Words vs language

Don’t get me wrong–I am definitely in favour of the 1000 Words Challenge. In spirit, anyway. It’s a campaign challenging folks in the UK to learn 1000 words in a foreign language, to try to “overturn [their] poor record in language learning and show that [they] are ready to engage with a multilingual world,” (The US and Anglo Canada suffer from a similar reputation for monolingualism; it’s said the UK economy is suffering because of it. Is ours?)

But I find it reinforces the view commonly held in such monolingual countries that lexicon=language, and completely disregards any idea of communicative competence. I’ve been encountering this a lot lately in the hype around Duolingo, a new(-ish) language learning app that promises “Free language education for the world!” and that they claim “trumps university-level language learning.”

I signed up for Duolingo as a tool to support my Portuguese studies, and have found it’s great as that: a tool within someone’s language learning program. It’s structured around vocabulary sets and is a pretty pure example of the grammar translation method. The user does have to interact with and translate sentences, but its devoid of any sort of grammar presentation or explanation, besides user-generated comments and notes, which, as one could imagine,  range from helpful yet incomplete to completely misleading. And of course, there is nothing communicative about the app at all.

(I am planning a future post reviewing the app and my experiences with it in more detail. In the meantime, here’s how it works.)

While Duolingo’s lots of fun and has definitely increased my vocabulary in Portuguese, the idea that Duolingo is “language education” would be laughable by anyone who has ever put in the time and effort to learn a language to even a functional level of proficiency. And while rates of interest and proficiency in foreign languages are so low in the UK that anything is better than nothing, the 1000 Words Challenge inadvertently sends the wrong message. Becoming functional in a foreign language requires much more than a phrasebook, Google translate or a vocabulary app to start compiling a long list of learned words.  Until you can bind those words together with a bit of grammar for the purposes of communication and understand when someone throws a string of them back to you, you’re still carrying the monolingual card, unfortunately.

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