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  • An early review of Bliu

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    Screen Shot 2013 07 19 at 8 52 30 AMI get a lot of emails about new language websites. Often, they’re some kind of new picture dictionary or online textbook. These can be good or bad, but they rarely fill me with wonder and joy.

    But every once in a while, I hear about an idea for a website that is just marvelous, and if I’m really lucky, it’s even implemented well. Bliu Bliu is one of those websites.

    What is Bliu Bliu?

    Here’s the premise:

    You choose your native/target languages, and Bliu Bliu starts showing you sample texts in your target language, like this:Screen Shot 2013 07 19 at 9 06 42 AM

    It makes a few random guesses about the words you know and the ones you don’t. In this case, it’s assuming that I don’t know all of the red, underlined words. Click on a word to switch it between unknown (underlined) and known (here, I know “produzione” “del” and “Centro”):

    Screen Shot 2013 07 19 at 9 05 41 AM

    Then you move on to the next text and do the same.

    Here’s where the magic happens. Bliu Bliu keeps track of all of the words you know, and tries to feed you articles that use those words. The more input it gets, the better it gets at guessing which new words you probably know. In this case, since I’ve told it I know “rapida” (rapid, feminine), it will assume I probably know “rapido” (rapid, masculine). As a result, you get an endless stream of text in your target language, customized to your skill level and vocabulary. The input is sourced from websites, meaning that you’re looking at real texts about real things, instead of (occasionally unnatural) sentences designed for foreign language learners. You even get current events; today I read an excerpt from a Hungarian article about the NSA’s PRISM program.

    They do a good job of gamifying the process, by giving you goals and achievements (I read 1000 words in Hungarian today!), and it’s just a lot of fun.

    Bliu Bliu’s features, modes, etc.

    Bliu Bliu has two basic modes: “Relax” and “Learn.”

    Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10.47.14 AMIn relax mode, it will show you a paragraph at a time. It’ll guess what words you know, you make a few corrections (yes, I know “produzione,” no, I’m actually not sure what “Confindustria” is), and click the Next Text button to move to the next paragraph, usually sourced from the same website or article. I went through around 10 paragraphs in Hungarian about the history of NASA’s space probes. It was pretty neat. There are no translations visible (this is a good thing; if you saw translations everywhere, you’d rely upon them to understand your texts and you wouldn’t retain as much vocabulary), and if you need help with a word or two, you can move your mouse on top of the word and it’ll give you a machine translation. (Hint: If you do that, don’t tell Bliu Bliu that you know that word. Only do that when you understand a word without the help of a translation.)

    In learn mode, Bliu Bliu will give you a target word (say, “dogana”) and ask “Can you guess out what “dogana” means from this phrase?” Then it will give you paragraphs and paragraphs that include the target word, and it won’t let you see the translation of that word when you put your mouse over it. While you’re busy scratching your head, trying to figure out this new word, you’re learning all sorts of related vocabulary. It makes for a very fun (and very productive game). Neat.

    Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10.48.13 AM

    Videos: Some languages (definitely not Hungarian, not much surprise there) offer captioned videos in addition to texts. I was mostly playing around with Italian and German. Bliu Bliu’s creator, Claudio Santori, created a bunch of very (very!) simple, hilarious Italian videos, and the German section seemed to rely heavily on music videos (I suspect because it’s easy to find the lyrics to music videos). Overall, I was happy with the video content.

    There are a few more features of note. They’re good ideas, but they’re not well implemented just yet (Bliu Bliu is still in beta). I’ve read that they’re planning a huge site overhaul in the near future, so stay tuned:

    Recordings: In both modes, there are options to make/play back recordings of the texts. There’s no centralized “Help make recordings to help other students!” area on the website, and generally, the only people who see the “Make a recording” button are non-native students. This is mostly a design issue; they’re gong to need to stick English phrases to record in front of the English speakers and Italian phrases in front of the Italian speakers if they really want good, crowd-sourced recordings to show up on the site.

    Help a Friend: There is a very difficult-to-find section on the site where you can help people learn words by explaining them in your native language. For instance, someone didn’t know the word “strawberry,” and a few people submitted answers like “A strawberry is a small red fruit covered with tiny seeds” or “Strawberry is a fruit. I eat a strawberry every day.” This is neat; the problem is gaining access to these definitions when you’re learning a language. It’s not clear to me where I can find help for my word-related questions. It’d be nice if you could easily browse user-submitted explanations for words in your target language.

    Tips: The first time you go on the site, it will show you exactly how to use it with a detailed tutorial. The problem is that you have to go through this tutorial every time you add another language. It’s only annoying when you’re playing around with multiple languages, and I hear that it’ll go away in the next site update.

    Suggestions for the future

    If I could make any changes to the site, here’s what I’d do (I’ve sent these to them, so maybe some of them will happen):

    Make it easier to help others and be helped: It should be really easy for me to record sentences in English, and it probably shouldn’t be possible for me to record sentences in Hungarian. Right now, it’s reversed; I can easily record in Hungarian and I’m not even sure how to record in English.

    It should be a little easier to find words to explain in English. It’s not that bad at the moment, but it wouldn’t be bad if there was a little box on the right side saying “someone needs help with the word ‘inconvenient.’ Can you write a quick sentence that uses that word?” It’d encourage more crowd-sourced content. But much more importantly, I should be able to browse these explanations in any language. This is ideal content we’re talking about here; where someone is deliberately trying to explain a tricky word in as simple terms as possible, all in the target language. And I can’t find any of it in my target languages, which is a huge waste.

    The last thing I’ll add on this front is that I suspect all of this crowdsourced help can be gamified, to make it more fun and encourage more community interaction. Lang-8 just did it with their new L-Points system, and Bliu Bliu could do it with something similar. Say, if you make recordings or write explanations, then you’ll be able to request recordings and explanations. Something like that.

    Add a full-phrase/paragraph translation option: Above I said that one of the assets of the site is its lack of translations, and now I’m asking for translations. Yeah, well, sorry. If I have no idea what’s going on in a paragraph, and if the individual word translations don’t help (and they often don’t, since it’s just translating one word out of context), it’d be nice to have some way of seeing the whole paragraph translated via Google translate, so that I can figure out what’s going on, whether I’m looking at some sorts of idioms, etc. It shouldn’t be VISIBLE, but it should be available. Just a button somewhere that says “show full translation” would do the trick.

    Add a way to change sources/skip texts in Relax Mode: Relax mode tends to stick to a single website for 5-20 paragraphs. This is very satisfying when you’re reading an interesting article. I liked it very much when reading about space probes. But then I got stuck on a news website, and instead of reading about a topic, I was reading headlines and a list of the names of journalists involved in each article. Not great content. This is inevitable when you’re relying on an algorithm to find text instead of a person, but there should be some way for me to avoid 20 pages worth of bad content. Just a “Skip this source/Move on to the next website” button would be enough.

    How does Bliu Bliu fit into a language learning plan?

    I advocate for Anki a lot on this site; it’s pretty central to what I do. But Anki is not the only way to learn vocabulary. At some point, when you hit an intermediate level, you need to be exposed to a lot of words in a lot of contexts, so you can see how those words really work. Reading is the simplest way to do this and to expand your passive vocabulary. It’s actually how you learned the vast majority of your English words; when’s the last time you said the word “majority” or “vast” out loud?

    Bliu Bliu is a really fun way to get 10-20 minutes of reading into your day. Since you’re constantly increasing your “Number of words I’ve read” and “Number of words I’ve learned” scores, you constantly feel like you’re accomplishing something, which does wonders for helping you build and stick to a reading habit. It also doesn’t hurt that the texts are sourced from current websites, so that they’re often very topical (NSA’s PRISM program, etc).

    I’m looking forward to see how Bliu Bliu will develop in the future, as its user base and features continue to expand. Head over there and have fun.

    14 thoughts on “An early review of Bliu

    1. Pablo

      Awesome website. I’m glad to see new resources for people looking for a more efficient way of obtaining comprehensible native materials. Thanks for sharing!
      It’s also nice to see that they added an option to completely disable translations.
      I still haven’t had time to play with it a lot but it looks promising. It seems to be making guesses about what words you know even for words that haven’t appeared in the text yet.
      I found a problem when using it for Japanese. The word detection doesn’t seem to work very well (it is a quite hard task in Japanese) and that could affect the accuracy of the website when trying to show you optimal texts. Hopefully the proportion of mistaken words will be small enough. Luckily, even if the amount of mistaken word is considerable the mistaken word most of the time won’t match a real word and interference should be minimal.

      1. Claudio

        For Japanese we use a parser that seems to be accurate 95% of the time. We are working on refining it and in time it will be 99.9 accurate, for now it’s better than nothing :)

    2. Pingback: 10000 Bliusers | Bliu Bliu

    3. Kyub

      I think there is already a site similar to this but with a lot of the things you said were lacking in this site. Have you heard of “Learning with Texts”? You should check it out. I believe that Benny irish polygot guy did a video on it

      1. Gabriel Wyner

        I tried out Learning With Texts a while back, and I kind of got stuck on the translation focus. It seemed to want me to put in a translation note for every word I learned, and that kept taking me out of my target language. It also didn’t seem to do any predictions about what I might know, so I’d have to tell it manually that I knew ‘jump’ ‘jumped’ ‘jumping,’ etc. That being said, LWT seems a lot more customizable than BliuBliu (you can use whatever texts you want), and that’s pretty neat.

        1. Claudio

          Also on Bliu Bliu you can use any text you want. The problem is that the feature is hidden in the system :)

          We have an API (will be public today) for users to upload any content they want into the system, even big amount of texts at the same time.

    4. John

      I just spent an hour or so on this with Korean, and got up to about 1000 words seen / 100 words recognized. It has some issues with word parsing, and it would be great if it split up (subject/object) markers from the end of nouns or recognized them as the same word. I am a fairly beginner student, studying for about a year, and it is frustrating that most sentences Bliu Bliu gives me I only recognize 1 or 2 words, and mostly proper nouns at that. It might be helpful if the site let the user import a vocabulary list of already known words to start off with.

      1. Claudio

        How would you like to import the vocabulary list? With a simple copy and paste or did you have anything else in mind?

    5. Michiel De Wit


      My name is Michiel De Wit and I am about to learn Spanish.
      My mother language is Dutch. However, I can speak English as a second language very fluently. (Almost perfect.)

      Should I learn IPA for Dutch first or for English?

      Thanks, Michiel De Wit

    6. Kieran Maynard

      Thank you for sharing this.

      Bliu Bliu looks really promising. I like how it will find videos with subtitles automatically. Will it always be free?


      1. Gabriel Wyner

        Hi Mike!

        Indeed it is (and that’s the new, final title). Life has been fairly complicated lately, but I’m slowly starting to return to work. I’m in the middle of a big site redesign, launching a Kickstarter campaign and developing a bunch of language learning tools. All of that should start appearing in a couple of weeks or so, depending upon how quickly my Kickstarter is approved.


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