Learning Spanish by Phone


Screen shot from an app that teaches Spanish.
Learning Spanish by Phone? Photo credit: techoven

Dear Ms Smartphone: What do you think of learning Spanish on your phone? This summer my mother and I planned to take a Spanish class together, but the community college didn’t offer it. My mother says we should wait until the Fall but I suggested that we learn the language through apps on our phone. I plan to do this, but how do I bring her along? Evan, Belvedere

Dear Evan: This is a great question, because there is so much discussion post-Covid about hybrid education; splitting time between the classroom and apps. I don’t have much experience with the latter, but after 10 years of classroom instruction in French, I remain functionally illiterate. So, I did what your generation does- I searched on Google for information about the apps.

It was not a surprise that studies by academics, like this one, find merit to the language apps, but also contend the classroom is better for learning grammatical rules and conventions. It is the subtleness of  “Su” versus “Tu”.

The major criticism of the software, and again, no surprise, is that the no-complete rate is extreme, and people spend less than an hour a week (10- minutes a day) online.

That said, I discovered a counter-intuitive approach by an Atlantic writer. He completed 70 hours of online learning, and interrupted a camping trip to complete his online lessons. At first he was flummoxed to speak Italian, but he boned up with a dictionary and study guides and found himself conversant once he traveled. He seems to point out that the software drills you in the basics, and situational needs fill in the rest! 

Go Native!

Now, from a DearSmartphone perspective, your phone brings magical properties- communicate that to Mom! For years, people could sit at their PC , initially with tapes or CDs, and connect to so called “language-modules” like Rosetta Stone. But they couldn’t learn a new language on the fly. Today, say you are waiting for a train and you wonder why it’s taking a  *#* time to come. You can plug that expression into an app, and hear it spoken in Spanish- perhaps with expletives and all!

Smartphones also give us the opportunity to turn-in old habits. Let’s say that you spend a lot of time when you are bored, or waiting for the train, playing Candy Crush. It’s an easy- peasy swap to swap into a Spanish learning app. Ten minutes, or twenty, should pass quickly.

Time Swap:

Do be aware, as I have noted elsewhere, that time on your phone can appear unsocial. Mom and your friends are not going to know whether you are searching for a new car on your phone, scrolling social media sites, or immersed in Spanish 101. You’ll probably be even more remote- wearing headphones- because there are so many sites that teach through the spoken word and videos. 

Learning this way sounds powerful, but  I hunch that you will learn faster, and retain more if you create flash cards (on paper) that reinforce the new words and verb tenses. Again, this is just my intuition, based on the differences between reading online versus reading books and newspapers in print.  

But back to Mom, whom is waiting for the classrooms to reopen.  When it comes to learning Spanish, many people say that the telenovelas are the entry point. They are entertaining and amusing…and they also provide the basic vocabulary on love, separation, and betrayal!  Make sure the telenovela has subtitles. If Mom is into something racier, then tune into the recent space of Narco dramas, popular on Netflix. Again, enable the subtitles.

Media FiX:

Before smartphones, people (especially kids) settling into a new country would  turn to television dramas to fine tune language skills and get comfortable with native accents. So, telenovela might work for Mom. The key is going to be the marriage of motivation to the lesson- whether that is an app or big screen.  

Perhaps you can set your future sites on something tangible, and depending on the budget, plan a  trip to US border towns or Spain! For the  here and now, consider “traveling” virtually. You and Momc can set your phones/Instagram to find people or pets that post in Spanish. The translate feature will decipher their stories and Reels, and you might offer them an emoji or a  ‘Que Bueno.’

Bad Phone Behavior or Locatable?

Is Mom’s phone open 24/7 for notifications?

A phone with a text message that says "Where are you?" Do we need to be locatable all the time?
Is it Bad Phone Behavior if we are not always Locatable?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is this bad phone behavior or am I right? Is it necessary to get up in the morning and check first thing for messages? My son drives a truck for a living and lives a few hours away. He got mad when I didn’t look at an early morning text he sent from the road. He was nearby and planned to stop in for breakfast and a swim in the pool. But I had my coffee, read the newspapers, and did an errand so I missed him. He was upset. Stella, Vallejo

Dear Stella, I love getting questions about “bad phone behavior” but in this case I can’t decide if the “bad phone behavior” is on him or on you!

I imagine that you are from a generation that does planning in advance, and is not accustomed to last minute changes in the itinerary. That makes sense in the days before smartphones, and that was barely twelve years ago. If you had to meet someone, say at a train station or in a foreign city, you set up a fixed spot (always under the train clock!) where you would find each other. And, you demarked the precise time. If one of you got delayed, you had a backup plan like circle back to the clock in two hours time.

In fact, an early study of flip phones communications showed that most of the messaging back and forth was advance planning of places and times to meet.

Just in Time Meet-UP:

Now, with smartphones that exigency has flown out the window. We can do “just in time” meet-ups or even let someone follow our travel route in real time. There are fewer slipups and we can be more spontaneous about getting together as your son was. But, it also means that we can be more capricious. Perhaps you have friends that want to set up a time to meet, and then, just a few minutes before, they text that they are stuck in traffic, etc.

But, your question about “text in the morning” gets to a deeper question. At what time, or times of the day are we required to be “reachable” by phone, and what time of the day are we off-line? Previously I have lauded The Digital Sabbath, Tiffany Shlain’s counsel that we take family time once a week, to be completely offline.


Perhaps we need additional buffer time, say early in the morning and late in the evening to be offline too? It is not a new idea, and thought leaders like Cal Newport have cited the need to bring deliberation and focus to these bookended hours. Imagine the bookends as an OFF switch in which you stay ON!

Clearly if you are in sales and you are expected to be online, you and your boss have to work out the hours in which you will take a call. And, if you drive a truck and are on the clock, you are scanning for traffic and your next haul. But, if you are drinking your coffee and reading your newspapers (yay), then I don’t see why the inner voice to check messages takes precedent.


Fortunately, there are two ways that you and your son can connect better for the future. One is old tech and the other is new. First, new tech. Phones have a feature called “Do Not Disturb.” Here, under settings, you set a time period in which you will not receive phone calls and notifications. However, you denote exceptions for certain people, like family members or emergencies. If you organize your phone’s settings this way, the notification from your son will ring through.

The other way to connect with him is old-school but it makes planning airtight. Ask him to ‘put a ring on it.’ It’s an old idea but a single ding-ding call now and then can replace a thousand texts and misunderstandings.

Fake Location, Real Takeout

Cartoon sketch of delivery person on bike and smartphone where orders are sent in.
Fake locations and takeout. Image: perceptionsystem (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: A fake location led me to find real takeout! I just moved to a new neighborhood and decided to get takeout for dinner. A delivery app helped me pick a local barbecue and the food was delish. In fact, so good that I popped the name into my GPS. It turns out that the restaurant is not in my neighborhood at all. The barbecue is prepared offsite and delivered from a central kitchen. Are fake locations popping up everywhere or is this a one-off? Phillip, Brookline

Dear Phillip, The abbreviation for barbecue, BBQ, is sometimes used to spell out “Better Be Quick! ” This is the ultimate convergence of food and delivery! 

Now, two possible reasons for the fake-take:

First, delivery services, like Grubhub , Postmates and DoorDash have been said to contrive this as a “growth hacking” strategy. (sorry, I can’t check the source to know the veracity). They create restaurant listings on their platforms- even though individual restaurants have not partnered with them. It helps the delivery services expand the number of restaurants customers see, and it helps businesses that are in cahoots with them. You mentioned you were in Brookline –  they create a bogus listing for “Brookline Barbecues” and cook elsewhere.

That said, “Brookline Barbecues (BB1)” could be an offshoot of an established restaurant say “Boston Barbecues (BB2).” The tech savvy team at BB2 wants to expand their reach so they set up links on their website that lead you to the wrong location, literally!  Google has rigid rules for linking business accounts with physical addresses, but there would be ways to mislead customers doing an online search, particularly if they were new in town like you.

Death of Distance

The “Death of Distance” is not a trivial problem. This past summer I answered a question from a reader who lamented that her vacation planning was limited by choices she got from the search-engine. It turned out there were other options but they had not been “up-listed” (i.e., paid) to show up. At the end of the day, we want to help and support local businesses but it’s the bigger companies, and the younger, more tech savvy owners that know how to optimize SEO to their advantage.

Identifying a local business is no longer as simple as thumbing through a print catalog called the yellow pages. Even back then, the business addresses were a combination of listings that were no-fee and paid-fee. Going forward, you might want to combat Internet with Internet. Consider using a platform, say Nextdoor, in your new community. First, they will verify your physical address. If you read posts carefully and slowly you can usually sort out real recommendations by real people.

Delivery by Foot

But back to the dodgy barbecue. We all want local businesses to succeed, and that’s the reason so many people have ordered online and used delivery services during the pandemic. The delivery practice you describe ends up hurting small businesses with minimal or no internet presence. Without constantly checking around for new sites or listings, it’s impossible to know whether someone’s created a duplicate site to mislead customers into thinking they are ordering directly from an on-site restaurant. The best advice is to get out your walking shoes, take a stroll, and check out the new neighborhood.