For this Christmas, I got my first, truly powerful mobile device in the form of a Kindle Fire HD. At last, I was moving in the modern world, where I could properly ignore people around me by playing games, updating Facebook, and watching movies. Up until now, I could only do that so completely on my computer. I have an ancient (2002) Pocket PC which allows me to read ebooks while travelling, but not with this much power.

stopinsanityI went to the App Store to see what was offered for languages and language learning, naturally. There was quite a variety, including Kindle version of Memrise and DuoLingo. I decided to see how good some single language teaching systems were, so I searched for “Italian” (a language I have been studying on and off for a few years) to see what came up. Among the free applications was “Italian in a Month”, so I downloaded that one.

I know I’m not going to learn Italian in a month. We all know those promises are never really valid unless we spend every waking moment studying, but this had a nice colourful icon, with a waving Italian flag, and I am a sucker for waving flags.

It also had the subtitle and promise of “Learn Like Kids”. That should have been my first warning.

One of the biggest claims that has been circulating the language resources arena for a number of years now is the promise that, by using a certain product, we will be learning like we did as children. What that has come to really mean is that we are going to be shown some pictures, most likely with an audio recording, to match with written text. By being drilled in this way – picture to word – over and over, we should eventually absorb the meaning, like we did “as kids”.

Of course, as kids, we didn’t get single pictures and words. We had multiple instances of items and concepts given, along with context and well meaning non-children to correct our errors. I have ranted many times in many places the problems with this system, but something really set me off with this version.

I started the application once it was installed. Only then did it tell me this just had three lessons – one beginner, one immediate, one advanced – to let me know how the not-free version of the program would be. Lesson 1 was for “General words”, such as man, girl, drink, run, etc.; Lesson 15 was for food; Lesson 30 was “summary”, which was composed of full sentences.

I started the first lesson, and patiently repeated each word as it showed it to me along with a picture. After that, the drilling began.

For those who, for some impossible reason, have not yet encountered this kind of language learning, used in software packages like Rosetta Stone and web sites like LiveMocha, the method is almost too simple. You are presented with a group of pictures then given a word in the new language (Italian, in this case). You must then properly select the picture which best matches the word. If you get it wrong, you guess again, and keep guessing until you get it correct. It then gives you the same set of images, in a different order, with the next word. No words are repeated and no words match two pictures, so as long as you don’t select any pictures that were not already used as answers, the guessing gets easier. Finally, when you have completed that block of images, it starts over with a new group of images and words.

I worked through the first group of six: l’uomo, il bambino, la bambina, la donna, la scimmia, la giraffa. Those are, respectively, “the man”, “the boy”, “the girl”, “the woman”, “the monkey”, and “the giraffe”. Not hard at all. I easily guess those all and move to the next group.

The ones in this group are “è in piedi”, “cammina”, “è seduta”, “corre”, “mangia”, “beve”. I know three of these, can guess two, and have no clue on one of them. The first is really a phrase, which breaks down to “è” = “he/she is”, “in” = “in, on”, “piedi” = feet. I know I’m not supposed to break these things apart and think about them, but I did. The image I am given for this phrase is of a man standing in front of a car in a field.

Now, if I am a learner, I might recognize “in” as similar to English “in”, which then confuses me. I can guess that “piedi” has something to do with feet, but I have no concept of what “in feet” means. He is in a field, not a foot, after all.

This is the reason why, in my view, this kind of learning completely fails. Since we are getting just one version of the word or concept and no translation (as kids, we never got translations), we have to grasp some kind of meaning from the picture to associate to the words or phrases we are given. So now, I know that a man with a car has something to do with “piedi”.

The next image and word pairing isn’t much better. “Cammina” is shown with a man walking along a sidewalk, carrying a sports bag. Since I learned last lesson that “man” is “l’uomo”, I know it isn’t about the man. Must be the bag. So now, I know that the word for “sports bag” is “cammina”. I’m doing great so far!

A woman sitting in an empty eating area, wearing a lovely blue dress, is the image for “è seduta”. Again, I learned that “woman” is “la donna”, so this has to be something else. My mind connects “sedu” with the English word “seduce” and “seduction”, so I figure this is telling me she is a seducer. Wow! Learning some great concepts for the first lesson!

We have another woman in the fourth picture. This is a woman wearing a tank top and shorts running along a beach at sunset with a flock of birds flying up. So “corre” must mean jogging. Or sunset. Or birds. Or athlete. Or beach. My mind can’t decide which of those is correct.

The last two images are of a man eating what appears to be a piece of pasta from a fork for “mangia”, so now I know the term for “diner”, and “beve” shows a little boy wearing a yamaka while drinking from a can of soda, so now I know the word for “Jewish boy”.

I can memorise phrases and image pairings easily enough in short bursts, so I naturally get all of these correct as well. A few groups later, I get to see a gorilla sitting, with the phrase “la scimmia è seduta”, so I know this monkey is a seducer. Cheeky monkey! There is a also a boy who is a seducer (“il bambino è seduta”). Then I see there is a monkey in a field with no car (“la scimmia “è in piedi). Later on, there is the Jewish boy (“beve”) holding an empty fork, but it reads “il bambino mangia”. Wait… what? I can guess it is saying that the boy is a diner, but it doesn’t say “beve”, even though he has the yamaka on. There is a picture of a girl drinking but it calls her a “beve” despite her not having a yamaka.

This program is all wrong!

Obviously, I am exaggerating somewhat to make my point, which is that we CAN’T learn this way – “like kids” – because our mind already has a full language and understanding of the world around us. The pictures are always going to be confusing enough to allow our minds to make the wrong connections.

Don’t misunderstand me. I could keep going through these exercises, getting a nearly perfect score as I constantly memorise the phrase-picture pairs long enough to correctly match each group of six. But what am I really leaning? Should my first words really be “monkey”, “giraffe”, “sports bag” and “Jewish boy”?

However, we are NOT children any more. We don’t learn as children, and even if we were, I doubt a child could correctly learn a language using this method.

So why do people still produce learning materials for adults using this method? Well, first of all, it looks easy. Pictures and words! So simple! So show people how simple it is to learn this way, and they will buy your product!

Second of all, it will work… for a while. You will feel you are learning so much because you are getting such great scores, rarely making a mistake. But this is a false sense of accomplishment, aided by the trick that each matching of pairs in a group gets easier because you are eliminating possible answers.

A survey I saw done in a blog once showed how many thought they were learning a language using this method while using Rosetta Stone. It was an incredibly high number that thought they were learning. A slightly different survey was given, asking how many had actually learned a language doing this, and the numbers on that were very low.

Lastly, this kind of exercise is very easy to make. You only need to make one version for each language, since there is no “source” language – the language of the learner – necessary for the training. The same lessons can also be easily translated into other languages just by changing the words. Of course, not everyone will view the pictures in the same way, since they will come from a variety of different cultures. For example, how is the boy with a yamaka interpreted by an African as opposed to an Israeli. How about the sports bag?

I am sure that some of you will defend this type of “like kids” approach to learning with just pictures. I think I speak for the rest of you when I beg:

Stop the insanity!

  • Kyle Balmer

    This is a problem I’ve been having with a lot of the new language learning technologies. Memrise/Duolingo/Busuu/Livemocha/lingualia (the list goes on and on) are basically Rosetta Stone with a slap of Web 2.0 paint and some nice gamification elements thrown in.
    All give the impression of learning but it’s debatable how this translates into real language use.
    I’ve been looking at more sensible ways to approach this problem that fall between the automated/non-human/study when you want technological approach of Duolingo and the other end of the spectrum the talking with a real native speaker approach.
    I’m of the personal opinion that the best thing to do is start speaking ASAP with a native speaker or teacher. But I understand that this isn’t always possible for people because of time/money/fear. Therefore they go towards more “automated” approaches that let them swipe and click away happily on their mobile device and feel like learning is happening.

    There must be a middle way – something that uses the tech to make human contact and learning easier. I’m working on something along these lines for Chinese ( which is a step in the right direction. But I wondering what your views are on this problem in a more comprehensive sense – how do we actually get people to learn languages rather than repeatedly being disappointed by the promises of those alluring Yellow Boxes. How can we use the technology available to actually help rather than give merely give the impression of doing so?

    I’ve got a bunch of thoughts and would love to discuss. Don’t know the best forum to do so.

    • Erik Zidowecki

      Knowing that people want to feel like they are learning quickly, and also that most reviewers won’t actually spend the time using an app long enough to see if they can actually learn from it, it seems most software, website and app developers are going to the “quick feel” method, which usually means gamification and picture matching.

      I think that these can be useful to draw people in and get them trying the language, since they are encouraging. However, any serious language tool has to offer them more. You are correct… people do need more actual feedback from real people. Using the internet, that is actually much easier now, but rarely do we see it utilized.

      On my own site of Parleremo, I have recently built a Memrise like system to attract people, as well as adding gamification to the site, to encourage more activity. However, what people need at a higher level is interaction with other speakers, either through forums, text chats, or voice chats. My site offers all those.

      I have also set up some other means for people to practice both writing and speaking, with a Journal and Recording sections. There, people can write or record themselves speaking and have others give them feedback. There is also a language exchange system, where people can find other members to practise with.

      Sadly, these more advanced systems, even when in place, are ignored by most people because they aren’t as “fun”. I think that part of the problem is too much emphasis on “fun”. If you don’t enjoy learning a language without it being coated in bells and whistles, perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to learn it. It takes a lot more effort.

      My view is that people really need a variety of learning options to make the most of their time and effort. One size doesn’t fit all. They need games, feedback from real people, and access to real world media as well, like newspapers, videos and radio. The hard part is making that into something that the average learner will utilize.

      Are you the creator of WaiChinese?

      • Kyle Balmer

        I’m a co-founder on WaiChinese. Syd Evans is the founder and it’s his baby. We’re working now to build out the system to help make human feedback more accessible. Early days yet but this is the direction we definitely want to go in rather than push out another Duolingo clone.

        I agree that the gamified systems are a lot more accessible and “fun”. This is a debate we’re having – how do we retain that whilst also making sure that actual learning is occurring. It’s a fine line. It’s fascinating to hear that you have more advanced systems in place but people don’t naturally migrate to them.

        Lang-8 seems like a good example of this. The tech is solid, the idea is great and the feedback fast and generally of a high quality. But from what I can see their users drop off fast. I’ve used Lang 8 off and on for Mandarin and I believe I’m still placed ~300 out of 50,000+ users even though I haven’t used the system for more than 6 months. That means those other 50k or so are using it even less than I am! I think that this probably stems from the fact that it is too much like hard-work! Unfortunately that is likely what makes it effective.

        • Erik Zidowecki

          First, congratulations on WaiChinese! I am always pleased to see people starting new language teaching projects. I wish I had the time and knowledge to develop my own app. I would like to add WaiChinese to my site’s link pages, and if you would like, I can also promote it in my language magazine Parrot Time. I could also do a review of it or have a friend of mine do it.

          I made my journaling system off the idea of Lang-8, which everyone was raving about at the time. I hadn’t realized that so many stop using it, but that isn’t surprising, It is hard work, not only to write but to have what you produce judged by others.

          That also kinda makes me sceptical then of how much effort people really want to make. Learning a language, as with most things, takes time and commitment, not a quick fix with a game, as you noted. It also makes us have to think.. is our target audience the people that are only half attempting, or the serious learners that want to make the effort? Clearly, in terms of the recent trends in software and apps, the commercial market is aiming at the former.

          • Kyle Balmer

            Definitely! The main site is and we have both Android/iOS versions now as well as (launching today) a web browser version on Chrome/Firefox.
            Tell me what you’d need for the review and we’ll sort you out with access/art etc. Also if an interview would help at all we can get that set up – Syd is a very passionate speaker on language learning so would be great for audio / video.
            Drop us an email at and we can sort all that out.

            I know what you mean about effort. There’s a discrepancy between wanting to learn a language and actually learning a language. The newer technologies help to decrease the difficulty gap between the two but at the expense of quality of learning. So lots of trade offs and compromises that have to be considered and balanced.