Introducing Judith Meyer’s LearnYu system

In today’s guest post Judith Meyer, a well known member of the polyglot community, introduces her new system LearnYu. Enjoy!

By the time I was 18, I was already conversational in 8 human languagesĀ and 5 computer ones. I loved learning languages and I loved programming. I was despairing over having to choose between them for my profession, but then my history teacher told me about the wondrous new study field called Computational Linguistics, which is the science that teaches computers how to manipulate language – essential for applications like machine translators, text-to-speech apps for blind people, dictation software, spellcheckers and much more.

So I studied Computational Linguistics. During and after my studies I worked as a language teacher, a language course designer (for GermanPod101, GreekPod101, Myngle.com and other sites), a web developer and a computational linguist, always looking to combine my passion for languages with my passion for programming. I got quite good at designing language courses as well, something for which there is no formal training. At one point, I was even hired to train teachers in the art of lesson writing.

I guess it was no surprise that when I saw Khan Academy and Duolingo, I was fascinated by the implications of using machine intelligence to create language courses custom-tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. I wrote to Duolingo offering to drop all projects and work for them, but couldn’t get a foot in. Now Duolingo is not perfect – I studied several languages to completion on their system and noticed a lot of issues, for example the machine voices that are quite awful for some languages, the lack of basic conversational content like “Where are you from? – I am from Germany”, the complete lack of questions outside the one lesson they dedicate to questions, the ridiculously useless phrases (“The duck eats a strawberry”).

So I decided to built a better system and using a language Duolingo isn’t going to offer for a while: Chinese, which also happens to be my favourite language. I call my site LearnYu. Here’s a graph showing you what LearnYu does better than other kinds of courses.

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I started to develop LearnYu in summer 2013, so about a year ago, and I have been spending most of my time on it since then, except for when I was organizing the Polyglot Gathering (www.polyglotberlin.com/2014), which gobbled up more of my days than I had expected.

I did a lot of the LearnYu development myself and used my own funds to hire Chinese native speakers to develop content and make audio recordings, to get a good design for the site, to have the server set up and all that. All in all, there are four people regularly involved in the project right now. It’s in beta and access is by invite only – considering that there are currently probably a million people waiting to study Chinese through Duolingo, we’re afraid of our server getting overloaded if a significant share of them decided to test our system all at once, so we’re using a waiting list [www.learnyu.com] to gradually scale up the project.

We also still have to fix some bugs and add more content before the site is ready for the big launch. At the moment, we’re running a crowdfunding campaign in which you can get language-learning materials, lifetime premium access to LearnYu, language coaching and similar rewards in exchange for supporting our project. Check it out at http://igg.me/at/chinese

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