Two stick figures looking confused, with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths. One speech bubble is full of emojis; the other has Wingdings font.
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Hi there

Have you noticed how everyone around you is always trying to learn a new language? And also that they’re failing at it? 

This isn’t meant as a call-out — merely an observation. The online language-learning market is set to hit a value of nearly $32 billion USD by 2029. Seemingly everybody has now had a phase of aggressively protecting their Duolingo streak (or, at the very least, of fearing the Duolingo owl). And yet, for many of us, actual proficiency in a new language seems to remain beyond our grasp. 

Why do we struggle so much to pick up a new language? As we discuss in today’s newsletter, a big part of the problem is that language just isn’t like most other skills that we might try to pick up as an adult. It's something more innate and automatic: just think about how easily your native tongue comes to you. 

Tech is trying to bridge the gap. As in virtually every field, artificial intelligence is being held up as a potential panacea for language learning. But how helpful is it, really?

Below, we're exploring why it's so hard to learn a new language, and how AI may (or may not) help address some of those unique challenges. 

Until next time,
Katie and the multilingual wannabes @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀
💬 Deep Dive: Why language learning is so hard
🧑‍🏫 Field Notes: BeSci Meets EdTech
🤖 Viewpoints: What AI can do (and what it can’t)
DEEP DIVE
💬 Why language learning is so hard 

+ Language learning is a young man’s game. When we’re very young, our brains absorb languages like it’s nothing. Unfortunately, this “critical period” for language learning ends around age 17 or 18. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense why: as children, we need to rapidly learn as much about the world as possible, but in adulthood, it’s more useful for our brains to focus in on what’s most relevant to our day-to-day survival. 

+ We’re overthinking it. Compared to kids, adults are far more prone to overthinking and overanalyzing. This often ends up holding us back from getting meaningful practice with a language: we’re so afraid of making mistakes, or so busy trying to remember the right verb conjugation, that we don’t ever just try to have a conversation.

+ We’re learning wrong. The way we usually try to teach languages to adults focuses on explicit knowledge: studying vocabulary, memorizing grammatical rules, and so on. The problem is that speaking a language is all about implicit, intuitive knowledge — the kind of knowledge that comes from continuous exposure & practice. And since there’s no evidence that explicit language knowledge ever becomes implicit, all that studying can only get us so far.

🧑‍🏫 FIELD NOTES: BeSci Meets EdTech

Imagine a classroom where students can progress at their own pace, engage with content that interests them, and receive personalized instruction to overcome learning obstacles. A combination of behavioral science and educational technology (EdTech) is helping to make that vision a reality. Learn how on our website.

Three students at a desk, working on building a robot.
Viewpoints
🤖 What AI can do (and what it can’t) 

+ AI can help us apply our knowledge. One obvious benefit of AI is that it can facilitate practice. Bots like Duolingo Max let the user roleplay a whole range of scenarios — something that may ordinarily not be accessible or convenient for many learners.

+ AI can personalize our experience. Language learning is about statistics: when our brains start to subconsciously pick up on the rules and patterns of a language, that’s when real fluency starts to develop. AI can speed this process along with predictive modeling, identifying areas where the user needs the most practice and then personalizing their learning experience to provide it.

+ AI can help us embrace mistakes. By virtue of being, uh, not a person, AI can take some of the pressure off of language practice and provide a truly judgment-free environment. This is especially valuable for socially anxious learners, whose fear of making mistakes might otherwise prevent them from practicing at all.

+ AI can’t replace humans (yet). Language is about a lot more than choosing the right vocabulary, or correctly conjugating verbs. Being truly fluent in a language also means deeply understanding the surrounding culture, which often means learning to think in entirely new ways. That’s something that can only come from interacting with good ol' human beings.

June #1 Newsletter - Duolingo Downloads
Language learning is an ever-more-popular pastime. Case in point: more than half a billion people are using Duolingo to learn a language. (Source)
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The Whorf Hypothesis:

One of the biggest philosophical questions in linguistics is whether or not language determines our perception of the world. Can the words we use to talk about things actually change the way we see them? Head on over to our website to find out.

What’s New at TDL

New Advisors alert! Going forward, we’ll be using this part of the newsletter to share some updates from TDL and our network. This week, we couldn’t be more excited to welcome two new TDL Advisors: Nir Eyal and Timothy Morey. 

Nir is a writer, lecturer, and consultant, working at the intersection of psychology, tech, and business. He is the best-selling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. 

Tim is Principal at Blue Forest Guild, LLC, where he helps businesses and organizations reimagine their product and service offerings. Previously, as he was Global Managing Director at frog design. 

Welcome, Nir and Tim!

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 

  • Associate Project Leader
  • UX Writer

Find out more by visiting our careers portal.

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.

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