Review: Lexikeet Chinese
Lexikeet Chinese contacted me asking if I'd review their new Chinese learning product. From their email:
“Our goal is to make a program that casual people can use to seriously learn languages, using technology to take the most of the logistical work out of learning so people can focus on the fun parts. Our pitch is that you can learn a language effectively and permanently with even just 15 minutes a day. Right now we offer Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.”
So here's my review of Lexikeet Chinese! I've just structured it based on the sequence of notes I took as I went through the program.
Signing-up to Lexikeet
I have to say that Lexikeet did two things that bugged me when I went to sign up. Neither of these is related to learning Chinese but they're important to me!
The first annoyance was that Lexikeet asked for my gender at sign-up. Why do you need to know that, and why is it important? If it's just for your market research then I'd prefer not to be made to divulge that as a paying customer. Also, if you're going to do this, only giving ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ as options is becoming less and less acceptable. At least let people type in whatever they want, or nothing at all.
The second thing was that Lexikeet emailed me my password in plain text when I signed up. They also emailed it again in plain text when I requested a reminder, confirming they store it in plain text decipherable form. This is bad practice. My password should only exist in plain text in my head. Everywhere else it should be stored as a one-way hash. Besides that, why limit what I can use in my password to certain characters?
The sign-up process for Lexikeet is pretty long. There are several screens to wade through, then Terms & Conditions. After that you can get on to the actual account set-up, which is very long and has a lot of options.
First you choose your learning style. Within each of those are further options describing your particular situation, for example:
I did wonder why I could only select one of these, when surely most people would feel that several applied to them? There also seemed to be a mix of concepts here. You're choosing between learning styles, reasons for learning and level of motivation, but with only one choice.
Inevitably, I spent some time clicking back and forth between the categories to see all the choices. In the end, I went with ‘power learner’, although the description for that sounds like it would apply to any language learner:
“I would like to learn how to read, understand, write and speak this language as well as possible. I recognize that this will take a lot of time, effort and consistency.”
The next choice is to indicate whether you are a beginner or advanced learner. You can tell if you're advanced by reading through a list of words to see if you already know them.
I chose the advanced option because I was quite curious to see what it would be like. The majority of language learning products are aimed at beginners, so this was quite interesting.
After that there are still more settings. By this point I was wondering when I could actually start seeing some Chinese!
The next step is to indicate your interest in different topics. I did wonder if the system would really be sensitive enough to give me genuinely different content based on my settings here, but didn't have enough time to fully test it out.
After that you get on to a screen for reviewing settings. My learning style seemed to have changed to ‘Academic - Studying Abroad’ here, although I was pretty sure I chose ‘Power Learner’ earlier. There were also loads of new settings introduced here that I didn't seem to have seen in the previous screens.
The default setting for Chinese writing was ‘using computer keyboard only’, which surprised me, especially because the Lexikeet has a Chinese handwriting feature and it's pretty cool. I wonder why the creators put keyboard only as ‘recommended’.
After that there were _still _loads more settings to deal with. Priorities, selections, differences, so many different options. I checked them all but left most on their defaults.
Phew… Once all that's done you finally get on to the ‘My Tasks’ page. Oh wait, no, there are more settings here as well. Do I want to add vocabulary by group or by immersion? Apparently by group means that Lexikeet will choose for me, so I went with that.
Even then you still select your group from a set of options.
After all of that I seemed to have finally finished set up, although I kept expecting Lexikeet to spring another settings screen on me just for fun.
Lexikeet gives you drills for the four standard language domains: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
I went with reading first, and was presented with 7 pages of explanation to read through before I could start the drill. Chinese characters in these explanation pages were displaying as boxes for me.
Lexikeet has a feature which they call SimpleType for typing in tones. It looks quite cool, and is quite similar to how Skritter does it. (By the way, pinyin input with tones is quite easy to set up on Linux.)
On starting the drill, I thought that the words were pretty basic for someone who had indicated that they were fluent in Mandarin.
Lexikeet's audio drill is classic but well done: you see the word and choose the matching audio. The audio quality seemed nice. But again, who says they can speak Mandarin fluently when they don't know words like 名字?
I liked the progress bar at the top that shows how far through the drill you are.
The SimpleType feature went wrong when I entered nv3shi4 to try and get nǚshì, giving me nüìsh instead. The same thing happened when I tried to use the buttons. Then I realised you have to put spaces between the syllables. It is possible to automatically split up pinyin syllables so I think it might be nicer if Lexikeet would let you group syllables correctly into words when entering pinyin.
For the writing drill, I was shown 8 pages of explanation. I know all of this only happens once, but it did make the process of getting started seem quite long-winded.
Lexikeet's Chinese handwriting feature is pretty nice. It asks you to assess your characters yourself, but it seems that it can also automatically assess at least the stroke order and rough shape. If it can do it automatically, I'm not really sure why it asks for a self-assessment as well.
Lexikeet and I also disagreed on some of the stroke orders, and how many strokes there should be in certain characters. Variant stroke orders and counts do exist in Chinese, so I think that Chinese handwriting software should allow for this.
One thing I really liked about Lexikeet's handwriting learning is the replay of your character that is shown. You can see how you wrote the character animated side-by-side with the correct version. This strikes me as a very good feedback mechanism.
Now on to the listening drills. Again, this involved clicking through several screens of explanation.
As with its other drills, Lexikeet's listening exercises are pretty classic but well done nonetheless. You're asked to associate audio with meanings and with characters, and to type pinyin for audio.
Presumably Lexikeet is tracking all of the learner's results in an SRS system throughout this. As they said, they want to take the logistics out of language learning, and from what I saw it does a good job of that.
The final drill I did was speaking. You guessed it: more explanation screens to click through. Some people may find these helpful, but my preference would be for the software to just let me play around to learn how it works. Lexikeet doesn't seem to be doing anything so revolutionary that it would be hard to understand, although I guess I've spent more time reviewing language learning software than the average user.
The speaking drill is quite cool - it gets you to record yourself and compare it to a native speaker, which is always a good thing to do. Ultimately, though, you'll need native speaker feedback on your pronunciation.
Overall Lexikeet strikes me as a very solid, classically-designed language learning suite. It's pretty easy to understand and I'm sure it would be helpful for beginners. I was less convinced by its offering for advanced learners, though.
My impression of Lexikeet was damaged somewhat by the huge volume of settings and explanations screens. I tend to think that either you're a beginner and you just need to get going, or you're advanced and you'll be customising your learning yourself outside of any program.
Lexikeet also seemed to very much be a vocabulary learning tool, even if it's quite a complete and well-rounded one. It can't cover everything you need to be doing to learn Chinese. If you're willing to put the time and effort in, you could get a lot of this functionality for free with Anki and online materials.
So overall, quite a nice offering for learning Chinese vocabulary in the early stages.