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.

Photo: Getty
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Are cats solid or liquid? 13 of the best winners of the Ig Nobel prize

This satirical awards ceremony has celebrated unusual contributions to science for 27 years. 

Every year, the Ig Nobel Prize Committee hands out ten awards. A parody of the Nobel Prize, it recognises some of the most whimsical contributions to science. 

Categories include psychology, fluid dynamics and chemical engineering, much like the real Nobel Prizes, but change year to year. Its name is a pun on the word ignoble.

Studies that won prizes this year include a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese, a report on the effects of human blood in the diet of hairy-legged vampire bats, and research explaining why old men have big ears (gravity). The winners are just the latest in 27 years of the award. Here are 13 of the most head-scratching and unique winners:

1. Original conspiracy theories

Erich Von Daniken won the Literature Prize in 1991, the first year of the Ig Nobel awards, for his book Chariots of the Godswhich suggested human life takes its origins from ancient aliens that came to earth. Originally published in 1968, the book imagines that many ancient civilisations demonstrated higher scientific abilities than was possible given the limitations of their time, so aliens must have come to Earth and transmitted the knowledge to make human progress possible. 

2. The Antichrist from the East

Robert Faid, a mathematician, invested a huge amount of time in calculating the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist. (The exact odds are 710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1, if you’re curious).

3. Refined pigeons 

Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita successfully trained several pigeons to discriminate between Picasso’s paintings and Monet’s paintings, a skill that some humans might still be struggling with. 

4. Lovesick

Four scientists at the University of Pisa discovered that the biochemical basis of romantic love might not be all that different from the biochemical basis of neuroticism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as they observed the multiple ways that platelet serotonin was transported around various sections of the brain. 

5. Hell is closer than we think 

Dr. Jack Van Impe and Rexella Van Impe carried out research which demonstrated that one of the universe’s great mysteries, black holes, fulfil the theological and technical requirements to be the location of hell itself.

6. Feathery feelings 

Stefano Ghirlanda, Liselotte Jansson, and Magnus Enquist of Stockholm University demonstrated that our flightless friends may be no different to us – in that chickens prefer beautiful humans. Chickens were more likely to react to pictures of faces that were deemed more conventionally attractive.

7. Creative (non) fiction

This went to a whole group of people in Nigeria, the internet entrepreneurs who used e-mail to introduce many innocent fraud victims around the world to “a cast of rich characters – General Sani Abacha, Barriste Jon A Mbeki Esq”, who find themselves in need of a loan and rely on the generosity of strangers to access their own immense fortunes. 

8. Say Cheese 

Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commenwealth Scientific and Research Organisation did all the legwork and found the exact number of photographs that you have to take in order to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. 

9. A girl's best friends 

Three scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México were able to create a girl’s best friend, diamonds, from her other best friend, tequila. They did this by heating tequila at very high temperatures to turn it into a gas. They then heated the gas further to break it into solid crystals that had the same composition as pure diamonds. 

10. Swearing is good for you 

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University finally proved that there’s a scientific basis for the belief that swearing relieves pain. It may have something to do with how swearing can nullify the typical fight-or-flight response to pain, among other reasons.

11. Beer goggles

Five scientists, Laurent Begue, Brad Bushman, Oulman Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra and Medhi Ourabah, confirmed that “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” ie that if you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think you’re attractive.

12. More than a pet rock 

Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Fergon were able to use a sales and marketing perspective to ascertain the potential personalities of various kinds of rocks, by interviewing focus groups who said what they believed the rocks could be like. Some rocks (particularly the more fetching ones) were described as "classy, feminine", while others were seen more as "a hippy, someone who believes in star signs and whatnot". 

13. The internet's favorite animal 

Marc-Antoine Fardin sought to answer the age old question: cats – liquid or solid? Apparently, they're both. (Fardin admits there’s much more research to be done). 

A full list of every year's winners can be found here