The folks over at Polish startup LangApp have come up with something rather special; a heady mix of vocabulary tutor, social network and shareable media library. It’s a potent brew. Vocabla is a powerful demonstration of how addictive language learning can be whilst also being both effective and entirely free. Its premise is a simple one; learners use the platform to learn vocabulary through translation from/into their L1 and in doing so are able to build their own wordlists, take tests and compete with other learners using Vocabla. Currently, Vocabla supports Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and Polish translations and says it is continually evolving to include more.

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The ‘chalk face’ of the platform is the vocab checker. The learner is presented with a word in English (along with an audio file for pronunciation) and they are given a simple choice: Do you feel that you know this word, or do you wan to add it to the list of words to practice? Once they have built up a sizeable list of words to practice they can begin a set of activities to help them familiarise themselves with and memorise the new items. The activities available to the learner to help them with this task are simple but effective. There are simple flashcards showing the new vocab in L1 and revealing it in English on the reverse so that the learner can test themselves, a multiple choice activity using the L1 translations and a text entry task in which learner writes the English translation of the word themselves.

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What do you get for your hard work? Points, progress and the satisfaction of learning more words than another learner on the Vocabla platform. The learner’s experience is punctuated with progress bars, stars and point systems, reinforcing at each stage the ability of the learner to demonstrate some quantifiable improvement. In their dashboard, for example, a learner is given an itemised breakdown of their performance as well as chance compare their progress with that of other learners. They are even able to follow other learners to keep updated on their performance and word acquisition.

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Vocabla is making thorough use of the dialogue of gamification; instant feedback, point systems and progress updates, levelling up and competition through an open peer network. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the combination of fun and effectiveness; learners are able to watch their vocabulary count grow dramatically into the hundreds, then thousands of items. Another interesting aspect of the platform is the ability for learners to create and share their own wordlists. In the same way that Spotify users can share music playlists based on a genre or artist, so too can Vocabla learners create topic-/category-based wordlists. There are dozens to choose from and all are neatly categorised and searchable my level. Learner-made wordlists range from Lady Gaga lyrics to vocab items taken from the Harry Potter novels. This is a fascinating aspect of the platform; learners being able to work on areas of vocab that actually mean something to them rather than only on what the Cambridge Corpus or ‘leading experts’ decide is important English. I would love to see, over time, how the platform develops its own corpus of  ‘most translated’ words and how that list differs from traditional ELT assumptions.

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The Vocabla team have worked extra hard to put this into the hands of leaners as and when they need to access translations and build their lists. It is available for iOS, iPad and Android devices, as well as a plugin that integrates into a web browser. Using the plugin, a learner can click on words as they read them in online articles or other content to get the translation and continue to test and build their vocabulary while they casually surf the web.

Vocabla’s combination of the social and personal (through interest-led wordlists) appears to be a great strategy. Putting vocab learning into the hands of the leaners is a bold (and necessary) move away from the spoon feeding of existing language learning practices.

Now… what would a Vocabla course look like, I wonder?

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