Best time ever to learn languages?

MinorMynas app for language learning

The BBC recently ran a story, “Is this the best time in history to learn a foreign language?”, with the subtitle, “Today’s youngest generation is more multilingual and wired than ever. Could the tech they’re using breed a global army of polyglots?”. I would say that depends. Certainly, the opportunities are there now for language learning through resources on the Internet, most available on mobile phones as well. The article provides an example, through this combination of collaboration and smartphones, with a profile of Hillary Yip, a 13-year-old student from Hong Kong, who created a smartphone app (MinorMynas) for enabling young people to connect with one another for the explicit goal of language learning. The article cites the increase in migration patterns worldwide that increases the multicultural make-up of the population in many countries as one of the developments that is leading to greater interest in language learning: “This increased migration, especially in cities, brings people with a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds into close contact. Could a more multicultural world lead to a more multilingual generation?”. Yes, that could be the case, certainly among the younger generation, as the article points out. Unfortunately, in older populations, the influx of newcomers from different cultures may lead to discrimination and nativist political views, as we’ve seen in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

The article references the idea of “translanguaging”, the informal mixing of languages common today on the Internet, as well as in many multicultural classrooms. The opportunities for encountering other languages online are increasing, as social media enables contact with people from around the globe. One of the new options is the availability of streaming videos–especially in English– in the target language (with native language subtitles) now available in many countries through Netflix and other services. In many countries, TV shows and movies, shown on TV networks, are dubbed. However, in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, videos are shown in the original audio soundtrack. It’s no coincidence that citizens of those countries have typically had better English language skills. The availability of target language videos on commercial services as well as on YouTube offers the possibility of learning or refreshing a language through entertainment. This is, as the article discusses, a way to learn without having the goal to learn, or even without the realization that one is learning.

Several recent studies document this process for learners in Europe and in Brazil. The study from Brazil found that “fully autonomous self-instructed learners” of English gained a high level of proficiency without formal instruction, revealing “how the new affordances for naturalistic learning through the Internet have transformed informal language learning, enabling significant numbers of independent, informal learners in foreign language contexts to achieve very high levels of proficiency” (Cole & Vanderplank, 2016, p. 31). In fact, the study showed that the autonomous learners studied had fewer “fossilized errors” than classroom-based learners at a similar proficiency level, that is, fewer persistent, baked-in errors in grammar or word usage. This may be a wake-up call for instructed language learning, to look at more ways to encourage students to make use of online language resources.

Cole, Jason, and Robert Vanderplank. 2016. “Comparing autonomous and class-based learners in Brazil: Evidence for the present-day advantages of informal, out-of-class learning.” System 61: 31-42.