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.’

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