Friday, February 9, 2018

Learn Language the Hard Way

I've been learning Mandarin over the past 6 months and just had a thought. All of the apps that I use to learn language make it incredibly easy to learn. My Pleco dictionary makes it so I can click on any word on a web page and it will lookup the definition instantly. My Du Reader app lets me read a story/article in minutes. If I don't know a word I just click on it and get the definition, even a recorded pronunciation. My AnkiDroid Flashcard app does "spaced repetition" and I can scroll through a deck of words on the fly. But I sometimes wonder if this convenience is making it HARDER to learn.

For non-millennials like myself, there was a time before cellphones. Our house had a single landline phone that was shared between the family. If you were upstairs you had to rush downstairs near the kitchen to pick up the phone. We had a post board where we stuck index cards listing various friends and remote family's phone numbers. But for your close friends you never needed it. Because you called them all the time and had it embedded in your brain. Millenials these days don't know any of their friends phone numbers. Even I don't know anyone's phone number anymore; although I can still recall some of my friend's old house numbers.  What changed? Well the technology of smartphones made it so that we don't even have to look at the phone number anymore. We aren't forced to engage with it. The technology makes it easy for us to forget.

For learning languages I feel the same sort of thing is happening. The fast repetition and lookup learning strategy of Duolingo, digital flash cards, and digital dictionaries cause us to not engage the same way as before. I think the theory is that it might be that it is too easy, causing our brain to not work as hard. And if our brain doesn't work as hard then that information doesn't get deeply stored. But I don't think its the apps fault, its how we use it. Quick (spaced) repetition has worked for me, but often times I find myself repeating the same words over and over again. Then I find it useful to switch to a deeper learning strategy that forces me to work and not be lazy. Like saying/writing the word out in a sentence, or doing  mental image associations. These are meant to engage the brain in different ways, possible making it harder, but making a deeper more lasting connection. At least in personal experience language learning seems almost like working out your body in that the harder you work, the more benefits you get. Or maybe generalized further: the more you put in, the more you get out.