Transparent Language Blog

You can’t learn a language “naturally” with software Posted by on Mar 4, 2013 in Archived Posts

If I want to learn a second language, can I turn to my computer? One would hope so, since I make such products for a living. And the answer is yes… but it’s a qualified yes.

I can’t learn another language the way I learned my native language without moving to another country or investing a lot of time and money into a total immersion classroom experience.

So why can’t I learn a language in the same, “natural” way I learned English using software? Try prying apart your first language.

learning languages online

A company friend from Brazil came up to Transparent Language for a visit, occupying an empty desk by the Product Management team. He speaks English very well, but as you know, you never really finish learning a language. On the last day of his visit he posited a question: “What’s the difference between a cup, a glass, and a mug?”

I started to blurt out an answer then halted. Everything I’d just said was, at best, half-right. Pretty soon I found myself making a table in Excel that cross-referenced material, tallness, and presence of a handle on drinking implements. I was shocked at how complicated this was.

As a native English speaker, I don’t have any trouble referring to drinkware on a daily basis; I can’t remember the last time I struggled over what to call a mug, glass, or cup. I could look at such objects all day and tell you what to call each one. But when it comes to writing down the rules to give to a non-native speaker as reference, well… turns out it’s actually pretty hard.

This is the kind of thing that happens with a first language—the language(s) one acquires naturally while growing up: its rules become embedded in the memory without justification. The what gets stored without requiring the why. Someone who speaks English very well might have a huge problem explaining the definition of an adverb. Just so, the difference between a cup, glass, or mug doesn’t exist as an explicit rule; it just emerges from a jumble of learned rules. The kind of memory that stores these rules is called procedural memory.

Online courses alone won’t build your procedural knowledge.

Procedural memory is really, really difficult to teach with software. Take a look at the list of definitions I ended up making for Adir:

  1. A cup has no handle and isn’t made of glass. This is also the best to use as a catch-all term.
  2. A glass has no handle and is made of glass.
  3. A mug has a handle.

Even now I can spot exceptions in my logic, and I’ve been speaking English my whole life.

By making that list I transformed my procedural knowledge of English terms for cups, mugs, and glasses into declarative knowledge. Declarative knowledge, to oversimplify, is taught knowledge. I had to teach myself the rules of what’s what in a way that I could point to as clear definitions. But those rules were hard to make because I had to draw boundaries around amorphous puddles in my subconscious.

People learning languages “naturally,” through immersion, don’t learn declaratively (consciously taught); they learn procedurally (subconsciously picked-up). A well-designed app or website can very effectively build your declarative knowledge, but not procedural knowledge. In fact, it has no choice. So any company that promises to teach you language the way you learned it as a child is exaggerating.

So… can someone learn a language with technology or not?

The short answer is yes. You can effectively build your language proficiency by building your declarative knowledge. Transparent Language designs its platforms to streamline declarative learning; it focuses on drilling words, phrases, and concepts into your long-term memory.

Stuffing words and phrases in your brain may not seem like it’s going to be very productive—who wants to say simply “bathroom” when you could be saying “Excuse me, I was wondering, if it’s not too much trouble, where I might find the lavatory?”—but the reality is, learning words and phrases first is productive as they say around here. In fact, studies show that vocabulary size is by far the greatest contributor to language proficiency, accounting for anywhere from 50% to 70% of proficiency gains depending on the language and the skill being studied. If you read Barcroft’s five principles of of effective second language vocabulary instruction, you’ll see that repeated exposure to sets of words and phrases is extremely necessary. His third principle says it’s even counterproductive to make learners start forming sentences too early.

So the moral of the story is, change your expectations. Don’t expect to pick up a second language the same way you picked up the first if you’re using technology as your main learning tool. Instead, focus on learning as many words and phrases as you can. Fill your declarative memory. That’s what we’ve designed our platforms to do.

Will you pick up some procedural knowledge along the way? Yes. Should you use other tools (books, videos, conversation partners, formal classes, etc.)? Absolutely.


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About the Author: Evan Quinlan

I lead the Product Management team at Transparent Language and spend much time pondering deeply the nature of language software.

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