Living in lockdown has led many people to undertake some self-improvement. Alongside baking or cramped fitness regimes, some have chosen intellectual projects—such as picking up or mastering a foreign language. This interactive skill might not seem to be one that is best honed alone. But learning a language in isolation is much easier than it used to be.
One summer many years ago, as he spent many hours driving alone to work, your columnist learned French with the help of an ancient course developed to train American diplomats. Not only were its text basic and cassettes low-tech; it was also low-concept. Exercises seemed to have much more repetition than was necessary: Mon frère va bien. Mon père va bien. Mon fils va bien. Mon ami va bien,murmured the tape, with pauses for repetition. (My brother is doing well. My father is doing well…)
There was method in this drudgery. The skeleton of the sentence was drummed in, with just one word changing: Mon X va bien. Next, another variable was altered. A new list of six sentences cited feminine nouns instead: Ma Z va bien. With little instruction, the variation between feminine and masculine was pounded home. It was slow, not much fun—and incredibly effective. (Many of these old courses are now free online at FSI Language
That primitive method has since been replaced by whizzy programmes promising easier progress. In the end, though, language is a skill more than a body of knowledge, acquired not so much by learning as by doing. Put another way, learning a language with an app is a bit like getting fit with one. The device can guide you, but you still have to work.
Duolingo, a popular “freemium” app, has bite-sized lessons and gamified exercises. Babbel, an inexpensive subscription service, offers more structured lessons and useful real-world material. Busuu, another subscription, focuses on networking with other users. The best thing such apps can do is get you away from your screen, and talking. Learn a bit, then try to escape family or roommates and articulate your thoughts about your day and your life: J’aime le beurre. J’aime le pain. J’aime mon mari. Je n’aime pas le lockdown… It is better to repeat a formula to death than to move on too soon.
As for your initially meagre vocabulary, don’t be shy about substituting an English word into your muttering—but look up the equivalent as soon as you can. (If you have a smart speaker, their “How do you say ‘tree’ in Spanish?” features are rather good.) Keep a list of handy new words on your phone, ideally in a flashcard app. Two more tricks might help you learn more of them. A frequency dictionary has thousands ordered not by the alphabet but how often they are actually used: this quickly gives you the few dozen critical, functional words that glue a language together. To enhance your vocab, Memrise is another app that uses spaced repetition to drive words home. New ones are repeated insistently until they stick, then occasionally thereafter as reminders.
As soon as you can string a few sentences together, study in quarantine offers a consolation: a lot of language teachers are at home, too, and only a video-call away. For example, Sara, an Italian tutor in the Piedmont region, says her teaching hours have exploded. Italki is a platform that links teachers and students for surprisingly low hourly rates; casual conversation practice is especially cheap, formal instruction slightly pricier. Find a highly rated teacher and struggle through a half-hour’s conversation, shame-free. They can use the chat function of video-call apps to write down words that elude you or that you haven’t understood. Afterwards you can add them to your flashcards.
Finally, there is reading and writing. Keeping a journal can force you to write clearly those tricky bits you’ve been mumbling, making you confront half-learned material. As for reading, graphic novels are good for a realistic conversational style. And for no-nonsense written prose, find articles in the new language on Wikipedia on a subject you know well. Being able to guess unfamiliar terms gives a heartening sense of progress. Browser extensions can make looking up words a snap. Just double-click a word with Google Translate enabled on Chrome, for example.
There is no way to learn a language without time and effort. What technology does is make that effort pay off faster. Just remember the goal—interacting with native speakers in the flesh. You’ll be out in the world again one day.