So, you have started learning a language, setting out the goals of being able to converse with native speakers across some topics, or write short essays in that target language. You have your textbooks ready, perhaps coupled with flashcards and beginner texts, all set to start off on the rather subjective “right path”. Textbook audio plays, situational dialogues and listening prompts in lesson after lesson. You want to test out how well you can manage with writing and speaking, or perhaps you encountered some question that the textbooks cannot answer. You then realise, you would need to consult a native speaker.
This situation probably has played out across millions of language learners worldwide, especially those who adopt an independent approach to language learning. No boundaries of the classroom, and no exorbitant course fees. This comes at a slight disadvantage, since learners have to seek out, on their own accord, opportunities to converse or write to native speakers who most likely know more about the target language than the learners themselves. Social media is sort of a medium to catalyse this process, and there are many native speakers who would be happy to help with the learners’ questions. Interest groups, online forums and applications are examples of the uses of social media as an aid to language learning, independent or not. This time, we review an application made to serve this purpose, a specialised one in its own sense. HiNative has garnered hundreds of thousands of users, forming a community dedicated to help learners with questions on their respective target languages.
HiNative is a spin-off of Lang-8, another language exchange social networking site, dedicated more towards journal writing. The application was written with the intention of offering a platform for Q&A based learning, with the goals of forming a global community for all language learners where they can help one another. Therefore, our review will focus quite a bit on this community-based approach to language learning, as well as the interface and how the system works to achieve this goal. This will be a short one, so let’s dive into it.
Starting off, users are prompted to select which languages they are native speakers of, as well as the target languages they want to learn, or find more about. The “home” tab will then show various threads, questions and queries fellow learners have regarding their target languages, which can range from rating how natural their sentences are, to asking about grammar, vetting scripts and such. The native speakers, as well as L2 speakers, of their target languages, can then rate how smoothly the sentences are, or post their feedback in the threads. Feedback can be exchanged by rating of quality, or messages and comments in thread. This helps to foster a community-based learning environment, where learners can ask about anything with regards to their target languages, and readily receive advice from fellow learners in the community.
The interface is quite simple, with threads organised according to priority, unanswered questions, or relevance. Separate tabs are shown, corresponding to the user’s target and native speaking languages, allowing users to browse through questions that might be of interest to them to answer or respond to.
Questions posted in the threads are typically like:
- How do you say … in …
- Rate how natural my sentence is
- Can you rate my pronunciation?
- What are the differences between [word/sentence] and [word/sentence]?
While these form the bulk of questions asked by users, there are also some where users would ask about grammar, or proofreading help. With HiNative premium, users can also post audio or video into the threads to receive advice or feedback.
Overall, HiNative is a rather user-friendly application to help facilitate such a language learning method. Simple, intuitive and rather basic, HiNative really lives up to its functionality. Its main challenges, however, has to come from being able to stand out and outshine competing related methods and platforms, such as special interest groups in social media like Facebook, or perhaps Reddit threads or language learning forum posts. These competing platforms still facilitate a question-and-answer based approach to language learning for users to complement their main mode of language learning with.
When language learners come together to help one another with their target languages, the developers would definitely intend to foster a welcoming, inclusive and helpful community. Every response, piece of advice and rating given to a user’s query is generated by a fellow user, or native speaker who wants to help. All these actions are carried out by the user’s volition. It definitely has helped many language learners understand expressions, or learn to talk like a native, and perhaps helped users make a few friends along the way.
There are, however, some issues when it comes to how helpful some replies are and how answerable some questions are. See, for some speakers, certain expressions can certainly make sense, while sounding like utter hogwash to others. The problem compounds with language variants or dialects. Typically, learners would want to understand the standard language before branching out to other variants, but the people who provide the advice may sometimes be only exposed to a certain variant, which may not match as closely to the standard language. Probably an example of this is comparing stress patterns, or colloquial lingo between Tokyo and Osaka variants of Japanese. For reference, Standard Japanese is pretty much based on the Tokyo dialect, and thus becomes the focus of many learners of Japanese. Some speakers would then provide advice based on their experiences with their own variant instead of the standard tongue, creating a bit of inconsistency in the feedback, which learners should be wary about. This is however, not to discredit the existence of language variants, but to advice learners to understand that expressions and pronunciations can vary from region to region, and that they should take note of this when receiving feedback.
There is a point system in place to incentivise users to help fellow members in the community, consisting of the quick points, and the quality points, aimed to reward users for speedy and useful responses, respectively. Quality points are awarded by users who believe that their feedback or response is helpful, or is informative enough to clear up whichever clarification they have. Overall, this system hopes to encourage users to give meaningful and constructive feedback to whichever queries fellow learners have, which does sound attractive to the community as a whole.
Having used this application to ask about Japanese, and give some advice on English, Chinese and French, I find myself having a rather intermittent user experience with HiNative. This is partly due to the intended methodology of the application, which serves as a community-based “add-on” to whichever language learning method users are already primarily using. Oftentimes, I do not necessarily see a need to use it, given my interactions with native speakers through other social media platforms.
With a rather focused niche and its challenges in outshining its competition, HiNative certainly has a lot of potential for development. What it needs are greater, more significant unique selling points, to be able to market themselves out to the language learning sphere, attracting more users to HiNative.
The Language Closet Rating: 7/10
Note: This rating is based on user experience, criticism and evaluation through this post. It is in no way an objective stance, nor is it a static rating.
How would you rate HiNative? How has HiNative shaped your learning experiences? Let us know through the comments!
In the few moments I have touched HiNative, I had great experiences interacting with fellow learners there. This could compare to the special interest groups on other social media platforms I have used, including offshoots of the Polyglots Facebook group. Even so, as question-and-answer based language learning methods were pretty much auxiliary methods for my language learning needs, I never quite formed a deep connection with HiNative over the years I have used it.