Lexicum is an app designed to help “the 1.5 billion learners around the world with mastering foreign language vocabulary”. It sets itself apart from repeating a word (“boring and ineffective”), personal vocabulary books (restrictive in terms of the order in which the words can be reviewed) and other flashcard apps (they don’t help you learn how to use words in a sentence) and says that lexicum offers a new way.
The app allows learners to search for words, either in their own language or the one they are learning, and then decide whether they want to save them. The search results show a list of possible definitions of the word, and in some cases an audio play button. Learns are able to edit the translations and save their edits. When you have saved enough words you are able to take a quiz. Here you are shown a flash card and asked how well you know the word (easy, fair, hard, didn’t know). Clicking on the flashcard reveals the list of all the possible definitions of the word, as seen when looking it up. Once you’ve been through all the words in your list you get a doughnut graph showing you the breakdown of how well you said you knew the words. You get points for adding words, and points for doing quizzes.
The press release states that you are able to add words to custom lists and as a teacher you are able to create lists and send them to your learners but these features, along with the social share functions are not ready in the app or web version I am using today.
Lexicum is free and available on web and as an iOS app.
The app looks quite nice and I can only assume that the spaced repetition algorithm works well. The idea of being able to look up words in either your own language or the language you are learning is good. If you got into the habit of doing this all the time through the app and saving the words of interest you would be able to build up a good bank of vocabulary that was useful to you. The fact that the app supports 18 languages is impressive (although trying Arabic wasn’t a success at this stage). It’s also good that definitions and translations can be edited, and therefore personalised in some way, but maybe hard for a learner to know what to do in this situation.
The app is free.
A disclaimer on the site mentions that this is a beta version, so we should expect some issues and get in touch if you see anything wrong. For the purposes of this review, I’ll not mention things which appear to be bugs and focus on analysis of features.
To say that they are aiming to help learners ‘master’ foreign vocabulary (whatever that may mean) is completely incongruous with the features of the application. The only information the app tells us about a word is a list of the possible translations. There are no example sentences, no information about part of speech, nothing at all about context or collocation. Learners only engage with words they themselves look up, and even in terms of the spaced repetition algorithms, learners are able to passively click through words, only interacting by saying how well they know them (rather than demonstrating how well they know them).
The user interface looks slick but the usability is confusing (unless this is just bugs). You can’t change between languages so have to set up a new account with a different email to use the app to learn more than one language. There was no onboarding process and the help section just lists a load of keyboard shortcuts. The profile section ‘Your progress in words’ tells me how many words I just added, how many I’m learning and how many I’ve learned, complete with coloured progress bars for each. But there is no information about what I need to have done to ‘learn’ a word, or what it means to be learning them. I can edit meanings, but I wasn’t sure if that was just to personalise, or if I thought the definition was wrong. No information told me how to use the product or what to expect from it.
The benefits of the product are were not immediately clear and upon closer inspection it seemed that necessary features for language learning were lacking from the product.
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At first I thought that I shouldn’t write the review if I was to rate it so poorly. But then I looked at the press release, read the blog posts about the three months that Lexicum spent in one of the biggest EdTech incubator schemes (Emerge Education – backed by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Eton College) and looked at the profile of the team (tech, product and design; nobody with an education background listed there). I looked at all this info and thought that maybe these things need to be called out.
How is it possible that after three months in a EdTech accelerator, not more ed has filtered through to the product? How can such bold claims be made in the press release and the ‘about us’ section when they are not backed up at all by the features of the product? It seems to me that the incubator should take some responsibility here; did they encourage the companies to be able exaggerate and bluff rather than work to create something with real value? Did it not encourage teams to look at competitors and make sure that they differentiate themselves in some way?
Yes, there are some good things here, there’s potential and it’s still early days. But I’m pretty sure that anyone with a background in language acquisition would not feel this is likely to help them quickly achieve any kind of mastery. I wonder if they didn’t ask anyone with a background in languages for their input. Or maybe they went to other EdTech companies for advice, companies that also don’t really seem to have a clue (It’s interesting to see from their recent blog post how fantastic and efficient the Lexicum team feel that Duolingo is an a learning tool).
There is no input, no output, no chunking of lexis, no real depth to the subject matter and no real focus on any aspects of the words themselves. There is no need for the users to engage with words unless they want to and there is no testing or assessment of retention and acquisition. I feel it’s very disappointing when a product like this, that obviously has had a lot of time spent on certain aspects of it, and has three passionate and dedicated team members, is not able, even with the help of an educational incubator, to make a product with some real educational value.
My hope is that companies moving into EdTech, really look properly at the ed side, and that incubators of these companies not only encourage but practically force these companies to do so, especially before making such grand claims about the product value. It seems crazy that that isn’t standard practice, but this app appears to suggest that it isn’t.
I contacted the developers of the app before posting and they say that they are already addressing many of the issues raised in this review, and would like to point out that their Product manager has a PhD in technology assisted education.