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Vocabla is a lean, mean, English vocab machine

vocabla.001The best thing a foreign language learner can hope for is a helpful system that helps her learn. And the worst thing for a future polyglot? Too many learning systems! Vocabla could have been just another vocabulary training app – but it manages to be more than that. Read on for my quick review.

1. First impressions and patriotic overtones

I heard about Vocabla through an email and got excited immediately – look, here’s what some crafty Polish folks got up to! The system has been around for a while but I only managed to find some time to test it recently.
At first glance, the purpose of the whole set-up is to help people learn and revise English vocabulary online. There’s a web app, a browser extension and mobile apps too – I tested all three (the app was an Android smartphone version).

2. Some stuff works great…

Signing up is simple and the welcome tutorials work really well – although you may want to tweak the settings a bit to stop Vocabla from posting stuff on your Facebook wall (I did). You can immediately start adding new words to lists you want to learn. Lists are key in Vocabla – they are selections of items you’ll be learning. The web app is really well-designed, all is clear and attractively laid out (there’s a feeling that Vocabla folks took a few good looks at the Duolingo website, but hey, learn from the best).
The browser extension (I tested on Chrome) is killer. For an English learner, the Web is an endless supply of new vocabulary, and browsing can be the most learning you do on a busy day. So it makes sense to have easy access to instant translation, pronunciation and storage of new and interesting words – and Vocabla gives you just that. Double-click a word to see its translation, listen to how it’s pronounced – then add it to the list to practice it later! This is something I wish was there for other languages, and other learning apps would do well to take notice of how well it works.
The smartphone app is basic but functional – which, on Android, is sometimes a big ask. Well done for syncing the lists, dashboard and library so quickly – and for making sure the app loads and works smoothly (since when you’re on the go, this is what puts people off). The sounds will take a while to load, and adding new lists in bulk will mean that the app has some downloading to do – be patient here!

3. Some other stuff just isn’t there (which could be not so bad)

After heaping praise on Vocabla, some warnings should follow. I hesitate to use the word “criticisms” because I recognize that here is a solution which does things its way – but I still think it’s fair to write about these three reservations:

  • – This app will help you learn English. And not much else right now. If you’re keen on learning another language, this will not be of interest to you. At one point, I thought that the translation feature would let me learn other languages through English – but alas, the pronunciation works for English only. Which brings me to the second point:
  • – The app uses translation as its main learning / teaching technique. Again, nothing inherently wrong about that – it’s how Duolingo or Memrise tend to work most of the time. If you want fast and efficient learning, translation will do the trick for you – but if you always need more context than just the translation, maybe you’ll have to supplement this a lot. Speaking of which…
  • – The context for the items learned is far from rich. Memorising translation pairs is tricky at best – it’s hard to pick the right equivalent with words having multiple meanings, and even harder to deal with idioms and set phrases. This could be my only real criticism: Web gives you a lot more context than just the word, sound and translation. And it would be a shame to lose that – even if it makes everyone’s lives easier. Learning always takes place in context, and Vocabla could be more supportive of that.

4. Verdict: Vocabla delivers by doing just one thing (very well)

Vocabla helps you find and learn English vocabulary by providing translation-based flashcard lists all over the Web. That’s what it does, folks. That’s all it does. And in an environment filled with apps that grow to gargantuan sizes, trying to be all things to all people – this is probably a smart strategy.
My complaints about the way Vocabla approaches learning, memory and vocabulary – and my calls for more engaging, multi-sensory learning – all come from a privileged place. I’ve learned a bit of English – I don’t need to make sense of the web any more.
But for people who do, the chance is there. This app could fit your busy browsing, learning and commuting routine snugly as a glove. Give it a go. And if you’ve got any ideas about improving it – get in touch with the folks who did it – they’ll love it if you do.

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