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.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.