Better Language Learning Through Technology

Over on Medium, James Simpson has a post on how some game makers are getting into the language learning business. Given my current obsession with learning Spanish, this seemed like a good opportunity to go over some of the technological aids you can use for buffing your foreign language chops.

Verbling

Verbling‘s an interesting creature. It’s essentially a language yenta, matching up people who want to practice in each others’ languages using video chats. I have numerous people from Spanish-speaking countries who have requested opportunities to practice their English with me. (I’m very popular in Spain for some reason.) In turn, I get to torture them with my bad Spanish.

In addition to the Facebook-lite aspects of the site, Verbling offers classes in the language of your choice. These are live interactive video chats involving you, the instructor and any number of fellow language learners. You pay for these classes, which run at all hours of the day and night, so you can work them into your schedule, with tickets. You get three tickets just for signing up, and can purchase more tickets either for $3 each or by signing up for a subscription plan. The middle tier grants you up to 10 classes a month and unlimited chat for $19/month while the top tier gives you unlimited classes and chat for $45/month. The site also offers complete courses that are archived and can be watched at your leisure. One 10-unit Spanish course from Paulino in Argentina will set you back $30. Private tutoring is available for between $25-30/hour and you can join a practice group in your target language for free. However, when I looked in on the groups, only intermediate Turkish, various levels of English and intermediate French were available.

I would love to be able to whole-heartedly recommend Verbling for English-speakers looking to learn Spanish, but I can only give it a “meh” rating mainly because of the not-insignificant monthly costs.

Lingualia

It’s a cheaper version of Rosetta Stone. Instead of $350 for a complete Spanish course online, Lingualia will set you back about $10/month. It’s the usual assortment of quizzes, picture-word associations and reading comprehension. So far, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of listening comprehension — my weakest area — but that may be because I’m still at a pretty basic level of learning.

The quizzes and exercises are bright and fun, and can get surprisingly challenging pretty quickly. However, Lingualia is no substitute for a “real” course of instruction and it will do little to help you immerse yourself in your target language.

Brainscape

I should say this up front: I hate flash cards and rote memorization. That said, if you’re going to go with one, Brainscape is one of the best. The company offers web and mobile apps for learning vocabulary using specifically-timed flashcards in what it calls Confidence-Based Repetition (CBR). As the web site states: “CBR acts essentially as your personalized knowledge stream, where bite-sized concepts are repeated one after another, in Question/Answer pairs, and then re-entered into the repetition queue in intervals based on your confidence in how well you know them. Low-confidence items (e.g. the 1’s and 2’s) are repeated more often until you upgrade your confidence to higher levels.” I used this on my trip across the Pacific and it did help prepare me for learning Spanish vocabulary. You need to keep at it, however. One major bonus: you can create your own custom set of flashcards for a personalized vocabulary builder.

The mobile apps are well-designed and attractive, but available only for iOS at this time. The company says support for the Android platform is forthcoming “soon”.

Evernote

I could write books on Evernote (and many have). It’s probably the best universal catch-all application out there, given that it works on just about every platform — web, mobile and PC. Its support for tagging, multiple notebooks and the ability to keep everything in sync — for free! — across multiple devices is a godsend.

Essentially, you can dump anything you like into Evernote. Shopping lists, pictures, PDFs, web pages, personal notes, etc. The text is all fully searchable and, amazingly, so is the text in saved photographs (if you spring for the premium features, which cost $5/month; it’s a total bargain). You can organize these notes into “notebooks” and further subdivide them with tags. All this means it’s great for learning languages.

How? Well, suppose you’re out and about and you encounter a confounding Spanish menu. Snap a picture of it, and it will be available to you on all your platforms to study at your leisure. (And searchable!)

As you add to it, it creates optimized links to other notes in your collection, which, combined with tagging, creates a powerful cross-referenced set of notes. I use the tags “memorizing,” “vocabulary,” “grammar,” “tips” and the like to help organize the various articles I come across and the notes I create.

It has a Web clipper that saves entire web sites (in Spanish) and is even smart enough to suggest tags and notebooks. This allows me to copy entire stories from El Tiempo and save them to study later.

It’s also great for keeping a language log. This article details the best way to keep a language log. It’s aimed at students of Japanese, but the techniques are applicable to any language.


These are just some of the apps and techniques I’m using to learn Spanish. With the exception of Lingualia, they can be used with almost any language, if you don’t have the good fortune to live in a country where the language you’re learning is the dominant one. Immersion is without doubt the best and fastest way to learn a language, but some of the items mentioned in this post should help you on your way.

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