Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Free beats commercial in CALL (computer-aided language learning)

ChinesePod is the only commercial language learning service which I have used. In 2009 I subscribed for one year. I was quite satisfied with it. Their service consists of textbook-style lessons. Each lessons is independent and covers one theme. The easiest lessons are targeted at beginners; the hardest one take their text from outside source and assume that the student can read it without aids. They publish several lessons a week.

Textbook chapters are annotated by hand. This way, annotations are correct even when words have several meanings or meaning depends on the context. In addition, there is spoken dialog for each chapter.

In the autumn 2009 I discovered Anki and 20000-word HSK sentence deck, and just stopped using Chinesepod despite having paid subscription. At the time, character recognition was the main obstacle preventing me from reading natural texts, and free tools addressed this problem better. Spaced repetition system was superior to the lessons of Chinesepod.

Service Free or commercialRating
Chinesepod Commercial Good, but not as good as Anki + MDBG
Skritter Commercial Inferior to pencil and paper
Slime Forest AdventureSemi-commercialGood for the very limited purpose of learning hiragana and katakana
Anki Free Great way to increase character recognition count
MDBG Free Great way to make sense of sentence deck sentences and increase reading comprehension after you know enough characters

Companies can put more resources into finalizing their CALL tools. Therefore they have higher quality content. Free CALL tools have two advantages. Firstly, they can use "grey copyright" databases, which are de facto free, although license prohibits commercial use and sometimes also other use.

Secondly, two unrelated individuals can contribute to free tools. Both in Anki and MDBG this plays crucial role. In MDBG, Paul Denisowski initiated the CEDICT vocabulary collection and then disappeared. Someone who prefers to stay anonymous maintains MDBG. Anki was written by Damien Elmers while the 20000-sentence HSK deck was written by Brian Vaughan.

The semi-commercial tool, Slime Forest Adventure, would become better if it was open-source - sooner or later, someone would address the fundamental problem of flashcards and turn it into another great tool. But it possibly wouldn't exist without the profit motive.

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