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Language Learning in 2010

Beispiele deutscher Beschilderungen in Namibia. Collage von Bildern aus Windhuk, Outjo, Swakopmund und Lüderitz. Samples of German signs in Namibia. Collage of photos from Windhoek, Outjo, Swakopmund and Lüderitz.Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just received another newsletter from Transparent Language advertising their Video Immersion Software and it got me thinking.

I’ve always been very interested in language learning and finding new ways of doing it more effectively. What I currently see as the main issues of this increasingly important process are:

  • Time consumption – it takes considerable time to make significant process in learning grammar, scripts, pronunciation and building a solid vocabulary
  • Context switching – learning a new language usually means stopping whatever you are doing, sitting down and starting to think about things largely disconnected from your everyday activities – in my opinion, this is a significant »barrier to entry« for most people

The entire process often consists of the following steps (in this or a slightly modified order):

  1. Learning the basic grammar
  2. Learning the basic pronunciation (including any »unfamiliar« sounds a language might have)
  3. Learning the script (based on whether or not this is a priority, a transliteration might suffice at first, e.g. for Mandarin Chinese, learning the script is an extremely lengthy process that can usually be postponed with the help of pinyin)
  4. Acquiring an initial vocabulary (by e.g. learning the Swadesh list for a language)
  5. Passive contact – reading books, listening to audio clips, watching movies
  6. Interactive contact – conversations with other speakers, IM-chatting, visiting the country and practising on-site

It is a widely recognised fact that actually living amongst native speakers produces the best results.

The reasons, as I see them, are mostly the following:

  1. No choice – you have to learn how to communicate in order to survive
  2. Constant contact with the language
  3. No context switching – you use the language while doing what you would be doing anyway

I think understanding the last point is paramount to being able to build a next-generation language learning tool.

One very low-tech and available way of getting close to it today is by picking up a book you’ve always wanted to read in the language you want to learn and just trying to push yourself through using a dictionary.

For a lot of readers, Paulo Coelho is one of those authors whose books are both easy to read and available in a lot of the world’s languages.

But as you can imagine, having to browse a paper (or even electronic) dictionary while reading a book is cumbersome and most books end up sitting comfortably on the »will finish soon« shelf.

So, what does today’s technology hold in store for us to make a step forward?

Learning by reading 2.0

Using the rising semantic web technologies, this approach is becoming increasingly viable.

Imagine reading a German book online (or offline in a PDF or other text document). You stumble upon a word you don’t know, you click it, and up pops a translation.

Reading + learning a language

A browser plugin (or screen reader, as used by accessibility software enabling the blind to use a computer) gets the word under the mouse cursor, searches a database and provides the corresponding word in the target language.

Of course, the »searches« and »database« part are the tricky part.

Building a huge database out of hundreds of dictionaries, Wikipedia entries and books may do the trick to some extent, but this is still years away.

One approach I’ve described in another post was using a well granulated corpus, such as the Bible and all of its available translations, to find a passage of text in language B that likely includes the selected word in language A and display it as a reference.

Getting the actual translated word is a bit tricky and requires some statistical tweaking and an active participation from the users, but according to some initial tests I have done this approach looks quite promising.

One factor worth mentioning here is that preventing mistakes is not very crucial, as the most important thing is to give the user some kind of context for a quick conclusion, not provide a literal translation.

E.g., if you’re reading the sentence “Er musste sich entscheiden”, and you click on “entscheiden”, such a system will find the word in a corpus and display the corresponding translation of that text part to you as a hint, you could e.g. have “It was hard for her to decide”, which would help you guess the meaning of the word.

A reader can very well live without knowing the meaning of 1, 2 or even a dozen words on a single page, as long as the surrounding context is informative enough for a probable conclusion on their meaning.

In summary? You are building your vocabulary and probably your grammar while going through an everyday text in a foreign language.

For some, this means zero time waste.

But for most, it is not enough …

Learning by living


I have never been particularly drawn to nonsense such as Justin.TV, where a guy walks around with a camera strapped to his head and lets the whole Internet in on his everyday life.

But, as it happens, having a portable camera connected to the Internet with you at all times just might become something we won’t mind doing at all.

Please note that these are my impromptu musings and I might come back with one or two references or alterations at a later time.

Those of you who are familiar with Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age know about the concept of “ractors”, ad lib actors that jump right into a computer generated environment and act out a live scene to give their clients (who are also participating) a sense of interactivity and liveliness.

Neal Stephenson goes to considerable lengths to describe the way these ractors are hired for the jobs – it reminds me (to some extent) of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – using a computer application that notifies them of available jobs, they pick one and in a couple of seconds, they’re either racting out a particular role or – narrating.

And this is where I am trying to get to –

Language Learning 2010 - Tadej Gregorcic

Imagine waking up on a sunny day, putting on your camera or video-capturing sunglasses, walking out into the street, and listening to your day’s story – in German.

“Bob walks out into the street on a sunny day, looking at the people passing by. He stops in front of a building, opens a large wooden door and steps in. He is now inside a restaurant”.

The narrator/ractor sees what you see, hears what you hear and describes it to you in a language you want to learn.

You pay them by the minute. They can either work from home or from an office, all they need is a broadband connection and a headset.

Privacy/legal issues? Probably lots.

But there are some measures that come to mind.

First of all, you can keep the ractor-ractee pairing such that longer “revisitations” are at a minimum. Client-relationships such as the one between Nell and her ractor are a complex matter.

Also, strict guidelines on how and where the ractor performs the job are required.

But all in all, I’m sure that a couple of minutes of exposure and a couple of bucks off your credit card are not much to ask for the probably best and most effective language learning method ever.

After you are done, you rate the ractor/narrator and say goodbye, as the next time, it might or might not be the same person watching.


  • Mitar |

    Or just get a language A talking friend and spend some quality time together. In real life.

  • Tadej Gregorcic |

    Of course – if you can get someone who is willing (or incentivised
    through a language exchange) to spend time with you, great!

    Getting a girlfriend/boyfriend whose language you don’t speak works
    best, I guess :).

    Bottom-up, you can always grasp the grammar and get the vocabulary
    through conversation.

    But the bottom line is – if you want to learn, say, Farsi, and there
    are no Iranians in your neighbourhood (esp. if you live where you and
    I live), you can strike that option.

    Anyway – the world is flat and technology can help sort out these kind
    of problems, real life is everything surrounding you, even cyberfriends.

    Maximising learning potential and serendipity with minimal friction (time waste) is key.

So, what do you think ?