Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

Few things give more motivation than the prospect of having an audience for your efforts. (Image from freeimages.com)

Motivation lacking? Do it for an audience!

Motivation can sometimes seem like a scarce resource. Simply wanting to achieve, for achievement’s sake, might not suffice to push you over the finish line. You need a bit extra.

I found myself in this situation recently, working on a goal that straddled both language learning and software development. For some time, I’d wanted to create something completely different from my usual fare and out of my comfort zone: an app for learning and practising verb meanings in Mandarin Chinese. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go for it.

Learning through making

Now for me, Mandarin Chinese is a totally new and exciting departure. I haven’t studied many non-Indo-European languages (some Modern Hebrew and a tiny bit of Japanese barely count). Putting together apps in new languages is one route I use as an introduction to them for my own learning. Therefore, the idea of working on a brand new one filled me with positive anticipation!

That was, at first. Getting started was easy. With reliable sources for the learning content, and a solid framework app to build it into, I got off to a good start.

However, I soon slowed down to a halt.

What was wrong? Was the language content no longer captivating me? No, not that – I still revelled in the new words and concepts I was learning along the way. Was the technical side losing its fascination? Not at all, as I was still spending quality time on similar technical projects without any signs of boredom. So what had happened to my motivation?

The problem, I realised, was this: it is hard to work in a bubble.

Lone ranger

Humans are social creatures. We are built to be involved with other people in all of our exploits. Working with others, either through study buddying or teaching, can be a real shot in the arm for language learning, for example. We simply work better when we are not isolated.

The truth is, my Chinese app endeavours had become divorced from this fact. I was a lone ranger, operating in a bubble. The issue was not simply that I was developing alone. There are plenty of very successful, lone app developers! Rather, I was creating it with nobody in mind (beyond myself).

This resulted in fuzzy goal definition. No deadlines, no direction, no sense of wider purpose. Instead, just a vague ambling towards an ill-defined end point, where I would have eventually created something I deemed useful and learnt a bit along the road.

So what to do?

The obvious answer was actually right under my nose the whole time. A good friend of mine is currently learning Chinese at level A1-2 and is an iPhone user. Via Apple’s TestFlight platform, I could easily roll out test versions of the app online for my fellow linguist buddy to test out. What better audience could I wish for?

Performance anxiety

At this point, you might wonder how on Earth it took so look for that solution to occur to me. Moving in language learning circles, I have countless friends studying any number of languages at a given point. You’d think I would be badgering them constantly with new app ideas.

The issue is that sometimes, the idea of an audience for your work / efforts / brainchild / ambitions is downright scary. We all crave approval from our peers. Self-doubt gets in the way. It requires no small degree of bravery to put yourself out there, open to criticism (constructive or otherwise) from people you think a lot of.

Will they like what I produce? Can they be honest with me about it if they don’t? Would they think less of me if my initial attempts miss the mark?

It is utterly normal and completely human to be put off by this kind of performance anxiety.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve come across is simple optimism: think the best of your audience. If you enlist the help of friends, then already, the most supportive people have your back. Most people, in my experience, truly do want to help, rather than knock you down.

Needless to say, initial reports from my tester friend are warm, well-meaning and positive: new words learnt, fun had learning them, and genuinely useful feedback given.

And that feeling of being helpful provides a ton of motivation.

Language learning for an audience

The example I’ve given might seem like a very specific case of language learning tech. But you can apply the same principle to language learning, pure and simple.

First, ask: who could my audience be? As a linguist, there are myriad scenarios you can imagine as end goals for the task of communicating.

Do you have workplace colleagues you can make smile with a few words in their native language? Are you planning a trip to the target language country and want to attend an event where you have to speak that language exclusively?

It needn’t even be a speaking task. Perhaps there is a social media group you’d like to join in with. I recently joined a Norwegian music discussion forum on Facebook, for example. The desire to chat with fellow fans is a great audience-based motivation to brush up my norsk.

Once your audience is defined, let go of your performance anxiety. Have faith in the kindness of others to help you reach your goals. Use humour, as it can really break down barriers. And above all, enjoy the interaction!

Whatever your chosen audience, incorporate it into your goal planning and let it become your motivation. That single social aspect will so much more sharply define your language learning objectives!

Incidentally, if any iOS users are interested in being a tester for my nascent app, please let me know!

A place for everything! Decluttering into boxes. (Image from freeimages.com)

Digital Decluttering : the Delete an App a Day Challenge!

A place for everything, and everything in its place: the mantra of decluttering.

There has never been a better time to tackle clutter, it seems. Japanese tidying whizz Marie Kondo is enjoying great success with her Netflix series Tidying Up, in which she helps us mere mortals order our chaotic lives. Friends and family are talking about it. She has inspired some of the messiest amongst us to clean up their act.

She has achieved the seemingly impossible: she has made tidying trendy!

Now, as someone constantly seeking a system – both in my learning and my wider life – it is an exciting thing to see neatness and order back in vogue via a little Marie Kondo magic. Creating order, and finding a more productive path through that order, has been a passion of mine as long as I can remember. I am forever playing with planning tools like Evernote and Wunderlist to fulfil my own version of everything in its place, and improving my learning goals in the process.

After all, tidy place – tidy mind, true? And that can only be a good thing for living your best language learning life.

Digital decluttering : the case

The thing with clutter is that it often gathers imperceptibly, cheekily, brazenly, under your nose. Junk piles up, dust gathers, and you didn’t even notice it! And nowhere is that more apparent today than with digital junk.

And the worst culprit? Unused mobile apps.

My phone was steadily getting clogged. It’s a slow but sure process, for sure. The ease of finding and installing apps these days means you, too, have probably ended up with pages of icons you barely click on. And ever-increasing phone storage mitigates the natural ‘memory warning’ limit that might have once alerted us to our app gluttony.

The glut encompasses seemingly harmless educational apps, too. There has been an explosion in language learning platforms over the past couple of years. And, excitable linguists that we are, it is hard to resist the instant tap-install impulsion when a new language app suggestion pops up.

But we have to ask the question: how many of those scores of language apps do we really use?

Certainly, some of them are my most used apps. On iOS, you can even check that with the new Screen Time feature. True enough, Anki and Duolingo are up there in my most frequented apps.

Others, though, I haven’t opened in months. Years, almost. They’re just sitting there, gathering electronic dust on my phone.

What’s the harm, you might ask? Well, a bloated phone can cloud clarity of purpose when it comes to using it. A mass of too many apps is amorphous, disorganised. We look at the phone and are lost in a chaos of possibilities. Too much choice can be paralysing, and even interfere with good habit-building.

We can’t see the wood for the trees.

So how to tackle it?

An app a day (keeps the clutter away)

You could spend a good chunk of time going through everything, bit by bit, getting rid of the clutter in one go. But there is a much gentler way – and one that gives you time to evaluate and reassess in your own time what you really use and value in your handheld learning space. This gentle antidote involves the gradual and regular application of a little Marie Kondo Zen.

Marie famously invites followers to interrogate the connection they have to their clutter. Touch it – and see if it sparks joy. Although you can’t touch an app like a piece of clothing, you can still probe your connection to it. Open it, play with it, see if you still feel its worth to your aims and objectives in life. Each of those myriad apps – what would your life be like without it? If there’s no joy, then there’s no need to hang on to it.

Since you probably have lots and lots of apps to interrogate in this way, this could be a big task. And it’s always best to approach a big task with a method.

To that end: say hello to the Delete-An-App-A-Day challenge!

Each day, for as long as it takes for you to feel on top of your phone again, commit to deleting one app. No more, no less. If you have a cluttered tablet, do the same on that. Keep going until you get to the gold – those apps that do spark joy.

Enlightenment through decluttering

The upshot of all this is that you don’t just end up with a lighter phone. You also learn a lot about yourself and your learning preferences.

I set myself this challenge a couple of weeks ago now. My phone screens are already less busy. But there are extra bonuses along the way: rediscovering apps I’d forgotten about, rearranging the apps I want to keep so that they are harder to overlook, realising how much I can recall from language app lessons I thought were difficult the first time round. By cutting out the dead wood, I can squeeze more out of the items I decide to keep.

So what have I uninstalled? Well, I won’t name and shame here. All apps have value to someone, after all. What we connect with is deeply personal, and the apps I shun will be another language learner’s indispensable go-to.

will say, however, that I miss none of the apps I’ve deleted so far. A sure sign that digital decluttering is the way to go!

Be honest, be ruthless, dare to delete!

Going forward

Ultimately, you will come to a point where you are left with just those apps that really work for you. There is no need to keep going. But some general house rules will help avoid future clutter.

One strategy I find helpful is a one-in-one-out code for app installations. Incidentally, this is great for applying to your clothes, too, if you want to avoid wardrobe sprawl. If you want something new, then it must take the place of something old that you want to get rid of. Of course, deleting an app needn’t be as permanent as donating clothes to a charity shop: you can always reinstall later if you made a terrible mistake.

Mobile device operating systems can lend a hand, if you are in two minds about a certain app. As mentioned above, Screen Time on iOS 12 will show you the apps you spend most time looking at. Google’s Digital Wellbeing offers similar functionality for Android. Ultimately, though, how you feel about an app should determine your final decision: chop or not?

You may also find further helpful features by digging in your phone settings, too. iOS, for example, can be set to automatically offload unused apps so that they no longer take up valuable space. The app icon remains, though, which you could argue is continued clutter. That said, offloaded apps do appear with a download arrow on your screen, so the feature is handy for flagging up apps to delete manually.

Once you have a handle on digital decluttering on your phone, you can apply it to other areas of your online world, too. Twitter is one platform that certainly benefits from a little pruning now and again. When you start, it can become a healthy addiction. After all, what area of life won’t benefit from a little Zen?

Streamline your digital life. Make your daily productivity path a little bit clearer. Take the Delete-An-App-A-Day challenge and spark your own joy!

Programming in binary code

Love languages? Try programming!

Programming languages have a lot in common with human languages. For a start, they all have a very particular vocabulary and syntax. You need to learn the rules to assemble meaning. And both machine and human languages are tools for of turning concepts in our heads into action in the real world.

My love of languages blossomed around the same time as my fascination with computers. I’d tinker around in BASIC on my Commodore VIC-20 as a little kid, getting that early PC to just do things. (I know, that really dates me!) And today, I’m lucky enough to have made a career combining those two strands together as an educational software developer.

Works in progress

That said, it’s a career that never stands still. And, just as with human languages, it’s important to maintain and improve your skills all the time. In the same way that ‘fluency’ is an ill-defined and unhelpful ‘completion’ goal, you never really stop learning in the tech industry. There’s no end-point where you down tools, show your certificate, and say “I know it all now!“.

A fantastic source of development training for me of late has been the peer-tutorial site Udemy. I like the nature of the platform, allowing ordinary folk the chance to share their skills (and earn a bit of money from it, too). I also like the pick-and-choose nature of it, where you pay per course, rather than an all-in subscription. That’s one reason I always felt I wasn’t getting enough usage from the industry training giant, Lynda.com.

In fact the only downside to Udemy is its odd pricing model. Courses are listed under a ‘normal’, inflated price, but are almost always available at a discount. This discount varies, meaning that users end up course-watching until the price is lowered. Then they pounce, usually at a very reasonable rate of around £10 or so. I realise that the commercial psychology behind it is to increase the sense of bargain, but it does seem a little convoluted.

What I’m working on

In any case – there are some gems of courses on there. That goes especially for those who fancy learning some programming for educational applications. For a brief overview, here are some of the fantastic resources I’ve found useful:

Swift 4 and iOS

Apple introduced the Swift language as a successor to the clunky Objective-C language in recent years. It’s much easier to learn, in my opinion, and is more cross-skill compatible with other programming languages. Instructors have embraced the new language on Udemy, and amongst the best courses are the ones from tutorial guru Ray Wenderlich, and London-based developer Angela Yu. I intended to use their courses as refreshers, but have learnt a huge amount from both of them.

Android and Kotlin

Kotlin has a similar story to Swift, as a new language positioned to supersede and older one. That old one is Java, which is arguably a lot more useful and widespread than Objective-C. However, Kotlin is remarkably similar to Swift in syntax and usage. As such, it’s a pretty good choice to add to your collection if you are aiming for both iOS and Android development.

There is an old-school Android developer on Udemy, Tim Buchalka, who really knows his stuff. He’s my go-to for all my Android courses, and his Kotlin course is probably the most accessible and practical out there.

Not all hard work!

It’s not all hard work, of course. I take a couple of courses just out of interest or curiosity. As a programmer, I’ve always felt a little inferior about my design and illustration skills. Not only that, but I’m often a little jealous of how in the zone and mindful digital artists can get when working. To that end, I’ve been following a great course on creating digital art on the iPad with the Procreate app. Because not everything has to be about languages, programming or otherwise!

 

Amazon Echo Dot - Alexa for Language Learning

Alexa: Your Personal, Digital Native Speaker

It’s a language learning ‘secret’ that isn’t so secret any more: changing the language setting on your smart devices is a brilliant way to create a personalised immersion environment without going abroad. And the recent explosion of artificially intelligent digital assistant devices is taking this one step further. Voice-activated gadgets, like Amazon’s Alexa, place a (robotic) native speaker right in the centre of your home.

Swayed by the temptingly low price on the entry-level Amazon Dot, I’ve been getting to know Alexa for the past few months. First off, it’s a cliché, but this is definitely the kind of gadget you ‘never knew you needed’. After eyeing the unit with some cynicism for the first few weeks, soon I was constantly asking it to play music, convert currencies and measurements, tell me the weather forecast or simply the time. It’s both easy and fun, and gives you that sense of the future is now!

You digital language assistant

But it’s not just about voice-activating mundane, daily tasks. Ever alert to new learning opportunities, changing Alexa’s language settings was top of the list of experiments to try. And it works a treat, especially for pronunciation; suddenly, I was having to focus intently on expressing my commands in a nice, clear German accent so that Alexa could understand. (Incidentally, I’ve also found switching the language of Apple’s assistant Siri has these great pronunciation drill benefits!)

Interacting is as simple as asking a question like “”Alexa, was sind die Nachrichten?” (Alexa, what’s the news?) or “Alexa, wie ist das Wetter heute?” (Alexa, what’s the weather like today?). For more capabilities – including lots of silly (but briefly entertaining) games – there are hundreds of extra installable skills on Amazon. A useful hit list of the most useful can be found here.

The only snag with Alexa is that it is currently only available in English or German. Great news for Germanists, who won’t feel underrepresented in the language learning world for a change; but a pretty large black hole for everyone else.

Skilling up Alexa as language tutor

However, all is not lost. Users can still download Alexa Skills from Amazon, which augment the device’s capabilities. Already there are a good number of language learning skills, although they vary greatly in quality. It’s clearly early days for the device in terms of educational skills, but the start is promising.

A simple search on Learn Spanish or similar will yield plenty of results for you to try out. Here are a couple of links for the more mainstream languages:

Feedback ranges from decent right down to downright terrible on some of the skills available. However, the facility to give feedback on Amazon is a route for users to shape and improve Alexa as a language learning tool. Try new skills out, and write an honest review for each one – your thoughts will help developers to tweak and adapt Alexa skills for an incrementally better experience.

Watch this space

In summary, Alexa is an excellent investment for Germanists, but hit and miss for students of other languages – at least for the time being. There is a sizeable clamour around Spanish support on Amazon’s developer space, with pressure for other languages too. It would only seem a matter of time before she becomes more than just bilingual.