My daily commute is somewhere in the order of 30 minutes. When I move house next week, it’ll be slightly less, but I’m constantly travelling around New York on the subway, and I’ve long since become desensitised to the Mariachi bands, ranting political orators and break-dancing crews that entertain the tourists. There’s the odd experience that can still impress: the classical pianist sitting on the floor of the N train playing Mozart on a Casio keyboard; or the strung-out and clearly high girl giving an amazing performance of the Adele song blasting out of her headphones, but mostly I need some new entertainment.
So, I learn things. I’ve enjoyed physics lectures, learned Braille and brushed up on my music theory. My latest set of commuter classes is around learning Portuguese, which brings us to the weird and wonderful world of language learning iPhone applications.
Want to meet a Portuguese speaker but don’t know what to say? Sexy Portuguese teaches you the vocabulary and phrases you need to hook up, or at least avoid awkward silences when trying.
There’s an amazing number of apps available to learn a new language in the iPhone app store. I count at least 100 for Portuguese alone. Some of them, like Italian Verbs are little more than wordlists, many offer simple flashcards and a few have various ‘games’ for the learner: Hangman, multiple-choice, nothing fancy.
It’s important to note that these are toys, little more. Learning words from flashcards will simply provide one with a temporary memory of that word within the context of the iPhone screen, with exponentially-decreasing memory decay based on repeated use of the app. The assumption is that language is highly structured and formalised, and that the learner already understands the fundamentals of forming sentences within the language. For brushing up on vocabulary, the flashcards and games can be useful, but the idea of learning a language through one of these apps is, unfortunately, ridiculous.
Nearly every app comes with a scoring function, which appeals to the desire for instant gratification. Users shy away from the quiz at first sitting, knowing they’d end up with a paltry handful of percentage points. After going through the flashcards once, they hit a score of ~80%. Coming back to the quiz a week later, it’s closer to 50%. By the third or fourth sitting, however, they’re at 100% and likely never practise the module again, and within a few months have lost any trivial benefits they might have gained.
Despite this negativity, there is one app I have found particularly useful for Portuguese Busuu, like the rest, offers rote flashcard learning to improve vocabulary, but also puts each word in a useful context. The most interesting part, however, is the natural conversation that accompanies each section, often introducing slang and new turns-of-phrase, followed by questions about the conversation in Portuguese. Whilst this is not particularly innovative, it does make Busuu quite distinct from its competitors, and comprehension of these forced exercises is exactly the step I need between my beginner-level lessons and being able to learn by watching TV & movies, and listening to podcasts or radio shows.
The only downside I’ve found to Busuu, however, is that the author was apparently going through a pretty rough time when he wrote the example sentences and flashcards. Arguing with/lying to your girlfriend, being depressed, and slandering others are topics that find a home in a disproportionately large number of the modules, and some of the associated pictures are rather off-putting too.
So, when it comes to learning apps, or any quick-fix solutions, don’t believe the hype. Instant rewards and gratification are meaningless, and it takes prolonged active thought on a subject to instil even the basics into your consciousness. But, used in conjunction with other tools, it’s just possible there are a couple of mobile apps out there that can help to make a difference.
And, even if not, at least you found something to distract you from the homeless guy in the corner with the bagful of needles.