What I want from a language-learning tool

Example of a poor Duolingo translation from Italian to English. The grader does not accept "memorize" as a translation of "imparare a memoria," and insists on "learn by memory."

Ceci n’est pas une bonne traduction.

Last night I went to an Edtech Network event here in San Francisco. I got to learn a lot about cool things happening in the Bay Area (such as TechShop and a new after-school STEAM program for the 8-14 age range).

I also had the opportunity to chat with an entrepreneur who’s developing a new language-learning tool, and it got me thinking about the current state of foreign language sites and apps. It’s really puzzling that we haven’t come up with a better system for learning other languages, given how international the tech community is.

My own frustrating experience has been with Persian. I’ve been studying it (not that seriously, I’ll admit) for a few years, but the resources are really lacking. Most Persian textbooks are either far too short or are written for academics who want to study classic poetry from centuries ago. I’m sure that all of that’s really interesting, but while I’m working my way up to the classics, it would be great to be able to watch an Iranian movie or understand a Persian menu.

For me, the basics of a good language-learning tool in 2014 would be:

  • Interaction with native or near-native speakers. There are some sites that offer it, like italki, but it’s surprising how many others don’t.
  • Useful vocabulary in real-world contexts. I was excited when I first learned about Duolingo because I assumed that Luis von Ahn would make it adaptive. For example, students learning Italian would only be presented with sentences that native Italian speakers have given Duolingo (while they are learning other languages). Instead, Duolingo often insists on machine-translated sentences as the “correct” answers (see the image above) and nudges learners toward translations that are correct but very, very awkward. Students of Italian, for example, will see the subject present in nearly every Italian sentence, even though native speakers tend not to use it.
  • Lots of repetition with scaffolding. Yes, Mindsnacks is great. But it doesn’t provide enough full sentences, and it never gets hard enough that I could use what I’ve learned to get around in a foreign country.

I realize the field is changing quickly. If you have any suggestions for tools for me to try out with Persian, please leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @finnismundi.

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About Finn Smith

Oregon... some places.... SF. Working in education, technology, and social impact (or some combination of the three).
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