19 Oct 2021

On trying to create the best English learning app for intermediate level learners

I can’t say that I’ve come up with a masterful tool that’s the best English learning app for intermediate level learners.

I’m proud of what I’ve created and I’m convinced that it’ll offer tremendous value to paying users. However, to say it’s in the running for being the best English learning app for intermediate level learners would be ludicrous. What’s good for one English language learner won’t be good for another English language learner. 

In a nutshell, my app – Komified – is the result of several years of blood, sweat and tears. Several years of experimenting, tweaking texts and methodologies, and patiently accepting my perfectionist tendencies. 

Before I write a huge article extolling the virtues of Komified, I think it’d be more appropriate to describe the creative journey and express a bit of gratitude to those who either consciously or subconsciously got me to where I am today.

After all, what’s the point in boasting about a product if there’s no story to begin with.

The worst at most subjects, but the best at one

Frankly, I didn’t have a lot going for me at school. I was one of the worst at science in my group (if not the entire year – some 200 students). Don’t get me started on the arts. Poor me – definitely, definitely the worst in the entire school at practical subjects like woodwork and electronics. Sport was not really my cup of tea. 

I struggle to do even the simplest practical tasks even if someone shows me 100 times how to do them. That’s just who I am. Honestly, I can’t understand all these people who hide behind false personas and complexes. For me, it’s a huge relief to be able to admit to my weaknesses so I don’t have to act and feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

Still, I always had letters and words. I had a prodigious ability to tackle any creative writing tasks my English teachers set for me. 

Back in 1995, I remember that my junior school teacher didn’t quite know what to do with me after acing a spelling test, leaving the other thirty kids playing catch-up. All English tests considered, I had a reading age of fifteen and a half when I was just ten years old. The most peculiar thing was I probably read less than all the other kids. 

So had my life path already been determined? Would I become a writer and/or English teacher and that would be the end of it?

Actually, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Therefore, I decided to do a history degree with a view to becoming a history teacher. 

It’s a long story how I abandoned my idea to become a history teacher in order to go and teach English in Poland. Perhaps a story for another time.

Dig in, don’t give up, stick at it

Within the space of two years, I’d already worked for five language schools and one summer school in the UK.

Clearly, I was unable to settle.

The fifth of those language schools I wound up at – Anglia School of Foreign Languages – is in the north-eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina. 

As you do.

A few days after arriving in the town at the end of August, 2008, I sat on a set of steps in 40-degree heat outside an apartment block in a complete mess. I’d already learned that I’d be in for a long, hard year if I stayed there. It had come to my attention that the boss had one heck of a work ethic. I’d either have to work for twelve hours a day and be “Mr Perfect”, or I could take the easy way out – and do a runner. Thinking things over on that set of steps, I came to my senses. Work for the boss. I couldn’t afford to return to the UK because my suspiciously holey CV would have made me virtually unemployable. 

Just work and don’t get into (too much) trouble.

The owner and Director of Studies of that school is called Verica Amidžić. It’s completely irrelevant that her drill-and-repeat methodologies weren’t quite my cup of tea, although I think I tried my best to put what she taught me into practice. She knew, and still knows, the meaning of hard work. Ms Amidžić hasn’t built such a prestigious school on the back of marketing alone. Everybody has to work. 

I worked to the best of my ability in Bosnia to try to get my career back on track. In addition to that, I didn’t want to let Verica down. One day, she twigged that a colleague and I didn’t know our phonemic script so she ordered us to spend our weekend copying out the phonemic transcription for however many hundreds of words it was. Hence, I spent the entire weekend in my flat doing just that. When Monday came, I think that Verica had forgotten about the task she had set for us. I’d already seen her disappointed face countless times before. It was like a dagger to the heart each time I saw it. I just couldn’t take the risk and avoid doing the phonemic transcription task.

With the sun setting as everyone sat outside the school on what was my final night in Bijeljina, Mrs Amidžić said “you can do anything you want to in your life, Steven.”

All I probably ever needed was for someone to explicitly reveal their self-belief in me. Just some kind of recognition of my abilities.

At that time, I still had many things to work on in terms of my demeanour. But, finally, someone gave me a push in the right direction.

I enrolled to do a master’s degree in English Language Teaching in Nottingham a few months after leaving Bijeljina. 

Verica had instilled a work-ethic in me. 

I was ready to get stuck into the master’s in Nottingham.

 

Getting this huge monkey off my back

Deep down, I always knew that if I could overcome my weaknesses – of which there were many – I could make my mark upon the earth.

I’ve always been rather withdrawn, reserved and self-critical. At school, it was difficult for me to speak my mind. I knew that if I could embrace, rather than change, the first two factors (being withdrawn and reserved) and try to overcome my scathing self-criticism and inability to speak up, I could finally fulfil my potential.

Between finishing my master’s in 2011 and completing a two-year stint at The University of Novi Sad in Serbia in 2016, I worked for a few more schools and taught essay writing skills to incoming foreign students at The University of Southampton for four consecutive summers. That was really satisfying work. Although I was doing all the right things and keeping things cordial with my students and colleagues, I was drifting. 

As I entered my early thirties, this feeling of being an underachiever began to eat away at me. I had to make my mark upon the earth. 

Hence, in 2018, I set to create my own innovative product based on my own philosophies about language learning acquisition.

 

Personalised Language Input System (PLIS)

In 2013, I began to learn the Serbian language.

I knew that I needed to pick up a huge stock of words and phrases.

Anybody can directly translate words from L2 into L1, or vice versa, and memorise them.

Unfortunately, most learners and educators stop there, thinking that direct translation does the job.

Direct translation leads to a black hole in communication. It causes language transfer and confusion. No personalisation of lexis. A lack of context. No alternative word forms. Not one collocation which contains a target word or phrases. The lights are on, but nobody’s home – kind of thing.

Take a common word like “time” – vreme in Serbian.

I probably heard it a few times in a piece of listening material and added it to my Word-Phrase Table. It’s a common word – I was never going to forget it.

But how can you exploit all these words with a view to attaining spoken fluency? 

Work with the word. Caress it. Explore its collocates. Fuse it with grammar structures.

After only a few weeks of having Serbian classes, I was already diving into what is the equivalent of the third conditional in English:

Da sam imao vremena, ja bih posetio neke druge gradove u Hrvatskoj, osim Zagreba

If I’d had more time, I would have visited some other cities in Croatia, apart from Zagreb

The target word (vremena, a grammatical variant of vreme) doesn’t have to be the only focus of a personalised sentence. It can be used as a stimulus and basis to learn grammar incidentally. When the grammar comes to you naturally and you don’t obsess over it, spoken fluency inevitably ensues. 

I believe that I don’t make many mistakes in Serbian because I worked with my teacher from the get-go to provide me with some very personal and true model grammatical sentences. Whenever I have to form a Serbian conditional sentence, that very FIRST sentence I ever formed is “swimming” in my brain. In my opinion, learners can internalise grammatical structures by forming no more than two or three deeply personal and true sentences which contain those structures. There’s no need to get kids and language students to do gap-fill exercises found in grammar books. Teachers need to help learners personalise. 

All in all, my affinity for personalising vocabulary and collocations is at the heart of Komified. It’s not just that, I believe that language learners need to be treated as intellectuals rather than parrots. Let’s do away with basic first language to second language translation exercises.

 

The thought of living a “limited life” is scary

To quote the great Steve Jobs himself:  

“ When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.”

What Steve described here is a very “limited life”.

I have nothing against those who wish to remain in their bubbles and comfort zones. Indeed, I have nothing against those who dream of having a couple of kids and a nice house in the suburbs. We can have kids and a nice house, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it all. 

Once you realise that you can change other people’s lives, that you can design and build your own things that other people can really benefit from, you’ll never be the same again. 

I want to create the best English learning app for intermediate level learners.

I’m a man on a mission.

Join me on this journey.

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Steve Krajewski
komified app intermediate english app