“I’m constipated.”

When I started using Glossika, 我便秘 was the very first sentence it gave me to learn. That was encouraging, since I’m all about language learning that “keeps it real.”

Back when I was a complete beginner, I felt like I was making rapid strides in fluency. Somewhere along the Intermediate stage, I felt like my fluency progress had seriously slowed. Now that I’m Advanced, increasing my fluency seems slower than a snail crawl. No doubt a big reason is that I now live in America, but I noticed the slowdown years before I left China.

I think a big reason for the slowdown is that in most foreign language learning,  the closer you get to the top, the more you’re expected to learn like a native speaker. You just “pick it up” as you go. Therefore, you should be able to handle larger and larger chunks of language, and naturally absorb the vocabulary.

No doubt you can do that with Spanish, but with Chinese it just doesn’t work like that. Since Chinese is a non-phonetically-written tonal language, each syllable must be carefully memorized and practiced – even when you’re at the highest levels.

To this day, whenever I hit an unfamiliar 4-syllable 成语, I feel like I’m back in first semester. Beating the tones and characters into my brain isn’t any easier than it was back then.

Well, OK, so it’s a little easier, but still quite rough. When I’m given texts and examples that are theoretically level-appropriately long, the words just don’t stick. There’s way too much other information getting in the way.

Over the past year, I’ve given much of my vocabulary efforts to the Expansion Sentences in the Advanced lessons on ChinesePod, but very few of those words are making it into my active vocabulary. I have, however, noticed a big boost in my reading ability due to expanded passive vocabulary.

But fluency? It hasn’t moved much.

Glossika seems like a good answer to this problem. It works by first saying a fairly short sentence in English, then you translate out loud in Chinese. You then get to hear the “answer” in Chinese, and there’s time to repeat it again yourself.

Each sentence is chosen according to an algorithm, created to help you learn these sentences through spaced repetition. During the month I spent with Glossika, I’d do it in the car on my way to work in the morning. Each session took about 20 minutes, and was filled with adequate repetition. Each sentence was presented multiple times, and would then be re-presented multiple times the next day.

At the end of each session, you had the chance to rate the sentences you were given, putting feedback into the system on how easy or difficult the sentences were for you. The system is therefore able to adjust the program to your needs.

In spite of my initial excitement, it wore out its welcome pretty quickly. There’s only so many times during the course of a week I’d want to say “I’m constipated” before I’m ready to yank my phone off the cord and throw it out the window.

Another complaint I had about the program is that the material did not originate in Chinese. It’s unlike my primary study tool ChinesePod – which originally was specifically created by a team of native Chinese speakers working with native English speakers, specifically for the purpose of getting native English speakers talking like Chinese people.

I recently learned that ChinesePod’s original academic director (an American) absolutely forbade non-native Chinese speakers from writing any of the materials. He said something like: “No matter how good their Chinese is,” he said, “what they write just isn’t the same as if a Chinese person wrote it.”

In spite of this problem, I think Glossika can be a good supplementary tool, but I definitely wouldn’t choose it as my core curriculum. For full-time students who need all the help they can get, daily 20-minute Glossika sessions would definitely be a good idea.