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Santa Barbara, Ca

I'm a full-time rambler and contract designer with as many skill sets in my quiver as there are plane tickets in my passbook. I've worked in ornamental iron, jigsaw puzzle design, bookmaking, glass engraving, and a variety of other mediums. I'm currently living out of a backpack as I trek my way around the world.

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Great Foreign Language iPhone Apps

Zak Erving

Language apps are actually what tipped me towards purchasing my first smartphone

Language apps are actually what tipped me towards purchasing my first smartphone

“¿Por qué llevas coches en vez de zapatos?" (Why are you wearing cars instead of shoes?) I jokingly asked 4-year-old Christian in my Guatemalan homestay’s courtyard. His favorite movie was Pixar’s Cars, and he was wearing matching slippers to show his love for it. He gave me a look of consternation that only little boys can do, like when you step on their action figures or can’t remember the words to their favorite song.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out that los coches isn’t the ubiquitous term for cars in Spanish. In Magdalena Milpas Altas, it means pigs. Little Christian heard me call Lightning McQueen a pig, and he wasn’t too wild about the idea.

Still, though, I was thrilled that my Spanish vocabulary (and ability to communicate) was the highest it had been since high school, and though I spoke in sharp staccato and often in the infinitive, I was having a great time.

Whenever I’m gearing up for a trip like this, I always try to get familiar with the local language, and as such I make extensive use of these two iPhone foreign language apps:

If I’ve previously studied the language and need a vocabulary resuscitation, I drill every day with Memorize Words by Componica.

If I’ve never studied the language before and need to learn some basic phrases (“One more beer, please!”), Transparent Language’s Byki Mobile is my go-to.

The two are somewhat similar in that they both utilize a spaced-repetition algorithm for flashcard study, which abides by the “forgetting curve” rule that has plagued all of us since we first heard the words “pop quiz” in elementary school. Instead of drilling the same cards over and over, these programs use performance statistics to determine which flashcards need more attention.

But each program has its own unique features that allow them to stand head-and-shoulders above other language solutions. Read below to find out more:

Memorize Words by Componica, LLC ($4.99-6.99 in iTunes App Store) Available languages: Spanish, French, Russian (German coming soon)

Lessons in the Memorize Words environment are two-fold: first, there’s a learning phase, in which a set number of new flashcards (refreshed daily) are shown to the user. After this comes the review phase, where cards that have already passed through earlier learning phases are examined, giving users a chance to grade themselves on their retention over a long period of time. The grade users give themselves are recorded by Memorize Words and determine how frequently a word will reappear during subsequent review phases.

In addition, there’s an in-app dictionary and a handful of games to keep learning fresh and varied.

Each version of the Memorize Words program has thousands of flashcards available—and they’re all downloaded at once, so there’s no need to download additional lists. It’s a fluid, lightweight language program—even on my older iPhone 3GS.

Why I like Memorize Words: By adjusting my settings, I know that whenever I log in to Memorize Words, I’m going to learn [X] words and review [Y] words. A prompt at the beginning of each lesson reminds me of my progress, and even in as little as one month’s time my vocabulary in my target language has increased by 600 words—and most experts agree that only 2,000 words are needed to effectively communicate in most languages. Moreover, the macro-focus of the spaced-repetition feature means that I constantly have to stay sharp throughout my learning experience. Only until I’ve reached 90% retention for a word will it be removed from the drilling sequence.

Byki Mobile by Transparent Language ($7.99 in iTunes App Store) Available languages: currently over 30 available

Lists in the Byki Mobile environment are organized by category, allowing the user to zero in on lessons like “colors” or “at the airport” for scenario-specific learning. Like Memorize Words, each unit begins with a learningblock, which then transitions into three subsequent blocks: foreign language to English, English to foreign language, and foreign language quiz. And as an additional aid to visual learners, each flashcard has its own picture.

The spaced-repetition method is isolated to the current list, so users won’t be asked for the German word for “supermarket” when they’re studying the “articles of clothing” list. It’s a sure-fire way to keep related phrases associated with each other, increasing the likelihood of recall in a real-life scenario.

In addition to the native-speaker recording, Byki also includes a feature that allows users to slow down or speed up the audio playback—a really handy feature, as many languages have more tonal or gutteral pronunciations than the English language.

Each version of Byki Mobile comes standard with a few dozen lists, but more are available from Byki and can be downloaded in-app for free. On top of all this, users who register with Byki can also download user-generated lists or create their own to share.

 Why I like Byki Mobile:The first priority of Byki Mobile is immediate utility: instead of trying to string words together (with no regard to grammar), users are able to rapidly master common phrases that will make their foreign experience exponentially easier. Its loose unit structure also allows exposure to multiple lists within the same day, putting no cap on learning in a specified interval. The social integration is extremely helpful as well, as user-submitted lists can offer additional insight to a language that might not be included in Byki’s regimen.

Don’t forget to enter the Giveaway from April 2-6 that features five Memorize Words prizes!

How do you best learn languages? Do you have any experience with these apps?