My top 5: tools to teach yourself

There are many reasons why you might not have a language teacher at the moment. Maybe there aren’t any in your area. Maybe you can’t afford one. Or perhaps your class ended two hours ago but you just want a little more practice (side note: I love your enthusiasm!). Here are five tools I’ve been using recently to supplement my own language learning. Have a go yourself or, if you’re a teacher, why not get your students to try them out?

1. Writefull

This nifty little app provides feedback on your writing skills by comparing your text to text in an online database. Genius! The app works in 36 languages (although coverage of each language varies).

Use it to check small chunks of language for authenticity as you write. Ideal for advanced learners who want to check their adjective-noun pairings.

Don’t expect it to explain anything. The app will tell you that your ‘I expect seeing’ should be ‘I expect to see’, but it won’t tell you why. No substitute for a real teacher, then…!

2. Memrise

Fast becoming my favourite vocabulary-learning app (although not without many reservations). Use it to learn dozens of languages at various levels, on your smartphone or in a web browser.

Use it to broaden your vocabulary when you’re on the bus into work.

Don’t expect it to teach you words in context, or necessarily in a useful vocabulary set. But hey! at least the majority of the phrases I’ve come across are useful, unlike some other language-learning apps out there…

3. Any language exchange website.

There are loads out there: Livemocha, My Language Exchange and italki all offer you the opportunity to find a language exchange partner and develop your speaking or writing skills. If you feel so inclined, you can also use a lot of language exchange websites to find a paid language tutor (although I haven’t tried this yet).

Use it to meet people who speak your target language, and learn a bit more about the culture of countries where that language is spoken.

Don’t expect it to provide you with perfect feedback on your language every step of the way. Just because someone speaks the language fluently, doesn’t mean that they can teach it!

4. Free Rice.

A website run by the World Food Programme that allows you to brush up your languages while donating rice to people who need it. Set up a free account and answer questions on a variety of subjects, including English Grammar and English Vocabulary. Questions are available at different levels.

Use it to get a little extra practice while doing something good. You can even set up a group of users; get your friends (or class!) involved and encourage some healthy competition…

Don’t expect it to match your learning objectives. Vocabulary is divided into levels, rather than sets, and you can’t choose which words you practise.

5. Super Flashcards.

I’ve been using this Android app on my phone for a couple of years to replace my old handwritten flashcards. It works well, is simple to use, and the content creation is down to you!

Use it to revise useful vocabulary from a reading text, a lesson, or a course book. If you know exactly what you want to practise, it’s a great tool.

Don’t expect it to provide you with sophisticated stats. It’s good, but it’s no Memrise.

December: this month I have…

  • Been trying to get in my ten per day. And largely failing. But more on that to follow…
  • Spent too much money on tickets to live music and comedy events in 2016 (uh-oh!).
  • Been fascinated by LingoRank – an analysis of TED talks by CEFR level. Is the end of publisher-made video nigh?
  • Learned more about the prison system on a visit to the Dana (formerly HMP Shrewsbury). I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Wondered whether I am the project manager’s favourite editor.
  • Been planning my trip to Moscow next month – my first visit to Russia since I moved back to the UK in 2012!
  • Given some of my family members the gift of helping someone else, thanks to CARE’s micro-finance programme, Lend with Care.
  • Been reflecting on Ed Pegg’s analysis of disruptive innovation in ELT – and wondering why I still haven’t taught myself to code.
  • Finished my first course of swimming lessons! My biggest achievement this year.
  • Started listening to the new series of Serial with the amazing Sarah Koenig.
  • Finally mastered double crochet!

And who knows what next year will bring… have a wonderful New Year, and see you in 2016!

Memrise, I don’t know what to think

We’re barely a month into our relationship, but I don’t know how I feel about Memrise anymore.

I’ve been using Memrise to learn French and German vocabulary for the last couple of weeks as part of my ‘ten per day’ aim. I chose Advanced French 1, and Advanced German 1 – and as I write now, I have mastered 106 items!

There are some great things about Memrise:

  • The UX is lovely. Both the app and the site are brilliantly designed and the navigation is intuitive. I knew what I was doing as soon as I started using it (and I wish I could say the same about lots of other language-learning apps out there!).
  • You can see your progress. It’s great to revisit items that you’re struggling to remember – or even items that you haven’t seen in a while – thanks to the long-term memory function.
  • The gamification is fun. Well, er… yes. That’s the point. Although I question the popularity of the app when I can study 20min of French in a week and still be in the Top 10 on a leaderboard. Are there really so few people studying French? Has anyone ever not been in the Top 10 of a leaderboard?
  • There is a variety of task types: multiple choice, scrambled phrases, lexical chunks, translations… they really force the user to engage with the content, and also prevent task fatigue.
  • It’s free. Enough said.

But there are some not-so-great things about Memrise, too:

  • In many user-created sets, the language grading is virtually non-existent. I have no idea what makes any word in Advanced French 1 ‘advanced’, but it definitely has nothing to do with the CEFR. Le cauchemar (‘nightmare’) and je suis PACSé (roughly the equivalent of ‘I’m in a civil partnership’) are in the same set, as is les juifs malmenés par l’histoire (‘Jews mistreated by history’). User-created sets are great because it means you can personalize your own content – and of course Memrise gets a load of content for nothing – but with this comes the irritation that what someone else has created may not fit with your requirements. Or it may be wrong (le bac is not ‘a tub’…).
  • The quality of the distractors can be compromised. Multiple choice task distractors are usually taken from the current or directly preceding vocabulary set – which makes sense. However, when a vocabulary set can contain long phrases as well as single items (see above), it’s pretty easy to get everything right by guessing on item length alone. I lent my phone to a non-French-speaking friend and she managed to score just as well as I did, despite not understanding anything she had ‘learnt.’

From my point of view, the ‘not-so-great things’ about Memrise compromise the app. Weak content does not support the learner. And it’s mainly user-created content – so the quality is likely to vary wildly.

But despite all of this (issues that would simply not fly if they were to crop up in an ELT publisher’s materials), I am actually learning these new words – and they’re sticking.

So now what?

Ten per day: testing my commitment

If you work in ELT and haven’t liked the British Council Teaching English page on Facebook yet, I have words for you: like it. Like it now. Rarely a day goes by without an intriguing post – be it a lesson plan, activity template, or professional development tip. I’m hooked!

One of the posts that caught my eye this month was a short video featuring Sandy Millin, Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz. In the clip, Sandy recommends studying English independently for ten minutes every day in order to learn and achieve more.

Ten minutes is a manageable goal. I’ve told many students the same thing – ‘just ten minutes! It will make so much difference!’ – but I’ve never stuck to the plan myself.

Well, the time has come to practise what I preach! My German tutor will be away for most of December and January and, without someone to set me homework and provide a focus for my learning, I know that I’ll struggle to motivate myself to study.

My lack of motivation isn’t just a problem when it comes to German. Although I attend a Russian conversation class once a week, I do nothing else to maintain my Russian language level – or build on it. And don’t get me started on my French…

In December I intend to work on all three languages – studying for ten minutes per day – and hopefully build up a routine that will take me into the New Year and beyond. I’ll start the day with ten minutes of reading in Russian over breakfast, spend ten minutes at lunchtime looking at the French news or playing on Memrise, and go to sleep after a quick burst of German vocabulary study or a few pages of Der Vorleser (current German novel of choice).

And of course, I’ll evaluate my progress here. Stay tuned!