Product Review- ASLU

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From time to time I hope to review language learning products- be they websites, applications, old-fashioned software, books, or other (who knows what the future holds)- to try to give my fellow polyglot consumers some guidance as to what tools to use and, just as important, to NOT use.  Of course, these are just one gal’s opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

Product Name: ASLU (Found at lifeprint.com)

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Type of Product: Website/App

What’s it do: Essentially an ASL training program in a website.  It has lessons, fingerspelling practice, a dictionary, and more.

Languages it offers:  ASL (American Sign Language)  This is taught through standard English, with a sense of immersion placed into the video lessons.

Available Formats: Website: lifeprint.com

On the website, there are apps for fingerspelling practice and an ibook, as well as apps for Android.  I have not checked these out myself so I cannot vouch for them, but the site does seem to be constantly expanding to add positive new features.

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Strengths: This website is awesome and I could go on about its strengths for days.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • IT IS FREE.
  • It has a structured syllabus, with a practical layout.
  • It has ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC videos, taught by Bill Vicars.  They are silent, which takes some getting used to, but it’s fantastic to force yourself to really focus in on the signing for that 30 minutes.  Plus, I feel it gives you a sense of how the Deaf actually perceive their language.
  • Each lesson comes with a video, a vocabulary list, a set of example sentences to try (usually with hyperlinks to demonstrations of said sentences), stories to practice, and 2 quizzes.  Talk about a plethora of awesome resources.
  • The lessons have discussions of Deaf culture embedded within them.  This is important, as many hearing people are unaware that there are cultural differences between them and the Deaf.
  • There are in-depth discussions and explanations of ASL GRAMMAR!!!  I can’t stress how important this is- so many resources act as though ASL is “just signed English.”  I cannot emphasize how untrue that statement is– ASL is its own language with its own grammatical structure.  In order to use it properly, one must study this element.
  • The site includes a dictionary and fingerspelling practice, which are both key to learning ASL.  The dictionary links primarily to videos of the signs, which are much more useful than diagrams and written descriptions in my opinion.
  • The site includes encouragement, a suggestion for self-study, opportunities to contact Bill, and more.  It’s truly amazing how many awesome resources this guy has put together.

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Weaknesses:

  • The site is not aesthetically pleasing.  I realize this shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but honestly it was a turn off to me for a long time.  The first time it was recommended to me, I kind of turned up my nose at the apparent “messy layout.”  To be fair, this guy is doing all of this for free and constantly adding new content- trying to do that and make it look all pretty is not an easy task.  Especially when he has a family and a real job, so Mr. Vicars if you are reading this, please understand I’m intentionally nitpicking.
  •  There are some pages missing links.  For example, Lesson 2 has links to the awesometaculor Practice quizzes (20 minute videos of the signs and some sentences with multiple choice answers and it grades you at the end!).  However, I haven’t had this link on any other lesson.  There’s links to the small quizzes (usually done through written descriptions and diagrams).  But not ones to the big quizzes.  It’s no big deal- I just go back through the link on Lesson 2, but it would be better if there was a link for each lesson.  Again, I get that this guy is doing all this for free on his own time, so completely understandable.  He is apparently open to some volunteer coding, so if you have those skills to share and it’s a project you’d be interested in, this is a great chance to build some language karma. 🙂

My Overall Rating and Thoughts?

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4.5 Globes out of 5

This site is utterly amazing and I am indebted to Bill Vicars for making ASL learning so easily accessible and fun.  I spent years looking for materials in bookstores and on the web, often only finding “Signed Exact English” materials or fingerspelling practice sites.  I did take two courses in college which helped, but certainly did not cement my learning.  This site has given me new hope and direction in my quest to master ASL.

If I had the computer knowledge, I would gladly offer to help make the site a bit more aesthetically pleasing so that it would get the notice it rightfully deserves.  I’d also love to see the site add a social component to help connect ASL learners (and helpful Deaf persons) so that they can find language practice partners even across the web.  We live in a world with Skype people- this IS an option.  I live in an area where there isn’t much of a Deaf community so finding a language partner online is probably my best option for continued practice.  I could pay for an online tutor, but well, I’m cheap.  Plus I think we all benefit from helping each other.  I’d also love to see some links to quality ASL vloggers on YouTube and related sites.  I struggled to find some- finally locating Trix Bruce and an ASL stories set that have been helpful.  I’d love to know more- I know there are a LOT of great Deaf performers out there who are sharing songs, theatrical performances, and more on the web- I’m just apparently not using the right search terms.

Again though- I’m literally making suggestions to take an already awesome site into the level of Polyglot Perfectionist Nirvana.  Bill Vicars has already created an unbelievably awesome resource and if ASL is of interest to you, you NEED to check it out.

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This is your trusty Polyglot Products Private Eyes, signing off.  Hope this scoop is useful to you!

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/23/14.

Conducting an Experiment… Mwa ha ha!

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So as a language learner and language teacher (and of course, avid Polyglot Blogger extraordinaire 🙂 ), I like to try out new methods and tricks of language learning from time to time just to see what’s fun and/or efficient.  I share a video a few weeks back from a self-described PolyNot who discussed the role of vocabulary in language learning and how one actually needs a lot less words than one thinks in order to start reading a new language.

This got me thinking.  Yes, in theory, in most languages, the first 100 words can really take up a large percentage of text.  Some studies suggest that in English that first 100 words makes up as much as 50% of text.  (Let that sink in friends, it’s a big number.)  One might think they’d found the Holy Grail of language learning hearing that.

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But (there always is one) the one thing those studies seem to neglect to mention is that most of those words are function words– that is conjunctions, linking verbs, prepositions, articles, etc…  All the words that are more difficult to define and that your brain doesn’t grab onto as easily- in fact it often just skips them when you’re reading because it doesn’t need them too often.  So the question becomes HOW do we make use of this knowledge in a legitimate way?  If we read big pieces of text, we may recognize the words but not have any sense of meaning.

The answer came to me like a lightning bolt.  Small pieces of text… in everyday language… oh my gosh did somebody say TWEETS?!?

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So for the last 3 weeks I’ve started an experiment that I call “A Tweet a Day” (clever titles are my specialty as I’m sure you are all aware by now ;).  Here is how I went about it.

First I found a list of the 1000 most high-frequency words in Japanese.  (Okay I cheated a smidge in that I had a friend of mine who is much more skilled at Japanese find me said list because I trusted his judgement.  I suggest you use this cheat if you have the choice.  If not and you are concerned about finding a quality list, hit me up with your language of choice and I’ll help you find one.)

I then decided that each week I would add 10 words and ONLY 10 words to an Anki deck.  Studies show that most people really only retain 5-10 words max a week in terms of new vocabulary over the long term.  I have a very good memory so I went with 10.  If memorization is a struggle for you, I suggest you start with 5.  Remember, a lot of these beginning words are function words, and therefore aren’t going to come as naturally.  (You can also use old school flashcards or a different SRS system of course.  If you don’t remember what an SRS is, refer to this post I made earlier this year.)

Then each day I logged into Twitter and found a tweet.  I try to just choose one of the early ones on my feed for the day, but as I follow a news group, they tend to monopolize the feed so sometimes I just pick a random Twitteratti that I follow and go with an earlier one from their direct feed.  I can hear the panic already: “How do I find people to follow if I don’t know the language yet?”

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I suggest finding music artists and sports stars first, as well as maybe 1 major news outlet.  Usually if you do a quick Google search of the country of your language (or one of them) and the word “musician”, “athlete”, or “news”, a Wikipedia article or two will lead you in a solid direction.  After that, Twitter will often send you lists of suggestions to follow.  I tend to click on ones with interesting pictures- I can always UNFOLLOW them if they turn out to be stupid.  (Yes, you CAN unfollow- social media need not consume your soul with overwhelming amounts of information to read!)

(I’d stick to only one news outlet solely because those suckers post A LOT.  BBC Mundo and NHK flood my newsfeed to the point that I can’t find anyone else by skimming it.  They are, however, solid sentences with actual correct grammar, so they have their pros as well as their cons.)

Lastly I copy and paste the Tweet into a OneNote Journal I set up for this purpose.  You could physically copy it down, which would actually be good for your memory, but I’m lazy hehe.  I then break my reading into 3 steps.

FIRST, I do a cold “read” on the tweet.  I label this pass 1 and I attempt to mark/translate any words I know off the top.

SECOND, I run through my Anki flashcards (if I have any due that day).  I then take a second crack at translating what I can of the tweet.  This usually includes writing a quick guess at what the gist of the Tweet probably is.

LASTLY, I get a Google translation of the tweet. I know I know, Google translate is not always accurate and if you have a better option, use it.  Sometimes I ask the aforementioned friend for a translation but he’s got a life and isn’t always available. Usually for 140 characters or less, Google can manage something that I can draw a solid translation from.  I then make a few notes to myself about what I understood, what I misunderstood, and whether I’m making progress.

Today, after having only entered 30 words thus far into the deck, I managed to translate half of a news tweet correctly.  I may have looked something like this:

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The best parts of this?  At 140 characters, I’m not overwhelmed by trying to read something with such little vocabulary knowledge.  It also takes me less than 10 minutes generally to do all the above steps, with about 20 minutes on the day I put in new vocabulary.  It’s simple, it’s daily, and it’s practical.  Yes, you will run into slang and bad grammar but to be honest, that’s part of learning how to speak and interact like a native speaker.   I’m finding it a fun addition to my language learning routines.

So that’s my current language learning experiment in progress.  I’d love to hear if any of you have any such experiments underway and what the results have been.  Feel free to inbox me with that or any other feedback and suggestions.  Until then, Polyglot out!

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/17/14.

What I’ve Learned Coming Back to Language Teaching

So this year I came back to language teaching- Spanish specifically.  It has been four years since I taught language.  In the space in between I had focused on Special Education and getting my Master’s in TESOL.  Those experiences have greatly changed the way I approach my language classroom.  In my opinion, both have made me better at what I do.
So as I wrap up grading the final papers of the year, I am going to selfishly use this blog post as a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned this year as I dove back into this lovely, crazy field.

  1. Kids are never too old for puppets.  I’ve used puppets in every language class I taught and those included students from preschool age to high school.  Here’s the thing- somehow by using a puppet, the kid is less nervous about speaking.  It seems to provide some level of cognitive distance that allows them to feel safer taking risks and making mistakes.  Other teachers are doing similar things with avatars- if you are interested in this idea, check out this blog post.
  2. No matter how much I try, I can’t  understand why some kids will never understand basic formulas for sentence structures.  And no matter how much I can’t understand it, some kids are never going to get those formulas.  I’ve got to use work arounds.
  3. Joining Twitter was the single best decision I’ve made as a language teacher and learner.  That scares me.
  4. Food continues to be a powerful motivator.
  5. Letting go of some control makes my classroom a better place.  It is hard to do and I still require a high level of discipline- but interaction is essential for kids to learn and I’ve seen more students learn from each other this year than ever before.
  6. The best compliments you’ll get while teaching often come from those you least expect.  A student who never seemed to try all that hard said to me “You know for the first time I find myself thinking in Spanish outside of class.  I start taking notes in Spanish in the class after this.”  That is pretty cool.
  7. Some concepts are going to take the time they are going to take. The past couple of years this school’s Spanish program has been majorly disrupted.  Therefore the students are “behind” where I want them to be for their level and I tend to rush through a lot of concepts.  Surprise Surprise- they don’t retain the stuff I rush through.  I’ve got to realize that sometimes a little really well is better than a lot half-arsed.
  8. That said- there is a time to move on and realize exposure is sufficient  We went over commands in Spanish 3 this year.  In my opinion, due to the conglomeration of rules surrounding commands, this can be one of the toughest topics for students to pick up.  It was for this class for sure.  They struggled, they moaned, there was gnashing of teeth.  Finally we moved on to something else.  You know what?  It was fine.  They got the next concept without issue, they could still recognize the pieces of commands they needed, and the world went back to a relative normal acquisition of Spanish.  Sometimes exposure is enough.
  9. Students put a lot of stock in vocabulary and worry about not knowing enough.  I plan to show the video I posted last week in class next year to help combat this.  There are hundreds of thousands of words in most languages- you simply can’t know them all.  But the right 6000 will go a long way.
  10. Times have changed SO much in just four years and it fills my heart with joy.  When I started teaching Spanish right out of college, the #1 obstacle I faced was students saying “Why the heck do we have to learn this?  Everyone speaks English anyway!”  I can proudly say not ONE of my students ever stated that this year.  My students seem to understand that learning languages is valuable to them in both professional and personal development.We’ve come a long way from a principal who suggested it was insane that I made my students speak the language to a principal who reprimanded a student who continuously complained about me speaking Spanish with our foreign exchange student.  (**Important note- I always translated what we were saying so that students did not feel left out or talked about.  Not that I should have to.**)

I can honestly say I fell back in love with language teaching this year.  I love my job in general because it let’s me pursue both my passions- language teaching and special education.  Despite being very ready for a much needed break (yay summer!) I am actually excited about preparing new curriculums and materials for next year.

For now my Polyglot peeps, I must bid you Auf Wiedersehen so that I may grade the 9000 papers waiting for me.  (Only slight exaggeration.)  If any of you teach, I’d love to hear your reflections as well.  Students, feel free to share the best or worst strategies your teachers have used.  Meanwhile, keep that language groove going!

(Who doesn’t love hitting the sample music buttons for these things at Wal-mart and Target? 😉 )
Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/26/14.

 

My Current Bookmarks

These were my bookmarks as of May 2014.  Things have changed some since then, so perhaps I will update at some point.  But I still think many of these links are useful, so I’m posting it.

Tonight I’m exhausted and so I don’t feel up to explaining Dual Instruction Schools, which was my original plan for a post.  Instead, I’m going to share with you a variety of websites I currently have under my language folder on my bookmarks.  I hope some of these resources will be useful to you.

General Linguistic Info

ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages) has this guide on ranking students language levels (Novice- Beginner (Low to High)- Intermediate (Low to High) – Advanced (Low to High)).  If you are curious where you stack up, or what is necessary to be considered at different levels, it can be an interesting read, though a bit repetitive in parts.

Living Tongues

This site provides information on endangered languages, a topic near and dear to my heart.  Many languages are being wiped out due to the widespread use of English and other tongues.  (Also as a result of peoples being dispersed due to genocide and commercialization.)  When a language is wiped out, often forms of knowledge and wisdom inherent to the language are wiped out as well.  Please educate yourselves on this topic- as linguists, it is truly a cause to be cognizant of and something to work to change.

Multi-Language Learning Sites

Duolingo

I already gave a product review on this, but it is a still a great beginner site.  It offers several languages in a game like format, with additional opportunities to translate real text.  It primarily offers European languages right now, but they seem to be adding quickly.

Memrise

I haven’t played with this one yet but it looks promising.  Mostly vocabulary instruction, but it does have several Asian languages, in addition to the European ones. (Small update- I’m a HUGE Memrise user now- so I definitely owe this one a separate article now.)

iTalki

$$$ Again, one I haven’t used BUT this site hooks you up with one on one tutors for the language of your choice.  It does cost money, but if you are willing to pay (particularly if you are having trouble locating tutors for the language of your choice), what a great find!  It also might be a great choice if you are trying to up your speaking level before a major trip. (Small update- I’ve used the FREE parts of this site now and have looked into tutoring, just haven’t had a need to take the plunge as I currently have a local speaking partner.)

 

Japanese

AJATT

Khatzumoto has been around for a bit but isn’t always easily found by new language learners.  While not a personally a big fan of his method, he does provide a lot of good resources and tips for learning Japanese.  He also shares a lot about how he personally learned Japanese- and who knows?  Maybe his strategies are right for you.  There’s a lot of information there, so pace yourself.  You can also follow him on twitter @ajatt.

http://www9.plala.or.jp/system19/

Going to admit right now that I am not the best at navigating this site.  However, if you are familiar with video/torrent sites, you probably won’t have lots of trouble.  Basically it is a collection of Japanese videos, both anime and real action J-dramas.  Lots of listening practice!

Lingulift- Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Japanese

Some of these youtube channels are great; others are more culture driven and actually are produced in English.  Still, if you are looking for places to start, a list is always helpful.

http://japaneseclass.jp/

Kanji and Kana learning games… need I say more?

Erin’s Challenge

This will be the site I play with FIRST this summer.  Video lessons for beginning Japanese- it looks kickass.  Check it out!

ASL

ASLU

My current FAVORITE site.  Bill Vicars has provided what I’ve searched for over many YEARS- a quality way to learn ASL.  Most local library only offer dictionaries, which fails to expose one to the grammar and structure of ASL.  In addition, I don’t know anyone deaf or hard of hearing in my community to practice with.  This site has given me the tools I need to finally make the progress I’ve wanted for so long.

ASL with Rob Nielson

Some of this site is free, other portions require a fee.  However, quality ASL sites can be hard to find, so here is a good start for your sign language learning endeavors.

Start ASL

Another great starting point, with complimentary workbook.

Described and Captioned Media Program

So what’s this?  Only the motherload of ASL resources.  Consider it a combo of Netflix and Youtube for Deaf culture and media.  There are deaf movies, instructional ASL videos, and documentaries on Deaf culture all available to you.  You do have to sign up- if you are a student or teacher it’s free.

Spanish

Spanish Proficiency Exercises

Here are some basic Spanish listening opportunities, divided up by level and complete with transcribed copy.  They have a lot of different countries and dialects represented.

Rockalingua

This site is geared towards kids.  That said, kids’ materials sometimes jazz up an otherwise monotonous language study routine.  Flashcards can become dull and sometimes you just want something fun.   Why not ignite your inner child with a sing-a-long or storybook read aloud in your new target language?

Well, this is an incredibly long list but I hope you find it useful.  I’d be happy to share any resources any of you find particularly useful- just hit up my mailbox with links and notes so we can share the language love.  And as I’m unable to come up with a clever quote mashup with the words Language or Polyglot, here are some words some cats would like you to learn.

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/13/14.

Product Review: Duolingo

**Note** These were my views as of April 2014.  I may do an update at some point.

From time to time I hope to review language learning products- be they websites, applications, old-fashioned software, books, or other (who knows what the future holds)- to try to give my fellow polyglot consumers some guidance as to what tools to use and, just as important, to NOT use.  Of course, these are just one gal’s opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

Product Name: Duolingo

Type of Product: Website/App

What’s it do: Let’s you learn a specific language through a semi-game like format.  You pass certain exercises, which opens new levels and vocabulary.

Languages it offers:  Currently it offers Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese.

They are working on adding (hatching as they term it) Russian, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, and Irish.  All of these are in target language to English formats.

Available Formats: Website: duolingo.com

Also available as an app in the iTunes store, Amazon, and Google Play.  The website doesn’t mention Amazon, but I have it on my Kindle so there ya go.

Strengths: This format has quite a few strengths.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • IT IS FREE.
  • It offers practice in all skills- that is speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
  • It gives you a chance to help translate real articles online, contributing to the polyglot community as a whole and giving authenticity to what you are doing and learning.
  • Friends can follow you and you can compare each other’s progress and help cheer one another on.
  • The game like format, a simplistic as it is, does tend to keep you motivated.  It gives a concrete amount of practice per session and earning the gem for exercise and the trophy for each level is akin to stickers back on our grade school homework- inherently meaningless but we love them anyhow.
  • It also keeps track of your streaks or how many days in a row you practice.  It can be super motivating to see how long you can go without breaking your streak.
  • It is available on mobile devices as an app so it can easily go with you in a functional format.

Weaknesses:

  • The speaking practice grades you on your ability to imitate the inflection of the speaker, not your actual pronunciation.  (They’ll deny this if you ask them, but trust me.  I’ve done nonsense sounds with the app in the same cadence and pitches as the speaker and it has passed me.  Other times I did the correct words but in a monotone and it could not tell that it was right.)  To be fair, speech recognition software is difficult and expensive to design, so for free this is still giving you some benefit.
  • Some of the translations are awkward.  They give you an option to challenge an answer, but it will still count you wrong in the meantime.
  • This alone will not make you fluent.  The activities are very prescribed, aside from the translations, and thus are not geared toward promoting conversational speaking and writing abilities.  It is a great start for basic vocabulary and grammar, but you’ll need to seek out other options beyond that to improve.
  • You can talk with other people via forums, but the site is not set up particularly well for social networking.  It’s a start for sure and my guess this portion will improve with time, but if you are looking to meet and interact with native speakers, this is not the best format to do so.
  • No Asian languages (or African for that matter)are currently included.  (I will tend to note Russian as an European language due to its similarities with some languages in that region.)

My Overall Rating and Thoughts?

3.5 Globes out of 5

This is a GREAT site for BEGINNERS who A) are unsure where to begin and B) need to form the consistent study habits essential to quality language learning.  That said, in its current format, Duolingo only takes you a small portion of the journey.  Consider this the taxi ride to the airport, not the plane to the great land of Polyglottia.

Still the gaming set up is creative and can help keep you motivated, especially when you are first starting.  And of course, major props to the creators for managing to keep this site and app FREE which is a major plus.  Most of us Polyglots would rather spend our money on travel than stuff!

Give it a try if you are just starting out or maybe need to review a language you learned a while ago but has fallen into disuse.  It’s fun and free, so it’s worth your time.  Just plan ahead to open yourself up to more authentic language use in the future.

 

This is your trusty Polyglot Products Private Eyes, signing off.  Hope this scoop is useful to you!

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/14/14.

 

Flashcards- Make Your Life Easier

There are a lot of differing opinions out there in regards to flashcards and language learning.  Many linguists and polyglots will say that they are not an authentic way of learning the language, and therefore should be avoided.  Others will point out that at some point memorization plays a role in all learning and flashcards can be a great tool to promote that process.

I tend to subscribe to the latter philosophy, but like many people find making and doing flashcards a bit tedious.  I also know that making and storing paper flashcards can be a pain (literal and metaphorical- damn you hand cramp!).  Not to mention at some point you are likely to have so many flashcards that the sheer number makes the idea of trying to review them overwhelming.

Technology to the Rescue!

There are Internet applications called SRS- spaced repetition systems.   These are digital flashcard systems that keep track of which cards you need to study MOST.  You create the cards, set your preferences for max number of cards per day, and review them.  The computer program randomizes the order of the cards, of course, but it also provides you with an opportunity to rate how well you remember the card.  This could be from not at all to kind of to I got this!  Based on how you rate the card, the computer then determines how long it will be until it shows you that card again.  This way the I got this! cards don’t show back up for several days, while the “Is that even a word?  Did I really type that in?” cards may return in just a few hours or even minutes for review.

The beauty of this is that after the first few days of inputting and reviewing cards, you return to a very manageable number of cards to review.  You don’t have to go through all 1001; instead, you can focus on the 50 that are really tough for you.

I personally use the Anki system.  I have it downloaded onto my computer but you can actually do everything from the web.  (In fact, if I was just starting now, this is what I would do.  Makes your cards much more portable.)  I believe they do have working interfaces for most tablets and phones so you can make your flashcards as mobile as you are.

Here are 3-4 SRS programs and their sites to check out if you think this is something you might want to try.  (By the way, they are all FREE.)

Anki: http://ankisrs.net/

Surusu: http://www.surusu.com/  The writer of the blog AJATT (All Japanese All the Time) recommends this one.  My fellow polyglot amigo who I often reference in this blog is also a user.

 

 

Mnemosyne: http://mnemosyne-proj.org/    I do not know anyone who has personally used this, but that does NOT mean it’s not a great program- check it out and see if it fits your needs.

 

 

Super Memo: http://www.supermemo.com/english/smintro.htm I am not sure if this program *technically* falls into the SRS category.  Again, I have not personally used it.  However, it does claim to be learning method to improve memorization, so it’s worth checking out.

UPDATE: Memrise is now my tool of choice and beats the rest to me in terms of versatility.  I’ll probably do a post just on how awesome they are at some point.

Flashcards AREN’T for everyone.  But if you think they’d be a valuable tool for you, I suggest making them as efficient as possible and get the most out of the time you spend reviewing.  If anyone else knows of a great SRS program that I’ve not included, please feel free to inbox me so I can let our fellow Polyglots know.

May the language force be with you… and you… and you…

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/07/14.