I love learning other languages. It isn’t the studying part that I enjoy or the books, or the memorising vocabulary. I love being able to talk to people in other countries, to gain a deeper insight into their cultures and to participate more in their communities.
Fluency is a term that is overused I wouldn’t throw it around lightly. I am nowhere near “fluent” in another language if fluency is a comparison of that language to my level of English. Given that I grew up speaking English and did all of my education in English that would be a tall order.
I am able to converse on a fairly wide range of topics in Farsi however, and also in Urdu (although it has become very rusty over the last few years). I also studied Russian in University and have dabbled on and off with a few other languages.
I have found that there is a tipping point when learning languages that is exhilarating. It is that point when all of the timid attempts at reproducing sounds and the disjointed vocabulary and the awkward sentences come together to create real conversation. Not just a few memorised phrases but real two-way conversation. It is like stepping through a doorway and into a new world. For me, that is where learning a language changes from hard work to an adventure.
Because conversation is the ultimate goal for me, I have always been somewhat skeptical of language learning software and apps. Like books, they can be a tool towards learning a language, but to claim that they can teach you a language or make you fluent is ridiculous. Much of the advertising for language learning apps and software make incredibly misleading claims of effortless learning in hardly any time.
In real life, language learning takes hard work over a sustained period of time and requires considerable motivation. Above all, it requires talking to real people.
That said, I do dabble with a few apps and I do find them to be valuable. Not as complete language learning systems but as tools that can contribute to the overall learning journey. Here are my top three picks:
Anki and AnkiDroid: This allows you to study flashcards using spaced repetition. You can set up your own list of vocabulary (or import someone else’s). You get a daily list of words to review. When you feel you have learned the word you click an option that makes this word come up less frequently in future lists. If you struggle with a certain word you can have it repeated again or more frequently in upcoming lists. Sometimes I still prefer a good old-fashioned deck of flashcards or a handwritten list of words, but I do really like this app as a means of maintaining vocabulary. Bonus: it is free!
Duolingo: I have been using Duolingo Russian over the last few months and will be able to complete the “tree” fairly soon. I am still not even close to being able to have conversations in Russian. But I do have to say that the app has done a good job of bringing back my rusty University Russian. It has been fun, and is kind of like playing a game. I highly doubt that I would be able to go to Russia and engage in any real conversations once I complete it, but I would be able to read some signs and understand a few words and phrases. It is also free to use.
Pimsleur: I came across Pimsleur by accident. A friend had the level 1 Conversational Pashto CDs and gave them to me because he no longer wanted them. I tried them and loved it. The half-hour audio-only lessons suit my learning style well and can be used in the car or when out for a jog. While the vocabulary and conversations were limited in scope, I felt that I could remember them well. I put what I had learned into practice with a shopkeeper and a taxi driver in Kabul. They were excited when I pulled out a few Pashto phrases, but I quickly exhausted my repertoire so they switched back to Farsi. Still, I thought Pimsleur was great for building some conversational ability – until I discovered the price that is.
Have you tried any of these? Do you have a favourite language learning app of your own? Let me know in the comments section below…
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