Archive for January, 2015

There are a number of reasons why we sometimes need to describe a person’s language competence using a single number. Most of these are connected to the need for a shorthand to differentiate people, in summative testing or in job selection, for example. Numerical (or grade) allocation of this kind is so common (and especially in times when accountability is greatly valued) that it is easy to believe that this number is an objective description of a concrete entity, rather than a shorthand description of an abstract concept. In the process, the abstract concept (language competence) becomes reified and there is a tendency to stop thinking about what it actually is.

Language is messy. It’s a complex, adaptive system of communication which has a fundamentally social function. As Diane Larsen-Freeman and others have argued patterns of use strongly affect how language is acquired, is used, and changes. These processes are not independent of one another but are facets of the same complex adaptive system. […] The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another [and] the structures of language emerge from interrelated patterns of experience, social interaction, and cognitive mechanisms.

As such, competence in language use is difficult to measure. There are ways of capturing some of it. Think of the pages and pages of competency statements in the Common European Framework, but there has always been something deeply unsatisfactory about documents of this kind. How, for example, are we supposed to differentiate, exactly and objectively, between, say, can participate fully in an interview (C1) and can carry out an effective, fluent interview (B2)? The short answer is that we can’t. There are too many of these descriptors anyway and, even if we did attempt to use such a detailed tool to describe language competence, we would still be left with a very incomplete picture. There is at least one whole book devoted to attempts to test the untestable in language education (edited by Amos Paran and Lies Sercu, Multilingual Matters, 2010).

So, here is another reason why we are tempted to use shorthand numerical descriptors (such as A1, A2, B1, etc.) to describe something which is very complex and abstract (‘overall language competence’) and to reify this abstraction in the process. From there, it is a very short step to making things even more numerical, more scientific-sounding. Number-creep in recent years has brought us the Pearson Global Scale of English which can place you at a precise point on a scale from 10 to 90. Not to be outdone, Cambridge English Language Assessment now has a scale that runs from 80 points to 230, although Cambridge does, at least, allocate individual scores for four language skills.

As the title of this post suggests (in its reference to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man), I am suggesting that there are parallels between attempts to measure language competence and the sad history of attempts to measure ‘general intelligence’. Both are guilty of the twin fallacies of reification and ranking – the ordering of complex information as a gradual ascending scale. These conceptual fallacies then lead us, through the way that they push us to think about language, into making further conceptual errors about language learning. We start to confuse language testing with the ways that language learning can be structured.

We begin to granularise language. We move inexorably away from difficult-to-measure hazy notions of language skills towards what, on the surface at least, seem more readily measurable entities: words and structures. We allocate to them numerical values on our testing scales, so that an individual word can be deemed to be higher or lower on the scale than another word. And then we have a syllabus, a synthetic syllabus, that lends itself to digital delivery and adaptive manipulation. We find ourselves in a situation where materials writers for Pearson, writing for a particular ‘level’, are only allowed to use vocabulary items and grammatical structures that correspond to that ‘level’. We find ourselves, in short, in a situation where the acquisition of a complex and messy system is described as a linear, additive process. Here’s an example from the Pearson website: If you score 29 on the scale, you should be able to identify and order common food and drink from a menu; at 62, you should be able to write a structured review of a film, book or play. And because the GSE is so granular in nature, you can conquer smaller steps more often; and you are more likely to stay motivated as you work towards your goal. It’s a nonsense, a nonsense that is dictated by the needs of testing and adaptive software, but the sciency-sounding numbers help to hide the conceptual fallacies that lie beneath.

Perhaps, though, this doesn’t matter too much for most language learners. In the early stages of language learning (where most language learners are to be found), there are countless millions of people who don’t seem to mind the granularised programmes of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, or the Grammar McNuggets of coursebooks. In these early stages, anything seems to be better than nothing, and the testing is relatively low-stakes. But as a learner’s interlanguage becomes more complex, and as the language she needs to acquire becomes more complex, attempts to granularise it and to present it in a linearly additive way become more problematic. It is for this reason, I suspect, that the appeal of granularised syllabuses declines so rapidly the more progress a learner makes. It comes as no surprise that, the further up the scale you get, the more that both teachers and learners want to get away from pre-determined syllabuses in coursebooks and software.

Adaptive language learning software is continuing to gain traction in the early stages of learning, in the initial acquisition of basic vocabulary and structures and in coming to grips with a new phonological system. It will almost certainly gain even more. But the challenge for the developers and publishers will be to find ways of making adaptive learning work for more advanced learners. Can it be done? Or will the mismeasure of language make it impossible?

FluentU, busuu, Bliu Bliu … what is it with all the ‘u’s? Hong-Kong based FluentU used to be called FluentFlix, but they changed their name a while back. The service for English learners is relatively new. Before that, they focused on Chinese, where the competition is much less fierce.

At the core of FluentU is a collection of short YouTube videos, which are sorted into 6 levels and grouped into 7 topic categories. The videos are accompanied by transcriptions. As learners watch a video, they can click on any word in the transcript. This will temporarily freeze the video and show a pop-up which offers a definition of the word, information about part of speech, a couple of examples of this word in other sentences, and more example sentences of the word from other videos that are linked on FluentU. These can, in turn, be clicked on to bring up a video collage of these sentences. Learners can click on an ‘Add to Vocab’ button, which will add the word to personalised vocabulary lists. These are later studied through spaced repetition.

FluentU describes its approach in the following terms: FluentU selects the best authentic video content from the web, and provides the scaffolding and support necessary to bring that authentic content within reach for your students. It seems appropriate, therefore, to look first at the nature of that content. At the moment, there appear to be just under 1,000 clips which are allocated to levels as follows:

Newbie 123 Intermediate 294 Advanced 111
Elementary 138 Upper Int 274 Native 40

It has to be assumed that the amount of content will continue to grow, but, for the time being, it’s not unreasonable to say that there isn’t a lot there. I looked at the Upper Intermediate level where the shortest was 32 seconds long, the longest 4 minutes 34 seconds, but most were between 1 and 2 minutes. That means that there is the equivalent of about 400 minutes (say, 7 hours) for this level.

The actual amount that anyone would want to watch / study can be seen to be significantly less when the topics are considered. These break down as follows:

Arts & entertainment 105 Everyday life 60 Science & tech 17
Business 34 Health & lifestyle 28
Culture 29 Politics & society 6

The screenshots below give an idea of the videos on offer:


I may be a little difficult, but there wasn’t much here that appealed. Forget the movie trailers for crap movies, for a start. Forget the low level business stuff, too. ‘The History of New Year’s Resolutions’ looked promising, but turned out to be a Wikipedia style piece. FluentU certainly doesn’t have the eye for interesting, original video content of someone like Jamie Keddie or Kieran Donaghy.

But, perhaps, the underwhelming content is of less importance than what you do with it. After all, if you’re really interested in content, you can just go to YouTube and struggle through the transcriptions on your own. The transcripts can be downloaded as pdfs, which, strangely are marked with a FluentU copyright notice.copyright FluentU doesn’t need to own the copyright of the videos, because they just provide links, but claiming copyright for someone else’s script seemed questionable to me. Anyway, the only real reason to be on this site is to learn some vocabulary. How well does it perform?


Level is self-selected. It wasn’t entirely clear how videos had been allocated to level, but I didn’t find any major discrepancies between FluentU’s allocation and my own, intuitive grading of the content. Clicking on words in the transcript, the look-up / dictionary function wasn’t too bad, compared to some competing products I have looked at. The system could deal with some chunks and phrases (e.g. at your service, figure out) and the definitions were appropriate to the way these had been used in context. The accuracy was far from consistent, though. Some definitions were harder than the word they were explaining (e.g. telephone = an instrument used to call someone) and some were plain silly (e.g. the definition of I is me).

have_been_definitionSome chunks were not recognised, so definitions were amusingly wonky. Come out, get through and have been were all wrong. For the phrase talk her into it, the program didn’t recognise the phrasal verb, and offered me communicate using speech for talk, and to the condition, state or form of for into.

For many words, there are pictures to help you with the meaning, but you wonder about some of them, e.g. the picture of someone clutching a suitcase to illustrate the meaning of of, or a woman holding up a finger and thumb to illustrate the meaning of what (as a pronoun).what_definition

The example sentences don’t seem to be graded in any way and are not always useful. The example sentences for of, for example, are The pages of the book are ripped, the lemurs of Madagascar and what time of day are you free. Since the definition is given as belonging to, there seems to be a problem with, at least, the last of these examples!

With the example sentence that link you to other video examples of this word being used, I found that it took a long time to load … and it really wasn’t worth waiting for.

After a catalogue of problems like this, you might wonder how I can say that this function wasn’t too bad, but I’ve seen a lot worse. It was, at least, mostly accurate.

Moving away from the ‘Watch’ options, I explored the ‘Learn’ section. Bearing in mind that I had described myself as ‘Upper Intermediate’, I was surprised to be offered the following words for study: Good morning, may, help, think, so. This then took me to the following screen:great job

I was getting increasingly confused. After watching another video, I could practise some of the words I had highlighted, but, again, I wasn’t sure quite what was going on. There was a task that asked me to ‘pick the correct translation’, but this was, in fact a multiple choice dictation task.translation task

Next, I was asked to study the meaning of the word in, followed by an unhelpful gap-fill task:gap fill

Confused? I was. I decided to look for something a little more straightforward, and clicked on a menu of vocabulary flash cards that I could import. These included sets based on copyright material from both CUP and OUP, and I wondered what these publishers might think of their property being used in this way.flashcards

FluentU claims  that it is based on the following principles:

  1. Individualized scaffolding: FluentU makes language learning easy by teaching new words with vocabulary students already know.
  2. Mastery Learning: FluentU sets students up for success by making sure they master the basics before moving on to more advanced topics.
  3. Gamification: FluentU incorporates the latest game design mechanics to make learning fun and engaging.
  4. Personalization: Each student’s FluentU experience is unlike anyone else’s. Video clips, examples, and quizzes are picked to match their vocabulary and interests.

The ‘individualized scaffolding’ is no more than common sense, dressed up in sciency-sounding language. The reference to ‘Mastery Learning’ is opaque, to say the least, with some confusion between language features and topic. The gamification is rudimentary, and the personalization is pretty limited. It doesn’t come cheap, either.

price table