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Interview with Ben Zimmer

by Torsten Daerr

This is an interview with Ben Zimmer, who works for Thinkmap, a company that develops the Visual Thesaurus and, two websites for language lovers.

Ben, please tell a little more about yourself. When and how did you start working for ThinkMap?

Ben Zimmer:
My academic background is in linguistics and linguistic anthropology, but I eventually made the jump from academia to lexicography and language commentary, a move that I've found extremely rewarding. Before my current position, I worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

I came on board at Thinkmap in 2008 as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus. I oversee all of the online content, including our magazine on language and the creative process, and help out with development behind the scenes. This past year we've expanded to a second website,, which we're hoping will be the premiere site for vocabulary instruction.
So what exactly will be all about eventually? I have registered on the site and found the experience very informative and entertaining. I take you have a big plans for this new project?

Ben Zimmer:
When we launched, we recognized that vocabulary instruction has too often been tied to inefficient and tedious methods of the past -- rote memorization, flashcards, and dry word lists with no context. So we started from scratch to create a system that models each person’s vocabulary and abilities so that we can serve up a personalized learning experience that is both engaging and effective.

We developed an approach to vocabulary learning that we call Adaptive Vocabulary Instruction (AVI), which ensures that the learner gets the right question at the right time, regardless of proficiency level. Vocab learners develop a personalized list of words to master and can chart their progress, making it ideal for students doing test prep as well as adults who want to expand their vocabulary. And we made sure that the whole experience is addictive and fun, with milestones and achievements along the way.

Using the AVI system, we created the Challenge and filled it with a virtually limitless supply of questions. At launch, the Challenge offered more than 40,000 questions, and since then we've more than doubled that number. By playing the Challenge, vocab learners are introduced to words and then are given one of many different types of questions -- antonyms, synonyms, definitions, and sentence completions. Since there is a variety of question types, learners can’t rely on rote memorization of a word and its principal definition for mastery. They have to attain a deeper understanding of the word and all of its nuances. Also, since the sentence completion questions are drawn from the news and literature, words can be learned according to how they are used in multiple authentic contexts.

Along with the Challenge, features the world's fastest dictionary, which uses predictive technology to display the appropriate definition before the user has even finished typing the word. The Dictionary is enriched by more than 100 million example sentences drawn from our corpus of texts, as well as light-hearted explanations for vocabulary words that are far more engaging that stodgy dictionary definitions. As with the Challenge, we're continuing to develop rich content for the Dictionary pages to make them as useful as possible for vocab learners. We have many more exciting developments in store, so stay tuned!

The Challenge sounds very interesting. Can you please tell us how exactly it works? I mean, do I need to create an account and is the system free to use?

Ben Zimmer:
The Challenge is absolutely free to play (and it's ad-free, too!). You don't need to create an account to start playing right away, but the free sign-up allows us to personalize the experience by keeping track of your progress. It's easy to sign up, either via email or a Facebook login.

When you're signed in with the free account, you can be sure to get words that are appropriate for your skill level. We also create charts and graphs of your learning progress, and you can earn points and achievements as you go. You can even see how your progress compares with your Facebook friends and with users overall. Another benefit of the free account is that you can create your own vocabulary lists and share them with friends and colleagues.

The Challenge works by tailoring questions to your ability in order to ensure it's truly challenging regardless of your level of proficiency. As you answer questions in the Challenge, we begin to compile a list of words for you to learn. If you get a question wrong or choose to use a hint, the word is added to the list. Once we add a word to this list, we keep working with you until you’ve mastered that word, by providing additional questions about the word. On your progress screen, you can see a list of all the words you're learning and words you've mastered.

As you answer questions correctly and learn words, you earn points. You get a badge that represents your level, starting with "novice." Then as you hit different point goals, you’ll earn new badges, all the way up to "walking dictionary" (10 million points!). You can also earn extra badges based on various achievements, such as answering five questions correctly in a row, or acing a round. We try to make the whole experience as fun and engaging as we can, and we'll be adding more goodies in the future.

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