A new paradigm for language learning
For the vast majority of us, knowing where to start when it comes to the overwhelming task of learning a second or foreign language is the hard part.
Fortunately for the 40% of the world’s population who is monolingual, the age of the digital language app is upon us.
Over the past three years the language industry has experienced a massive growth spurt with the development of a host of new, smart, and mostly free, edtech solutions for language learning. They come in all shapes and sizes and target the skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing, offering memes, communities for peer correction and even translation exercises to fund content creation. They are gamified and their user bases are exploding with millennials hungry to hablar español, parler français and even try their hand at Mandarin.
But there is one thing that’s not new in all of this development—cutting edge adaptive platforms and their more traditional Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur counterparts are still primarily targeting beginner learners.
Not every learner is a beginner
And what’s wrong with that? Nothing if you are in fact a beginner. Organized learning trees, hierarchical lessons and language maps are a wonderful way to ensure you cover the basics of vocabulary and grammar when learning a new language. Solutions like Duolingo give learners a solid base to stand on and users who follow the course from start to finish certainly come out with enough language skills to impress friends and colleagues on their next trip abroad.
But what’s next? To be honest, while the industry has seen an explosion in language app development for beginners, pickings are pretty slim when it comes to platforms that provide support for the intermediate learner and beyond.
And there certainly are a lot of intermediate language learners out there. If 40% of the world is monolingual that leaves a whopping 60% who speak more than one language with varying degrees of fluency, making for a multitude of intermediate, upper-intermediate and advanced learners who’ve come far enough to earn the bilingual badge but will never attain native-speaker like proficiency.
The Intermediate Plateau
Think about it this way, if I know how to say “baby dog” do I really need to learn the word for “puppy?” Isn’t it good enough to gesture and say “that group of fish” or do I need to know the word “school?” If I’m not planning a career in veterinary sciences, chances are I can probably survive with my rudimentary descriptions. But what happens when I watch Finding Nemo with my children and the jokes go right over my head? (And what if my failure to understand has more serious consequences?)
Unfortunately, for many speakers of a second language who’ve mastered the basics, something is still missing. What these intermediate learners lack is a stepping stone to the next level, a roadmap to help them transition from just getting by to mastery of a language.
While helping beginners is to some extent easy (we know the vocabulary and grammar they need to know: numbers, time, food, present tense, the list is pretty similar no matter which language you’re learning), developing content for intermediate and advanced learners is no walk in the park. Grammar drills are too easy, vocabulary lists seem stale, textbook readings are not always relevant and the thrill of successfully communicating is no longer novel. Welcome to the intermediate plateau, also known as the doldrums of language learning. It’s a place every language learner must pass through and from where only the highly motivated emerge victorious.
A roadmap to advanced proficiency
It might be that language skills are necessary to pursue a new career path, enter an academic institution or simply satisfy the desire for more knowledge. Whatever the reason, for many intermediate learners out there, the urgency to attain advanced proficiency is both real and pressing.
And while any degree of proficiency opens doors, opportunities for learners who achieve advanced mastery are unique as they require an individual to be fluent in both language and culture. To bootstrap their way forward, these learners require challenging activities that expose them to complex and less frequent vocabulary, in relevant, current and real-world contexts, and from a diverse range of sources to ensure motivation stays high and they are better equipped to deal with the subtleties of language they will encounter in communication with native speakers.
So how come there’s no app for that?
Digital immersion and content curation: the way forward
“What learners need to bridge the gulf between intermediate and advanced proficiency is exposure to authentic texts so they can develop breadth and depth in their vocabulary and enhance familiarity with real language,” explains Dr. Jan Ihmels, CEO of Lingua.ly, a cross-platform language learning solution that teaches language through digital immersion.
Reading foreign language newspapers on a tablet, following Tweets from native speakers on a mobile device and using search engines to work or research in the target language can be more effective than a language lesson because they are activities that simulate immersion, allowing users to direct their own learning and find language that is interesting to them. Duolingo’s translation feature is a step in the right direction, but just like a language teacher, platforms should encourage users to look outside the system.
“At Lingua.ly, we try to help learners find comprehensible input from the web and manage their existing language at the same time,’ says Ihmels. “We do this because we think it is the key to ensuring every user reaches their full potential and never stops learning.”
Learning a new language is always a challenge, no matter what your level. But what the industry needs now is more apps like Lingua.ly’s to help intermediate learners break through to advanced proficiency and stay on the road to fluency for good.