The Digital Revolution in Language Learning

We live in an interesting age. The Internet has given us opportunities to expand our knowledge beyond the people in our local communities or the libraries in our town. One avenue that has changed completely is language learning.

In most cases before the Internet and PC’s in the 21st Century, the only place we could learn languages were in classes, by immersion or  by pre-built courses such Assimil, Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. They are by no means bad methods, but there’s just so much more available these days.

Methods and tools that have given the average curious language learner a much better chance at fluency. Have we reached a point where language learning is changing forever? Perhaps, but for now, these are the elements that are pushing the digital revolution in language learning. Next generation indeed.

Spaced Repetition Systems

I have blogged about this brilliant tool and method before which uses cognitive phenomenons known as the spacing effect & forgetting curve.

Spaced repetition systems are usually flashcard implementations of these algorithms. They space the words so that when you have to learn vocabulary, you only have to do so when you brain really needs to. The words get scheduled further and further into the future based the how well you remember a flashcard. No more unnecessary revisions. No more hitting blanks.

This is an example of where algorithms delegated to computers can compute the best possible schedules for review, which for a human would have been hard, troublesome and time consuming.

Spaced repetition systems are paving the way forward for efficient learning. You can use Anki or Mnemosyne which are both free.

Digital Multimedia

Digital media have been round for a few years, but with the advent of Youtube & easily accesible podcasts, there a multitude of authentic & non-authentic language content to be found.

For example in Chinese, there’s ChinesePod & PopupChinese both which provide excellently graded podcast lessons for Chinese learners. For videos there’s Yoyo Chinese which offers grammar instruction using cleverly designed videos, Chinese With Mike, a cool dude Chinese teacher from America & FluentFlixwhich have just launched their public beta using real Youtube videos and integrating a brilliant subtitle system to practice listening and get more vocabulary.

There’s even Chinese Rage Comics! [Possibly NSFW].

Online Communities & Blogs

People are getting involved. They are sharing their experiences in language learning. Online communities are massive treasure chests of techniques, methods, debates and curious individuals who spend their free time passionately learning languages.

There are general language learning forumslanguage specific forumssocial bookmarkingcountless sub-redditssocial networks and even Stack Exchange.

Then we are not even talking about the numerous language learning blogs that are being produced by learners. These are extremely valuable resources, not only to the language itself, but also to find friends and compadres in your language learning adventures.

Crowdsourcing & Wikis

Sometimes online communities go even further and start developing their own databases and wikis. Memrise for instance are crowdsourcing their mnemonics for flashcards. Wiktionary is another great example of great a wiki with lots of valuable language learning information. One of the most popular digital Chinese-English dictionaries, CC-CEDICT, is open-source and entries are updated and added daily.

Apps & startups and lots of it

With the increase in smartphone adoption, language learners are getting smart too (lame pun intended. sorry). You can get countless mobile dictionaries, optical character recognition, gamified vocabulary games and more.

For instance, Skritter has just launched their apps for iOS, enabling you to learn how to write Chinese characters. A perfect synergy between touch devices and the Chinese script.

These new digital ideas are also seen in startups trying to push the boundaries. Lang-8 for instance allows language learners to correct each other’s blog entries. LiveMocha is a popular all purpose language learning site, LingQ helps you read in your target language.

Data and lots of it

Native language speakers are creating authentic language content everyday. These are now being mined for corpus linguistics. For instance a University in Netherlands created a corpus of over 5 million Weibo posts (the Chinese version of Twitter). Any learner can easily just use the search feature to get examples of word usages. Frequency lists are another common feature to come out of corpus linguistics that can help language learners.

This post barely scratches the surface of all the useful tools, methods and techniques that are being generated to help with language learning. Curation of all these tools will become an interesting problem in the future. What tools are more efficient & effective than others?

It’s an exciting time to be a language learner. Perhaps it might be the last golden age of language learning before machine translation becomes good enough to surpass the effort of learning a language. But then again, those passionate about learning languages are doing it for the love of it. And this is what we see emerge in this digital age.

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  1. 1
    Ashley on Wednesday 05 September, 17:41 PM #

    I have tried some of forums and apps developed by developers you mentioned above, but my all-time favorite language learning site is
    Their vocabulary apps are so great that I recommend them to all friends of mine who are learning a foreign language.

  2. 2
    Peter Rettig on Tuesday 19 August, 03:28 AM #

    We’d suggest that you also take a look at
    Our 36-lesson courses use fast moving games and a travel story as key teaching tools. We believe that context matters. Rather then drilling unrelated words and phrases, we are using practical and useful language a traveler would encounter during a trip.


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