Posts Tagged ‘translation’

subtitlesAs both a language learner and a teacher, I have a number of questions about the value of watching subtitled videos for language learning. My interest is in watching extended videos, rather than short clips for classroom use, so I am concerned with incidental, rather than intentional, learning, mostly of vocabulary. My questions include:

  • Is it better to watch a video that is subtitled or unsubtitled?
  • Is it better to watch a video with L1 or L2 subtitles?
  • If a video is watched more than once, what is the best way to start and proceed? In which order (no subtitles, L1 subtitles and L2 subtitles) is it best to watch?

For help, I turned to three recent books about video and language learning: Ben Goldstein and Paul Driver’s Language Learning with Digital Video (CUP, 2015), Kieran Donaghy’s Film in Action (Delta, 2015) and Jamie Keddie’s Bringing Online Video into the Classroom (OUP, 2014). I was surprised to find no advice, but, as I explored more, I discovered that there may be a good reason for these authors’ silence.

There is now a huge literature out there on subtitles and language learning, and I cannot claim to have read it all. But I think I have read enough to understand that I am not going to find clear-cut answers to my questions.

The learning value of subtitles

It has been known for some time that the use of subtitles during extensive viewing of video in another language can help in the acquisition of that language. The main gains are in vocabulary acquisition and the development of listening skills (Montero Perez et al., 2013). This is true of both L1 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called interlingual subtitles, (Incalcaterra McLoughlin et al, 2011) and L2 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called intralingual subtitles or captions (Vanderplank, 1988). Somewhat more surprisingly, vocabulary gains may also come from what are called reversed subtitles (L2 subtitles and an L1 audio track) (Burczyńska, 2015). Of course, certain conditions apply for subtitled video to be beneficial, and I’ll come on to these. But there is general research agreement (an exception is Karakaş & Sariçoban, 2012) that more learning is likely to take place from watching a subtitled video in a target language than an unsubtitled one.

Opposition to the use of subtitles as a tool for language learning has mostly come from three angles. The first of these, which concerns L1 subtitles, is an antipathy to any use at all of L1. Although such an attitude remains entrenched in some quarters, there is no evidence to support it (Hall & Cook, 2012; Kerr, 2016). Researchers and, increasingly, teachers have moved on.

The second reservation that is sometimes expressed is that learners may not attend to either the audio track or the subtitles if they do not need to. They may, for example, ignore the subtitles in the case of reversed subtitles or ignore the L2 audio track when there are L1 subtitles. This can, of course, happen, but it seems that, on the whole, this is not the case. In an eye-tracking study by Bisson et al (2012), for example, it was found that most people followed the subtitles, irrespective of what kind they were. Unsurprisingly, they followed the subtitles more closely when the audio track was in a language that was less familiar. When conditions are right (see below), reading subtitles becomes a very efficient and partly automatized cognitive activity, which does not prevent people from processing the audio track at the same time (d’Ydewalle & Pavakanun, 1997).

Related to the second reservation is the concern that the two sources of information (audio and subtitles), combined with other information (images and music or sound effects), may be in competition and lead to cognitive overload, impacting negatively on both comprehension and learning. Recent research suggests that this concern is ungrounded (Kruger et al, 2014). L1 subtitles generate less cognitive load than L2 subtitles, but overload is not normally reached and mental resources are still available for learning (Baranowska, 2020). The absence of subtitles generates more cognitive load.

Conditions for learning

Before looking at the differences between L1 and L2 subtitles, it’s a good idea to look at the conditions under which learning is more likely to take place with subtitles. Some of these are obvious, others less so.

First of all, the video material must be of sufficient intrinsic interest to the learner. Secondly, the subtitles must be of a sufficiently high quality. This is not always the case with automatically generated captions, especially if the speech-to-text software struggles with the audio accent. It is also not always the case with professionally produced L1 subtitles, especially when the ‘translations are non-literal and made at the phrase level, making it hard to find connections between the subtitle text and the words in the video’ (Kovacs, 2013, cited by Zabalbeascoa et al., 2015: 112). As a minimum, standard subtitling guidelines, such as those produced for the British Channel 4, should be followed. These limit, for example, the number of characters per line to about 40 and a maximum of two lines.

For reasons that I’ll come on to, learners should be able to switch easily between L1 and L2 subtitles. They are also likely to benefit if reliably accurate glosses or hyperlinks are ‘embedded in the subtitles, making it possible for a learner to simply click for additional verbal, auditory or even pictorial glosses’ (Danan, 2015: 49).

At least as important as considerations of the materials or tools, is a consideration of what the learner brings to the activity (Frumuselu, 2019: 104). Vanderplank (2015) describes these different kinds of considerations as the ‘effects of’ subtitles on a learner and the ‘effects with’ subtitles on learner behaviour.

In order to learn from subtitles, you need to be able to read fast enough to process them. Anyone with a slow reading speed (e.g. some dyslexics) in their own language is going to struggle. Even with L1 subtitles, Vanderplank (2015: 24) estimates that it is only around the age of 10 that children can do this with confidence. Familarity with both the subject matter and with subtitle use will impact on this ability to read subtitles fast enough.

With L2 subtitles, the language proficiency of the learner related to the level of difficulty (especially lexical difficulty) of the subtitles will clearly be of some significance. It is unlikely that L2 subtitles will be of much benefit to beginners (Taylor, 2005). It also suggests that, at lower levels, materials need to be chosen carefully. On the whole, researchers have found that higher proficiency levels correlate with greater learning gains (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019; Suárez & Gesa, 2019), but one earlier meta-analysis (Montero Perez et al., 2013) did not find that proficiency levels were significant.

Measures of general language proficiency may be too blunt an instrument to help us all of the time. I can learn more from Portuguese than from Arabic subtitles, even though I am a beginner in both languages. The degree of proximity between two languages, especially the script (Winke et al., 2010), is also likely to be significant.

But a wide range of other individual learner differences will also impact on the learning from subtitles. It is known that learners approach subtitles in varied and idiosyncratic ways (Pujolá, 2002), with some using L2 subtitles only as a ‘back-up’ and others relying on them more. Vanderplank (2019) grouped learners into three broad categories: minimal users who were focused throughout on enjoying films as they would in their L1, evolving users who showed marked changes in their viewing behaviour over time, and maximal users who tended to be experienced at using films to enhance their language learning.

Categories like these are only the tip of the iceberg. Sensory preferences, personality types, types of motivation, the impact of subtitles on anxiety levels and metacognitive strategy awareness are all likely to be important. For the last of these, Danan (2015: 47) asks whether learners should be taught ‘techniques to make better use of subtitles and compensate for weaknesses: techniques such as a quick reading of subtitles before listening, confirmation of word recognition or meaning after listening, as well as focus on form for spelling or grammatical accuracy?’

In short, it is, in practice, virtually impossible to determine optimal conditions for learning from subtitles, because we cannot ‘take into account all the psycho-social, cultural and pedagogic parameters’ (Gambier, 2015). With that said, it’s time to take a closer look at the different potential of L1 and L2 subtitles.

L1 vs L2 subtitles

Since all other things are almost never equal, it is not possible to say that one kind of subtitles offers greater potential for learning than another. As regards gains in vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension, there is no research consensus (Baranowska, 2020: 107). Research does, however, offer us a number of pointers.

Extensive viewing of subtitled video (both L1 and L2) can offer ‘massive quantities of authentic and comprehensible input’ (Vanderplank, 1988: 273). With lower level learners, the input is likely to be more comprehensible with L1 subtitles, and, therefore, more enjoyable and motivating. This makes them often more suitable for what Caimi (2015: 11) calls ‘leisure viewing’. Vocabulary acquisition may be better served with L2 subtitles, because they can help viewers to recognize the words that are being spoken, increase their interaction with the target language, provide further language context, and increase the redundancy of information, thereby enhancing the possibility of this input being stored in long-term memory (Frumuselu et al., 2015). These effects are much more likely with Vanderplank’s (2019) motivated, ‘maximal’ users than with ‘minimal’ users.

There is one further area where L2 subtitles may have the edge over L1. One of the values of extended listening in a target language is the improvement in phonetic retuning (see, for example, Reinisch & Holt, 2013), the ability to adjust the phonetic boundaries in your own language to the boundaries that exist in the target language. Learning how to interpret unusual speech-sounds, learning how to deal with unusual mappings between sounds and words and learning how to deal with the acoustic variations of different speakers of the target language are all important parts of acquiring another language. Research by Mitterer and McQueen (2009) suggests that L2 subtitles help in this process, but L1 subtitles hinder it.

Classroom implications?

The literature on subtitles and language learning echoes with the refrain of ‘more research needed’, but I’m not sure that further research will lead to less ambiguous, practical conclusions. One of my initial questions concerned the optimal order of use of different kinds of subtitles. In most extensive viewing contexts, learners are unlikely to watch something more than twice. If they do (watching a recorded academic lecture, for example), they are likely to be more motivated by a desire to learn from the content than to learn language from the content. L1 subtitles will probably be preferred, and will have the added bonus of facilitating note-taking in the L1. For learners who are more motivated to learn the target language (Vanderplank’s ‘maximal’ users), a sequence of subtitle use, starting with the least cognitively challenging and moving to greater challenge, probably makes sense. Danan (2015: 46) suggests starting with an L1 soundtrack and reversed (L2) subtitles, then moving on to an L2 soundtrack and L2 subtitles, and ending with an L2 soundtrack and no subtitles. I would replace her first stage with an L2 soundtrack and L1 subtitles, but this is based on hunch rather than research.

This sequencing of subtitle use is common practice in language classrooms, but, here, (1) the video clips are usually short, and (2) the aim is often not incidental learning of vocabulary. Typically, the video clip has been selected as a tool for deliberate teaching of language items, so different conditions apply. At least one study has confirmed the value of the common teaching practice of pre-teaching target vocabulary items before viewing (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019). The drawback is that, by getting learners to focus on particular items, less incidental learning of other language features is likely to take place. Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much. In a short clip of a few minutes, the opportunities for incidental learning are limited, anyway. With short clips and a deliberate learning aim, it seems reasonable to use L2 subtitles for a first viewing, and no subtitles thereafter.

An alternative frequent use of short video clips in classrooms is to use them as a springboard for speaking. In these cases, Baranowska (2020: 113) suggests that teachers may opt for L1 subtitles first, and follow up with L2 subtitles. Of course, with personal viewing devices or in online classes, teachers may want to exploit the possibilities of differentiating the subtitle condition for different learners.


Baranowska, K. (2020). Learning most with least effort: subtitles and cognitive load. ELT Journal 74 (2): pp.105 – 115

Bisson, M.-J., Van Heuven, W.J.B., Conklin, K. and Tunney, R.J. (2012). Processing of native and foreign language subtitles in films: An eye tracking study. Applied Psycholingistics, 35 (2): pp. 399 – 418

Burczyńska, P. (2015). Reversed Subtitles as a Powerful Didactic Tool in SLA. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 221 – 244)

Caimi, A. (2015). Introduction. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 9 – 18)

Danan, M. (2015). Subtitling as a Language Learning Tool: Past Findings, Current Applications, and Future Paths. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 41 – 61)

d’Ydewalle, G. & Pavakanun, U. (1997). Could Enjoying a Movie Lead to Language Acquisition?. In: Winterhoff-Spurk, P., van der Voort, T.H.A. (Eds.) New Horizons in Media Psychology. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.

Frumuselu, A.D., de Maeyer, S., Donche, V. & Gutierrez Colon Plana, M. (2015). Television series inside the EFL classroom: bridging the gap between teaching and learning informal language through subtitles. Linguistics and Education, 32: pp. 107 – 17

Frumuselu, A. D. (2019). ‘A Friend in Need is a Film Indeed’: Teaching Colloquial Expressions with Subtitled Television Series. In Herrero, C. & Vanderschelden, I. (Eds.) Using Film and Media in the Language Classroom. Bristol: Multimedia Matters. pp.92 – 107

Gambier, Y. (2015). Subtitles and Language Learning (SLL): Theoretical background. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 63 – 82)

Hall, G. & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language Use in Language Teaching and Learning. Language Learning, 45 (3): pp. 271 – 308

Incalcaterra McLoughlin, L., Biscio, M. & Ní Mhainnín, M. A. (Eds.) (2011). Audiovisual Translation, Subtitles and Subtitling. Theory and Practice. Bern: Peter Lang

Karakaş, A. & Sariçoban, A. (2012). The impact of watching subtitled animated cartoons on incidental vocabulary learning of ELT students. Teaching English with Technology, 12 (4): pp. 3 – 15

Kerr, P. (2016). Questioning ‘English-only’ Classrooms: Own-language Use in ELT. In Hall, G. (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 513 – 526)

Kruger, J. L., Hefer, E. & Matthew, G. (2014). Attention distribution and cognitive load in a subtitled academic lecture: L1 vs. L2. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 7: pp. 1 – 15

Mitterer, H. & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e7785.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

Montero Perez, M., Van Den Noortgate, W., & Desmet, P. (2013). Captioned video for L2 listening and vocabulary learning: A meta-analysis. System, 41, pp. 720–739 doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.07.013

Pujadas, G. & Muñoz, C. (2019). Extensive viewing of captioned and subtitled TV series: a study of L2 vocabulary learning by adolescents, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 479-496, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1616806

Pujolá, J.- T. (2002). CALLing for help: Researching language learning strategies using help facilities in a web-based multimedia program. ReCALL, 14 (2): pp. 235 – 262

Reinisch, E. & Holt, L. L. (2013). Lexically Guided Phonetic Retuning of Foreign-Accented Speech and Its Generalization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034409

Suárez, M. & Gesa, F. (2019) Learning vocabulary with the support of sustained exposure to captioned video: do proficiency and aptitude make a difference? The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 497-517, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1617768

Taylor, G. (2005). Perceived processing strategies of students watching captioned video. Foreign Language Annals, 38(3), pp. 422-427

Vanderplank, R. (1988). The value of teletext subtitles in language learning. ELT Journal, 42 (4): pp. 272 – 281

Vanderplank, R. (2015). Thirty Years of Research into Captions / Same Language Subtitles and Second / Foreign Language Learning: Distinguishing between ‘Effects of’ Subtitles and ‘Effects with’ Subtitles for Future Research. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 19 – 40)

Vanderplank, R. (2019). ‘Gist watching can only take you so far’: attitudes, strategies and changes in behaviour in watching films with captions, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 407-423, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1610033

Winke, P., Gass, S. M., & Sydorenko, T. (2010). The Effects of Captioning Videos Used for Foreign Language Listening Activities. Language Learning & Technology, 1 (1): pp. 66 – 87

Zabalbeascoa, P., González-Casillas, S. & Pascual-Herce, R. (2015). In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 105–126)

In my last post , I looked at the use of digital dictionaries. This post is a sort of companion piece to that one.

I noted in that post that teachers are typically less keen on bilingual dictionaries (preferring monolingual versions) than their students. More generally, it seems that teachers are less keen on any kind of dictionary, preferring their students to attempt to work out the meaning of unknown words from context. Coursebooks invariably promote the skill of guessing meaning from context (also known as ‘lexical inferencing’) and some suggest that dictionary work should be banned from the classroom (Haynes & Baker, 1993, cited in Folse, 2004: 112). Teacher educators usually follow suit. Scott Thornbury, for example, has described guessing from context as ‘probably one of the most useful skills learners can acquire and apply both inside and outside the classroom’ (Thornbury, 2002: 148) and offers a series of steps to train learners in this skill before adding ‘when all else fails, consult a dictionary’. Dictionary use, then, is a last resort.

These steps are fairly well known and a typical example (from Clarke & Nation, 1980, cited in Webb & Nation, 2017: 169) is

1 Determine the part of speech of the unknown word

2 Analyse the immediate context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

3 Analyse the wider context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

4 Guess the meaning of the unknown word

5 Check the guess against the information that was found in the first four steps

It has been suggested that training in the use of this skill should be started at low levels, so that learners have a general strategy for dealing with unknown words. As proficiency develops, more specific instruction in the recognition and interpretation of context clues can be provided (Walters, 2006: 188). Training may include a demonstration by the teacher using a marked-up text, perhaps followed by ‘think-aloud’ sessions, where learners say out loud the step-by-step process they are going through when inferring meaning. It may also include a progression from, first, cloze exercises to, second, texts where highlighted words are provided with multiple choice definitions to, finally, texts with no support.

Although research has not established what kind of training is likely to be most effective, or whether specific training is more valuable than the provision of lots of opportunities to practise the skill, it would seem that this kind of work is likely to lead to gains in reading comprehension.

Besides the obvious value of this skill in helping learners to decode the meaning of unknown items in a text, it has been hypothesized that learners are ‘more likely to remember the form and meaning of a word when they have inferred its meaning by themselves than when the meaning has been given to them’ (Hulstijn, 1992). This is because memorisation is likely to be enhanced when mental effort has been exercised. The hypothesis was confirmed by Hulstijn in his 1992 study.

Unfortunately, Hulstijn’s study is not, in itself, sufficient evidence to prove the hypothesis. Other studies have shown the opposite. Keith Folse (2004: 112) cites a study by Knight (1994) which ‘found that subjects who used a bilingual dictionary while reading a passage not only learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than subjects who did not have a dictionary and therefore had to rely on guessing from context clues’. More recently, Mokhtar & Rawian (2012) entitled their paper ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ They argue that ‘though it is not impossible for ESL learners to derive vocabulary meanings from context, guessing strategy by itself does not foster retention of meanings’.

What, then, are the issues here?

  • First of all, Liu and Nation (1985) have estimated that learners ought to know at least 95 per cent of the context words in order to be able to infer meaning from context. Whilst this figure may not be totally accurate, it is clear that because ‘the more words you know, the more you are able to acquire new words’ (Prince, 1996), guessing from context is likely to work better with students at higher levels of proficiency than those with a lower level.
  • Although exercises in coursebooks which require students to guess meaning from context have usually been written in such a way that it is actually possible to do so, ‘such a nicely packaged contextual environment is rare’ in the real world (Folse, 2004: 115). The skill of guessing from context may not be as useful as was previously assumed.
  • There is clearly a risk that learners will guess wrong and, therefore, learn the wrong meaning. Nassaji (2003: 664) found in one study that learners guessed wrong more than half the time.
  • Lastly, it appears that many learners do not like to employ this strategy, believing that using a dictionary is more useful to them and, possibly as a result of this attitude, fail to devote sufficient mental effort to it (Prince, 1996: 480).

Perhaps the most forceful critique of the promotion of guessing meaning from context has come from Catherine Walter and Michael Swan (2009), who referred to it as ‘an alleged ‘skill’’ and considered it, along with skimming and scanning, to be ‘mostly a waste of time’. Scott Thornbury (2006), in a marked departure from his comments (from a number of years earlier) quoted at the start of this post, also questioned the relevance of ‘guessing from context’ activities, arguing that, if students can employ a strategy such as inferring when reading their own language, they can transfer it to another language … so teachers are at risk of teaching their students what they already know.

To summarize, then, we might say that (1) the skill of guessing from context may not be as helpful in the real world as previously imagined, (2) it may not be as useful in acquiring vocabulary items as previously imagined. When a teacher is asked by a student for the meaning of a word in a text, the reflex response of ‘try to work it out from the context’ may also not be as helpful as previously imagined. Translations and / or dictionary advice may well, at times, be more appropriate.


Clarke, D.F. & Nation, I.S.P. 1980. ‘Guessing the meanings of words from context: Strategy and techniques.’ System, 8 (3): 211 -220

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Haynes, M. & Baker, I. 1993. ‘American and Chinese readers learning from lexical familiarization in English texts.’ In Huckin, T., Haynes, M. & Coady, J. (Eds.) Second Language Reading and Vocabulary Acquisition. Norwood, NJ.: Ablex. pp. 130 – 152

Hulstijn, J. 1992. ‘Retention of inferred and given word meanings: experiments in incidental vocabulary learning.’ In Arnaud, P. & Bejoint, H. (Eds.) Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Limited, pp. 113 – 125

Liu, N. & Nation, I. S. P. 1985. ‘Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context.’ RELC Journal 16 (1): 33–42

Mokhtar, A. A. & Rawian, R. M. 2012. ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ International Journal of Linguistics 4 (2): 288 – 305

Nassaji, H. 2003. ‘L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing.’ TESOL Quarterly, 37(4): 645-670

Prince, P. 1996. ‘Second Language vocabulary Learning: The Role of Context versus Translations as a Function of Proficiency.’ The Modern Language Journal, 80(4): 478-493

Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Harlow: Pearson Education

Thornbury, S. 2006. The End of Reading? One Stop English,

Walter, C. & Swan, M. 2009. ‘Teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time?’ In Beaven B. (Ed.) IATEFL 2008 Exeter Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL, pp. 70-71

Walters, J.M. 2004. ‘Teaching the use of context to infer meaning: A longitudinal survey of L1 and L2 vocabulary research.’ Language Teaching, 37(4), pp. 243-252

Walters, J.D. 2006. ‘Methods of teaching inferring meaning from context.’ RELC Journal, 37(2), pp. 176-190

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press


The most widely-used and popular tool for language learners is the bilingual dictionary (Levy & Steel, 2015), and the first of its kind appeared about 4,000 years ago (2,000 years earlier than the first monolingual dictionaries), offering wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian (Wheeler, 2013: 9 -11). Technology has come a long way since the clay tablets of the Bronze Age. Good online dictionaries now contain substantially more information (in particular audio recordings) than their print equivalents of a few decades ago. In addition, they are usually quicker and easier to use, more popular, and lead to retention rates that are comparable to, or better than, those achieved with print (Töpel, 2014). The future of dictionaries is likely to be digital, and paper dictionaries may well disappear before very long (Granger, 2012: 2).

English language learners are better served than learners of other languages, and the number of free, online bilingual dictionaries is now enormous. Speakers of less widely-spoken languages may still struggle to find a good quality service, but speakers of, for example, Polish (with approximately 40 million speakers, and a ranking of #33 in the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages) will find over twenty free, online dictionaries to choose from (Lew & Szarowska, 2017). Speakers of languages that are more widely spoken (Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese, for example) will usually find an even greater range. The choice can be bewildering and neither search engine results nor rankings from app stores can be relied on to suggest the product of the highest quality.

Language teachers are not always as enthusiastic about bilingual dictionaries as their learners. Folse (2004: 114 – 120) reports on an informal survey of English teachers which indicated that 11% did not allow any dictionaries in class at all, 37% allowed monolingual dictionaries and only 5% allowed bilingual dictionaries. Other researchers (e.g. Boonmoh & Nesi, 2008), have found a similar situation, with teachers overwhelmingly recommending the use of a monolingual learner’s dictionary: almost all of their students bought one, but the great majority hardly ever used it, preferring instead a digital bilingual version.

Teachers’ preferences for monolingual dictionaries are usually motivated in part by a fear that their students will become too reliant on translation. Whilst this concern remains widespread, much recent suggests that this fear is misguided (Nation, 2013: 424) and that monolingual dictionaries do not actually lead to greater learning gains than their bilingual counterparts. This is, in part, due to the fact that learners typically use these dictionaries in very limited ways – to see if a word exists, check spelling or look up meaning (Harvey & Yuill, 1997). If they made fuller use of the information (about frequency, collocations, syntactic patterns, etc.) on offer, it is likely that learning gains would be greater: ‘it is accessing multiplicity of information that is likely to enhance retention’ (Laufer & Hill, 2000: 77). Without training, however, this is rarely the case.  With lower-level learners, a monolingual learner’s dictionary (even one designed for Elementary level students) can be a frustrating experience, because until they have reached a vocabulary size of around 2,000 – 3,000 words, they will struggle to understand the definitions (Webb & Nation, 2017: 119).

The second reason for teachers’ preference for monolingual dictionaries is that the quality of many bilingual dictionaries is undoubtedly very poor, compared to monolingual learner’s dictionaries such as those produced by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Longman Pearson, Collins Cobuild, Merriam-Webster and Macmillan, among others. The situation has changed, however, with the rapid growth of bilingualized dictionaries. These contain all the features of a monolingual learner’s dictionary, but also include translations into the learner’s own language. Because of the wealth of information provided by a good bilingualized dictionary, researchers (e.g. Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Chen, 2011) generally consider them preferable to monolingual or normal bilingual dictionaries. They are also popular with learners. Good bilingualized online dictionaries (such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary) are not always free, but many are, and with some language pairings free software can be of a higher quality than services that incur a subscription charge.

If a good bilingualized dictionary is available, there is no longer any compelling reason to use a monolingual learner’s dictionary, unless it contains features which cannot be found elsewhere. In order to compete in a crowded marketplace, many of the established monolingual learner’s dictionaries do precisely that. Examples of good, free online dictionaries include:

Students need help in selecting a dictionary that is right for them. Without this, many end up using as a dictionary a tool such as Google Translate , which, for all its value, is of very limited use as a dictionary. They need to understand that the most appropriate dictionary will depend on what they want to use it for (receptive, reading purposes or productive, writing purposes). Teachers can help in this decision-making process by addressing the issue in class (see the activity below).

In addition to the problem of selecting an appropriate dictionary, it appears that many learners have inadequate dictionary skills (Niitemaa & Pietilä, 2018). In one experiment (Tono, 2011), only one third of the vocabulary searches in a dictionary that were carried out by learners resulted in success. The reasons for failure include focussing on only the first meaning (or translation) of a word that is provided, difficulty in finding the relevant information in long word entries, an inability to find the lemma that is needed, and spelling errors (when they had to type in the word) (Töpel, 2014). As with monolingual dictionaries, learners often only check the meaning of a word in a bilingual dictionary and fail to explore the wider range of information (e.g. collocation, grammatical patterns, example sentences, synonyms) that is available (Laufer & Kimmel, 1997; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Chen, 2010). This information is both useful and may lead to improved retention.

Most learners receive no training in dictionary skills, but would clearly benefit from it. Nation (2013: 333) suggests that at least four or five hours, spread out over a few weeks, would be appropriate. He suggests (ibid: 419 – 421) that training should encourage learners, first, to look closely at the context in which an unknown word is encountered (in order to identify the part of speech, the lemma that needs to be looked up, its possible meaning and to decide whether it is worth looking up at all), then to help learners in finding the relevant entry or sub-entry (by providing information about common dictionary abbreviations (e.g. for parts of speech, style and register)), and, finally, to check this information against the original context.

Two good resource books full of practical activities for dictionary training are available: ‘Dictionary Activities’ by Cindy Leaney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and ‘Dictionaries’ by Jon Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Many of the good monolingual dictionaries offer activity guides to promote effective dictionary use and I have suggested a few activities here.

Activity: Understanding a dictionary

Outline: Students explore the use of different symbols in good online dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The activity ‘Choosing a dictionary’ is a good follow-up to this activity.

1 Distribute the worksheet and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check the answers.


Activity: Choosing a dictionary

Outline: Students explore and evaluate the features of different free, online bilingual dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The text in stage 3 is appropriate for use with levels A2 and B1. For some groups of learners, you may want to adapt (or even translate) the list of features. It may be useful to do the activity ‘Understanding a dictionary’ before this activity.

1 Ask the class which free, online bilingual dictionaries they like to use. Write some of their suggestions on the board.

2 Distribute the list of features. Ask students to work individually and tick the boxes that are important for them. Ask students to work with a partner to compare their answers.


3 Give students a list of free, online bilingual (English and the students’ own language) dictionaries. You can use suggestions from the list below, add the suggestions that your students made in stage 1, or add your own ideas. (For many language pairings, better resources are available than those in the list below.) Give the students the following short text and ask the students to use two of these dictionaries to look up the underlined words. Ask the students to decide which dictionary they found most useful and / or easiest to use.



4 Conduct feedback with the whole class.

Activity: Getting more out of a dictionary

Outline: Students use a dictionary to help them to correct a text

Level: Levels B1 and B2, but not appropriate for very young learners. For higher levels, a more complex text (with less obvious errors) would be appropriate.

1 Distribute the worksheet below and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check answers with the whole class. Ask how easy it was to find the information in the dictionary that they were using.


When you are reading, you probably only need a dictionary when you don’t know the meaning of a word and you want to look it up. For this, a simple bilingual dictionary is good enough. But when you are writing or editing your writing, you will need something that gives you more information about a word: grammatical patterns, collocations (the words that usually go with other words), how formal the word is, and so on. For this, you will need a better dictionary. Many of the better dictionaries are monolingual (see the box), but there are also some good bilingual ones.

Use one (or more) of the online dictionaries in the box (or a good bilingual dictionary) and make corrections to this text. There are eleven mistakes (they have been underlined) in total.


Boonmoh, A. & Nesi, H. 2008. ‘A survey of dictionary use by Thai university staff and students with special reference to pocket electronic dictionaries’ Horizontes de Linguística Aplicada , 6(2), 79 – 90

Chen, Y. 2011. ‘Studies on Bilingualized Dictionaries: The User Perspective’. International Journal of Lexicography, 24 (2): 161–197

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Granger, S. 2012. Electronic Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harvey, K. & Yuill, D. 1997. ‘A study of the use of a monolingual pedagogical dictionary by learners of English engaged in writing’ Applied Linguistics, 51 (1): 253 – 78

Laufer, B. & Hadar, L. 1997. ‘Assessing the effectiveness of monolingual, bilingual and ‘bilingualized’ dictionaries in the comprehension and production of new words’. Modern Language Journal, 81 (2): 189 – 96

Laufer, B. & M. Hill 2000. ‘What lexical information do L2 learners select in a CALL dictionary and how does it affect word retention?’ Language Learning & Technology 3 (2): 58–76

Laufer, B. & Kimmel, M. 1997. ‘Bilingualised dictionaries: How learners really use them’, System, 25 (3): 361 -369

Leaney, C. 2007. Dictionary Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Levy, M. and Steel, C. 2015. ‘Language learner perspectives on the functionality and use of electronic language dictionaries’. ReCALL, 27(2): 177–196

Lew, R. & Szarowska, A. 2017. ‘Evaluating online bilingual dictionaries: The case of popular free English-Polish dictionaries’ ReCALL 29(2): 138–159

Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Niitemaa, M.-L. & Pietilä, P. 2018. ‘Vocabulary Skills and Online Dictionaries: A Study on EFL Learners’ Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge and Success in Searching Electronic Sources for Information’, Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 9 (3): 453-462

Tono, Y. 2011. ‘Application of eye-tracking in EFL learners’ dictionary look-up process research’, International Journal of Lexicography 24 (1): 124–153

Töpel, A. 2014. ‘Review of research into the use of electronic dictionaries’ in Müller-Spitzer, C. (Ed.) 2014. Using Online Dictionaries. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 13 – 54

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wheeler, G. 2013. Language Teaching through the Ages. New York: Routledge

Wright, J. 1998. Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press

At a recent ELT conference, a plenary presentation entitled ‘Getting it right with edtech’ (sponsored by a vendor of – increasingly digital – ELT products) began with the speaker suggesting that technology was basically neutral, that what you do with educational technology matters far more than the nature of the technology itself. The idea that technology is a ‘neutral tool’ has a long pedigree and often accompanies exhortations to embrace edtech in one form or another (see for example Fox, 2001). It is an idea that is supported by no less a luminary than Chomsky, who, in a 2012 video entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’ (Chomsky, 2012), said that:

As far as […] technology […] and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. I mean, […] the hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull; a hammer can do either. The same with the modern technology; say, the Internet, and so on.

Womans hammerAlthough hammers are not usually classic examples of educational technology, they are worthy of a short discussion. Hammers come in all shapes and sizes and when you choose one, you need to consider its head weight (usually between 16 and 20 ounces), the length of the handle, the shape of the grip, etc. Appropriate specifications for particular hammering tasks have been calculated in great detail. The data on which these specifications is based on an analysis of the hand size and upper body strength of the typical user. The typical user is a man, and the typical hammer has been designed for a man. The average male hand length is 177.9 mm, that of the average woman is 10 mm shorter (Wang & Cai, 2017). Women typically have about half the upper body strength of men (Miller et al., 1993). It’s possible, but not easy to find hammers designed for women (they are referred to as ‘Ladies hammers’ on Amazon). They have a much lighter head weight, a shorter handle length, and many come in pink or floral designs. Hammers, in other words, are far from neutral: they are highly gendered.

Moving closer to educational purposes and ways in which we might ‘get it right with edtech’, it is useful to look at the smart phone. The average size of these devices has risen in recent years, and is now 5.5 inches, with the market for 6 inch screens growing fast. Why is this an issue? Well, as Caroline Criado Perez (2019: 159) notes, ‘while we’re all admittedly impressed by the size of your screen, it’s a slightly different matter when it comes to fitting into half the population’s hands. The average man can fairly comfortably use his device one-handed – but the average woman’s hand is not much bigger than the handset itself’. This is despite the fact the fact that women are more likely to own an iPhone than men  .

It is not, of course, just technological artefacts that are gendered. Voice-recognition software is also very biased. One researcher (Tatman, 2017) has found that Google’s speech recognition tool is 13% more accurate for men than it is for women. There are also significant biases for race and social class. The reason lies in the dataset that the tool is trained on: the algorithms may be gender- and socio-culturally-neutral, but the dataset is not. It would not be difficult to redress this bias by training the tool on a different dataset.

The same bias can be found in automatic translation software. Because corpora such as the BNC or COCA have twice as many male pronouns as female ones (as a result of the kinds of text that are selected for the corpora), translation software reflects the bias. With Google Translate, a sentence in a language with a gender-neutral pronoun, such as ‘S/he is a doctor’ is rendered into English as ‘He is a doctor’. Meanwhile, ‘S/he is a nurse’ is translated as ‘She is a nurse’ (Criado Perez, 2019: 166).

Datasets, then, are often very far from neutral. Algorithms are not necessarily any more neutral than the datasets, and Cathy O’Neil’s best-seller ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ catalogues the many, many ways in which algorithms, posing as neutral mathematical tools, can increase racial, social and gender inequalities.

It would not be hard to provide many more examples, but the selection above is probably enough. Technology, as Langdon Winner (Winner, 1980) observed almost forty years ago, is ‘deeply interwoven in the conditions of modern politics’. Technology cannot be neutral: it has politics.

So far, I have focused primarily on the non-neutrality of technology in terms of gender (and, in passing, race and class). Before returning to broader societal issues, I would like to make a relatively brief mention of another kind of non-neutrality: the pedagogic. Language learning materials necessarily contain content of some kind: texts, topics, the choice of values or role models, language examples, and so on. These cannot be value-free. In the early days of educational computer software, one researcher (Biraimah, 1993) found that it was ‘at least, if not more, biased than the printed page it may one day replace’. My own impression is that this remains true today.

Equally interesting to my mind is the fact that all educational technologies, ranging from the writing slate to the blackboard (see Buzbee, 2014), from the overhead projector to the interactive whiteboard, always privilege a particular kind of teaching (and learning). ‘Technologies are inherently biased because they are built to accomplish certain very specific goals which means that some technologies are good for some tasks while not so good for other tasks’ (Zhao et al., 2004: 25). Digital flashcards, for example, inevitably encourage a focus on rote learning. Contemporary LMSs have impressive multi-functionality (i.e. they often could be used in a very wide variety of ways), but, in practice, most teachers use them in very conservative ways (Laanpere et al., 2004). This may be a result of teacher and institutional preferences, but it is almost certainly due, at least in part, to the way that LMSs are designed. They are usually ‘based on traditional approaches to instruction dating from the nineteenth century: presentation and assessment [and] this can be seen in the selection of features which are most accessible in the interface, and easiest to use’ (Lane, 2009).

The argument that educational technology is neutral because it could be put to many different uses, good or bad, is problematic because the likelihood of one particular use is usually much greater than another. There is, however, another way of looking at technological neutrality, and that is to look at its origins. Elsewhere on this blog, in post after post, I have given examples of the ways in which educational technology has been developed, marketed and sold primarily for commercial purposes. Educational values, if indeed there are any, are often an afterthought. The research literature in this area is rich and growing: Stephen Ball, Larry Cuban, Neil Selwyn, Joel Spring, Audrey Watters, etc.

Rather than revisit old ground here, this is an opportunity to look at a slightly different origin of educational technology: the US military. The close connection of the early history of the internet and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense is fairly well-known. Much less well-known are the very close connections between the US military and educational technologies, which are catalogued in the recently reissued ‘The Classroom Arsenal’ by Douglas D. Noble.

Following the twin shocks of the Soviet Sputnik 1 (in 1957) and Yuri Gagarin (in 1961), the United States launched a massive programme of investment in the development of high-tech weaponry. This included ‘computer systems design, time-sharing, graphics displays, conversational programming languages, heuristic problem-solving, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science’ (Noble, 1991: 55), all of which are now crucial components in educational technology. But it also quickly became clear that more sophisticated weapons required much better trained operators, hence the US military’s huge (and continuing) interest in training. Early interest focused on teaching machines and programmed instruction (branches of the US military were by far the biggest purchasers of programmed instruction products). It was essential that training was effective and efficient, and this led to a wide interest in the mathematical modelling of learning and instruction.

What was then called computer-based education (CBE) was developed as a response to military needs. The first experiments in computer-based training took place at the Systems Research Laboratory of the Air Force’s RAND Corporation think tank (Noble, 1991: 73). Research and development in this area accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s and CBE (which has morphed into the platforms of today) ‘assumed particular forms because of the historical, contingent, military contexts for which and within which it was developed’ (Noble, 1991: 83). It is possible to imagine computer-based education having developed in very different directions. Between the 1960s and 1980s, for example, the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) project at the University of Illinois focused heavily on computer-mediated social interaction (forums, message boards, email, chat rooms and multi-player games). PLATO was also significantly funded by a variety of US military agencies, but proved to be of much less interest to the generals than the work taking place in other laboratories. As Noble observes, ‘some technologies get developed while others do not, and those that do are shaped by particular interests and by the historical and political circumstances surrounding their development (Noble, 1991: 4).

According to Noble, however, the influence of the military reached far beyond the development of particular technologies. Alongside the investment in technologies, the military were the prime movers in a campaign to promote computer literacy in schools.

Computer literacy was an ideological campaign rather than an educational initiative – a campaign designed, at bottom, to render people ‘comfortable’ with the ‘inevitable’ new technologies. Its basic intent was to win the reluctant acquiescence of an entire population in a brave new world sculpted in silicon.

The computer campaign also succeeded in getting people in front of that screen and used to having computers around; it made people ‘computer-friendly’, just as computers were being rendered ‘used-friendly’. It also managed to distract the population, suddenly propelled by the urgency of learning about computers, from learning about other things, such as how computers were being used to erode the quality of their working lives, or why they, supposedly the citizens of a democracy, had no say in technological decisions that were determining the shape of their own futures.

Third, it made possible the successful introduction of millions of computers into schools, factories and offices, even homes, with minimal resistance. The nation’s public schools have by now spent over two billion dollars on over a million and a half computers, and this trend still shows no signs of abating. At this time, schools continue to spend one-fifth as much on computers, software, training and staffing as they do on all books and other instructional materials combined. Yet the impact of this enormous expenditure is a stockpile of often idle machines, typically used for quite unimaginative educational applications. Furthermore, the accumulated results of three decades of research on the effectiveness of computer-based instruction remain ‘inconclusive and often contradictory’. (Noble, 1991: x – xi)

Rather than being neutral in any way, it seems more reasonable to argue, along with (I think) most contemporary researchers, that edtech is profoundly value-laden because it has the potential to (i) influence certain values in students; (ii) change educational values in [various] ways; and (iii) change national values (Omotoyinbo & Omotoyinbo, 2016: 173). Most importantly, the growth in the use of educational technology has been accompanied by a change in the way that education itself is viewed: ‘as a tool, a sophisticated supply system of human cognitive resources, in the service of a computerized, technology-driven economy’ (Noble, 1991: 1). These two trends are inextricably linked.


Biraimah, K. 1993. The non-neutrality of educational computer software. Computers and Education 20 / 4: 283 – 290

Buzbee, L. 2014. Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press

Chomsky, N. 2012. The Purpose of Education (video). Learning Without Frontiers Conference.

Criado Perez, C. 2019. Invisible Women. London: Chatto & Windus

Fox, R. 2001. Technological neutrality and practice in higher education. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Laanpere, M., Poldoja, H. & Kikkas, K. 2004. The second thoughts about pedagogical neutrality of LMS. Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies, 2004.

Lane, L. 2009. Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10).

Miller, A.E., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnopolsky, M. A. & Sale, D.G. 1993. ‘Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics’ European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 66(3): 254-62

Noble, D. D. 1991. The Classroom Arsenal. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Omotoyinbo, D. W. & Omotoyinbo, F. R. 2016. Educational Technology and Value Neutrality. Societal Studies, 8 / 2: 163 – 179

O’Neil, C. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction. London: Penguin

Sundström, P. Interpreting the Notion that Technology is Value Neutral. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 1, 1998: 42-44

Tatman, R. 2017. ‘Gender and Dialect Bias in YouTube’s Automatic Captions’ Proceedings of the First Workshop on Ethics in Natural Language Processing, pp. 53–59

Wang, C. & Cai, D. 2017. ‘Hand tool handle design based on hand measurements’ MATEC Web of Conferences 119, 01044 (2017)

Winner, L. 1980. Do Artifacts have Politics? Daedalus 109 / 1: 121 – 136

Zhao, Y, Alvarez-Torres, M. J., Smith, B. & Tan, H. S. 2004. The Non-neutrality of Technology: a Theoretical Analysis and Empirical Study of Computer Mediated Communication Technologies. Journal of Educational Computing Research 30 (1 &2): 23 – 55

ltsigIt’s hype time again. Spurred on, no doubt, by the current spate of books and articles  about AIED (artificial intelligence in education), the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG is organising an online event on the topic in November of this year. Currently, the most visible online references to AI in language learning are related to Glossika , basically a language learning system that uses spaced repetition, whose marketing department has realised that references to AI might help sell the product. GlossikaThey’re not alone – see, for example, Knowble which I reviewed earlier this year .

In the wider world of education, where AI has made greater inroads than in language teaching, every day brings more stuff: How artificial intelligence is changing teaching , 32 Ways AI is Improving Education , How artificial intelligence could help teachers do a better job , etc., etc. There’s a full-length book by Anthony Seldon, The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity? (2018, University of Buckingham Press) – one of the most poorly researched and badly edited books on education I’ve ever read, although that won’t stop it selling – and, no surprises here, there’s a Pearson commissioned report called Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education (2016) which is available free.

Common to all these publications is the claim that AI will radically change education. When it comes to language teaching, a similar claim has been made by Donald Clark (described by Anthony Seldon as an education guru but perhaps best-known to many in ELT for his demolition of Sugata Mitra). In 2017, Clark wrote a blog post for Cambridge English (now unavailable) entitled How AI will reboot language learning, and a more recent version of this post, called AI has and will change language learning forever (sic) is available on Clark’s own blog. Given the history of the failure of education predictions, Clark is making bold claims. Thomas Edison (1922) believed that movies would revolutionize education. Radios were similarly hyped in the 1940s and in the 1960s it was the turn of TV. In the 1980s, Seymour Papert predicted the end of schools – ‘the computer will blow up the school’, he wrote. Twenty years later, we had the interactive possibilities of Web 2.0. As each technology failed to deliver on the hype, a new generation of enthusiasts found something else to make predictions about.

But is Donald Clark onto something? Developments in AI and computational linguistics have recently resulted in enormous progress in machine translation. Impressive advances in automatic speech recognition and generation, coupled with the power that can be packed into a handheld device, mean that we can expect some re-evaluation of the value of learning another language. Stephen Heppell, a specialist at Bournemouth University in the use of ICT in Education, has said: ‘Simultaneous translation is coming, making language teachers redundant. Modern languages teaching in future may be more about navigating cultural differences’ (quoted by Seldon, p.263). Well, maybe, but this is not Clark’s main interest.

Less a matter of opinion and much closer to the present day is the issue of assessment. AI is becoming ubiquitous in language testing. Cambridge, Pearson, TELC, Babbel and Duolingo are all using or exploring AI in their testing software, and we can expect to see this increase. Current, paper-based systems of testing subject knowledge are, according to Rosemary Luckin and Kristen Weatherby, outdated, ineffective, time-consuming, the cause of great anxiety and can easily be automated (Luckin, R. & Weatherby, K. 2018. ‘Learning analytics, artificial intelligence and the process of assessment’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.253). By capturing data of various kinds throughout a language learner’s course of study and by using AI to analyse learning development, continuous formative assessment becomes possible in ways that were previously unimaginable. ‘Assessment for Learning (AfL)’ or ‘Learning Oriented Assessment (LOA)’ are two terms used by Cambridge English to refer to the potential that AI offers which is described by Luckin (who is also one of the authors of the Pearson paper mentioned earlier). In practical terms, albeit in a still very limited way, this can be seen in the CUP course ‘Empower’, which combines CUP course content with validated LOA from Cambridge Assessment English.

Will this reboot or revolutionise language teaching? Probably not and here’s why. AIED systems need to operate with what is called a ‘domain knowledge model’. This specifies what is to be learnt and includes an analysis of the steps that must be taken to reach that learning goal. Some subjects (especially STEM subjects) ‘lend themselves much more readily to having their domains represented in ways that can be automatically reasoned about’ (du Boulay, D. et al., 2018. ‘Artificial intelligences and big data technologies to close the achievement gap’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.258). This is why most AIED systems have been built to teach these areas. Language are rather different. We simply do not have a domain knowledge model, except perhaps for the very lowest levels of language learning (and even that is highly questionable). Language learning is probably not, or not primarily, about acquiring subject knowledge. Debate still rages about the relationship between explicit language knowledge and language competence. AI-driven formative assessment will likely focus most on explicit language knowledge, as does most current language teaching. This will not reboot or revolutionise anything. It will more likely reinforce what is already happening: a model of language learning that assumes there is a strong interface between explicit knowledge and language competence. It is not a model that is shared by most SLA researchers.

So, one thing that AI can do (and is doing) for language learning is to improve the algorithms that determine the way that grammar and vocabulary are presented to individual learners in online programs. AI-optimised delivery of ‘English Grammar in Use’ may lead to some learning gains, but they are unlikely to be significant. It is not, in any case, what language learners need.

AI, Donald Clark suggests, can offer personalised learning. Precisely what kind of personalised learning this might be, and whether or not this is a good thing, remains unclear. A 2015 report funded by the Gates Foundation found that we currently lack evidence about the effectiveness of personalised learning. We do not know which aspects of personalised learning (learner autonomy, individualised learning pathways and instructional approaches, etc.) or which combinations of these will lead to gains in language learning. The complexity of the issues means that we may never have a satisfactory explanation. You can read my own exploration of the problems of personalised learning starting here .

What’s left? Clark suggests that chatbots are one area with ‘huge potential’. I beg to differ and I explained my reasons eighteen months ago . Chatbots work fine in very specific domains. As Clark says, they can be used for ‘controlled practice’, but ‘controlled practice’ means practice of specific language knowledge, the practice of limited conversational routines, for example. It could certainly be useful, but more than that? Taking things a stage further, Clark then suggests more holistic speaking and listening practice with Amazon Echo, Alexa or Google Home. If and when the day comes that we have general, as opposed to domain-specific, AI, chatting with one of these tools would open up vast new possibilities. Unfortunately, general AI does not exist, and until then Alexa and co will remain a poor substitute for human-human interaction (which is readily available online, anyway). Incidentally, AI could be used to form groups of online language learners to carry out communicative tasks – ‘the aim might be to design a grouping of students all at a similar cognitive level and of similar interests, or one where the participants bring different but complementary knowledge and skills’ (Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M. & Forceir, L.B. 2016. Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education. London: Pearson, p.26).

Predictions about the impact of technology on education have a tendency to be made by people with a vested interest in the technologies. Edison was a businessman who had invested heavily in motion pictures. Donald Clark is an edtech entrepreneur whose company, Wildfire, uses AI in online learning programs. Stephen Heppell is executive chairman of LP+ who are currently developing a Chinese language learning community for 20 million Chinese school students. The reporting of AIED is almost invariably in websites that are paid for, in one way or another, by edtech companies. Predictions need, therefore, to be treated sceptically. Indeed, the safest prediction we can make about hyped educational technologies is that inflated expectations will be followed by disillusionment, before the technology finds a smaller niche.


Knowble, claims its developers, is a browser extension that will improve English vocabulary and reading comprehension. It also describes itself as an ‘adaptive language learning solution for publishers’. It’s currently beta and free, and sounds right up my street so I decided to give it a run.

Knowble reader

Users are asked to specify a first language (I chose French) and a level (A1 to C2): I chose B1, but this did not seem to impact on anything that subsequently happened. They are then offered a menu of about 30 up-to-date news items, grouped into 5 categories (world, science, business, sport, entertainment). Clicking on one article takes you to the article on the source website. There’s a good selection, including USA Today, CNN, Reuters, the Independent and the Torygraph from Britain, the Times of India, the Independent from Ireland and the Star from Canada. A large number of words are underlined: a single click brings up a translation in the extension box. Double-clicking on all other words will also bring up translations. Apart from that, there is one very short exercise (which has presumably been automatically generated) for each article.

For my trial run, I picked three articles: ‘Woman asks firefighters to help ‘stoned’ raccoon’ (from the BBC, 240 words), ‘Plastic straw and cotton bud ban proposed’ (also from the BBC, 823 words) and ‘London’s first housing market slump since 2009 weighs on UK price growth’ (from the Torygraph, 471 words).


Research suggests that the use of translations, rather than definitions, may lead to more learning gains, but the problem with Knowble is that it relies entirely on Google Translate. Google Translate is fast improving. Take the first sentence of the ‘plastic straw and cotton bud’ article, for example. It’s not a bad translation, but it gets the word ‘bid’ completely wrong, translating it as ‘offre’ (= offer), where ‘tentative’ (= attempt) is needed. So, we can still expect a few problems with Google Translate …

google_translateOne of the reasons that Google Translate has improved is that it no longer treats individual words as individual lexical items. It analyses groups of words and translates chunks or phrases (see, for example, the way it translates ‘as part of’). It doesn’t do word-for-word translation. Knowble, however, have set their software to ask Google for translations of each word as individual items, so the phrase ‘as part of’ is translated ‘comme’ + ‘partie’ + ‘de’. Whilst this example is comprehensible, problems arise very quickly. ‘Cotton buds’ (‘cotons-tiges’) become ‘coton’ + ‘bourgeon’ (= botanical shoots of cotton). Phrases like ‘in time’, ‘run into’, ‘sleep it off’ ‘take its course’, ‘fire station’ or ‘going on’ (all from the stoned raccoon text) all cause problems. In addition, Knowble are not using any parsing tools, so the system does not identify parts of speech, and further translation errors inevitably appear. In the short article of 240 words, about 10% are wrongly translated. Knowble claim to be using NLP tools, but there’s no sign of it here. They’re just using Google Translate rather badly.

Highlighted items

word_listNLP tools of some kind are presumably being used to select the words that get underlined. Exactly how this works is unclear. On the whole, it seems that very high frequency words are ignored and that lower frequency words are underlined. Here, for example, is the list of words that were underlined in the stoned raccoon text. I’ve compared them with (1) the CEFR levels for these words in the English Profile Text Inspector, and (2) the frequency information from the Macmillan dictionary (more stars = more frequent). In the other articles, some extremely high frequency words were underlined (e.g. price, cost, year) while much lower frequency items were not.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to predict which items of vocabulary a learner will know, even if we have a fairly accurate idea of their level. Personal interests play a significant part, so, for example, some people at even a low level will have no problem with ‘cannabis’, ‘stoned’ and ‘high’, even if these are low frequency. First language, however, is a reasonably reliable indicator as cognates can be expected to be easy. A French speaker will have no problem with ‘appreciate’, ‘unique’ and ‘symptom’. A recommendation engine that can meaningfully personalize vocabulary suggestions will, at the very least, need to consider cognates.

In short, the selection and underlining of vocabulary items, as it currently stands in Knowble, appears to serve no clear or useful function.

taskVocabulary learning

Knowble offers a very short exercise for each article. They are of three types: word completion, dictation and drag and drop (see the example). The rationale for the selection of the target items is unclear, but, in any case, these exercises are tokenistic in the extreme and are unlikely to lead to any significant learning gains. More valuable would be the possibility of exporting items into a spaced repetition flash card system.

effectiveThe claim that Knowble’s ‘learning effect is proven scientifically’ seems to me to be without any foundation. If there has been any proper research, it’s not signposted anywhere. Sure, reading lots of news articles (with a look-up function – if it works reliably) can only be beneficial for language learners, but they can do that with any decent dictionary running in the background.

Similar in many ways to, which I reviewed in my last post, Knowble is another example of a technology-driven product that shows little understanding of language learning.

MosaLingua  (with the obligatory capital letter in the middle) is a vocabulary app, available for iOS and Android. There are packages for a number of languages and English variations include general English, business English, vocabulary for TOEFL and vocabulary for TOEIC. The company follows the freemium model, with free ‘Lite’ versions and fuller content selling for €4.99. I tried the ‘Lite’ general English app, opting for French as my first language. Since the app is translation-based, you need to have one of the language pairings that are on offer (the other languages are currently Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German).Mosalingua

The app I looked at is basically a phrase book with spaced repetition. Even though this particular app was general English, it appeared to be geared towards the casual business traveller. It uses the same algorithm as Anki, and users are taken through a sequence of (1) listening to an audio recording of the target item (word or phrase) along with the possibility of comparing a recording of yourself with the recording provided, (2) standard bilingual flashcard practice, (3) a practice stage where you are given the word or phrase in your own language and you have to unscramble words or letters to form the equivalent in English, and (4) a self-evaluation stage where users select from one of four options (“review”, “hard”, “good”, “perfect”) where the choice made will influence the re-presentation of the item within the spaced repetition.

In addition to these words and phrases, there are a number of dialogues where you (1) listen to the dialogue (‘without worrying about understanding everything’), (2) are re-exposed to the dialogue with English subtitles, (3) see it again with subtitles in your own language, (4) practise it with standard flashcards.

The developers seem to be proud of their Mosa Learning Method®: they’ve registered this as a trademark. At its heart is spaced repetition. This is supplemented by what they refer to as ‘Active Recall’, the notion that things are better memorised if the learner has to make some sort of cognitive effort, however minimal, in recalling the target items. The principle is, at least to me, unquestionable, but the realisation (unjumbling words or letters) becomes rather repetitive and, ultimately, tedious. Then, there is what they call ‘metacognition’. Again, this is informed by research, even if the realisation (self-evaluation of learning difficulty into four levels) is extremely limited. Then there is the Pareto principle  – the 80-20 rule. I couldn’t understand the explanation of what this has to do with the trademarked method. Here’s the MosaLingua explanation  – figure it out for yourself:

Did you know that the 100 most common words in English account for half of the written corpus?

Evidently, you shouldn’t quit after learning only 100 words. Instead, you should concentrate on the most frequently used words and you’ll make spectacular progress. What’s more, globish (global English) has shown that it’s possible to express yourself using only 1500 well-chosen words (which would take less than 3 months with only 10 minutes per day with MosaLingua). Once you’ve acquired this base, MosaLingua proposes specialized vocabulary suited to your needs (the application has over 3000 words).

Finally, there’s some stuff about motivation and learner psychology. This boils down to That’s why we offer free learning help via email, presenting the Web’s best resources, as well as tips through bonus material or the learning community on the MosaLingua blog. We’ll give you all the tools you need to develop your own personalized learning method that is adapted to your needs. Some of these tips are not at all bad, but there’s precious little in the way of gamification or other forms of easy motivation.

In short, it’s all reasonably respectable, despite the predilection for sciency language in the marketing blurb. But what really differentiates this product from Anki, as the founder, Samuel Michelot, points out is the content. Mosalingua has lists of vocabulary and phrases that were created by professors. The word ‘professors’ set my alarm bells ringing, and I wasn’t overly reassured when all I could find out about these ‘professors’ was the information about the MosaLingua team .professors

Despite what some people  claim, content is, actually, rather important when it comes to language learning. I’ll leave you with some examples of MosaLingua content (one dialogue and a selection of words / phrases organised by level) and you can make up your own mind.


Hi there, have a seat. What seems to be the problem?

I haven’t been feeling well since this morning. I have a very bad headache and I feel sick.

Do you feel tired? Have you had cold sweats?

Yes, I’m very tired and have had cold sweats. I have been feeling like that since this morning.

Have you been out in the sun?

Yes, this morning I was at the beach with my friends for a couple hours.

OK, it’s nothing serious. It’s just a bad case of sunstroke. You must drink lots of water and rest. I’ll prescribe you something for the headache and some after sun lotion.

Great, thank you, doctor. Bye.

You’re welcome. Bye.

Level 1: could you help me, I would like a …, I need to …, I don’t know, it’s okay, I (don’t) agree, do you speak English, to drink, to sleep, bank, I’m going to call the police

Level 2: I’m French, cheers, can you please repeat that, excuse me how can I get to …, map, turn left, corner, far (from), distance, thief, can you tell me where I can find …

Level 3: what does … mean, I’m learning English, excuse my English, famous, there, here, until, block, from, to turn, street corner, bar, nightclub, I have to be at the airport tomorrow morning

Level 4: OK, I’m thirty (years old), I love this country, how do you say …, what is it, it’s a bit like …, it’s a sort of …, it’s as small / big as …, is it far, where are we, where are we going, welcome, thanks but I can’t, how long have you been here, is this your first trip to England, take care, district / neighbourhood, in front (of)

Level 5: of course, can I ask you a question, you speak very well, I can’t find the way, David this is Julia, we meet at last, I would love to, where do you want to go, maybe another day, I’ll miss you, leave me alone, don’t touch me, what’s you email

Level 6: I’m here on a business trip, I came with some friends, where are the nightclubs, I feel like going to a bar, I can pick you up at your house, let’s go to see a movie, we had a lot of fun, come again, thanks for the invitation

Adaptive learning providers make much of their ability to provide learners with personalised feedback and to provide teachers with dashboard feedback on the performance of both individuals and groups. All well and good, but my interest here is in the automated feedback that software could provide on very specific learning tasks. Scott Thornbury, in a recent talk, ‘Ed Tech: The Mouse that Roared?’, listed six ‘problems’ of language acquisition that educational technology for language learning needs to address. One of these he framed as follows: ‘The feedback problem, i.e. how does the learner get optimal feedback at the point of need?’, and suggested that technological applications ‘have some way to go.’ He was referring, not to the kind of feedback that dashboards can provide, but to the kind of feedback that characterises a good language teacher: corrective feedback (CF) – the way that teachers respond to learner utterances (typically those containing errors, but not necessarily restricted to these) in what Ellis and Shintani call ‘form-focused episodes’[1]. These responses may include a direct indication that there is an error, a reformulation, a request for repetition, a request for clarification, an echo with questioning intonation, etc. Basically, they are correction techniques.

These days, there isn’t really any debate about the value of CF. There is a clear research consensus that it can aid language acquisition. Discussing learning in more general terms, Hattie[2] claims that ‘the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback’. The debate now centres around the kind of feedback, and when it is given. Interestingly, evidence[3] has been found that CF is more effective in the learning of discrete items (e.g. some grammatical structures) than in communicative activities. Since it is precisely this kind of approach to language learning that we are more likely to find in adaptive learning programs, it is worth exploring further.

What do we know about CF in the learning of discrete items? First of all, it works better when it is explicit than when it is implicit (Li, 2010), although this needs to be nuanced. In immediate post-tests, explicit CF is better than implicit variations. But over a longer period of time, implicit CF provides better results. Secondly, formative feedback (as opposed to right / wrong testing-style feedback) strengthens retention of the learning items: this typically involves the learner repairing their error, rather than simply noticing that an error has been made. This is part of what cognitive scientists[4] sometimes describe as the ‘generation effect’. Whilst learners may benefit from formative feedback without repairing their errors, Ellis and Shintani (2014: 273) argue that the repair may result in ‘deeper processing’ and, therefore, assist learning. Thirdly, there is evidence that some delay in receiving feedback aids subsequent recall, especially over the longer term. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 276) suggest that immediate CF may ‘benefit the development of learners’ procedural knowledge’, while delayed CF is ‘perhaps more likely to foster metalinguistic understanding’. You can read a useful summary of a meta-analysis of feedback effects in online learning here, or you can buy the whole article here.

I have yet to see an online language learning program which can do CF well, but I think it’s a matter of time before things improve significantly. First of all, at the moment, feedback is usually immediate, or almost immediate. This is unlikely to change, for a number of reasons – foremost among them being the pride that ed tech takes in providing immediate feedback, and the fact that online learning is increasingly being conceptualised and consumed in bite-sized chunks, something you do on your phone between doing other things. What will change in better programs, however, is that feedback will become more formative. As things stand, tasks are usually of a very closed variety, with drag-and-drop being one of the most popular. Only one answer is possible and feedback is usually of the right / wrong-and-here’s-the-correct-answer kind. But tasks of this kind are limited in their value, and, at some point, tasks are needed where more than one answer is possible.

Here’s an example of a translation task from Duolingo, where a simple sentence could be translated into English in quite a large number of ways.

i_am_doing_a_basketDecontextualised as it is, the sentence could be translated in the way that I have done it, although it’s unlikely. The feedback, however, is of relatively little help to the learner, who would benefit from guidance of some sort. The simple reason that Duolingo doesn’t offer useful feedback is that the programme is static. It has been programmed to accept certain answers (e.g. in this case both the present simple and the present continuous are acceptable), but everything else will be rejected. Why? Because it would take too long and cost too much to anticipate and enter in all the possible answers. Why doesn’t it offer formative feedback? Because in order to do so, it would need to identify the kind of error that has been made. If we can identify the kind of error, we can make a reasonable guess about the cause of the error, and select appropriate CF … this is what good teachers do all the time.

Analysing the kind of error that has been made is the first step in providing appropriate CF, and it can be done, with increasing accuracy, by current technology, but it requires a lot of computing. Let’s take spelling as a simple place to start. If you enter ‘I am makeing a basket for my mother’ in the Duolingo translation above, the program tells you ‘Nice try … there’s a typo in your answer’. Given the configuration of keyboards, it is highly unlikely that this is a typo. It’s a simple spelling mistake and teachers recognise it as such because they see it so often. For software to achieve the same insight, it would need, as a start, to trawl a large English dictionary database and a large tagged database of learner English. The process is quite complicated, but it’s perfectably do-able, and learners could be provided with CF in the form of a ‘spelling hint’.i_am_makeing_a_basket

Rather more difficult is the error illustrated in my first screen shot. What’s the cause of this ‘error’? Teachers know immediately that this is probably a classic confusion of ‘do’ and ‘make’. They know that the French verb ‘faire’ can be translated into English as ‘make’ or ‘do’ (among other possibilities), and the error is a common language transfer problem. Software could do the same thing. It would need a large corpus (to establish that ‘make’ collocates with ‘a basket’ more often than ‘do’), a good bilingualised dictionary (plenty of these now exist), and a tagged database of learner English. Again, appropriate automated feedback could be provided in the form of some sort of indication that ‘faire’ is only sometimes translated as ‘make’.

These are both relatively simple examples, but it’s easy to think of others that are much more difficult to analyse automatically. Duolingo rejects ‘I am making one basket for my mother’: it’s not very plausible, but it’s not wrong. Teachers know why learners do this (again, it’s probably a transfer problem) and know how to respond (perhaps by saying something like ‘Only one?’). Duolingo also rejects ‘I making a basket for my mother’ (a common enough error), but is unable to provide any help beyond the correct answer. Automated CF could, however, be provided in both cases if more tools are brought into play. Multiple parsing machines (one is rarely accurate enough on its own) and semantic analysis will be needed. Both the range and the complexity of the available tools are increasing so rapidly (see here for the sort of research that Google is doing and here for an insight into current applications of this research in language learning) that Duolingo-style right / wrong feedback will very soon seem positively antediluvian.

One further development is worth mentioning here, and it concerns feedback and gamification. Teachers know from the way that most learners respond to written CF that they are usually much more interested in knowing what they got right or wrong, rather than the reasons for this. Most students are more likely to spend more time looking at the score at the bottom of a corrected piece of written work than at the laborious annotations of the teacher throughout the text. Getting students to pay close attention to the feedback we provide is not easy. Online language learning systems with gamification elements, like Duolingo, typically reward learners for getting things right, and getting things right in the fewest attempts possible. They encourage learners to look for the shortest or cheapest route to finding the correct answers: learning becomes a sexed-up form of test. If, however, the automated feedback is good, this sort of gamification encourages the wrong sort of learning behaviour. Gamification designers will need to shift their attention away from the current concern with right / wrong, and towards ways of motivating learners to look at and respond to feedback. It’s tricky, because you want to encourage learners to take more risks (and reward them for doing so), but it makes no sense to penalise them for getting things right. The probable solution is to have a dual points system: one set of points for getting things right, another for employing positive learning strategies.

The provision of automated ‘optimal feedback at the point of need’ may not be quite there yet, but it seems we’re on the way for some tasks in discrete-item learning. There will probably always be some teachers who can outperform computers in providing appropriate feedback, in the same way that a few top chess players can beat ‘Deep Blue’ and its scions. But the rest of us had better watch our backs: in the provision of some kinds of feedback, computers are catching up with us fast.

[1] Ellis, R. & N. Shintani (2014) Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon: Routledge p. 249

[2] Hattie, K. (2009) Visible Learning. Abingdon: Routledge p.12

[3] Li, S. (2010) ‘The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: a meta-analysis’ Language Learning 60 / 2: 309 -365

[4] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014)

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).


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


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, 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 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), (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.

friends 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 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, 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. new_word_added_'ripping_off' 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. 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?’ 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 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 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’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.