May 23, 2012 by Alex Hoekstra
Lately, I’ve been having a remarkably good time refreshing my German language skills. I say that my attitude toward the process is remarkable because I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I am. It’s not as though I disliked learning German in high school, but the format there was altogether unremarkable. Despite having a pretty great German teacher, our class went through the workbooks and illustrated dictionaries, memorizing and reciting. I expect it was a fairly typical high school-level foreign language class, and when it came to an end, it came to a dead end – I had no real motivation to continue honing my skill to try and fortify it to a workable, applicable state. Years past and I grew rusty. Until recently, however, when I was introduced to what I think is an exceedingly neat project called Duolingo, which I urge you to check out. To make a long (and growing ever longer) story short, I stuck with Duolingo’s lesson plan because it was…well, fun. I’ve said before that to get the most out of any lesson, one has to want to learn – to take something away from the lesson for one’s own purposes. They don’t have to be practical purposes – I don’t think I’ll ever really need to speak German fluently, but I’d still very much like to be able to. Same with skateboarding, skydiving, flying or playing the piano. Selfish curiosity, especially when insatiable, is a powerful tool in the quest for understanding something, anything or everything, and so any tool to nurture and reinforce independent learning is a good one, I think, but before I get to talking about how today’s project is such a tool, I think there’s another important and interesting aspect to it that I should cover.
English is a pretty common language. Around the world, English is used as common ground between non-native English speakers from all over. Russian pilots and Japanese air-traffic controllers coordinate landings in English. More than that, the written world is dominated by English. Even online, articles, blogs, forums, emails, Wikis, videos, and trillions of meme captions are written only in English. From my perspective (and yours, if you’re reading this without a translator), this is all terribly convenient. From the perspective of someone without a proficiency in English, however, the world is a much narrower place. This is where I think the importance of today’s project truly comes forward. Not only is it a tool for learning independently and in an inviting, engaging format, but it’s operating mission is to help people break into the whole of the English-speaking world.
Choose Your Reading and Pronunciation Adventure is a language-learning application that utilizes multiple formats to help non-English speakers nail our fussy language. Using tablets, smartphones and web-browsers, learners will have access to lessons designed to get the knack for well-spoken English. Did I mention that it’s also free to use?
As reading and spoken language learners attempt to read phrases out loud to work through the game, their speech and associated pronunciation fluency will be measured by phonemes, biphones, words, phrases, and aggregated phrase scores to track and chart their progress. The entire system will be published as open source and made available for free on the web, Android and Apple phones and tablets, and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC XO) laptops, initially for the world’s English language learners but adaptable to other languages.
While my being able to coarsely navigate the German language may not dramatically impact my life, the ability to communicate in English is something that could empower billions of people across the world – able to more fully draw upon the volumes of entertainment and knowledge, science, literature, history, facts, movies, music and memes that all exist beyond their current grasp. Help this program extend their reach by backing it on Kickstarter before June 17.