IWTYAL 191: Do you use apps for language learning?

Saud asks: “Do you use apps for language learning?”

Episode Summary:

  • Because technology is always being promoted as making our lives more efficient, many people are tempted to look to apps to speed up the language learning process
  • All my opinions about apps are formed in the light of the fact that I remember what language learning was like before the internet
  • Nothing will ever be as effective as you, a good book, a pen and a paper
  • The critical mistakes that apps make is to try to offer a new learning methodology
  • The role of technology in language learning should be to help you consume learning material more efficiently
  • The criteria for judging an app should be: “Does it help me do more efficiently something I was already doing?”
  • Before the internet: Hard to access texts, audio on tapes was inefficient to listen to, everything has to be stored manually on paper, native speakers inaccessible
  • After the internet: Texts are freely available, you can manipulate audio easily, you have data entry on your phone, native speakers readily available
  • There’s a big risk you have to mitigate against when you use apps: Attention and focus
  • I use two apps: Flashcards Deluxe and Speater
  • I also use dictionary apps and Skype
  • Part of the reason I haven’t used more apps is because I’ve been learning less common languages. However, if I want to pick up German, for example, I would go straight to a book, not an app

Resources Mentioned In Today’s Episode:

IWTYAL 051: Can technology help you learn a language?

Full Transcript:

Good morning everybody, welcome back to the, I Will Teach You a Language podcast. I hope you’re having a wonderful day wherever you are in the world. Yesterday it just kind of struck me as I was going about my day; that I had one of those days that I think you need to have if you’re really serious about learning a language. You know we always talk about the fact that you have to make your language learning a lifestyle and you have to live your life as if your language was a part of it. Well I really did that yesterday, I woke up early, I was up at about 6 o’clock. I went to the gym, had breakfast and I went out and by 8 o’clock in the morning I was sat in a cafe having a Cantonese lesson with Priscilla. And we chatted Cantonese for an hour which was great and then I went off about my day, doing nothing really related to Cantonese.

But in the evening I went and I met my friend for dinner and we sat and we talked Cantonese- not all night but about half the night, she is from Guangdong in the south of China and a Cantonese speaking area and we sat and chatted Cantonese all evening. So at the beginning and at the end of the day I was using the language, in one case for a lesson and in another case just for socialising but I just really had that feeling of like, “Olly you’re doing the right thing,” like this is what you’ve got to do. It’s difficult to do that every day obviously because apart from anything, you just get really tired but this is the kind of thing that you need to do. To arrange your life and organise your life in such a way that you kind of start to live the language, even though you feel like you may be not be ready or whatever.

It’s taken me a bit of time to get to the point now where I’ve got a teacher that I like and I’ve got friends who can bear to sit down for a whole hour or two with me and speak in the language but I know for a fact that if I keep doing this and I do things this way, then that- I cannot help but improve in the language. So I just wanted to mention that as a little commentary. Maybe that provokes some thoughts for you guys. I’d like to thank the sponsors of the show. Yesterday when I had my Cantonese lesson it was with Priscilla and it was on iTalki because iTalki is so cool, it makes taking language lessons super easy and if you’d like to get a free lesson you can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson.
Today we’ve got a great question, it’s about apps. Do I use apps for my language learning? What do I think about apps for language learning? Here is Saud.

Saud: Hi, I’m Saud. I’m from Saudi Arabia. I’m learning English and also I started with Japanese alphabet. Now I know about 40 letters from Hiragana. I want to ask you about tools for learning languages such as LingQ, Learning with Text, Foreign Language Reader, [unintelligible 00:03:21]. Do you find these tools useful or do you use them? That’s my question and thank you.

Hi Saud, thank you very much for a great question and it’s topical because apps, technology, it’s what everybody turns to in language learning. Technology is always being promoted as a way of making our lives more efficient. In the real world, apps and technology do make our lives more efficient and so it’s only natural that people kind of look to apps for language learning as well, and they think, “Well how can apps or technology speed up the language learning process?” All of my opinions on apps are formed in the light of the fact that I remember what language learning was like before the Internet. This is something I spoke about with Luca, Luca Lampariello in episode 51 and 52. We had a chat that was called Can Technology Help you learn a Language?

And we both said the same thing, me and Luca are similar ages and I really started with my language learning around the year 2000 and of course the Internet existed then but there wasn’t much and apps certainly didn’t exist. So when I learned my first languages, I had a pen and paper and a textbook and some tapes and that’s what I used and it was exactly the same with Luca. So we talked about this and the thing that we felt very strongly, is that well if you’re going to use an app for language learning, it has to pass one key test, which is does it make language learning easier than it was when you just used a book and a CD? So whenever I’m looking at apps, I’m always comparing to that. I’m thinking, “Okay, if I just used a textbook now, if I just used a CD, how does this app make things better?”

And I think there are a couple of cases where technology can help and we’ll get onto that but I think that the starting point for this always has to be that with language learning you cannot beat a pen and paper and a CD and a good book. You can’t beat it, I mean you can learn that there is nothing stopping you learning languages with traditional materials, people have been doing it for hundreds of years and they always will. So don’t think that- I really want you not to get swept up in this kind of rush to find the best language app because you will never find it. You’ll never find it because you can’t get- you can’t get away from the fact that to learn a language you need to spend deep focused time with the language itself. The big problem with apps is that they encourage a short attention span, a lack of focus and just lack of depth in general.

So anyway, let me try not to rant too much about that. Here’s the thing, most apps, not all but most language apps, they make one critical mistake which is that they try to offer you a new language learning methodology. They try to say that, “Here is the best way to learn a language.” People write me emails every day, it really frustrates me, people saying, “Ah, we’ve just made this new app. It’s going to revolutionise the way people learn Chinese.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s not okay, it’s really not. Duolingo, everyone uses Duolingo right, and I don’t know what it is but learn a language in five minutes a day. No, you won’t, I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen. The role of technology in language learning should not be to generate a new language learning methodology. The only language learning methodology you need is to sit down and spend an hour a day in deep focus, spending time and studying the language, that’s all you need to do. It really is as simple as that.

The role of technology in language learning should be to help you consume language learning material more efficiently. I’m going to say that again, the role of technology should not be to give you a new methodology, it should be to help you do what you were already doing more efficiently. So that’s the question you should be asking yourself with any app or website. Is like, “Does this app help me do more efficiently something that I was already doing?” rather than looking for a new way to learn. For example, before the Internet, so this is- when I started learning languages, here were some of the problems. It was difficult to access reading material in different languages, you’d have to go to the library or buy books and things like that. You had audio on tapes and CDs and it was kind of inefficient to listen to, you had to carry the CD or tape with you everywhere and if you wanted to rewind you to kind of guess how many seconds back to rewind.

If you wanted to make notes, everything had to be on paper in a notebook. If you wanted to talk with somebody, you had to hope that there was someone in your town or city or village because if not, you couldn’t talk to anybody. Those were genuine problems or genuine drawbacks, although remember it didn’t stop people learning languages, it just presented a series of challenges. Now after the Internet those specific things, those four things I mentioned have changed. So now reading texts are freely available on the Internet, you can find anything you want and print it off. You can carry audio with you wherever you go and you can manipulate it easily, so you can slow it down, speed it up, put little sections on loop. You have data entry on your phone so you can store things on an app very easily. Native speakers are just on the other end of Skype across the world, it’s amazing what the Internet and this technology has done for us but in every case, what this technology has done, is to help us do things that we were already doing, more efficiently.

Whereas before it was difficult to find reading texts, now you can find them. Whereas it was difficult to- and kind of cumbersome to make notes and store vocabulary, now you can do it very easily in flash drive but it doesn’t try to give you a new learning methodology. It just gives you a more efficient way to do the right things. So this is the big litmus test with apps and like I said before, the big risk all the time, every time you use an app, the question isn’t just, how does this- how does it help me do things better because you’ve also got mitigate against the danger that whenever you lose apps- whenever you use apps, you are by their very definition, depriving yourself of attention and focus. Now let’s say you do use Duolingo and you say, use it for 15 minutes a day, I bet that in the middle of using it, you’re skipping back and forth to your email and sending a few texts and checking the news or whatever.

It’s the big inbuilt danger with apps and technology and just in general, we need to cultivate this feeling and this approach of deep work. I really try to not use my phone at all now because even if I just go check twitter or whatever, the fact of like- of your attention wandering and you being kind of sucked into this instant gratification mindset, even if it is during the middle of the day, like that still affects you when you sit down to learn languages in the morning or in the evening because you’re just conditioning your brain to jump around like a butterfly. So that being said, there are two apps that I use which I think meet the criteria that I specified before. The first of those is flashcards deluxe and I’ve mentioned this lots of times in the podcast, I think it’s the best flashcard app. It’s easy, simple to use, very powerful and the reason I use it is because all of my new vocabulary gets stored in there.

I don’t use it actually so much for the space petition functionality although that’s useful, the main reason I use it is because I just want all my vocabulary in one place because then I can go back and review it and search it at any point. It’s very, very useful. The other app I use is Speater, S-P-E-A-T-E-R, for iPhone and that is an app where it helps you listen to audio. So you upload an MP3 into the app and then you can put it on repeat, you can loop little sections, you can press one button to skip back five seconds or so or skip forward five seconds or back 10 seconds. It helps you consume audio. So when I’m walking down the street or on the bus I can listen to a recording and I can easily skip back or loop bits, which helps me listen more. It’s not a new methodology, neither of these two things are new methodologies; they help me do the basic things but more easily.

Now I also used dictionary apps on my phone and obviously I also use Skype but I don’t think that really counts for this discussion. The other thing I should say is that part of the reason I think I haven’t used more apps or experimented more with technology, is actually because in the last five years or so, the languages that I’ve been learning have been really less common and haven’t had many resources. You know, Egyptian Arabic, Cantonese, there’s nothing out there in terms of apps for these languages. So I just haven’t had the opportunity to really experiment with these apps. If I go back to say learn German at some point then I would probably experiment with other apps maybe but to be honest, let’s say I was going to try and pick up German again, all I would do is I get a good book and I would spend time with it every day.

Now Saud, you mentioned a few websites that I actually think are quite good. So you mentioned LingQ, I think it’s supposed to be pronounced Link, L-I-N-G-Q. Steve Kaufmann’s website and there’s Readlang, which is also really great and those two websites are examples of websites that do meet the criteria. So they help you do what you’re already doing more efficiently, both LingQ and Readlang, they help you read texts. I mean you’ve still got to choose a text, you’ve still got to find a text that’s kind of good but they help you read that text better. So that kind of meets the test but still it really isn’t that different to just finding a good book and reading it. So again, it helps you. I think really what you’ve got to ask yourself, is with every app or website you use, you’ve got to think, “Does this help me learn better?” and the point of comparison is very simply a textbook or a book with a CD. Like how does this do it better?

So I hope that was useful Saud. If you’d like to ask me a question, please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ask, to do that and there’s a huge bumblebee that’s just flown into the room where I’m recording this and you can probably hear it in the background, so I better wrap this up before I get into trouble. At the end of every episode I like to leave you with a resource on the topic of the show and what you should do today is go back and listen to this chat with Luca that I mentioned earlier because it’s really, really interesting. Both Luca and I talk about our experiences with technology and language learning in general. I will put a link to the video of that in the show notes, which will be at iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode191. Have a great week.

Thank you so much for listening to today’s episode. I really hope you enjoyed it. You know, one of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory because things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don’t forget them later in conversation when you really need them. So what I decided to do was to put together a short email course, it’s a three-part email course over three days that teaches you my favourite techniques for memorising vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long term memory. It’s a short course, three days, it’s completely free and if you’d like to sign up for it please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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  • Kevin Richardson

    Great podcast as always Olly. Kind of answered a question I’ve been meaning to ask for sometime. Just like the unproductive language partner conversation; occasionally I encounter sanctimonious language snobs.

    As a language teacher, I’m always encouraging my students, particularly in the beginner stages, to treat language as a stolen car … grind those grammatical gears, thrash the living daylights out of the engine … ha ha … have drunken conversations in your target language … be a language punk … f*** the grammar system … yeah … language anarchy!!!

    In the 1970’s, there were two presenters on Blue Peter who couldn’t have been more different. John Noakes was the “get your hands dirty” kind of Benny Lewis “speak from day one” type … and Peter Purvis was more the “I’ll stay indoors and play with the model railway” type (which I might dare to equate more to Steve Kaufmann’s approach of lots of listening and reading before making an arse of oneself in conversation).

    Now, when I encounter these sanctimonious language snobs, I’m left thinking about Russell Brand’s retort to Jeremy Paxman – during his interview he said, “Why is that naive? Why is that not my right because I’m an actor? I mean, I, I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.”

    Sometimes, I just replace the word “actor” with “language learner”. Whenever the language snobs try lording it over the language I’m trying to learn, I’m thinking, “Who gave you the keys to the castle?” … and if I want to make my drawbridge out of jelly … I damn well will. Is it the correct way … nope … but it is my right to go on my journey the way I see fit … indeed it is.

    I can take constructive criticism if it is exactly that … but so often it seems the criticism isn’t for my benefit … and that’s where I find myself distancing myself from participating in the communal discourse … and I slip into the wonderful world of learning a language in secret … ready to emerge a beautiful language butterfly (fluentfly???) one day.

    I loved learning as part of the Add1Challenge community … and I also love slipping into my linguistic hermitage too. All roads converge seem to Utopia … you just keep plodding on day by day.

  • Luke Truman

    So happy to hear your Cantonese is going so well Olly!! I know how hard you have worked on this language, and its really great for my motivation to see other westerners trying so hard to learn.
    For when I move to Bristol I have found a Cantonese speaking meetup as well as through Couchsurfing, linkedin I have found a couple of people I have sent some messages and plan to meet up with and hopefully become friends with. Also I messaged the Hong Kong society from the university and they said I can tag along to some of the events dispite not being a student. I really hope to integrate it into my life as much as possible, I am doing this somewhat now but this is all through skype as my Hong Kong friends all live in Newcastle.
    Keep going Olly, wish you all the best in Cantonese