Have you ever tried to teach yourself the language of a country you don’t live in?
It requires a lot of self-discipline and stick-to-it-ness. You would love to be fluent, but the steps along the way – say, mastering the conjugation of hundreds of German verbs – can be a real slog when there’s no immediate pay-off.
A few years ago, Orly Fuhrman was trying to teach herself Spanish the way most of us do: by reading articles online and looking them up in a dictionary. Suddenly, an idea occurred to her: What if there were an app that did all the work for you?
An app is born
Lingua.ly, which just received $1 million in funding from government and private investors, is a brilliantly simple and effective app. Also available for iOS and Android, I downloaded the Chrome extension onto my laptop and indicated that I wanted to practice French. Judging from my online activity (the application monitors all your activity on the Internet), the app offered me a bunch of technology articles. But there was also an article about Hunter S. Thompson as well as a French fry (pommes frites) shortage in Japan! What fun!
As soon as I started reading the article, there were words I didn’t know. I just clicked on the word twice, and Lingua.ly translated it for me and also taught me how to pronounce it. With the help of this feature, I sailed through the article and then another and another. I am reading French!
Fuhrman, the company’s co-founder, told Geektime that the app is not for absolute beginners. It helps to have a basic knowledge of the language’s grammar, as well as a vocabulary of 100+ words. Beyond that, Lingua.ly puts articles in your feed that are aimed at your level.
According to language acquisition research, you need 90-95 percent of the words in an article to be familiar to learn it easily. Lingua.ly keeps track of your progress and puts articles in your feed that meet this 90 percent requirement. Lingua.ly also keeps track of the words you indicated that you didn’t know and quizzes you on them later.
“The suggested articles we give you will always match that vocabulary. Not only words you don’t know but also the words that are suspected as known words.”
But let’s say someone is distracted and just scans through an article without clicking on the words they don’t know? Will Lingua.ly think they have a larger vocabulary than they actually do?
“That’s why I said ‘suspected known words.’ If we suspect that you know a word, you’ll see it again soon. If it’s important to you and you don’t know it, you’ll click on it.”
It is this kind of language learning, says Fuhrman, that yields a higher chance of success because you can do it as you go about your day as you read things that naturally interest you, meaning it is “immersive.”
Indeed, Lingua.ly’s competitors, like Duolingo, Memrise, and Anki, display disconnected words and short phrases and use a lot of memorization.
Most online language learning, she says, consists of lessons, which is an old concept: not so different from a teacher writing a lesson plan and conveying it to a large group of people.
“It gets boring for students,” she says. “I had one commenter write on Facebook that if he reads sentences like the girl drank the water one more time, he’ll shoot someone.”
English as the ticket to a better life
Lingua.ly was launched in August 2013 by Orly Fuhrman and Jan Ihmels. It has raised $1.8 million in funding so far.
Fuhrman, director of learning for the company, has a PhD in cognitive psychology from Stanford with a focus on language and thought. Ihmels, the CEO, has a PhD in computational biology from Cambridge University.
So far the company is being funded by investments, in large part to keep the app free for users. But this spring they will launch a freemium model featuring in-app services for advanced learners.
The app has had 700,000 downloads so far, with the greatest number in South America. There is a significant cohort of users in Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well.
“These are countries where English is necessary for success in the workplace. Or people want to emigrate.”
Fuhrman says most of her users are college-age early adopters of technology.
“That’s because we don’t do traditional marketing. The way to find us is through word of mouth or on very technical blogs. There was a tech blogger in Brazil who loved us so we got a lot of users from that.”
I have to say, I really like this app, and it’s one of the few apps I’ve reviewed as a tech writer that I will not erase after the article is published.
Fuhrman says you can even use it to learn specialized vocabulary in your own language, such as for technical subjects or a GRE vocabulary list.
And if you have a special interest in, say, architecture, Lingua.ly will pick up on that and give you articles to read about architecture. There is even a beginner’s category with children’s stories, recipes and song lyrics.
The only drawbacks I noticed is the app can’t teach grammar and it had trouble with idiomatic expressions. For instance, it translated mise a jour (update) by translating the individual words.
In the near future, she says, you will also be able to upload your own text. I’ve been dying to read Madame Bovary in the original French but felt daunted by all the words I don’t know. Maybe this is my chance!