Talking Tech 1: Lingro

Like many of you out there, the institution I work in is engaged in a desperate – and at times highly unfocused – dash towards digital. We’ve invested quite heavily in Blackboard, an online learning platform that I’m guessing many of you will already be familiar with, and in order to feel that this investment was valid, there’s increasing pressure coming down from on high to ensure that Blackboard is somehow seamlessly integrated into all courses. In addition to this internal institutional pressure, there’s also obviously the external pressure on all language teachers these days to not only be excellent at dealing with language and dealing with students, and to know about and be comfortable with a range of pedagogy, but to also be teched-up, to be digitally literate and to be integrating tech in some way into everything we do.

I’ve blogged before about some of my concerns about the current state of affairs, and if I had to characterize my own attitude towards things at present, I guess I’d say I was skeptical, but curious. I think there’s a lot of snake oil being sold, there are plenty of administrators and bosses hoping (in vain) that tech will provide some kind of magic bullet and fast forward learning into some futuristic utopia and there are plenty of stupid and disparaging comments being made about the many excellent teachers out there who have not ’embraced’ technology in their classrooms, but who continue to deliver excellent classes to satisfied students. Personally, outside of a Coomber for playing audio CDs, I basically don’t use any technology in my actual classroom, and we’re moving increasingly towards a ‘No mobiles in class’ policy too, simply due to the perennially disruptive nature of the things, with students (and, let’s face it, ourselves also) increasingly hooked on being in constant contact with our friends out there – and texting furiously throughout lessons! That said, I’d like to be convinced that there ARE sane things going on INSIDE classes that utilise technology, and I do try and keep abreast of what’s out there and what other teachers are doing.

Also, obviously, I use technology outside of class for all kinds of purposes, both professional and leisure. I blog, as you can see; I’m on Facebook (twice! personal and professional profiles); I upload music onto YouTube; Andrew Walkley and myself are doing a university YouTube project, which I’ll say more about later; I occasionally use Twitter; I use Vocaroo with my classes; I’ve tried class blogs; my students have access to online workbooks that accompany the coursebooks we use; I send emails round after every class with links to things that came up in class, mostly of a cultural / global general knowledge ilk, and so on. Hopefully, I’ll be returning to some of these issues later on.

I also try to ensure I keep up with, as best I can, the many many recommendations for various tech-related sites that are out there. I subscribe to both Russell Stannard’s newsletter and also Nik Peachey’s, and I read whatever I can that comes by way via other gatekeepers of the digital realm such as Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. I feel grateful that I’m already fairly sensitive towards language and fairly au fait with methodology, because, as I’ve often quipped, one of my main fears for the language teachers of tomorrow is that keeping up with all the tech that’s out there, and developing critical faculties towards it, is so time-consuming that you really do have to wonder where they’re going to find the time to tackle language and classroom practice on top!


Anyway, to eventually get somewhere near the point, it seems to me that one real issue at present is that there amidst all the enthusiastic boosterism and the carving out of career space for the gatekeepers (and just to be crystal clear from the outset, I’m NOT knocking them for this. They clearly serve a similar function to the applied linguists who bring the results of their findings to the field and leave us as teachers and materials designers to unpick the implications), what’s sorely lacking is any real space in which teachers can discuss and critique the uses (and abuses) of particular sites and pieces of technology. There’s not enough critical engagement with what’s being touted – or if there IS, I’ve yet to see it (!) – and so what I’d like to try and do with this next ongoing series of posts is to explore and consider a range of different sites that I’ve spent time looking at after seeing them touted and praised.

To begin, I’m going to talk about a site I first encountered courtesy of Russell Stannard called Lingro. It modestly proclaims itself as “the coolest dictionary known to hombre“! And Russell himself was almost as enthusiastic, calling “this fabulous tool” “the best website” he found in 2011.

The basic gist is that it’s a site into which you can drag and drop other pages (in a range of different ‘mainstream’ languages) from the web, whether they be news sites, articles, blog pages, or whatever, and Lingro will not only provide a dictionary to help you understand them, but it’ll also give you the pronunciation and even keep a record of the words you look up, store them away and turn them into games for you to revise from later on. Surely the perfect site for our students to be practising their reading and developing their vocabulary! Sounds too good to be true, right?

Well, I’d argue that that is because it is! Below you can see a screengrab of the first time I tried to use the site. I entered a page from The Guardian’s website into Lingro, as I imagined my students might do were i to recommend the site, and started toying around. You don;t need to spend too long on the site to realise that whilst the dictionary may be ‘cool’ (even if it does say so itself), it’s also, to be frank, rubbish! I mean, look at what it tells you about WITHDRAWAL! Most students – and possibly many teachers – would actually need to use a decent learner’s dictionary in order to understand the definitions in 1 and 2, neither of which, of course, have anything to do with the meaning here. And as for the third definition, well it’s a piece of tautological genius! Slog through all three and you’re still no nearer understanding what on earth the word is being used to mean here, and have problem been sent off down all manner of random rabbit holes, guaranteed to derail your train of thought and your focus.

Let’s turn instead to a decent dictionary written by actual lexicographers that understand the way foreign learners process language and who write in a way that’s aimed at EFL students. Take the Macmillan Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example. The first definition you meet is this:

1 [C / U] the act of stopping something or taking something away

Their withdrawal of support forced the minister to resign.

1a the removal of an army from an area of fighting

Troop withdrawal will take place immediately.

Bingo! Even though it’s not as precise as the second definition, even the first gets close and gives a fairly clear indication of meaning and usage.

In the same way, the Lingro definition of delay used as a verb – to put off till  a later time, to distract – is nowhere near as transparent as the Macmillan version – to do something later than is planned or expected, and again there then follow a series of excellent parallel examples.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 13.51.42

Still not yet convinced of the sheer awfulness of the dictionary?

Well, thanks to Gavin Dudeney, I’m now using Camtasia at home and thought that as I’m writing about tech, I may as well prove I’m not a total Luddite by making a short movie of myself trying Lingro out this very morning. You watch the results below and chortle at my increasing disgust as I very quickly come up against the site’s (many) limitations.

So why is this happening? And does any of it really matter?

Firstly, the utterly appalling nature of the dictionary is down to the fact that it’s all based on Wiktionary. Wiktionary is the result of all of those sexy buzzwords that web-heads love to sling around: crowd-sourcing, networking, interactivity, the blurring of the lines between user and creator, all that . . . and it’s dreadful! And it’s not just me saying it. Here’s Jill Lepore writing in The New Yorker, back in 2006: “There’s no show of hands at Wiktionary. There’s not even an editorial staff. ‘Be your own lexicographer!’ might be Wiktionary’s motto. Who needs experts? Why pay good money for a dictionary written by lexicographers when we could cobble one together ourselves? Wiktionary isn’t so much republican or democratic as Maoist. And it’s only as good as the copyright-expired books from which it pilfers.” And there are plenty more such stinging critiques out there, should you care to seek them out.

Why this matters is partly because the craze and craving for the free, the online, the interactive is essentially – in this instance – a vote for plagiarism, for the mediocre, for a poverty of resources. On top of that, though, it’s also a nail in the coffin of real lexicography. All the major publishing houses are selling fewer and fewer dictionaries each year so every time you recommend any site that uses Wiktionary, you’re basically advocating the total amateur over the highly skilled professional. The longer this continues, the higher the risk of all serious lexicographers who’ve spent their entire working lives studying the language, discussing and debating how best to present the findings of their research. As if none of this was bad enough, you’re also encouraging an impoverished view of language, which will lead to students taking on similarly impoverished views themselves. I mean, this is a view of language which doesn’t even recognise phrasal verbs for God’s sake, let alone chunks, collocations, fixed expressions, idiomaticity, or the power of examples.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about the revision games the site makes? Surely that must be fun. And motivating.

Well, because my patience is wearing thin, I’ll spare you too many of the gory details, but here’s another screen grab of the kind of games it’s capable of making.

Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 11.06.39

So basically it can save the key words – and really ONLY words – and turn them into very very basic flashcards that you use to test your memory. You look at the words and – in the instance above – check you can remember the Spanish, click on the ‘cards’ and check your answers. Well, we’ve already seen how poor the site actually is at even giving basic definitions of single words, so why on earth you should trust it to give decent translations of the meaning of the word in the context that you encountered it in is beyond me!

Just for the record, by the way, I’m really NOT saying the flashcards like this are a bad idea. They’re not. It’s just that these ones are very very poor. I make my own when studying Indonesian, but by doing it myself I can add in pronunciation and word stress, extra examples, collocations and add translations for all of these on the flip side. I can also customize these over time and test myself with them, which I do.

Philip Kerr has written well about using vocabulary cards to revise language you’ve encountered and I think this can be very very useful. Now, obviously, there’s no real reason why this couldn’t be done using technology.

It’s just that Lingro isn’t the place where you CAN.

Avoid.

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17 responses

  1. ‘Bingo! Even though it’s not as precise as the second definition…’
    Should have written ‘Bingro!’

    Very nice, Hugh. Too many free online learning tools, not enough free online crit of them. Do you think the gatekeepers should be a little more discerning about what they let in? On the other hand, I’m also wondering whether you just chose a duffer for starters so you could have a good dig – looking forward to a blog where you write: ‘I tried this one out, and it’s bloody BRILLIANT!!!’
    OK, minus the exclamation marks ;o)

    1. Bingro! Ba-boom!
      Missed a trick there, clearly.

      I think you’re right that there’s too much free stuff being endlessly slung at us and many teachers I know report a sensation of sort of drowning amidst the sea of information.
      We’ve all seen those facebook posts and tweets that try and hep us to 25 MUST-KNOW TECH SITES ALL TEACHERS NEED NOW and so on, and I think they’re corrosive.

      I really hope I manage to find time to continue both with my own research and experimentation and thinking on the sites that come my way, but also to blog about them and hopefully create some kind of space for folk to debate the uses of various things.

      As for the gate-keepers, well perhaps it would be good if there was perhaps a little more discernment, yes. I picked up a few hyperbolic quotes from Russ in the post above, and I know he does genuinely rate the site, so what can you say! I do think though there are obvious pressures on the gatekeepers too, in that they kind of have to keep coming up with the goods in order to keep their profiles. If they don’t have ten new sites to tell us about, they get stuck just going on about how great Jing is or whatever, so they’re caught in a kind of a industry trap.

      And as I also said above, maybe that’s just something we have to all accept and be aware of, and maybe it’s down to us as teachers to do the critical analysis and discussion bit more keenly.

    2. Not a particularly conscious decision to start with a total duffer, by the way, despite the fact it is always fun to write and slag, of course, isn’t it.
      It’s partly that there are a hell of a lot of duff sites out there, and they keep on getting recommended; partly that the particular site features in a talk about principles and technology that I did in Warsaw last week and so was fresh in the mind.
      I WILL discuss some sites that I have found more useful, and go into some of the ways I’ve tried to use them, as I get going with this series, but there’s a lot more dross out there than there is quality, I can tell you! And it’s important that the dross gets highlighted as maybe that’ll mean a few other teachers waste less of their lives bothering to check it all out!

  2. Well it’s about time! Couldn’t agree with you more Hugh!

    Here in China, I’ve always had to fight a rear guard action against free online dictionaries that are responsible for some really wiered stuff my learners come up with.

    But what worries me more is when teachers rely on this online stuff for their own PD. I cut my teeth on reading Thornbury, Parrot, Scrivener, to name but a few. An alarming number of teachers see no point in picking up a book – “just find it online man!”

    I think your point about critical thinking skills is a good and important one. I did an activity a while back when I told a class of university students that we were going to have a competition where each team would be given a city in the world – Moscow, Tokyo, Milan – you get the idea – and they had to design a T-shirt promoting a three day study trip to that place (i gave each group a plain white T-shirt and a bunch of pens, markers, stencils) The first thing the studes did was whip out their phones and go online to get some details about their assigned location – good webquest activity perhaps. When I went to the groups to ask them how much of the info was ‘theirs’ and how much they’d pulled from the Internet, they looked at me quite blankly. I also asked them if they were sure the facts and details they’d copied were trustworthy I also got the same blank stares.

    I work in a corporate setting where people have got used to the idea that staff can and should teach themselves. I also heard recently that staff don’t have the time to ‘learn’ things. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for them to get the info and skills they need when they need them. So instead of learning the words and collocations they need, they can just look them up at the point they need to use them…. Hmmm… As you say, there’s not enough critical thinking going on about this.

    Saddest thing – I was working one-to-one with a manager the other day. I handed her the Dictionsry of Contemorary English learners Dictionary but she had no idea how to use it – I mean how to find words or how the words are arranged in alphabetical order. It was almost as if she was searching for the search field. OMG! I had to spend ten minutes showing her how it all works.

    Chris

    1. Hi Chris –
      Thanks for reading and for such a comprehensive response!

      I’m also constantly fighting my students in this respect, trying to explain to them that there’s a reason why many of the online dictionaries are free!
      And also trying to get them off bilingual dictionaries that – after a certain level (around Int, I’d say) – cause more problems than they solve.

      As for the teachers you describe, well in the long term, they’ll reap what they sow and just won’t end up knowing that much about language . . . which is a bit of a handicap if you’re supposed to be a language teacher, really, isn’t it.

      The issue of how we check the veracity of sources online and who we trust and why is obviously an interesting one, and I think that if you’re teaching EAP / pre-sessionals or something like that, as opposed to just General English, then it’s certainly something worth focusing on a bit, yeah.

      The whole idea of learning being easy and students not needing to do stuff is an illusion of course, as anyone who’s ever learned a foreign language to any kind of reasonable degree will tell you. Of course staff CAN just choose not to bother and can rely on some kind of phrasebook approach to do what they may need to do whilst at work, and that’s fine so long as they realise how absurdly limited this is. One off-the-script question thrown at them and they’re in trouble!

  3. […] Like many of you out there, the institution I work in is engaged in a desperate – and at times highly unfocused – dash towards digital. We've invested quite heavily in Blackboard, an online learnin…  […]

  4. It’s rare to see someone stand up and ask a very sensible question about the use of the latest Wizzo Bango gadget. It usually follows the same pattern – Guru / Publisher informs the world that Wizzo Bango gadget can do things that other gadgets cannot do, questions how we have got this far without Wizzo Bango and implies that if you can’t work it into your classroom then there is something wrong with your teaching methods and, quite possibly, your outlook on life. There are a whole army of techies out there telling me that I need to start using more tech in the classroom. I’m constantly amazed at how often opinion now gets passed off as fact. What I actually need is to have somebody help me to help my students remember vocabulary. Yes, there might be an app for that, but unless it can be implanted in their head then it still boils down to remembering and using doesn’t it?

    1. Hi Kevin –
      Working in an institution where our tech-in-teaching policy seems to be driven by the fact that someone on high has spent a hell of a lot of money on an online learning platform before really bothering to see to what degree staff feel it’d enhance what they do or whether it’d work for each and every course, and where we’re now all being corralled into wild enthusiasm for it irrespective of whether or not it’s of much use to us – and being told that students will simply DEMAND it as standard within a year or two – I’ve learned to come at these things with a healthy degree of cynicism!

      There are plenty of folk making good money out of persuading institutions to adopt tech ‘solutions’ as they’re optimistically often referred to as, and plenty of others carving out careers on the back of the dash to digital. Some of those in both camps may well be well informed and in touch with ELT classroom realities, but very very few of them retain much grounding in the ELT classroom and so it just strikes me that now more than ever we need a forum where teachers themselves can discuss things and where the crud can be exposed as such – but also, as I will hopefully get on to eventually – the quality work can be praised as well.

      As for students needing to remember vocabulary, then I hear you lour and clear.
      Ultimately, that’s the bottom line.

      Even if they’re using an app to help them do it – and I’ve yet to see any myself that I’d recommend any of my students to bother using – then they still, as you say, have to make the conscious effort to learn the language. I suspect that attempting to do this online or on a smart phone actually makes life harder in many ways, as the lure of distraction is but a touch of the screen away. If my experience of trying to write material is the Internet age is anything to go by, it’s all too bloody easy to start out with the best intentions in the world and then half an hour later find yourself absent-mindedly reading blogs about the history of the London underground or watching videos of Dennis Bergkamp’s 50 greatest goals or streaming whole LPs on YouTube. Or possibly attempting all three more or less simultaneously, but certainly NOT doing the thing you’d sat down and set out to do in the first instance!

      1. Hugh,

        May I suggest that you watch the Gervinho show reel and you’ll probably get a lot more work done.

        Kevin

      2. Cheeky! I was going to come up with a riposte by linking in a video of one of his (few, admittedly) finer moments in an Arsenal shirt, but – tellingly – if you go YouTube and enter GERVINHO WONDER GOAL you get loads of videos of people playing FIFA PRO and scoring great goals via a digital Gervinho proxy. This is a whole genre of videos that I didn’t know of the existence of. Just this week I’ve now learned that folk video themselves scoring goals on computer games and upload these . . . video themselves upwrapping new tech stuff and upload these (this genre even has a name, apparently: unboxing – the porn of the shopping generation!) . . . talking of which I’ve also learned – from a student, no less – that folk also video unsuspecting friends and relatives being shown Japanese scatalogical porn and, being unable to upload the actual original videos to YouTube, instead upload film of the faces of folk being shown such things! There you go. Funny old world, isn’t it.

  5. […] of the comments made after my first foray into blogging about some of the tech tools that are touted for teachers was that I must’ve chosen a duff site for starters so that I could have a good rant. Now, as […]

  6. Give them a break. There’s a bigger issue here. The authors of the website are offering a tool for FREE that was otherwise not available and was probably funded out of their own pockets. Sure it could be better, but they probably don’t have access to a few million dollars to hire professional lexicographers for 11 dictionaries or lease them from say Macmillan or whoever. They have done their best and are asking for help and our contribution and they should be congratulated and thanked for that rather than pilloried.

    I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. I’m building my own website and know exactly what money (tens of thousands of my own dollars to build a crowd sourced read and learn ecosystem as a gift for the ER community), time (4000 hours and going) and dedication it takes to build these sites only to be criticised for unrealistic expectations. Why don’t you have Bulgarian translations? Why did you not include grammar? Why can’t I learn collocations from this? Why is there no LMS in French? Why no American pronunciation?

    Rather than rant at them, could you be constructive? Criticisms only deter others from developing things for the benefit of all. Once you have built your own site, you’ll be free to judge others who spare their time and money to build for the community. This site deserves more from the EFL community especially as it is probably only version 1 and will improve. The more you criticise, the less likely they’ll invest what it needs to build tools like this.

    1. Thanks for your comments Rob.
      Can’t say I agree, though.
      It’s free, so give them a break seems a pretty poor defence of a site that does m ore harm than good.

      It’s a waste of students’ hard-earned free time simply because the dictionary is so poor, based as it is on the profoundly amateur WikiDictionary.
      It’s a waste of time for those teachers who may have bothered checking it out to see if they think it’d be any use to their students.
      And it’s partially responsible for the drift away from serious lexicography, which leads to the loss of serious skills in the industry.
      On top of all that, let’s get real: the site may be free to end users (for now), but it’s no charity.
      It’s run for profit, or the hope thereof, with revenue presumably being generated by advertising if and when the site generates enough hits.

      Given all of this, and the fact it’s out there in the public area, it seems fair game to me!
      Feel free to argue in its defence and point out anything I’ve missed, but simply saying be nice because they’re trying is like arguing to continue eating in a dire local eatery that’s relatively new, because you feel sorry for them on the grounds that they just can’t afford better chefs!

      I’d suggest you don’t need to actually start your own restaurant in order to critique others.
      And you certainly don’t need to set up your own website to have opinions about whether or not this is worth spending time on.

      It’s not my job to support the site.
      It’s my job to ensure my learners get the best advice on how they might study and develop outside of the classroom.
      And as things stand, I’d recommend every time that they invest in a decent dictionary written for learners and avoid sites like this.

      1. You seem to have made a massive number of assumptions there, Hugh.

      2. It’s always possible, Rob!
        Feel free to point out any flaws that you feel may exist in my thinking.
        It’s why we’re all here!

  7. Excellent post and that video’s priceless – had to send it straight to our digital learning manager! The amazing thing is how what is quite a good concept can be executed so poorly. Had they actually come up with some revision games that did something constructive, or used a learners’ dictionary that recognised chunks and phrasal verbs, it might be quite effective. I guess that would have meant a lot more time, effort and investment though.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Jon.
      It is indeed not a terrible concept as in essence it replicates what students do anyway, which is try to read stuff and look up new words.
      The use of the Wiktionary is fairly fatal, though.

      But having said that, I’ve yet to see an online dictionary of ANY kind that can actually recognise chunks and the like.
      Have you?

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