JOHNSON’s first foreign-language class was typical: a gaggle of 14-year olds, hormones raging, are gathered in a classroom when Señora White strolls in. ¡Hola y bienvenidos a la clase de español! Puberty is a terrible time to begin a language. One’s own parents are embarrassing enough. But to repeat nonsense words with strange gurgling and burbling sounds while the cute new classmate watches from the next desk can be mortifying. For many learners, the experience leaves lifelong scars.
Language is social. But it is not always best learned socially. Today, the first encounter with a foreign language can skip the public-shaming entirely. Digital programs get those first few stuttered words out in the privacy of one’s one home. No over-cheerful teacher, no giggling classmates: whether one is 13 or 31, some things are best experienced alone before being tried with another. Language-learning may well be one.
Software programs like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Babbel and Mango offer what purport to be complete language courses. But it is a good idea to supplement them. Consider vocabulary-building. There is simply no way around the slog of building vocabulary piece-by-piece, slowly but steadily. The programs that promise to shortcut this are misleading. But digital tools make time spent on the task much more efficient. “Fluent Forever”, a new book by Gabriel Wyner, describes the power of spaced repetition. In short, repeat a learned fact shortly after you’ve first learned it, then repeat it after a slightly longer interval, then at a longer interval still. This kind of training—refreshing a memory just before it is likely to fade—is more effective than brute-force training a word over and over upon first learning, or learning once and then trying to cram it back into the skull weeks later.
The insight into spaced repetition is not a new one, but clever digital tools make it newly available. Memrise (free) is one, with already-built courses in many languages available.Anki is another (free web version, with a $25 app for mobile and offline use). It lets users build flash cards, and remembers how recently they have been trained, calling older ones up at suitable intervals. Better yet, Anki makes it a snap to make flash cards with pictures rather than words. (Just copy an image and then paste it onto the card.) Mr Wyner rightly reckons that the act of finding a memorable image (Google Images being an easy way to do so) is a powerful one. If you put your perfect picture for the Spanish perro or guapo on the back of your flashcard, this creates a richer and more recallable memory than the boring translations dog and handsome. The mind is designed to remember meaningful things, not everything. What's more meaningful than a cute dog or an attractive person? Once upon a time, creating customised, richly memorable flashcards would take art skills and huge amounts of time. Anki makes it easy to make dozens in a half-hour study session. (Incidentally, if English is your foreign language, or you merely want to work on English vocabulary, the game-like new $3 app from Vocabulary.com is a fast and fun way for learning English words. The definitions are clever and memorable, and it also uses a form of spaced repetition.)
For grammar, computers are similarly helpful, patient with helping the intermediate learner through the dozens, hundreds or thousands of repetitions needed to get comfortable with it. Grammar is simply a set of patterns: in environment X, a word from class Y is needed, and it might need modification Z. A teacher may snort when you haven’t nailed the masculine singular dative on the third go (after all, you’ve had three chances, and there are other students trying to learn here). But a computer will not so much as sigh. For this reason, for the grammar-shy but willing-to-try, programs like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are ideal. They focus on reasonably sized chunks of grammar, and drill over and over again, with just slight changes each time. Rosetta Stone has the advantage of using rich pictures and high-quality sound. Duolingo, however, is free, offers actual explanations alongside drills, and uses the same spaced-repetition idea for grammar as Anki does for vocabulary. (It prompts you to “practise weak skills”, and this is often more rewarding than pushing on for the sake of feeling like you are making progress.)
Computers do not replace all traditional learning tools. A good grammar book remains essential—software often tries to skimp on the explanations, for the sake of trying to make language-learning easier than it is. And of course once you are comfortable, there is no replacement for practice with native speakers. But even there, computers are a big help: Benny Lewis, another polyglot touting a new book (“Fluent in Three Months”, cheerful but less scientific than Mr Wyner’s), gushes about finding cheap teachers and volunteer practice partners on Skype and other video-chat platforms.
In other words, practice with a native-speaker is essential. But there are a lot of boring bits of language-learning best done alone. They reward repetition—a few minutes a day is far better than one cramming session a week. Assisting this kind of practice is one thing computers are much better at than humans. Who knew machines could be so good at helping people with the most quintessentially human skill?