action Winner for the 2013 GoogleScience Fair) MLB Trade Rumors (a clearinghouse for relevant, legitimate baseball rumors), and a long text entitled Robert Waldmann: Policy-Relevant Macro Is All in Samuelson and Solow (1960) from a blog called Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality……with the Neural Network of a Moderately-Intelligent Cephalopod.

There is more curated content (selected from a menu which includes sections entitled ‘18+’ and ‘Controversial Jokes’). In these texts, words that the system thinks you won’t know (most of the proper nouns for example) are highlighted. And there is a small library of novels, again, where predicted unknown words are highlighted in pink. These include Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Gogol, Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Oblomov, H.P. Lovecraft, Joyce, and Poe. You can also upload your own texts if you wish.

But, by this stage, I’d had enough and I clicked on the button to cancel my subscription. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the system crashed and a message popped up saying the system had encountered an error.

Like so many ‘language learning’ start-ups, Bliu Bliu seems to know a little, but not a lot about language learning. The Bliu Bliu blog has a video of Stephen Krashen talking about comprehensible input (it is misleadingly captioned ‘Stephen Krashen on Bliu Bliu’) in which he says that we all learn languages the same way, and that is when we get comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment. Influential though it has been, Krashen’s hypothesis remains a hypothesis, and it is generally accepted now that comprehensible input may be necessary, but it is not sufficient for language learning to take place.

The hypothesis hinges, anyway, on a definition of what is meant by ‘comprehensible’ and no one has come close to defining what precisely this means. Bliu Bliu has falsely assumed that comprehensibility can be determined by self-reporting of word knowledge, and this assumption is made even more problematic by the confusion of words (as sequences of letters) with lexical items. Bliu Bliu takes no account of lexical grammar or collocation (fundamental to any real word knowledge).

The name ‘Bliu Bliu’ was inspired by an episode from ‘Friends’ where Joey tries and fails to speak French. In the episode, according to the ‘Friends’ wiki, ‘Phoebe helps Joey prepare for an audition by teaching him how to speak French. Joey does not progress well and just speaks gibberish, thinking he’s doing a great job. Phoebe explains to the director in French that Joey is her mentally disabled younger brother so he’ll take pity on Joey.’ Bliu Bliu was an unfortunately apt choice of name.

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Comments
  1. Jill says:

    Great article, Philip!

  2. “Like so many ‘language learning’ start-ups, Bliu Bliu seems to know a little, but not a lot about language learning…” Well put, Philip. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – as brainyquote might say. There is indeed a core of good sense in the idea that language acquisition might be aided by exposure to texts which are largely comprehensible but which also push the learner to the edge of their competence (the push being a function of the learner’s willignness to engage with the input, of course, which, as you suggest, requires either some kind of task, or plenty of intrinsic motivation, or both). And the idea that you can estimate the size of a person’s lexicon on the basis of their familiarity with words from different frequency bands has exercised the minds of researchers like Paul Nation and Paul Meara, who have designed and trialled vocabulary-size tests of some sophistication, but would laugh (or cry) at the idea that knowledge of ‘hello’ indicates a sight vocabulary of over 5000 words.

    Despite blatantly mercenary attempts by the likes of Bliu Bliu to capitalize on these shreds of sound language learning theory, the world still awaits an app that can productively exploit the enormous potential of the world wide web to provide the raw material for language acquisition.

  3. Claudio says:

    Hi Philip
    this is Claudio from Bliu Bliu. You wrote a very detailed review of Bliu Bliu, thanks for pointing our so many of our weaknesses. We are aware of most of them and working on fixing things.

    We are a startup, of 5 people, from small Lithuania. And we have enough users sticking with our service for months to claim that it works. It doesn’t work for everybody and it has problems, especially in the first days since the system needs to adapt.

    This is not our final version, probably this is just the beginning. We provide for intermediate the right exposure to content form the Internet, so that they can accelerate their progress and understand the language faster. Surprisingly enough, with all the bugs, it works.

    Trying it out with your native language doesn’t help, it shows only our floss and you can’t really appreciate the benefits. I would suggest to try it with a language you are intermediate with without focusing on “t” and “vichy” that are clearly bugs that we already fixed 🙂

    Bliu Bliu is learning from users’ usage of the system and it gets better every day.

    And the system doesn’t crash, to get money back is enough to write an email to info@bliubliu.com telling “I want my money back” and we refund everybody before 30days and we can also refund you after the 30days if you have experienced a crash that was not intentional on our side.

    We are honest people creating an honest product.

    Happy New Year

    Claudio

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Claudio
      Thanks for your reply. I wish you luck!
      Philip

    • Thomas Ewens says:

      Claudio,

      Philip articulates concerns which many language teachers have about the validity of language learning apps currently on the market.

      But I find it interesting that on your website and in your promotional material you make grand claims about the effectiveness of your product. Philip quotes your founder above saying that we can ‘make something magical’ with bliu bliu. It says on your site that we can ‘accelerate learning’ and ‘have fun’ with bliu bliu and that the content is ‘always at your level’. It also says that ‘bliu bliu truly works’ etc etc.

      Yet when challenged you reply in a different tone entirely. You acknowledge that the product isn’t perfect and that there are bugs which need to be fixed, etc (incidentally, you didn’t even address Philip’s core concerns).

      This seems to me to be typical of the discourse surrounding ed-tech in general and language learning apps in particular. They make a lot of empty, hyperbolic statements and grandiose claims, but when challenged they claim to be misunderstood, claim that they don’t really mean it or just make excuses.

      In addition to Scott’s point above, the world also still awaits a language learning app whose creators are modest in their aims, and realistic with their customers about the effectiveness of their product.

  4. Donny says:

    The app is not too mature, sure, but on the other hand what better apps do you know?
    I have tried probably all the apps out there and i have been using bliu bliu for a while together with memrise and i have never experienced bigger progress on my skills ever. So im quite happy. But probably i dont know something that you know, maybe you could recommend some better apps?

  5. nidorana says:

    Great article, I tried Bliu Bliu a couple of days ago (I’m learning Spanish and Romanian) and had exactly the same problems with it.

  6. Hey Thomas, here my late reply

    I am very happy there are many language teachers out there. I am not one of them. My theory started from the fact that none of our mothers (maybe some…) are language teachers..and we learned. And I met lots of people that went to Italy and learned the language with immersions. The right kind of immersions, cause immersions alone wont’ work

    Bliu Bliu wants to recreate the right kind of immersions
    Are we there yet. No! Not 100% of the time.
    Do we deliver more than the money we are asking? Yeah. And when we don’t we give the money back without asking any question (we ask them only after we give the money back, to know how to improve).

    We make claims because we received around 1000 (thousand) testimonial of people improving their skills on Bliu Bliu, and now we have testimonials for more than 50 languages.

    We accelerate learning, after a 30 day challenge with Bliu Bliu we have total beginners able to understand native conversations and being able to talk, not always with perfect grammar but they can talk. And they talk, cause they are not afraid.

    We are making something magical, as we are looking at language learning from a different prospective and it works. Find for me a company that is able to provide a website to learn languages they don’t know.

    Not even the iPhone please everybody but still, they make claims.
    This is marketing. After the marketing you get into the product.
    you like it or you don’t. This is life
    For sure, you might have a bad experience and we are the first one to say that Bliu Bliu has bugs.
    We are a team of 5 working full time on it for 2 years.
    But the same team of 5 created a product that is changing the lives of many. We are getting so many people unstuck from their intermediate nightmare.

    If you quitted at the first bug, of course is our fault that you don’t get to experience the magic.
    And we are working on it.

    I took note and it won’t change your mind if I address all your concern here. Internally we are dealing with this, as we value people critiques more than praises. It’s just a waste of time to discuss about them trying to convince you Bliu Bliu is a good product.

    Being here discussing won’t help the product.
    So I took notes and the team is working on improving Bliu Bliu

    I am not making any excuses.
    We don’t work for 100% of the people
    When we don’t we are ready to fix things

    But then again, when it works it works like magic
    And every day there is a bit more % of people experiencing the magic.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Claudio
      Thanks for dropping by. You say that you are working to improve things, so I had a quick look to see what had changed.
      In my post, I made some very substantial criticisms of your level test. I see that a couple of things have changed. I followed exactly the same procedure as the last time, clicking on ‘easy’ for every word that was presented to me. The first time I did it, I said that ‘hello’ was easy, and I was told that you reckoned I knew 4145 words. But this time when I click on easy for ‘hello’, you tell me that you reckon I know 4189 words. Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English, ‘hello’ is ranked #2258. ‘Hello’ comes in at #3530 if you use the British National Corpus. I have two questions: (1) how do you calculate the number of words you think I know, and (2) why has your calculation changed in the last four months. I’d also like to add that ‘hello’ (and its equivalents in other languages) is one of those words that many people know, even if they only know a small handful of other words (like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘I love you’).
      In the rest of the test, you have changed just two words. You have replaced ‘washing’ with ‘mug’, and you have replaced ‘footballer’ with ‘earring’. Both ‘mug’ and ‘washing’ are very similar in terms of frequency (#962 and #1013 respectively in the BNC). Why change? ‘Footballer’ and ‘earring’ are both relatively low frequency words (both outside the top 6500 in the BNC). Why change?
      Having completed the test, ticking ‘easy’ for every word, you now calculate that I know 11,527 words, as opposed to 11,061 when I first did it. How do you explain this? (Both figures, I’m afraid, are hopelessly wrong.)
      It may be that other significant things have changed with bliu bliu, but the entry test for English has not changed in any meaningful way. Since this test is the entry point to the magical experience, I think you’ll need to be a bit more specific about what you’re improving, if you want to convince anyone who knows anything about language learning or who is a little skeptical about ‘magic’.

      • wow, impressive (about the numbers)
        My 2 cents
        Bliu Bliu is not intended for natives to come and check how many words they know in their native language. This is not the scope. Bliu Bliu, by clicking on 12 words, estimates how many words you might know in a language. Our sweet spot is beginner/intermediate, where we estimate that they know enough words to give them interesting content that they can already understand.

        I appreciate that you spent so much time analyzing the level test. But then again, as soon as a user starts using Bliu Bliu, that initial estimate keeps changing, constantly, according to the words the user click. So if we presume you know man because you know house, now you might confirm or reject this prediction with your actual clicks, this is when the prediction gets more accurate but also the exposure, because the more you use Bliu Bliu the more we have a real picture of your level, not just an estimate.

        1 the prediction of presumed words has an internal algorithm but it’s obviously the results of the words you click as known/unknown. This number constantly change base on all your clicks on Bliu Bliu

        2 Calculations we make are based on our internal frequency of words that is different (but similar) to others, just because we use a different corpora. We keep recalculating it and numbers are floating. We also keep improving the algorithm, that also influence the prediction number

        2.1 we know that everybody knows hello, this is why we picked it as first word of the level test. This is the only manual choice we made, the rest is autopilot, meaning that words are picked by Bliu Bliu, not by us.

        Guys, you can keep being skeptical. Especially if you keep using Bliu Bliu for language you are fluent or native.

        We are solving a very specific problem: finding content fun and easy to understand for people learning languages from a beginner to an intermediate level.
        For 4 languages we are also starting to offer total beginner content.

        If you are advanced you can find benefits using Bliu Bliu as we can show you the usage of very rare words that you might not know.

        if you are a native then Bliu Bliu might not help improve your language skills.
        But I am sure you know that our marketing team is already working on some magical claim to also help native people to speak better (funny joke)

        C

  7. philipjkerr says:

    I think your point about native speakers is misplaced. You say that your sweet spot is beginner / intermediate, but let me give you a few more bits of information about your test.
    I clicked on ‘easy’ for every word that was presented. Yes, I’m a native speaker teacher. But what would an elementary / low intermediate student click? The best way to find out (it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have) is to have a look at English Vocabulary Profile, a joint research project by the University of Cambridge, the British Council, the University of Bedfordshire and English UK – see http://www.englishprofile.org/index.php/wordlists They took a huge database of English, produced by learners of English in examinations which were tagged to particular levels of the CEFR. They then analysed all the lexical items in the database (and, unlike you, they analyse / tag word senses, rather than words, which is the sensible thing to do!) in order to find out at what level learners typically start using particular items. So, you type in a word / word sense and you can see the level which this typically corresponds to.
    I checked all the words that were presented to me in your test against this database. Every single one of them comes in at level A2 or below. This means that a learner at level B1 could reasonably be expected to click ‘easy’ on all of these words. B1 is low intermediate / intermediate. A2 is elementary. This means that the problem with the test is not that I am a native speaker. The test is badly designed. Your algorithms are not driven by informed knowledge / analysis of what learners actually know at any given level. I don’t know what corpus you’re using, but the probability is that you’re not using the right one.
    Your software may improve its predictive power the more that users interact with the product, but you have a major problem when your starting point is so way off. You don’t say which corpus you are using, or which dictionary look-up you are using. Without decent data informing your algorithms, your problems won’t go away. GIGO, as they say.
    Philip

    • You win. I can’t argue against the A1 A2 way of discussing language learning
      I just wonder if these are the words learners actually know or the words we think they are supposed to know.

  8. Pn says:

    Add to Bliu Bliu a feature to understand group of words together, and it will be a good app.

  9. […] are available. The second is from Bliu Bliu , a language learning app that I unkindly reviewed here […]

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