How Putting Your Phone Down Might Just Help your Language Learning Process

Language learning today is a very different process from what it used to be. The development of apps, online classrooms and translation tools has lead to many attempting to learn a new language using online resources alone. In fact, Luis von Ahn, the creator of the hugely popular free language app DuoLingo, claims that there are more people actively learning a language through his app than in the entire US public school system. It appears to make sense: in the modern technological world where everything is at our fingertips, why rely on expensive teachers or stale grammar textbooks when the key to that mystery word or tricky verb conjugation is only a click away?


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However, if we take a closer look at some of the implications of society’s addiction to technology, it seems that the answer to this question is more complicated than it looks. In spite of all of the language learning resources available across the World Wide Web, in our quest to master a language we may actually benefit from *gasps* putting our phones down.

Setting the scene

Firstly, some clarification is needed: it would be wrong to deny the utility of the Internet for those with little-to-no knowledge of a particular language. I’m not going to pretend that there’s a simpler and more effective way for someone who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese to interpret road signs or menus whilst travelling around Brazil. It’s those who are committed to mastering a language that run the risk of relying too heavily upon technology to do the learning for them.

Websites such as WordReference and Google Translate may give us instant access to whichever word or phrase we want to know, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a step closer to fluency after every search. The reverse may actually be true, with recent studies of the effects of the Internet on memory suggesting that our capacity to retain information is inhibited significantly by the constant availability of information provided by search engines.

In an experiment led by Betsy Sparrow, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, participants typed 40 bits of trivia into a computer. Half of the participants believed the information would be saved in the computer, whilst the others believed the items would be erased. The subjects who believed the information would remain in the computer were overwhelmingly less likely to recall what they had typed. Whether conscious to it or not, the external memory provided by a computer potentially limits how much information we retain ourselves.

Put your phone down

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Every appendage is an amputation

In the same vein, translation websites and apps remove the pressure to commit new vocabulary to memory by assuring us that whatever we don’t remember, we can simply look up later. Relying too heavily on these online resources can, therefore, introduce bad habits into our language learning process. In simply Googling every word that we don’t know, we stunt the development of vital skills, such as the ability to imply the meaning of unknown words or phrases from their context within a sentence.

Then there’s the issue of distraction that goes hand in hand with the Internet age. We’ve all been there: you open your phone for a minute to look up something and come up for air 15 minutes later having been side-tracked by a barrage of totally-unrelated yet alluring red notifications. Similarly, by passing too much time on language-learning apps, we risk cutting ourselves off from the most brilliant source of language learning possible: the real world. This is particularly prescient for language-learners living abroad.

When there’s a phone in our pocket, any down time, whether that be on the bus or sat in a café, immediately becomes an opportunity to watch a video or learn a few more words; but rather than burying our heads in our phones, we should be opening our ears to the conversations going on around us, perhaps chatting away to locals or even just taking in the language used in surrounding road signs or adverts.

So no more technology?

Fundamentally, the basis of language-learning is communication. When we learn a new language, we have to re-learn how to communicate, in a different tongue, with different customs, to a different group of people. Staring at illuminated screens can only go so far as to prepare us for these interchanges. Yes, Google can advise us on conventions and colloquialisms, but until you’re sipping yerba mate in a circle of porteños or having an authentic Korean BBQ with Korean friends in Seoul, you’ll never truly understand the significance of the terms you’ve looked up.

Friends talking

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Of course, it’s more daunting to throw yourself in the deep end and experience a new language first-hand; a red cross on a computer screen is indeed much easier to stomach than the sometimes embarrassing task of making yourself understood to rapid-speaking natives. But the command of language that we develop is far superior in its accuracy, authenticity and spontaneity. It’s therefore critically important that we never view the technological world of apps, translation websites and social media to be of equal importance to tangible, trial-and-error social exchange. 

Don’t just download an app and think it’s all said and done. Sign up for language classes or travel abroad to really immerse yourself in whatever language you want to learn.