But is it cheating? Language support tools and polyglot pride

Dictionaries - a great fallback, but is it cheating? Image from freeimages.com

You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re about to walk up to the counter and order that coffee in the language you’ve been learning for months. But it’s the heat of the moment. You’re a bit nervous. What’s the polite way to ask for something again? Is it cheating to look it up?

These are times when the sheer availability of information blurs the line between achieving and cheating. Digital tools are challenging the notion of success across all education fields. So what exactly is cheating? And do we need to worry about it, as independent language learners?

Defining cheating

How we define cheating changes a lot according to circumstances. For example, during my high school language exams, the idea of taking along vocabulary support was a strict no-no. Students had to commit everything to memory. It was hard work, but we accepted it as a necessary slog.

So it was with a little envy that I learnt, some years later, that some exams boards were now allowing dictionaries in during the writing component. Dictionaries! They would have chucked us poor students straight out of the hall after even a whiff of a crib sheet or a glimpse of scribbled notes on a hand.

That said, there is some sense in allowing some brain-support tools into the exam environment. Learning how to use resources like dictionaries and verb tables is as much a part of language proficiency as the actual committing to memory, and more so than ever these days. We live in a world full of expert, digital help at the touch of a smartphone. Testing how students use their language knowledge and resourcefulness is, perhaps, a better way to gauge how they will cope in the real world.

Setting a high bar

Despite all this, there is a gleeful satisfaction in smashing the memory game. I suspect that there is a memory purist in many of us polyglot enthusiasts, setting the cheating bar pretty high. Who hasn’t felt a little fist-pump moment that time a perfectly formed phrase just trips off the tongue without a single prompt?

More importantly, no support tool is perfect. Maybe you have also given a knowing eye-roll when hearing that old, annoying chestnut about language learning being unnecessary in a world of Google Translate. Likewise, you have also probably spotted a couple of very iffy translations yourself when using it. Machine translation is getting good – but it’s not quite there yet.

The fact is that tech tools are incredibly powerful. But knowing how the language works and combining your own knowledge with their answers is exponentially more powerful. These platforms support – they do not replace – the expert linguist in us.

Parlour tricks for the everyday

Of course, improving memory to maestro levels is a noble goal in itself, and many have achieved fame on the back of that. Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky displayed some phenomenal recall skills that bought him to the attention of a public far beyond his home country.

A raft of pop science books and documentaries feted his seemingly superhuman abilities to remember items. In the 1950s, a decade obsessed with the rapid progress of humanity towards a perfected pinnacle, Shereshevsky ignited the question: are we born with super-memory, or can we develop it? As language learners, it’s something we would all love to know.

Well, the answer is encouraging: it seems that we can learn it. Memorisation expert Tony Buzan has been impressing amateur mnemonists for years with his books, crossing the divide between parlour trick and genuinely useful learning skill. He has even applied some of his mind-mapping memory techniques directly to language learning, and the results seem promising from the reviews.

Whether or not we call dictionary look-up cheating, getting these tricks under your belt is surely more rewarding than that reach-for-the-phone “I give up!” moment on a trip.

Aim high – but be kind to yourself

In short, there is no need to be too hard on yourself. Support tools help us through many a sticky situation. In fact, these tools can be invaluable during the learning process itself. Translation and dictionary sites can be systematically mined to make connections and expand your vocabulary from day one.

Still, perfect recall improvement techniques can help you use these tools less and less frequently in the wild. And managing that can be a rich source of pride at your abilities as a language learner.

Richard West-Soley

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