“Hacking” Language Learning, part 1

In a conversation with family over the holidays, I was informed (mansplained?) how tourists really only need a few sentences in any language to survive international travel. Ooph.

As a cultural studies scholar and language educator, the sentiment communicated by my relative stings on so many levels. It reeks of linguistic arrogance and privilege. Native English speakers benefit significantly from  the fact that English is the most often studied second language. The benefits of this phenomenon include being able to travel abroad without studying another language for more than a few hours (minutes?). This privilege also passes the responsibility for communication almost entirely to the host country and its tourism industry. Finally, while certainly unacknowledged, this asserted privilege also limits any real inter- or cross-cultural understanding to that which could be visually observed without the linguistic skills for asking questions beyond English.

To explain that last idea, I like to think about when you were a kid and you could color with those mini Crayola packs you got at a restaurant. In that context, 4 to 6 colors were fine: you could play around with a few colors and draw the very basics, pass a few minutes. However, at home or school, if you found yourself with a whole bouquet of colors suddenly your pictures could be so much more detailed and interesting. You could draw your family’s car, your mother’s dress, a cerulean sky and even skin colors.

It’s very much the same with languages. Sure 4-5 sentences may be enough to navigate from your hotel to a tourist destination but is that a satisfying inter- or cross-cultural experience? My answer is a definite no. 

My point is that cultural and linguistic study is about so much more than predictable and transactional exchanges. It’s about understanding more than a quick Wikipedia page or tour guide. It’s about being able to chat with taxi drivers, store clerks, and even college professors! It’s about listening into and beyond the said, the written, the expressed… it’s about silences and vocabulary and learning about the colors that exist only in the local language. It’s about the very many words and ideas that just don’t quite translate.   

So getting back to my relative’s misguided sentiment. We are in a moment that has computed language learning to a huge extent. We’ve made it addicting, fun, and often game-ified. While there are great criticisms of these approaches, I’m not wholly resistant to this and often recommend certain Apps to my Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese language students. My top apps are

  1. Babbel – I love Babbel and use it myself to freshen up my language skills (I just signed up for their German course to prepare for my spring Conversation course). This is a great App for adult language learners because you can easily do the games for growing your vocabulary or also delve more deeply into a language’s structure: its grammar, accents, colloquialisms, and beyond. I don’t love that there is a cost but really for what it’s offering, I think the <10$ a month plans are all worth it! 
  2. Memrise – I use Memrise for my language students all the time. I set up tutoring lists for my clients and also integrated it to my Spanish 101 courses this fall. I love how communal it is, how it approaches different words from different angles, and how it allows individual students to add Memes to help their memorization.
  3. Duolingo – Duolingo is definitely winning the app game these days. Its free services and its ability to jump levels really helps. I don’t love that it doesn’t help learn grammar so that adult learners really are left on their own to figure out why certain words or structures act the way they do. But its free and social interface still make it worth it to me. 

These Apps help us “hack” language learning but they really don’t take the place to quiet study especially in the context of classrooms that focus on the language learner and her unique goals and needs! 

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