Hands on a piano

The way people learn languages is an intriguing topic. We have plenty of resources available online to help us, but I’m most interested in the answer to one question: how can we improve upon what we already have? The future of language learning is more than the flashcard-esque fill-in-the-blank learning systems that have become all too common. The ideal site is one that challenges the user, and asks him or her to create something new with their target language. Language learning is about finding new ways to communicate, and creation is the highest form of communication.

I love DuoLingo — I used it extensively when learning Russian and Spanish, working my way through both courses in their entirety. I learned a ton of new words and phrases, and it kept me on track even when I didn’t want to study. It’s beautifully simple — open your phone, at any time of day, and learn something new.

Despite this, I found Duo’s methods much less effective in my recent attempts to learn Japanese. What changed? The main difference is how much I relied on DuoLingo. Instead of going out of my way to find language partners, listen to newscasts, translate articles, and generally interact with the language on a personal level, I just put in my time and “did my Duo.” I trusted in the small investments of daily effort, believing it would eventually allow me to use Japanese in my daily life. These investments didn’t pay off as much as I thought they would. As a result, I broke my streak and largely gave up on studying Japanese.

Let’s face it. It’s my own fault I didn’t keep up with Japanese. If I had taken the time to structure my learning and really put my heart into it, I probably would have had more success. (I’ll have to remember this when I try again!) In spite of this, I couldn’t help but wonder how a language learning system could be more personal. What would have kept me engaged?

A common theme in the language learning community is the importance of just getting started. The idea is that no matter where you’re beginning from, you just have to close your eyes and throw yourself into the process. Duo is great for this; a few clicks in the right places and you’ll be off and running in your new language.

Another idea that the most skilled and outspoken polyglots constantly drive home is that to learn to do something, you must do the thing that you want to learn, without exceptions. If you want to speak to people in Russian, then speak to people in Russian. If you want to write German novels, then start trying to write German novels. Looking at French flashcards will not improve your ability to tell a story in French, nor will it sharpen your wits in daily French conversation. When viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that DuoLingo is teaching us a very narrow range of skills, much like the dreaded classroom-based learning we all remember so sorely from high school and college. The text pops up, you translate it either into or out of your target language, and spit it back out. That’s it.

So how do we break out of this rigid script? Instead of learning to be Google Translate, we need to train ourselves to be humans speaking a new language. We need to create. Naturally, an app can’t force people be creative and love the process, but it can certainly set them up for success and give them the right targets to aim for.

I envision a new kind of language learning framework that encourages and rewards the kind of fun that can arise from creating new things in a foreign tongue. You may feel like a child as funny-sounding words dance off your tongue or wiggle from your typing fingers, weaving into stories, songs, or whatever else you can imagine. The point is that the process would be treated as something personal, experienced differently by everyone who attempts it. These efforts would pay off not only in increased fluency, but with the rewarding feeling that comes with making something new. You may end up with something you’re proud of at the end of it all — something to share with your friends, or maybe even your mom.

While flashcards are an important feature in any site for remembering what you’ve learned, the language learning website I’m imagining would take it to the next level, offering three new mediums of self-expression:

  1. Translate your own text, not someone else’s. Import interesting news articles, paste discussion from online forums, or just ask the website to grab something random from the internet if you’re feeling uninspired. You get to choose what to translate, and how to go about it. The site will track your changes and give you an “attaboy” for making progress.

  2. Write a story. Even if you only know three words in a language, you can arrange them in a way that describes your current situation and write something unique to your life. Anything from your morning commute to a fantastic space-wars story could be expressed in your target language. In doing so, you’ll find yourself grasping for new words you wouldn’t need to know otherwise. Hitting the online translator for something you actually need to know in order to express yourself will really make the words stick!

  3. Write a song. How better to express yourself than in song? Like writing stories, the barrier to entry is lower than expected. Just two words that rhyme are enough to make the first lines of a rap or poem. Just end each line with words that rhyme, and you can fill in the rest like a puzzle. Whether it’s a song or a rap, it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of a language once you start piecing it together yourself. Writing a songs, raps, or poetry will help you find new words. Moreover, your special tune will always remind you of the context in which you first learned and used those words.

While these daily disciplines would be simple, the effect could be drastic. Incorporating the creative process into an online language learning program might be exactly what is needed to elevate the language learning process to never-before-seen levels of effectiveness.

What are your thoughts? Is this something you would consider using? Can you thing of other mediums of self expression? If so, please leave a comment — it would be greatly appreciated!