About six months ago, I discovered ReadLang. I’ve been waiting to give it a write up because I wanted to give it the proper treatment.
Let’s put the bottom line up front: ReadLang is one of the best language learning tools I’ve ever used. It is especially good for helping you get past the beginner levels of a language and into the intermediate and advanced stages.
No, I don’t have any affiliation with the site, and I don’t have any stock in the company. I just like to give credit to stuff that helps me.
How It Works
There are two pricing options: Free and Premium ($3/month, or $24/year). For most people, myself included, the free option is all you need. But I liked the site so much that I chipped in $24 to support it.
After you sign up, it’s simple:
1. Read something. You can use the browser extension to use RL on any webpage, or you can import or copy and paste text directly into the RL website. (I could never get the extension to work myself, but it wasn’t a big deal for me just going to the site.) (***Update: I got it to work now, thanks to the help of Steve, ReadLang’s developer. Check the comments section if you’re having trouble yourself.)
2. Click or swipe a word you don’t know. The translation of that word then appears, replacing the original word in the text. ReadLang then also creates a flashcard for that word for you to drill later.
3. Drill your flashcards. Every day, drill the flashcards in your deck. From what I can tell, RL uses (at least) two concepts to determine which flashcards to show you: Word frequency and spaced repetition. First, it prioritizes the more commonly used words in a language to ensure you’re spending your study time wisely. Second, it shows you the words you study again and again, based on how long it’s been since your last exposure to the word and whether you remembered it.
Does It Really Work?
In short, yes.
One of the reasons I waited to talk about RL is because I was using it to help prepare for the ACTFL German reading test. I ended up passing that test with an “Advanced Low” reading proficiency, and I really believe my daily use of ReadLang was a big reason for my success.
I’ve done this kind of studying before. Fifteen years ago while studying Arabic, I would read a text, look up a word I don’t know, and then record it in my language journal. Then I would drill the new words. So RL’s methodology isn’t new to me or to language learning in general. It just takes out a lot of tedium and streamlines the process.
Six Ways to Get the Most Out of the Tool
RL is very flexible, which means that you have a lot of different options. After a lot of trial error, I came up with the following tips. These aren’t set in stone and aren’t necessarily the way the tool was designed to be used, but they’ve worked for me.
1. Pick texts you can reasonably understand.
Theoretically, you could go through a text and click every single word. Unless you’re a rank beginner and that’s your only option, I don’t see what good that would do. If at all possible, pick texts in which you can understand at least 90% of the words. 95% would be even better.
At 90 to 95%, in a 200-word text, you’re still marking up 10 to 20 words and adding them to your flashcard text.
2. Experiment with different volumes.
I tried three different techniques:
- High reading volume/high word volume – I would read 2000+ words a day and define 50 to 100 new words. Then I’d let ReadLang prioritize those words for me.
- High reading volume/low word volume – I would read 2000+ words a day and define only 10 to 20 new words.
- Low reading volume/low word volume – I would read about 400 words a day and define 10 to 20 new words.
Each had their pros and cons, but I really like the low reading volume/low word volume approach. You might prefer something else.
3. Edit your cards.
The tool uses Google Translate technology, which is very good but not perfect. So when you go through your cards, make sure that the word and definition are appropriate for the textual context. If you’re picking the right texts (see tip #1), then you should be able to figure this out with intuition and online dictionaries. Manually edit your card so that it fits the context of the text you found it in.
Also, watch out for any quirks in your language. For example, German uses separable verbs, so the beginning of a verb might end up at the end of the sentence. When I added new verb flashcard to my deck, I sometimes had to go back and edit the card to add the stem.
4. Drill your flashcards daily.
In my opinion, this is where the site shines. Go back again and again and drill your flashcards. Work through your deck whenever you get a few minutes. If you do this, you’re really going to start picking up the vocab for the long haul.
Later on, after you’ve committed a lot of these words to your long-term memory via repeated exposures, go back and review old texts. It’s an amazing feeling to read a text that you were getting 90 to 95% of and now understanding every single word.
5. Incorporate listening.
I really, really believe in the importance of hearing a language to make it stick. Whenever possible, I would use a text with an audio component. Good sources:
- Language learning texts with a transcript
- Podcasts with a transcript
- Classic stories and fairy tales that have been read aloud
- Songs with easy-to-Google lyrics
- TV shows with easy-to-Google transcripts
I didn’t really do this for the first couple weeks, but when I started listening to texts–before, during, and/or after I read them–the studying experience became more rewarding.
6. Delete your cards periodically.
This tip is kind of weird, but after my flashcard deck gets too big, I delete all the cards.
The first time I did this, I deleted about 1000 cards, and the second time about 2000. Then I rebuilt the deck from scratch.
I know this makes some people sweat, because you’re losing all your hard work. But there’s something freeing and nice about starting over every once in a while. It keeps the site feeling fresh.
Do not make ReadLang the only way you read your new language. I cannot stress that enough. This style of reading is an effective tool. But you don’t use a hammer to screw in nails. Every tool has its purpose.
RL is intensive reading, because you are going line by line, translating and scrutinizing every word. This is a great way to really understand a language and learn new vocab. But I don’t think it’s great for building other skills, like intuition or thinking critically about what your text is actually saying or reading fluency.
So I always make sure to do a lot more extensive reading than I do intensive reading, and I make sure to watch TV shows and movies more “naturally” to make the communication experience more authentic.
In the end, though, I can’t argue with ReadLang’s results. In any new language and in any text or exchange, there’s a gap between “no communication” and “effective, meaningful communication.” RL helps bridge that gap. It helps you take your first, uneasy steps in more difficult linguistic territory so that you can later run and jump around in it.