The rise of cheap or free apps that make learning fun has big implications for children who, unlike adults, are often not even aware that they’re learning something, when they actually are.
Experts point out that kids are good at implicit learning (doing something like playing games without realising they’re absorbing information or sharpening skills), versus explicit learning (physically going to a classroom and doing drills a teacher gives you in a constructed environment).
“That’s why this technology helps,” says Sorace, referring to apps and games. “They get hooked doing something they like, and in fact they’re learning another language.”
As children become teenagers, they are more likely to be self-conscious and fear making mistakes in front of others. That’s where technology can also help, says Matthew Maclachlan, head of intercultural skills of UK-based Learnlight, a platform geared toward adults learning a second language.
“I’m not standing in front of a class of 29 other teenagers while I decline the verb,” Maclachlan says. “I’m doing it in an online environment, where I’m getting instant feedback and I can experiment. I’m more inclined to guess, because it’s a computer. When you’re with a real person, you won’t guess – you’ll just say, ‘I don’t know.’”
The limits to tech
Despite the many new ways that technology can aid these wired kids growing up in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, experts say it works better as a complement to, rather than a replacement for real-life, in-person contact.
And when you look at language specifically, learning apps still need to be thought of as complementary tools. Duolingo users may well have brag-worthy scores in French, Danish, or Hungarian, but if you genuinely want to get better, there comes a point where you need to start practising with native speakers.
“I can get on Skype with my teacher based in Mexico City, and I have a real conversation with a native speaker,” Maclachlan says. “I get the best teacher, not just the best Spanish speakers here [in my English village].”
Looking forward? Today’s children have already moved on from fiddling with smartphones and tablets and have moved to summoning voice-activated assistants like Cortana or Alexa. That kind of AI, along with increasingly sophisticated chatbots, could appear as new language-learning tech tools.
Maclachlan reckons we’re 12 to 18 months away from it. “It’s not going to be long where I can actually have a conversation with my technology, and it catches all my mistakes when I’m talking to it,” he says.
Why language learning matters
The benefits of speaking many languages are well-documented. It staves off dementia, sharpens concentration and problem-solving skills, and can earn you more money.
For Hillary Yip, more communication and greater understanding between today’s youth could help tear down barriers society springs around them as they get older – even as they’re using the app continents apart.
“In the adults’ world, there’s a ton of things about race, gender, and other stereotypes,” she says. “But for kids, everyone is just a kid.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin
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