Learning a Foreign Language for Daily Use
With the advent of smartphones and mobile apps, it seems that it ought to be easier than ever to learn a new language. A quick search on iTunes or Google Play reveals numerous self-paced language apps that claim any learner can “... speak Spanish in 24 hours” or “... read Japanese in a week.” But is that really possible?
In the past, Cartus Intercultural and Language Solutions staff partnered with a Corporate client to analyze assignees’ use of self-paced tools versus in-person training. The analysis revealed that assignees spent an average of 1.07 hours a month on self-paced language tools, while assignees who chose in-person lessons took, on average, 6 hours of training per month. This seems counter-intuitive, since self-paced tools offer flexibility and low costs—both major concerns for globetrotting assignees.
Having learnt Mandarin as a child, then Spanish and Korean as an adult, I know that acquiring proficiency in a language takes more than clocking a certain number of hours; I also know that not even 10,000 hours of lessons will guarantee any degree of proficiency without the motivation required to make steady progress. Yes, an app can email me endless reminders that I haven’t logged in lately, but it cannot substitute for in-person or trainer-led online training that creates a feedback loop as well as a safe environment in which I can practice speaking without fear of being misunderstood.
I first started learning Korean on my own, using apps, tapes, websites, and textbooks for almost a year. After mustering the courage to chat with some friendly local Koreans, they teased me by saying I sounded like a geek because I was using phrases last heard in the 1980s. I guess the audio language tapes I had been listening to were a bit dated!
There came a moment when I realized that even the best apps can’t keep up with ever-evolving colloquialism. Visiting Seoul, I was invited by a friend to eat at a Korean barbecue “mat-jib,” or “tasty house.” Mat-jib is a sort of shorthand for a phrase that means “a place known for high-quality food.”
Coined by tech-savvy young Koreans, “mat-jib” combines Koreans’ love of good food with the younger generation’s tendency to shorten words on social media. It is certainly a useful term if you’re new to Korea and want to find the best places to eat in your area or sneak a peek into the local food culture. It’s far easier to gesture and ask, “Mat-jib?” than it is to memorize the correct Korean words for “Please tell me where I may find some popular restaurants in this area.”
In addition, explaining popular terms like “mat-jib” is difficult to do in an app, whereas an online trainer can provide immediate enlightenment!
Many of the language trainers I work with as a Language Network Specialist agree that apps are wonderful supplements to use between lessons, but nothing beats having an instructor available to quickly identify gaps in learning, adjust lessons to changing learning needs, or correct pronunciation immediately, all of which are standard procedures in Cartus’ Intercultural and Language Solutions practice.
Most crucially, relocating learners need to learn survival phrases for daily use, and the reality is, you won’t know what phrases you need until you receive some instruction. So if you’re learning a new language for use every day, work with a trainer whenever you can, and supplement your training with apps and other tools; then you’ll be on your way to sounding like a local!