I spent most of October paying intimate attention to the most basic of phrases. I haven’t done this in over 10 years. Not since my year as an estudiante de intercambio in Panama. Three weeks in Chile — with a brief stop in the magical Machu Picchu — made me pause. I was in South America, but brought back to my days teaching young Koreans English in Seoul. And back to the many questions that kept me up at night whilst composing my master’s dissertation on the branding of education:
What is the most powerful way for people to learn languages? And what role can technology play in development?
Duolingo is one of the usual suspects. It is cited as one of the most innovative examples of online learning. It’s a great taster for beginners — light language entertainment, bite-sized and sticky. Good for picking up basic words, pronunciation, grammar. You feel instantly satiated.
But to what extent does it meaningfully help you communicate?
I’ve dabbled with three languages on the app — Swedish, Portuguese and Spanish. The latter I know well enough to order vegetarian, fix a flat tire and empathize with a cabbie’s life story. The first two I could get by ordering a beer at the bar, just don’t ask me what size.
If you’re an immediate or advanced learner, Duolingo can be a catalyst for motivating you to re-start your language learning, but you soon hit a wall. I quickly advanced through most of the levels in Spanish, but didn’t feel that my skills were actually improving. Without real and practical application, you won’t get far.
Even if you’re a beginner, there are many ways in which it could be more powerful. I found even after reaching level 6 in Portuguese, it was difficult to apply my learnings to everyday contexts in Lisbon, a city I know and love. One of the first Portuguese phrases I learned on Duolingo was “I am a girl.” Helpful vocabulary, but not as useful as “Uma cerveja, por favor” — one beer, please.”
Where does one move on from Duolingo? How could language learning online be more impactful?
Imagine a language app focused on the things that matter most to you. Imagine if the app started with a set of questions that probed:
What do you need to know in this language?
order gluten-free at restaurants
tell a cabbie an address with confidence
know enough words to not make a fool of yourself at yoga
What are you most passionate about right now?
poetry and words
What are you already learning about?
robotics and raspberry pis
Then based on the questions, it would curate fresh content every day based on your individual needs and interests — words of the day, news, articles, images, blogs, books, classes, events.
My last three days in Chile I stumbled upon Pablo Neruda. Reading his poems is like getting to know a new friend you’ve known your whole life. I’ve been starting my days by reading a poem in Spanish and English. It would be a dream to wake up the morning with a beautiful new poem composed by a different author shared in Spanish and my mother tongue.
Resources I’m inspired by
Amanda — Great example of vocabulary learning in context. Introduces a new Chinese word through trending news articles in English.
Floqq — Skillshare in español, up your Spanish, as you pick up new skills.
One of the toughest things about learning a language is not being afraid of appearing stupid. Even when you live in a country where they don’t speak your language for many years, you might not ever get past asking for the bill at a restaurant. Fear and pride get in the way.
Language learning should start with people and love. The world needs a community feature that helps you connect with native speakers and learners. Folks who encourage you, who might laugh with but not at you when you make mistakes, who inspire you to learn more. Over email, over Skype, over snail mail, over coffee.
Resources I’ve used to meet folks
Meetup — Great resource for finding a language group in your city.
Tinder — Great for meeting locals when you travel, not just for dates or hook ups.
This was recommended to me by a friend who recently read my post — Busuu, the largest social network for language learning.
I’d love to get more personal notes of encouragement and progress. Instead of just updating me on my points as Duolingo does in its daily reminders, it would be amazing to get reminders, questions and recommendations on things like:
You learned the Portuguese word mulher last week. Do you remember what it means? Have you used it in sentence? Hint: It’s the opposite of man.
You know Spanish, but you now are learning Portuguese. What are you finding most challenging?
Have you heard of the Swedish poet and psychologist Tomas Tranströmer? You might like his work if you like Pablo Neruda.
Real life empathy. These are the types of content that would be much more powerful to get in an email reminder or mobile notification to reinforce the learning.
Resources who keep me going
My lovely partner, my friend in Buenos Aires, my host family in Panama
This is just food for thought to build a new language learning experience online.
Duolingo is still a great learning tool, but there is so much room to develop more powerful language development resources online, particularly for immediate and advanced learners. I’ll be one of the first people to try it