Using the Internet for language learning

04 Jul

Yesterday on io9, there was an article entitled “What is the Fastest Way to Learn a Foreign Language?”  Annalee summarized a bunch of tips and research that others added to in the comments. Language learning is important and relevant to me, so I’ll chime in with some Web and app options. When I first attended college, I majored in modern foreign languages with a focus on Spanish and German. It was a mess. My Spanish classes were filled with bilingual Hispanic Americans blowing out the top of the curve on vocabulary and grammar tests and writing essays as easily as I write these posts, while I struggled with dictionaries and grammar charts. After the 200 level, all of my German classes in the small department were immersive and cross-listed with graduate classes (ie: German 352/652 – The Weimar Republic). While graduate students had to do additional papers, the reading and lectures were at their level. This left me able to read and write about Brecht in a historical context but unable to have a casual conversation. Needless to say, with disuse my German skills and more advanced Spanish skills eroded.

Over the years I’ve tried recorded lessons to refresh my skills and in the late ’90s during a brief gig as the technology editor for an indie travel magazine, I reviewed language learning software for an article. Some companies were already doing a nice job with gamification of the process, turning vocabulary lessons into matching games and using hangman-styled methods for vocabulary and spelling drills. Now, while a set of Rosetta Stone CDs will still set you back hundreds of dollars, there are a plethora of free options on the Web.

duolingoDuolingo is probably the king of the current methods. It’s free, intelligently designed, and offers a growing range of languages; not just for English speakers or for those who want to learn English. In this process, you work your way up a tree starting with basics and phrases. There is a lot of positive reinforcement and the discussion forum is full of helpful people to clear up confusion. Though Duolingo can be used as an app, I find that using the full Web version with a headset gives the best results. The voice recognition and some translations aren’t perfect but they’re awfully good. Duolingo supports itself by offering translation services to other companies and part of the learning process is to do some of that translation, Mechanical Turk-style. Doing translation is not required to use the service.

I had been using Duolingo daily for a while, then I hit a point where it didn’t feel like things were sinking in, so I did a lot of review and shifted to other methods. I’m going back, though, after this long weekend. Feel free to follow me there if you use it: I’m KDNP.  Right now I’m at level 10 in German — the primary language I’m studying — and 8 in Spanish, 5 in Italian, and 3 in French, which I do sometimes for a break.

Another website I’ve been using and really enjoy is Babadum has vocabulary training for eleven languages right now and I find the art charming and the process fun. There are five different “games” available.  The easiest is illustrated below: you are shown a word and simply need to match it with an image. Sometimes the pictures can be confusing, but they’re pretty easy to understand after the first attempt. You are rewarded with points (or not) and progress on to the next one. The second game shows one image with four words. The third game looks like the first, but instead of reading a word, you click a Play icon and listen to it, then choose the correct image. The fourth game adds spelling: You see an image with blanks and scrambled letters below, and you must click the letters in the proper order to put them into the blanks.  The fifth game randomly shuffles the four other techniques. There isn’t a social aspect to Babadum, but they do have a leader board (Woo! I’m still in the top 20 on German, despite not playing for a while! Yay me.)


Another helpful tool free tool is Anki, a flashcard program and app. You can upload or create a list of things you want to study or choose from many user-created and shared decks. There are already decks that include the Duolingo vocabulary for various languages, for example. Anki relies on the honor system to some extent; after you see a word, you click to show the answer and then self-evaluate whether it was hard, good, easy, or you need to practice it again. That evaluation adjusts when that card will be repeated. I really like this, but for language learning it is a supplement and not a primary method. If you’ve got a list to memorize, however, this is fantastic.

YouTube is simply brilliant for language learning. There are loads of videos from native speakers as well as music videos and movies. It can take some searching to find a list of favorites, but it’s worth the time.  I’ve watched things ranging from the full movie Good bye, Lenin! to many Get Germanized! podcasts. Need help memorizing those damned article endings in various cases? YouTube to the rescue! (Warning: the video below will stick in your head and haunt your dreams, which is awfully useful when trying to recall the correct dative neuter ending.)

There are many other options, too. I use a Spiegel TV app that lets me watch German documentary-style videos on my phone. There are lots of television stations that stream their content online, though it can be a pain to get around geographic blocking. There are helpful websites and blogs, far beyond the two I linked there and in more languages than I can decipher to count. It’s easy to find foreign newspapers and magazines. Also, I can’t personally recommend any, but there are sites and message boards where you can arrange language lesson exchanges: talking, chatting, or writing with a native speaker of another language.

I got out of my routine of intense language practice and shifted to maintenance mode, but now I have to step up my routine. Conversations with my German partner help, but I’m insecure about my skills now and it can be very uncomfortable. With a long trip to mostly German-speaking areas planned for next year, I’d better kick that insecurity in the rear and get back to using a variety of tools and methods to move my skills forward again. If you’ve got a favorite site or tool to recommend, add a comment and let me know!

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Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Side Topics


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