7 Ways that Computers Changed How We Learn Languages

If you are learning a language today, chances are that your study sessions are looking vastly different than they would have even 10 years ago. This is a part of our daily life that has been radically transformed by the digital age.
The revolution came in 7 waves:

1. Digitalization

Regular texts gave way to hyperlinks and dictionary programs. Digitalization also made it much more likely that someone would consult a brick of a dictionary with 500,000 entries plus sample sentences – as long as it’s on the smartphone and not on paper.

2. Multimedia

Everything includes audio or video now. It feels obvious, but: when did you ever tap next to a word in a paper dictionary in order to hear it pronounced? Our habits really changed. For the Defense Language Institute’s online materials, media are the essence of their lessons. They take authentic target-language radio and TV broadcasts and then teach you to understand them. And as for flashcards, using open-source tools like Subs2Srsand Anki, you could create digital flashcards that play two-second excerpts of your favorite foreign TV show and then quiz you on what was just said. (step by step guide)

3. Auto-correction

Auto-correction ran quite a gamut. A 10-year-old can probably create a fill-in-the-blank text and some Javascript that checks whether the answers match the correct solutions. Much more sophisticated results of the same innovation are spellcheckers, which are already ubiquitous, and now style-checkers. The most exciting application of auto-correction is in accent improvement. At Wordbook, you can pronounce Chinese words and phrases and the computer will show you how closely you matched a native speaker’s pronunciation. Rosetta Stone implements similar technology.

4. Social Integration

Learning a language in self-study used to be a solitary hobby, which partly explains the high number of people who abandon a course after the first few lessons. When web 2.0 became a hot item, language-learning websites started to add a social component. It can take three forms: competition, encouragement and help.

Competition is when a website encourages you to best your friends, for example by displaying a highscore based on how much you studied. Some examples are the Read More or Die competition or the 6 Week Challenge.

Alternatively, or also in conjunction, sites can increase the likelihood that you get encouragement from your peers. Duolingois a master at this: when you log into Facebook, ready to waste some hours there, only to find that a bunch of your friends are applauding you for having learned Dutch plurals on Duolingo, guess where you’ll be heading next. This kind of positive feedback loop just does not happen when using traditional courses or even attending local classes.

Users helping users is also an important part of modern language-learning websites. Most have a forum, chat or user diary/blog. Then there are sites where people will correct your foreign-language texts for free or record audio for you, taking this to the next level.

5. Personalization (starting in 2007)

What if your friends are ready to help and encourage you, but you still can’t motivate yourself to spend much time on phrases like “the duck eats the strawberry”? The next innovation looked at how to ensure you’re genuinely interested in what you’re learning, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that is still commonly-found even today.
Every human has different interests. How can companies create language courses that will cover hardware news for one person and gardening for another?

Personalization puts you in charge of your learning. You surf to foreign-language content that is interesting to you and then use a tool like Lingua.lyin order to understand the content and learn the vocabulary you need. Alternatively, if you don’t know what kind of interesting foreign-language content is out there or have trouble finding texts that are easy enough for your level, Bliubliuwill take care of that for you. With a bit of training, Bliubliu can predict which texts you’ll like and serve you a daily diet of interesting foreign-language articles – personalized to you.

6. Gamification (starting in 2010)

Don’t make mistakes or you’ll lose a life. Collect play money to buy vanity items from the store. Complete this series of lessons in order to gain access to a special area or mini-game. Learn Esperanto in Second Life. Play Space Invaders to review Japanese Kana. Solve a detective story while learning French.
Different sites fall on different points of the spectrum from serious course to language-learning game, but what can’t be denied is that companies are discovering gamification as another way to retain your interest in language lessons.

7. Computer Language Teachers (starting in 2011)

The latest innovation comes in the form of systems which are intelligent enough to determine
a) what you need to learn and
b) which exercises will help you learn it.
They play the part of language teachers. The basic idea was pioneered by Khan Academy (for math, not languages), whose system keeps generating new questions on the same topic until you finally understand it. In 2011, Duolingo took it one step further by even leaving the order of introduction of new vocabulary up to the AI.
At the moment you can study English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Danish or Irish on Duolingo. Many more languages have been requested. If you want to have the computer teach you Chinese in a similar way, check out LearnYu, my site, which is currently in beta but already usable.
What innovation will we see next? For us language geeks, these are very exciting times.