Are digital apps helping overcome the language barrier?

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ July 12, 2018

Digital Apps that foster engagement

An overcrowded, concrete classroom with rows of children sitting on wooden benches and repeating sentences is my earliest memory of learning a language. The monotony of the daily classroom exercise made it seem like children were chanting instead of learning. This technique of imparting language skills was a manifestation of the audio-lingual method of learning based on repetition and memorization of sentences until the student can use it spontaneously. Understanding grammar or use of a native language was not part of the learning process.

Decades later, learning multiple languages has become common, easier and thankfully, fun. Hundreds of eLearning platforms and smartphone apps enable you to learn a language in the comfort of your home. Duolingo, Mosalingua, Busuu and Memrise are just a few popular language-learning apps for adults. The popularity of digitally learning a language brought with it a wave of language-learning apps for children too; an area I am now treading my way around quite unexpectedly.

Our family is bilingual, and all of us switch between speaking English and Hindi, a language commonly spoken in India, with ease. I thought my job was done as far as teaching languages was concerned. The school along with some support from us at home would take care of it. I was in for a rude shock when my husband’s new job relocated us to a city in south Florida after seven years in the Seattle area. This cross-country move was more like an upheaval in our lives and was a lot of hard work but we were ready for most of it.

What we were not ready for was that in this predominantly Spanish-speaking area, not knowing the language was beginning to be a hindrance. Never did I think that my kids would be unable to talk to other kids in the park because of the language gap, or that I would have to use hand actions to explain my question about garbage collection to my neighbor. All preschools in the area are bilingual, people complimented my daughter’s unicorn headband in Spanish, and I got looks of bewilderment when I said, “I don’t understand what you are saying”.

Spanish is the default language here and learning it became priority.

My intention was to introduce my kids to the new language in a fun and interactive way. The digital space is a treasure trove for learning resources for children and language apps have far exceeded expectations. So I was certain an app or two from the plethora of language learning apps would be useful.

The apps we have used are engaging and easy to use for the kids as well as grown-ups. We are hooked on to Endless Spanish and Gus on the Go. The kids (and I) have been quick to pick up many words and sounds. Later on, the option of a more comprehensive app like Rosetta Stone which uses voice-enabled technology to help perfect your accent, or Studycat, which combines conventional learning techniques along with fun games, will help us advance in the learning process. 

Whether they are able to learn to read, write or talk in Spanish exclusively by the use of digital technology remains to be seen. For now the apps have set the ball rolling in the right direction by creating interest and building familiarity with a new language, which makes for a good start. 

So when it comes to living in this multilingual new world, is digital learning technique the way to go?

Shikha Das Shankar is a storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.