Repeated colours - repetition in resources like Glossika can be key to securing fluency. Image from freeimages.com

Getting Repetitive : Securing Foundations with Glossika

I’ve reached a milestone on one of my favourite platforms this week – 8,000 Greek repetitions on Glossika.

8,000 is a weird number to celebrate, I hear you say. Well, yes – I was going to wait until the magic 10,000 to sound the klaxon. But it’s still a nice round number, after all.

And the truth is, I’ve started to see huge benefits even before hitting five figures.

Greek has been my great lockdown revival project. I spent some time learning it in my twenties for travel, but had more or less left it to go stale since then. The decision to use Glossika to revive it was partly one of curiosity, having read the success stories online (admittedly on Glossika’s marketing site!) and dabbled with it a fair bit in the past. But I’d also hit upon the benefits of mass sentence techniques independently, and wanted to try an out of the box technique just for the convenience of a quick start.

A Do-Over From the Ground Up

The thing is, the starter material is actually quite low-level stuff. Many of the A1 and A2 sentences are pretty basic in terms of grammatical complexity and vocabulary. What’s more, this set of basic material is recycled over and over again in sets of sentences that often differ very little from each other. 

But it’s exactly that ground-floor, base-level language that makes up the bulk of everyday speech. Practising this core material so intensively creates a super solid foundation for conversational fluency.

And the effect is really quite astonishing.

Just a year of Greek, and my conversational fluency has surpassed my Polish, which doggedly remains around A2 (B1 if I really try hard – let’s call it B0.5!). My Greek accent and prosody feel quite natural; I’ve developed a Greek voice. And it’s not because Glossika has taught me a raft of complicated grammar and vocabulary. It’s because it has titanium-plated my basic foundations in the language.

In short, I feel comfortable with Greek now.

An Additional Tool

Glossika isn’t a perfect or a totally self-contained system, of course (what is?). For one thing, I wouldn’t recommend it as the sole learning route for a total beginner. I’ve tried it – I felt totally lost. Before starting Swahili last year, I attempted to work through the first set of sentences in Glossika’s A1 course. Without a bit of pre-existing grammar knowledge and general language structure, I found the forms completely confusing. I had more questions than answers.

On the other hand, if you are a returner learner, or already have the basics – even if that’s simply some A1 words and phrases – Glossika’s mass sentence drilling can give your language skills a fuel injection.

As for me, I’m at 8,000 and counting. My next step is to introduce it into my other languages, particularly Polish, which is my lifelong challenge (and frequent nemesis!). It’s about time I gave that a leg-up!

Glossika is a premium product with a price to match, but can prove its worth many times over with a bit of commitment.

Glossika : The Mass Sentence Drill Machine

Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

For a start, they’re wise. And they love learning. Well, at least in educational lore, having long been considered symbols of all things academic. They make very apt representatives for our language learning knowledge quests. Little wonder then, that two popular language platforms, Duolingo and Glossika, have adopted our feathered friends as their respective mascots.

On the surface they might not appear particularly alike. Different breeds of owl, if you like. But the contrasting plumage hides a strong family resemblance. In fact, their approaches to teaching languages are very similar. Both teach via a vast bank of sample sentences, incorporating spaced repetition techniques to lodge vocab and structures in memory. Both platforms employ a similar listen-read-type system to drill three of the four core language learning skills. And both offer an impressive (and growing) array of languages. For their different colours, those owls are quite alike (although we’re sure they would deny it vociferously!).

So, in a battle of the owls, who comes out on top?

Pricing

Let’s get this one out of the way first: they follow very different access models. All Duolingo content is free to access, with a paid tier to remove ads if required. Those ads aren’t too intrusive, however, simply sandwiched between lessons.

On the other hand, Glossika is subscription-based. The price tag of up to $30 a month will seem like a hefty price for many. That said, there always seems to be some discount code floating around the internet for Glossika, so with save with some internet sleuthing. Students can also get special pricing of $13.50 a month.

Glossika has an extra-special secret, though. Minority languages under a degree of threat are completely free to learn. In fact, Glossika’s free Gaelic course was the route that led me to the platform in the first place. In addition, you can learn Catalan, Hakka (Hailu and Sixian), Kurdish, Manx, Taiwanese Hokkien, Welsh and Wenzhounese (Wu) via the technique for not a penny. These are full courses, featuring the same sentence set as the platform’s mainstream languages. 

🦉 Free is hard to beat, but Glossika’s admirable ethos of supporting endangered languages makes this one a draw.

Mass Sentences

Arguably, the price of Glossika is justified by its quite unique offering. Namely, its bank of thousands of sentences per language are no arbitrary choice. They represent high-frequency vocabulary and language patterns that support fluency training. It is a purposeful, statistics-driven mass-sentence technique.

In the face of this, Duolingo’s approach certainly feels a little more random. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the platform target its plethora of often silly and whacky example sentences. It depends on the learner, of course. Personally, I love the strange and bizarre phrases that crop up in Duolingo exercises. They make for a greater salience in the learning material, and salience is the friend of memory.

And we should consider another aspect here: Glossika rolls out more or less the same set of sentences for every language. One the one hand, this is great for keeping your languages in sync as a kind of language audit. On the other, it leads to some minor irritations. For example, names and places are not translated, which is a missed opportunity to introduce some cultural material. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve silently cursed when having to type Ταϊπέι (Taipei) into Glossika in Greek.

By comparison, Duolingo fully embraces difference. The recent Finnish course, for example, celebrates uniquely local terms like sisu, and introduces a raft of common Finnish names. Likewise, the Norwegian and Swedish courses are celebrated by fans for their wry take on Scandinavian life. Of course, the fresh take on every language does mean that the courses do not match up in any shape or form. Trying to keep your polyglot knowledge in sync? You’re on your own.

🦉 Close, but let’s call that one another draw. This race is neck-and-neck!

Order, Order!

Mass-sentence cramming makes no sense without a clear progression in level. Both platforms steer the user through a well-defined path that increases in difficulty. However, Duolingo allows for a bit of freedom in user choice. Learners can progress to the next topic after levelling up to just the first of five experience levels (although many of us prefer to gold them up first).

Glossika, on the other hand, is less flexible; you have to work the list of sentences through exactly as the program intends. There is some leeway, though. You can choose to start at any of Glossika’s language-ladder checkpoints. If the basics are too simple, skip ahead to B1 – simple. What’s more, you can choose to ignore sentences you deem unhelpful or not useful as you work through them.

Glossika’s one-size-fits-all ethos is its undoing again here, though. As the sentence corpus is ordered identically for each language, you end up seeing quite complex structures in certain languages very early on. The reason simply seems to be that languages more recently added to the platform map differently onto English compared to Glossika’s original set of languages. Thus, they lack the one-to-one, simple correspondence to basic phrases in English that these first languages have in the beginners’ levels.

In A1 Gaelic, for example, some complex, idiosyncratic structures pop up within the first hundred sentences. Unlike languages like French and Spanish, Gaelic does not use a standard, vanilla verb for ‘to know’. Instead, periphrastic structures are used. The relatively straightforward English sentence “I know lots of people” is rendered in Glossika’s translation as “Is aithne dhomsa tòrr dhaoine” (literally, knowledge is to me of many people). There is no explanation of how this structure works – it is simply presented as is. However, it encompasses features like prepositional pronouns and the genitive case, which probably belong in intermediate-level grammar material. In contrast, Duolingo units are generally tailored to language-specific grammar points, with accompanying notes on usage.

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

The two platforms have a wholly different take on error catching, too. Duolingo is the more forgiving of the two, allowing the odd typo in an answer. Glossika takes a much stricter approach, demanding exact spelling, accurate diacritics and even on-point punctuation before accepting an answer. Which side you take in this battle depends on how much a stickler for perfection you are.

One minor niggle, however, is Glossika’s pickiness for speech marks. To my mind, punctuation is of least concern when learning a language. However, leave out a comma, or use an exclamation mark instead of a full-stop, and Glossika marks an answer incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat an exercise because of this.

In short, I find myself in the middle of this debate. Duolingo is a bit too forgiving; I’ve noticed it accept some quite liberal interpretations of Gaelic spelling! On the other hand, Glossika seems like a rather mean master at times.

Helping hands

Glossika pulls it all back with one nifty quirk, though: you can leave accents out. Purists will throw their hands up in horror at the very thought. But in the very early stages of learning, this can be a real boon. It’s hard enough for a beginner to remember where the accents come in  “στον σιδηροδρομικό σταθμό” (to the railway station) without stressing about stressing!

Glossika also edges ahead on alternative input. Some Duolingo courses in non-Latin alphabet languages allow for Latin alpha input, but support is not always complete, as with Greeklish. Conversely, Latin keyboard support is solid across Glossika’s language offerings. And even within Latin alphabet languages, there are helping hands – you can substitute Icelandic ð with d and þ with th, if you really struggle with foreign keyboard layouts, for example.

Of course it makes sense, in the long run, to learn how to type in Greek, Russian and so on. But it’s nice to have the option to get off to a quicker start.

🦉 The owls are evenly matched here, it seems, but they could both learn from each other.

Voices

With listening skills being, for many, the biggest challenge in language learning, speech is everything. How platforms approach the production of native sounds can be a deal-clincher.

Glossika is exclusively human in this respect. Every recording is a native speaker. That is an important consideration for many learners, who prefer human voices over digital text-to-speech. Usually, the same speaker narrates the whole course, but on other courses (Polish, for example), different voice artists are used.

The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes, a voice will grate. As for me, I’m not overly keen on the choice of Icelandic voice. On the other hand, I find the Greek voice is really neutral and pleasant to listen to. It is very much pot luck.

On the other side of the coin, we have text-to-speech, which has come a long way since its early days. Duolingo makes a lot of use of this technology in many of its courses (although some, like Gaelic, Irish and Swahili, still use recordings of human speakers). The benefit to TTS is a smooth, very neutral voice in the target language, as opposed to occasionally, decidedly hit-and-miss recordings in the others. And the digital standard has not stood still – recently, the platform updated its Norwegian and Polish voices, which both now sound even more natural.

🦉 A lot of this is down to personal preference. Yet another draw?

Community

Finally, the true mettle of a platform may well lie in its users. And – spoiler alert – here is where Duolingo plays a real blinder.

Duolingo’s forum has always been a lively place, thanks largely to its armies of users. But the outfit makes particularly clever use of this by layering the forum on top of the actual content. Every single sentence is linked to a discussion thread where users can talk and ask question about it. An active bunch of moderators keep tabs on everything, which means that it’s never long before you get that explanation you really need to understand a structure. The result is an incredibly finely granulated repository of learning content. Kudos to the platform for spotting the potential of that.

Now, Glossika does have a well-maintained blog, which is open for comments and discussion, as well as a Facebook user group. But the level of interaction achieved on Duolingo is hard to beat.

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

Despite that last resounding victory, I have to admit it: those owls are pretty evenly matched on the whole. No twit (twoo) here. Duolingo and Glossika do similar things in subtly different ways, and thereby manage to complement each other nicely. That’s the reason both of them are essential items in my own daily language learning tactics.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to learn in all of this. By joining forces and creating an app arsenal, we are much more likely to smash those language learning goals. The moral of the tale?

Two owls are always better than one.

What are your favourite aspects of these platforms? Or do you combine other apps that complement each other in similar ways? Let us know in the comments!

– no background info on each translation, which is problematic – for example, are we learning polite or familiar ‘you’ in some sentences?
+ presented with several ways to say the same thing – some say that shows real mastery! From Gaelic, for example, a’ sileadh and an t-uisge, snog and gasta, acrach and an t-acras air, sìde and aimsir.

A page from a German dictionary with the translation of various words. Image from freeimages.com.

Avoiding the Translation Crutch in Language Learning

I was on a mission this week: to minimise the interference of English translation in my language learning.

You are probably familiar with the scenario – that slow, faltering, stoppy-starty feel to conversation in a language you are learning. In those early stages, what we want to say often pops up in our native language first; then, we try to translate it into the target language on the fly. The inefficiency of it all is so frustrating.

Independence from translation is one of the super-skills of fluent foreign language use. But reaching that point, where Mentalese, the non-verbal code of thinking, bypasses your first tongue and goes straight to the target one, can seem a far-off ideal.

Translation is Everywhere

The problem is, we are constantly nudged to think of languages in terms of equivalencies. Just look at the most popular e-learning tools. Duolingo, Memrise, Glossika and many, many others default to translation exercises for drilling vocabulary. Even the setup of our beloved Anki assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new words you learn and some native matching pair.

Translation has its place, of course, and not only because of its very long pedigree as the classical language learning method of choice. If you have ever leafed through some old Teach Yourself volumes, for example, it was once the only way anybody ever considered learning or teaching a language.

And it has its success stories. Some very successful polyglots have achieved stunning results with translation. Take Luca Lampariello’s bidirectional translation technique, for instance. Similarly, the Assimil courses, based on side-by-side bilingual dialogues, continue to be incredibly popular.

It remains a rational starting point for the absolute beginner. For one thing, we need something to hook new words and phrases onto when we learn them. As such, even those old translation-based courses have their uses. I learnt masses of vocabulary and grammar from an ancient copy of Teach Yourself Polish. The only snag is, I still manipulate them quite clumsily and unnaturally in conversation, thanks to that translation bias.

Is there a better way to run, once we have learnt to walk?

Minimising abstractions

One route to weakening the native-hook reliance is to mimic how children acquire language: to tie new language directly to mental representations of the real world. If we see words as abstract symbols representing real-world concepts, then the translation method simply adds a second level of abstraction. No wonder it slows us down in higher-level speaking.

Some apps adopt an approach that minimises this reliance upon the native language. For instance, when Drops presents a new term, the translation is flashed up briefly with the pictogram to avoid misinterpretation. But beyond that point, its activities rely only upon the image, not the English translation.

Can we integrate that kind of non-verbal representation into our independent learning?

Helping hands

Well, one way I have explored recently is through physical signing – a kind of personal sign language. It is a good fit, to be honest. I can be a bit of a ‘hand talker’ in any case, as a visual thinker. My hands have a communicative mind of their own, and like to form shapes of their own accord along with the sounds that come out of my mouth.

Why not, in that case, enlist that trait in the battle to ‘de-English’ my foreign languages?

I start by forming the shape of the idea or concept with my hands as I say the target word out loud. Some signs are easier than others, but since they are purely personal cues, they can be as obtuse as you like. ‘Get’, for example, is a movement of the hands towards the body. For ‘rest’, I smooth out a flat surface before my body, as if preparing a bed to lie on, or painting a calm sea. The hope is that future retrieval of the word comes from a non-verbal representation, rather than an English translation.

Of course, you could also make this signing official. Fully-fledged sign languages have highly complex systems for expressing concepts like tense. For a kinaesthetic learner, these could offer very flexible support techniques to couple all sorts of grammatical features in a spoken language with a non-verbal memory cue.

Better meta

The native language trap is set when we talk about features of the target language, too. This might be with teachers and peers, but also when using text books and grammars written for a non-native audience.

Fortunately, squashing this bug is an easy win. You can go meta with your language skills by equipping yourself with the necessary speaking tools. By learning terms like ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ in the target language, you can work on grammar acquisition in a monolingual environment rather than resources meant for foreign learners.

Similarly, you might consider supporting the growing wave of social media content creators turning away from English and using the target language for discussion of polyglot themes. It can be a tough call, balancing a desire for linguistic diversity with inclusivity. But more and more members of the community are switching on to the idea.

Triangulation

All that said, some resources are just too good to write off just because they use a drill-by-translation approach. But all is not lost: you can change the base, or native language, in many of them. Simply make a different language your ‘native’ one!

Admittedly, this only works well when you have at least one strong foreign language already. You switch the base language of the app or resource to one of these, triangulating your learning with by linking two foreign languages. The bonus pay-off: it helps to maintain your stronger language, too.

A well-used triangulation tactic is to work through a Duolingo course designed for speakers of another language, such as German for Spanish speakers. In Glossika, too, you can change the base language to completely upend the environment, and avoid native translation as your method. Alternatively, if you are following your own DIY mass sentences programme, repositories like Tatoeba offer the same feature.

Translation Options in Glossika - a screen showing Polish and Norwegian (Nynorsk).

You can’t get away from translation in Glossika. But you CAN escape your native language. Here is a Norwegian (Nynorsk) sentence for learning, with Polish support.

The same works the old-fashioned way too, of course. It is easy enough to get hold of learning materials for a different native language audience, just like those alternative Duolingo courses. Assimil editions, for example, are available chiefly in French and German, like the Greek course for German speakers below.

A picture of the book "Griechiesch ohne Mühe" (Greek with Ease) by Assimil.

“Griechiesch ohne Mühe” (Greek with Ease) by Assimil – my latest acquisition for avoiding English translation!

Personally, I love building up a library of double-foreign language teaching materials – there is something really fun about constructing a web of all your language projects without everything revolving around English at the centre.

Gaining Your Wings: Comprehensible Input

At some point, of course, translation becomes a moot point. The stabilisers come off, and your level is enough to operate with authentic materials produced for a home audience.

When you reach lift-off velocity – say, A2 or B1 – you can do away with the translation crutch altogether. This is the point where you can start to ‘mass sentence’ up your skills the native way, through exposure to real-world media, and the copious reading and listening that comes with that.

Getting to this point whilst minimising translation is the real feat, though. If you can manage that, you will be well on the way to thinking directly in the target language.

Good luck gaining your own wings!

Headphones - perhaps to listen to Glossika with! From freeimages.com

Getting Polyglossic with Glossika : Making Language Learning *Massive*

I’ve always liked the ‘mass sentences’ approach for supplementing and boosting your language learning. The idea is that you take a huge corpus of quality, target language sentences, and use them as your source material. It’s a quick route to massive exposure. It’s the idea behind Tatoeba, which is a fantastic, crowd-sourced resource. But, more commercially, it’s also the approach of Glossika, a popular resource in the polyglot community. I finally got round to giving it a whirl lately to see what all the fuss was about.

Glossika has been around for a while already. They are available in a very impressive array of languages (think: Routledge’s Colloquial series but for mass sentences). Until recently, they were chiefly available as book / CD sets, like this level 1 Japanese course. However, the materials are now available for subscription through Glossika’s website, making it much easier to trial and access their range.

Now, one thing that always put me off was the price. Glossika courses are on the expensive side, approaching the Rosetta Stone level of pricing. At anything up to £100 per level on Amazon for the physical media right now, and with three levels in the core languages, that’s a hefty price to pay for the promise of fluency. The website, however, now adds a more affordable way to access the courses at $24.99 a month (billed annually, currently around £19).

Still, this comes in more expensive than other popular, paid web language platforms like Babbel (as little as £4.75 a month) and Memrise Pro (from $2.50 / about £2 a month). Admittedly, Glossika’s overheads are probably a fair bit higher, with that vast amount of native speaker recording they must have to do. But what benefits do you get for that extra cash?

What Glossika does well

I’ve now spent just over a week using the website, performing repeated Icelandic repetitions. Remarkably, I have already noticed an improvement in my speaking confidence. I think this comes down to two things.

Accent and prosody

The Glossika method is a fantastic way to train your ‘muscle memory’ for speaking in the target language. The listen-repeat method is a blunt instrument, and as old as the hills, but there’s little better for perfecting your accent.

As some of the sentences are quite lengthy, the system is also great for internalising prosody, or the natural rhythm, of your target language. This has the knock-on effect of improving your listening skills, too. After a week of Glossika, I felt that my comprehension of spoken Icelandic had edged forward.

Language patterns

The material also hammers into your head reams and reams of model sentences. On the face of it, you might take this as passive, parrot-fashion learning. In fact, though, the sheer number of them facilitates the pattern-matching parts of your brain. Tricky, colloquial turns of phrase start to become more familiar, and you start to pick up phrases that can act as adaptable frameworks for more spontaneous speaking.

Icelandic (much like German, Polish and Russian) can sometimes collapse into a blur of declensions and conjugations for the learner. The language’s particular mountain to climb (in my experience) is adjectival endings, which seem as numerous as the stars. Through a week of sentence modelling with Glossika, some of the trickier ones are finally falling into place through repeated exposure.

Glossika gripes

Nothing is perfect, of course. A couple of things stand out as needing attention and improvement in Glossika, namely:

Voice choice

Some of the voices aren’t the most mellifluous. The Icelandic voice grated on me a bit, and there were no alternative options (male/female voice, for example, like the uTalk software has done so successfully in the past). That goes especially for the smaller languages, where there is no variety of voice at all. If you don’t like the voice, you’re stuck with it.

Unnecessary conversions

One very weird quirk is that the translators have often opted to convert prices and measurements, quite unnecessarily. One example gives the English as ‘a buck, a Euro’, then gives the Icelandic as ‘120 kronur’. For a start, this is never going to stay accurate for very long, given currency fluctuations. And for another, what is the point? Surely it would be better to make both sentences reflect the Icelandic currency, give that it is an Icelandic course? Just odd.

Also strange is the choice of names and places for the sentences. I assume Glossika have tried to keep the sentence corpus similar between languages. This results in a slightly international flavour to people’s names and geographical locations given. That said, it would be nice to have a few Icelandic names and places thrown into the course. Instead of Brian, Mary, Madrid and Seattle, let’s try Ásgeir, Hafdís, Akureyri and Ísafjörður!

Alternatives to Glossika

The gripes are minor, though. On the whole, Glossika does seem to justify its expensive in terms of results. But, if you are still unconvinced about shelling out, there are a ways to get a similar sentence kick elsewhere.

Phrasebooks with audio

For a cheap, basic raft of target language sentences, you could use one of several tourist phrasebooks with included audio. The Rough Guide phrasebooks are pretty comprehensive, and a bargain at under a fiver (like their French phrasebook for just over £3!). Even better is the fact that the Rough Guide team has made the accompanying audio files available for free online, at this link. Perhaps not as massive as Glossika, but that’s scores of spoken sentences you can start with straight away.

Similarly, the In-Flight series by Living Language (such as In-Flight Polish) are handy and available for under a tenner each. They are so similar to the Glossika format that they almost double as a taster of the method.

Other sources of mass sentences

If it’s sheer numbers of sentences you’re after, look no further than Anki’s shared decks. Several users have created decks based on Tatoeba’s source material, some with sound included. And if not, no fear. With silent decks, you could try the AwesomeTTS text-to-speech add-on for Anki.

Finally, for the benefits of repetition and mimicry for your accent and ‘language muscle memory’, shadowing podcasts can provide a boost. For sure, podcasts are more chaotic than Glossika, lacking the didactic structure. With podcasts, you may have no clue what will come up. But there again, that unpredictability is a good mirror of real-world language.

Glossika – an unpolished gem worth a go

Certainly, you can replicate elements of the Glossika system using other materials. However, none of them quite have that large-scale, ‘sit back and soak it up’ feel that Glossika does. A very solid four stars from me, as those plus points far outweigh the niggles. With 1000 free repetitions (at least a fair few sessions) available for trial on the website, it’s definitely worth a test drive!