May 12

How New Technologies Are Changing Language Learning, For Better And Worse

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AI, AR and VR are increasingly hot topics in the language learning space — with new tools and technologies being touted as silver bullets that will fundamentally change the way we learn.

Numerous on-demand apps and free tools have made language learning accessible to everyone: Duolingo is a prime example, busuu’s Alexa bot is making it easy to practice hands-free while performing other household activities, and Google’s new wireless headphones offer real-time translation from Google Translate. And Mondly VR is leading the charge in the VR space with its foreign-language teaching app, which places people into situations where they’d need to use the language, like a cab ride or checking into a hotel.

There’s no doubt that technologies like this will have a massive impact on the way we learn, the way we live and the way we work. Some believe they’ll even eradicate the need to learn it at all — like Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of The Seventh Sense, who makes a case that more data means less need for human intervention. With advancements like real-time translations already showing up in early adaptations, the claim would render language learning nearly obsolete.

The counter viewpoint is that with massive acceleration in technology, there’s still a place for human-centric skills. Having studied seven languages myself, including French — which I learned by fully immersing myself while teaching English in Lyon — I personally see the human and cultural elements of language as irreplaceable, and being an EdTech entrepreneur for the past 10 years has only strengthened this viewpoint.

In his book Head in the Cloud, William Poundstone talks about the importance of “knowing” things, despite our increasingly easy access to mass amounts of data and information. He argues that during a time in history where we have more information than ever, we’re actually narrowing our potential knowledge base and are more ill-informed than ever. I would argue that his findings support the need for a level of “knowing” in language learning that can’t be replaced by machines or self-study tools, no matter how immersive or realistic. I also believe that cultural subtleties, connotations and idiomatic usage simply can’t be fully conveyed without real human interaction.

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