Language learning

Friday 3rd June 2016

In preparation for new adventures in Spain I've been brushing up on my Spanish and discovered how much language learning has changed since the last time I did it.

I took GCSE Spanish in 2002 but have spent more time in France than Spain since then. My Spanish had become really rusty and I found that the words I used a lot on holiday in France dislodged the same word in Spanish that I used to know.

I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but I think of it as a big wall of orange Spanish bricks where some of them have been pushed out and replaced with blue French bricks.


Why orange and blue?

There's probably a whole other blog post to do with colour associations of different items: semi-skimmed milk, salt and vinegar crisps, and Italian are all green. Who decided that these items were these colours and why?

Anyway, we started a Spanish evening class and it's going really well, but the class is focussed on grammar and syntax and I was seriously lacking vocabulary. One of the other students in the class recommended Duolingo and it's blown my tiny mind.



¡Hola Duolingo!

Duolingo is a free language learning website and app, designed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 and used by 120 million people across the world.

It brings gamification (a system that could have been designed just for me) to language learning. It prompts you every day to do a bit of practice, and rewards you for a little bit of interaction every day.

There are four types of interaction: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The speaking part still needs a bit of work: it struggles to understand Kat and it helps if you speak in a deeper voice.

Some of the phrases it teaches are very strange: in the last few weeks it's made me laugh with the phrases Es seguramente mi elefante (it's probably my elephant) and Estoy en el programa de protección a testigos. That's witness not testicles as I first assumed, although I am also in the testicle protection programme.

Someone has collected all these weird phrases into a great video.


¡Aquí viene la ciencia!

The Spanish module is broken down into 65 discreet blocks, such as Food, Animals and The Subjunctive. It's structured so that you have to pass the simple modules before you can learn the harder ones, but there are two genius concepts:

  1. It keeps track of which words you've seen and predicts how often you need to see those words to keep them in long term memory
  2. You can compete with friends even if you're learning different languages

The combination of these two things means that I've been using it for about half an hour a day for the last hundred days, and I've become so much better at Spanish in that short time. I'm also beating all my friends who are using it too! Did I mention that I'm a little competitive?

As of today Duolingo reckons I've got 2,362 Spanish words lodged in my long-term memory and I'm 40% fluent.

It's taken the language learning world by storm. Studies suggest that 34 hours learning on the system is equivalent to 55-60 hours using the competitor tool Rosetta, or 130+ hours on a college course.


No es sólo para los idiomas

This kind of system isn't just being used for languages though.

A friend told me about another website called Memrise which applies the Duolingo concept to learning pretty much anything.

I took their 100 Questions You Simply Must Be Able to Answer course, because the weekly pub quiz is a major part of my life. It was a weird experience.

Memrise isn't as good as Duolingo, but after 90 minutes I felt like someone had just forced a hundred new facts into my brain whether I wanted them or not.

Now I know without even having to check that the Humphry Davy invented the miner's safety lamp (not Tony Blackburn) and discovered sodium, the first ever FA cup final was held in 1872, and the first space shuttle to launch was Columbia.

I'm not even sure that I want all these facts in my brain, but they're there. We'll see how long they stay for.


El futuro del aprender

This experience has made me think about how slowly my brain learns normally, and how many times I need to be exposed to a word or fact for it to stay in my brain forever. But on the other hand, intense experiences are recorded vividly forever.

For example, Duolingo has told me dozens of times that compromiso means committment, but I still answer compromise every time I see it. But I can recall with crystal clarity the accident where I wrote off my parent's car when I was 17.

Why is that? Respuestas en un postal a la dirección habitual, por favor.



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