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You’re fluent in a language, I believe, when you can confidently and spontaneously say sentences like this:
“Damn it! My pen rolled off the table and fell on the floor and now I can’t reach it!”
This is what my brother Riaz (another budding polyglot/occasional arch-nemesis) told me when he was learning German in the early 2000s. Since then, it has stuck in my head as a playful signpost for fluency. I have noticed I can study a language for months, but such a simple sentence might still elude me. But a small child would be able to say it without a second thought.
It’s sentences like this one that Glossika teaches. Everyday, common sentences, spoken by natives.
We’re big fans of Glossika. Glossika is designed to fix one of the hardest things for language learners: hearing common phrases spoken naturally by native speakers and learning them in a structured way.
Normally, we’re not really fans of apps — we prefer traditional language learning methods like books and teachers. We like Glossika because it’s not supposed to replace the entire language learning process — just part of it. And anyway, it’s not an app.
If you want to try it now, you can get a seven-day trial to Glossika and your first 1000 reps free here.
Glossika’s bold claims that flashcards are boring
“Learn to speak a language by mumbling!” said the email we received from Glossika. Tempting, I mumbled in reply.
Glossika claims that theirs is a “natural” learning method and that flashcards and memorisation are ridiculous in 2018 (and, presumably, thereafter).
I never used flashcards. I do study in a somewhat spaced repetition-like way, but I don’t ever use flashcards. Some people — probably most effective language learners — love them. But to me, they’re boring. So to hear someone else claim they’re boring was music to my ears — someone else agrees with me (thus we both must be right).
From the email from Glossika:
There’s no memorization involved in language acquisition. If anybody is selling you flashcard methods in 2018, then you need to ask for your money back. It’s ridiculous.
Just step back and think about a few things: How did you…
- learn how to walk and run?
- learn how to talk?
- learn how to dance?
- learn how to swim?
In most of those cases, you didn’t open a book, you didn’t study for a test, you didn’t even go to a class. Sure, there are teachers for some of these things, but you can learn them all by mimicking others.
The method they actually rely on is something akin to the way we learn languages as a child. It’s dubious to claim that just because it worked as a child that it’s the best way, but it still works — just not as the only way.
So How Does Glossika Work?
The core of Glossika is simple: Listen and repeat.
When you sign up, you tell Glossika what you’re interested in. For example, you might be interested in “Travel”, “Social”, and “Rude”, whatever that is (can’t wait to find out). Like me, you might not be interested in, for example, “Doctor” (any decent doctor in a good hospital speaks better English than whatever language I’m using) and “Crime” (I only commit crimes using English).
Now Glossika starts serving you sentences. The default is to give you 10 new sentences a day, revised 6 times each. The day after, you revise these sentences a few times, and then continue revising them at decreasing intervals afterwards, using a spaced repetition algorithm.
A study session for 10 sentences a day takes about 30 minutes with active listening.
Glossika counts each repetition as a “rep”. One thing I was curious about was: how many reps until I’m fluent? The answer is about 50,000. It has taken me a month to get to nearly 10,000. So be patient.
Why Do We Love Glossika?
Because it works, for what it does.
We’ve studied more than ten languages between us, and we find most apps to be just toys. Some of them are too hard to use to make effective use of the content (I could never make use of the content in Mondly, for example).
First reason why we love Glossika: Spaced repetition of real language means we actually learn.
In the case of many resources that include audio (all apps these days, and many books), the audio usually lacks a couple of things.
Firstly, you’re never really sure if the audio is realistic. You find yourself thinking: “Is that the colloquial way of saying it? It sounds artificial. And do people speak that clearly? Wait, isn’t that word the formal conjugation?” — you end up questioning it a lot.
Secondly, you don’t even have to listen. You can just read. And if you listen, it’s tempting to just listen once or twice and never go back to it. Even if you did go back to it, there’s no structured way of doing so: you just would listen to an entire chapter’s audio again, if using a textbook, for example.
Glossika intelligently spaces out repetitions so that you memorise the structures and words over time. And it lets you give feedback, indicating if a sentence was too hard or if it’s so easy that you already know it (perhaps from other study). It doesn’t waste your time.
They claim to use AI, machine learning and so forth to know when to space them out, but in reality I find you can just think of it like:
- You’ll hear it five times today
- A few times tomorrow
- Once or twice in the days after
- Again, later, randomly
It tapers off quickly. In fact, you might find it scary, because you won’t really memorize all the content. But you don’t need to memorize it. Today you’ll learn “She doesn’t have a car”. The word for “car” might be hard for you. But next week you’ll learn “Is the car broken?” and later you’ll learn again “I can’t find my car keys”. Like in real life, you’ll hear words again.
Second reason we love Glossika: Loads of languages!
At time of writing (2019) Glossika has over sixty languages. And they’re all included in the one membership.
Glossika includes the less well-resourced languages we’re learning in 2019 (Egyptian Arabic, Swahili and Bahasa Indonesia), plus a bunch more languages for which there are generally limited resources:
- Chinese in the forms of Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Wenzhou-nese (!)
- Persian/Farsi (shout-out to my family who are still waiting for me to work on Farsi)
- Two variants of Vietnamese — I didn’t know there were two
- And even UK English for those of us who don’t want to be instructed by an American.
See the full list of Glossika languages here. Hopefully in the future they’ll add Australian English, as I’m getting a little rusty.
The best part is that you can go from any language to any language. This is wonderful in an age where most language resources are in English. If your mother tongue is Arabic, you can learn Chinese without having to go through a third medium. I haven’t tried this (I’m lucky to have been raised in an English-speaking country) but I see people doing it online.
How to use Glossika effectively as part of your language learning routine
We started using Glossika months ago in late 2018, and have learned a lot about how to make the most of that US$30 p/m subscription. It’s not cheap, so we want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it.
Tip 1: Don’t use Glossika first — Use books and tutors
As great as Glossika is, I would never recommend it for someone just starting out in a language. Start with a textbook and learn all the basics of a language. Glossika thinks you can start with Glossika, and it’s OK to be overwhelmed.
I tried this, with Korean. I’ve learned tons of languages, and am used to being overwhelmed and uncomfortable. But the result was that I was confused a lot of the time and I learned slowly.
Contrast with Arabic, where I spent two weeks with a book first and learned conjugation, some words and the way sentences work. I started Glossika and even though their placement test still only put me at the very bottom rung, I actually progressed and learned.
Here’s what I think you should know before you start using Glossika:
- The alphabet (except for Chinese) and pronunciation
- How verbs are conjugated, at least in most common forms (present, perfect, simple past, simple future, imperative)
- Sentence structure (where subject, object, adjectives and verb go usually)
- Pronouns and prepositions
- Core grammar, like how plurals are made
- A core vocabulary of maybe a few hundred words.
Have a look at our 80-20 vocabulary list for a suggestion of words you might want to learn.
At this point (probably two weeks in) you’ll start to feel like you want to hear how sentences are actually made. This is where Glossika shines. Sign up!
Tip 2: Don’t use Glossika exclusively
Glossika is, on paper, purported to be the only tool you need to learn a language. You will definitely learn a lot through it. However, it’s not all you need.
It falls short in a number of ways:
- It mostly just encourages you to listen and repeat. There are other modes too (like translation), but these still aren’t dialogue, or listening, or of course having actual conversations with people. The best way you can learn is still with a teacher.
- You won’t learn what you personally want to learn. If your day to day is mostly talking about things like motorcycles, weightlifting and technology (just a random example, nobody I know personally), the vocabulary isn’t going to be suitable. You might not EVER learn the sentence “I prefer middleweight motorcycles so I can ride them to their limits legally”. I’m looking forward to finding out if I will, though.
- You’ll waste time trying to guess grammar when someone could just explain it to you. Look, you’re smart. You probably can figure everything out on your own by inference. But you don’t have to. You’re not an archaeologist who just discovered the Rosetta Stone; you’re an adult who can ask questions and learn rules. Just as it’s useful to know in English rules about how to use apostrophes or the difference between “were” and “we’re”, it’s useful to learn rules in other languages like how to make plurals in Arabic, the different forms of de in Chinese (的, 得, and 地) and when to use “Por qué” and “porque” in Spanish.
Tip 3: Actually repeat words out loud. (Mumbling is OK)
At its core, as we mentioned, Glossika is all about listening and repeating. They say you can “mumble your way to fluency”. But what does this mean?
“Mumbling” sounds dubious, but let me explain. It means to say that mumbling is OK, which is it. But saying it “in your head” is NOT enough. You need to articulate the words. When you do so, you’ll find that you might have missed some detail. Was there an article there? Was there a word they pronounced with liaison, blurring over it? You’ll catch yourself and learn more this way.
Settings to use: We like to set “Interval Between Sentences” at 2x for the target language to give time to repeat more than once. This means if a sentence in the target language takes 2 seconds to say, you’ll have 4 seconds to say it.
Tip 4: Go beyond repeating and guess the answer
Rather than repeat, try to go one level up and guess the whole answer before they said it. After the app says, for example, “Why are you putting that coat?” think how you would say that and say it in the target language. Think of it as a test.
This is pretty tiring. But it’s such a good way of drilling things.
Settings to use: We set “Interval Between sentences” at 2x for the source language to give us time before the target language is said. That way we have time to guess the answer.
Tip 5: Look up words/phrases you don’t understand
It’s tempting to think you can learn passively, and I’m sure you can. But that’s a slow way to go.
Every time you come across a word or phrase you don’t understand, if you can’t figure it out from inference, look up the words. This is especially important when you see two similar sentences, like I did recently. There were two ways of saying “It’s raining” in Arabic. They’re mostly equivalent, but I wanted to look up the words to see how they were related.
If you take notes of words you’ve learned through Glossika you’ll find that you will internalise the phrasing more quickly because you’re only focusing on phrasing and less on new words you didn’t know existed.
Tip 6: Substitute your own words to help remember
This helps you learn new phrases quickly, especially if you’re struggling to learn one.
If you learn the sentence “There’s a book on the table”, think to yourself, what else could be on the table? Where else could the book be? Make modifications
- There’s a pen on the table
- There’s a book next to the table
- There’s a pen on the floor
This would normally take a very long time to do, so I’d only suggest you do this for the most difficult sentences that you find yourself spending a long time memorising, that you’re really struggling with.
Tip 7: Note down new words you’ve learned
Keep a notebook. I like to keep a Google Sheet to remind me of every word I learned, but you might prefer a Google Doc, physical notebook or whatever.
For every word you learn, if you’re even vaguely unsure about having memorised it in Glossika, note it down in your notebook.
This is especially useful for very difficult words, like verbs requiring conjugation. I think “I want to learn that in a number of other ways right now.” So I look it up and write down a few sample sentences in my notebook.
Tip 8: Be aggressive in marking things as easy or hard — don’t waste time
Glossika give you the option of marking every sentence you learn with a heart (❤️) or a smiley (😊). But these don’t have the intuitive meaning you think they do.
- Heart emoji (❤️): This means this sentence was hard. You like it, and know it’s important, so you want to keep studying it.
- Smiley (😊): this means this sentence was easy. It felt good. You don’t need to see it ever again. (Wow, harsh interpretation of a smiley face).
How to use the heart (difficult): if you still need to practise a sentence and suspect Glossika doesn’t know, and might start cycling it through less and less, mark it with a heart. This tells Glossika that you want to study it more, and it’ll make sure you see it again.
How to use the smiley (easy): Sometimes, phrases come up that you’ve mastered. Maybe you learned them from teachers or textbooks, or they were just so easy that you mastered them.
Regardless, don’t waste time. You need to feel uncomfortable the whole time you’re studying, like you’re pushing yourself. There’s no reason to get exhausted from monotonous study — it’s not going to help you.
That’s why I suggest that as soon as you know you don’t need to hear a sentence again, cut it out by marking it with a smiley face.
Tip 9: Set Glossika to teach you 10-15 new sentences a day, but do two sessions if you really want
The more sentences you add, the more repetition the algorithm builds in to your daily study routine. This can get unwieldy.
If your study session is only 10 new sentences a day, their estimate is that your whole study session should only take about 15 minutes. If you increase the study session 15 new sentences a day, this balloons out to 30 minutes. Then with 20 new sentences a day, it’ll take 60 minutes!
The reason for this is that the words can stack up. You aren’t just learning 20 new words; you’d be revising the 20 words from the last few days as well (though fewer from a few days ago).
I find that more than 15 gets crazy, particularly as I take over an hour to finish every 15 word session. On occasional days, I have lots of time and I do two sessions. That way I do 30 sentences in an hour, much more than the paltry 20 I’d have done with the standard algorithm.
Things We Think Glossika Should Improve
Glossika isn’t perfect. Just for transparency, these are the things we’d like to see it improve.
- Improve the mobile experience: We use it on our phones a lot. My main problem with it is that you need to keep the screen awake for Glossika to keep working. It needs to keep an internet connection alive to download information, and the internet often goes into standby when the screen turns off.
- Reduce internet dependance (enable offline mode): Similar to the above, I wish the web application worked better offline. They do have a function that lets you download audio for a session, but that’s not ideal; the audio alone doesn’t let you heart or smiley face cards, and you can’t see written text to clarify pronunciation
- Let us see what we have learned: I get weekly summaries of what I’ve learned in email, plus I can always go and check what I’ve hearted or marked with a smiley. But I’d really love it if there were a list online of everything I’ve learned. This would help with those times when I’m on the run, studying, and later want to come back and add things to my word database.
- Improve localisation: This is a hard ask. I get the way that Glossika is built — it’s a giant database of sentences in 60+ languages. So the sentences are all “standard”. But this standardisation means we lose a bit of local flavour. For example, Arabic verbs conjugate differently for men and women. It seems weird to just have one sentence in English, and then have the multiple sentence options only in the written card. Or for another example, when people or places have names, it’d be more appropriate to talk about Ibraheem and Youssef in Egypt, and Peter and Mary in an English course. Again, I know this would be hard, but it’d be nice.
- Tell me what what happens after I report an error*: Sometimes there’s an error in the content. Like once, the English sentence said one thing, but the Arabic sentence said that plus a follow-up thing. I reported it. I am pretty sure someone receives those. I would just love to know what happens, like if there’s any point to reporting them.
- Make it cheaper, for just one language: Glossika used to cost $30 a language for a whole package for one language. This was when it was MP3s. Now it’s $30 a month but for all languages. I think $10/month for one language would get them a higher conversion rate.
Yes, there are errors. But they’re rare (less than 1/100 cards) and usually not serious. The biggest one I saw so far was that the English sentence had one part, but the Arabic had two. It was something like
- English: “I bought a new car today.”
- Arabic: “I bought a new car today. It was very expensive.”
I mean it was a clear database error. Someone had updated one sentence, but not the corresponding one(s). It didn’t hamper my learning, but I’d like to see it not there, to not call the rest of the content into question.
More common issues are inaccurate or inconsistent phonetic representation. These are up for debate, anyway, and the most important thing remains the audio and the written text in the target language.
How Much Is Glossika and Would We Recommend It?
Glossika is one of the more expensive apps out there at $29.95 a month month-to-month or $299 for the year. You can get a free week’s trial to see if you like the content and style. We consider it an indispensable part of the early (but not beginning) language-learning journey and highly recommend it.
Get it here and let us know how you like it!
Occasionally Glossika has sales. For example, they had one on Black Friday (late November) last year for $100 for the whole year. If you’re interested in hearing about sales, sign up to our email list and we’ll let you know as soon as we hear of a deal. If you need it now, go month-to-month until then!