Imagine two Babbel colleagues, freshly arrived in Berlin: Lucy is from the United States and Filip is from Poland. Both want to integrate to their new home by learning German. How is their learning experience different, and do their respective native languages play any role when learning German? Babbel language experts Elin and Anna shared their insights into how they take learners’ native languages into consideration when creating language courses.
What role does your native language play when learning a new language?
When it comes to language learning, we distinguish between the language you want to learn (your “target language” or L2) and your native language (L1). Elin, project manager for Scandinavian Languages at Babbel, put it this way: “Your first language definitely matters when you learn a new language. When we learn, we take what we know from our own language and try to transfer the knowledge to the new one.
“A lot of times that works very well, which results in what we call positive language transfer,” she continued. “Sometimes though, the conclusions we draw from our understanding of our native language’s rules don’t apply to the new one – we then have a case of negative transfer.”
For example, we have similar words, also known as cognates or “true friends” in different languages, that make learning easier. The German word “Kaffee” would be relatively easy to learn for both English native speaker Lucy (“coffee”) and Polish native speaker Filip (“kawa”). However, language transfer also applies to grammatical structures and even pragmatics. For example, Lucy can translate the sentence “A coffee with milk, please” quite logically to German by saying “Einen Kaffee mit Milch, bitte.” Here, it is more difficult for Filip, as he might say “Kaffee mit Milch, bitte” (without the article “Einen”), which is not horribly wrong in German, but might sound a bit rude.
Anna, editor for Polish at Babbel explained: “It’s often noticeable that Polish native speakers experience difficulty using articles in English, German or any other language that uses them, because this category does not exist in Polish at all. Even for advanced learners it does not feel very natural to use them. Thus, shared grammatical categories between languages can be leveraged as a great bonus in language learning.”
Localization, not translation: how Babbel leverages what you already know
Knowing that learning a new language is influenced by previous knowledge of your native language, how is that taken into consideration when creating language courses at Babbel?
Elin shared her experience with localization. “When we create a course, we do not simply translate the words and sentences that comprise the target language we want you to master,” she said. “Instead, we carefully localize the course to the native languages of our learners: a localization is adapted to the target reader’s own language and culture, while taking into account what a speaker of that language already knows, and is able to transfer to the new language. The localization process is more time consuming and requires deep knowledge of both the L1 and L2.”
“Localization is a superior approach for ensuring that learners understand the use of vocabulary or grammar in the language they are learning,” Anna added. “Adapting a course for each L1 that Babbel offers means changing the frame of reference – we have to base our explanations and examples on the reality that is familiar to the user, and take their existing linguistic habits as our starting point.”
Furthermore, Anna explained that Babbel’s language courses direct the user’s attention to similarities between their L1 and L2 which they can take advantage of, whether it be vocabulary, grammatical categories, and even pronunciation. “We customize the way we explain new things, and also use little hints in info boxes,” she told me. “Similarly, we try to point out things that are unexpectedly different in the L2 by adding explanations and exercises to help users remember what is tricky.”
This also applies when it comes to cultural differences and similarities. Elin provided a relevant example: “English speakers are not used to addressing people differently depending on if they know them or not, as you have to do in German. Therefore, they might need some extra explanation and practice with polite forms of address and the relevant pronouns. Polish speakers on the other hand are familiar with having different pronouns for informal and formal greetings and just need to learn the correct German words for these.”
In the end, you couldn’t make a case that German is easier to learn for either Lucy or Filip. In fact, it’s not about how easy it is for one or the other – it’s more to do with the fact that each will have different needs when it comes to learning German. That’s one of our challenges at Babbel – adapting our language courses to suit the needs of learners with different native languages.
Avenues for improvement
Besides localizing Babbel’s learning content, we are currently exploring additional ways to cater to different native languages. Elin mentioned an early stage initiative that could eventually adapt our courses and exercises depending on what is difficult or easy for different native speakers: “We are already looking at errors and completion time of the lessons with regard to the user’s L1. Based on this, we see what users need to train more or what we can explain even better for that specific user group. I would like to see even more of this in the future, making the product smarter and more helpful.”
In Anna’s view, it would be great if the lessons were even more tailored to users’ L1. “Especially when you get to higher levels of proficiency, the courses are really packed with grammar, which can be really difficult for Polish speakers learning English or German, so there might be a little too much information and not enough opportunity to practice there.”