Technology + Languages = Joyful Learning Experience Occasion

Language teachers have traditionally tried to make language learning fun, employing tools such as songs and games. But then, a lot of that is contrived, and many learners – adults and especially teens – don’t take kindly to reciting nursery rhymes and clapping their hands together while sitting in a circle. Now, technology can be employed to induce genuine fun – Ravi Purushotma’s paper, “YOU’RE NOT STUDYING, YOU’RE JUST..” covers five cunning ploys to enhance the experience:

  • Playing games with foreign text (in particular, The Sims).
  • Browsing the web, with the “throbber” (that loading icon in the corner) replaced by a random term. (Of which, more in my next blog entry).
  • Learning how to type, and using a foreign language for input.
  • Listening to foreign lyrics and a translation at the same time (perhaps one in each ear).
  • Listening to language learning MP3s while walking around. (Old idea, but high-capacity MP3 players make it more practical.)

I’m going to add one I’ve used with success:

  • Exploiting DVD audio and subtitle options to listen in one language and read in another.

I’ve used this for Spanish and Japanese. Specifically:

  • I purchased foreign-edition DVDs by visiting shops while in Spain (e.g. FNAC) and Japan (e.g. any corner store), and also ordered from sites like (for Spanish) and JapanCD (for Japanese).
  • I made sure each DVD had all four options: English audio, foreign audio, English subtitles, foreign subtitles.
  • I only took movies I knew well, ideally where I could recite large chunks.
  • I only took movies I was willing to watch a lot.

Then, I watched them in any combination I saw fit, paused, practiced if I felt like it. I found the most effective to be foreign audio with English subtitles, though it’s possible to cheat a bit and end up not listening much. So sometimes, all foreign works best. Also, if you use Power DVD on the PC, you can have two subtitles at once. For the times I’ve focused on Japanese writing, it’s really nice to see English and Japanese at once, as well as hear it pronounced.

Another us of technology is a tool like Supermemo, which I’ve used to learn Kanji using the Heisig method (though it’s going to be a lifetime pursuit … I’m still not there yet). This is very powerful as you can install it on a smartphone such as a Treo or XDA, so you can just pull it out for a couple of minutes while waiting for a train, and practice vocabulary or whatever. Supermemo, VTrain, and other tools work by tracking your progress, so they only drill you on things you need to know. That’s much more effective and interesting than old-school random flashcards, where you keep coming up against questions you know inside-out. Less pure fun than watching a Pulp Fiction DVD in Spanish, but still quite a motivating way to drill yourself.