In addition to the vocabulary work that you started when you first started learning and should still be doing, at some point in your learning, some teacher, book, or site will no doubt tell you (probably already) to start trying to do some “extensive reading”, or possibly to watch movies, listen to music, etc. You may well have a dedicated “extensive reading” course if you are late intermediate or advanced. This gives you exposure to new vocabulary and grammar, and helps to cement the learning you have done in class with “real-life” usages of the words and grammar. It is also supposed to be “fun” (or at least more fun/interesting than grammar drills). It can further give you valuable insight into the culture of the native speakers, and this is super important when you are learning a language. Sometimes someone will understand all the words you are saying to them but still not understand, because “how could anyone ever think that, let alone say it? They must mean something else, they are a human being after all…”. Content opens the door to the world of the language you are learning, and that’s important whether you are on the bus, in the library, on Zoom or in the bar.
This page tells you about the tools Transcrobes provides, how to use them and why they are more effective and fun than traditional learning methods and software.
Consuming lots of authentic content (books, articles, movies, music, etc.) is required to develop mature language skills in any language (including your native language!). The sooner you start and the more you consume, the easier learning can be. Digital tools, and particularly Transcrobes, allow learners to start consuming their own preferred authentic content (with Transcrobes that means any content you want!) much earlier than was (practically) possible before, and when combined with data collected from the content consumption and hyper-personalised active learning tools, gives much, much greater control over learning to individual learners, allowing much more efficient and fun learning.
Why Transcrobes was built
Transcrobes was first (and foremost) created to help learners with limited vocabulary start to consume (read, watch, listen to) authentic content (books, movies/TV, music, etc.) as quickly as possible. The stuff that teachers want you to read is almost always mind-numbingly boring, useless to you right now, and so very demotivating. I don’t care about Mary and the little toy dog she got for her birthday at all. I (me, Anton, the person writing this) care a lot about sci-fi and tech news. You care about other stuff. The stuff that we care about is by far the best stuff to learn with, because the brain produces quite different chemicals when you care about something and are properly engaged. Before computers it was very difficult to let learners go out and find their own content and use that for learning. Unfortunately, having learners do stuff on their own scares a lot of teachers (not all though!), so they are still coming to terms with how computers can change the way they help people learn. That will change over time but in the meantime learners can use computers to super-charge their learning outside typical classrooms.
What sets Transcrobes apart from virtually everything available for learning any language, is that it is you who chooses what content you want to watch/read/listen to. This works because basically any language is good language to use for learning, so you most certainly do NOT need to have the same interests as the teacher (or school/government) in order to learn with authentic content.
The hardest/longest part about learning a language is almost always the part after you learn the basics of grammar and vocabulary, particularly for languages very different to those languages you already know. In order to actually function in a language doing something useful (so more than just buying a chocolate bar at the corner shop), you need to have a reasonably large vocabulary. Very similar/related languages are by far the easiest to “learn well”, because often quite a lot of vocabulary is shared. Take English and French for example. Exact estimations differ because of different opinions on what should be considered a word of a language (should “thou” be considered a word of English? Shakespeare thought so, but I’m pretty sure I have never heard it outside of Shakespeare’s plays…) but something like 60% of the vocabulary of English and French is recognisable to native speakers of the other (cognates). A lot of “ye olde” or literary words in English come from French, so if you are an English speaker who has read a lot of novels or academic stuff, you will likely recognise a lot of French. Sometimes the word is not the same we would use in English but it’s very easy to understand. Take an app you download for example, which you open up and see “Configuration” but no button for “Settings”. Chances are you will think ‘hmm, “Settings” is probably “Configuration” in French’, and you’d be right! A lot of French is like that for English speakers. If you have a big vocabulary, things get even easier. The example I always think of is “manger”. The word “manger” exists in English - that’s what (supposedly anyway!) they put Jesus in after he was born. Even in those times though, that’s not what a “manger” was typically used for - it’s what farm animals eat out of. If you know that animals eat from a “manger” then it will be very easy to remember what the French word for “to eat” is, wait for it… “manger”.
Unfortunately, Chinese and English are very unrelated, so you get almost none of that. That means that whenever you see a word you don’t know, your existing English language (however much you’ve read!) will be of little use to you. Sometimes you can guess from context (and that is an important way to learn) but if you have more than a word you don’t know every few sentences it can get quite hard to follow, and if you have a word or two every sentence (like you will as an advanced beginner/low intermediate reading stuff meant for native speakers), then you will likely lose the plot after the first paragraph unless you get help.
Help in the Past
In ancient times, when people still used those things called “paper books”, we had these “paper dictionaries” (L2 dictionaries) that you could use to look up words you didn’t know, and they would give you a definition in your own language. That sort of worked. A word might have several meanings depending on whether it is a noun, verb, etc. so you had to do some work to get what was meant in the particular context but you could generally get it. Even the most experienced dictionary looker-upper is going to get bored very quickly if they have to look up two words per sentence though. We didn’t have anything else though, so if you wanted to read something you actually cared about, that was what you did. And lots of people did, for a very long time.
Then we got computers, and overnight the world changed. With languages that separate words (so not Chinese!) we could immediately click (or similar) on words in a text and get the same native language definition. That meant instead of taking up to a minute to look up a word, it took only a few seconds (click, read definition, close popup). If you only need to look up a word or two every paragraph or so, then this is already a perfectly good system, good for both learning and pleasure. You don’t need anything more advanced to be able to read and get pleasure from stuff meant for native speakers, so you can read what you are interested in, and get all the benefits associated with that. What if you are looking up a couple of words per sentence though? Well for one, it means you are constantly using your hands, and reading is still very slow. When you know all the words in a sentence, even in a foreign language you are learning, you can read a sentence in a few seconds. If it takes you 3 seconds for a sentence but you have to look up two words and they both take you 7 seconds, then instead of taking 3 seconds to read a sentence, it takes you 17. That means that reading a chapter won’t take you half an hour (or whatever your book needs), it will take you almost 3 hours. When you are just dying to know how Hermione gets out of the trap she has been caught in, that gets annoying well before the 3 hour mark. Constantly opening up a definition is also causing your brain to “context-switch” and causes you to have to think and concentrate much harder (higher cognitive load), making it much more tiring. And if it’s annoying and tiring you won’t do it as much, or be as happy about doing it as you would otherwise. So the world changed, but not for advanced beginners and intermediates, and that is who needed it the most!
How to use Transcrobes as an advanced beginner and above learner
So what was really needed was for the system to automatically give you an appropriate definition (gloss) for all the words you don’t know right next to the word, but not for the words you do know (with Chinese you also need to analyse the texts in order to be able to perform segmentation into words). That way you get all the benefits of getting exposure to the language, you significantly solidify your existing knowledge, and you see lots of new words next to their meaning (in your native language). After seeing a word with its meaning a few times you might learn it (particularly if it is in some text you really care about), meaning you can tell the system you don’t need/want help with that word anymore. And you can read in a way that is almost normal - you are not constantly clicking to get definitions for words you don’t know and the system is (hopefully) choosing an appropriate translation for the context. Because it’s automatic, sometimes it won’t choose the best meaning so you might still need to click now and then (sometimes computers can find it hard to know whether you mean “bank of a river” or “savings bank”) but you go from a situation where it is not very enjoyable reading/watching authentic material to a situation where you can do it at almost normal speed, with a much lower “cognitive load”. And that changes everything.
Teaching the system about yourself
The content functionality of Transcrobes works by giving you a contextually appropriate gloss for words that you don’t know yet. We will evolve and add new ways of doing this but the current, simple way (and maybe the best, the science will tell us!) is that you tell the system “I know this word” or “I don’t know this word”. By default, we assume you don’t know a word, until you tell us otherwise. That means when you first start out, if you start looking at a webpage (or book, movie, etc.) then it will gloss everything! All of the content interfaces (book reader, video player, browser plugin for websites, more to come) allow you to quickly and easily tell the system whether you know a word or not, but you need to do that one by one in those interfaces. If you already know 2500 words, that is going to take a looooong time, and be very annoying.
So Transcrobes includes an optimised interface for mass input, that presents you with all of the most common words, in order of frequency, or any words you choose from lists you create. So, for example, if you have already studied up to HSK5, then you can very quickly review hundreds of HSK1-5 words in a few minutes and train the system that way. Transcrobes' import system also allows you to tell the system that you already know the words you are importing, automatically setting them to “known”. You can create lots of imports if you need to, so if you already have lists of words that you know then you can train the system in only a few minutes! That means the system will immediately stop glossing the words you know, without any further work on your part.
Quantity and Quality
The other thing about learning lots of vocabulary is that you should definitely be smart about the vocabulary you learn. There are hundreds of thousands of words in today’s major languages, and no one even comes remotely close to learning all the words in a language, even their native language. Here more genuinely is better but not just any old “more” - you should learn the words that are most valuable to you right now, in order to make your learning easier, more productive and fun right now. As mentioned above and elsewhere, if you use the right techniques and tools you can learn hundreds of new words in a single month - if you have the right habits and a base in something you love and are comfortable with, you can learn whatever you need in new situations when you need it.
The main problem you get with “normal” classes/courses is that there are usually lots of students, and they all have different wants and needs. Worse still, the courses are typically constructed so that they are easy to test - instead of teaching you useful stuff, they teach you stuff that is easy to teach and easy to test. There is often some overlap with stuff that is actually useful for individual learners but why follow such a horribly inefficient system when (modern, ubiquitous) computers (and big powerful servers) mean we don’t have to any more? The Transcrobes project focusses on creating tools and activities that are useful and highly optimised for learners, not for teachers (or company shareholders). Transcrobes does this in a few ways but one key way is the Repetrobes Spaced Repetition system. In most spaced repetition software you will either choose (import) a list to study, or have one chosen for you (maybe as part of the package you purchase). In Transcrobes, you can (obviously!) do that but Transcrobes also gives you the option of letting the system decide. A few factors are (will be) taken into account but the main factor depends on the number of times you have actually seen a word. The words you don’t know that you have seen (appeared in the visible part of your screen for more than a few seconds) most often are prioritised. It does this by looking at all the books, websites, movies, etc. that you have been consuming with the system and that allows the system to know what the highest value things to learn for you specifically at this exact moment in time. Transcrobes is the first system ever to allow this level of personalisation! You can either let the system decide completely what you should study first (the default) or you can chose a list and then just prioritise the order (e.g, so just chose from HSK5, but in the order most useful for me right now) - you can have your cake and eat it too!
This is an important point. Transcrobes embraces difference and efficiency. You are not some abstract robot, that has the same needs and wants as thousands or millions of other learners. Teachers or governments might want us to all be the same, so we can all write accurate invoices, or read economics reports, but typically only a small percentage of us ever actually have to do that. I’m not (really!) a conspiracy theorist but you can think up lots of reasons why governments might like us to all be formatted the same way! Anyway, having all learners learn stuff that most of us will patently never need (I have never written an invoice, in any language) is insanely inefficient. Before, when it was much more difficult to learn languages and there was genuinely value to have a teacher guiding you in a classroom environment after the basics are learnt, it was certainly a challenge to allow learners to learn based on their wants and needs. Manufacturing has gone through a quiet revolution - technology now enables us to do things very “lean”, or “just-in-time”. There are car manufacturers that don’t start making the car you are buying until you actually sign the contract! On-the-job training and continuing education are also based on this principle - learn something when you need it. It’s more efficient and learners see exactly why they are learning something - because they actually need it right now. So why should you spend your valuable learning time and (life) energy on something that some company owner might need several years down the track? You shouldn’t is the obvious answer, not if you have a choice.
There is recognition that not everyone has the same needs in traditional contexts. Take the tacky “Business English” ads you see plastered around public transport the world over. If people need expensive extra courses after they finish their studies just to be able to do their job, then the courses they did to begin with weren’t very good, were they? The truth is that everyone has different needs, so these classes are suspect to begin with. There is a relatively small base of basic grammar and vocabulary (basically the “grammatical words”) that everyone needs to get started and then (almost) everything else is personal. A student who is mad about My Little Pony fan-fiction and wants to go and study agricultural science in Guangzhou has different needs to a football jock who wants to study fashion design in Shanghai. As a government leader you can make an argument that all citizens of a country need to have a standard base of knowledge and skills to be “good citizens”. That might be true. What is not true is that you have to learn foreign languages that way (now, anyway), particularly when it is scientifically provable that it is horribly inefficient to do so!
Transcrobes changes that. Say you have a book chapter you need to read for your second year history class for next week at Beijing Language and Culture University. You can import it into Transcrobes, and create a list, with the list ordered by word frequency in the chapter. You can then actively learn the most useful new words before you have to read the text and talk about it at your tutorial in two weeks. Transcrobes also helps you read the text so you understand it properly, letting you concentrate on the meaning rather than the obscure new words you can learn later (because your essay due in 4 weeks is more important for you than learning all that new vocab right now). If you use Transcrobes regularly then Transcrobes gets to know what the most valuable words for you to learn are, meaning you can optimise your learning time and energy on words you actually need now, rather than stuff you might or might not need at some point. Transcrobes focuses on the real-life needs of real people, not abstract things business leaders might need in a few years or policy-makers want for social harmony. These are useful, but not when they get in the way of learning too much - have separate classes if they are that necessary!
You do need to regularly be in contact with the language, preferrably learning new words and expressions as you go. We all forget if we don’t do something for a long while, and that is a shame - if you have to relearn something, then all the effort you put in the first time is simply wasted. You should continue to use the vocabulary revision tool to make sure you keep the words you spent so much effort learning and you should read/watch/listen to new stuff. But when you don’t have a pressing need (test in accounting class next week, read all the customer emails that arrived during the night, etc.), then you can focus on stuff you love (dragons!) rather than stuff you don’t (Mary’s toy dog).
Understanding and controlling your own learning
One of the things you will notice about successful (language) learners is that almost without exception, they take responsibility for their own learning. They don’t only think about what they are learning, but also about how. If you want to learn lots, then spending some time to make sure you are learning in the most efficient way for you can mean that over time you learn at LOT more. When you do a lot of your learning with digital tools, then if the tools are connected and collecting the right data on how you use them, it can give you a lot of very useful information on how you learn. You can then use that to try things to learn even faster. Before computers, we had to rely on teachers/parents/tutors/friends/books/exams to give us ideas/advice on whether we are learning in the best way, and they often don’t really know enough to be able to give good advice. What worked for your teacher when they were learning might be horrible advice for you. If you use the same system to practice vocabulary, read books, read the web, watch movies and TV, do grammar exercises, etc. then the system can quite quickly help you learn what is optimal for you. Not some abstract person that doesn’t exist in the real world, or some former student that a teacher had but you, and not just you but you here and now.
The first step in controlling your own learning is to understand why you are doing it. For a lot of people this will be “because I have to”. We have to do lots of stuff we don’t particularly like doing but that’s just life. Successful (and happy) people typically find ways to enjoy what they are doing, even if they didn’t to begin with. Probably the main “point” behind developing Transcrobes was to make it so that everyone can find something they love doing and do that while learning a language at the same time. I (me, Anton) love reading/watching sci-fi/fantasy (dragons and stuff), maybe you don’t. But there is something you love doing. You might absolutely hate doing grammar drills, or getting up in front of the class to read out a paragraph from your textbook. But that is NOT what language learning is really about!!! Learning and knowing a language is about being able to interact and cooperate with other speakers of a language in an efficient way (just pointing and miming is pretty inefficient when you are trying to explain how bake a cake, or play pool, etc.), for lots of different kinds of activity (writing a letter, telling a joke at the pub, watching the president/PM give a speech, etc.). If you want to actually be able to do stuff in/with a language and not just pass an exam, then unless you want everyone do march in unison, live in the same dormitories, watch the same TV programmes, read the same books, eat the same food, etc., then what real people actually need is very largely different. Even in your native language, there are lots and lots of terms you don’t know. There will be plenty of non-native experts in particular fields that will have no problem reading a technical text that loses you after the first sentence. You never needed the vocab and terms, so you never learnt them - they did, so did!
Transcrobes' tools for keeping focussed and motivated
When you get to the point where you can (with help) read books/articles and watch movies, you can (and lots of people do) continue to learn without official classes/courses. Classes typically give you structure by requiring you to do stuff at a particular time of the week, and to submit assignments or pass quizzes or exams. This gives you structure and (some kind of) motivation. But you can and should continue to learn outside of class time (over the summer is a good example, or after your course finishes), so creating your own structure, like “reading all of the first Harry Potter” is an excellent way for most people to continue to stay focussed. Consistency is absolutely critical if you want to keep the stuff you learn (see the part on the forgetting curve in the beginner’s guide!). The advantage of doing stuff yourself is also that it is not some random teacher who decides what is important for you, it is you. You usually know what you want better than anyone else… or at least you do when you sit down and think about it. When you set stuff down and then try and work towards it, you also quickly find out whether it is actually what you want, and that means you can adjust as you need to.
While there are lots of ways to take control of your own learning, one way that a lot of people find useful is to set themselves goals. There are different ideas on what the best size of a “goal” is but it is typically something that can take from a few hours to a few weeks. It is usually better to get regular feedback on stuff you are working on, and that’s easier when you have smaller goals. You can also group together goals into sets of goals (or “macro-goals”), so as long as you can set yourself small enough goals, then you can always have an ultimate goal like “speak/write Chinese like an educated native speaker”.
Transcrobes has a system of goals based on lists of words, and more ways of setting goals will come later. Lists of words are the most useful because they allow you to tie in to things which are very common for learners, like “learn this week’s vocabulary” or “learn 90% of the words in the first chapter of the Harry Potter book I am reading”. Because the system learns what words you know and when you learn them, it can also show you your progress over time. This allows you to see how you are progressing, and to work out whether you need to put in more effort in order to get to the point you want to, when you want to (say you have an exam next month and you need to learn all the words before then, etc.). Everywhere there is a list of words (goals, lists, imports, contents) Transcrobes will show you your progress over the last couple of months (more configuration later).
There are lots of things that are planned for later, and Transcrobes is now progressing quite rapidly in terms of new functionality (after a lot of slow preparatory work was done!). Some people (at least some of the time) benefit from regular reminders and motivational messages, others are motivated by games and competition, and many more we haven’t thought of yet. There are no bad ways to learn, and Transcrobes will, with the help and input of the community, evolve to cover more and more as time goes by.
In the meantime, find a book or two, some movies or a TV series, or some websites that you love, and have some fun!