My learning Somali hits some difficult spots, similar to when I was learning Farsi. The problem is intermediate language learning. I’ve discussed this with multiple polyglots and language-learning companies. I even posted about it here, here, and here. What do I do when I have learned most of the grammar and acquired a decent amount of vocabulary, but cannot understand basic articles or podcasts aimed at native speakers? This week, I discovered a fantastic way out: Bliu Bliu. And they even work with Somali!
Bliu Bliu teaches vocabulary completely inductively, serving up simple phrases of real language, keyed to the vocabulary you already know. I’m very grateful to Chris Broholm’s podcast interview with the founder of Bliu Bliu, Mr. Claudio Santori, in the episode, “Claudio Santori: Startups and viral learning”, for making me aware of this resource. In addition to discussing his great app, Mr. Santori also provides productive insight into starting a new company, which was more helpful and interesting to me than I expected. But listen to the podcast episode just to learn about his app!
Mr. Santori began with a problem I know well. He was learning an obscure language (Lithuanian in his case, Somali in mine), and he could only find beginning-level materials. He had not learned enough to learn anything from native-level materials. A teacher could aim the conversation towards vocabulary that Claudio knew, but once he left the safety of class, he wasn’t getting anything.
He made use of artificial intelligence and Google to find him news articles at his level. He started finding articles on-line via Google that contained words he knew. He created a program so that he could click on the words he knew and didn’t know, and the program got smarter, finding him better and better materials as it learned his level. Then, as he began to learn more, and click more words that he knew, the program found articles that matched his level, even as he gained knowledge.
He learned vocabulary inductively through comprehensible input, keyed specifically to his level. I needed this desperately, so for much of this week I’ve been using the app that resulted from his experience.
Here is an example of what I’m doing in Somali.
You can see that the words I don’t know are highlighted in red. When I hover over any word, a translation comes up from Google Translate, and I can click on a link to go directly to that app on another tab. In addition, I can get a translation of the whole sentence from Google Translate when I click on the icon at the end of the sentence.
Each successive phrase, then, includes words I know, and also words that I don’t know. That way, I reinforce the words I know, and the app includes new words in the context of familiar words.
Overall, I have never imagined—let alone found—a better, inductive way to learn vocabulary. I have certainly solved a good portion of my problem.
Nevertheless, I see two disadvantages. First, this app relies heavily on Google Translate, and Google Translate is weak for Somali. This is unavoidable, as Google Translate is the best app for word- and phrase-level translation. Second, the app cannot explain grammatical (syntactic or morphological) issues. One cannot, therefore, rely on this app without using a grammar book or a teacher.
Another minor disadvantage only occurs on the free version. For the free app, one is limited to five-minute sessions, followed by five-minute (or so) breaks before going back at the exercises. The premium version does not require these breaks.
In the end, this app delivers exactly what it promises: a brilliant, ingenious method for reading native material and increasing vocabulary, without overwhelming you. It does not claim that one can learn from it exclusively. Bliu Bliu fills in many of the holes that my other materials left open, and I am grateful to Mr. Santori for his inventive solution and for making it available.