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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The list of synonyms for refer contained the phrase “have-to doe with” (original spelling).
- 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:
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.