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1-minute review: Extreme English

October 30th, 2010 · 21 Comments · Uncategorized

My friend Michał recently asked me for an opinion on Extreme English, the flagship English-learning course at SuperMemo.net. He has moved to England and is eager to improve his English.

Michał is a smart guy. He realizes that just living in England will not make him a good English speaker. As a case in point, the Polish family he is currently staying with has lived in England for five years and speaks hardly any English. They watch Polish channels on TV, they talk mostly to each other and to other Poles, and they do jobs that require little communication skills, so they don’t get enough input to make progress.

So he is simply continuing the English-learning strategy that he used in Poland. He listens to English radio, watches English TV, reads English newspapers, and develops his own SuperMemo collection. The only difference is that now his future depends on how well he can learn English. This leads to more intensity (he’s now learning for several hours a day), but also a lot of pressure.

For this reason, Michał began looking for some shortcuts to accelerate his progress. A while ago, he and I had a conversation about language learning methods. I pointed out that while making your own SuperMemo/Anki collection produces the best quality of knowledge and the strongest memories, it is also time-consuming. In the time it takes to design one item, you can probably memorize 5 items in a ready-made collection. So even if your own items are better, the question is: are they 5 times better? The answer is far from obvious.

This reasoning made Michał consider using SuperMemo’s Extreme English, which contains over 20,000 vocabulary items across all difficulty levels. Which brings us back to his question for me: is Extreme English any good? “I don’t really have an opinion”, I said. “Let me take a look.”

My look at Extreme English

I was quite surprised at how easy it was to find mistakes in Extreme English. I spent about 10 minutes browsing randomly picked items in the Intermediate collection. Out of the ~40 items that I looked at, 4 had obvious mistakes:

  1. The example sentence for fear said: “She shaked with fear when she heard someone in the dark”. Of course, the correct past form of shake is shook.
  2. The definition of said (adjective) was “such that has been mentioned before”. Such that + verb is not a correct English structure. The only places you’ll ever see it are SuperMemo collections: Advanced English and Extreme English.
  3. The list of synonyms for refer contained the phrase “have-to doe with” (original spelling).
  4. In the item for the word religion, the question field contained a list of synonyms that included religious belief. What’s the point of asking if you’re going to give away the answer?

I can understand that any large product has to have some mistakes, but 4 out of 40? That’s a terrible error rate. How do you learn from an English-learning collection when you’re not even sure that the examples and definitions are written in correct English?

Apart from these glaring mistakes, Extreme English has other systematic shortcomings. First, there are no phonetic transcriptions (only recordings), which means you have to have your speakers on all the time, which is not always desirable. Listening to a recording also takes longer than reading a transcription and can lead to confusion when the recording is unclear.

Second, all the items are definition-word items and have all the typical problems of definition-word items:

  • Definitions can be unclear, which means you can know the word technique very well and still draw a blank when you see the definition (“practical skills that are needed to do a sport, play music or perform some other activity”).
  • One definition often matches a few different words, but only one word is accepted as the correct answer. For example, “make smaller in size” can refer to shrink, contract, compact, diminish, condense, etc. How are you supposed to know which one is the “right answer”? SuperMemo tried to reduce this problem by adding example sentences with gaps (which reduce the number of synonyms that fit) and long lists of synonyms to the question field. If you see a word in the synonym list, you know it is not the right answer. Apart from the fact that it is quite tedious to go over the list at every review (sometimes there are 10 or more synonyms), it does not always help. Take a look at this item:Screenshot of this item
    Here, I would be likely to answer “part”. It matches the definition and the example, and it is not listed as a synonym.  That would not be the “correct” answer, however, and I would have to give myself an “I don’t know” grade!

Michał was willing to overlook the absence of phonetic transcriptions and the difficulty of reviewing definition-word items. What discouraged him from signing up for Extreme English were the mistakes. He decided that he cannot afford to learn from a product that contains so much bad English.

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21 Comments so far ↓

  • Waldemar

    Thanks for these thoughts.
    It’s a little shocking that this product has so many mistakes. I will not buy it.

  • Slava

    Hi Tom, Merriam-Webster says that “shaked” is a dialect so maybe it is not that wrong, I use Advanced English but everytime I check it with a dictionary and add example sentences, my opinion is that Advanced English(Extreme English) is as good as a ready-made collection of more frequent words and using it you needn’t pick up new words from books but you have to keep a dictionary handy.

    • Tom

      “He don’t like me” and “He be working” are also correct in some dialects… so maybe we shouldn’t correct English learners when they talk like that? :)

  • Bob

    @Tom
    I’m a native English speaker and I would have said “part” too. In fact, I find it fits better than “ingredient”.

    @Slava
    Well, it may be possible that “shaked” exists somewhere as the past tense of “shake”, but why include a non-standard-only-used-by-fifty-people word in a language tool for foreigners? lol

    • Slava

      @Bob, I agree with you, but a dictionary says it is not a mistake:), Actually the Advance English/ Extreme English contains tons of words, that even native speakers may be not familiar with, for instance, I came across the words such as will-o-the-wisp, and gossamer, or something like ‘bullshine’ or ‘brown noser’.

  • Lipa

    The preposition is the clue or the problem here.
    It makes sense to say:
    ..an essential component in…
    ..an essential factor in…
    even
    ..an essential element in …
    Only “ingredient” needs the preposition “of.”

    • Tom

      Results from the American Corpus for “an essential * of”:

      - AN ESSENTIAL PART OF 485
      - AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF 141
      - AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF 91
      - AN ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT OF 29

      As you see, “part” is the most natural (=most commonly used) noun in this structure, followed by “component” and “element”.

  • Asad

    BTW, Extreme English and SM 2006 are free to download!
    Try it for some time, don’t like it, discard it. It’s a win-win situation for you guys!

  • m5000

    About “such that…” – it’s used in thousands of SM items, especially in the definitions of adjectives. It’s true that it’s a construction that doesn’t seem to be used anywhere now. But I’ve always had the impression that it’s archaic and that it was used in the past (19th c. ?). Are you sure it wasn’t used in e.g. 19th c. English dictionaries?

    • Tom

      I don’t know. Would it make much difference if it had been used 100 years ago? As of 2010, it just sounds wrong. I think the most likely explanation is that Piotr Wozniak made a grammar mistake when making his collection some 15-20 years ago (even careful learners make mistakes) and then reinforced that mistake by countless repetitions.

      • marjur

        If it were archaic, it’d be worth remembering it because you could come across it in the literature. It’s hard to believe it’s just a mistake. Don’t they use linguists or English language teachers to assess the quality of the database material?!

      • michau

        What you say suggests that both making databases yourself and buying them is a bad idea. Even careful learners make mistakes, and a spaced repetition will reinforce all the mistakes you’ve made while making the database. And the databases available for purchase are crap.

        Given quality of the databases and the fact that Anki has incremental reading plugin available, there is no single reason to use Supermemo anymore.

  • marjur

    The biggest problem I have with Advanced English (it’s a version of Extreme English for SM 2006/2008) is that I have to consult dictionaries almost all the time when I’m learning, because I’m never certain whether the definitions or synonyms are actually correctly defined. Oh God, it’s so tedious… You can sometimes find quite a number of mistakes or glitches…

  • Danilo

    In my humble opinion “Extreme English ” is not bad at all. If you already have advanced knowledge of English language you can easily spot mistakes . You are just being harsh ,because you think that ONLY your method is god given and only YOU know how to learn a language effectively.

  • Jake

    I think Extreme English is perfect when you use it in a special way :)
    I learn from it a lot because I don’t want to think of an English word e.g. szynka (answer field: ham)…I hit enter when is a qestion then I saw ham and e.g. one example sentence. Then read a sentence and try to figure out what does it mean and especially a word “ham”. After that I check my answer just by moving cursor on word ham and then I know it’s mean “szynka”. This method works for me and It’s just your method Tom called “SENTENCE ITEMS”. Of course maybe definitions are not clear enough but I installed a plugin for SuperMemo UX and paste definitions from Longman Dictionary and IPA as well. I am sorry for my English…There’s for sure a lot of mistakes but I try to improve :)

  • Jake

    So of course I use SuperMemo Extreme English 2010 not in a way of definition items but sentence itmes. It’s great because you got a lot of input (for more andvance words I recommend paste Longman examples) and you just try to understand a sentence (especially word in answer field). Then you just check you answer to look on question field or move cursor to english word. You save a lot of time so you may consume your time for reading a book or something else.
    This time I try to simplify my post…Regards

  • The SuperMemo World Team

    The quality of our publications is our priority. We do realise, however, that in such fresh material there still are mistakes to be found, in spite of all the proofreading, including corrections by British native speakers. Bearing it all in mind, we constantly analyse and develop our Extreme English courses. A unique advantage of Extreme English is the fact that all corrections are made available to our users for free and without interfering with their learning process. Moreover, we strongly encourage our users to share their comments with us; the remarks are instantly investigated and, if justified, introduced in further updates of the course.
    An Extreme English update was made available to our offline users in early December. Today we have published the same update for our online users. We have eliminated most mistakes mentioned in the text above that we agreed with, including changes in the lists of synonyms, among others.
    Best regards,
    The SuperMemo World Team

  • Luke

    I have downloaded those upadets and they work fine with me. I am a little pissed off, coz, you guys should have done sth about American version. It is quite ok, but I have to use two additional dictionaries to add some sentences or proper translation. It is quite cool that those updates except for Basic English are absolutely free :) Keep up the good work, and as the saying goes better late than never :) Finally I can start using my UX collection of programs :)

  • Johnny Baloney

    Most if not all of the textbooks I buy contain errors. Would you recommend me to stop buying them then? Yes, there are (sometimes) alternative titles but guess what, they also contain mistakes. And if you haven’t noticed tv, radio, newspapers and most notoriously the Internet also serve you with errors – I think you should ban them all for Michał then (if you have such powers).

    Just as there are new editions of books (or at least lists of errata released for them) so are new updates for computer programs. So if you spot an error then report it, the more mistakes are reported by readers/users the more will hopefully be corrected. This is how it works in the world of books and I suppose that people are reasonably happy with this solution.

    I’d suggest Michał to think his decision over, try if SuperMemo works for him and base his verdict on that. As you have noticed building your own lists is time consuming (I know, I was there myself) whereas here you have a ready made package which is imho good value for money. An odd error here and there is not going to kill him and at least he will have a chance to detect difference in usage by other people once he knows the word/expression (this is how it works for me, I learn a new word and then suddenly I see/hear that word all over the place, while before I would have never noticed it).

    p.s. Phonetic transcriptions? C’mon, be real, who knows how to read those funny characters? Not me that’s for sure ;) But having said that it wouldn’t obviously harm if they were included in SuperMemo.

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