Biblingo is an app developed for learning the biblical languages (very specifically, New Testament Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew), through a (semi-)communicative approach. I became aware of Biblingo some time ago, and followed some of their pre-launch promotional material, but more recently decided to test it out with a 10-day free trial.
Firstly, a little background. I studied Hebrew at Seminary for 3 years, doing quite well along a traditional grammar-translation track. I didn’t succeed very well in keeping Hebrew up, and so my Hebrew slowly atrophied. I did teach a course on the exegesis of Amos in Hebrew (in Mongolian), but my ability to read Hebrew now is very weak. I have off and on considered taking some communicative courses to get some Hebrew back in a more robust and active mode, but it is relatively low down my everyday priority list of languages.
You can sign up for a 10-day free trial of Biblingo at present, and that’s what I did. It gives you access to the four current ‘modules’ – Language Learning, Flashcards, Alphabet, and Bible Reading. Beyond that, one needs a subscription, for either or both languages.
The user interface is very pleasant, and generally easy to navigate. You are given some short pop-up intro videos to get you oriented, and if you don’t know the alphabet at all, there are a number of video lessons to get you acquainted with it. Those video lessons are high quality presentations, but there are no exercises to familiarise you with using the alphabet. You also have a range of choices for pronunciation in each language.
The core of the engine at present appears to be the Language Learning module. This starts off as all locked, and you need to do and complete lessons in sequence, with 3 levels, a total of 26 units across them, and 4 sub-lessons per unit. Each lesson consists of a sequence of Vocabulary, Grammar, and ‘Final Act’ or application. I can’t say if the format and organisation changes in the more advanced units, as I haven’t gotten there.
Vocabulary begins by offering you 6ish new vocabulary items, each presented with a short video or an image, with an audio track. You can click for an english language gloss, but I did not use that feature, preferring to associate image directly with word/phrase. This did leave me unsure about exactly what some verbs were portraying, but my presumption is that I’ll figure that out as I progress.
The images and videos are high quality, and tied to an imagined biblical world, that is you will see people in biblical settings, with biblical type clothing, doing biblical type things. There’s no telephones and where is the bibliothèque here.
Vocabulary proceeds through several stages: presentation, then passive knowledge (selecting the right answer from multiple choices), and ‘active’ knowledge – inputting the correct word(s) by either typing or using a word bank.
Generally, I found the typing frustrating. Partly this was some technical issues with my own Hebrew keyboard layout, but the app would benefit greatly from some kind of typing tutorial mini-app. Similar to, say, duolingo, it doesn’t penalise you for minor misspellings, such as accents, but offers a gentle reminder and a chance to ‘practice’ (i.e. retype), though the retype is not compulsory. I did notice that even when I had entered the Hebrew correctly, I was sometimes told to ‘watch my spelling’, perhaps because of a mismatch in coding between the Hebrew keyboard I was using and what the app expected. I had no problems when testing out the Greek side.
I’m not quite convinced that simply entering vocabulary by typing it out quite counts as ‘active knowledge’. It certainly helps spelling. But it still seems to me a rather limited treatment of active recall. The Hebrew/Image presentation is a good improvement over bilingual flashcards, but we are still mostly being presented with isolated vocabulary items.
Grammar in each lesson takes the vocabulary you have learnt, and puts it into sentences, with one or at most two new grammar elements per unit. Again you are prompted with a video or image, and with a symbolic presentation. The symbolic presentation uses symbols to prompt for things like definite articles, 1/2/3rd person pronouns, and the like, which would not be obvious from the videos alone. This is quite a novel feature and well executed. The movement through this section is very similar to vocabulary – presentation, ‘passive’ recognition (multiple choice with 4, then 8 options), and then active input.
The last section is usually quite short, and asks for active response to a slightly harder prompt, requiring some creative application of materials you have learnt. It is a way of testing that you’ve understood and can apply in a more adaptive way, the things you have been shown with more restricted vocabulary.
Overall the sequence of lessons is well done, it moves in very bit-sized pieces, and gives lots of opportunity for exposure and integration. I will say that a few features and perhaps critique are in order though.
The multiple choice responses could be improved on the UI level by offering keyboard numbered responses. The typed-response was frustrating in not recognising some correct responses because of presumably some Hebrew Unicode representation issues, and so I ended up using the wordbank more, which makes those exercises a little more ‘passive’ again. There’s no way to skip lessons, or even to skip to, e.g., the latter part of a lesson that you’ve already completed, you have to work through each one in sequence, and if you ‘retake’ a lesson, you need to go through it from the start.
The inability to skip/unlock was frustrating, partly because I wanted to check out some more advanced Greek lessons. I have a very solid knowledge of Greek, but the linear direction of the app prevented me using features that would be useful for me, without investing significant time.
Two other modules are present in the app. Flashcard Deck is a spaced-recognition presentation of vocabulary that either (a) you have tackled in the lessons, (b) some preset decks (fairly limited at present), or (c) custom decks (to which you can add words from the Bible Reading module). The flashcard deck presents the vocabulary in ‘sets’, and asks you to work through the same association>passive>active sequence as are presented in the Language Learning module. For that reason it was also, in my view, a little tedious. I couldn’t indicate I ‘strongly’ knew a word for instance, and so I had no choice but to see it over and over, nor vice versa. I would like to have seen a more fine-grained version of ‘how well you know a word’ in the vocabulary engine.
The last module, and the most recently released, is Bible Reading. This is really meant for more advanced learners, it seems, so for this review I’ll talk a bit more about the Greek version. Essentially, you have the chance to browse the Bible at Book, Chapter, Verse level, and at each level it indicates what percentage of the words you know. You can thus sort and look for parts that you know more vocabulary, and which therefore should be easier to read.
Then, when you select a book, each word (or morphemes in the Hebrew version) is colour coded based on whether you know 0, learning-some, learning-all, or know-all sense of the word. Each word can be clicked, and you are given a ‘dictionary pop-up’ which divides the word into various senses, divided by semantic domain (this seems to draw on Louw-Nida). Pictures are given where available, but otherwise English glosses. Each word also has parsing information.
Navigating the Greek version of this, it was fairly cumbersome to try and ‘fast-track’ what I already know. So I couldn’t easily bring the app up-to-speed with what I knew, without again investing significant time in teaching it.
Nonetheless, especially for someone working from scratch, this is a good feature. Though it could be improved – it still presents the biblical text, and only the biblical text, as its reading input. So your ‘input’ options in biblingo are either isolated sentences in the language learning module, or raw biblical books.
The biblingo interface is smooth, and the underlying principles are generally sound. The de-emphasis of explicit grammar, the modulisation and indeed granularization of learning chunks, and the focus on image/video material for direct association of vocab, are all great features. So, too, is the use of a symbolic code for sentence structures.
I’ve now done a week of Hebrew, 15mins or more a day, and I feel like I understand everything i’ve been presented and can respond to it clearly, directly, and in Hebrew. That’s what you want in language learning, and that’s what I’m getting on this app.
The structure of learning is very linear, and each sub-unit has to be worked through in sequence, and as a block. There remains something of an emphasis on passive recognition, even in ‘active’ exercises. Comprehensible Input is limited to isolated sentences, and there is no truly ‘communicative’ component to Biblingo – I am interpreting meaning at an atomised level, but only for the purpose of language learning, not for any other purpose. I am also not actively outputting meaning-based language, and there’s no negotiating of meaning between parties, it’s all one way in that sense.
The fine-grained nature of ‘know/don’t know’ is not adequately, or at least adequately transparently, presented to the learner, so it feels like overkill on some words, underkill on others, and knowledge also appears to be mostly tied to vocabulary knowledge. For biblingo to be more data-driven and user-responsive, it needs to find ways to track learners’ exposure, and comprehension, of other features of language (e.g. syntax).
I would also suggest that biblingo simply doesn’t provide enough, and enough variety, of comprehensible input. The gap between ‘isolated sentences’ and ‘biblical texts’, is enough to mean that the jump from one to the other is too far. Learners need extensive exposure to CI, and that means broad and wide and varied input. This has long been a problem for historical languages, and is only starting to be addressed for Latin. It’s an ongoing problem for Greek, which I try to solve for my own students in a variety of creative ways (mostly involving finding new easy things for them to read).
Despite these criticisms, I find biblingo engaging enough as an app, and I am learning some genuine Hebrew without explicit grammar (which I mostly try to ignore even when it pops up), and without translation. That’s a very significant difference to any other app/program/asynchronous set of materials out there (though there are some other options, yes), and for which the biblingo team ought to be applauded. And, work on biblingo (to all appearances) is ongoing, so it may yet improve and offer more and richer ways to learn.
To find out more about Biblingo, see their website.