Three Surprising Ways to Use Technology to Learn a Language


The global economy has created such demand for cross-cultural communication that people can’t help but pay more attention to language learning, both as a problem to solve and as a business opportunity to explore. The oft-cited observation that there are more people in China learning English than there are people living in the United States is not only accurate, but it offers a glimpse at the truly staggering demand for language learning around the world today.

But there is a major problem of scale: There are nowhere near enough qualified language teachers to meet this increasing demand. And so everyone, from educational institutions to new businesses, is grasping at technology to bridge the gap. The challenge, of course, is that after decades of research, we know that learning a language requires a significant investment of time and effort, an investment that most people are not willing to make unless what they’re learning is relevant to their everyday life.

One simple way to do this is by taking advantage of everyday technologies that are not necessarily intended to teach language but can nevertheless be harnessed to provide instruction when we are most likely to benefit from it. There are, in fact, many ways to use technological applications for language learning. Here are three particularly useful places to begin:

Watch movies with foreign subtitles. It is no surprise that watching movies and TV shows in a language you are learning is a great way to get the authentic listening practice you need to improve your proficiency. Indeed, many people believe that watching foreign films in their target language—but with subtitles in their native language—will improve their second language skills. However, the minute you start watching with subtitles in your native language, you are dooming yourself to failure. That’s because reading takes over from listening, and you don’t pay attention to the speech; after a few moments of growing accustomed to the subtitles, you won’t even notice that you are reading. The good news, though, is that if you watch a movie with subtitles in the language you are learning, rather than English, you are more likely to understand the video and learn from it.

Listen to directions. The GPS in your car might seem an unlikely place to improve your foreign language skills, but if you can change the settings to the language you are studying, you will get authentic, real-world practice following directions in a new language. Research has shown that task-based learning—essentially, learning a language by way of tasks relevant to your daily life—is very effective. This GPS technique, therefore, works well for a couple of reasons. First, you get listening practice with very real consequences: If you don’t follow the directions, you don’t arrive at your destination. Second, you have some context and background information to help you understand the language. If you begin by using the GPS on a route that you know well, you can simply use it to learn new words for the directions you are already following. And as a more advanced learner you can use the GPS on unfamiliar routes, which offers some high-stakes pressure, something else which has been shown to help adults learn new skills.

Change your settings. Changing the language settings on your phone, computer, or tablet can be an exercise in frustration. But if you are actively trying to learn a language, changing your settings gives you the opportunity to use a new language to complete tasks that you are already doing anyway. You can sort and filter emails, search for apps, and browse the web, all in the language you are learning. And, as with the GPS recommendation, you have some context for the new vocabulary words you are learning, and some sense of how to complete these tasks, all of which will help you. In addition, you will have frequent opportunities to work on your reading skills, since every time you want to open an app, check your email, or find a document, you’ll be forced to practice in the language you are learning. When you’re feeling especially daring, try this at the ATM!

These three tips offer chances to practice using a new language in a realistic, authentic setting, because we know that people learn languages best when real-life stakes are involved. So whether it’s the movies you watch, the directions you follow, or the applications you use, if you’re willing to try them in your new language, you may be surprised at how quickly you make noticeable progress. Learn how Helen Doron English programmes use technology.

This article is by Katharine B. Nielson, the chief education officer at Voxy, a language-learning company based in New York City.