August 24, 2015

Learning a Foreign Language for Daily Use

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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!

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Cartus Communications

About Cartus

Cartus is the trusted industry leader, offering guidance on a wide range of topics related to global relocation using expertise gained through more than four million moves and a diverse client base.

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Your article makes a great point that people will work harder to learn a language if there is another human sitting with them. Learning to talk is so much more enjoyable and motivating than a computer resource.

I think that when one is relocating, learning the local language is the best way to plug into the new place, make new friends, and learn about the new culture.
Sabine Baerlocher
Dear Donna,

Thank you for this great post. I fully agree with you, motivation is the key and nothing can replace expressions in context.

In my opinion, apps and self-learning systems are only as good as what you do with them and should in any case remain just an addendum to real communication, face to face with other human beings.

This will also teach us a lot about the culture in itself which is never mentionned within any language self-learning tool I have encountered at this stage.

So thanks again and I hope many people will read this post.
Oscar Romero
Hello Donna,

Thanks for your post, I fully agree with your position! I liked your example of Mat-jib. Spanish is my second language and I would not have attained native-like proficiency without daily communication with other human beings, including a language trainer or two!

Self-paced learning can be convenient and fun, but still cannot replace the effectiveness and relevance of a human language trainer, who can style shift and correct easily as learning needs arise.
Jaime Suarez
Totally agree, Donna. I became proficient in Spanish as an adult. It wasn't until I immersed myself in the language and forced myself to practice with native Spanish speakers that I became comfortable speaking. I will save your article and use it as a sales tool with relocating employees to encourage them to take advantage of Language Training Services. Thanks!
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