Most of us would most love to become polyglots or at least very fluent in a certain language. Naturally, becoming a polyglot is no easy task and involves thousands of hours of exposure to input in the target language and/or more formal study. If we look at some of the best-known polyglots in the world today, such as Luca Lampariello, Alexander Arguelles, Steve Kaufmann, Stuart Jay Raj, Alex Rawlings, and Richard Simcott, one thing becomes very clear: what all them have in common is not exactly an amazing talent for language learning, but a deep knowledge of how to learn languages.
Part of optimizing our language learning time and becoming a language master is knowing what tools to employ when learning a foreign language. There are literally thousands of online and mobile tools out there, so picking those that provide you with real value is an essential part of the language learning process.
Here are 6 amazingly useful tools for giving your language learning a boost. Enjoy!
Lingua.ly is one of the best tools available today for helping users make progress in a foreign language, with a focus on reading practice and vocabulary acquisition. The Lingua.ly system (Figure 1) is available in four flavors: as a Chrome extension, a Web app, an iOS app, and an Android app.
Since these four versions vary somewhat in terms of their available features, the focus of this article is on the Chrome extension and on the Web App, which work hand in hand.
Regardless of what platform you decide to use Lingua.ly on, the system will automatically synchronize all your information and data on all devices. Currently, the system supports the following learning languages: English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and German, although users can have these learning languages translated to a larger number of languages, including Mandarin and Turkish. As our readers will notice, the system is more suitable for those learners that already have a minimum amount of knowledge in the language and can read at least basic sentences.
The Chrome Extension
With the Chrome extension, users can be reading any online content on a webpage, Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter, and click on any word they do not understand in the foreign language. Users will then see a pop-up box containing various useful nuggets of information (Figure 2). They will be able to listen to the pronunciation of the word they clicked on by a native speaker of the language, learn whether the word is a noun/verb/adjectives/adverb or another part of speech and also see its translation both in the context of the original sentence the word was found in, as well as other possible meanings the word may take in the language (ordered according to frequency). All the above features make it easier for learners to understand the meaning of words in context and in real time.
Even if Lingua.ly stopped here, this would already be a quite useful tool for language learners. However, the system goes further and it is perhaps here that it excels. Enters the Web App.
The Web App
Once users click on a word they do not know in an online text, the word (along with its pronunciation, original sentence, part of speech, and translation) is added to a flashcard database for future study. This feature ensures that users will indeed acquire that word, which would not usually happen if they only encountered it once. The word flashcards created in the system also include a picture representing the meaning of the word collected, as well as other example sentences in the target language where the word appears (Figure 3).
Although in some cases the picture does not necessarily correspond to the exact meaning of the word as it was found in the original sentence but instead to another alternative meaning, users have the ability to customize their flashcard images and choose the image that they prefer.
The Practice feature in the Lingua.ly Web App (Figure 4) allows users to assess knowledge of their collected words by means of a spaced-repetition system, through which users are tested on their collected words at the most appropriate time intervals, depending on how strong their current knowledge of a given word is.
Last but not least, the Lingua.ly Web App (as well as the iOS and Android versions) offers users, through a feature called Lingua.ly Feed (Figure 5), the ability to read recently-published articles that are personalized and authentic in the language they are currently learning.
Users can select articles that they are interested in on a variety of topics. The topics (19 in all) include Technology, Science, Entertainment, Business, Health, Politics, and various others. What makes the reading material in the Feed personalized is the fact that no two users will receive the same reading suggestions within a given category. The article suggestions are based on the vocabulary a specific user has collected through the Lingua.ly system, so as to give them further exposure to and practice with those words in other authentic contexts, through materials they care about and want to engage with. As a result, the more words users collect, the better the reading suggestions in the system become.
What would make Lingua.ly an even better tool is the ability for users to select a longer stretch of text on the screen and have its translation automatically shown to them in their language of choice, on the same screen as the text they selected. This would reduce the need for users to use external sources such as Google Translate (reviewed below) for translating whole or partial sentences they may encounter. Having the translation for the alternative example sentences in the flashcards would also be a quite useful feature.
All in all, Lingua.ly is a tool that every language learner would benefit from having in their language learning toolbox.
Anki is a powerful tool for any serious language learner, especially those looking to increase their vocabulary fast. The software is available in three forms: desktop, mobile (both iPhone and Android), and laptop/tablet. All of these can be synchronized with one another, although the iPhone version is unfortunately not free of charge (currently $24.99). Nevertheless, iPhone users should not be upset; think of it as one of the best investments you will ever make. Despite not being a language learning tool per se, the spaced-repetition program can be used for memorizing any content in a short amount of time (Figure 6).
The basic idea behind Anki is that of a digital flashcard with two sides. What goes on the front and back of the card is entirely up to and must be entered by the user. Anki accepts text, audio, or images as input. Benny (The Irish Polyglot), from Fluent in 3 Months, has a Youtube video showing how to use Anki for learning vocabulary through text, although he does not make use of the very useful text-to-speech (TTS) and gesture capabilities of Anki in the video linked above. These features will be discussed shortly.
Given the editing flexibility of Anki, one can use it for passive (L2 à L1) or active (L1 à L2) practice of word meaning, reading or listening, spelling practice, synonym memorization, and much more. In Figure 7 below, readers can see a picture of what the front of the card would look like if an English speaker learning German as a foreign language would like to practice some German verbs (without any audio or images here). He or she would see the cue in English and try to think of the corresponding German word (active recall).
Once ready, the learner can check if their answer is correct by comparing it against the back of the card, as can be seen in Figure 8.
At the bottom of the screen, the user can indicate how easy it was to remember the German translation of the English verb, which is the spaced-repetition algorithm in action. The harder it was to remember it, the sooner the user will be tested on that word or phrase again. This feature differentiates Anki from other flashcard programs such as Quizlet.
A text-to-speech (TTS) capability can be added through the AwesomeTTS for Anki add-on and basically adds machine-generated pronunciation to whatever text users input to the card. The pronunciation feature is available in dozens of languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, German, English and Japanese. This can be very helpful for listening, pronunciation, and for grapheme-to-phoneme-mapping practice in Anki, especially for languages that do not employ the Roman alphabet.
Another feature of Anki that most users are not aware of and which can really enhance their vocabulary and speed up the total number of words they could learn in a day is the possibility of not having to look at the screen in order to use the program. By associating certain buttons at the bottom of the screen (Figure 8) with specific finger swipes, users can free their eyes and engage in language learning on the go, such as while riding their bikes, in the car, on the bus, while walking on the street, and so on, although I advise that such a strategy be employed with caution and responsibility. To fully explore the possibility of learning a large number of words a day, text-to-speech should also be used.
In the future, Anki users would benefit from having the option of listening to natural, native-speaker pronunciation of the words they add (this would be logistically much harder for sentences), from sources such as Forvo.
Tatoeba is a platform for language leaners based on the idea of a crowd-sourced parallel corpus. A corpus is simply the name given to any collection of texts. A parallel corpus is a collection of texts that have been translated into dozens of languages by human translators. Although there are a large number of corpora currently available, the (ever-expanding) corpus in Tatoeba is completely contributed by users of the system.
In Tatoeba, users can find example sentences in the target language of their interest that contain certain words, phrases, or expressions they would like to learn and see in context. Users have two options in terms of specific languages. One is to pre-specify what language pairs they are interested in (such as Spanish à English), as shown in Figure 9.
Alternatively, users may want to see the translation in all available languages to which the specific word or sentence they are looking for has already been translated (Figure 10). Notice that the search can be done in any of the available languages, which include Urdu, Welsh, Ukrainian, Cantonese, Ewe, and dozens others. Naturally, languages with a higher number of speakers will have more translations.
Some of the sentences will have human-recorded audio to go with them, but these are still a minority of the sentences available for any given language (even for English, only 28.5% of the sentences have been recorded). In Figure 11, we can see a list of the sentences containing the most translated sentences as well as those containing the most recordings.
Tatoeba also contains a good search syntax, through which users can specify whether they are interested only in phrases containing their exact words in the exact order entered, all words specified regardless of order, only in sentences where certain other words do not appear, and so on (Figure 12).
Additionally, users can favorite sentences for future study as well as leave comments on sentences. Last but not least, Tatoeba is a fantastic complement to the Lingua.ly Feed, since it contains a large number of simpler sentences than one would find in the articles suggested through the Lingua.ly Feed. Not only that, but the Lingua.ly Chrome Extension also works on the Tatoeba website, so it is perfect synergy.
Tatoeba is a especially valuable tool for learners who are still at the beginning stages in the foreign language and need to see manageable sentences in which certain words or phrases appear.
Despite a quite simple interface, Tatoeba is a fantastic tool for leaners at all levels.
Linguee partially overlaps with Tatoeba, but the platform is different enough and provides enough differentiated value to merit inclusion in this list. Some of the features of Linguee include the following:
- It can be used for individual word translation as well as for phrase translations.
- It employs much larger and varied corpora than Tatoeba (currently, there are approximately 1 billion sentences in Linguee), since the translations are gathered from innumerous reliable web sources instead of coming from users of the system (Figure 13)
- Similarly to Tatoeba, every single sentence is based on human translation, not machine translation.
- The system offers a large number of word-level and phrase-level translations curated by the Linguee team in every language available, which includes the most frequent translations for certain words and phrases. It also includes automatic, Google-style auto-fill suggestions of the most common expressions that typed words are found in in the foreign language of interest (Figure 14).
- Audio is only available for the curated word/phrase translations and only for some of the languages, but the pronunciation and enunciation in these recordings are studio-recorded and therefore crystal clear.
Given the large number of human-translated sentences in the various languages, (approximately 25), many users could benefit from Linguee by searching for terms that they would like to find out how to translate into another language, such as for a college paper, website project, technical document, and other situations. Naturally, different translations will be offered in the foreign language for the same source language term(s) depending on the specific context of usage, so users will still need to be critical when checking for the correct translation. This becomes quite easy once users are accustomed to the system.
In Figure 15, we can see the available languages (on the left) and the languages they can be translated to (in this case, Polish has been chosen as the source language on the left).
Although the majority of languages can be translated into all other available languages, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese can only be translated into/from English at the time of this writing.
In sum, Linguee is an excellent, corpus-based language learning tool that can benefit learners at any given level of proficiency in the available foreign languages. It offers a richness of content that is hard to beat and allows users to really get into the subtleties of each language.
Google Translate is one of the most frequently cited tools for language learning. As many of the readers of this blog may know, Google makes use of machine translation, which is based on a computational model that tries to infer translations given an enormous quantity of parallel corpora. Since Google Translate (Figure 16) is able to translate virtually any phrase or sentence that the user may enter or select (there is a browser extension available), it is understandable that the quality of the translations will certainly not be as accurate as human-based ones, as seen in Tatoeba and Linguee. Nevertheless, Google Translate can be a quite useful tool, especially when all that is needed is a quick, rough translation.
Google Translate is available in almost 100 languages, which is quite impressive. Naturally, the quality of the automatic translations will depend on the amount of parallel corpora available to Google for a given language pair. For instance, the translation quality between Russian – English (both directions) is certainly much better than that between Maltese – Irish. Because of this, translations through Google Translate must not always (or even most often than not) be taken to be completely accurate. I will focus here on four ways in which language learners can benefit from using Google Translate, especially for language learning on the go.
Speech to Text (STT) and Text to Speech (TTS)
For many of the languages available, Google Translate offers users the possibility of speaking into the microphone and having the speech input transformed to text (STT), as shown in Figure 17. Users can also type text in any of the languages supported by the STT system and have it read out loud to them, through Google’s text to speech (TTS) system. It must be noted that the quality of the voices differs significantly.
The female voice for Brazilian Portuguese, for example, sounds like someone who has just had one too many shots at a bar (very slurred and unnatural speech), whereas the voice for Serbian sounds like a robot straight from a sci-fi movie. Intonation, pauses, and sentence stress are also three things that Google Translate is still a long way of getting right for pretty much every language it offers. The pronunciation for languages such as English and French is considerably better, but still not as good as in iTranslate Voice (to be reviewed next).
Users can also write on the screen with their fingers and have Google transform the written content to digital text. This function would perhaps be useful for those who would like to practice writing words in the target language on their mobile phone, instead of typing them. We draw to the attention or readers at this point that any of the text output in Google Translate can be starred (saved) for future reference (Figure 18). I personally use this save feature so I later add the sentences I am interested in to Anki.
Google Translate offers several virtual keyboards that users may employ for typing in different languages. We can see in Figure 19 the various virtual keyboards offered for Chinese.
A recent feature made available in Google Translate is the ability for users to focus their phone camera on a piece of foreign language text and have it automatically translated through Google Translate. Although this serves as a rough on-the-go translation (such as when you may be looking at a Japanese menu at a restaurant in Tokyo), results are much better when the scan button is used and the image containing the text is first scanned before being translated. Users can then use their fingers to select the parts of the scanned picture that they want to have translated (Figure 20).
These are the four features that usually set Google Translate apart from other resources. However, as we will see in our last tool for this post, iTranslate Voice offers some of the same functionalities as Google, with the exception of the virtual keyboards for non-Roman alphabets and the finger writing option. On the other hand, whatever it offers is often times actually better than Google Translate.
iTranslate Voice is a less known translation app (only 10,000 downloads so far in the Google Play Store) but one that has the potential to make it big soon, in my opinion. The comments below refer to the Android version of the app, which has somewhat different functionalities from the iPhone version (the latter offers a couple extra features).
Although iTranslate Voice (Figure 21) does not offer the finger-writing or the virtual keyboard features of Google Translate, it does offer text-to-speech (TTS) and speech-to-text (STT) at a quality that certainly surpasses that of Google Translate. In addition to offering TTS for some of the languages that Google Translate does not (such as Hebrew, Canadian French, Egyptian Arabic, and European Portuguese, among others), the quality of both the written translations and that of the voices employed is often considerably better (Figure 22) than those provided by Google Translate, which is quite a feat.
Translated sentences can be saved to the Phrasebook (Figure 23), although this functionality still needs to be improved by the iTranslate team in order to be truly useful for language learners.
One of the major problems with the Phrasebook currently is that it tends to save the pronunciation for the original sentence (source language), instead of the translated one (target language). Naturally, if I say something in English and requested that it be translated to Hungarian, I would rather have the Hungarian audio saved, not the English one. Apart from the currently suboptimal Phrasebook, the app is certainly a precious tool for language learners, especially busy ones who are always on the go.
To Sum Up
The 6 language learning tools discussed in this blog post are tools that I always keep easily available when I am learning a foreign language. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it aims to focus on useful free tools that can benefit language learners who prefer to study on their own. In a future post, I will discuss other great tools that rely on crowd-sourcing for boosting language learning.
About the Author
Victor D.O. Santos is PhD student in Applied Linguistics and Technology and a freelance consultant for language learning and assessment companies. He has a background in Linguistics and Computational Linguistics. Originally from Brazil, he can easily get by in 5 languages and is currently learning a Slavic language. You can reach him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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