Languages vs Smartphones

Published 7th May 2013
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Hello! Today is my first day as a member of the Lingua Translations team, and my first ever blog post (ever), so I will be breaking the virtual ice by sharing a sad event which occurred over the bank holiday weekend. My ageing Smartphone suffered some kind of critical malfunction, so I now have to make do with a not-so-smart phone.

The thing with Smartphones is that all their apps and technological capabilities seem completely superfluous when you don’t own one, but as soon as you become accustomed to being able to read the news at the bus stop, or check your email on the train, or use free messaging apps for talking to friends abroad, suddenly not having these capabilities seems like a great inconvenience.

Having recently decided that maybe I’d like to learn Spanish, one of the apps I was just getting into using on a frequent basis was a beginners’ language app, which I downloaded after a quick search for language learning apps on my phone. There are plenty to choose from, in all kinds of language combinations, but obviously the quality does vary. I chose one purely because the name amused me (‘Spanish for Noobs’), and got the trial version, just to see what it was like, as it was the first app of its kind I had encountered, and 79p for the full version seemed like a bit of a gamble.

Nevertheless, my brief experience with this app has opened my eyes to the usefulness of smartphones in the learning of languages: vocabulary can be illustrated with images to help retention, and simultaneously the learner can listen to the words being spoken, to aid with pronunciation. Some apps also have games and quizzes to test your knowledge, and grammatical information to help put the vocab into practice. What’s more, these apps don’t break the bank – if you’re looking to try out a language but aren’t sure whether it’s the one for you, a free trial will enable you to get a feel for the language, and the full version, usually not more than a couple of pounds, will help you grasp the basics before you embark on a more in-depth course. Even if you have no desire to become fluent in another language, these apps are a productive and interesting way to spend ‘smartphone time’, and who knows, your new found knowledge of Japanese animal names might come in handy, one day.

But why bother with learning a language when you can also get apps that translate for you? Some apps can even translate road signs, so surely we can just make the phone do all the work?

Good luck with those, I say. As much as I love smartphones, machine translation, in any form, is never going to be as reliable as human translation, as we have previously discussed. Some of these apps are apparently not even developed by linguists, so could be presenting you with nonsense, and some rely heavily on an internet connection in order to access their dictionaries – something which is not guaranteed if you’re travelling, and not advisable due to data roaming charges. However, I’ve not actually used one of these apps, so further testing will be required before I pass final judgement.

In any case, learning a new language and talking to locals to find out information is so much more satisfying than pointing your phone at a sign and hoping it’s not telling you gibberish. And since it’s so easy to access free learning resources online to accompany your smartphone-based endeavours, there’s really no reason not to give a new language a go!

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