The first time people thought of using computers to help with language learning was pretty much when they first started having computers. Previously called Computer-Assisted Language Instruction and then Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), the general concept has its humble roots in the 1960s. With the invention of the microcomputer, the CALL technologies moved away from the mainframes of major universities and into the wider population. Today, when most people have a supercomputer lying within arm’s reach, it’s no surprise that the technologies have proliferated to include everything from gamification of learning to virtual reality.
With the list of options ever expanding, here are some of the most popular technologies that can help all language learners:
Video calls help connect the world
There is simply no underestimating the effect Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts have had in revolutionising language learning. Before these technologies became widespread, meeting and having a face-to-face conversation with somebody from another country usually required travelling. Now, you can find a conversation partner in your target language in the blink of an eye and having online lessons has never been easier. There are entire platforms dedicated to finding and setting up your first online language exchange or lesson. All of this makes getting conversation practice in your target language from your living room easy and comfortable.
A recent development that language learners might want to use with video calls is the Skype Translator. Especially for beginners, it can help lessen the pressure of the first online language exchange or lesson since it translates not only instant messages but can also help with (almost) real-time video calls. While it might be considered cheating, it can also prove to be a great tool to get over the fear of speaking and propel you to actively use your target language.
Gamification makes learning fun
A surprising benefit of being always connected to the internet is the access you can have to free language learning apps. When “language learning” used to mean cramming vocabulary and grammar, these apps have very successfully gamified learning, making it more addictive than ever. Although these certainly help beginners the most, they’re also a great way of squeezing in some language practice in between lessons and keeping your brain active and focussed on your target language.
The ruling king of language learning apps right now must be Duolingo, but you can also give busuu a try. Memrise is a great way to learn new vocabulary, especially if you prefer a lot of repetition. The newcomer Lingvist promises to teach you a language in 200 hours, although their selection of languages is currently quite limited.
New kinds of translators
Naturally, you don’t need to be a language learner to use translators. Indeed, most of the time, text translators are used by people looking to actively avoid learning whatever language they’re translating. But you can also use translators to assist you with learning. Picking up new vocabulary is the easiest when you have a handy device that can translate new words quickly and conveniently.
Starting with the (almost) real-time Skype translator, tech companies have been pouring money into new kinds of translation services, including text and visual translation. There’s the much-used and known Google Translate which is useful even without its more exciting add-ons. Once you download their app, however, you are also able to make use of Google’s visual translations – just take a picture of whatever (road sign, menu item, sentence, etc.) is giving you a hard time and receive an instant translation into English. Other companies are taking these technologies even farther, providing almost instant speech-to-speech and speech-to-text translations.
While, in the long term, these technologies can have the effect of essentially making learning a foreign language obsolete when both text and speech can be instantly translated, for now, they can surely help a learner quickly find the meaning of new words.
Artificial Intelligence – the way of the future
Artificial Intelligence has been another hot topic these past few years. From being hailed as the salvation from everyday labour to accused of ending life as we know it, much is expected to happen in the field. For us, AI can also herald a new era in Computer-Assisted Language Learning. Although, so far, the machines still find human language rather confusing, so much so that they’ve even resulted to generating their own bot-talk to communicate. Be that as it may, the implications are still groundbreaking.
For example, the European Union is currently funneling money to get AI robots teaching preschool children a second language. On a less ambitious scale, AI can be used to also take language learning apps to the next level. Imagine programmes that take into account your personal learning style and adapt accordingly, teaching you-specific vocabulary in a way that you find engaging. Although this technology might still be a bit further down the road, Duolingo has already started engaging its users with AI-powered chatbots, a sign of things to come.
Virtual reality will transform immersion
It’s generally agreed that total immersion is an effective way to learn a language. The idea is simple – surrounding yourself with only your target language will force you to progress quickly. So far, the only way to really immerse yourself, however, has been to travel to a country where your target language is spoken. Thanks to virtual reality, this is now changing.
There are already apps that make use of virtual reality to create a quick back-and-forth, much like an actual conversation with a native and definitely a step above Duolingo’s chatbots. The future regarding virtual reality and language learning seems even brighter. ImmerseMe is a language start-up that is planning on creating authentic virtual realities to help you immerse in your target language without leaving your living room. Since culture and travel are such good motivators for learning a foreign language, it’s easy to see why people are getting excited.
Already, several scientific studies have provided evidence on how computer-assisted learning can help in acquiring a second language. While some technologies mentioned above are still just getting started, video calling and visual translators have already made language learners’ lives a lot easier than they were even ten years ago. Only time will tell how much simpler acquiring a second language can become.