Back to School for Language Learners

Education Concept

‘Back to school’ can be an especially challenging time for language students: the subject and the medium by which it is learned are one and the same! To pick up where you left off, make sure you keep your motivation high, engage in some targeted review and come to class (whether it be virtual or traditional) fully prepared.Try these helpful tips and ensure a successful start to the semester!

Make a plan.

Self-efficacy, or the ability to take a task and break it down into manageable pieces, can have a major impact on success in language learning. Before someone hands you a syllabus, think about your goals for the year, how you plan to achieve them, and what you are willing to commit to in order to meet them. Decide what YOU want to learn, then make a plan and put it into action. For more ideas, check out our blog entry on How to build a language learning plan.

Join a club.

Languages are meant to be used for communication and it can be pretty hard to get your textbook to talk back. So, enquire at your school to see if there’s a language club you can join (PS. If there isn’t, you can always start one!). Alternatively, check your town or local county for language enthusiast groups or simply google online forums. No matter where you end up, putting yourself in the company of individuals who can help energize and support your learning efforts will be a winning move.

Do your homework.

Were you assigned some review over the summer? Get to it and make sure you spend a few hours reading and listening to your language to activate all of those dormant vocabulary stores. Next, find out what your teacher has planned for you and do some early research to get a head start on the semester. Will you be studying a unit on Nearealismo in Intermediate Italian? Read an article or two to get you excited about the topic or rent a film and see Anna Magnani in action. Enhancing your familiarity with new vocabulary can make a big difference in word acquisition rates.

Come prepared.

You’ll be learning heaps of new words with every language class you attend. What tools will you need to be successful? Make sure you are equipped with the basics (think dictionaries and flashcard makers). You may also want to try a few gamified apps and tools which serve authentic content to help you learn REAL language from subjects you care about. Give a try and throw a few more apps in the mix to build yourself a diverse ecosystem of complementary tools that will help you make the most of your learning when the pace picks up.

Get inspired.

Any subject can become tedious if we’re not inspired by it. Think about why you chose to study a second language in the first place and round up some material to help you get enthusiastic about the year. Maybe it’s a new album, a film, a dance class or a book about travel– whatever you try, take a second every day to remind yourself that language learning is fun!

Are you headed back to a US college or university and passionate about languages? The Student Language Exchange operates language exchange groups in over 20 universities with its users relying on online texts and free platforms like to support informal tutoring sessions for less commonly taught languages. Sign up to start a new chapter on your campus– promote linguistic and cultural diversity and make new friends at the same time. Hurry, applications are due by September 16!

5 Travel Tips for Language Learners

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Everyone knows it’s easier to learn when you are in the environment where your language is spoken. Not only are you more motivated to communicate with the locals, but you are surrounded by newspapers, signs, t-shirts– target language text in abundance! Context is key and there’s more than enough new vocabulary for the taking. But target language input still needs to be rendered comprehensible.

So how can you make the most out of a trip abroad to boost your language skills? Check out these fun tips for travelers and bring home some new words and phrases along with the souvenirs.

1. Order from Bilingual Menus- Food is one of the most enjoyable categories of vocabulary to master. After all, what could be easier than eating your way to fluency? Make sure you avoid the “English Speakers” menu at all costs and if you do get a copy, try and compare it to the target language version so you can guess the meaning of new foods. Remember, local specialities will often be featured on the menu boards at more than one restaurant. Arm yourself with a mobile dictionary (with’s free iOS and Android apps you will be well equipped!) and shop around for the right breakfast, lunch and dinner, taking note of common menu items. Create flashcards for the new dishes with a learning platform like and pick up a few take-away menus to jog your memory when you return home!

2. Take Snapshots of Signs- There’s always so much to see when you are traveling to a new place. But don’t just photograph the monuments and scenery– take shots of the signs and banners too! From shop windows advertising products and sales, to open markets and the most common phrases for Exit, Entrance and Bathroom– you will find it is easier to understand what signs are telling you when you are in the local environment and have access to contextual clues. Also, try to say what you see out-loud. Ask locals if you are having trouble and note how they pronounce the words. Remember to do your best to guess at a sign’s meaning but take a picture so you can double-check your understanding when you get home.

3. Browse Comic Books and Magazines-  Many comic strips and magazines have international versions. If you typically read National Geographic or even something light like Tom and Jerry, you are more likely to pick up on the new language as characters, themes and columns will already be familiar to you. This gives you an edge when it comes to guessing the meaning of novel vocabulary. It also helps your brain to have colorful and descriptive images which provide visual cues. So stop by a news-stand and gather some light reading material when you first arrive. It’s the perfect way to pass time on busses and trains. PS. This type of material fits easily into your suitcase for further study when the trip is over!

4. Study the Labels- Everything from your water bottle, to condiment jars, and shampoo and conditioner will have a label. Pay attention to imperative verbs encouraging you to use or try the product and descriptive adjectives which illustrate its benefits. You probably already know what a product does and what it does and doesn’t contain– or at least you can take a good guess! Use this prior knowledge to decode ingredients and slogans. Look terms up in a dictionary like’s and create flashcards to help you learn and remember the new terms. You never know what novel and intriguing language you will find!

5. Travel like a Local- Monuments and tourist towns typically offer guides, maps and brochures in a number of languages, including the local tongue. Take advantage of the parallel texts to pick up brochures in both your native and target language. Read about the place you are visiting in English and then go off and do a tour. When you have finished, sit yourself down in a coffee shop or cafe and go through the local language tourist brochure. You will already know what is being described, which makes it easier to guess what new words mean. An added bonus is when locals ask you what you liked about their hometown, you’ll know just how to talk about points of interest without resorting to translations or pointing at an image in your guidebook!

Remember that being in a new place not only enhances your access to language but also helps to strengthen your existing vocabulary. For example, you may learn new ways of using a word or encounter an unfamiliar meaning for a familiar term. Prepare for you trip by ensuring you have the dictionary, flashcard and learning  tools you need to look words up and remember them ( mobile will do the trick). And above all, interact with native speakers as much as you can while you are abroad. Travel communities like are a great place to start as they often have meet-ups in central places and forums with helpful hints that only a local would know.   

All you need to know about language aptitude

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We all know someone with a high aptitude for languages. While the rest of us struggle, they seem to hear everything and pick up new words without even trying. It’s a shame that when it comes to aptitude you’re either one of the lucky few to be born with it or you aren’t, right? Wrong.

The dictionary definition of aptitude is actually a natural or acquired capacity for learning. That means any language learner can enhance their aptitude if they go about it in the right way. Since aptitude for languages is closely related to working memory, it’s best to first understand how the mechanisms that help us trap and retain language work, and then consider some strategies.

The Visuospatial Sketchpad
In 1974, Baddeley & Hitch proposed a model of working memory in which a central executive managed and processed information gathered from two sub-systems: the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. Have you ever stared hard at a page and then closed your eyes? Give it a try now and notice how the image lasts for a few seconds, even when you can no longer see it. That’s the visuospatial sketchpad at work. While everyone has one of these, the amount of time it takes for an image to disappear varies depending on the individual. People with higher aptitude tend to be able to hold an image in mind for longer amounts of time.

So, what does this have to do with language learning? When you first start reading in your new language, your brain is not used to the novel letter combinations (or perhaps you’re even working with an entirely new alphabet/script). This makes it difficult to visualize words and hold them in working memory long-enough for them to be learned and transferred over for long-term storage. A lot of time is wasted in checking back and forth to look-up new terms in a dictionary or use them in productive exercises. Vocabulary is the most basic component of language and if your ability to acquire words from written text is hampered, it can have a severe impact on learning and progress.

The Phonological Loop
Of course language is both written and spoken, so acquiring new vocabulary can also be done with your ears. Have you ever recited a telephone number over and over until you found a pen to write it down? That’s the phonological loop at work, allowing you to record bits of audio and play them on repeat until you have a chance to process and understand what you have heard. Some people can hold longer strings of numbers and sounds in memory than others and they tend to be individuals with a higher aptitude for language learning.

Why is that? Well spoken language happens in real-time and there isn’t a pause button for native-speaker conversation. You may not have understood exactly what was said, but if you can record it and replay it in your mind, then you can also save it for later processing. It’s like having an internal voice recorder that can help you get better at parsing speech, unpacking chunks of language and acquiring new words from context. If your sound to letter mapping is accurate, it also allows you to look up words in a dictionary (like’s) and learn their written form.

Improving Language Aptitude
So what can you do to boost your aptitude for languages? Train your brain! Both the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad respond to strategy training. Just like stretching before a run, set 20 minutes aside to practice looking at words in your target language and then writing them down from memory. Juggle a few items at once and mix up the order in which you produce them. Gradually increase the time intervals and amount of terms. Don’t worry about learning the content or definitions, simply focus on form. Repeat the process for spoken language. Focus on  holding in memory longer strings of speech instead of worrying about what the language means or how to respond. You’ll notice a difference right away, as written vocabulary become easier to work with and spoken language, easier to hear.

For more info on improving your ability to hear and understand target language speech, check out this article from the author of the Fluent Forever Blog. Once you’ve amped up you aptitude for extracting new language, the sky is the limit! Keep up the strategic effort and use a free platform like to stay on top of all of the words you are learning. Create dynamic flashcards, play fun practice games, see vocabulary in authentic contexts and help ensure your new words make it into long-term memory. now available for iPhone

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(Bala Cynwyd, PA– July 22, 2014), a cross-platform solution that draws on a user’s environment and interests to create a personalized language learning experience, announced today the launch of the app on iOS. The launch demonstrates the company’s commitment to digital language learning and education and enforces the importance of fostering communication and learning within today’s global community.  Since launching the Android app earlier this year, the company has further evolved with the release of a WebApp and through expanded academic partnerships.’s language learning technology provides learners with a free dictionary and learning platform to discover vocabulary in over 18 languages. The platform goes beyond traditional translation and flashcard services and assesses skill level behind the scenes, recommending fresh content in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew as well as practice exercises personalized for the individual. To enhance user engagement, the new iOS app includes a number of gamification features, where words collected are counted via a leaderboard and a practice session tracker that rewards power-users, effectively encouraging additional vocabulary searches.

“The availability of on iOS confirms our commitment to provide an open and free language learning solution for users around the globe,” said CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Jan Ihmels.  “The market is growing at a tremendous rate and will be at the forefront, leading the way in language edtech with a sophisticated technology unlike any other available today. brings systematic learning to the worldwide web, providing an engaging digital immersion tool for learners from beginner to advanced levels.” has witnessed widespread adoption, with over 100k+ Android downloads in the first month of its Android release. It anticipates the same or greater on iOS. The company will expand support for additional languages by Fall 2014 and is poised to make a lasting entrance into the digital language learning and edtech channels.

The app is now available as a free download in the iTunes App Store.

What kind of language learner are you?

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There’s one thing most researchers agree on: no person or language learner is alike. And when it comes to applied linguists, they even have a whole subject called “Individual Differences.” So what sets some learners apart and what kind of language learner are you? Read on to find out!

Cognitive Factors
Language Aptitude- Are languages easy for you to pick up? If so, then you’d probably score high on a language aptitude battery test. Some people find it easier to remember new language thanks to certain cognitive mechanisms that trap vocabulary from the input so words can be held in the mind long-enough to be transferred to long-term memory. A crucial takeaway though is that aptitude can be improved, so whether you were born with it or not, there are activities you can do to enhance your skills.

Strategy Use- Some language learners are more strategic than others. It’s no secret that creating a flashcard with an image and example sentence makes it easier to learn a word than just staring long and hard at the dictionary entry and hoping for the best. But with an abundance of strategies to choose from  (e.g. glossing, memory, vocabulary, skimming & scanning) there are always ways to be more strategic. You can also choose to learn with a platform like where strategy use is encouraged via built in features that make learning more effective and fun.

Affective Factors
Motivation- Do you really want to learn a second language or is it just something you have to do for school or work? Chances are if you’re reading this you are a motivated learner, which is a good think because motivation correlates highly with success in language learning. Maybe it’s an upcoming vacation, a crush on a native speaker or just a really good book you’d like to read without translation, whatever your motivation you can always find more ways to enhance it via peaking your curiosity about the local culture and maybe offering yourself the occasional ice-cream sundae for milestones achieved.

Anxiety- Are you often worried about making mistakes?  Do you get nervous when you have to speak in a second language? Emotional responses can make a big difference in your ability to learn a language because affective barriers prevent you from learning and receiving new words from the input. Think of it this way, if you are so busy worrying about what you will say when the teacher calls on you, how can you hear what the other students are saying? Language isn’t about being exact and mistakes are inevitable so learn to relax and try your best to stay calm when anxiety rears its ugly head.

Of course there are plenty of other individual differences we could discuss, age being one of them, but Aptitude, Strategy Use, Motivation and Anxiety are particularly relevant because they are subject to change. And the best way to make sure you take advantage of your strengths and customize your learning program to account for your weaknesses is to know what kind of learner you are –and then decide what kind of learner you want to be.


Want to know more? Check out a language blog like the Mezzofanti Guild which has a forum for language learners to share tips on how to stay motivated, strategic and relaxed and head back here for more on how you can improve your aptitude for language learning in future posts.

Choosing the right test to measure your vocabulary


Vocabulary in a second language seems like a relatively straightforward entity to assess. You either know a word or you don’t, right? Wrong. There are many ways to know a word and not all language assessments measure the same kind of knowledge. So, have a read through this post to ensure you get the right test to help you meet your language learning goals.

Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge
Tests that measure receptive vocabulary knowledge often ask you to identify a word in a reading or listening passage. Receptive knowledge is passive in the sense that you do not need to produce the word from scratch, only understand it when it is presented to you. Often receptive knowledge is the first thing we acquire and therefore, for most second language learners, the size of their receptive vocabulary is greater than that of their productive vocabulary (note, this tends to be true in your native language as well). That is to say, you understand more words than you can produce. Thus, if a vocabulary test provides you with pictures and asks you to label them you may appear to know less words than you actually do because it is testing your productive knowledge!

Productive Vocabulary Knowledge
If you can say or write a word then you have productive knowledge of it. However, with this category there are some added bells & whistles. In its most basic form, demonstrating productive knowledge does not entail perfect spelling or native-like pronunciation. Rather, it is about producing a word that is recognizable as the target term. A spelling test measures spelling and a pronunciation test measures pronunciation. But here is where test makers differ in their approach. Many vocabulary tests do require you to have 100% accurate spelling or pronunciation to get full credit for a word. So, if you happen to be a particularly bad speller and score poorly on an assessment measure as a consequence, fear not! You still have productive knowledge of the words you were tested on.

Vocabulary in Use
Just because you can recognize, write and say a word it doesn’t mean you know all there is to know. It is also possible to measure your understanding of how a word functions in a sentence and the many ways in which it can be used. Therefore, tests that measure this nuanced understanding tell you even more about the quality of your vocabulary, which can sometimes be just as important as size when it comes to certain tasks (e.g. writing essays and business emails). is a great free tool to help you build out both the breadth (size) and depth (receptive/productive/use knowledge) of your vocabulary as it provides a dictionary and flashcard maker for storing images, example sentences and audio, a smart spaced repetition review platform and article suggestions so you can re-visit your words in context.

The next time you take a test, make sure you know exactly what it is measuring so you can better interpret the results. To that end, the Applied Linguistics department at the University of Ghent has created a fun receptive vocabulary test to tell you how many words you know in English in under 5 minutes. Give it a try and help them collect some data at the same time!

New Context-Based Approach to Russian Language Learning


russian_monster Adaptive platform facilitates study of Russian language from everyday content and online sources announced today that it will now be supporting the Russian language with a free vocabulary and reading solution for education programs and self-study learners. The platform takes a novel context-based approach to language learning, providing users with real-world materials as an alternative to grammar drills and literature-focused lessons.’s cloud-synced technology exists as a free mobile app for Android, a Web App, and a browser extension for Google Chrome, all of which will now support Russian language. It works by suggesting authentic content from the web with a 90:10 ratio of known to unknown words in order to create optimized conditions for learning. The apps include built-in Russian-to-English and English-to-Russian dictionaries so users can look up words in articles on topics of interest to them. Learners then create flashcards with audio, images, and example sentences that are fed into a gamified learning platform.

“We’re proud to announce a new approach to Russian language study,” explains Dr. Jan Ihmels, Co-founder and CEO of and former editor of the Russian language newspaper at Cambridge University. “We set out to build a practical tool for the dedicated community of learners out there. Russian is a hard language to learn, and we are pleased to be able to contribute an engaging solution at no cost to the user.”

Flashcard_RussianArticles_RussianWordLookUp_Russian embodies the philosophy that language is best learned through immersion rather than solely through traditional textbooks and lesson plans. Therefore, using, Russian language enthusiasts can now learn by reading sports articles on football and the World Cup or recipes for Borscht and other traditional dishes. can be used on its own or as a complement to existing language programs.

“Seeing verb cases and vocabulary in action via content that is both relevant and interesting to the individual has been shown to positively influence productive language ability far beyond the drills and rote memorization techniques of yesteryear,” says Ihmels.

The technology behind the system was originally developed to catalogue proteins in the human genome; however, now it can be used to learn English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.


Learn about the challenges of studying a more “difficult” language and then try to learn Russian!

What makes some languages more difficult to learn?

As most learners eventually discover, not all languages are created equal. The US government, along with other nations, has developed scales to rate language learning difficulty via the time it takes to reach proficiency, leading to lists like the following: Hardest: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, … Medium: Greek, Russian, Hebrew,… Easiest: Spanish, French, Dutch …

But is difficulty related to actual complexity or just a language’s dissimilarity to English? How can we identify what makes a language difficult to learn and then use this knowledge to our advantage when taking on the challenge of studying one of the harder ones? Read on to find out! 

First, peruse some background on Contrastive Analysis
In the 1960s and 70s everyone in the field of Second Language Acquisition was talking about Contrastive Analysis, a new movement which entailed the side-by-side comparison of two languages to see where and how they differed. It was proposed that languages which were more different would be harder to learn for speakers of either tongue and languages which were more similar would be easier. Researchers also hoped that differences between languages could be used to predict learner errors which would then lead to more effective lesson design.

You might not have heard of Contrastive Analysis because results did not work out the way researchers had hoped and the movement was somewhat discredited along with its posits about language dissimilarity and learning difficulty. Nonetheless, there were some important takeaways, mainly that first language interference can and does occur when a learner studies a second language, and second, that Contrastive Analysis charts can sometimes be used to explain the resulting errors.

Next, consider how first language acquisition factors in
In order to learn a second language we first have to be able to recognize words encountered in the input, either visually or aurally. And this is easier said than done when faced with a sound or letter that simply doesn’t exist in your native tongue. This is because from the moment we are born, our brains are tuned to the language around us. When babies are as young as six months old they begin to focus in on the sounds of their first language and gradually lose the ability to decipher what they have not been exposed to.

The same goes for letters that have not been encountered; they are often interpreted as pictures until we learn they come from an alphabet and represent sounds. So, it follows that languages which contain hard to hear sounds and are written in vastly different alphabets and writing systems prove challenging to learn. Those languages written in cursive letters which change shape depending on where they fall in a word (e.g. Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Urdu) can be even more of a headache!

Now, what can you do to overcome the “difficult language” challenge?
Dive straight in and get as much sound and letter practice with your new language as possible. This can be accomplished through phonics exercises and extra time spent with the sounds and letters that prove troublesome for you. You may find you have no difficulty with the “sh” sound from the letter ش in Arabic but that the difference between a د “d” and ض “D” is simply impossible for you to hear.

Pay attention to the words you are learning successfully and those you struggle to recognize, hear, say and spell. The learning burden in words can be related to novel sounds and letters, so find your weak spots and then drill yourself until you’re well prepared for any phoneme or grapheme that comes your way.

One thing to keep in mind is that receptive skills usually come before productive ones, so even if you can’t say the “ع” in Arabic, you’ll still benefit from trying to identify it in spoken words and familiarizing yourself with vocabulary and phrases in which it appears.

Finding Resources & Realia for Less Commonly Taught Languages
The more people you have looking into a problem, the more likely you’ll have a solution. Therefore when you consider that languages that are difficult to learn also tend to be less commonly taught, you realize part of the problem is a dearth of quality materials, a scarcity of teachers and a lack of research on effective learning strategies.

But thanks to free digital learning platforms like, help is on the way!  As of July 1, 2014 supports Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, English, Spanish and French via free dictionaries, flashcard makers and most importantly, article suggestions that present quality realia content for you to read and practice your language direct from native speaker authors on the worldwide web.

Try the latest addition to’s supported languages- Russian!


3 Simple Memory Strategies for Language Learners

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It’s hard enough remembering user names and online passwords, let alone committing vocabulary words to memory. But basically, the amount of words you master is directly related to the quality of mental processing you engage in. So, next time you sit down for a study session, try a few of these basic strategies to give your vocabulary a boost into long-term storage and productive use!

1. Consider your words carefully The brain stores language in many ways, by sound, meaning(s), function, connection to other subjects and terms, etc., so don’t expect to get all you need from a quick glance at a dictionary entry. To establish a solid memory, you have to spend a minute or two reflecting on the word itself. Think about how it relates to words you already know, in addition to its different forms, the mechanics of its definition, part of speech and common co-locations. After all, if you familiarize yourself with multiple versions of a word early on, you’ll have less language to learn in the long run!

2. Create fun, dynamic and “emotional” memories  Learning the word “gâteau” in French? You may want to put an image of Mary Antoinette on your flashcard. Content that is stored along with emotion has a much better chance of being retained. The same is true for language learned from context because the guessing process can enhance the depth at which your brain processes it. So, the next time you look-up a word, think of a fun image or example sentence to help you deck out your memory and express your creative side at the same time!

3. Learn in small batches and revisit words at strategic intervals
Learning a pile of words at once may work okay for short-term memory but it drastically decreases the chances that your words will make it into long-term memory. Keep your practice sessions small and space them out at optimal intervals for re-enforcing memory, or just use, which figures out session size and a schedule for you. Remember that items reviewed in the first 72 hours after they are learned have a much better chance of surviving the short-term memory wipe and embedding into long-term memory.

If the idea of purposefully studying vocabulary overwhelms you, don’t worry! Not all language is learned consciously (see our post on acquisition vs. learning). Create opportunities for regular engagement with meaningful language and it’s likely the above strategies will happen naturally. Try article suggestions or find a language exchange partner with free services like Polyglot Club and Linqapp. No matter what you do, is there to help you look-up words, create flashcards and play fun practice games that keep your words fresh and accessible- for free!

Reading in a second language: What’s glossing and how does it work?

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“Glossing” is a less than common term in language learning today due to educator efforts to keep a learner’s first language out of the classroom. But research in the field of applied linguistics has shown computer glossing can enrich reading comprehension.

So, if you are studying a language at home or just learning how to use your dictionary more strategically, glossing doesn’t have to be a bad word. Have a read through to understand how it works and then open’s Web App and give it a try!

What is glossing?
There exists some debate among language researchers as to the exact definition of glossing but the general idea is providing the definitions, whether brief or long, of key vocabulary terms alongside the text in which they appear. A gloss is a key or annotation that allows a more precise interpretation of the text. While it can be cognitively demanding to process both a text and individual terms, technology today has significantly enhanced a user’s control over the glossing process, transforming its impact on reading comprehension at the same time.

How does it work?
A learner is either provided with definitions beforehand so as to familiarize themselves with keywords or looks up words as they are encountered in order to undertake a closer reading of the text. The word list is often relegated to the right-hand column of the screen with definitions not actually displayed, but rather hidden until a learner’s mouse hovers over them. Learners toggle between reading the whole and examining individual pieces (i.e. definitions) in order to make greater meaning of a given text.

Why should you try it?
Glossing helps learners confirm their guesses about the meaning of unknown words and can be particularly useful in higher order texts where definitions are often nuanced and difficult to determine. Glossing is a strategy that’s equally useful for beginner learners as  it can be used to facilitate skimming or quickly arriving at the gist and main ideas of a text. To sum it up, glossing can completely change the way a reader experiences a text in a second language. With a more exact interpretation, inferencing skills are often strengthened and more new words are learned, resulting in an enhanced learning experience.

CoffeeArticle_LingualyUse’s new Web App has made healthy glossing a breeze. That’s because article suggestions contain only a handful of new terms at a a time (as they are generated based on an individual’s working vocabulary) so they allow you to try your hand (or mouse) at glossing without going overboard. Read an article or two and see how this strategy can help you further your language learning goals!