Language Acquisition & Technology

Tony Sig

As Adam Kotsko has said, learning a language is not hard, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. There’s pretty much no way around that fundamental aspect. Even once you understand the underlying rules of syntax, you still have to memorize morphology, vocab, and exceptions for any new language. This assumes one actually wants to have a reliable working knowledge of a language and not just the foundation for future half-remembered phrases.

To that end teachers have long found creative ways to make learning a language easier and more enjoyable. Take, for instance, the songs and poems that my Latin teacher learned as a boy in English schools. Or the work of Clyde Pharr on Virgil and Homer. But what about contemporary technology? Can it aid in this learning?

I was just introduced by a friend to a phone app called Duolingo. The app is free. They also have a website, so one doesn’t even need a smartphone to use it. I’ve found it so helpful and fun that I’ve inadvertently decided to use this Summer to beef up my German. By working through a “skill tree,” competing against yourself and friends, acquiring points, and advancing levels, the system practically makes you want to learn. That it uses all major language-teaching immersion methods – German to English and English to German translation, hearing German, speaking German, reading German, and so on – makes it effective.

What it has done is allowed me to utilize free time – waiting in line, riding a bus, fooling around at night – as time spent learning the language. That is, it makes me put in the time necessary to learn German. What’s more, this is how we ‘young people’ actually use technology.¬†Ultimately there’s no way around the time, so just creating new technology cannot nor will it ever be a quick fix. But if you can integrate it with how technology is actually intuitively used, I think you might be on the right track.

So the question this has raised for me is can Duolingo or something like it be helpful for the Classical languages? Here’s where I think we might brush up against some problems, given the complexity of Classical syntax. I’m not sure one could “learn Greek” on an app. But I think that if done after the manner of Duolingo, the hard memorization of vocab, morphology, and basic syntax could be aided significantly by such technology, even if it was only supplementary to a course. Perhaps it could be structured to follow along with a classic textbook?

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