For language learning, technology helps us do more with less

young Asian woman looking at laptop, watchin a webinar

The global pandemic has changed our relationship to technology, and this is especially true for language learning. In the first weeks of the pandemic, more than 30 million new learners joined Duolingo to learn a language.

For many, language learning used to be just a box to tick on the way to a diploma, but today technology has made language learning more accessible, fun, and relevant to learners of all ages.

The reality is that interest in learning languages increases after graduation: in a 2021 survey conducted by Duolingo and The Romans, 81% of Britons admitted that they wish they’d paid more attention in language classes in school. As adults, we meet new people, travel to new places, and binge watch new TV shows – but there hasn’t always been affordable, accessible, on-demand ways for adults to learn languages. Today, technology is changing how both students and teachers approach language learning by increasing access to personalized, high-quality instruction.

In the past, language study was largely restricted to those with time and resources. Adult learners had to seek out in-person classes at local universities or community centers, commit to set schedules and deadlines, and often pay considerable sums of money for registration and materials. But even in-person language learning isn’t without its own challenges, as teachers are forced to manage growing class sizes and accommodate the diverse needs and goals of dozens of students. Getting the right language content to learners at the right time, and then providing them sufficient interaction and feedback, can be a struggle for learners and teachers in all contexts.

It is here where technology excels: it can deliver personalized curricula and tailored feedback on demand, and thus give learners more control over what they learn, how much, and when. Adapting the pace of class and giving students individual attention can be especially challenging in large classes, and technology can help language teachers maximize their impact by taking care of the tasks that are the most difficult to scale (like marking and providing targeted practice).

Technology can present specific, automated feedback to every learner, instantly, and thus maximize opportunities for learners to notice and learn from mistakes. The frequency of feedback can also be tested and optimized to find the cadence that leads to the most improvement with the least frustration for learners. Feedback is crucial for allowing learners to test their guesses about the grammatical patterns and new vocabulary they are acquiring and get confirmation about what works and what doesn’t.

Technology can also provide additional, targeted instruction on exactly the topics learners need the most help with. An algorithm can pay equal attention to every learner and their performance across myriad grammar and vocabulary topics – and then change the curriculum, in real time, individually for hundreds of millions of learners. Technology makes it possible to adapt lessons to make some content harder and some easier, depending on a learner’s own progress and pain points.

That’s why Duolingo’s approach to language teaching has been to harness the expertise of language teachers, learning scientists, and machine learning engineers to create courses that are maximally adaptable for learners of all ages, motivations, and schedules. We have shown that technology-delivered courses can teach effectively, in half the time as traditional classes, and this union of research-backed pedagogy and artificial intelligence is helping us make high-quality language teaching universally available.

People of all ages seek to learn languages for reasons as varied as travel, to stay engaged and cognitively healthy, and to connect with family and other cultures, and technology and machine learning tools in particular are allowing people around the world – even those of us who have long since left the classroom – to maximize how we spend our study time.

Dr CIndy BlancoAbout the author

Dr. Cindy Blanco is a senior learning scientist at Duolingo. Dr. Blanco earned a master’s in Spanish linguistics and a PhD in linguistics, and she later worked as a postdoctoral researcher in cognitive psychology. Her academic research focused on language learning and speech perception in infants, children, and adults. At Duolingo, Dr. Blanco works to develop effective teaching products and communication strategies informed by learning science research. Her recent projects have included a report on global language-learning trends and communicating about linguistics through the Duolingo blog and social media.