Confession: I'm a bit of a language-learning addict. I got hooked as a Freshman in college and haven't really stopped. While in the US I started learning Spanish, while in Spain I started learning Italian. Now I'm going to Italy soon and I'm learning French.
While a bit of an ADD way of learning languages, it has given me lots of opportunities to think about what works and what doesn't. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a 2 part series to communicate what I've learned about my particular style of learning languages (itself a hodgepodge of influences, in particular AJATT.com).
Now I want to dive deeper into the role a smartphone can play in language learning.
The great thing is that you can put into practice most all of the language learning rules I wrote about with a modern smart-phone. You can use it to create a micro-immersion climate, consume fun content in your L2, and chat with friends from around the world. With a device that fits in your hand, you can do everything from listen to internet radio, read books and magazines, or do exercises in an app like Duolingo, all in your L2.
The key question here is, how can technology make language learning simpler and easier? How can we use a device like a smartphone to create a foreign language bubble around ourselves?
The great news: at least for Romance languages (speaking from experience, here), finding immersion materials is easy, if you know where to look. The hard part I run in to is actually making a habit of consuming the immersion materials. It's a bit of a paradigm shift: I want to learn French, so I should do things in French. A French person would listen to French radio or watch movies in French for fun. So why wouldn't I?
Here are some ideas for how to make the most of your smart-phone as an aid to your language learning, instead of it being a distraction.
First and foremost, you need to hide or eliminate the L1 (native language) time-sinks on your phone.
Either hide them deep in the menus or uninstall them entirely. For me, these were Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail. Why do this, you ask?
I'll quote this Koan (from deoxy.org):
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
To learn a new language, we must first empty our L1 cup so that it may be filled with the fresh elixir of an L2.
Find new apps focused around your language learning goals, and put them on your home screen where you'll always see them.
This is the fun part! I took a screenshot of my own phone's homescreen to give some examples of how you could fill it up.
I thought a lot about what would make the cut of home screen-worthy apps. I wanted to stack the cards in favor of language immersion and make it as easy as possible to choose a language-related app instead of a non-language related one. It's all about setting up the chess board in your favor. All of these apps can be had for free, though you may need to buy some of the content- ebooks, magazines, music.
Here are my thoughts on the apps I chose:
Google Translate. To look up words you don't know. If you know of a better translator, I'd be curious to learn about it- I have not been impressed by the accuracy of Google's translations.
Evernote. A generally awesome note-taking app, I can see huge applications for using it as a memory aid in language learning.
Whatsapp (chatting). I have a few friends I chat with through this app in foreign languages. I like using it because it keeps me off Facebook and Snapchat, where I'd waste time. Don't have any friends in some foreign languages? That's a bit beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps would be good future content. I briefly touch on it in rule 7 here.
Kindle (ebooks). I'm a voracious reader, and ebooks in your target language can probably be found in various places online. Use your e-reader software of choice. I like the Kindle app because it syncs with my actual Kindle e-reader, which I have been very impressed by. I talk about it in more detail in rule 5 here, as well as how to take advantage of foreign language ebook selections on non-US marketplaces.
Couchsurfers. Great site when traveling to meet new friends and hosts in cities you visit. Also a great way to make foreign friends, fulfilling the advice I mentioned above.
News apps. A quick search on the app store for "news *target language*" either in English or the target language (ie, I could search for "Italian news" as well as "notizie italiane") will probably turn up several results, in both text, video and audio form. The news apps I have downloaded are "Quotidiani Italiani", "Jornal de Portugal", and "France 24".
Podcasts. I use Podcast Addict, which I started trying out a month ago. I'd never really listened to podcasts before. I like it because you can search "Italiano", "Francais", and so on and it will show dozens of podcasts in that language. I avoid language-learning podcasts meant for foreigners, and instead focus on native level podcasts about topics I'm interested in- there's a nice Italian one called "Windows on Art" (Finestre sull'Arte), for example.
Duolingo. Great for early wins. I aim to do a Duolingo exercise or two a day. I have mixed opinions about Duolingo. On the one hand, I often find the exercises boring, and the phrases a bit useless as they're without context- random phrases, really. On the other hand, Duolingo is addictive because of its gamification system. The 5-10 minute exercises means you can do them whenever and wherever, and shooting for a simple goal like 1-2 exercises per day seems like a good way for me to get early wins. Whatever its faults may be, Duolingo is a great example of how technology can make language learning simpler and easier. You won't learn a language just by using Duolingo, but it certainly helps.
Skype (language videocalls). Make friends and skype with them regularly, once you feel comfortable speaking a little bit.
Ankidroid (flashcards). Ankidroid is an example of a program you could use to manage an SRS deck (ie flashcards) on your phone. I can't speak for all apps but Anki syncs between your phone and the computer. I touch on SRS systems very, very briefly in rule #, mainly just enough to point readers in the direction of more knowledgeable sources.
Zinio (magazines). It might take some digging, but there seems to be a great collection of foreign language magazines. Reading them is easiest on a tablet or computer, though. The tiny size of a smartphone screen makes the magazines hard to enjoy here, at least for me. My favorite subscription? The Italian edition of Riders.
Spotify. Find music you like in your target language! There are tons of playlists of just music for your target language. If you're not sure where to start, I'd recommend listening to a pre-built playlist, and like the songs you like. With a couple of liked songs, you can plug them into Spotify's radio function to discover more music that's similar to it.
Android Play Music. This app kind of sucks, but I use it to listen to the foreign language music I already have downloaded. Useful when I'm not around wifi and don't want to spend all my phone's data streaming spotify songs.
Italian Verbs. Handy little app for looking up the conjugations of the most common verbs in Italian.
Radio apps. Internet streaming radio from your target language country. This is by far the app I use the most, mainly because I found a good talk show station (you'll find that most music on foreign radio stations is, ironically, American). I use it when I'm working, by myself, driving, running errands- pretty much anytime I'm just looking to have some French dialogue on in the background. In fact, I'm listening to the culture channel on Radio France as I type this.
Hone in on the 2-3 language apps you spend the most time on.
Keep using those apps, and find more content on them that you like. Ruthlessly cut the apps, media, or content that bore you or that you don't enjoy.
When I realized that I was using just 3 or so language apps to the exclusion of all the others, I thought at first I should force myself to use other apps to get a wider breadth of knowledge. Then I realized how silly it was to be breaking my own rule on doing things in my L2 that I enjoy. I realized that by experimenting with lots of different apps I could more quickly discover new content I enjoyed and discard what I didn't like.
If you're just starting to experiment with a new language, employing this "little bets" style approach is a fast and effective way to discover aspects of the language or culture that really spark your enthusiasm and bliss. Try lots of different things, quickly discard what you don't like, and double-down on what you do enjoy.
Life's too short to do otherwise!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much