It’s no secret that the internet has changed everything, from shopping to friendship to entertainment to music. The internet is also revolutionizing the process of learning a new language. It’s opening many options that never existed twenty years ago.
This isn’t to say that it’s less challenging to understand and speak a foreign language, but the process has changed dramatically.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said:
Back, you know, a few generations ago, people didn’t have a way to share information and express their opinions efficiently to a lot of people. But now they do. Right now, with social networks and other tools on the Internet, all of these 500 million people have a way to say what they’re thinking and have their voice be heard.
This explosion of communication has changed things for language learners in massive, unexpected ways.
How? Here are 8 distinct ways the internet has changed learning a language.
#1 – Digitalization Of Everything
The internet has caused everything to be digitized. This includes almost every facet of the language learning process. Rather than schlep around dictionaries and learning guides and books on tape, everything fits in the palm of the hand.
The smartphone allows a language learner to carry all their resources with them wherever they go, making it infinitely more convenient to study a language.
Smartphones also allow us to expose ourselves to other languages more regularly. Zack Simon writes about how he uses his smartphone to completely immerse himself in a 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 – Increase Of English As Second Language
The internet is rapidly turning English into a second language for many people. Linguists are estimating that within 10 years, English will be the primary language spoken on the internet.
There are several reasons for this.
- For international business transactions, English is the default language of the internet.
- English language entertainment is widely available on the internet.
- Facebook brings together people of different languages, who use English to communicate.
Currently, those who speak English as a second language already outnumber native speakers. We should expect this discrepancy to continue to grow.
#3 – Multiple Learning Methods
Traditionally, learning a language has been limited to reading and audio. You read language books and listened to native speakers on CD or tape. Unless you actually went to the country where the language was spoken, you didn’t have many other options.
The internet has created a huge variety of new learning methods. Learners can video chat with native speakers for free. Dictionaries come with audio integrated to ensure proper pronunciation. Netflix viewers can easily add subtitles to their favorite films.
As noted above, phones can be set to display only foreign languages. With Google Translate, learners can compare the same texts side by side in their native language and the language they’re learning.
Simply put, it’s easier for language learners to totally immerse themselves in a new dialect. They can surround themselves with text, audio, and even video. It won’t be long before they will be able to visit foreign countries through virtual reality.
While the internet can’t teach someone a foreign language, it can certainly bring the language to them in ways never before possible.
#4 – Increase Of Natural Bilingualism
Digital Trends recently pointed out an interesting development in the way languages are learned: text messaging is increasing “natural bilingualism” in young people.
This requires a bit of explanation. Text messaging is creating new ways of constructing sentences and even new words.
For example, the sentence, “I had a great time. Thanks for your present. See you tomorrow,” can be texted as, “I had a gr8 time, thanks for prsnt, see u tomorrow.”
Initially, this can seem like a bad thing. Isn’t this just the dumbing down of language? Linguists say this is a new kind of bilingualism. And people are naturally translating their texting language into their original forms.
What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills, and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, that’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. Texting is actually evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today, not consciously of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.
This expanded linguistic repertoire also suggests that young people will have an easier time learning foreign languages.
#5 – Automatic Correction
Automatic correction is dramatically speeding up the learning process. When writing, auto-correct features immediately correct both spelling and usage of foreign words. Style checkers can help achieve fluency far faster as well.
Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, pronunciation checkers can listen to you say a word and then show you how close you are to native speakers. For example, SpeechAce listens to a person speak a word, then compares that word, syllable by syllable, to the proper pronunciation. It then provides feedback.
Prior to the internet, all correction had to be done manually. When doing a workbook, you had to flip to the back to see the correct answer, then try to determine exactly what you did wrong. The only way to evaluate pronunciation was to listen to a word and then say it repeatedly.
These challenges have been virtually eliminated thanks to the digital revolution.
#6 – Increased Personalization
In the past, those who wanted to learn a language were limited to using one or two key programs. It was both costly and time consuming to find the program that best fit your learning style and preferences. Plus, the number of resources available was significantly more limited.
Now, a language learner can endlessly customize the learning process. If they prefer videos, they can study via YouTube or online courses. If they prefer audio, they can use story lessons, podcasts, audiobooks, and language courses. If they want to practice their speaking they can do so on Skype.
Studying flash cards repeatedly can be incredibly boring and can quickly cause people to burn out. Personalization helps keep things fresh.
#7 – More Social Interaction
One of the primary reasons so many people fizzle out on learning a new language is that it can be a lonely pursuit. You spend hours by yourself, memorizing flash cards or studying textbooks. All the alone time can be both boring and discouraging.
The internet has massively increased the social component of learning a new language. Some online programs allow friends to compete against each other, much like Fitbit allows friends to compare steps.
Forums and video chats allow people to get answers and encouragement in real time.
Social media is now integrated into almost every learning experience. Companies like Duolingo use Facebook right in their app so you can get encouragement from friends.
Learners who take advantage of social tools can learn in ways they can’t when they’re alone.
Learning a language is no longer the task of soloists. Those who long for personal interaction can easily integrate others into their studies.
#8 – Gaming To Learn
Traditionally, video games have been viewed as an enemy of education. After all, if a person is mindlessly playing a game then they’re not actively using their brain.
In recent years, however, video games are playing an increasingly important role in learning languages, particularly for young people.
First, standard video games are now available in almost every language. If you want to play Grand Theft Auto in French, you can. This allows people to do something that entertains them and simultaneously immerses them in a second language.
Second, video game lovers can now watch their favorite gamers play on services like Twitch and YouTube. This is a revolutionary development. People can enjoy their favorite entertainment in a completely new language. This puts people on the fast track to learning a language, keeping them engaged for far longer.
Finally, there are video games being developed specifically for the purpose of teaching languages, such as “My Chinese Coach” for the Nintendo DS.
The internet has revolutionized the world, including the process of learning a language. The internet makes it more convenient to learn a language, more entertaining, more social, and just plain faster.
Nothing can replace the hard work involved in learning a new language, but the internet can certainly make the process more fun.