Speak to Me

Language learning technology a booming sector with lots more in store.

GUEST COLUMN | by Luca Sadurny

CREDIT MosaLingua.pngThink back to how we used to learn languages ten years ago. Boring repetition exercises, cheesy audio scripts, and outdated textbooks were the name of the game. With that in mind, it’s not much of a surprise that less than 1 percent of American adults are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a class.

For decades language learning was stuck in a rut. For students who wanted to take their learning home, the methodology of tools like Rosetta Stone and Teach Yourself were held back by the basic technology available. While resources tried to make learning scenarios as ‘real life’ as possible, they were effectively digital textbooks.

A range of new smartphone language learning apps aimed at ‘on the move’ Millennials are taking learning out of the classroom.

However, nowadays the situation couldn’t be more different. The language learning tech industry is booming, and global sales of mobile language learning products are predicted to climb 73% to $14.5 billion by 2019. Smartphones and other portable connected devices are breathing a new life into the way which people learn new skills, but we are on the cusp of a technological revolution as new tech currently in it’s infancy matures.

But while there is a lot of innovation taking place, is it really helping people to learn? And what new technology trends could make the process easier in the future?

Current trends

A range of new smartphone language learning apps aimed at ‘on the move’ Millennials are taking learning out of the classroom, and onto the bus or into the waiting room, and tempting users into learning in their rare moments of free time with gamification.

Whether it be ‘losing lives’ when they get an answer wrong, competing with their friends on leaderboards, or challenging other users, these fun aspects seem to be pressing the right buttons for Millennial users.

However, while gamification might make learning more enjoyable, language experts are dubious about whether this style of learning actually helps users improve their language skills. The addictive nature of gamification makes exercises tempting to try again, but it does little to help with linguistic understanding.

One element of gamification which is proven to improve language skills is making learning a shared experience. Linking to social media accounts makes it easier to market products, and encourages users to learn together with friends. This form of extrinsic motivation allows users to include others in their learning through tandem exchanges, and informal tutoring. Friends can help each other with tricky tasks, and also practice speaking exercises off-app which helps improve fluency. There are also hundreds of language learning groups on Facebook where people can exchange tips, materials, and organize exchanges.

Using ‘old school’ methods were very reliant on intrinsic motivation — motivating ourselves — but a big advantage of the new tools is that they are less manual. ‘Digital coaches’ update users on their progress, prompt them to review problem areas, and highlight the most important vocabulary and grammar points in the same way a real teacher would in a class.

Looking to the future

According to Research and Markets, adoption of wearable technology in schools will grow by 46% per year over the next five years. Devices like VR headsets, Google Glass style AR tools and smartwatches offer a great means of improving language skills both in and out of the classroom.

While professional language trainers often create roleplays which allow students to practice ‘real life’ interactions, this is something which is lacking in the tools available today. However, using technology similar to the AR tools seen in chart-topping game Pokemon Go, or smart-lenses like Google Glass headsets, students could effectively place themselves in imaginary scenarios where they interact with characters digitally.

While it might look strange speaking to an imaginary supermarket cashier in German, or at an empty tourist information booth speaking Japanese, these are the skills which really improve fluency in real life situations and break down the fear of speaking in public.

Advances in the internet of things and big data could soon make it easier to learn about language learning trends by collecting data from millions of users around the world. The majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet survey agreed that the IoT and wearable devices would have widespread beneficial effects by 2025.

Teachers around the world are beginning to encourage students to bring their own devices to class, as it allows them to keep track of materials and their progress, share notes and work together digitally with other students. Smart and connected objects could collect a huge amount of data from millions of students including information about age, location and demographics and teachers could hand pick the methodology which is best suited to their students strengths and weaknesses.

In a recent Business Insider article, Bill Gates predicts that chatbots will soon be used as a teaching resource for students. Gates states that chatbots “dialogue richness,” opens the doors to ‘digital tutors’ which could clearly explain even the most challenging topics using natural language.

As chatbots mature, they could offer more opportunities for students to practice and improve speaking and writing skills, with bots offering feedback and making corrections. IBM’s Watson is already being harnessed for a Teaching Assistant bot that’s designed to answer students’ questions for online courses to take the strain off human teachers.

We are entering exciting times in the world of language learning. Demand is high as millions of  Millennials realize that foreign languages will expand their horizons as part of the emerging ‘global workforce’, making language learning tools a profitable space. Smartphones have already disrupted previous tools, and innovative new technology combining e-learning, the internet of things, bots, and wearable technology is set to build an extremely engaging and powerful language environment in the near future.

Luca Sadurny, polyglot and language expert, is the co-founder of MosaLingua, a startup creating mobile and web apps which have helped more than 2 million users worldwide learn languages.

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