Learning tool of the week: uTalk app

This week’s learning tool is one I’ve been using for a while but I’ve only just got serious with it thanks to the #NewYearNewuTalk challenge you might have seen me banging on about on Twitter.

uTalk is an iOS-based app that’s free to download for a few basic words and phrases in 100+ languages – useful if like me you’re a frequent traveller. But if you want to get more out of it than that, you’re going to have to shell out £12.99 for the premium version. However that’s a one-off cost, and you get a full 35 topics for your pennies, so I’d say it’s reasonable value.

So how does it work then?

As I mentioned before, when you download the app you’re presented with a pretty bewildering array of possible languages to learn. I’ve downloaded the full version in Chichewa (the language of Malawi) as there simply isn’t anything else on the market for unusual languages, but I’ve also used the app for Romanian and Italian. I’m almost finished with Italian now, so I felt like it was time to write a more informed review of the app.

Once you download the language of your choice, there’s a list of the full 35 topics to learn. Once you open up a topic, you’ll see there are 6 sections. In the ‘Practice’ section, you actually learn the vocabulary. You hear each word or phrase pronounced by a male and female native speaker, alongside the word in english and a picture. You can flick through this and learn anything you think is useful, then move on to the fun part – the games.

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There are 5 different games in each section, of varying difficulty.

1. The Easy Game:

This game is a good way to remind yourself of the words and test your passive recognition. If you’ve had a quick scan of the Practice section then you should manage to get most of it correct. You’ll both hear and see the word and you just have to choose the matching picture from a set of 4.

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2. The Speaking Game:

This is a particularly nifty feature of uTalk, I must say. You’ll get a random selection of 5 of the words from the section. You’ll hear the native speaker say the word, then you record it yourself, trying your best to imitate the pronunciation. Then, you’ll have a similar game to the Easy Game, where you’ll hear YOUR rendition of the word, then choose the appropriate picture. If you’ve said the word totally wrong, or you don’t know what it means, you’ll probably have to try this one a couple of times. I think it’s a great activity though as it forces you to say the word aloud which I find makes me remember it much better.

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3. The Memory Game

I have to be honest here and say I hate this game. It starts off easy enough. You have a few seconds to memorise the pictures on the screen. They’ll then turn over as in the picture here, the guy will say one of the words to you, and you have to pick which card it was. Sounds easy enough, but by the time you get to six pictures on the screen I find it very hard to remember their positions whilst also focussing on the actual words. If you like these kind of card-matching memory games generally then you’ll find it pretty fun. But I really struggle to get full marks on these which frustrates my desire to properly complete each section. I also don’t think it’s a useful tool for learning the language either.

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4. The Hard Game

Don’t worry, the Hard Game isn’t really that much harder than the others, you just need a slightly better knowledge of the words in the section. You’ll hear the foreign word, then you have to drag the correct picture into the box. As with all the other games it gets progressively harder by adding more options each time. But it’s a fun practice for passive recognition.

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5. And finally, the Recall Game.

Once you’ve played around a bit with a section and think you know your stuff, this is the ultimate test. There’s simply no way you can pass this section unless you’ve properly learned everything. You’ll see the picture and the English translation, then you have to record yourself saying the word, and mark yourself as correct or incorrect. This is my favourite section as it encourages real reproduction of the vocab, not just recognition. In other words, you can check if you really know it, not just recognise the picture. It can take a while, but you can always leave the section and come back to it later.

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So basically that’s it, although when you consider that there are 35 topics to go through, you can see that this constitutes quite a lot of content and it can keep you busy for weeks.

Is it any good?

As with most products, it has pros and cons.

The pros

  • There are over 100 languages to choose from! If you’re a geek like me, the chance to pick up a few words for anywhere you happen to be going is quite a nice bonus. Or if you need to learn Tigrinya, you’re probably not going to find another app that will help you.
  • Native speaker audio. This is the key selling point of uTalk. Unlike other apps like DuoLingo, you can be sure you’re hearing a real native speaker saying all the words correctly, so you can learn the right accent and intonation.
  • Recording yourself and playing the recall games really forces you to remember the vocab properly not just passively.
  • There’s a great amount of content for what you pay.
  • The games are a fun way to cram in some learning on your commute etc.
  • It’s very fun and addictive.

And the cons?

  • It doesn’t teach you any grammar or independent language use. It relies on learning words and stock phrases. So you come away being able to say ‘Have you seen Casablanca?” without necessarily knowing the words for ‘to have’ ‘you’ or ‘to see’. There’s nothing in the app to help you make that jump to making a sentence for yourself. So for example in Romanian I know that a cucumber is ‘castravetele’ but I don’t know how to make it into a sentence such as ‘I don’t like cucumbers’. So you’re going to need an additional resource to fill in those major holes.
  • Picture-matching is a bit of a spurious learning method. In one sense, matching a picture to a noun is a good idea. It’s supposed to be the ‘natural’ way that babies learn, and skips out the intermediary step of your native language. BUT (and it’s a big but) this only really works with things like ‘apple’ and ‘cat’. When it comes to remembering a whole phrase like ‘Can I reserve a table?’ or ‘Which platform do I need?’, the pictures become incredibly vague and confusing. I’ve got loads of things wrong in the app because I don’t know if the picture means ‘I’d like to check in’, ‘can I make a reservation?’ or any other vaguely hotel-related thing. As you can see from the pictures below, some of the pictures for the longer phrases simply don’t give you enough information when the text is taken away. Yes, the chick on the right could be saying ‘no, grazie, magari la prossima volta’ or she could be saying ‘ciao, come stai?’ or ‘arrivederci’. And the generic couple in the first picture could be doing or saying just about anything. So in the end you’re really expending too much energy on remembering a picture, rather than focussing on the important thing which is the actual word or phrase.

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  • The Memory Game is too difficult to get 100% on without repeating it over and over, and either way it’s not really testing the vocab, just your recognition of a picture and whether or not you’re good at memorising cards. Which is all very well, but not really a helpful language-learning tool.

To summarise, there are a few niggling things about this app that I don’t think are helpful, especially the extremely vague pictures in some cases (there is simply no way a picture can convey a complex phrase) and the simplistic teaching method (matching pre-prepared phrases to pictures rather than learning to build and produce your own sentences). But overall it’s great for basic language learning and as an accompaniment to something else. You’re best off learning your grammar and language-building from something like DuoLingo and using uTalk to bulk-acquire vocabulary and to learn handy stock phrases. There really is a lot of material on here, and when it’s used in conjunction with something a bit more structured, you’ll end up surprised by how much you know. At least you’ll be able to recognise the words for a heck of a lot of things, which is no bad thing.

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