The Serendipitous Joy of Learning a Language

Language products often look very similar. Despite the expansion of new technology that has transformed books to computers to smartphones and tablets, the learner actually finds a very similar set of content for most languages. It’s understandable since the function of languages has not changed nearly as much as the technology. However more importantly, the approach of producing language learning content is still stuck in the industrial economy despite the change in technology.

Looking through a wide range of books, softwares, websites and apps, you’ll find a similar list of topics for languages as varied as Arabic and Chinese. Learners start from basic greetings and introductions and move up to shopping, wining, dining, etc.

I’ve always wondered how much the learner misses out when the majority of learning materials look so similar. What if you want to learn to express things that are NOT on the list? For example, proposing to your Chinese girlfriend? Talking to an emergency phone operator in Spanish? Or debating about the status of the European Union in French? As niche as these needs might be, they reflect how language acquisition and usage take place in real life. It’s often far more serendipitous than textbooks and softwares prepare us for.

Sadly it’s far more efficient to produce a largely similar set of phrases in any given language than to try to capture the richness of situations and the language used. Industrial era publishing economics still dominate digital era language learning content production. The same content simply moves from paper to touch screens. The technology innovation is way ahead of content innovation. Most content providers have yet to catch up with a new reality of leveraging technology to provide a living and breathing landscape of language learning. Adaptive learning algorithms won’t help us fundamentally expand the border of language learning if the core content is still a stale set of 500 phrases.

As a language educator and entrepreneur, my challenge is to recognize the serendipitous nature of language learning and trying to enrich learners exposure to the width and depth of the language they’re learning. It might very well mean different things to different learners. A tourist’s language needs are very different from a professional expat’s whose needs are yet different from someone who is learning the language as a hobby. But the common thread is always high frequency language in high frequency situations for that different target learner. That’s why language courses should always evolve and expand to reflect the richness of real life experiences. The best kind of journey is often the one that takes you to a different place and leads you to new discoveries. True of life and true of language learning.

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