Why emojis and #hashtags should be part of language learning

Learning a language after one’s early childhood home language is often referred to as second language learning (despite the fact people may in fact be learning their third or fourth languages). In Canada, an officially bilingual country, both English and French are widely taught in superdiverse urban centres.

Increasingly, a popular avenue for adult language learners is mobile language learning via free or cheap downloaded apps. A number of apps for mobile language learning claim top-market share: Duolingo claims to teach 200 million language learners worldwide; Busuu, 90 million learners; Babbel and Memrise are also major players.

I analyzed these four apps for their approach to and treatment of language and language learning. I found that they relied problematically on past models of what language is and what language does.

How the apps teach grammar

None of these four top-selling apps are capitalizing on how language is changing in online communication where features such as emojis or hashtags — conventions used in texting and tweeting — are fundamentally altering how people communicate.

Rather, these apps tended to teach by testing, drilling vocabulary and simple phrases. Thus, “I read a book” is presented for memorization and contrasted with “she reads a book,” with little if any grammatical explanation.

Grammar is the backbone of a language; it’s the structure that words fit into so they make sense for users of the language. Online grammars have diverged from standard “sentence” grammars, which typified printed texts, in myriad ways.

Read more: The Conversation

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