Technology | 18 April 2024

Technology Series: Eve Zyzik


Eve Zyzik is Professor in the Department of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has published many articles on second language acquisition, heritage language development, and language pedagogy. Her books include El español y la lingüística aplicada (Georgetown University Press) with Robert Blake, Authentic materials myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching (University of Michigan Press) with Charlene Polio, and most recently, Vivencias (Cognella), an advanced-level textbook that is based on a renowned podcast series. As a lifelong language learner, she is interested in language for specific purposes and legal Spanish in particular. 

Are there shortcuts to language learning?

Mastering a second language, a complex cognitive skill, is actually very similar to learning to play a sport.

Over the course of my twenty-six years in academia, I’ve taught all levels of Spanish. I often start the quarter by showing my students two photos: one of a college professor in front of a large lecture hall and another of a tennis coach who is helping a player with his serve. As a language teacher, I see my role as much closer to that of the tennis coach: I have to create the right conditions for students to use the language, give them tailored feedback at the right moments, and encourage them to keep trying. That’s because mastering a second language, a complex cognitive skill, is actually very similar to learning to play a sport. Even if you’re not an athlete, you can probably imagine what it takes to become a professional tennis player, an Olympic swimmer, or a basketball player in the NBA. All elite athletes will tell you there is no substitute for thousands of hours on the court, on the field, or in the pool. There are no shortcuts.

Icon for the Duolingo language learning app.

Yet when it comes to learning languages, people are always looking for shortcuts. Indeed, there are hundreds of apps promising an easy way to achieve fluency or a faster path to having conversations with native speakers. Excellent reflections have been written about Duolingo in the popular press, including this one in The New York Times and this one in Slate. My view, shared by most academics who know something about second language acquisition, is that we should be highly suspicious of anything that promises a quick path to fluency or guarantees that you’ll be speaking the language in no time. Empirical research on these apps (also known as mobile-assisted language learning) shows that learners make relatively minimal gains. For example, Loewen et al. (2020) had participants use Babbel for twelve weeks to learn Spanish. They were not true beginners, as most had previously completed two courses in Spanish. Although they made some gains at the end of twelve weeks, especially on discrete-item grammar and vocabulary tests, many participants remarked that they found the app useful for refreshing their knowledge of Spanish rather than learning new material. Kessler et al. (2023) tracked absolute beginners learning Turkish via Duolingo and Babbel over eight weeks. At the end of the study, the participants scored an average of 41% on a test of Turkish that measured various skills (Babbel users scored slightly higher than Duolingo users, but the differences were not statistically significant). Sudina and Plonsky (2024) carried out a study with a large sample of Duolingo learners over six months and found that “the majority of our learners remained at the beginning level at the posttest based on the amount of material they covered” (p. 24). Perhaps more importantly, users of these apps tend to lose motivation and quit. Even when they are incentived to use the app, learners find it difficult to continue learning in this medium. In other words, these apps have a persistence problem.

Persistence is the name of the game in language learning.

But persistence is the name of the game in language learning. Anyone who has learned a language to an advanced level of proficiency knows that it is a long-distance event, not a sprint. Crucially, language learning is not linear. This means that the progress you will make from one level to the next cannot be measured in equal intervals of time. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (commonly known as ACTFL) has a nice visual, the inverted pyramid of proficiency, to help us understand this. The reason that the pyramid is so much broader at the top is because it takes longer to reach those levels. If the conditions are right, learners may be able to progress quickly from the Novice Low to the Intermediate Low level of proficiency. In contrast, it will take much longer to progress from Advanced Low to Superior. The reasons for this are many, but it likely has to do with the fact that there are tens of thousands of low-frequency words. Moreover, many words have more than one meaning and finding the ‘right’ translation involves understanding the surrounding context. Also, we have to produce language that is not only grammatical, but also sounds natural. There is colloquial language to master and many idiomatic expressions, some of which vary according to the dialect or regional variety that you are learning. Finally, advanced language knowledge goes way beyond linguistic competence and involves familiarity with cultural nuances and pragmatics, which is knowing how to interpret social situations and respond appropriately.

How do people find the motivation to continue language learning? In real life, language learning comes with its own rewards. That’s because the further you climb up the inverted pyramid, the more you can do with the language. At some point, you stop feeling like a language learner and become a language user. The words come easily when you need them, the verb conjugations are automatic, and you are able to express what you really want to say. You engage in a deep conversation with someone and lose sight of the fact that you are speaking another language. You have an unfiltered emotional reaction to something you are watching or listening to in your second language. You connect with someone by telling a funny story or making a joke–and they laugh! If you follow my sports analogy, you are out on the court playing the game–and it brings you great joy. And that feeling, I dare to say, you cannot get from the animated owl that dances when you complete 500 days of Duolingo.

Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Photograph by Eve Zyzik.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against the use of technology in language learning and teaching. Technology (broadly speaking) can be useful for promoting second language acquisition to the extent that it provides opportunities for more language exposure, interaction, and feedback. In one of the classes I teach, we listen to Spanish language podcasts that are authentic, that is, they were not designed for language learning purposes. For learners that want some extra support during the listening comprehension process, Lupa is an app that allows you to listen to the stories at variable speeds and get translations for some key words. There are other potentially useful platforms such as those that connect you with a native speaker conversation partner or ‘coach’ (such as LinguaMeeting and many others). These virtual exchanges can be beneficial if your partner is in tune to your current level and knows how to keep the conversation going. They can be vital if you are studying a less-commonly-taught language and don’t have anyone locally to connect with.

In recent news, you may have read that West Virginia University plans to slash its offerings in languages, replacing them with an app such as Duolingo. Of course, this is a deeply cynical move; I assume that the administration knows perfectly well the limitations of these apps and their meager (or minimal) results in terms of language proficiency. Ultimately, reducing language offerings at a major university will have counterproductive effects (see this statement from the American Association for Applied Linguistics or this thoughtful analysis from The Atlantic).

The university should be a place where students can explore one or more languages and find the spark to become lifelong learners.

To play devil’s advocate, you might say that three or four semesters of college language courses won’t take you very far anyway, so why bother? In fact, if we add up all the hours of classtime over four years at UCSC, assuming one language course per quarter, it amounts to 390 hours. That’s way short of the 750 hours that the Foreign Service Institute estimates it takes to reach general professional proficiency in a language like Spanish. But we have to remember that university language coursework was never meant to take students to this level. Instead, the university should be a place where students can explore one or more languages and find the spark to become lifelong learners. A couple of well-designed language courses may encourage that learner to study abroad or perhaps seek a job opportunity abroad after graduation. And yet others will find that their language skills are critically important in the local community. Our country is in dire need of legal interpreters, medical professionals who can communicate directly with patients, teachers who can talk to parents who don’t know English, and police officers who can understand what happened when interviewing witnesses or victims. Needless to say, we must cultivate human bilingual talent to bridge the language barriers in all of these situations.

Banner Image: Myrdal, Norway. Photograph by Eve Zyzik.

The Humanities Institute’s 2024 Technology Series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti engaged in humanities scholarship at UC Santa Cruz. The statements, views, and data contained in these pieces belong to the individual contributors and draw on their academic expertise and insight. This series showcases the ways in which scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives contend with the issues connected with our annual theme. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest piece in the series every week!