The Changing Landscape of Language Learning

Imagine being a person in the 1970s who wants to learn foreign language like Japanese. Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say you live nowhere near close to Japan. How would you go about starting your language learning journey? Realistically, you would’ve only had two options:

  • Pray to god someone near you not only speaks Japanese, but also is willing to take the time out of their day to teach you.
  • Hope your library is expansive enough to have some Japanese textbooks.
  • Go all-in and enroll in a Japanese Studies program at your university (if they provide it).

Either way, with limited sources of knowledge and outlets to practice, learning Japanese would’ve been an incredibly ardous task.

In present times, of course, any person with a half-decent internet connection can just type “How to learn Japanese?” in their search engine of preference and be so bombarbed with information, that their second search might be “Where do I begin?”

What I am trying to get at, is that the presence of the internet has substantiated a major shift in the way people can learn languages. Countless Youtube videos, websites, applications and other online resources have, in some way, completely negated the previous necessity of a textbook for many language learners. Regardless, if you feel so inclined to use a traditional text book anyway, the internet allows you to expand your search from just your local library to the rest of the world. Global connectivity also births many new opportunities for interacting with native speakers of your target language without even needing to leave your home. “Italki“, a service which boasts more than 20.000 language teachers, is merely one of these platforms.

One of the more fundamental things the digital age now allows us to do in regards to language studies is discovering these languages. In my case, I started studying Japanese after finding out about the intricacies of the culture through a simple Youtube video and being hooked immediately. Music can also be a big inspiration for some people. I found out by talking to a now-graduated student that the Korea Studies department of Leiden, which was almost about to merge with Japan Studies in 2010 due to a record low of students, regained popularity after K-Pop music made its way to the west through PSY’s “Gangnam Style”. Without the internet, these initial first-contact points would be hard to come by, making it significantly harder to jumpstart your language learning journey.

The internet also alleviates one of the biggest problems language learners routinely face: lack of motivation. Tired of studying endless lists of vocabulary and intricate grammar rules with seemingly random exceptions? Why not wind down by watching a TV-series in your target language? Or how about rekindling your passion for the language by talking to others about why they’re studying it? HiNative acts almost like a social media platform for people who learn languages. People have even figured out ways to study languages through playing video games (specifically Japanese in this example). Point is, back in the olden days (not that I lived them), those kind of resources and outlets were either incredibly hard to get by or simply not there. If you were the only person with an interest in the Japanese language in your town, you would’ve had to cross state, or even country borders depending on where you lived to meet someone who is on the same journey as you. That feeling of isolation can really dampen one’s determination to continue as learning a language, even with all these new tools and resources, is still a pretty big commitment.

The last improvement on language learning afforded by the increasing digitalization of the world is the fact that every aspect of your study can be personalized. In the past, and even now in some schools, rote memorization of grammar and vocabulary in classes was the norm for language learning. This, of course, isn’t for everyone. I myself can’t remember a thing from my German classes in highschool. Now, however, the learner has a multitude of options to choose from. Instead of studying traditionally from a textbook, which is still a legitimate and effective way to study for some, they can use various applications and websites like Duolingo for basic grammar rules alongside helpful spaced-repetition systems like Anki for really making that vocabulary their own.

Language learning is a beautiful thing, in my opinion at least. Being able to really connect with people from across the world while also widening your understanding of other cultures and peoples at the same time is an incredible feeling. On a more practical side, constant globalization has made people who speak more than one languages a lot more desirable on the job market. So, while it certainly still is a big time investment, there literally hasn’t been a better and more convenient time to make your first steps toward a new language.

I you’d like to start learning a language but don’t know where to begin, click this link!