Learning a language

There’s a lot of big talk about how technology can change education. As a very fortunate student who genuinely enjoyed school and had the resources to realize that, I can’t relate to a lot of it. Gimmicks that make school feel more like a game or a movie didn’t appeal to me. I liked books just fine the way they were.

One of my few miserable subjects in secondary school was the foreign language requirement. Despite all my frustration, I didn’t exactly quit — I studied it for five full years, eventually passing the IB SL French exam, but shirking the option to take the AP exam. At the time, I was pretty unhappy about having trudged through all of this. I was also bitter that my public school couldn’t teach it to me when I was five years old and could absorb languages much more easily.

The first step was to automate some of my problems away. One of the first computer programs I wrote outside of class was a flash card app to drill myself on vocabulary words. This was well before the advent of slick mobile apps, so I never felt deprived when tapping through my command-line Java program. The next step was to find source material that I actually cared about. TV shows and comic books were hard to find and slow to download, so I settled for Wikipedia articles on familiar topics.

The last piece I never found in high school was confidence. I spent many hours learning how to read French, and that paid off at exam time, but I never learned how to feel comfortable listening to someone speak or having someone listen to me speak. Duolingo has finally started to change that. While I’m still no sparkling conversationalist en fran├žais (or for that matter, in English; let’s be honest), playing with this app in the comfort of my own home has gotten me to enjoy these crucial practice drills in a way I’ve never enjoyed them. For the first time, I actually feel happy and excited to be studying another language. That’s a pretty powerful feeling.