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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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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