I recently received an email from a member of LingoDeer, maker of a free mobile language learning app, asking me to try their app and maybe write a review. So I thought I would try it out and write a review with my unbiased feedback about the app. (I’m using an iPhone 6 in case it matters)
The app downloaded quickly and was pretty simple to set up. I didn’t have to create an account manually which was nice.
Once I selected my language and chose my level, I was presented with a scrollable screen of “Learn” options in a set of staggered squares. (You can see this screen on the bottom left of this page here, assuming LingoDeer didn’t change their webpage by the time you read this review)
On this screen, even before I tried clicking a button my feeling was that it could use a bit of adjustment. Not only are the borders of the squares a light color that is a little hard to see, but there is a fading effect that applies to them both vertically and horizontally. This also affects usability since when I scrolled all the way up, the “Coming Soon” button still looked partially faded, so I thought there was more content above. But after my attempts to scroll further upwards failed, I just realized the UI had fooled me. Furthermore, there is no vertical scroll bar which makes it easy to get lost.
Next, I thought I would start at the beginning and clicked on the topmost “Giving & Receiving” button, but that gave me a “Please complete the previous units” error. I tried a few more buttons and they all gave this. I was nearly fed up enough to email the person who had contacted me until I found that if I scroll all the way down, there was two “Nationality” and “Alphabet” boxes which had a different color (I guess it starts from the bottom after all). Oddly, the latter one didn’t have an icon, even though the others did, apparently because it was staggered and there was not sufficient room for one.
Clicking on “Alphabet” gave a weird sound effect, like a bug being squished, and gave me a few options, some unlocked and others locked: Introduction: あ line, か line, etc. I clicked on “Introduction” and had a spinner for 3-4 seconds followed by another progress bar on another screen, and then got to page with a description about Japanese writing. (Frustratingly, the first of these two delays happens even on subsequent usages, so apparently things are not being fully cached)
The first paragraph is:
“The Japanese writing system consists of three different systems: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. For example, this simple Japanese sentence below (I buy a television) includes all of the three”
Now, keep in mind I have been doing a lot of proofreading lately, so I’m extra sensitive to nuances in English text. I noticed a few things about this:
- “this simple Japanese sentence below” would be more natural as “the simple Japanese sentence below”
- “I buy a television”, while not wrong, sounds a bit odd. Adding “will” after the “I” sounds much better.
- “all of the three” sounds unnatural to me, I think it should be “all three”.
But, to be fair, these are minor points. So let’s talk more about the content itself.
I read through some of the content, and while I had a few more minor complaints, it seemed pretty solid. There was some omissions (onomonopia was not talked about in the basic description of Katakana usages) and unprofessional text (“There are massive amounts of Kanji in the Japanese language…” [italics mine]).
But my biggest concern here was not the content itself–it was the fact that I downloaded an app and was being asked to basically read a webpage. I wonder how someone new to the language would be when given such an information dump as the very first lesson, with no animation or audio to help make things easier to learn.
Actually–take that back: I found out that if I touched some places on the screen it would read back the pronunciation. The pronunciation was fluent and sounded like a native speaker, but I wish the app would have told me about this interactivity sooner. There were some minor issues with it though:
- It’s not always obvious what is interactive and was isn’t, more consistent use of colors would help.
- The pronunciation of the word テレビ (terebi) sounded like テービ (teebi). I think this was an editing or file conversion error.
Anyway, I left this area and went to the next lesson: “あ line”.
A soon as I clicked on this I was shown the first letter of the Hiragana alphabet, あ, with animated stroke order and natural-sounding pronunciation. There was a minor graphic quirk on the third stroke where it crosses itself, but nothing that interferes with learning. One minor thing is that it showed the katakana character as well (though in a small font), even though I am supposed to be learning Hiragana. For new users this might be confusing.
After I swipe to the right I see い and then get a simple test where I have to pick the character based on an audio clip. After learning a few more characters (and another test), there was another quiz involving matching, and then on to more letters. Near the end, I was given a quiz to match Hiragana with Katakana letters, which again was a surprise since I thought was supposed to be learning Hiragana. Then another quiz matching Katakana to English letters.
After the completion of this lesson I got “+5 XP”, and then the next lesson started automatically after I picked “continue” (I was hoping to at least get a choice of what to do next).
Getting bored of the letters, I found another unlocked lesson which said “Test Out”. This was a bit confusing since there are multiple “Test Out” buttons, some locked and some unlocked. I guess things are grouped vertically by lessons, but I wish there was a better way to show that visually.
The test had sentences like “あの人は田中さんです.” which I had to translate by picking English words (like those refrigerator magnets). I think I had seen a similar quiz style in another app, but don’t remember which off-hand. Other quizzes involved hearing a sentence in Japanese and writing it in Hiragana. This was quite tedious since I am used to entering in Hiragana via a different interface, and the order they show is not like any keyboard I’ve seen before. But, to be fair, they are trying to show only letters that were learned so far, so it’s hard to avoid an interface like this. On the test screen there are some options to change the fonts and colors, which is nice.
I left the test part way through (but was told I would lose my progress, why?).
Unfortunately, because of the fact most items are locked on the main page, there was very little left for me to do. I think those who are advanced should be able to just move on without having to go through tedious tests.
I did see there were two buttons on a menu on the bottom of the screen that I hadn’t tried yet: Review and Me.
“Review” shows two options for vocabulary practice and grammar practice. The former button said “There are no words yet.” when clicked and the second also showed “There are no grammar tips yet”. I’m not sure why I saw these since I think I had gone through enough material to get at least basic vocab review. Oddly, when I came back to this page later after playing with the “Settings” page, a “Character” option also appeared. However, as you might guess, that simply says “There is no characters yet.” (This contains a English verb tense mistake (“is” should be “are”), though one that is easy to make.)
The “Me” screen had a cool graph with XP, but since I hadn’t done much yet it was mostly a flat line. There were options for “Rate LingoDeer” and “Like us on Facebook”, and while those are a bit cheezy I understand it’s hard to make a mobile app succeed. The “Settings” screen also had a few oddities: two options for Chinese characters (nothing for Japanese?) and a missing “s” on the “Sound Effect” setting.
Another thing I noticed: when I first ran the app, it asked if I wanted to enable Notifications, and I said yes. Then, a few hours after I had used the app, I got a notification from the app “It’s time to learn Chinese”. I’m assuming this was a bug since I had only ever chosen Japanese. I guess if had I mastered all of the Japanese lessons maybe recommending me to learn a new language would be cool, but I had only finished a single lesson (or two if you count the introduction).
Overall, while I think this app has potential it is plagued by a lot of little annoyances: unnatural English, awkward interface, and no easy way to skip ahead. However, I think with some refinement it can become a much better app.
But, more importantly, I think for an app to succeed in the competitive market of language learning apps it really requires something special, and I am not sure if LingoDeer has such an element–at least not yet. Besides double-checking their English, I would really focus on the UI and making an engaging experience with different “paths” the user can take depending on what they want to focus on. As a reference, think of the high-level map in games like Super Mario 3, or more recently, the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy 10.
I wish LIngoDeer the best of luck in improving their app, and I open to writing a second review if things get improved.
(Update: I got an email from LingoDeer thanking me for my honest feedback in this review. They said they will take my comments seriously and contact me again when they have made some revisions, especially regarding user friendliness)