Monday, May 3, 2010

Twelve simple tips to quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites

Busuu, CorrectMyText, Livemocha, Lang-8, italki, RhinoSpike, and others. The number of language-learning websites where you rely on free help from other users is slowly but surely proliferating.

While the specifics of each site vary, what you want from other users is pretty much the same. First, you want input. Then you want good input. Then you want good input quickly.

Twelve simple tips to make that happen, after the jump.
  1. Make lots of friends. This is just playing the odds; make lots of friends, and the more likely one of your friends is to drop by and help you out.

  2. Become friends with those who have few friends. More simple statistics at work here: people tend to provide input to their friends and, if you're a friend of someone who has few friends, you're more likely to get input from that person. Newly registered users are typically your best bet for taking advantage of this tip (long-time users with few friends probably aren't using the site a lot).

  3. Send friend requests when you need help. Let's say you've submitted some writing for correction in Italian, but don't already have a bunch of Italian friends on the site. Go and send out as many friend requests as you can to Italian speakers (some sites limit the number of friend requests you can send in a day, while on others your only limitation is how much time you care to spend). If you can, search for people who recently logged in; there's a good chance they're still on the site and will give you input right away.

  4. Be patient. I typically never need to wait more than a day to get input from native speakers, although often I don't even need to wait an hour. Still, I'd recommend waiting at least a day before doing anything more. (For less commonly studied languages than those that I'm learning, the average wait might be longer, so adjust expectations as necessary.)

  5. Send requests for help when you need help. Once you've got a bunch of friends, more than likely any number of them will be willing to help you at any time—if they know you need help! Send around a few personal messages asking for help and more than likely one of them will take care of it for you; I for one am certainly much more likely to help out when I get a specific message asking for it. But I would only do this if you've already waited a little bit; if you constantly post something and then immediately ask for help, it might get a little annoying.

  6. Help others. The whole social engineering aspect behind these kinds of sites is "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine", so it's not surprising that this actually works; someone you help is much more likely to help you. In fact, one of the things I like the most about Lang-8 is that you can see who's been helping you and how much they've been helping you, as seen in this list of people who have made corrections for me. You can get to your own version of that list by clicking on "History of user making corrections" on your Lang-8 homepage (which I keep right at the top of my Lang-8 homepage). Once that's open, click on "No. of corrections made for" you, and you'll then see the list of correctors in order from the most to the least corrections made. Whenever I get a few minutes to make corrections, I'll go to that page and do a few corrections for whoever seems to be getting a lead on me in the number of corrections made. Glancing at the list right now, Lang-8 user keiko is up 2-0, so I'll probably try to do a few corrections for her next.

  7. Give your best helpers VIP treatment. After you spend some time on these sites, it won't be long before you realize that some people's input is just downright excellent. You want to show these people all the love you can! Correcting their work should always be your number one priority, and correct it as best you can.

  8. Say thank you. Just like your momma taught you. Thanking people for their help means they're more likely to serve you another plateful of helpfulness.

  9. Keep it short. No one is looking to spend an hour correcting your writing or recording something for you, so keep it short. I know that I personally will back off of something that's too long if I don't have the time for it or if it just seems like a hassle, and I've also noticed that my own longer requests take longer to get fulfilled. So what to do when you have something long for which you need input? Break it down into bite-size pieces and post them up there piece by piece. If you've got a two-page essay you want corrected, perhaps you could post two half-page segments at one point and two more a few hours later.

  10. Unify your profile across sites. Try to use the same user screen name and the same profile pic on all websites like these. There's a pretty good chance that your friends on one of these sites are also members of the others, so you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find you. If you're building up good, mutually beneficial relationships on one site, there's certainly no reason not to continue them on another. I'd also recommend adding links to your accounts on all sites like these to your brief bio on your profile page on each of these sites.

  11. Use an attractive pic. As superficial as it may sound, you'll be able to get more friends with an attractive pic. I'm not sure exactly how much the trends found on dating sites apply on social language-learning sites, but I'm pretty sure there's a degree of overlap. If you don't believe me, hop on to any one of these sites and do a quick random sampling of users with attractive pics and then compare them to a similar sampling of users with pics of objects or no pic at all. Chances are you'll find a significant difference in the number of friends between the two groups and, as mentioned above, more friends likely means more input. If you really wanna milk this for what its worth, go ahead and use a pic that's not you. If anyone ever figures it out: "Oh, I just really like that pic..."

  12. Don't be skeevy. One the other hand, the problem with posting an attractive pic—especially for females—is that it could bring out the skeevies. Tiffany, a Livemocha user, had this to say:
    As soon as I posted my photo on Livemocha…, I had a few men message me "please send me MSN chat ID" with no other introduction. Of course they have a long list of friends on there, all female. Doesn't sound like they are on there for learning!
    Yeah, don't be one of those guys. I'm pretty sure you won't be maximizing your chances of finding love or of getting language-learning input with an approach like that.
So what other tips would you add to the list?


  1. If you're like me, and don't make friends easily, you can get others to send a friend request by correcting their work as your first contact with them. I now get so many corrections on Lang-8 that I don't correct anyone but people who are already my friends because it'll mean even more corrections.

    Sadly, many of the corrections for a post are duplicates. I realize they are trying to help, but posting the exact same corrections as someone else isn't really all that helpful. A simple 'I agree with so-n-so and their corrections' would be better.

  2. Although I wrote the above list in a rough sort of chronological order, that order is certainly flexible. Helping others will definitely lead to more of them friending you, so it's a good idea to start out with that if you're not the type to send out 20 friend request at a time (like, ahem, me).

    Your second point brings up a kind of no-duh thing I should have included in the list above, so let's add it here:

    13. Provide quality input. Obviously one part of that is not duplicating what others have done. On Lang-8, when I'm checking something that's already been checked, I'll usually skip straight ahead to the corrections and read them instead of the original text. If the corrections have already taken care of everything, then I leave it at that. On RhinoSpike, if there's already a bunch of excellent recordings, there's not a lot of need to make more (although that does get your recording requests to the front of the line…).

    But quality is definitely more than simply not being redundant. My typical standard for corrections is that if it doesn't sound like a native speaker, I fix it, and that seems to be appreciated. Lesser-quality corrections will use the "I get what you're saying" standard, even if it'd be weird if a native said the same thing. For me at least, those who correct my stuff to the level of natural native language is one of the main markers I use to find my best helpers.

  3. hey ..first thnx a lot for you , it s realy amaizng , am just asking you , how we can learn a language ?..first i have some problems ..1_ the life aound m it doesnot accept for me to learn other not saying it s bad , but it s not ovr for othr cultur's.
    2-what i have to do to be as you ?..i do nt know what i have to do ? so plz help me , by the way u have an amaizing accent i wish that i have as your's ..nd i have problems , i felt shy when i speak other languges such as engish or giv m a sloution plzz.....thnxx a lot for you

  4. Have enjoyed finding your site recently. Really finding the posts on how to organize different online services very useful. Found your site after reading the benny review of lingq and all the back and forth I ran into your site. Very nice flowcharts.

  5. @Ryan: Thanks for the kind words!

    @ChicagoSeoul: Thank you as well for the kind words and glad you were able to find the site! I've got some updates to those posts and flowcharts coming up soon, as actually putting those flowcharts into practice is revealing lots of tips to improve how they work.

    @youmetal: You've got lots of questions that deserve lengthy answers! I saw that you just added me to your Yahoo buddy list, so let me get some more details from you and I think I can give you a full post on the topic.

  6. thnx a lot my teacher , i just need to answer me about this..plz can i , put my shy away when i speak ? ..plzz thnx for you nd for the site that u brings u think if i read books nd listen to music , that 'll help me to improve my eng nd othrs languages ..!! thnx
    i just wish if we can stay in touch all the time..

  7. @youmetal I absolutely think that if you read books and listen to music, it'll help you improve your languages. (With the music, just make sure you look up the words you don't know as well!)

    As for overcoming your shyness in speaking, I've got a few specific suggestions for you here.

  8. thnx a lot for you , i ll take all u r advice's , thnx a lot , i jus hope we ll stay on touch , just to see if am good..

  9. this is my first post here, so just to say: Great blog! :)

    now about the post:
    "Help others. The whole social engineering aspect behind these kinds of sites is "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine", so it's not surprising that this actually works; "

    - well, this basically means that we, native speakers of languages that are not popular at all, do not have much (or good) chance when it comes to this point. :)
    (I can, of course, correct basic English writing, but I wouldn't trust myself correcting someone's article usage, for example, and also, it is quite hard to find a speaking partner, since I'm not a native English speaker)

    I had tried with the "attractive picture" approach :), but that lead to the equivalent of Tiffany's experience and was one of the reasons I left Livemocha.

    so, yeah, these websites are great, but we are not all quite equal there :). For me, the greatest problem is finding a speaking partners (I tried sharedtalk, but it didn't work at all, since number of people learning Serbian is next to 0 :) ). I cannot advertise myself for the English conversations, no matter how good my English is, since I do have an obvious accent (although, at the end I found couple of people who do not mind that, so I have conversation partners for one of the languages I'm learning).


  10. @Milena: Thank you for the kind words!

    And you raise an excellent point: what to do in the "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" model, when there are very few people learning the language you can help with? Here are my suggetions.

    As to how bad females have it on social language-learning sites, keep an eye out for a follow-up post on that topic.

  11. @youmetal: Glad I could be of some help! Drop me a line if you've got any more questions!

  12. This is a very useful information, thank you; especially for the last tip. That is really bothering not only females but also males. I hope, that people will understand that it will never do any favors for them.