Honest & detailed review of the LingQ web-based learning system

Honest & detailed review of the LingQ web-based learning system

Benny

Update: LingQ is a paid system, and as I say in this review the only part I found to be truly unique was the reading interface, which is still $120/year for the basic version. Luckily there is now an open source and totally free alternative that fixes many problems I discuss in this post, especially the limitations of which language you can use it with.

Read this review if you are curious, but from now on I will simply recommend people go here instead: http://www.fluentin3months.com/learning-with-texts/

————-

Warning: Very long and detailed review!!

This month the majority of what I learn from German (other than in actual conversations) has and will be on various on-line and computer based input systems. (I usually focus on speaking more and learning from books). I believe I can improve my learning method using certain aspects of one or several of these systems, as many other people have been enjoying these tools to learn languages.

For the first week of the experiment I’ve been using the LingQ website and tools for several hours a day.

Before I start this review of LingQ I should point out two things.

Firstly, you can earn points for spending in LingQ from referrals to this system and I am choosing not to when I link to the page. This system has several paid aspects to it (I link to free alternatives where relevant), and I am not earning anything by referring new paid/unpaid users in all links except the example badge for illustrative purposes. I just want to share my opinion of the system and how it can be useful to people.

Secondly, the founder of this system, Steve Kaufmann, has sent a wave of negativity my way because he is uncomfortable with the advice I give on this blog. This means that I am not quite in the mood to do him any favours to be honest! Despite that I am recommending his site as a useful language learning tool, especially in its free form.

This review is an honest look at the 7 days (about 3 hours a day) that I have spent almost exclusively learning German through this system, and I’ll list all the pros (first part) and cons (second part) as I see them. I will be reviewing other systems in some detail too if I see they are worth discussing, to try to see how they may benefit people not previously familiar with them, and will choose aspects that I like from them to ultimately improve how I learn languages.

I thought I would do this for LiveMocha too for example, but can’t see it as useful except for some beginner-only courses, and will compare it along side other sites later specifically for the purposes of finding natives online to converse with, since I only see that aspect as useful to non-beginners. Since I may not be going into as much detail in other systems as I had hoped because of this beginner-focus, you can read a useful review of these systems on the ielanguages blog.

Overview: LingQ as a web-based learning system

LingQ is a collection of various different interfaces for learning a language, gathered on one site. It provides features for working on the 4 main means of communication in a language: reading, writing, speaking and listening and has an active community and a vast collection of material both for listening to and for reading. The site has both free and paid options. You pay for “points” to spend in the system, but you can also earn these points by contributing and helping other learners. However, some useful and practical aspects of the site remain exclusive to paid members.

In this review I’ll be focusing on the benefits of the free options, but mentioning the possibilities of the paid ones for those curious, while mentioning work-around to keep it free.

The system is currently available for learning English, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German, Spanish and Japanese. Other languages are occasionally added based on demand, but if you are studying a minority language it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it in the system. I was reviewing it for German of course, but the features work the same in other languages (which, as I say below is not always a good thing) [Edit: I’ve already been receiving comments saying that they can’t use the system properly to learn non-European languages]. You can use it to learn as many of these languages as you like, even as a non-paying user.

The entire interface is very clean and user friendly, and generally pleasant to use.

My favourite feature: Reading interface

I have to admit – reading is not usually my focus. Although I have naturally improved my reading ability in languages through practice and enough to be recognised formally in several cases, my learning method could do with some improvement and LingQ’s reading interface is one way to do this. As I will be sitting an examination in just over 2 months I do need to make sure I am improving my reading ability in the best way possible, and I will likely continue to use LingQ to do this.

When you open a “lesson” you will be able to read the document through the interface. However, any words that you have never come across before in the system are highlighted in blue. In your first lesson all words are blue, but after several lessons (once you have confirmed that you know these words) you will see less and less and have a real feeling of progress. This is integrated with the “words I know feature”, a measurement system that I actually dislike, as mentioned below. However you will be reminded how much you are progressing and this is excellent encouragement.

The benefits of this clearly appear after using the system for longer. After a week, I’m still seeing some basic words appearing (as shown), but after a few more weeks I am sure more highlighted words will genuinely be ones I need to learn.

If you don’t know a word then hovering the mouse over the word will translate it for you (you can do this anyway in your browser on any website using plugins, but this is integrated into the system for adding hard words to your study list or known list). Several options may be given and if you click the one relevant to your context then you add what’s called a LingQ, which is basically a word or term that you need to refer to later to study. This allows you to continue reading.

Unfortunately there seems to be no language separation in the system, and non-English (i.e. non-native language) translations came up occasionally in my suggestions. This is due to other users who have set English as their default language (because the system is not practical to use in their language due to lack of translations), and enter translations in their mother tongue, so it’s something that you would just have to learn to ignore.

Using the system you can read documents quite quickly and make a note of tough words way faster than you would do it manually.

Something very important here is that you are learning words in the right context. Many systems I’ve already seen give you lists of words to learn off with no example sentence or even as part of a larger flow such as in a text document or audio. When you see a word as it’s actually used you can appreciate it way more than in other systems.

All of this reading aspect is free, however you have a maximum of 100 LingQs that you can add before you need to have a paid account. You can simply learn all of these when you have lots of them and then delete them, so you can add new ones. This won’t influence the number of words the system is aware of you “knowing“, which will continue to go up, so by deleting LingQs you can keep it free.

It’s actually better to make sure that you can continue to learn hard words, by making a note of them in a separate learning system as I mention very briefly below.

Great library of audio & text to learn from

Another excellent, and free, feature of LingQ is it’s library of “lessons”, which are actually short text documents accompanied by an audio file. I had looked for something similar before, and this is the most extensive and easy to navigate free database I’ve come across online for several languages, especially for varied language levels. It’s important to note that LingQ is genuinely useful for improving recognition (less for conversation) at different levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced), which is not the case in other systems.

This means that you have huge amounts of audio you can download to listen to on the go (as podcasts for example), and compare them with the documents. This combination means that LingQ is definitely an excellent system for audio (as well as reading) comprehension. Since they are integrated, you can combine your reading lessons for learning vocabulary and the listening aspect, to make sure you understand them when spoken.

This feature alone makes the site worth checking out for people who need more content in their target language to practise with. You need a free account to be able to access this library.

Community

Most people who use the system tell me that one of their favourite parts of the LingQ system is its community. I’ve started using other popular systems this week and I can already see that LingQ is an improvement on these in certain ways.

You can search for other members based on their language, and there is a forum that you can ask questions in. It isn’t as active as the how to learn any language forum, but there are regular messages and helpful responses. I started a discussion about this review I was going to write and got many helpful replies and a very interesting discussion.

A troll came to insult me too, but this would be very unlikely to happen to other people as I have a reputation there based on Steve’s somewhat misleading blog posts about me, as well as the unconventional ideas I have in language learning that I talk about so confidently.

If you were invested enough in learning through this system, it’s great to know that the community will be there to help, and you can always ask them when you need it. I noticed that some topics have not been active for a month or longer, but most of them have several posts a day and there are categories for you to practise the language you are learning.

The forum needs some technical work too; most URLs are broken up if you include them in a message (unless you use a URL shrinking tool from another site, which is a frustrating extra step), and you cannot edit posts or use formatted text. To me, this gave the forum a very “classic Internet” feel and it needs to be updated.

I can’t say that I was very active in getting involved in the community, so there is likely way more to discover here that I may come back to later. I am personally a very independent learner, but a lot of new learners would benefit greatly from support offered there.

Also, the site itself, while using very clever programming for the interface, needs some server or other technical work because the entire site was unavailable twice for much longer than a few minutes, and I’ve been using it for a very short time. It was suggested that this happens regularly. This was inconvenient for a specific time that I had set aside to study, and the error message is misleading and the links provided for explanations are unhelpful.

Import feature

I enjoyed testing out the paid features, but I will downgrade to be a free member before my first month is over. The free alternatives to LingQ’s paid ones that I list are fine for most learners, especially if you don’t mind deleting things you are sure of. To be fair, if you were to pay for the features I will mention, they aren’t expensive to use if you do it infrequently, and you do get value for what you pay for.

Another feature that I enjoyed is the Import feature. The export feature I mention below is for exporting vocabulary to study, but is a paid extra that you can bypass by copying and pasting as I suggested. Luckily the import feature is actually free, but is for importing your own text. Free accounts have a ‘limit’ of 5 imports, but you can just delete the documents when you are done with them to keep below this limit of 5. (Paid members do not need to do this, but it’s a simple extra step).

Use of this feature depends on how much of the language you come across on the Internet for reading and isn’t practical for reading newspapers/books etc. (without time consuming scanning and conversion). Since I put my e-mails and random websites through it, I quite enjoyed this option. However, since the database of ‘lessons’ is quite big, there is more than enough free content already there to keep you busy for quite a while.

As I said above, this helps for reading documents faster in languages that you are learning and using the interface for this is handy.

Paid vs point earning options

As I said, I am happy to recommend the free version of the site, and some other features are possible for free members, by earning points by contributing to the system.

Certain features work on a points system, but in my opinion they are not very practical if you don’t pay, so I don’t see this as a real solution for most people. For example, if you wish to have a spoken lesson, you need to have earned at least 500 points. To earn these points you actually have to give two spoken lessons (375 points earned each). Since the student chooses the time for the lesson (beneficial to the learner of course), the tutor has to be flexible around this (although they choose the availability window) and give their attention and a report after the lesson for each of the 3 people. Some people may not be interested in giving two lessons to get one in return (although there are excess points that will add up later).

People who are passionate about the community are happy to lend a hand, and I like this enthusiasm and genuine wish to help others. I’m told that this extra work involved is to maintain the quality of the system.

You can also earn points from referrals (as I could have done by using a specific referral link in this post every time I mention LingQ if I wanted), but I also think this is not practical as you only earn 200 points per month for each referral that opens a paid account (you earn nothing from friends that sign up to use the free system). So you need to convince THREE friends to take out their credit card before you can have one brief conversation a month.

This is ridiculous when you think about it and makes what you earn almost completely pointless in my opinion. I can only see it as a practical solution for people like me with popular blogs that could potentially get lots of clicks, and this explains why I have seen a few websites with their vanity badge of how many words they “know” so prominently displayed, with a referral link behind it. How it can help the system itself with more funding is apparent. If you refer people specifically to help maintain the system then it’s a good idea, but it’s a promotion gimmick, and I can’t see how it can help the actual users to earn enough to make it worthwhile.

As well as this points can expire. This means that even if you pay to use the system, your money can still go nowhere if you aren’t quick enough to use those points. This encourages you to use the system often, but is unfair in my opinion. If you earn / pay for points you should be able to use them whenever you want.

Conversation lesson

Rather than earn points, I paid for these lessons to try them out and was very pleased with them. For $10 you get 1000 points (2 lessons) if you already have a paid account (so I had spent a total of $20 on LingQ, with my basic subscription). With a free account you would pay $10 for one lesson, since points that you buy are worth half as much to free members. A chat session usually lasts 15 minutes, however my tutor Vera (and the next day Annett) were kind enough to go over this time with me.

It’s important to note that there are completely free alternatives for finding conversation partners online, such as http://chatonic.com/ , http://www.babelyou.com/ , http://www.sharedtalk.com/ , http://www.italki.com/ , http://www.mylanguageexchange.com/, http://www.lenguajero.com/ for Spanish and http://vraiment.info/parlezfrancais/index.html for French, you even use chatroullete equivalents in other languages! Other sites offer the interface in French, Chinese, German, Italian and Spanish. I don’t think chatroullete is a great alternative, but you can see that there are lots of free alternatives for practising a language in some way.

I originally thought (mostly from all the hype) that LiveMocha could be a good learning alternative, but from what I see in trying to get use out of it, it’s only really practical for finding natives to practise with and not for learning a language beyond the basics.

I will come back to review some of these systems to see which I prefer as a free alternative for finding free conversation partners, but of course because it’s free there are certain things missing that you get for a paid alternative.

After a pleasant conversation with Vera, she sent me a detailed report of the mistakes that I had made that she had been noting while we were chatting. I did appreciate this and if you are already a paying member then $5 extra per conversation is indeed worth it for the chance to converse with a very helpful native and get the report afterwards and could be a great target to aim for at the end of a week of studies.

However, if you wish to have more intensive spoken practise (which you all know I prioritise) then this would not be so practical and free alternatives (or meeting in person) would be preferable. One or two conversations a week will definitely help, but nothing like the kinds of speed of spoken progress that I personally prefer. I know lots of people prefer to take their time in language learning so this would may not be an issue for them.

Writing correction

There is a completely free alternative to this over at Lang 8 that I have already linked to. I have used Lang-8 and am happy with the free corrections, however LingQ’s one would have the same level of detail in the report as the spoken lesson review, and a level of focus/quality that you might not get in free alternatives.

Once again, it depends on what you are looking for. If you just want to write an e-mail to a friend for example, or get a general idea of your weak points in writing, then a free correction from a native is all you really need. However, if you are writing a cover letter, want to keep the text a bit more private, or are preparing for an examination then you might want more detail about what what you need to improve. How many points you need to pay depends on the length of the document.

You can also correct other people’s text to earn these points, like in Lang-8, although it’s not as balanced in points earned vs points spent. As well as this, in LingQ you have to wait until people submit text to you, but in Lang-8 you can do the corrections yourself immediately. However, this will likely not be much of an issue for English speakers in LingQ, as there is high demand for that.

Criticisims – the vanity badge

As well as the point-earning system that I’ve mentioned, there are certain other aspects that I didn’t like. For a balanced review, it’s important to share this and I hope those at LingQ will take this as constructive criticism, since as I say clearly, I am happily promoting this website as a good learning tool.

The vanity badge (my title for it, not LingQ’s) that states how many “words you know” is quite misleading in my opinion. You can see it here (this example does have a referral link that I would earn points from, if you are in a spending mood, which I don’t personally need to be honest, but you can click here to access LingQ in the same way without me earning points).

I’m very glad to see that LingQ focuses on all 4 means of communication, but using number of words you “know” as the measuring tool is meaningless in terms of your ability to actually use those words. There are many ways to assess your level in a language and I feel this one simplifies things way too much.

Then there’s the use of the word “know”. The writing and speaking aspects don’t directly influence your word-count (unless added individually), so this is more accurately represented as words you recognise as you see/hear them in the appropriate context. LingQ’s focus on context is a fantastic feature for helping you learn words as they are actually used, but that context does a huge amount of the work to help you recognise the word, that simply won’t be there to help you when you need to say/write it yourself. You will eventually learn to know this word if you are exposed to it many times in context, but this is slower than what I would normally do. Once again, if you prefer to take your time, this isn’t so much of an issue.

However, recognising a word does NOT mean that you know it. Remembering words is not bidirectional – it takes more effort to remember a foreign word than to recognise it. In my opinion, you only truly “know” a word when you can produce it yourself.

Even forgetting all that, the count of the vanity badge is not realistic – different conjugations and plurals and declensions count as different words to LingQ. If you think that knowing cat/cats, house/houses, dog/dogs means you know 6 words instead of 3, then you’ll agree with this measuring system. I don’t.

On the other hand using some form of a counting system to see that you are progressing is very encouraging and I like that aspect of it at least. I’ll continue to use the LingQ system, but I will not be displaying the badge on this site’s sidebar.

The flashcard system

I have mixed feelings about LingQ’s flashcard system. It’s great to review the difficult words that I’ve marked later, but the interface operates in a way I would not expect it to that slows me down. I’ve used both the one on the site and the free iPhone/iPod app. (There are no other options available, so tough luck it would seem if you are among the majority of people in the world who have a non-Apple mobile device)

It categorises words as 1. New 2. Can’t remember 3. Not sure 4. Known and the status goes up automatically after a certain number of views, but I wanted to change the status to Known/Not sure for several words after the first time. If it was a simple matter of clicking one button to change the status and review the next one, then this wouldn’t be an issue. But you have to change the status separately, and then click to go to the next flashcard and this slowed me down considerably.

There are other aspects of how these words are presented to you that I didn’t like, but that is a matter of taste and is based on how Steve himself likes to study. I decided to start my experiment with SRS early and downloaded Anki (for iPhone, for Android, and for everyone else) and found it way superior to LingQ’s flashcard system, even though the interface is almost as simple. The SRS system is way more suited to how the majority of people think, and you can use it way quicker than LingQ. But this is something I will explain in much more detail later, as I continue to learn through SRS over the coming weeks.

If you have a paid account then you can use the Export feature to send your LingQs to any SRS application for studying. To me, this is by far the most important benefit of having a paid account, however if you don’t mind copying and pasting the hardest words to SRS, not having this isn’t an issue.

You reverse the order for testing production rather than recognition ability within LingQ’s system without needing to export, (“Reverse” on the website) but the terminology is confusing on the iPhone (you need to change “term” to “hint” in settings – to me this is far from intuitive and I needed help for it to be pointed out). The website system would do well to incorporate keyboard strokes (like in Anki) so you could use it quicker than clicking.

When using the free version of the site, I suggest you have a separate document open at the same time and copy and paste new words you wish to review later into that document, so that it can be opened by an SRS program and so you can keep your LingQ count below the free limit of 100. I’ll describe the details of how to do this while coming across any vocabulary (not just in LingQ) when I discuss SRS later.

Oversimplification of how a language works

One final thing I didn’t like is the oversimplification (not in presentation, but in progress and learning) of a language being nothing more than single words that you can translate into your native tongue, albeit in the right context.

For a language like German, separable verbs means that you simply can’t select a term to create a LingQ, since other words would be between these parts. Literal translations of these will do nothing but confuse the learner, and can’t ever help you truly understand a text. This is yet another reason that the vanity badge count is misleading, but this time in how much you can understand.

English also does this, e.g. “get your point / the idea / humour across”. In this case “get across” is the crucial term, and individual word translations do not help the learner in the slightest, and “get across” cannot be selected as one term to be learned, and adding it separately (only if you already know what it means; if you haven’t seen it before you wouldn’t think to do this) requires you to leave the lesson (or open a new tab). People not generally familiar with learning languages would not know to do this.

Also, the entire Interface is identical for learning all languages. This does not take important differences required when learning particular languages into account.

Like Steve, I’m not a fan of grammar, however there is no mention of it at all in this system. I try to get through understanding grammar quickly when the time is right, not avoid it entirely. You can always ask for help in the forums, but at a certain stage you need to get some detailed advice on how a language works beyond translations. I personally don’t like this idea of learning a language almost entirely via translations, but others would. As I said, the context helps hugely to improve on this.

You will eventually get most of the gist of it when reading and listening to words spoken in a particular way, however without a few basic guidelines you would need a lot of exposure for certain grammatical points to become natural to you without ever studying them. If using LingQ, it absolutely must be combined with other tools to make good overall progress.

Final thoughts

As you can see, this is an extremely in-depth review, so I hope people see that I am taking my input experiment seriously!

There are some other aspects that I found frustrating about LingQ but that are much more down to personal taste. Ultimately, I want to see what aspects of online learning tools can improve my speed and efficiency in learning languages rapidly, and what would work well for others too, and I will likely be recommending LingQ for free reading/listening improvement along with other tools, and precisely how I combine them, in the Language Hacking Guide.

If I feel another system is worth discussing in detail, I will do so. However, as I said above, I found LiveMocha to be a disappointment for non-beginners, and I will likely rate it among tools for searching for people to practice with, rather than an actual learning system.

If you have used LingQ or have any thoughts on what I said here, feel free to leave a comment. But I should point out that I will delete any rude/irrelevant comments. Lots of this post is mostly just opinion, but I’ve presented quite a lot of facts and important analyses. Take it or leave it! :)

Update: LingQ is a paid system, and as I say in this review the only part I found to be truly unique was the reading interface, which is still $120/year for the basic version. Luckily there is now an open source and totally free alternative that fixes many problems I discuss in this post, especially […]

MORE