In the second post in a series on what it means to describe Babbel as a learning company, two Babbelonians discuss our learners’ essential contributions to optimizing and improving our courses.
language learning in the digital age
In the second post in a series on what it means to describe Babbel as a learning company, two Babbelonians discuss our learners’ essential contributions to optimizing and improving our courses.
Babbel is a learning company inside and out. We believe that anyone can pick up a second (or third or fourth) language, so our days are spent refining and adding to our courses to make them even more effective, motivating and communicative for you. And every day we ourselves figure out how to do that better.
Lars works as a Russian course editor for Babbel. Having lived half of his life in Russia and half of his life in Germany, he understands and appreciates the endearing idiosyncracies of both cultures. Here, he gives us an insight into one of the many traditional celebrations in Russia.
The challenge in bringing Babbel’s new Russian course to life was to find a way for users to type Cyrillic letters using a standard Latin keyboard. Content Project Manager Barbara Baisi from the Didactics department gives us the lowdown.
Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
I come from Italy and I’ve been working at Babbel since the very beginning in 2008. At that time it was a little smaller [laughs]. Now I coordinate Italian and Russian. I’ve been working on Russian since January. It was a big deal for all the departments in the company.
Why do most English native speakers find it easier to learn German than Polish? Why is Spanish not so hard if you can already speak French? And why are Turkish and Indonesian even more tricky for us?
The answer is obvious if you’ve ever heard of language families. These are groups of related languages that descend from a common base language. Six of the languages we offer are Germanic languages, namely English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, whereby the Scandinavian languages are more similar still to each other. The second major language family on offer at Babbel are the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian, for example. The languages within a language family have much in common. For example, time expressions sound similar in related languages. Moreover, close linguistic relationships are often also reflected in grammatical rules and concepts.
What implications does this have for learning a foreign language and the courses offered by Babbel?
We generally create new courses for target languages in German and then adapt them for the other six languages in which we offer courses. We ensure that translations and adaptations remain as close as possible to the target language. This means that as many related words and similar sentence structures as possible are used. It is commonly true that the more similar the language you already speak is to the language you are learning, the faster you will understand the rules and relationships. If you are learning a language that belongs to the same language family as your native tongue, you will often require fewer additional explanations than someone whose mother tongue belongs to a different language family.
How we tailor the Babbel courses to your native language
Here is an example: the distinction between the verbs “pouvoir ” and “savoir” is not as obvious to a German speaker learning French as to an Italian. This is because in Italian there is a correlation with “potere” and “sapere”, whereas both verbs translate to the same word in German, namely “können” (can / may). The explanations of when to use “pouvoir” (when something is allowed or possible) and when to use “savoir” (more “know, be acquainted with, be able”) are simply omitted in the French courses for Italian speakers. However, the individual verb forms “savoir ” and “pouvoir” must of course be practiced by all French learners alike.
Conversely, we sometimes need to add explanations to the translations of the version for German speakers for other languages. For example, German speakers are accustomed to inflecting verbs: “ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist…” (“I am, you are, he/she/it is…”). Thus we do not specifically point out that there is a separate verb form for each personal pronoun when introducing “être” (to be) in the French course for German speakers. Swedish speakers, who use the same verb form for all personal pronouns – “jag är, du är, han/hon/den/det är…”, are given an additional explanation as follows:
Can you see the difference? Although German and French do not belong to the same language family, they are very similar in this respect. If you want to make learning easy, try some of our “true friends” courses! There you will find words and phrases in your target language that are probably already familiar to you from your native language. You want to avoid pitfalls? Then take a look at the latest “false friends” courses for Polish. They will help you to avoid mixing up terms that sound similar to words in your native language but mean something completely different.
Have fun learning languages!
A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. In Europe for several years now, these have been the names for foreign language levels. But what do they mean? The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) of the Council of Europe calls beginner levels A1/A2, intermediate B1/B2 and advanced C1/C2.
Before the introduction of the CEFR, language skills were primarily evaluated through grammar and vocabulary knowledge, i.e. could learners translate correctly, build grammatical forms and spell? Digital learning products in this tradition predominantly consist of fill-in-the-blank exercises – for all language levels. The higher the level, the more complex the words or grammar forms that must be filled in. But unfortunately a specialist in grammar with knowledge acquired from books cannot always get around in the real world; anyone who got good grades in a foreign language at school but can’t speak a word abroad knows this.
The CEFR has a different approach. Levels A1 to C2 show how well learners can cope with reading, speaking, writing and listening in various real-life communication situations. To cite a few examples of the skill “writing”: at level A1 you can fill in a form, at B1 you can write a simple private letter, at C1 you can already write an essay on complex topics.
The CEFR focuses on communication and action orientation – the level descriptions for A1-C2 do not correspond to specific grammar points or vocabulary! Especially self-learners at a beginner level however need to build up a basis of grammar and vocabulary first. They should understand how their new language works, and they need a few scraps of it to face their first real communication situations (even if with short, memorized phrases).
What has this got to do with Babbel? With our beginner courses 1-6, you reach level A2. This is the level at which most people find/found themselves at the end of a few years of school. This year we’re publishing (bit by bit for various languages) our in-depth courses, where you can learn B1 level skills step-by-step.
In the Babbel courses for beginners, the focus is on the most important grammar and vocabulary topics, but these are always oriented towards real-life situations. In the new in-depth courses, it’s the other way around: grammar and vocabulary are greatly reduced and the emphasis is put on action – that means learning how to listen, speak, read and write in specific everyday situations.
In every unit of the in-depth courses we tell a story in which these four skills are exercised. Part 1 is all about listening and speaking: After a short vocabulary introduction there is dictation, listening comprehension texts, pronunciation exercises with speech recognition – and at the end there is a role-play as a speaker in one of the dialogues. Part 2 continues with reading and writing – with translation exercises, reading comprehension texts and free writing tasks, always within the story. Grammar is implicitly introduced in the vocab of part 1 of every unit and explained in part 2, as well as exercised with the help of reading and writing tasks.
So while most language learning products at intermediate levels simply resort to more complex fill-in-the-blank vocabulary and grammar exercises, Babbel’s in-depth courses teach real communication skills. Babbel’s first in-depth course is for French and there are more to follow this year.
Try out our French in-depth course here!
About the author: Miriam has worked for several educational providers developing communicative language learning media, from print and CD learning materials for offline learning to online courses and apps. She has been with Babbel for four years and heads the editorial staff.
“How does learning with Babbel actually work?” Ullrich Dittler, Professor of interactive media, asked me for his book ‘E-Learning. Einsatzkonzepte und Erfolgsfaktoren des Lernens mit digitalen Medien.’ (E-Learning. Implementation strategies and the secrets of success for learning with digital media). The answer: Babbel is so effective because we do not rely on just one method of learning. Rather we have developed a comprehensive mix of methods, which accommodates the many different learning requirements of our users.
Imitating words and practising: With us you can learn all new words by listening and repeating – this fixes them in the memory whilst simultaneously training the pronunciation. Subsequently a meaning is attributed to the word (with an accompanying picture and translation to avoid confusion) and the words are written out. Therefore the words are always ‘drilled’ using the same pattern. These so-called “Pattern Drill” exercises belong to the behaviourist approach to language didactics.
Short and colourful vocabulary segments: New vocabulary is introduced in small units of three or four words or chunks (e.g. in the sense of “I am called …” or “I come from …”) – this is about as much as can be retained in the short term memory at any one time. Vocabulary is trained on several levels (repetition, translation, writing), subsequently one is occupied by one or two further items. The items always come from the same subject area, one is better able to keep them in mind as a result of their thematic relationship. All words are accompanied by a picture, consequently for many learners they are especially easy to remember.
Revising after a sensible amount of time: New words are automatically added to the Review Manager. These are then regularly recalled for revision at ever increasing intervals, according to the “Spaced Repetition” process, until they can be revised without mistakes.
Explaining the rules: We are sure that adult learners want to understand the rules of a new language because they do not learn, as children do, through mere repetition. Therefore the courses contain many explanations of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary in the native language of the learner. Our courses have been developed to be linguistically contrastive. Rules are formulated differently for each combination of mother tongue and learning language (a German will learn Spanish in a different way from an Italian). The understanding of the function of memory and the processing of information for the last three points is based on a cognitivist approach to language didactics.
Free learning: From a large number of courses and lessons, our users choose those which interest them in particular. Some prefer to work their way through the beginner’s courses one after another, while others just keep surfing through the overview of courses, spontaneously picking one out at whim. Each person works their way through the course material at their own speed. With the community functions they are then free to put their learning into practice. According to constructivist language didactics, each user develops their own individual skills, with which to identify new information subjectively and process it with the benefit of their existing knowledge.
Communicate quickly and for real: Babbel users should quickly be able to make themselves understood. Therefore in the beginner’s courses the most important phrases for everyday situations are gradually covered (e.g. we find “I would like a coffee” more important than “The ball is red”). Through learning chunks one soon knows whole sentences, even if one still has not mastered the relevant grammar (e.g. how to use the conditional form “would” in other sentences). Since in real conversations in a foreign language one will often not know all the words, the whole vocabulary of our dialogue will not necessarily have been learned before the exercise. In this way one learns to work out the meaning of unknown words from their context – if necessary one can have the answer revealed.
And because in reality one can often express oneself in many different ways, we have made it possible in many written exercises to have multiple synonymous correct answers. The advanced writing exercises for our Business English courses are especially clever: they are evaluated by an intelligent and constantly growing database of answers, so that even at sentence level many variants can be marked as correct. This approach to language learning is based on communicative language didactics.
Learning together: The Babbel community is the place for social learning processes. Here one can simply interact but also put the learning into practice. In each case one communicates in multiple languages – and consequently solidifies one’s knowledge. With these kinds of processes of interaction within networks, where one often learns new things ‘as a byproduct’ it is connectivist language didactics that come into play.
What are your thoughts about these learning methods? Do you use additional ones? Feel free to discuss the above with us!
Miriam Plieninger is the Head of Content Production at Babbel. Over the years she’s edited courses and taught languages in classrooms in Germany and the UK. German is her mother tongue, but she also speaks English, French, Norwegian and Latin, not to mention the languages she’s learned at Babbel: Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese and — as she tells Babbel Blog in the interview — Italian. Here she talks about the “communicative approach” for teaching beginners new languages and how it allows for quick progress.
Miriam, do you use Babbel for learning yourself?
Actually, I do every day, because I edit the courses.
Of course , though, I work on them before they are done. It takes a few weeks until a lesson is finished, but by then I’m already working on the next lessons. So to see what the courses feel like when they come to life, I sometimes go back to earlier lessons and have another look at them with all the pictures, sounds and interactivity, and I work through them myself.
Sooner or later you’ll be able to speak all the Babbel languages!
(Laughs) Some of them were new to me, Italian for example, and now I know it on a beginner level. I think it’s a good thing to never lose the beginner’s perspective. That way I know what a beginner course has to look like. I see what’s difficult, I can say “stop, that’s too much for one lesson, we have to put that into two or three lessons.” And I know what being a beginner feels like. I had a nice situation a few weeks ago, I worked on the Italian beginner course before and I went to Sardinia for holiday. That was the first time I really spoke Italian to Italian people. Just basic sentences, but I was so proud because I could make myself understood. Not only with the sentences from the course, but I could also combine stuff.
So though unintentionally, you did learn some Italian?
Seems like I am an auditive learning type. I always have the Babbel speakers in mind. That’s sometimes not such a great thing… I mean, you don’t want to be dreaming about recording people and have their voices in your head. But on a holiday this can come in really handy. I went to a bar, heard my speakers’ recording of the word for “I want something” and “a drink” and I was able to combine.
My masterpiece was ordering vegetarian food when there was no vegetarian food. I managed to ask the waiter if I could have two side dishes instead of having the meat course. I got what I wanted. I was so proud. My beginner course worked out as planned.
Did you understand what the waiters were answering?
Most of it. I think that’s also an important thing to learn, that you don’t have to understand each and every thing. You can understand just three quarters of a sentence and know what the sentence is about. I also keep that in mind for the dialogues and courses. The main words, the most important chunks and phrases are introduced at the beginning. But then there are always little words, like prepositions, which you don’t learn explicitly. You understand them from the context.
And if I don’t?
In real life you look them up in a dictionary. At Babbel we never leave the learners alone. There are always translations on all the beginner levels and in all the vocabulary and sentence trainers. You’ll never have to go to your bookshelf and take the huge dictionary to look up stuff.
Speaking of huge dictionaries, how many words do I have to learn to get along in a foreign language?
In general you need around 2000, 3000 words for basic communication.
That sounds like a lot of work.
But obviously there are a lot of fillers, lots of prepositions, lots of these small words. With the communicative approach that we take at Babbel, you don’t need to learn those explicitly in vocabulary lists. You’ll just know them after a while.
In more old-school approaches to didactics you used to learn a thousand single words and then you would have to learn how to combine them. It took a while before you were even able to formulate a four-word sentence.
With the communicative approach you learn chunks and short sentences, useful ones, very very quickly. This way, after the first ten minutes with the first tutorial of a beginner course, you make basic smalltalk, you can say hello, goodbye, how are you and I’m fine. After maybe an hour you can already tell people where you’re from, which languages you speak, order a beer and so on.
But I still have to memorize chunks and sentences. How does it differ from old style vocabulary learning?
In context and linking. If a word or chunk is linked to a picture in your mind, it is much easier to remember. Memorizing things works best when your brain can link them to other things. That’s why in all our lessons, tutorials, vocabulary trainers, sentence trainers, we always try to offer “connected material” for different learning types. Images, sounds, typing and word order exercises. And good example sentences are really important to us.
For each and every of the 3000 words in the basic and advanced vocabulary trainers we have one example sentence. So you learn ten or twenty words for one word field actively, but you learn a lot more words around that because of the example sentences.
What is a good example sentence?
A good example sentence explains the word you learn. Let’s take the word “airport”. A bad example sentence would be “I live near the airport”, because you could live near anything and anywhere. A better sentence would be “I pick up my friend from the airport, his plane lands at two”. You need context, more words from a field, to get a picture in your mind. The sentences should also be somehow interesting. If they are fun, emotional and close-to-life, the picture will stick in your mind.
Some of our sentences are outright funny. For example I remember one from a vocabulary trainer about parts of the body, which was something like: “His nose is so big, he can smoke a cigar in the shower”. I read that out loud to the people sitting in the room and everyone just busted out laughing. But for sure, everyone will remember the word from now on.
That’s what I like about self-directed learning, that I can just learn the stuff which is fun to learn.
… and the more fun you have, the easier will it be to learn. Another important point of autonomous learning is that you can do it at your own pace. We have those really small portions, you just need 10 to 15 minutes to work on one lesson. If you want to go on, you can go on, if you want to have a break, you have a break. Nobody will nag you to go on or tell you that you’re lazy or something. You can learn when you want, as long as you want.
… and what you want.
Well, to really early beginners I recommend starting with the beginner course. There they are taken by the hand, they’ll find everything they need to know. Pronunciation, grammar and communicative situations, it’s all connected. Then after the beginner course, they’re really free to choose from anything. They can choose topics of interests, they can go and take grammar lessons, they can add more words to certain word fields.
Or if they know that there’s a specific situation where they need their foreign language soon, we have those sentence trainers of a thousand useful sentences. For example you want to cook with friends and want to know what the food is called in their language, then you could just go into these sentence trainers and pick out a few really authentic phrases and practice them. With our speech recognition you can also check if your native speaker friends would understand your pronunciation.
How do you choose your topics and content?
Most of the time I’m sticking to the European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF) by the Council of Europe. This framework provides so-called “Can Do” descriptions for different communicative skills on reference levels from A1, basic, to C2, proficient.
So for example, what can I do on an A1 level?
You can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases “aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type”. You can introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have. You can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.
Is that CEF the framework that schools [in Europe] are using for reference?
Yes, schools try to make their students have a B1/B2 level after their degree, but to be honest most people have more of an A2 level. And especially after a few years of not using the language A2 is a very common level to be on.
You have a lesson about time machines and flying carpets. Does the CEF mention that?
Well, there is no “I can talk about teleportation”. But isn’t that a very concrete type of need? (Laughs.)
Our vocabulary, sentence and grammar trainers aren’t linked to the framework levels. They just float on top of everything. Every learner of every language level can learn basic and advanced words, which we don’t limit to the CEF. If you say you have a basic vocabulary that has to do with fantasy or backpacking or sex, that’s not an A1 thing to learn. But it’s a basic set of words for a language situation in which you might find yourself in real life. I think that’s what makes language learning fun. It needs to be close to your real life. You might not be teleported, but it’s useful to be able to talk about fantasy – and what’s possible or not.
That’s the second time you mentioned that G-word. Grammar.
Personally I think that most people who think they need grammar, don’t really need to learn grammar. But they do need to use the foreign language actively: listen, read, write and speak. We do have grammar tutorials for those learners anyway, because it just gives them more confidence if they refresh the rules and use the rules in context sentences. But what’s really important is to practice the communicative situations in the course.
We try to make Babbel as easy as possible to work through for people who don’t have a university degree in philology. Babbel is not just for linguists, it’s for everyone.
Miriam, thank you for your time.
The Babbel Blog team took a short trip on the UBahn over to the Berlin office of Babbel.com, the interactive language-learning platform, to speak with Ulrike Kerbstadt (right) and Sylvie Roche (left). They are Just two of the folks responsible for the learning content at the website. Click here to listen to the interview that is part one in a series taking a gander “Inside Babbel”.
Babbel Blog: What do you do at Babbel?
Ulrike Kerbstadt: I’m responsible for language learning content. I develop the material with a team of native speakers and have the didactic background.
Sylvie Roche: I’m content editor and work with the same team developing other kinds of content.