February: Language Learning in the Digital Age: Going Back to the Roots

February is an odd month. Not just because it’s the only month with less than 30 days or that most people find the first “R” highly problematic, but because of its origins. February, unlike many months of the year, isn’t named after a god, number, or person. Instead, it’s etymology lies in a Roman festival of purification. As with most Roman festivals, this involved copious amounts of food and sex under the auspices of divine favour. It should come as no surprise that the remnants of these festivals still survive in the Western world. Both Mardi Gras (which is Fat Tuesday in the US or Pancake day in some countries including the UK) and Valentine’s Day are a testament to how tradition endures through modernity even though original meaning is ignored or completely lost.


The history of the month of February is pretty fascinating, and then things get really weird.

Contemporary trends in education are not unaffected by this theme and I would even go so far as to say that they embrace them. Case in point, we are in the middle of the largest shake-up in education in recent years. No, it’s not Dogme, or the Flipped Learning, or Demand High, or what have you—though I will concede that those are part of a larger trend of going back to the origins of language teaching. In fact, it’s something much more concrete, or should I say, digital. A big change is happening, and very few of us teachers are even aware of it. It’s coming from the other side of the teacher’s desk and outside of the language school altogether.

As long as the internet has been around there have been websites dedicated to explaining basic phrases, conjugations, and the finer points of English grammar. Some of the even better websites had (and still have) quizzes, flash cards, Pelmanisms, and other games to reinforce learning. Though the graphics got marginally better over the years with the advent of Flash and higher connection speeds to accommodate all those words moving around, it essentially remained an extension of the classroom. It was usually something on a professor’s university or school website to supplement the day’s lesson. Then in about 2011-2012 apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and MindSnacks appeared on our smartphones and began to revolutionise how people approached language learning. Now, in 2016, these apps are being used by millions around the world to learn languages, with Duolingo alone boasting 100 million users. This really isn’t surprising once you consider the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and the practical, commercial, and recreational benefits of language learning. But does this mean teachers and classrooms will be obsolete in 5 to 10 years? Is this really the best way to learn a language? What’s really different between these apps and the clunky websites of yesteryear?


The short answer to these questions is no, maybe, and not much.


OB-WF013_langap_DV_20130201133933-1 (source: Duolingo)

Despite their popularity and commercial success (Duolingo is valued at just under a billion dollars), most of these apps have very glaring shortcomings. I’ve only mentioned the most popular, but there are (depending on the language) hundreds of apps and they all essentially use the Grammar Translation Method with a dash of Behaviourism. The basic premise is the user is given a text and then has to translate that text idiomatically into or out of the target language. Simple stuff. If the answer is correct, you get a bright green check, a pleasant chime, and you move on. If it’s incorrect, you get a big red “X”, a jarring chime, and (if it’s a good app) an explanation on why it’s incorrect. You’ll normally have to come across that text again until you get it right. This method has fallen out of favour by most ELT practioners since it’s seen as “not communicative” and a bit old-school, though there has been a small resurgence of interest in this method, possibly aided by the popularity of language learning apps. However, it’s not hard to see why so many teachers shun this method. Take for example this sentence from Duolingo:




When would you ever use this in real life conversation (or ever)? Just like our parents’ school books, we are all too often given a random assortment of sentences in the target language to translate with no real context or real-world application.

Other apps like Memrise, rely on mnemonic devices and visual stimuli to help you memorise language. Ed Cooke, one of the founders of Memrise had this to say about the app: “Learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you’ve learned.” The problem here is the focus on memory. I feel that, while the intent and research methods that underpin the app are well-founded and well-meaning but there’s still this element of rote memorisation which we as teachers have tried steer our students away from and instead find more authentic ways to make the language stick. You can find a full list of criticism and debate here.




 (source: Memrise)

The best app that I’ve found for language learning is sadly one of the least popular. At 5 million downloads, Mindsnacks pales in comparison to Dulingo. It was only created for iPhone/iPad and they have since re-branded and moved into brain training apps . If you have an iPhone, it’s still available for download on the App Store. What I liked about it was that it wasn’t a one-trick pony. It practiced and tested not only your memory and spelling, but it also added word and sentence transformations, image recognition, and error recognition. I felt it was coherent, methodologically robust, and polished which is something I haven’t come across in any other app.


 (source: MindSnacks)

So why then, if this was such a superior product, wasn’t it more successful? The answer to that, and why so many other apps have failed to breakthrough to mainstream success is that they failed to capitalise on the social element of language learning. Even though all of the elements for learning are there (spaced repetition, audio and visual reinforcement, measurable progress, etc.) Duolingo and Memrise are built on the premise that they are driven by their community of users and that includes: students and teachers, linguists, wannabe grammarians, hardcore polyglots, and the casual learner. The vast majority of the content is created, vetted, and scrutinsed by that community and the discourse around that process reifies this online community– which is something other apps and even schools have failed to do. In a way, those stupid sentences I showed as an example above, become the talking points on the Duolingo and Memrise forums and Facebook groups and they take on their own meaning within those communities.


It’s a very democratic and organic experience but it’s not for everyone. While people do arrange social events via these apps, the majority of the interaction remains in cyberspace and virtual forums. Many still (thankfully) prefer a more visceral language learning experience. This keeps us employed but places a unique onus on teaching professionals to remain not only responsive to our students needs, but also relevant as the lines between teacher and student, online and offline continue to blur.


Next month… beware the Ides of March.. or should I say Nones? In the spirit of Mars, I talk more about gamification as well as being competitive in the ELT market.


One thought on “February: Language Learning in the Digital Age: Going Back to the Roots

  1. Me and a friend were talking about Duolingo the other night. He pointed out, apart from the fact it is super popular among learners, that even if you do everything and test out of each skill, you aren’t actually able to speak the language at the end. He used another friend as an example, who had mastered every skill for Duolingo Spanish, yet couldn’t string a sentence in speaking.

    That obviously leads to asking “why”? Well, we discussed it and came to the conclusion that what must be happening is that the learner masters the skill of playing the “game” – it is gamification after all – and combined with the lack of speaking output, they don’t master the skill of speaking.

    It is literally like what you hear in language training courses: You can know all the words of a language but doesn’t mean you can speak it. Maybe Duolingo is proof of that.


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