I got an email from the founder of FluentU yesterday, Alan Park, asking why I hadn't been on the site lately.  (Perhaps you got a similar email?) He asked if I could give him some tips as to what I think FluentU is missing.  "That's a great question" I thought.  Because as far as I can tell, FluentU isn't "missing" anything.  It's a great site that makes Chinese language media a lot more accessible to Chinese language learners.  It makes entertainment educational.  So why haven't I been back?    

Maybe this has happened to you with FluentU, or perhaps some other site: you get very excited about it at first but then your interest gets shifted somewhere else. So let me ask you:

  • Is this just the way it is for learning language online? 
  • If not, are there any online sites or services that you consistently use or revisit? 
  • What's the difference between sites / tech that hold your attention for just a short period of time and the ones that you ALWAYS seem to find your self going back to?

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Hip? I didn't know, where? :)

Haha, very useful, "Ole dole doff, kinke lane koff, koffe lane binke bane, ole dole doff!" ;)

Actually, a few former students decided to either take up Swedish or study in Sweden, so maybe I'm a little sensitive to it.  Also, I used to go to Livemocha all the time and it seemed to me that a lot of the younger (under 25) crowd was "studying" Swedish on the site. 

And now that you write that in Swedish, I think I remember it differently:

"ole dole doff, kinke lane koff, kinke lane binke bane, ole dole doff" 


Have I been saying it wrong all these years?! 

Yes...sorry ;)

I stopped watching FluentU for a while, because I felt like I was just watching translation of low-quality clips; the instruction wasn't intentional enough.  When I met the FluentU guys in November they showed me some videos they were shooting; THOSE looked amazing.  I'm holding out for those. 

For a lot of these companies, technology trumps teaching.  I'm rooting for the companies who use technology to improve teaching... which means they have to know  a lot about teaching.  

I have a little crush on Skritter, but honestly, I've stopped doing it regularly.  I've reached a point where learning characters doesn't help me unless I'm learning them in sentences.  Skritter is working on better example sentences, and I've been bugging them about it since I started.  They do have sample sentences on the site, but they're generated by corpus, which is totally worthless:  the example sentence for the word 朋友 was a 把 sentence.  HSK1 vocab taught by using HSK3 grammar... that doesn't help anyone.  

I will keep my mouth shut about ChinesePod; I stopped listening once I started working there.  

Oh wait, i guess it's been a while:  FluentU HAS released their in-house produced videos.  Here's one:  http://chinese.fluentu.com/video.php?id=1637

Sound quality is low, and dialog is slightly stilted, but you understand what's happening though the action, even if the sound/titles are off.  Experiencing real language and deciphering them through contextual clues are how we learn our first languages, right?  We'll see how far they run with this.  I'm going to go watch more now..

They've responded to feedback on the sound quality.

"Thanks a lot for the feedback! It's great to hear that you like the course. We're aware of the audio issue - future courses definitely won't sound like that."

ok, I've watched a couple more of the "lunch with a friend" course. I think there are some things at every step that they could improve on. I'm going to try to get a hold of them and be the pushy customer who tells them how to do things....

Hey JP,

I see now that there are indeed a lot of changes happening at FluentU: some I've seen, some I haven't.  I'll need to go back and check out what's new.  

I think you nailed it when you said that "for a lot of these companies, technology trumps teaching."  I can remember feeling very liberated by FluentU when I first checked it out because I had the impression that I was able to understand the videos.  But in actuality, the interface simply allowed me to get the translation much faster with little work (learning) involved.  When I realized that, I stopped going to the site as often because I knew that I was most likely going to be wasting my time.  So this brings me full circle: what qualities does a language learning site / tech need in order to keep people coming back?   

Well one thing is that a good idea and a prototype web site is not enough, you need to listen to the users, fixing bugs fast or at least responding to them, having a forum where you engage 'power users' help out is good too, a good example is Skritter,

they may have bugs in every release but are very fast to look into problem reports. They need to reasonably fast servers too. At least this are too examples that made me abandon memrise after 2-3 months last year and I have never come back to my dry plants, maybe they have got better I don't know, they had their chance ;)


To be fair I went back to FluentU and the speed of YouTube video is acceptable if I use my company VPN and proxy (fortunatley my work has a Beijing access point to the corporate network).

But the new timing changes are not working for me (try to type the pinyin for a full sentence in about 30 seconds) so I will try again some time.  Also the move to pure pinyin in the first phase is not as good as the previous approach with Hanzi available at all times.  I am sure they will rebalance this.

I do find the approach useful for building vocabulary and encoutering it in the "wild" - sometimes it's hard to catch words and isolate them. The technology is great, just need to work the right learning model around it.  I would like it to be one of the tools in my toolkit.

I've tried Memrise (special learning technique), LiveMocha (social learning) , FluentU (very YouTube heavy, so VPN required) and there are things I like about them all, plus many others, but enough challenges or quirks to reduce visitations after the initial excitement. I tend to go back and visit various sources, but which resource I use depends on my mood or my tech access. Never tired DuoLingo. I've enjoyed Study More Chinese because it has a diverse collection of tools people share.

The only online technology that I have consistently used, so far, is Skritter. It's mobile (via iPad or iPhone), has an offline study option and offers help with both vocabulary and character writing. I like Skritter's settings options (to turn functions on or off). It is also integrated with an online dictionary source that I use (MDGB), so I can add words from the dictionary directly to my Skitter vocab lists. Very convenient.

I have been overseas with unlimited gigs to use and now restricted with how much I can use. So it is not that I don't want to continue using FluentU I am restricted by technology.


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