Language Learning: Mastering the Vocabulary Slog

If language is the most social skill, should a foreign language be learned alone?

At least in part. That’s the position of a recent article in the Economist, which asserts that digital tools can make language learning far more effective, and can ease the embarrassment and awkwardness of learning a language in a classroom setting.

The author concedes that conversing with native speakers is ultimately essential to mastering a language, but one of the most tedious parts of language learning—building vocabulary—is best done alone with the aid of digital software: “There is simply no way around the slog of building vocabulary piece-by-piece, slowly but steadily. The programs that promise to shortcut this are misleading. But digital tools make time spent on the task much more efficient.”

One cited reason is that digital tools help with spaced repetition. After learning a fact, the student repeats it after a short interval, then at a longer interval, then at a yet longer interval. Learners gain far better results with this kind of repetition for a few minutes each day, rather than in one longer session each week.

By practicing vocabulary for 15 minutes every day, it’s possible to master 25 new terms per week, according to Anne Merritt, an English-language lecturer at the University of Suwon in South Korea. The intent is to transfer short-term learning into long-term memory. Incorporating terms from previous weeks into this week’s list will help keep them rooted in the mind.

Merritt also recommends clustering terms. Learners should pick a weekly theme, rather than a disjointed group of terms. The theme might be the weather, human anatomy, things found in the kitchen, or favorite fruits. The mind naturally classifies information into groups, so learning connected words at the same time aids this process.

Digital tools make spaced repetition and clustering much more effective and engaging. For example, AtoZebra Language allows users to choose target terms from groups of themed glossaries. For every term, learners are presented with a video of a native speaker saying the word in the target language. Learners can return to the same batch of terms for daily practice.

A digital tool can’t replace the experience of living in foreign country, the power of an inspirational teacher, or an actual conversation with a native speaker once you’ve reached a certain level of fluency. But for the most mundane—and unavoidable—aspects of language learning, digital tools can make the process so much easier.