Review: L-Lingo Burmese & Thai Language Learning Software…
Please note that this is an updated version reflecting minor changes. Specifically, the Android version is not released as previously noted and at this time grammar notes are available for the Thai version only.
I have been studying the Burmese (Myanmar) language for over a year, however until recently, I could barely hold a conversation. I know the alphabet (itʼs very similar to Lanna Thai), know a few hundred words, understand basic grammar (itʼs almost the same as Japanese), however when I ordered Burmese food near the Indian temple in Bangkok (Silom), I would get lost after “hello” and “thank you”.
When I say that I have been studying Burmese, I mean that I have been taking classes at Ramhamhaeng University which I am using to fulfill the foreign language requirement of the Bachelors Degree majoring in Thai that I am working on. Classes meet once a week for two hours which since the classes arenʼt all that popular (1-8 students), it means that I get a fair amount of time practicing with my teacher. The problem is, aside from my interactions with the Burmese restaurant staff, I have zero additional exposure to the language. I canʼt get Burmese TV, podcasts or movies. Burmese phonology is very different from English and Thai, it has tones but they are different from Thai tones so my ability to speak Thai doesnʼt really help that much. Actually, my studies with Japanese are probably more helpful as it means I donʼt need to get my head around a new grammar system (both Japanese and Burmese are Subject-Object-Verb with markers after each sentence part to indicate role).
This realization that I needed more exposure to Burmese led me to the Internet and to the strangely named L-Ceps and L-Lingo offerings (the software is great, however the name is one of the things that I donʼt really get). Fortunately it also happened to be at a time when I was about to have a two week break from university, and I really couldnʼt think of any better way to spend my time than to dive into the language. I gave myself a goal of doing 40 hours of study during the 14 days that I had off and then chronicling it on my South-East Asian blog, Goldenland Polyglot. On an ideal day I spent 45-50 minutes studying followed by 10-15 minutes of mild exercise and then back to studying. My initial goal was to write this review immediately following the ten day immersion, however I ended up getting side-tracked with a billion other things until just now.
L-Ceps offers language education specifically geared towards Asian languages viz. Arabic, Burmese, Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, Korean, Malay, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese. The software is developed in Flash and works either as an online ($9.99 USD / month) or desktop ($49.95 USD) version for Mac, Windows and Linux. There are are mobile versions currently in development, with a multi-platform release planned for 2011.
When you ﬁrst start the application, you are given the choice of studying your target language using either English, German, French or Spanish. Obvious omissions from that list are any of the Asian languages which they teach. My Burmese classes at university are all taught using Thai, so it would be great if I could somehow configure L-Ceps to drill mean the same fashion. Using a second language to learn a third (or fourth or fifth) has helped me to not forget what I had learned in any of the previous languages.
People with experience using Rosetta Stone will notice obvious similarities when ﬁrst opening up an L-Ceps application, however the differences soon become apparent. L-Ceps has designed their applications from the ground up to focus on Asian languages with their own alphabets, grammars and unique pronunciations. Each of 105 different lessons introduces six new words grouped around a common theme and then runs you through a series of quizzes to test your memory. Vocabulary from previous lessons are used in current lessons, with sentences that get progressively longer and more complicated to help cement your knowledge. As you can see from the screen capture below, Asian models and Asian places are used in the photographs (in other lessons I noticed Thai busses), which is a nice added touch when studying Asian languages.
Each lesson starts by individually introducing each of six words and then progressing to the screen above where you can mouse-over the picture to hear the word or phrase used. With languages that use a non-Roman script, you have the option of using the native scriptor the Romanization. The only problem with the screen above and many of the other screens is that they have a designed-by-engineers feeling, which, while utilitarian, isnʼt always the most visually pleasing. Before moving to Asia and becoming a language nerd, I was a software developer nerd for years and remember building many an application that was slow to be adopted due to its user interface not being designed by professional designers. That aside, everything does work ﬂawlessly (another beneﬁt of having engineers design applications), in months of working with the application, I donʼt once remember it crashing or behaving in a way that it shouldnʼt have.
The application really shines when you move into the quiz section, the ﬁrst one looks similar to the above screen, except that a single word or phrase is spoken and written on the screen and then you are prompted to click on the matching picture. Depending on the lesson, a second batch of six photographs might follow using a similar quizzing method.Eventually, you move on to a picture quiz which uses just four pictures and increasingly complex sentences. The problem with sentences with increasingly difﬁcult grammar is that for Burmese there are no grammar notes to help you along. The Burmese in the image below translates into English as “The woman is not standing, she is sitting in the ofﬁce”, the words for woman, ofﬁce, stand and sit have all been introduced, however the grammatical structure needed to form negative sentences never is. Burmese sentences are negated similar to French ones in that the verb is surrounded on both sides with short words (ma-buu), which can be confusing if you arenʼt taught it directly.
I eventually started using some extra books (Burmese for Beginners Book and CDs Combo by Gene Mesher along with my school textbooks) which helped a lot. While the lack of grammar notes in the Burmese version is a problem, it is not an issue with the Thai version. At present the Thai (and Chinese) versions of the software have grammar notes, and notes for Burmese will be part of a free upgrade soon.
In addition to the picture quizzes, there are three word-based quizzes. In the ﬁrst one, you are presented a word in Burmese and then you choose between the correct of four English words. The image below shows single words, but many of the quizzes use full sentences.
After successfully completing the Burmese into English quiz, L-Ceps switches things around and gives you a single word or sentence in English and then has you pick the correct Burmese translation.
In the ﬁnal quiz you are shown a picture and hear the word spoken in Burmese, then you have to write it on a piece of paper, click a button to see the correct answer and then tell the computer if you got it correct or not. This is the only feature that seems poorly designed. Writing and typing are pretty much the same thing, the quiz should function by having the user type in the answer using the native alphabet and then automatically determine if the answer is correct or not.
At the completion of each quiz, you are presented with a summary of your results, a list of your wrong answers which can be copied to the clipboard, and then given the option of going back and reviewing the wrong answers or moving forward with another guided quiz. The only thing that struck me as strange in this screen is the way that you can click on items from the list and have them copied to the clipboard. Not that itʼs not a good feature to have, rather I was surprised that it was included only for the wrong answers. I couldnʼt ﬁnd a way to see a list of all words in the lesson and copy them to your clipboard.
L-Ceps does provide some great ofﬂine learning tools, including MP3s, lesson notes and printable ﬂashcards which became my constant companion on public transportation, however the ability to easily import text into Anki or another SRS would be a beneﬁt (I know, I should stop complaining and just learn to type the Burmese alphabet).
After ﬁnishing 40 hours with the program, the biggest improvement in my skills was in my ability to learn new words. With a language like Burmese, most students are going to ﬁnd the new sounds to be quite a hurdle. Itʼs not like learning Spanish or French where you can easily ﬁnd mnemonic devices that relate back to English. Here you are faced with a plethora of phonemes, most of which will be new to you. Spending 40 hours with L-Ceps in two weeks meant that my brain had time to absorb the new sounds and ﬁnd ways to build mnemonic devices.
L-Ceps is a new company and their products show the lack of maturity that comes from a new company. That said, their faults are few and far between. The Burmese product needs grammar notes (again, the version has them), the user interface needs polish and the writing quiz should be better. At the same time, they are presenting Asian languages in a format that makes them easy to learn, and with the compliment of MP3s, printable ﬂashcards and lesson notes you have a complete package which you can use to study in multiple environments. I have already begun recommending that friends use their products, and will continue to do so.