Improving language skills

I am  always interested in ways to improve my language skills. Lately I have been brushing up on my school-level French using Duolingo, a clever app that uses written, aural and oral techniques with some social and gaming elements that make learning fun. The app takes full advantage of the features on your smartphone using the headphones and microphone as well as getting you to write. It allows you to customise a daily practice target and provides a coaching utility that sends daily reminders by email or SMS to your smartphone.

Using the Duolingo App to Learn a Language

Apart from French, you can use Duolingo to improve your language skills in German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese — and you can choose to learn several languages simultaneously should you wish. It helps a lot that the app is installed on your smartphone because it makes it so easy to fit the daily practice into a busy schedule.

The idea of using gaming-type technology to teach languages is interesting. It is definitely true that Irish people have a language deficit. Despite learning Irish for 12 years between the ages of 5 and 17, most of us leave school without any noticeable degree of fluency and 6 years of French, German or Spanish seem to similarly fail to deliver practical competence to any significant level.

Recently, I spoke to the director of a company based in Dublin that employs more than 850 people from about 30 countries doing business in eight different languages. He told me that the company has found it difficult to source Irish employees with fluency in other languages, even among language graduates.  Although, interestingly, a few years ago, the availability of language skills in Ireland was reported to be a factor in Amazon moving its European services centre to Cork.

The EU has ambitions for its citizens to be able to speak two foreign languages and introducing languages to children from an early age is seen as one of the keys to achieving that goal. A Eurobarometer report published in 2012 reported that the countries where  respondents were least likely to be able to speak any foreign language were Hungary (65%), Italy (62%), the UK and Portugal (61%) and Ireland (60%).

Studies like this one have explored the advantages of using gaming technologies to teach languages and Duolingo, which was nominated Apple’s iPhone App of the Year at the end of 2013, has shown that learning can addictive and fun. Wouldn’t it be terrific if apps like this could also improve the employability prospects for our young people and better still if greater language competence turned out to be just one more reason for businesses to locate in Ireland.