In this article, I’m going to review the language learning website lingua.ly–specifically its Arabic program.
This is tricky. I like giving positive reviews; out of all the language services and books I’ve reviewed, the only negative review I’ve given was for Rosetta Stone. Being negative doesn’t get my site any more traffic, and in fact, I try to focus on the good because that’s just the way I like to do things.
Also, I’ve talked to some of the team at lingua.ly, and they’re really impressive. They are intelligent, they have more knowledge of linguistics in one pinky than I do in my entire head, and I get the impression that they’re true language lovers.
But unfortunately, I cannot recommend lingua.ly’s Arabic program until some serious adjustments are made. I think the service has great potential, but right now it will do more harm than good to the Arabic student.
Why I hate to be negative about lingua.ly
Like I said, the folks at lingua.ly are great. And I wanted so bad for this to be good, for so many reasons:
- The service is completely free (which is awesome).
- They don’t ignore less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) like Arabic, the way many other language companies do.
- The interface is intuitive and easy to use.
- Their blog is amazing. You should seriously check it out.
Additionally, I really think the core idea behind their service can work. It’s clever, and I have no doubt it’s based on linguistic science. The basic idea is that you:
- Read authentic materials, like newspaper articles, in your target language.
- Double-click words you don’t know to a) see their definition and b) add them to your “Words collected” glossary.
- Take vocab quizzes on your collected words.
I’ve also been told there are a lot of back-end things going on, where the system looks at your patterns and predicts which words you know and don’t know. (And it boggles my mind how much work and technical acumen has gone into developing this.)
The core problem is that the Arabic is wrong. “Wrong” is a strong word, so maybe I’ll tone it down to “misleading.” But the Arabic definitions are so misleading that beginning students will absolutely be messed up. I’m pretty well-versed in Arabic, so I was able to identify this kind of stuff pretty quickly. But students unfortunately won’t, and they won’t have any idea which information is valid and which to ignore.
I’ll just walk you through this so that you know what I’m talking about.
Here’s an example of an authentic Arabic text that lingua.ly showed me. I had clicked the “Translate” button so that you can see the machine generated English translation of the Arabic sentence above it: “and were chosen ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ to win the award as the best work of fiction publishing during the last twelve months.”
Okay, that’s definitely awkward, but it’s not that bad a translation. A little knowledge of Arabic will get you something more polished, like: “‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ was selected to win the award for best work of fiction published during the last twelve months.”
Again, though, the original machine translation is pretty close–which is what makes the rest of this so puzzling.
So I double-clicked the first couple words: و جرى (pronounced wa jara)
This is admittedly a tricky word to define. It technically means “carried out,” but it’s used with a verbal noun to turn that noun into a verb. (Isn’t Arabic fun?) The suggested definition is “execute,” which isn’t quite right in this context, but I’ll give lingua.ly a pass.
But then going down the sentence, I got to an easy word: في (pronounced fee)
This means “in” and is pretty basic. But when I double-clicked it, I got this suggestion:
That green check means that “thereof” is the default definition, and the definition you will be quizzed on later. You can choose another definition, but I can’t imagine that most students who are using this as a learning tool would do that. Additionally, for the first thirty minutes I used the program, I had no idea that there was an even an option to select another definition after I double-clicked the word.
I have no doubt that “thereof” is a definition of ‘fee,” but not in this context. And it’s definitely not the most common meaning. What I think is going on is that since “adverb” comes before “preposition” alphabetically, the adverb “thereof” is the default meaning.
So this gets added to the glossary and then the student drills and learns that “fee” means “thereof,” and that the name of the novel in the article is “Frankenstein thereof Baghdad.”
Just to speed things along, here are five more examples in one graphic:
The word روائي is an adjective, but the dictionary is defining it as a noun. You could debate whether it means “fiction” or “novel” (as an adjective) in this context, but it’s definitely not “story-writer” or “romancer.”
The word نشر is a verb that means “to publish,” and in this context it’s used in its passive form (which admittedly would be tough for the dictionary to identify). But “gazette” is not an appropriate default definition.
The word فضل here is actually missing a letter that’s in the text. In the text it’s أفضل and that is an adjective that means “best,” not any of the options in that dialog box.
The word شهر can indeed mean “to proclaim,” but its more common meaning–and the meaning used here in the sentence–is “month.” Again, not an option, even if you did want to change it.
And finally, the word اثنا عشر means “twelve,” but the program took عشر as its own word and tells you that it means “inseminate.” (That’s especially odd, because the much, much more common meaning of عشر is “ten,” which isn’t an option.)
I know that was a little dry, but I had to show you what I’m talking about. In a sentence with seventeen words that you were supposed to build a vocabulary bank from, at least six of them were defined shakily.
And these weren’t all tricky words. I’m talking about words like “in,” “best,” “month,” and “twelve.”
So these go into your glossary, and then you drill, learning that شهر means “to proclaim,” with no idea that it also means “month.”
And this was one sentence. Imagine a page of this stuff.
A lot of this confusion has to do with the fact that Arabic words have double, triple, and quadruple meanings, and you have to infer these meanings from context and pronunciation. (And I’m not even going into the pronunciation problems I encountered in lingua.ly, because I don’t want to keep piling on.) But if you build a glossary bank with less-common definitions of common words, with definitions that were used out of context from the sentences you encountered them in, and with words that are sometimes defined flat-out incorrectly, then I don’t see how you can make any progress.
Whatever translation technology was used to generate the original machine translation should be used to gloss the words. That would likely solve a lot of these problems.
Finally, I noticed one last thing I wanted to mention. Each vocabulary word has a picture associated with it, probably to help you remember it better. I saw this:
I added that red box because dude there was butt naked, and I didn’t want to have pictures of naked people on my site. But I’m really just scratching my head at what’s going on, or how this picture is supposed to help me remember the Arabic word for “thing.” …oh wait, I get it.
I think lingua.ly has some great ideas, and admittedly I haven’t tried their programs for other languages. But I cannot recommend the Arabic program in its current state.
Hopefully, some adjustments are made and this tool’s potential can be reached.