Why Language Learners Should Stay Away from Wikipedia

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been going back over Duolingo lessons again and trying to keep my skill tree golden.

After I got tired of completing lessons, I clicked the “Immersion” button, which took me to a list of articles needing to be translated. I gave a couple a look, felt completely lost, and then x’d out. I could recognize most of the words, but the texts were gibberish to me. Even though I had just passed a test rating me as having advanced-low proficiency in reading German, it was as if I hadn’t even studied German before.

By Thermos (Thermos) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Thermos (Thermos) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], Image Source

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I’ve tried and failed with Duolingo’s translation feature before. The reason I can’t do them?

It’s because Duolingo often uses Wikipedia articles for its Immersion/translation exercises. And Wikipedia articles are not appropriate for language learners.

This isn’t a dig against Wikipedia

I know it’s been popular in the past to bash on Wikipedia. But that’s not what I’m doing here. Wikipedia is a great resource.

People have devoted time and effort to make sure the articles are up to snuff. They’re generally grammatically correct and free of typos, and these days the information is pretty accurate. Articles are also heavily sourced, so if something doesn’t seem right, you can easily find the original documents and make your own determinations.

Also, Wikipedia is free, which makes information accessible to people from all walks of life. A kid in any town with a library or Internet cafe can read about whatever topics he or she has an interest in.

It’s just too hard

The problem is that Wkipedia texts are hard. This means that if you’re learning a language:

  • You won’t get much out of them.
  • You’ll feel frustrated.
  • You may even feel demoralized to the point where you just say, ah, I’m not even close–I give up.

Okay, so you know how I said not too long ago not to worry too much about text levels? This is one time where I think you should, at a minimum, be aware of how challenging Wikipedia really is.

An article at “The Scholarly Kitchen” discusses how Wikipedia is too difficult even for native speakers. It reads:

“A study in 2010 of cancer information on Wikipedia found that while the information was as accurate as that in a professionally curated database, its advanced reading demands made it much less accessible (the professional database required about a 9th grade reading level, while Wikipedia’s cancer information required about a college sophomore’s reading skills).”

You can (and should) read the article for the full details, including a link to the study. But the gist of it is that Wikipedia texts are getting so difficult that they’re losing their value for explaining concepts to non-technical audiences.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Who’s writing these articles? People who have an intense interest in the subject. They’re naturally going to use specialized jargon. Also, as a technical writer, I can vouch for the fact that experts, in spite of their intellect, are not always going to be the best communicators.

Take this excerpt from a Wikipedia article, for example. It’s from the entry for “Violin,” a relatively simple topic about an instrument we’re all familiar with:

“The purfling running around the edge of the spruce top provides some protection against cracks originating at the edge. It also allows the top to flex more independently of the rib structure. Painted-on faux purfling on the top is usually a sign of an inferior instrument. The back and ribs are typically made of maple, most often with a matching striped figure, referred to as flame, fiddleback, or tiger stripe.”

I mean, as an educated native English speaker, I get the gist of what’s trying to be said. Also, for the most part, this paragraph is written fine. Yet since I don’t play the violin, I have no frame of reference for purfling or flames (or its equivalents, fiddlebacks and tiger stripes). So this paragraph ultimately doesn’t mean anything to me.

Imagine how difficult, tiring, and frustrating this paragraph would be for someone who’s trying to learn English?


My advice for language learners: Stay away from Wikipedia. Run. Read literally anything else.

If you want to study a topic, such as violins, find a book on violins–preferably a book written for older children or teenagers.

If you’re learning English, one Wikipedia resource you might try is Simple English Wikipedia. These are articles written in simple English–even Wikipedia is aware that its texts have become too heavy–and are much, much more appropriate for language learners.

I haven’t been able to find the equivalent of Simple English Wikipedia for other languages, but if you have, please let me know.

  • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

    Hola Ron,

    I love wikipedia and use it all the time. The Spanish version is usually free of typos and grammatical mistakes, but it’s often not too well written; some of the people who write the articles are not profesional writers—and that’s OK, it serves it’s purpose.

    Blogs, written in a much more plain language, should be much better for language learners but, at least in Spanish, they very often contain grammatical errors and typos.

    I recommend using books specially written for language learners in different levels. You can find them in Kindle version and aren’t too expensive.


    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hola Jorge! I’ll take your recommendation on the books. That’s a great idea.

      I like blogs (and vlogs) too. A few grammatical mistakes aren’t a big deal, because if the posts are written by natives, the mistakes are “natural” sounding ones you’d hear in everyday conversation/life. And most people on blogs tend to write using breezy, conversational tones, so they’re often comprehensible.

      • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

        I agree. Being able to read natural, conversational language is more important than the small mistakes there can be. It’s the kind of reading that will help you speak more naturally too.


  • http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/ Teddy Nee

    Oh no, I like Wikipedia haha. When I don’t understand, I read in the language that I understand and go back to read in the language I am learning.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That’s a good idea, Teddy! I think I’d still have problems, at least with some articles.

  • http://morevietnamese.com/ Ruth Elisabeth

    I like reading biographies of (Korean) actors and singers on Vietnamese Wikipedia. I guess this is one case where being written by enthusiasts works in learners’ favour because most of the fans are young high school or university students.

    Wikipedia is a lot slicker now than it was a few years ago. I would guess there are some languages that haven’t been as polished and still have a lower reading level. But like you say, on the whole books written to introduce a topic are a wiser choice.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      It’s true. I’m a fan of MMA, so I’ve read Spanish and German Wikipedia entries for MMA and have been able to understand them for the most part. I’d say 9 out of 10 articles give me problems, though. I can get the gist of most stuff, but anything approaching full comprehension? Pretty rare.

  • http://goodairlanguage.com GoodAirLanguage.com

    You are right, maybe Wikipedia is just for finding out stuff and but not great for learning that language. Useful resource if you are practically fluent though.


  • ShadyArc

    I actually found Wikipedia quite useful if you are mostly fluent, and aren’t learning the language per se. Academic and formal style are manifestly a necessary step for any educated learner: you cannot truly feel confident in your language of choice unless you are familiar with its formal style, too, at least on a passive comphehension level. When it comes to production of such writing, even natives speakers may feel uncomfortable if they have little experience working with formal language.

    One more reason is learning vocabulary you personally need. Depending on your interests and profession, a textbook focusing on your field may be hard to come by or extremely boring. Still, if you are a musician, you probably want to know about soundboard, purfling, tuning, temperament, bridge etc. By the way, in Russian the “bridge” for strings of a violin is called a “prop”, while “bridge” is a word for a shoulder rest. There is almost no chance you can learn that without specifically reading about violins in both languages (or visiting a shop and reading price tags).

    So it is immensely useful if you are, say, pretty good around Maxwell equations in your native language but lack enough vocabulary to discuss the topic in Russian, or in German, or whatever foreign language you learn.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, great points. I really enjoy seeing everyone’s different perspectives, and I definitely see where you’re coming from. I see what you’re saying about Wikipedia having use for people who are a) “mostly fluent” and b) reading about a subject they’re really interested in. And I’ve done the same when reading about martial arts in German and Spanish Wikipedia, without a ton of difficulty because that’s a topic I’m familiar with.

      I agree that serious language learners eventually need to tackle the academic and formal texts. But I don’t think Wikipedia necessarily represents the best of academic and formal writing. I didn’t quite come out and say it in the article, but there are other more accessible texts out there that are just as formal and just as academic as Wikipedia is, except written much better. A big part of my day job is turning engineer speak into good writing, and I just don’t think language learners taking their first steps into difficult texts should expose themselves to bureaucratese, academese, legalese, etc. Just my opinion, of course, but the payoff is way too little for what they get in return.

      Maxwell equations, yikes! haha…*going to Wikipedia*… :)

  • http://www.5minutepolish.com/ Agnieszka Karch

    That’s an interesting point Ron! I almost completely agree with you. I agree that Wikipedia articles are too complicated for beginners or learners with intermediate language skills. Reading them might just confuse you! But if you’re already advanced, it might be useful – you will not only learn some of your target language but also gain some general knowledge 😉

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Agnieszka! Good point–I can see how some very advanced learners can benefit from Wikipedia. And I for one can always use a little more general knowledge. :-)

  • Jonathas

    I’m learning German. I can understand many things in Wikipedia, but my reading is more productive when I look for articles whose topic I am familiar with, like Literature, Psychology or Movies. But I can relate to the feeling you describe – I’ve studied with Duolingo in the past and there are some texts there that are really difficult!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Man, I’m telling you, some of those Wikipedia articles are *hard*. Psychology articles on Wikipedia are accessible to you? I’m impressed. I can barely get through those in English. :) I have an English degree, so I might take a crack at some literature articles.

      Speaking of, have you tried Goethe’s “Faust” yet? I’m dying to read it, but I don’t want to go for it if I’m not quite ready. Being able to read it has been a big goal of mine with German. When I was in high school, I wanted to read it in its original language, but didn’t have *any* German knowledge back then.

      • Jonathas

        Just the basic psychology stuff, in fact. =)

        My experience with reading German is weird… I can already understand a lot of things, but reading does not come 100% naturally yet. I mean, there’s a lot of “active” effort and Linguistic deduction involved in reading German for me. I’m usually exhausted after trying to read something hard for more than 15 minutes.

        I’ve got a degree in English Literature too, and Faust was one of my goals when I started learning German. Until now, I managed to read only a graded readers version of it. I didn’t try to read the original yet, though, because I have some other goals to accomplish before doing so.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Fellow English major, holla!

          German reading is a different kind of beast, I agree. I read 90% of the first Harry Potter book, put it down and forgot it, and then read it all the way through again. *Just* finished it yesterday afternoon, but it’s amazing how long it took me to feel comfortable with what’s essentially a children’s book.

          Could you please link me to the graded reader version of “Faust” that you read, if possible?

          • Jonathas

            Hi , Ron! This is the version I read: https://shop.hueber.de/en/faust-leseheft.html Needless to say it is (very) abridged.

            I’ll travel to Germany for the first time in May, so now I’m focusing on polishing what I already know. I also want to apply for a certificate soon, since I believe it is a great way of pushing me to study harder.

          • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

            Thank you! I really appreciate it. Good luck with getting ready for your trip! I’m sure you’ll do fine. The hardest part will be convincing the Germans not to speak English with you (at least it was for me). :-)

  • Henry Craft

    I’m learning French and have also become intrigued by French history. I find it great reading Wikipedia in French. Yes, I don’t understand it all but I get enough to make it a useful and enjoyable experience. Perhaps a good approach is to read Wikipedia articles primarily on interesting topics, rather than as an exercise.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi, Henry! Thanks for the comment. I can definitely see where you’re coming from, and if someone enjoys something, the last thing I’d want to do is tell them to stop doing it. Once in a while I’ll browse articles in subjects I’m really interested in and can figure stuff out by context, so I suppose the subject does matter. Your suggested approach sounds like a good one.