Thursday, January 15, 2009

Livemocha review: Love the native speakers, the method not so much

I've recently been giving the totally free language-learning website Livemocha a spin. Livemocha is absolutely excellent for putting you in touch with native speakers and having them correct your written and spoken submissions, but its teaching method leaves a lot to be desired, and they still have some kinks to work out of the system.

Livemocha divides a language into courses, then units, and then lessons. For most languages, there are four courses that aim to get you to an intermediate level, and each course is divided into three units of about five lessons each. Lessons, in turn, are divided into four types of activities: learn, review, write, and speak.

Let me start with the last two and what I love about the site: how it links you up with native speaker tutors, and plenty of them at that. The "write" section asks you to write a short text, generally based on the lesson but you're free to meander off topic (and I frequently do), and the "speak" section asks you to read and record a passage of target language text. You then submit these to up to ten other users to correct for you.

Ideally, you'll want to submit your work to be corrected by native speakers, but even among native speakers your feedback will vary greatly. I initially began by just randomly selecting German speakers from among my friends and the website-suggested users, but I was able to quickly discover and prefer those who were giving me the highest-quality feedback. I now have a core group of tutors to whom I consistently submit such assignments to, and their feedback is phenomenal. They drill into my work to find even subtle mistakes and offer excellent explanations of what I'm doing wrong. So, while initially you may find that the feedback you get is not all that great, as you separate the wheat from the chaff you'll eventually end up with excellent tutors.

The other way in which Livemocha connects you to native speakers is via chat. You can do text chat, audio chat, and video chat. Livemocha encourages you to chat via their system by providing you with points for using it (more on that below), but given the rough feel of their chat capabilities I often find that we end up taking it out of Livemocha to MSN for text chat and Skype for audio or video chat. Despite the issues with Livemocha's own chat features, it stands as an excellent tool for putting you in touch with native speakers of your target language.

And you might be wondering how it is these people will correct your work for free. Like certain other other language websites, they use a deviously clever all-carrot, no-stick point system. You get points for studying, but also for teaching, i.e., doing things like correct others' written work. After you submit in the writing or speaking sections, you're presented with another learner's work to be corrected in your own language. This is ingenious social engineering; right after you've asked a bunch of people to correct your work, you're presented another's work to correct. How can you not? You actually can skip it, but I'd bet the skipping rate is pretty low.

You'll also find that, once you have your established tutors in your target language, you'll be eager to correct any work they send you in a quid pro quo; they're doing a great job for you, so you feel the need to do a great job for them. My only gripe, and I suppose it's more of a request for improvement than a gripe, is that I'd like to be able to sort my requests for corrections by the number of times the sender has corrected my work. For now, I do it manually by just trying to remember who has been helping me out.

Now let's turn to the parts that don't impress me so much. The "learn" section of a unit consists of a picture being shown with the text describing that picture below and a native speaker speaking the text. It's not always clear what the text is describing, so you're provided with a translation button that lets you see what the text is supposed to say in your native language.

The "review" section consists of exercises, of which there are three types.

  1. Read: You select the picture that matches target language text.
  2. Listen: You select the picture that matches target language audio.
  3. Magnet: You put together a sentence magnet puzzle to match target language text or audio, which looks like this in the case of text:
Livemocha

Additionally, there are extra optional exercises, which include the above three plus "quiz" exercises, in which you are presented with a word, phrase, or sentence in the target language and must select the corresponding translation.

You can also make flashcards from the content in the lessons, or you can make your own flashcards from scratch. It's something of a hassle to make flashcards, and the testing method is the same as the "quiz" exercises, with incorrect answers selected from within the same flashcard set. These basic flashcards seem like something of an afterthought, and it's quite a hassle of pointing and clicking to make your own flashcards.

The core method is much like Rosetta Stone's; they provide you with the language, and you're supposed to figure out the rules.

As is always the case with such inductive systems, the problem is that that does not work very well for anything above a certain degree of complexity. I've been trying out Livemocha as a way to review German, and one of the issues I knew that I definitely need to review was the cases. The one-line explanation of German cases for the uninitiated is that certain German words, including nouns, adjectives, "the", "a", etc., change their form depending on how and after what they are used in the sentence. I had cases down pat before, but as I've not been using German a lot over the past few years the exact rules have slowly leaked from my head, and I thought I'd be able to pick them up using Livemocha.

But that was not the case. I frustratingly found myself making the same mistakes over and over again, and wishing I just had the rules presented to me so I could quickly refresh my memory. Ultimately, I turned to other websites and some grammar books I have to get a refresher. If this is the case for me, a person who is reviewing the rules, it would only be that much harder for someone taking their first crack at German to actually figure out what is going on in the grammar just by going through Livemocha's courses.

And I'm certainly unimpressed with the exercises' ability to actually test your knowledge. For one, you can often figure out the answer from words you learned earlier without needing to test the words in the most recent lesson. For instance, if you're studying adjectives, they might have "a fat man", "a skinny girl", "a tall boy", etc. But because they use a different noun for each, you can easily figure out what the answer is without knowing a thing about the adjective. Similarly, you can often use process of elimination to figure out answers, without really needing to understand what's being presented to you. For instance, pictures are often tested in groups of four. Once you've done the first three, you know the next answer will be the fourth. The same sort of process of elimination can be used in the magnet exercises. What's more, in the magnet activities, there is no tolerance for incorrect punctuation or the like. For instance, you might find "gut" and "gut." (i.e., one with a period and one without) as two separate magnets among the options. If you accidentally put the one without a period at the end of a sentence, it'll mark it wrong. While strictness has its place, this is most likely just a stupid mistake that doesn't reflect on your comprehension and hence should be ignored, but isn't.

Another practice I find suboptimal is their use of a single learning course for multiple languages. There is a core course that is simply translated to other languages to expand the system. While this makes it easier to incorporate more and more languages, it is not optimal for learning as the course will undoubtedly work better with some languages than others.

The last big group of issues with the site that I'll touch on are what appear to be growing pains: kinks that I would hope are temporary and will be worked out over time. These are the little things that take away from the experience.

Certain assignments ask you for things that haven't been taught yet. For instance, in German 101, Unit 2, Lesson 2, the writing assignment is "Describe the locations of a set of people and objects. Describe each. EX. The woman is on the yellow couch. She is not in the brown chair." However, up to this point the course has not covered how adjectives change in front of nouns. This means that your poor reviewers will have to correct all of your guesswork and it greatly increases the burden on them.

And the system still has mistakes outright in it. For instance, in one exercise, I came across this picture:

Livemocha

The text for this was "Wo ist er? Es ist im Karton." ("Where is he? It is in the box."). This is, of course, as wrong in German as it is in English, but it was that way in both the text and in the native speaker's recording. You would think that the native speaker would have at least flagged this for them so they could fix it instead of just reading it rote (if that was in fact a computer's voice, color me impressed). Another mistake I came across was "Der Junge hat keine roten Haaren" ("The boy doesn't have red hair"). The mistake is that there's no -n on the end of the word for "hair"; it should be Haare.

In addition to outright mistakes, there are also times when two or more pictures are the right answer, leaving you guessing blindly as to which one is actually the "right" answer. In the exercise below, the text says, "Where are they? They are in the box," and you've got to pick the correct picture. Well, are they referring to the candies in the box or the flowers in the box? It's totally unclear and you're left guessing which is supposed to be the right answer.

Livemocha

Livemocha

And here's another one. The text says "She doesn't have red hair." We can eliminate the guy and the lady with red hair, but which of the two non-redheads is this referring to? Only haphazard guessing will tell.

Livemocha

Livemocha

There is also generally bugginess in the responsiveness and behavior of the interface. There were a few times when I went through one "review" section and only got one or two wrong (out of 40) and ended up with a score like 70%. I can only attribute that to some sort of technical screw-up. There were at times time lags that resulted in incorrect clicking, and sometimes a click wouldn't register at all. This is particularly true when you have a Livemocha chat window open and are getting a new chat message.

Despite what now looks like a post full of griping and moaning, I would recommend Livemocha as a tool for language learners. Their teaching method is not all that great, but it's not terribly painful to click through a bunch of cards, and it's certainly helpful to hear the target language spoken by a native speaker. And, of course, you can skip it, if you want to. But the real gold lies in the site's ability to put you in touch with native speakers, and you should definitely arm yourself with that as one tool in your language-learning kit.

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for the thorough review. I had always discounted their writing and speaking because the examples I came across on the site were low quality for the most part. However, I can see how you would eventually find good quality partners and now I understand how the service is reciprocated. Definitely some ideas to take back and consider, as they relate to LingQ!

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  2. This is a great review. Livemocha is a great site for learning a language. I like the social part of Livemocha.

    I've never heard of Lang-8 before. I'll have to try that one out.

    Another site that I've tried, that is like Livemocha, is called busuu. It only offers English, Spanish, French and German at the moment. I haven't used it much but so far I prefer Livemocha.

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  3. Well, I just find LiveMocha to be a joke. And not a funny one.

    I'm Brazilian, I speak French and German as foreign languages (besides English, duh!), and gave LiveMocha a try with Dutch (which isn't so hard once you know German) and Spanish (which isn't hard when you're a native Portuguese speaker). I also took a look at the Russian course, just for kicks. Not that I was planning to learn all these languages, I just wanted to take a look at it.

    The first thing I found to be an outrageous misconception was that the same method was used for every language, even the same goddamn pictures. If Vincent thought it was hard to figure out the Adjektivdeklination ("how adjectives change in front of nouns") with just a lousy sentence, how about reading things in the cyrillic alphabet with no description at all of it? Really, how is one supposed to do just that? The Adjektivdeklination is a pretty complicated thing to grasp, demands special exercises for it and is reviewed every once in a while -- heck, when I was in Germany for a C1 class (to be taken in your 11th semester of learning German) the teacher insisted we review it! It's the same with cyrillic letters, you need to exercise it beforehand. That alone is a reason not to take LiveMocha seriously: it ignores the differences between languages, and builds courses based on a translation of the English course.

    In addition, I tried the Brazilian Portuguese course they have. Man, it's an even worse joke. The pronunciation is totally weird, not corresponding to any native speaker of Portuguese from either side of the Atlantic (the German pronunciation, however, sounds like the typical Hochdeutsch). There are many outright mistakes, and adaptions from the English course that look just like mistranslations. I'll give you an example: in English (and German) the days of the month are always ordinal numbers: fourth of July, December fifth and so forth. LiveMocha then decided to teach ordinals showing the days of the month in a calendar. The thing is, in Portuguese, the days of the month are cardinal, not ordinal, except for the first. Well, there was nevertheless a calendar with an 8 marked on it, with the word "eighth" in the bottom, which is just misleading. And they did not explain at all this exceptionality of the first day of the month, just shoved it in the examples, leaving the learner to figure it out (or to think it's another mistake).

    The only thing I recommend in LiveMocha is, like Vincent said, the opportunity to meet native speakers. Besides that, please stay away from LiveMocha! The only language it may be able to teach (haven't checked it) is English, but if you've read up to this point you surely can speak English already!

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  5. For feedback on anything in my review, read the url linked by my name here to find my e-mail address.
    -Márcio

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  6. I agree with Marcio. I was on Livemocha for a couple of months. I was on there not so much to learn a new language but to help non-native English speakers with their English. Disappointing is not the word! It was disheartening to see my friends receive reviews with incorrect or misleading corrections even from native English speakers. My experience reinforced my conviction that being a native speaker of a language doesn't mean someone can teach that language. Of course, when I pointed out my concerns to Livemocha, I never received a response.

    Another major problem I had was their constant technical problems, but that is a subject of another thread.

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  7. Yes, English confuses even its native speakers.

    And no, that's NOT sarcasm.

    Seriously, it does.

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  8. I'd agree that there're a lot of native speakers on there who poorly represent their own language. You know if one native speaker corrects 10 mistakes and another corrects only one, that one catching 10 mistakes is who you'll want to stick with. But by doing so you can eventually whittle down to a core of excellent corrects—but it will take some time, and I don't think everyone does it.

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  9. Wrong use of "you're" in sixth paragraph.

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  10. @Anonymous: Duly noted, and duly corrected.

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  11. I recently started learning Arabic. My first lesson at liveMocha had me a bit completely baffled; until I realized that the words they were teaching me were all written backwards!

    One a the ONLY things I knew about Arabic before joining liveMocha is that Arabic is written right to left. But all the words in the liveMocha were written left to right as in latin languages. I memorized the pronunciations of couple dozen words BACKWARDS before I realized what was going on!

    I may still use the chat and tutor features of LiveMocha eventually. But it is painfully obvious I cannot trust the site for the fundamentals.

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  12. Wow, now that is a pretty fundamental mistake, and one that early learners—the type of learner who's most likely to use Livemocha—aren't likely to realize immediately.

    It seems to be Livemocha needs to spend some time polishing their content.

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  13. I so desperately need to learn Spanish. I was going to break down and buy Rosetta Stone until I found out that LiveMocha is pretty much the same..crap. In the past I have taken lessons by native Spanish speakers and like someone else said on here, just because someone is a native speaker doesn't mean they can teach it. I've never been able to find someone who can clearly teach me the ' why's ' and ' how's ' of sentence structure and it makes putting sentences together very confusing. My fiance speaks fluent English and Spanish. He told me it took him years and years to learn to speak and write English. He has tried to teach me but even he admitted .. he is no teacher. I am moving back to his country for awhile with him and his family all speak Spanish and no English. Whenever we have went in the past he is our translator and it is very frustrating .. mostly for me.
    Anyways, Livemocha sucks. Just like every other online language learning program.

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  14. I've been hearing that complaint quite a bit recently, which is making me wonder if there's some kind of technical problem. I generally just go on there and someone will send me a chat request. Otherwise, you'll generally need to send a certain number of chat requests out before you get a response. How have you been going about it thus far?

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  15. Agreed. The feedback from native speakers varies widely, and it's harder on Livemocha than on, say, Lang-8, to weed out the poor contributors.

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  16. thanks for your review. I was planning on trying it out, but obviously need to wait until I have a working knowledge of my target language, if at all.

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  17. Livemocha doesn't intend for its users to have a working knowledge of the language before using it, but if it's coming of as such I wonder if some adjustments might be required.

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  18. One of the mistakes you pointed out earlier in German is not necessarily a mistake!
    In german a child is Das Kind. Thus the pronoun to describe das  Kind is always "es" not "er" or "sie" regardless of the actual gender of the child in question.
    Admittedly, it is strange to have a pronoun disagreement like that. The question should have been "Wo ist das Kind?" "Es ist im Karton".
    The question probably was there to show the German-learner that gender in German is to be memorized, even when referring to People.

    An even stranger example is "Das Weib" the wife. The pronoun used to refer to "Das Weib" is also "es" not "sie"

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  19. They have started rating people by their ability to correct. I do not think Livemocha has begun to actually block people who cannot correct, from correcting. 

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  20.  Sometimes, there is a keyboard Icon towards the bottom of the screen; the problem however is that the Cyrillic keys never correspond to where the Latin Letters are on a keyboard, so it is like learning to type from scratch (i.e. л м н о п are not where l, m, n, o, and p are on a keyboard).

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  21. But isn't it wrong to refer to someone as "er" and then immediately start referring to that same person as "es" without the intervention of some kind of noun like "das Kind"?  If it's weird for a native speaker, I'd still say it's wrong.  I truly doubt they were making an attempt to teach something; most likely it was just a mistake.

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  22. I have studied, not always succesfully, a lot of languages. I can take the point tha people make about the limited choices of Livemocha but I think it is cleverer than that. Making a choice from 20,options perhaps tests you ability more accurately BUT doing it from four repeatedly does actually help yopu remember and when you are consistent with 4 it becomes much easier with 44. I too get the buzz of a facebook with a point from it. but i am using it in conjunction with another course. i knew the cyrillic alphabet before I started the Bulgarian course and of copurse that helped. but this free!! Philosophically sound and if you combine it with another course fantastic

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  23. My problem with multiple choice is that, when I'm actually using a language, there won't be a choice at all; I'll just need to pull it out of my head. With multiple choice, I can use testing strategies (process of elimination, etc.) that I won't have available in real life.

    That said, using Livemocha as one tool in your language-learning toolkit, especially if you enjoy it, seems fine to me.

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