Someone Make Me This Language-learning App

Learning foreign languages is like riding an escalator: (unless it’s one in the D.C. metro) you’re either going up or going down; there’s no standing still. It’s quite easy to be “going up” with respect to a language when you have the structure of a formal class, but many people struggle to take the next step (er, well, you don’t take steps on escalators unless you’re in a hurry but don’t get distracted by the metaphors). Likewise, most of the existing language apps like Duolingo are really great for beginners but don’t help much once one’s gotten down basic grammar and vocabulary.

In particular, building vocabulary is the biggest obstacle to improvement. When one learns vocabulary in a class, one’s usually presented with a vocabulary list to memorize and then a text to read that includes the target vocabulary. This allows one to actively digest it into one’s long-term memory. But when no one’s spoon-feeding you vocab lists and texts to practice them on, it’s hard to keep adding new words to increase you’re range. How does one even know where to start?

Sure, one can make one’s own flashcards based on words one doesn’t understand when reading texts, but the result of that is that you’re learning the words after you’re supposed to need them, not before. Besides, reading a text with a dictionary is a tedious process: either you have to lug around a big nerdy book or else you have to do your reading by your distraction-filled computer.

So, let’s come up with an app that will fix these problems and help language learners more efficiently build their language by building their vocabularies. The idea is simple. Suppose you’re student who wants to read, say, “To Melancholy” by Nietzsche in German. Here’s the start:

Verarge mir es nicht, Melancholie,
 Dass ich die Feder, dich zu preisen, spitze,
 Und dass ich nicht, den Kopf gebeugt zum Knie,
 Einsiedlerisch auf einem Baumstumpf sitze.
Don’t blame me, Melancholy,
 That I sharpen my pen to praise you,
 Not that I, head bowed to my knee,
 Sit hermitlike on a tree stump, hewn.

Almost all of the words and all of the grammar you will have learned in a beginner German class. But you probably didn’t learn Verarge, Melancholie, Ferder, spitze, begeugt, Einsiedlerisch, or Baumstumpf and looking them up in the process of reading might be annoying.

So, this app would take a text, generate a flashcard for each word, and deliver the virtual pack of flashcards to your phone so you could spend a few minutes during, say, your commute flipping through them so that when you sit down to read you’ll be primed to understand the text better, not be hampered by a dictionary. Learning this way will help you more actively build your vocabulary.

The app would remember what words you’ve already marked that you “know” so that it won’t waste your time with creating duplicates. It can also give you a preview of the new cards for each text (perhaps in order of word frequency) so that you can discard any you don’t wish to learn or correct any obvious errors you spot in the translation (for example, you can discard Melancholie because it’s a cognate you don’t need to memorize, Baumstumpf because you realize it’s an easy compound, and you can change Einsindlerisch to Einsindler because chance are you’ll more likely to encounter again “hermit” than “hermitlike.”

Obviously in translation much can be lost, words have multiple meanings, and so forth; this app won’t aim for perfection but it will help you significantly more than it would to make complete entries for each word in a text.

A benefit of such an app for academic work or literary appreciation would be you would get a sense of how vocabularies differ between authors. Another cool thing would be it would be able to more quantifiably assess your progress in a language so you can feel proud when, for example, you learn your 5,000th word in Greek. Maybe, Duolingo-style, it could generate pleasure-inducing noises and issue you meaningless-but-shiny fake currency as reward for continued practice. It could even have a stupid mascot.

So, that’s idea for this yet-to-be-named app. I know I’d use such a thing gobs and I’d hope others (especially students in the humanities) would as well. The thing is that, unless you count making Battleship on my TI-83 eight years ago, I have no computer science experience. So I am looking for someone to help develop this with me. If it sounds like something that’d interest you, let’s talk! If it seems like it’s a doable project with useful possibilities, perhaps we’ll even be able to get funding for you to develop it!

Thanks,

Jacob

jhoerger@g.harvard.edu