Watch the map of your Chinese knowledge populate

A major obstacle to learning a language is the feeling that you've hit a plateau. A learning plateau is the feeling that you're not making progress despite continued effort. John Pasden has a great article on this at Sinosplice, where he says:

The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don't feel like you’re making progress when you really are.

I share John's view that the plateau is more a matter of perception than a true flattening out of progress. Progress in language learning is not something you can generally see and so we're left with the proxy of perceived progress, which might be rather far off the mark.

But maybe there are some ways to see progress?

At WordSwing, we are experimenting with ways to visualize maps of your Chinese knowledge. Here's what it looks like for knowledge of individual characters:

Character knowledge map

The colors correspond to how well you know each character and the size of the squares correspond to the frequency of the character in typical text. Thus, you can quickly spot where there are gaps (all the gray squares), or help tune WordSwing's assessment of your knowledge by toggling the color associated with characters.

We also provide a means to look at your historical maps, allowing you to see how much your maps has gotten filled in:

View historical knowledge map

And you can get an overall summary on the Dashboard, showing how many words you've rated a particular learn stage and what fraction of the typical text these comprise:

Learn stage summary
(you'll need to be signed up, which is free)

Hope to see you soon, back on WordSwing, tracking your knowledge and watching your map color in with knowledge!


Following language through the stages of learning

(updated 2016-09-08)

Learning a new word generally seems to follow a typical progression. First you notice a new word, then after you've encountered it a few times, it starts to feel familiar and you decide that maybe it's worth learning. You then more actively try and commit it to memory and perhaps try using it out in the wild a few times, and eventually it joins all the other words that you feel you've mastered.

Here's what this process looks like:

Learn stages

At WordSwing, we make this process explicit. You can place any character or word into one of these three learn stages. These learn stages have the following interpretations:

  1. Discovered - This is a word that has entered your radar. You've seen or heard it a few times and it seems worth keeping your eye on.
  2. Learning - You've continued to encounter this word, and it seems like something you'd really like to know and something you would like to actively practice.
  3. Mastered - You feel confident that you know this word well.

These learn stage ratings have two main purposes:

  1. WordSwing uses these to personalize your language practice. Specifically, WordSwing will include words in the learning stage much more frequently in the more drill-like activities, and WordSwing will assume that words in the mastered stage will be helpful context with which to learn other words.
  2. You can use these to keep track of what you've learned, what you're learning, and where the gaps are, for example by using Character knowledge map.

While practicing on WordSwing, you'll have opportunities to tune what learn stage each word occupies, for example, by using the brain tool in the drill-down pane:

Learn stage drill-down tool

The three buttons at the bottom of the above screenshot let you control whether the ratings are shown to you while you study. This can be helpful for getting a sense of how much of some text you understand or for identifying words you would like to provide ratings for but haven't yet.

You can also see on the Dashboard how many words you've rated a particular learn stage and what fraction of the typical text these comprise:

Learn stage summary

So, come over to WordSwing, and start tracking your knowledge of Chinese and reaping the benefits of personalized practice!

Hope to see you soon!

Modeling capitulation - simpler is better

We have been experimenting with some of the latest and greatest in machine learning algorithms so that your practice material is most appropriate for your knowledge and ability.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts have fallen flat on their face. Our new personalization scheme is a bit more patient.

We're still a small operation and thus the data we have collected has been a bit too limited for some of these algorithms, such as neural nets, to perform well. In response, we have revamped how study material is proposed, settling on a solution that has much better performance for new students, for whom we have collected little data.

Our new personalization scheme is a bit more patient, waiting until we have a better grasp of your knowledge before heavily personalizing the material to the map we build of your knowledge. This should reduce the rather erratic behavior that sometimes was observed with our old personalization system.

At present three activities use the new personalization scheme:

  1. Character Combination
  2. Character Similarity
  3. Recall Pronunciation

Tuning to the difficulty you want

In order to compensate for less initial automatic tailoring, we have implemented a new dial which allows you to make the practice content easier or harder, depending on your current study mood:

Difficulty dial screehsnot

The return of Recall Pronunciation

If you've been around WordSwing for a while, you'll remember a very simple activity, Recall Pronunciation, that mysteriously vanished when we redesigned WordSwing to be mobile friendly. Well, it's back!

Recall pronunciation screehsnot

It's a simple way to drill your memory for pronunciation. It features auto-suggest for pinyin entry and accepts spoken pronunciation including tone sandhi changes as well as standard dictionary pronunciation.

Thanks for you patience! And if you haven't checked out WordSwing in a while, please do! And don't forget to let me know what you think.


The redesign is live

The redesign of WordSwing's website is now live.

Mobile screehsnot

What's different?

  1. It's mobile. Finding enough time to practice a language is always a challenge. Finding enough time in front of a desktop or laptop is even harder. Now that WordSwing works on mobile devices, you can take advantage of free moments when you're out and about, standing in line, waiting for a plane, riding the bus, etc.

  2. It's faster. Architectural changes to WordSwing enabled us to make the site much faster to download. This should make the load time fast enough for mobile devices. For those interested in technical details, we now serve the main application bundle using a content-delivery network that caches the files at network edge locations near you, and serve compressed files when possible.

  3. There's a whole new drill down interface. At the crux of WordSwing is the ability to drill down to learn more about language you encounter while practicing. Part of this redesign was to completely revamp the drill down interface. The old implementation required tedious mouse-hovering acrobatics to select which language component you wanted to focus on. Now we have an easy touch/drag based highlighting mechanism to quickly get to characters, words, and phrases of interest.

Why'd it take so long?

There are two answers, depending on what is meant by the question.

One answer relates to why didn't we start sooner? We whole-hartedly agree, mea culpa. Four years ago Olle was already exposing the tremendous value of learning Chinese via smartphone. Unfortunately, in an attempt to rapidly prototype and build out WordSwing's language practice functionality we made some design decisions that were at odds with touch-based access. In this rewrite, we've tried to rethink everything from a mobile-first perspective and do it right.

The other answer relates to why did the rewrite take so long? This rewrite has been occupying much of our development efforts for the past 6 months. Six months ago, when I was evaluating whether to do a rewrite I came across a blog post by Joel Spolsky (creater of StackOverflow and Trello), appropriately titled Things You should never do, part I, which discusses why a rewrite is a terrible idea. So I set out not to do a rewrite, but as I broke more and more of of my development copy of WordSwing trying to rearchitect, I got sucked in and there was no going back. What you'll now find at WordSwing is a redesign, that while not a full rewrite, still involved touching nearly all of the 80,000 lines of code that underpin WordSwing.

So, sorry this took so long! I've learned my lesson, and will try to never do it again.

What can we expect going forward?

Most importantly it means back to forward progress, and not only on software development, but also growing WordSwing's language learning content, and improving the machine-learning and modeling behind WordSwing.

From now on it should be possible to make incremental improvements, even major ones, without halting progress on all other fronts. Part of this is that the main client-side web framework I use, Ember.js, has evolved to have a very mature development cycle, complete with a set of staged release channels, semantic versioning, stability guarantees, a well-honored depracation policy, and backed by a great community of developers. This combined with architectural changes I made during this rewrite means that development should be relatively smooth sailing.

Thanks for you patience! And if you haven't checked out WordSwing in a while, please do! And don't forget to let me know what you think.


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