Toucan: Can you learn a language while browsing the web?

Martin Brinkmann
Jul 2, 2022
Google Chrome extensions

Can you learn a new language by just browsing the web, like you always do? Toucan, a browser extension for Chrome, Edge, other Chromium-based browsers, and Firefox, suggests that you can.

toucan learn languages

Learning new languages is a time consuming task, even if you focus your main attention on certain aspects, e.g., reading and understanding, only. The past decade has seen the rise of new language learning services and apps, which help you learn languages, or at least the vocabulary that is required.

Toucan falls into that category. You may use the browser extension to learn the following languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish.

What makes it stand out, in comparison to apps such as Duolingo or Memrise, is the fact that you learn languages on webpages that you visit. The main idea behind Toucan is to replace some words on webpages with words from another language. Move the mouse over a word and you get the translation and an option to hear it pronounced.

You get contextual translations and on-demand translations for all of the words in the free version of the service. The preferences display a handful of important options. Use them to select the language that you want to learn, the number of words that you want Toucan to translate into the desired language, and your language experience.

toucan preferences

Toucan translates just a few beginner words by default, but you may change the number of translations and the experience level to change that.

The extension can be used on any site, but it needs to be granted explicit access. It is a good compromise between offering the service at all and preventing that it has access to all sites and translates words on all sites automatically.

Options to pause the automatic translation feature on individual sites or all sites are provided.

The base version can be extended with a premium subscription. It is available for less than €4 per month and adds quizzes, games, saved word reviews and personalized learning experiences to the service.

Can you learn a language using Toucan?

Toucan focuses on vocabulary and to some degree pronunciation.  It works surprisingly well when it comes to improving your vocabulary, but it lacks support for other foundations, such as grammar or speech.

Toucan is best used as a complementary tool to learn one of the supported languages, but it falls short as a standalone language learning service.

Closing Words

If you are already learning a language, you may find Toucan useful as a tool to improve your vocabulary. One of the great features of Toucan is that it works on the sites that you visit and that the words that you learn using it may come from an area of interest instead of more generic scenarios.

All in all, it is worth a try if you learn one of the languages and want to improve your vocabulary.

Now You: how do you learn languages?

Toucan: Can you learn a language while browsing the web?
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Toucan: Can you learn a language while browsing the web?
Toucan is a language learning extension for web browsers that helps you learn new foreign language words while browsing the web.
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  1. piomiq said on July 4, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    it is shame that supports very few languages (only most popular in Europe).

  2. TelV said on July 3, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    Anyone want to learn Dutch? Most lessons are free :)

  3. Some1 said on July 3, 2022 at 1:03 am

    Learning any language other than English is a waste of time and energy.

    1. Hitomi said on July 4, 2022 at 11:11 am

      Only if people avoid you. For those who socialize well, learning French is the best way to impress a native. They will open up to you and respect your efforts. You are welcome in parts of Canada, Switzerland and France of course.

      French people have pride and they’d rather say “Je t’aime mes animaux de compagnie.” than some anglicism like “I love my pets.” They are extremely protective of their language.

      1. Tom Hawack said on July 4, 2022 at 12:25 pm

        @Hitomi, that’d be “J’aime mes animaux de compagine”. The “Je t’aime’ means “I love you”, the “t” referring to “you” : “I love” = “J’aime”. But “I love you” cannot be translated by “J’aime toi” unless you’re Tarzan :=)

        Maybe a slight nuance concerning your kind description of French, the people, the language.
        I’m not sure that being French myself entitles me to more objectivity.

        I don’t think pride is a keyword to define French people. I asked one day a Dutchman in Amsterdam the first word that came to his mind when evoking France. His answer was “sophistication” and I quite agree. For the best and for the worst.

        For the best : we like things to be done as well as possible and we think that calling our heart to achieve that counts more than filling our wallet. Money is a consequence here more than a motivation, globally speaking of course. And if you look closely at the numerous strikes’ motivations in France you’ll notice that salaries are often not the main or only motivation.

        For the worst : “Why make things simple when they can be complicated” : pragmatism is not our leading quality, be it a quality. What is simple in the Anglo-Saxon culture may become complicated, fancy in France, and a plain hamburger become a King’s “sophisticated” meal with the addition of a extras on a silver plate…

        Concerning the language, French people as we all just like to dialog and because most of them don’t handle foreign languages as well as others, a foreigner speaking French is maybe more particularly appreciated; but I don’t perceive any correlation to a whatever pride.

        Lastly, and this is a debate by itself, I’d say that in my perception there is maybe a greater affinity between French and American cultures than between French and British. Developing would be really excessively off-topic, but anyone familiar with all three might wonder if he agrees or not :=)

      2. Hitomi said on July 5, 2022 at 10:21 am

        Been 12 years since I lived there for some short time. I got really rusty thinking about that mistake. Sophistication is quite good indeed, I’d even say elitary, especially if you look at the French education system.

        My favourite philosophers and scientists are French. Though you have to admit sophistication alone doesn’t explain being very protective about your language. It takes constant effort to not accept every anglicism like other countries.

        Think about Japan maybe: Terebi is “televi” = TV since no native r and v sounds can be formed, as they turn L and B. Meanwhile a German would say Fern+seher. As in “far viewer” or television.

        So you have to be creative and protective for your word to be accepted by your people. In Germany to the point that weird pseudo-anglicisms form such as beamer (projector) or handy (mobile phone). Projektor and Mobil+telefon exist as regular words, but most people chose to use their slang.

        The perhaps best thing about German and Hungarian is large compound words. You can chain almost every word together to describe a thing that exists. Like Löschwassereinspeisung, a port for insertion of water to extinguish fires. It is very compact and eliminates many words.

        Now Hungarian, that is a hard language compared to German. Probably Finnish and Hungarian are the most intimidating languages in Europe.

        But I am ranting already!

    2. ChromeFan said on July 3, 2022 at 12:40 pm

      Not even the number 1 language in the world, LOL.

  4. Tom Hawack said on July 2, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    “[Toucan] works surprisingly well when it comes to improving your vocabulary, but it lacks support for other foundations, such as grammar or speech.”

    That’s what I had in mind before reading it explicitly. I am personally skeptical that such an add-on, such a concept can do any more than improving one’s vocabulary of a foreign language. Not to mention that such extensions, those which automatically intervene on all pages visited by the user may very well track the user’s session as well. I’m not fond of such extensions for this reason but if the extension intervenes on the user’s demand then it’s OK of course.

    How do you learn languages?

    People’s language : the best way is to live in the country and learn progressively.
    Scholar, academic language : school, university, also by yourself but you’ll have to invest (yourself) seriously!

    The ideal is to have a strong academic basis then improve everyday conversation with a long journey in the foreign country. Scholar knowledge is in fact the theory and living abroad is the practice. Like in many areas of knowledge : how often haven’t we seen self-made men smile when dealing with a university-graded theorist, qualified but not really ready for the work :=) Same applies to languages I guess, to the point that you can recognize a foreigner speaking your language with no accent at all but only because he speaks your language better than you do! I’ve seen that with Americans, Africans as well who’ve been taught ‘correct’ French and never forgot that basis :=)

    Also, kids learn faster “on the ground” than seniors. Personally the Frenchman I am started learning English (American!) in the USA : age six to twelve. That gave no university level but truly the American accent (some tell me British Canadian accent) which I’ve never lost. I improved nevertheless my English back in France and it’d be far better if I had gone on a university level afterwards. I often meet French who understand/speak better than I but with such a strong accent that anyone would believe the expert is myself when it is not at all! beware of establishing a correlation between an accent and the knowledge of a language :=)

    One side-method I’ve never tried myself : hearing recorded conversations in a foreign language while you sleep.
    Imagine waking up and telling your companion ‘Ich liebe dich” when you have no knowledge at all of German? :=)

    1. Shiva said on July 3, 2022 at 11:08 am

      @Tom Hawack
      ‘Imagine waking up and telling your companion ‘Ich liebe dich’ when you have no knowledge at all of German?’

      I’m half German, but joking about it…
      ‘Ti amo’ OK
      ‘Je t’aime’ OK
      ‘Te quiero’ OK
      ‘I love you’ OK
      ‘Ich liebe dich’ You’re scaring her if she’s half asleep :-)

      It also reminds me when I went to work in a garden nursery in the UK, one day my German boss lady more or less said to me, ‘You will become familiar with English when you start dreaming in English too.’
      I replied, ‘Ah! The problem is that in this remote place and after 4 months, my dreams usually have very limited conversations.’

      Anyway, it seems a nice extension.

      1. Tom Hawack said on July 3, 2022 at 11:41 am

        @Shiva, nice to start the day with a laugh!

        Those words indeed in all languages :
        Anthony Quinn – I love you, you love me []

        Always preferable to “Move off!”, “Dégage !”, “Raus!” … LOL (even after many shared years!).

        The lady was right : ‘You will become familiar with English when you start dreaming in English too.’
        What is relevant maybe of one’s primary language is the language in which he thinks.
        What is relevant of one’s mastery of a language is when he doesn’t refer to a movie’s subtitles to understand it!

        Languages are so important, in fact I think you just cannot understand a foreign culture without understanding its language(s).

    2. just an Ed said on July 2, 2022 at 4:19 pm

      :-)) Very good! I was told once by a Polish immigrant that I didn’t know my own language, as she corrected me upon using a colloquial expression. I was also told the following joke. If someone who speaks 3 languages is tri-lingual, and one who speaks 2 is bi-lingual, what do you call someone who only speaks 1 language? Why, American, of course. :-))
      As an American, I approve of this joke. ;-)

      1. Tom Hawack said on July 2, 2022 at 5:02 pm

        @just an Ed, the joke is nice but in my experience more Americans speak and better master one or more foreign languages than at last … French do. Genius of course applies to French in general (sigh) except in two areas of knowledge : languages and geography! But things change. I guess in France as elsewhere the strong implementation of English via mainly (pesudo-) cultural segments provides a quick access to “easy English”. Easy and far less academic than what school provides if only they would make the effort to be attentive in classrooms! There are also side-effects of this American culture among seniors : I’ve been told the anecdote of this person in court who answered “Votre Honneur” (“Your Honor”) to the judge, perhaps influenced by another of those made in USA soap-operas, lol.

  5. David said on July 2, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    This sounded so cool that I began to install it. But then the Firefox add-on installer reported it was going to access “your data” (cookies, trackers?) from 362 of the sites that I visit.

    This is a show-stopper. Unless or until someone offers a benign explanation it’s not going on any of my browsers.

    1. DrKnow said on July 3, 2022 at 12:58 am

      @David and the other paranoid users of this site.
      And what is it going to find that is ‘useful’ in all your cookies and trackers etc.

      If you already allow sites to ‘track’ you. What’s the issue? If you don’t, then they’re is nothing for the extension to find.

      What are they going to do with all this data they are ‘grabbing’? Display adverts you’ve already blocked? Sigh!

      Psst, such an extension is ALWAYS going to have access to the websites you visits. Seriously, how do you think these extensions work?

      1. Ray said on July 3, 2022 at 9:49 pm

        To be fair, I did check Toucan’s privacy policy and it sounds nice, but the wording is off.

        > Toucan doesn’t sell your personal information to anyone.
        > Toucan doesn’t link any of your web browsing behavior to your personally identifiable information.

        Some things that do stand out is the “personally identifiable information” part.

        If you dig deeper at their privacy policy, they say:

        > We share aggregated demographic information with our partners and advertisers. This is not linked to any personal information that can identify any individual person.

        So I was right after all.

        You are the product.

      2. David said on July 3, 2022 at 3:34 pm

        @DrKnow, Paranoia is when you only THINK they’re trying to get your data. Monetization is when you KNOW they’re selling your data.

      3. Tom Hawack said on July 3, 2022 at 4:22 pm

        Maybe would the wording be more fortunate expressed as :

        “Paranoia may be when you KNOW they’re trying to get your data. Monetization is when your data is FACTUALY sold.”

        Because paranoids won’t tell you that they think but always that they know. They have no doubt :=)
        In the same way, be you sane or insane you’ll always cry “I’m not crazy” when they come and get you to bring you to the asylum. Difference is to be or not to be, mad. But who can tell? Maybe the doctors are the ones who are mad. At the end the one who doubts is likely to be the healthy one. — Senile ramblings.

    2. Ray said on July 2, 2022 at 11:31 pm

      Yeah, I can see them gathering a profile of which sites you visit and selling that data to advertisers.

      I checked the 362 sites by viewing the source and the list is pretty much what you would expect. Here’s a paste of all the permissions and sites:

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