Are textbooks really worth the money anymore? Photo: John Beauchamp / Flickr
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Hyped language-learning apps like Duolingo may truly be useful in the classroom

The British are infamous for struggling with languages. At every level above primary school, dwindling numbers of students are choosing to study foreign languages. Innovative new apps may be set to change all that.

If you’re one of the 70 per cent of Britons who owns a smartphone, chances are you’ve heard of Duolingo. The app – winner of Apple’s ‘iPhone App of the Year’ award – is one of dozens of free foreign-language-learning tools that have recently flooded the Android and iOS app stores. Like the other new releases, it is claims to be an easy and effective way to learn languages.

Despite superficial difference, these new apps are all grounded by a simple underlying principle: learning languages should be cheap and easy. Unlike most subjects in the curriculum, you don’t need a qualified teacher and an expensive textbook to learn a language.  With a vocabulary of just a thousand words, you should know enough to get the gist of about 70 per cent of any foreign text. Let's put this in perspective – you had already learnt double that by the time you started nursery.

However, this requires knowing the ‘correct’ one thousand words to learn. Knowing the name of every single dish on a menu might be useful in a restaurant, but not if you can't say ‘eat’. This is where the apps get clever. Lexical frequency lists identify which words to prioritise, based on how often they’re used in texts (which is a simple task, given the vast amount of data available online). The benefits of this are self-fulfilling – the most common words will pop up everywhere, so are more likely to be stumbled upon again and become entrenched in your memory.

This process is aided by meticulously-prepared visual and auditory stimulation. Vocabulary is often presented in flashcard form (see Memrise or its sister-project CatAcademy). These snippets of information – a word or short phrase – are accompanied by relevant visual descriptors and a sound-bite to aid pronunciation. Compare that to rote-learning vocabulary sheets as homework, and it's clear why these apps have been so successful.

Another key problem with classroom-based language learning is retention of information. Without constant repetition, new words tend to go in one ear and straight out the other. For babies, or those living in their target country, continual immersion solves this problem immediately. For the rest of us struggling to learn a language in the UK, smartphone apps provide the next best thing. These apps offer continual testing for every new word you learn – once you get the answer right a few of times, the app recognises that you’ve learnt it and will show it to you less frequently.

Memrise models this as a “garden of memory” –

Every word begins life as a seed, you nurture it till it sprouts in your greenhouse (short term memory), and then you transfer it to your garden (long term memory). Once in long term memory, you have to water it (review it) to keep it from wilting (fading).”

Despite the over-stretched plant analogy, the concept is brilliant – but also completely unrealistic for teachers to replicate in a classroom. Having an in-depth understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses is impossible when teaching 30+ kids, let alone providing them with instant feedback.  The apps provide a way to circumvent the limitations of an overburdened education system.

And the effects are already being seen. An eight-week study of American college students learning Spanish found that just 34 hours on Duolingo alone would be enough to cover an entire twelve-week semester to the same standard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, remember this app was officially launched less than two years ago – the technology, and the methods, are still very much in their infancy.

Luis von Ahn, Duolingo’s founder, is optimistic about the future of the software. In an interview with Benny Lewis – polyglot and author of Fluent in 3 Months – he explains where they are heading:

We know it’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting better each day, really... Now we know that Duolingo is great to teach you to read and write. It’s not as good to teach you to speak. We know that. But it’s improving and it has improved in the last three months to achieve that. And we will keep on trying to keep up the progress.”

In a classroom setting, where an app could be used alongside formal lessons – perhaps by taking a short break every hour to complete a level – you can see the potential for rapidly building up vocabulary. Combining this with the competitive elements (“duels” with friends, links with social media profiles) means that school-kids in the near future won’t be put off by the difficulty of language learning, and the declining numbers of language students may finally reverse.

Of course, this is all speculation. A 2003 meta-analysis and literature review of the role of technological developments in language-learning highlighted the dearth of "systematic, well-designed, empirical evaluative studies".  A decade on, and not much has changed. The "independently conducted" study on Duolingo mentioned above was funded by – wait for it... Duolingo itself. From a scientist' point of view, the jury is still very much out.

However, a quick look at the history of foreign-language-teaching can show how well educators have kept up-to-date with changes in technology – from audio-cassette-recordings in the 80s to Skype exchanges and interactive online games today. In contrast, subjects like Maths and English have changed little over the last 50 years. The prospect of using advanced apps as part of a formal lesson plan is certainly imaginable. And even if not, they work much better than not learning a language at all.

So next time you’re stuck on a smartphone sling-shotting flightless birds into rickety structures, take ten minutes out to try learning a language – it's probably more effective, and definitely a lot more fun than it was in school.

Roosh V via YouTube
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Men's rights activist Roosh V isn't just a sexist: he hates the modern world

Roosh and his community have seen that cultural change is chipping away at their privilege, and they're having none of it. 

When an activist known as Roosh V organised 165 “meet-ups” for like-minded men in 43 countries for this Saturday, the backlash was instantaneous. Signatures on petitions to keep Roosh away (even from countries where he wasn't planning to visit) stretched into the thousands. Police in many of the cities where meet-ups were planned said they would be keeping an eye on the events. Counter-protests were organised. And so today, Roosh announced that the meetings would be cancelled, since he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend”.

Roosh V is a prominent member of the section of the internet known as the "manosphere": he runs popular websites including Return of Kings and his own blog, and began his career by writing guide books about how to pick up women in countries from Poland (“What to do when a Polish guy inevitably tries to cockblock you”) to Colombia (including “an explanation into the Colombian prepago female (gold digger)").

Yet as demonstrated in a recent Reggie Yates documentary programme about men's rights activists, 36-year-old Roosh seems a lot more interested in his own theories about society than in handing out pick-up tips. "This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory," Yates notes at one point. 

Roosh actually distanced himself from the Men's Rights community, or MRAs (though he arguably does fight for what he sees as men's rights) in 2009, when he argued that the group was filled with men incapable of taking action or improving their "game" with women. He would be more likely to self describe as a pick-up artist, or PUA, though his writing usually focusses on issues beyond simply "how to pick up women". 

While Roosh's views are objectionable and off-the-wall, they’re also subscribed to in full or in part by what may be millions of men around the world. So what does he believe? And how did this alternate worldview develop in the mind of a well-travelled, university-educated American son of immigrants?

Roosh isn't “pro-rape”, but he thinks rape is the fault of its victims

Many headlines this week called the proposed meetings "pro-rape", with evidence taken from a single post entitled “How to Stop Rape” which Roosh wrote in February 2015 (and which he recently claimed was satire). In it, he writes that since “women are not getting raped by violent offenders . . . they are getting raped by men they already know”, then rape (or as Roosh medievally puts it, “violent taking of a woman”) on private property should be made legal. This would, he argues, force women to “take responsibility” for their conduct on dates or while alone with men.

This appeals to a popular trope within the manosphere: that men will be "falsely" accused of rape under progressive rape laws that dictate that drunk women can't give consent, or accused by women who later regret the sexual encounter. The community is particularly aerated about Califiornia’s Yes Means Yes law, which rules that silence or lack of resistence doesn’t mean someone has consented (though consent can still be non-verbal).

Roosh's bizarre “legalise rape” argument is an apt symbol of his general appraoch: it’s a kind of devil’s advocacy, mixed with a form of upside-down rationality. He takes a common complaint among men’s groups and pushes it to an extreme conclusion, to the delight of his fans.

It’s also worth noting that some of Roosh’s pick-up tactics and advice could be seen to encourage rape – it’s probably fairer to call him “pro-rape” on these grounds, rather than his blogpost. In another trope common to the MRA community, he believes women say no in order to play “hard to get”, and that any self-respecting pick-up artist would override "no" up to a certain point. In a two-hour Skype interview with feminist artist Angela Washko, he argues:

“If a girl says no, that's no. But if she's still there and she allows you to touch her again and kiss her again that's not rape. That is not.”

In "When no means yes", a post from 2010, he gives the following "tip": "‘No’ when you try to take off her panties means . . . ‘Don’t give up now!’”

He knows his audience

In some of his writing, or while speaking to certain interviewers, Roosh can seem almost harmless – misguided, yes, but intellectually engaged and cautious about offending. 

In his interview with Washko, the pair manage to agree on the idea that it’s in the economic interests of the world’s richest to force all women to both work and have families, as wages can be lower: “The more people you force into the workforce, the cheaper labor is.”

The fact that women should have the choice to raise children instead of having a career is something both can agree on. 

But elsewhere, Roosh's concerned citizen mask slips. Earlier this week, he told members of his website forum to pool the details of journalists who write mean things about him with the ominous phrase: "We're going after the root of the problem". Elsewhere, he has said he won’t be interviewed by female journalists unless they give him a blowjob, and has stated that, “my default opinion of any girl I meet is worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise”.

This dual personality is something he shares with the comedian Dapper Laughs, who appeared on Newsnight to apologise for his rape joke-heavy comedy and explain that he was satiring men’s sexism, but now tells audiences that at the time he wanted to tell interviewer Emily Maitlis to “get your f***ing gash out!”  

He’s a savvy businessman

Which raises the question: how much of Roosh’s bluster is an act? Roosh must have learned by now that his more incendiary statements earn him attention, and even money through traffic to his sites. Dapper Laughs knows he needs to undercut his earnest, turtlenecked performance on Newsnight to keep earning as a comedian. 

Roosh told Reggie Yates he receives around a million combined hits to his websites every month, but this month, the figure must be far higher. A Vice journalist has pointed out that Roosh boasts about his online metrics on Twitter, and seems to be in competition with fellow controversy-chaser Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Which brings us to another question: did Roosh ever think the meet-ups would go ahead? Was he in fact expecting a media backlash, which would then allow him to show his followers that they are victimised and under attack, just as he's told them?

The whole thing does seem built as a vehicle for media attention: the covert meetings complete with a special code ("Do you know where I can find a pet shop?") which somehow found its way into every mainstream media story about the meetings – including, of course, this one.

Roosh advertised them on public sites, despite the fact that he probably could have contacted many supporters through more private forms of social media and regularly keeps the locations of his own talks a secret. His attempt to smear journalists is playing out in a private forum – strange that he couldn't use similar channels to arrange Saturday's meetings. 

He thinks the Western world is on the verge of a “cultural collapse”

Roosh claims that his science background taught him how, as he tells Washko, “to know what is a lie . . . when someone is full of shit I can tell because they’re just using what? Emotion.”

Travelling, meanwhile, has exposed him "to different ideas, belief systems than other people – I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate”.

This, in turn, prompts this surreal exchange:

Image: Angela Washko.

This defence – of science and worldliness, in the face of closed-minded emotion on the part of feminists – is important to Roosh precisely because his worldview actually seems to rely on an emotional, kneejerk hatred of change. 

Beyond the more typical MRA beliefs, Roosh has a comprehensive argument for how feminism and other liberal, progressive attitudes are about to ruin the modern world. In a document titled “Cultural collapse theory” he outlines a world where women earn “25 per cent more than women on average”, children are taught to “respect all religions but that of their ancestors”, and the reproductive rate falls because women have careers.

Here is the progression of a “cultural collapse”:

This, of course, is a dressed-up version of the familiar dystopia imagined by those who think liberal ideas and cultural change are driving us to disaster. In this context, Roosh’s ideas about women begin to look more like a refusal to get on board with the modern world: the way he sees women would have been very familiar a few centuries ago.

His hatred also extends to other social groups who have recently gained privilege, including transgender people (“If you are genetically a man, but you all of a sudden have this need to dress up like a girl . . . you should seek help"), gay people ("they're trying to encroach on what normal humanity is”), and stay-at-home fathers (“I mean if you ever see me pushing a stroller or changing a diaper, something is wrong. I must be on drugs"). 

The best proof of Roosh’s affection for the past is his opinion on where it all went wrong: I’m pretty sure giving women the right to vote was the start.”

In one particularly pathetic plea during his interview with Washko, he cries “You can’t even have sexy babes in games anymore!” 

…so any kind of cultural change is bad

When speaking to a group of London men in Reggie Yates’ documentary, Roosh emphasises the idea that "women and gays are seen as superior to straight men", and that straight men are, effectively, an oppressed group. “Men are not allowed to speak the views that I am speaking,” he tells his rapt audience. The cancelled meetings, it seems, function as proof of this. 

Yates may think Roosh is touting a conspiracy theory, but at heart, it may be simpler than that. Roosh’s pseudo-intellectualism can be boiled down to a single point: the modern world is chipping away at his privilege, and he – and his followers – don’t like it at all. Roosh is furious that, in his eyes, the media is “encouraging” children to be gay, asking Washko: “Why is the media all of a sudden in the business of shaping the sexuality of human beings?”

As Washko writes in her transcript, she resists the urge to reply: “But it always has been!” The difference now is that the narrative (if it exists, which I’d argue it doesn’t particularly) just doesn’t favour Roosh’s demographic anymore. As one of Roosh’s fans tells Yates, “We’re losing ground.”

While equality isn’t a zero-sum game, true cultural and political change will require privileged groups to lose some ground – to give up some of that privilege. Behind the long words and cultural theory, Roosh and his followers are the men simply refusing to do so.  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.