THE BLOG

Can Your Phone Teach You a New Language?

02/20/2014 05:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014
  • Zack Simon Author, Language-Lover, and Former Senate Staffer

This post first appeared on The Linguisticlast, a blog dedicated to language learning and all things language. You can follow The Linguisticlast on Twitter at @linguisticlast. 

Spoiler alert: No, your phone cannot teach you a new language. Your ability to accomplish that depends entirely on you and your motivation, but having a smartphone can certainly help. Here's how:

1) Live Your Digital Life in Your New Language.

The very first thing I always do when trying to learn a language is change my phone -- along with my email accounts, social media accounts, search browsers, etc -- into that language. Do not underestimate the power of passive learning. Before you even crack open a phrasebook, you'll know words like "send," "delete," "edit," "message," "cancel," and all sorts of other vocabulary just from using your phone on a daily basis.

2) Find A Flashcard App

Hey -- the '90s called. They want your paper flashcards back. The cool kids now use flashcard apps on their phones. I love my flashcard app, Flashcards Deluxe. Why? With the app, you can create all of my own flashcards, with up to five sides, and upload them to your phone using either Google Drive or Dropbox. You can choose how you'd like to learn your flashcards, either through a standard sequence or by using a spaced repetition system (SRS). Spaced repetition knows when you're likely to forget a piece of recently learned information because it tracks your performance and usage history. It then sequences your flashcards so that that information is constantly fresh in your mind. I would actually go so far as to say that flashcards comprise the lion share of my language learning method. And because I have them on my phone, they're always there with me -- on the metro, in the waiting room at my dentist's office, before I turn out the light and go to sleep. My point, flashcards and I have a very intimate relationship.

3) Your Phone As a Dictionary

Finding a good dictionary on your phone can be tricky, but it's crucial, especially while you're in public. During my first few weeks in France, I often found myself glued to my phone in supermarket aisles trying to figure out what I was buying. After you start speaking and gaining some confidence, switch to a monolingual dictionary to challenge yourself.

4) Change the Music You Listen To

This is one is fairly self-explanatory. I love to look up the lyrics to foreign language songs and translate them line-by-line. The result is that no matter how rusty my Spanish gets, I think it's likely I'll always know all of the words to Bacilos' "Caraluna." It's also worth mentioning that the language in which a song is sung can change the music itself. As William Weir writes on Slate, "English-only listening habits deprive us of the natural rhythm and melody of other languages -- the nasal vowels of French, the alveolar trills of Portuguese, the consonant clusters of Czech."

5) Learn a Language Through... Your Texts?

Yes -- texts. You read that correctly. Texting with your native speaker friends will help you pick up on phrases you would otherwise miss in ordinary conversation. Write them down; look them up; ask your friends what they mean. Texts are little goldmines for finding slang words and colloquial expressions you'd otherwise miss in a classroom setting or while speaking.

6) Podcasts

Podcasts can help you learn everything from Portuguese to Pashto, and they're a great way to spend a period of time during which you'd normally listen to music or the radio, like your walk to work.

7) Duolingo

Though I haven't personally used the Duolingo app, Apple named it 2013's "free iPhone App of the Year." My friends who use it swear by it, and some have gone so far as to say it's addicting. The app works like a game: You advance through different levels while learning your target language. In the process, however, you help to translate chunks of the Internet. If this sounds familiar, it's because Duolingo's founder, Luis von Ahn, also created reCAPTCHA, which does the same thing, except with those annoying CAPTCHAs you have to decode to prove you're human. Pretty cool, huh?

 8) For iPhone Users: Bonjour Siri!

Siri is now available in for use in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean. It just so happens that those are some of the most widely learned languages as well. How convenient! In my experience trying to use Siri in French and Spanish, I've had difficulty if my pronunciation is off, but I also have plenty of difficulty using Siri in English as well. I've found that Siri's voice recognition ability has greatly improved with the introduction of iOS7.