The week of August 23, 2015

The real secret to learning a language online

By Nithin Coca

One of the founding miracles of the Internet was that it connected people around the world. But without a common language, that connection didn’t mean much. The Internet mirrored an increasingly globalized society in which not being able to speak a language could mean being locked out of a culture. Unsurprisingly, the Internet spawned early attempts at machine translation, like Babelfish, which eventually led to tools like Google Translate—a big, data-driven application that’s good enough to take for granted.

But what about actually learning a foreign language? The Internet has long had its share of tools to help people learn another language, and increasingly those tools are going mobile and taking advantage of new understandings about how we learn. Most of today’s Web tools aren’t trying to replicate the time-tested, best way to learn a language—full immersion—the kind you get from living in a foreign country if, say, you’re a CEO who can afford to board in a tiny French village. Instead, they’re trying to improve the clunky and often frustrating experience of classroom language instruction.

That’s important because most people can’t afford to immerse themselves in another language—at least not physically. Learning has to take place in the margins of the lives they already have. Native English speakers have an economic advantage, and where English fluency means economic opportunity, failing classrooms can mean limited job opportunities for students.

“Language can double your income potential in some countries,” Gina Gotthilf, vice president of marketing at Duolingo, told the Kernel. “It can change the game for you.”

Duolingo, founded by Luis von Ahn, the inventor of reCAPTCHA, intends to make language education universal and accessible. Early on, its designers realized that there was no agreed-upon way to teach a language. So, instead of choosing one method and implementing it, the company decided to use the power of its users to determine how to develop its curriculum.

We’re still far from the Web’s potential to allow anyone to learn any language, anywhere.

“[We] tested through the tool,” Gotthilf said. “For example, we would do one variation and give it to 50,000 people and do another variation and give it to 50,000 people, then measure the results and see which group more efficiently retained information.”

This helped Duolingo determine best approaches, such as what to teach in sequence and what learning should be visually based. It helped the company learn how people learn.

Today, Duolingo runs nearly continuous tests and makes data-driven changes to its app on a weekly basis. It’s also moving towards machine learning, in the form of a flexible curriculum that will adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual user, because not everyone learns in the same way.

“Through machine learning we can build systems that adapt to each learner specifically; that is very cool,” said Gotthilf. “If two people are learning the same language but make different mistakes on different questions, that means each student will get a different course altogether.”

Meanwhile, Rosetta Stone, whose ubiquitous yellow-boxed language programs are to many the popular face of language learning, has similarly adapted and evolved its offerings.

Nearly all courses ignore most of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages.

“We have increased our products over the years, and now most of our offerings are digital—so people can get us anywhere,” said Lisa Frumkes, Rosetta Stone’s director of curriculum. With the focus shifting to mobile, according to Frumkes, language learning can become accessible anywhere. (The company also owns Livemocha, a popular language-learning site it purchased in 2013, partly as a way to buy into an online community of language learners.)

Rosetta Stone also employs voice-recognition technology that can help correct pronunciation. Speak into the app and it’ll provide feedback to help you improve. “It can be really scary to speak the language,” Frumkes said. “The beauty of speech recognition and beauty of language learning with online tools is that you can rehearse to your heart’s content before you have to do that performance.”

Of course, Rosetta Stone is a business. As such, it focuses on languages for which there’s a proven market. That means despite offering 30 different courses, it ignores most of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages. Neither Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, nor any non-user-generated Web-learning platform includes my heritage tongue, Telugu, the 17th most-spoken language in the world—it’s not one considered beneficial for business or tourism. Though they offer more than my high school’s four languages, we’re still far from the Web’s potential to allow anyone to learn any language, anywhere.

Is there a better way? Most experts agree that the fastest way to truly learn a language is the same way we learn as children: when we’re surrounded by language, with no choice but to pick it up. Thus far, Web- and mobile-based apps can’t immerse us in a language. But remarkably, there’s a medium that can—and no, it’s not Oculus Rift.  

It’s television—or more accurately, online streaming. In countries like Sweden and Norway, American and British television shows and movies are rarely, if ever, dubbed. Instead, they’re presented in English with subtitles. Many of my friends and colleagues from Scandinavia cited this—not school—as the main reason they could speak fluent English. Whereas in Paris, France, where I studied abroad in 2002, there were just two movie theaters in the entire city that showed undubbed American films.

Is there a better way?

In America, we don’t get much foreign-language media, save for Spanish-language television, which caters to a Hispanic audience without English subtitles. The Web is changing that. Now we all have access to nearly unlimited, mostly free content in hundreds of languages from all around the world, much of it subtitled in English. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all have deep libraries of subtitled content, and apps like Movie Subtitler promise to add subtitles to your entire downloaded movie collection. That’s to say nothing of the rise of streaming TV through Sling and Roku and independent channels, opening a window into other parts of the world. For me, this means that I can read and watch the latest French-language news every day, improving the language capabilities I first acquired in Paris more than a decade ago.

It is not only English that is being learned this way. In many parts of Asia, Korean pop music, soap operas, and Japanese anime are as popular as American television and cinema. While living in Indonesia last year, I met a number of young locals learning foreign languages because they watched the media coming out of Korea and Japan—and almost all of them were self-taught.

Foreign-language media, more than any specific app or method, is what could transform language learning. With globally distributed media, we can immerse ourselves in another language without even leaving home. We don’t just have to learn the two to four languages offered in school, or the dozens on Duolingo or Rosetta Stone; with motivation, we can learn whatever we want. And yes, the Web is helping, through tools like Wikipedia dictionaries. Today I can access Telugu-language content, something that would have been impossible just a decade ago.

In the end, tools like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are most helpful in helping break into a new, popular language. But that’s still just a variation on classroom learning, which for many people simply doesn’t work. It’s not the same as being immersed in a language and a culture. The Internet can help us move a little closer to universalized culture, where K-pop stands cheek-to-cheek with French cinema and Spanish-language telenovelas; that global connection was just waiting for the right type of communication to travel across it.

Even when it comes to learning a new language, content, as they say, is king.

Illustration by Max Fleishman