The Best Free Tools for Language Learning

see god

In this day and age, it seems almost impossible to find a good deal. I remember how it used to really annoy me as a child that my parents would complain about how much a chocolate bar would cost. I’d stare at the price tag, and see it as the lowly sum of 20p and be perplexed; how exactly was this expensive? One of them would enjoy my perplexity, before saying “in my day you could get three bars for that price, and still have money left over for a comic”. It used to feel like they were trying to make me feel bad about this imaginary expensive world we lived in, and yet now I find myself thinking the same thing. The same chocolate bars now cost double the price. The horror!

Just because things may be expensive, doesn’t mean there aren’t still deals available however. The internet is a wonderful resource. It’s a place where the creative, the ground-breaking and the educational can all rub shoulders. It’s a place were boundaries are broken down and the trappings of the real world are left behind.

Take language learning. There are some sensational resources such as Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, but both cost a couple of hundred. Other cheaper, but still subscription fee based online only programs like Babbel and Transparent Language Online can dent your wallet over time, too. You can’t fault their quality, but we don’t all have access to the funds required.

There is another way, however. The internet and app market is awash with some fantastic alternative language learning software. And all of it for the grand old price of… uh… free! Value doesn’t have to mean a high price. In fact, it could mean the complete opposite…

Live Mocha

Visit the website here

The world’s largest online language learning community, containing some 16 million members from around 195 countries. It merges a range of different methods, from traditional techniques to more interactive online programs and videos, and live conversations with native speakers. There’s even the possibility to have private lessons through the site! Though not every single part of the website is free, the vast majority is, and there is no reason for you to ever need to spend any cash if you don’t want to.

You learn from native speakers and get your grades from other students who are fluent. Live Mocha also syncs nicely into social media to give you a more diverse and interactive service than many others available.

It has become so successful that Rosetta Stone purchased the website in 2013. So far, none of the fears of new sneaky price rises have been realised, and the quality shows no sign of slowing down either!

Languages covered: Arabic, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, US English, Esperanto, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Marathi, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukranian and Urdu.

BBC Languages

Visit the website here

The BBC has a long history of language enabling, and though it’s website may not offer the wealth and variety of training of it’s rivals, it is a great place to find free practice and structured lessons for the long term learner.

You can find crosswords, instructional videos and other vocabulary exercises such as gap fills and comprehension. Especially helpful, there is also an online assessment to help you to figure out what level you are at, be it pre-intermediate or advanced, and then the website can direct you to the level-appropriate material.

Languages covered: Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish.

Memrise

Visit the website here

Combining science, fun and community, Memrise is an extremely useful app that manages to keep you motivated to study regularly, while giving you snap shots of language. In essence it is a memorisation program that helps to keep this interesting by turning it into a game of sorts, complete with competitive rankings against other users and rewards and tokens for reaching different levels of accomplishment.

Not only is it available online, but there is also an app on both Android and iOS. It is largely crowd sourced, so you may have to search for a little while to find the right kind of course for you. But the pay off is worth it, as this can be a fantastic resource, especially when combined with others.

Languages covered: I’m not saying that you can learn every language, but there is definitely the opportunity to learn most languages. See for yourself here.

Busuu

Visit the website here

As their website says:

“We have personally suffered from the traditional way to learn a new language which we always found expensive, difficult and boring.

Therefore, we decided to create a new concept of language learning”.

The founders Adrian and Berhard, other than sounding like 80s action heroes, have constructed a crowd sourced forum for all levels of language learners. In the initial stages you will find yourself learning a lot of flashcards and vocabulary, but as you progress there is more of an opportunity to practice writing and questions. This will be done with native speakers who are either fellow students or contributors to the website.

This can be studied on the internet, or you can download the app for Android or iOS.

Languages covered: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese and Polish.

Duolingo

Visit the website here

This is, arguably, the underground language learners most popular program. This takes the gamification of learning to new, dizzy heights. Each lesson is broken up into short scenes, practising a variety of skills including listening, speaking and translation. You have lives, and when you lose all your lives you must start again (not at the very beginning though). Your progress can be tracked easily, and you gain instant gratification from achievements along the way. In short, this is the Zelda of language learning. It’s an epic journey, and it’s a whole bouncy castle full of fun.

The website claims that a university semester of study (roughly 11 weeks) is given to you in around 34 hours of study. This is based on an independent study, which you can find here. Therefore (claim the creators), 34 hours of Duolingo is more effective than university study.

Either way, you are joining a wonderful community where you can see your skills in language develop in real time as you go from memorising flashcards to translating websites and being graded by native speakers on your quality.

My only criticism would be the lack of languages. As I am studying Chinese (a language not currently supported), I often feel like the poor kid looking through a neighbours window at Christmas and seeing their big tree, infinite presents and warm log fire as I trundle back to my cardboard box and newspaper duvet. I know I am missing out, big time. That said, an affiliate of Duolingo has recently released a Chinese app, Chinese Skill, that harnesses the same, successful methods of Duolingo.

Languages covered: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish.

So there you have it. Are we claiming these are the only apps and websites to help? No, of course not. Are there possibly better ones out there? Yes. Half the fun of language learning is finding the method that works for you, and then running full speed to try and capitalise on that method and use it for all it’s worth!

A lot of these services run on community, and require the input of the members for the advancement of the quality. If you do decide to use one, please try and be a contributor as well, even if only seldom, as it helps to keep the perpetual free learning going.

Any apps or programs I’ve missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments section below!

All company logos are the creative property of the associated company, and not the intellectual property of ItchyQuill.com – All logos have been used to promote the associated websites and apps, not for any gain from ItchyQuill.com

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

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Finding Translation; Investing in Your Future With a Second Language

 logo
你好! I have been studying Chinese with extra vigour recently, and I have to say that watching a page of seemingly meaningless characters turn into a page of slightly less meaningless characters gives a real sense of accomplishment and a true moment of ‘I-did-this’-ness. Why am I learning Chinese? For that matter, why am I learning the traditional and not the simplified version? Well, I live in a country where traditional Mandarin is the official language, and so firstly it would be darn rude of me not to, and secondly, the opportunities to learn it from native speakers for relatively cheap are rife. My cup doth overfloweth.
Having learned languages in the past (French and German), and having been an English teacher (or as the industry would have us call ourselves “language enabler”) I have a pretty rounded view of what it means to learn a new language from both views of the whiteboard.
Why do people learn a second language? For work? For social motives? To emigrate? For fun? For brain food…?
I come from a city in England with a strong mix of cultures from around the world. It is a place full of pockets of different cultures, which is only heightened by the constant stream of foreign students who head to the city for either of the universities, or to study English in one of the billion or so language schools.
It shouldn’t be forgotten however that each of those students is fluent in another language, and that English is their second language. That is a whole group of people who get to travel to a distant land for work or knowledge.
Why shouldn’t we, as English speakers, give ourselves the great wonderful experience?
Now we know some of the reasons why people do learn a language. Here are some reasons why we should learn a new language…
ahem...

ahem… “fun”

It’s impressive
Who isn’t impressed  by the sight of a foreigner, in any land, being able to bust out some mad local lingo? It’s a skill that takes time to master, but once you have a language, you can channel the Fonzie and be the cool kid everyone wants to hang out with.
If not, it will at least impress the locals, who you will have a slightly better conversation with after you’ve shown you’re not just there to try and speak English louder and louder until you make your point. You’re actually trying. My bad Chinese is often a wonderful icebreaker with old ladies in markets.
Obviously, make sure you know what you're saying...

Obviously, make sure you know what you’re saying…

You gain perspective on another culture
Who hasn’t heard the one about Eskimos and how many words they’ve got for snow? Though this popular theory was thoroughly debunked recently, the idea remains the same; a people’s language reflects their culture. Culture comes from the environment, the history, the traditions, and the people themselves. If culture is the story, the language is obviously the words used to tell that story. History, and the journey of it’s people, is inevitably locked in it’s words. By learning the language, you are learning the culture. It’s inescapable. Just the fact that they have words for certain things means that those things are common, or were common, enough to warrant verbal expression.
Living in another culture advances your understanding of the world. Immersing yourself in the ways of others helps to flesh out your character, giving you new insight into different world views and mentalities. Some are happy to spend their lives in an area 50 miles from where they were born. I have constantly chased the sunset, and language learning is a tool to facilitate that adventure.

“Anyone know the Marathi for help?!”

It opens doors in life and work
On a personal level, I cannot visit another country without thinking at some point ‘I wish I knew the language’. You get a real sense that you are only experiencing the surface of a place, and that if you could only scratch that surface, there would be a world of wonder under there, just waiting to be seen. Imagine how much more you could gain from a trip to Paris if you could chat with an old artist in his mother tongue in some smokey cafe, or sit and play dominoes with some older ladies in Bangkok? These stories, these experiences, are the bread and butter of travel. A little language goes a long way in these moments, and they are the things that will linger long after the tan fades.
As for work, you make yourself infinitely more employable by being able to speak a second language well. We  live in the global village, like it or not. A range of different industries now rely upon their ability to communicate worldwide, and to establish such links they require staff capable of bi-lingual expression. You can’t expect the world to learn English, after all. As an example, China is a vastly influential industrial nation whose current economic boom has meant the expansion of many companies to oversees trade. Though the English learning industry is currently exploding within its borders, there is still a dearth of people with an English level necessary for business correspondence. If you can appear to your boss and say ‘it’s cool, I got this’ and then rile off some supreme mandarin (tones and everything), you can go right ahead and upgrade your hero status from ‘Nigel’ to ‘Thor’ as you close the Wang account.
Go  me!

Go me!

It increases creativity
Your first language, like the ability to walk and the ability to wash yourself, is a skill you learned at a young age. It is the fundamental way you express yourself, and many people live their whole lives utilising only that initial guise. But language, like any skill, has different forms. We can walk, but we can also run, jog, skip, pirouette, jive, samba, walk like an Egyptian, crawl, slither, wriggle…
Recent evidence has demonstrated a potential link between second language learning and divergent thinking. That is, how to think in alternative ways. This study focused specifically on the difference in foreign language learning from school learning, and how learning a foreign language as an adult often involves fluency, elaboration, originality and flexibility; all skills that can help you develop your inner Van Gogh/Picasso/Lady Gaga.
Bonjour, I'm an artist!

Bonjour. I’m an artist!

It unlocks new horizons
Though language, as stated previously, opens new horizons in the literal sense of enabling a fuller travelling experience, it can also open them in a figurative sense too.
For example, if you are a lover of classical fiction and are reading your way through the western canon, you can expect to encounter a range of writers from non-English speaking countries such as Dumas (French), Hesse (German) and Dostoyevsky (Russian). Perhaps you are more interested in Classic Chinese poetry and can’t decide who was greater, Li Bai or Du Fu? Their wonderfully romantic imagery tickles the imagination to this day (that is, if you love drinking and moon light).

“Who doesn’t? AmIright?”

If you are able to read in these native language, you can read the classic stories as they were written, not as they were translated. Authors choose their language carefully, and when this is translated, some of the meaning may be lost as some words don’t have direct translations in English. Most modern translations are fantastically well done, but that doesn’t mean the original doesn’t give something more.
What about world music? Or cinema? There is a profusion of different artistic areas in the world that you will never encounter if you can’t understand them. Learning a language is a key to the arts!
You can study or live abroad
This is my second time living away from my home country, and each adventure has brought with it a whole range of experiences (some expected, some not) that have shaped me and my mentality. I am thankful for these experiences, but there are always more to be had. With a couple more languages under my belt, I could fit seamlessly into tens of others countries and be amongst the people.
In Taiwan there is a great relationship between the universities there and some of the big ones abroad in countries such as America, Germany and the UK. Many students move both ways to study amongst a different culture, and this requires the learning of either traditional Mandarin or English. Even those whose language might not be perfect before they leave will see a huge improvement by the time they return, as to be amongst the language is the best way to learn.
For a work example, if your company has an office abroad and a promotion comes up in that city, they are probably going to be looking for people who will relish the challenge and won’t struggle to adapt. If you can demonstrate a competence in the native language of that place, surely that makes you a front runner?
...should have studied

…should have studied

You can improve your English
Ok, so this may seem a silly reason to learn a foreign language, but stick with me, Quillers. By looking at the grammar structures, how vocabulary is made and how we gain meaning from context, you are wiring your brain to analyse language in a critical way. This mindset will transfer naturally into your first language, as the human brain will always apply new knowledge against that which is known. You will find yourself trying the new rules out on your own language, and even if they aren’t compatible, you will be equipped to critically analyse your own language for it’s own rules. How many of you know the difference between the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous? It is rather a tenuous difference, I know. Hence why many of you probably aren’t familiar with the terms, even though your knowledge of the difference is there, buried in your unconscious mind.
Brain fuel

Brain fuel!

It can save your life
Ok, so this definition needs to be stretched as far as is physically possible. I am not trying to say that one day you will be trapped in a house that is burning down when suddenly you use some Spanish to carefully negotiate with the fire and save your life. No, not at all, (though there is room for an argument that knowing another language could save your life in some situations, such as being held hostage…).
I want to focus here more on the argument that being bi-lingual could actually help to prevent the onset of brain degenerating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
There is a body of evidence to support the idea that learning a second language in early life could help thinking in old age, and by extension this could not only improve your standard of living as an elderly person, but also keep you safer and help you to avoid dangerous situations too. Another study suggests that quality of life is vastly extended, which would also imply a longer life as the longer you are living well, the less chance you have of dying young from health related issues.
Money can't buy you love, but language can give you youth and happiness

Money can’t buy you love, but language can give you youth and happiness

Phew! That was a lot, right? I almost feel like I’ve done enough learning for one day!
Tell me though, who amongst you can speak a language other than English? Is English even your first language anyway? Do you agree with these points or are you thinking I missed something?
For the language learners amongst you, watch this space, as the IQ team will be posting a list of the best apps and programs for language learning, in the near future. Find it here.
Every day’s a school day!
Freeze frame

Freeze frame

Special thanks to arztsamui, Chiwat, graur razvan ionut, imagerymajestic, Naypong, samuiblue, stockimages and Witthaya Phonsawat @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

Tokens of Our Time; The History of Some of Our Favourite Symbols

In 2012, I spent a summer in Brighton, UK, teaching English in a small scale language school with bags of charm but ageing resources. My class was filled with about ten 16 year olds, real cool kids away from home for a summer of language learning, beach-side romance and a few adventures to carry back to their respective homelands.

One afternoon we went to the attic room to use the listening suite. There was a vast collection of audio cassette and VCR tapes, but not a CD nor DVD to be seen.

Their desks were all fitted with embedded tape players, with individual headphone sets and audio control buttons. They had free roam of the wonderfully categorized shelves of materials, and as this lesson required no planning, I was expecting to be able to fill the time with reading while I casually supervised their progress. I was wrong.

Within a few minutes, hands were being raised and I was being told about the same problem.

“Sir, my player’s broken”.

I’d walk over, check the tape, and see that whoever had used it previously had failed to rewind it. I’d put the tape in and ask the students to rewind. They would hit the ‘skip back’ button. Nothing would happen, so they’d assume it was still broken.

It dawned on me; these teenagers had never used tape players in their life! In fact, their understanding of that technology was so absent, they believed it was possible to actually skip tracks in a way similar to CDs!

Those teenagers were digital natives. To them, the symbols on a laptop, TV, iPhone were all invented purely for those devices. I felt pity for them, but then realised for myself how I had done much the same thing when I was a child. Did I truly know the history of the symbols I saw every day? Had my grandmother laughed when I didn’t recognise the ‘L’ in the £ sign? Did my Science teacher chuckle at the fact I didn’t recognise Norse History on my telephone keypad?

I had to know more, so here is the Itchy Quill History lesson on some famous symbols and their origins!

ampersand-hiStuart MilesThe ampersand and pound sign

What do London, the & symbol and the £ sign have in common? Yes, they are all very popular in England, but more importantly, they were all invented by Romans. Ok, ok, So you can’t invent a city, but London, or rather Londinium, was a very successful experiment in replicating traditional Roman methods of living, but overseas. All three were also opportunities for ancient Romans to demonstrate their remarkable skill in design, ingenuity and style.

See, the ampersand is essentially a highly stylized version of the Latin word for and, Et, invented by a fellow named Marcus Tullius Tiro. He didn’t give it the catchy name however, you can blame the true lovers of Latin – Victorian school children – for that. In the time of Queen Victoria, the symbol was essentially treated as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Children would chant the alphabet through rote learning with the ending being “and per se and”. This literally translates as ‘and, in itself, and’. Children being children, they couldn’t wait to finish the chant and be the first one to get to the jelly and custard at break time, and so the words ended up blending together to make ampersand.

As for the £ sign, that little guy is essentially just a fancy pants ‘L’. Those of us born in modern times will find it harder to recognise, as practising this style, known as roundhand, becomes less and less promoted in schools. Why L? Well, it’s down to those Romans again. They had a unit of weight called the ‘libre’, and the £ sign is merely an abbreviation (which is the reason for the one or sometimes two dashes across the middle of the £). Interestingly, the libre is also the namesake of the lb measurement of weight too.

So, Ancient Rome… not just nudity, baths and hedonism.

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call 'English'. We smite you with Latin - basiate culos meos!

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call ‘English’. We smite you with Latin – basiate culos meos!

powerThe Power Sign

We’ve all stared at it knowingly for years, touched it on countless instruments, but never truly known what it means. In truth it’s a symbol from when coding was in its formative years. As far back as WW2, this symbol was used to demonstrate in binary the presence or absence of power; 1 (the line) means on, 0 means off.

However, sometimes there can be a line within an unbroken 0  which means a single switch can move an instrument from on to off, and vice versa. There can also be a 0 broken by a line which represents that something can be turned off, but not disconnected from the power source completely.

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

jscreationzsThe Dollar Sign

The dollar bill, a beacon of the American Dream, is arguably one of the best recognised currencies in the world. In parts of SE Asia and South America, dollar bills can actually be used as a de facto currency, meaning black markets exist for travellers who never need to change into the local money from USD, as the value of an American Dollar is so robust. So, where does this wonderful bastion of autonomy come from?

There are various theories to choose from, but the most widely accepted seems to be that it is an offspring of the Spanish Peso. In the 1700s, the Peso – “peso de ocho reales” or ‘pieces of eight’ – was the common currency of the Americas. PS was the abbreviation, and it is thought that over time the S and P would be placed on top of each other, forming an early ancestor of the $. This seems to fit the time line, as it was evident on the first paper bills printed by the US in 1875.

Those feeling curious are free to check Ayn Rand’s alternative idea, that the $ sign is a combination of the initials of U and S from USA, with the bottom of the U being cut off. Cifrão symbol.svg

Dollar dollar bills ya'll

Dollar dollar bills ya’ll

asterisk-hiThe Asterisk

He’s not just a menace to the Gauls; the asterisk has a history that goes back as far as the Middle Ages. Original employed with its best friend the dagger (†) as two of the first proof-reading marks, largely from need for the scholars tasked with editing Homer’s poetry epics. Ask an Athenian though, and they may tell you it comes from the Greek word asteri, meaning star.

In literary terms, it fell out of favour largely until the twentieth century, utilised to great effect solo to demonstrate the insertion of a footnote, or as a trio to break text into sections.

In modern times, it can literally mean anything. A pro athlete never wants one of these next to their name as it can signify a win under controversial or conditional circumstances, or in some biographies it can mean the year of birth (*1969). On the number key of your keyboard it could be a replacement for × (multiply), a mask for expletives in t*ts and s**t, and it can even be used to denote a *snigger* or a *gasp* on twitter. Whatever it’s use, the asterisk is a real chameleon of the symbol jungle, and it deserves a place in our hearts.

Shut the f**k up... *giggles*

Shut the f**k up… *giggles*

bluetooth-hi

Bluetooth

What do wireless devices syncing together and medieval Scandinavia have in common? No, it’s not a thirst for pillaging and decimation; it’s actually quite the opposite.

Harald Bluetooth was the Viking king of Denmark from 958 to 970, and famous lover of Blueberry’s (hence the blue teeth). He is best remembered for uniting parts of Norway and Denmark into one country, and converting them to Christianity. See Harald was a man famous for bringing people together.

In the early 90s, when various different technology sectors were developing their own systems, it was assumed by some designers that this difference would vastly impede wireless compatibility across them. Jim Kardach was one such designer. Inspired by Harald, who he viewed as a perfect symbol for bringing together rival parties, he was able to help mediate between the various interested bodies and from this the Bluetooth Special Interest Group was born.

Think it stops there? It’s Harald’s name in ancient rune form that actually makes up the official Bluetooth logo!

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

digitalart

The at sign

Few can imagine a world without it now, as it stands as the posterboy of modern communication; the twitter handle’s opening character, the link between username and domain on any email address. Alas, there was a time when this inescapable symbol was just a forgotten key stuck in obscurity on old typewriters.

The true origins are somewhat of a mystery, though many can agree that it came to prominent use as a symbol for ‘at the rate of’ in commerce, as in ’20 chickens at £1″ (its crucial meaning being demonstrated by the fact the total there would be £20).

It wasn’t until 1971 and the advent of the forerunner to email, that ‘The snail” (as the Italians called it) came into a new age of importance. Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BNN (the company tasked by the American government with creating Arpanet – the precursor to the internet) sent a message to himself from one computer to another, and saved the @ sign from disappearing into symbolic and literal obscurity.

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

hash-sign-hi

The Hash

And here we are – the symbol of our time. Has any symbol found itself more crucial to our technological strides, not just once but twice in modern history? Initially one of only two symbols chosen for dial tone phones to make the new keypads more symmetrical, it later entered the public psyche via Twitter in 2007 to demonstrate a trend or topic. As my friend recently noted, “it’s the only thing that’s always trending”.

Most of us know it now as the hash sign, but its actual name is The Octothorpe, giving it the air of a superhero. Those etymologists among us will recognise that octo means eight. A quick count and you can see we are looking at only six points, but that’s not the only mystery. See, some claim that the thorpe part means ‘farm’ in Old Norse, and that # would indicate a village on old maps. To this day, the symbol can mean a lumber yard on Swedish maps. It can also be used in proof-reading to signify a space should be inserted, and it can even mean a checkmate in chess!

If that wasn’t enough, a similar incarnation would be adopted by the Romans (them again) as another symbol for pound (bringing the total to, yes, three different symbols for pound)!

bored at work #worklife #notlistening # presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex

bored at work #worklife #notlistening  #presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex #lolz

What symbols do you think are missing from this list? Do you feel aggravated that I didn’t include the Neptune inspired USB logo? Perhaps you cannot contain your rage at the non-inclusion of the question mark? There are many websites out there with information on the history of symbols, Gizmodo being one of my favourites.

The point here was never to give a definitive answer to all and every, but to instead give you the clip notes of some of the symbols we see everyday. The ingenuity, intelligence and history that is behind each of these could fascinate. I’d like to know what you think.

Going Obsolete – Help a Little

Going Obsolete – Learning Never Stops

Going Obsolete – Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink

Going Obsolete – My Little Avalon

Going Obsolete

Special thanks to AKARAKINGDOMS, digitalart, Iamnee, iprostocks, jscreationzs, Pixomar, Simon Howden, stockimages, Stuart Miles, vectorolie, imagerymajestic and patrisyu @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015