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Digital immersion creates wave of change in language education

5 min read


To instruct or not to instruct has been a source of controversy in the field of applied linguistics since Krashen first introduced his comprehensible input theory in the 1980s. The debate over the utility of explicitly learned knowledge in language learning has come full circle again thanks to a new crop of digital immersion platforms, including Duolingo, and Bliu Bliu. These platforms skip the grammar and go straight for the good stuff: target language content from the Internet.

The world of language education has seen several waves of change over the past two decades, not least the abandonment of the audio-lingual method in favor of communicative language teaching and the advent of language software with interactive exercises and extensive stores of content, but a new generation of digital tools is now coming to the forefront to change the game yet again. Combining the enormous wealth of content on the Internet with the power of super-charged language processing algorithms, applications are going where no language educator has gone before, implementing ideal conditions for language acquisition with amazing accuracy.

Putting the research into practice

The same rules researchers have been hawking for ages are finally becoming a reality for the everyday language learner and they no longer come at an enormous cost to your average Joe. They say you learn better with spaced repetition? Pimsleur thought of that, but these days Quizlet is there to run you through the same smart drills at strategic intervals, free of charge. They say you learn better when material is engaging and processed on multiple levels? Memrise has the memes to liven things up.

Learning from context is key

They say you learn better from context and repeated exposure to language. Here’s where things get interesting.  Despite most teachers having received the message about the importance of presenting vocabulary in context, a very important two-digit figure associated with the practice never really made it into the headlines.

If the sentence you’re reading from contains 80% to 90% known words, you have an excellent chance of correctly guessing the meaning of anything new you encounter. Better still, because you expended some extra cognitive energy with the guessing, you’re more likely to remember what you learned. But what happens if the percentage is off? An exercise in frustration that can be so cognitively overloading even the most motivated language learner gives up.

That’s how it works, but try putting it into practice. How can a language teacher know the working vocabulary of each of his or her students on any given day? Worse still, how can educators anticipate which articles will contain that magic number of known words without an electronic gadget to do the numeric heavy lifting?

The new kids on the block

Enter solutions like Duolingo, and Bliu Bliu — platforms that go out of the way to present learners with comprehensible input they actually have a chance of holding on to. Duolingo does it on the sentence level, takes the whole article approach and Bliu Bliu offers a combination geared at suggesting spoken and informal language from the web. All of them rely on powerful technology to map each user’s unique vocabulary in a language and keep a self-adjusting feedback loop in place to generate a stream of targeted, smart content, tailored to the individual. All of them neglect to directly teach grammar.

Duolingo is certainly the most famous of the three. They’ve developed a closed system whereby texts up for translation from their community of advanced learners are turned into fodder for thematic lessons, monetizing the platform in the process. While Duolingo handpicks its text, takes an alternative approach, tracking user click patterns as they surf the open web. Users direct their learning to start off by looking up words from foreign language websites (creating  a trail of electronic flashcards in the process) until the system learns their level and suggests targeted reading with the right mix of words they’ve seen and new language that’s within their reach.  Bliu Bliu, the youngest of the group, is a 1-year-old startup from Lithuania that uses the same idea as They sort their videos and dialogues into content buckets and have users complete drills where they ask “do you know this word?” for select highlighted text until enough information is generated to send appropriate content the user’s way.

To sum it up

Each solution is unique but collectively they are tapping into the same driver: abandonment of grammar lessons in favor of repeated exposure to content and structures that facilitate acquisition. With the inherent scalability and reach of the Internet, bypassing traditional curriculum development and leaving content up to the computers might be the smartest thing humans have ever done. These digital education startups are ushering in a new trend, not to mention giving people a better chance of learning a language thanks to digital immersion.

Meredith Cicerchia (@MereLanguage) is a linguist who has spent the last seven years working across the language learning industry in various roles from teaching to curriculum development to teacher-training. In her previous position, Meredith managed the special projects team at Education First where she led development of the EFTE, the world’s first free standardized adaptive assessment tool and platform.