Published On: June 26, 2024By
How Does AI Make Language Learning Easier - Talented Learning Show Podcast 78

EPISODE 78: Language Learning With AI

Steven Toy CEO Memrise - Talented Learning Show guest

Steven Toy, CEO, Memrise

Do you speak multiple languages? Like many people, this has been a goal of mine throughout my adult life. But my efforts haven’t yet paid off as I had hoped.

As a trained instructional designer and tech analyst, I’ve long wondered which language learning applications are most effective. And now that AI is becoming more prevalent, I’m interested in knowing how it adds a new dimension to these tools.

That’s why I’m excited to welcome today’s guest, Steven Toy, CEO of Memrise, a popular language learning app. Steve is an expert at developing tools that help make the language learning process work. So if you want to communicate better on the global stage, you’ll find plenty of useful guidance on this episode of The Talented Learning Show


Language Learning With AI – KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Developing language competency is challenging at any age, especially as an adult. That’s because it’s about more than just recognizing and understanding the meaning of individual words. As I’ve discovered over the years, immersive learning experiences are especially powerful.
  • Many language learning tools are available. But which applications are most useful? The best solutions challenge people to do more than build vocabulary, one isolated word at a time. Instead, they emphasize intense conversational practice. This is the most natural way to train your ear, your brain and your mouth to work together, so you can communicate comfortably in another language.
  • AI is transforming instructional experiences in exciting ways, and language learning is no exception. With AI, this process is becoming much more personalized, meaningful and effective for individuals. While for solution providers, AI makes it easier to reach a broader market and grow more rapidly.


Language Learning With AI – Q&A HIGHLIGHTS

Welcome, Steve. Why don’t we start with a quick overview of Memrise?

Certainly. Memrise is one of many language learning apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Busuu, Drops, Rosetta Stone and so on. But we have a particular philosophy about how to acquire a language, and that’s the logic behind our app.

We all probably know the easiest way to learn a language. The best way is to live in a country where people speak that language. Anyone who has done this knows it’s amazing how quickly we progress.

And this isn’t really surprising, because it’s how we learn our first language.

Yes. I’ve tried the hard way throughout my adult life, with audio tapes, workbooks, all sorts of tools. What does an app bring to the table?

Well, for language learning to succeed, you need three elements…

First, you must understand the meaning of words. For example, if you’re learning Spanish, you need to know that hola means hello. So you need to know the translation.

But knowing the translation on a flash card or on a piece of paper isn’t enough. When you hear that word in the wild, you’ll experience it in a very different way. In conversation, words can come at you pretty quickly, with different accents. Sometimes, they’re even truncated and surrounded by words you don’t know.

Learning the definition of an individual word doesn’t teach you how to comprehend a word within the context of language. That’s where learning apps can help.


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Any language app can teach you translations. But what about the second stage?

And what about the next level, when you want to be understood by others? When you want to express yourself, you need to know how to speak in a way that other people can understand.

Even if you know what a word means, if you badly butcher its pronunciation, you’ll struggle to communicate. So, that’s the third piece of the language learning puzzle.

Makes sense…

We have a shorthand for this process — “Learn, immerse, communicate.” In other words, “learn” is about understanding the definitions. “Immerse” is about hearing those words in the wild. And “communicate” is about using those words when you speak or write. Those are the three core pieces of language learning.

Nearly any app you choose can help you with the first element. But the second piece is a little trickier.

Of course, we can give you all kinds of content so you can listen to a language. But that’s not enough. You need to listen to language that is filtered to include the words you know. If you just wade into a conversation where most of the words are unfamiliar, it is too confusing. You’ll never succeed.

Instead, you need to spend time listening to relevant words. And that’s always been hard, unless you create the content yourself. In that case, you know the words you’re trying to learn. If you don’t tie it to something that matters, you may be forced to listen to random content like, “The blue turtles on the red sweater are on the green chair.”

That may teach you about colors and objects. But you’ll never use those words together in life.


So because many people can’t live where they can learn by speaking with others in the wild, many get stuck at that particular stage of language learning. And when they actually do try to speak with someone who knows the language, they get creamed. They can’t pronounce the words correctly, and they don’t understand when others speak. They’re surrounded by words that they don’t know. So it’s overwhelming.


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Yep, I’ve been there.

And that’s where AI is coming in. There are a lot of ways it can help. But specifically, we’re talking about immersing yourself in hearing words you’ve learned. With AI technology, you can start to digest language learning content in ways that feel like a living experience.

There’s almost infinite content available in every language, right? You can watch YouTube and TikTok videos, and the like. But AI helps you break down those videos into specific words and phrases. That means you can filter those videos by comparing the words in the content with words you actually know.

So each of us can build our own little dictionary of known words. And when 80% or more of those words are in a TikTok or YouTube video, we can let you know that you’re ready for that content.


This gets you out of a common bind where you must:

a) Produce a lot of content, (which you may not be good at doing anyway), and
b) Filter that content for the words in each individual’s dictionary, and
c) Apply this process to enough content so people get stuff they like on their learning journey.

For example, you might like sports, while someone else might like music or educational videos. You can make the whole process enjoyable because you can then just tackle things that you’re interested in.

And you’re making this available already?

Oh, yes. We’re doing this now.

Let’s say you’ve learned some words on the Memrise app. When you go to the video section, you’ll see we’ve sorted the content by its level of overlap with words in your personal dictionary.

So, if you’ve learned 80% of the words in a particular video, you’ll see a green label on that content. But if there’s only 50% overlap, the label will be yellow. And the overlap is below 50%, you’ll see a red label suggesting that the content may be a little bit over your head.

This is how we help people navigate through a sea of content by focusing on words they know.


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Wow. So let’s get technical for a moment. How does this work?

Well, there is a human component. But that’s about finding content that is interesting, relevant, and overlaps with an individual’s word library is way faster than creating videos, ourselves.

No doubt. What about grammar? Where does that fit into three pillars?

A basic understanding of grammar can make it easier and faster to learn new words. But in most situations, people don’t speak with strict, proper grammar. So, focusing on grammatical rules isn’t particularly helpful.

We would rather give people an ear for language by helping them use common slang and truncations. For example, just think of how many ways we greet people in English:

Hi. Hey there. Hello. S’up? What’s happening? How ya doing?

These  phrases aren’t proper grammar, but people encounter them in the wild. And we prefer that people learn from actual conversations. But again, knowing the overall framework of grammar is helpful for tacking on the next verb, next noun and so on.

Interesting. So how do you define fluency? And how long does it take the average person to become fluent in a language?

Great question. And we’ve discovered that the answer is different for different people…


…For complete answers to this and more questions about how AI improves language learning, listen to the full 30-minute podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Amazon Podcasts, or right here on our site.


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.
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