Babbel’s Didactics team knows that language-learning is more than drilling vocab and grammar. It’s a swirl of elements, in which motivating factors do battle with challenges and discouragement — many of them having very little to do lessons or exercises. To better understand it all, and better tailor Babbel’s methodology to the details of the learning journey, the folks in Didactics have turned their colleagues into study subjects, putting them through 90-day language challenges. With one in the books, and another underway, we sat three participants down with Ben and Nicki -the challenge architects, who were participants, themselves- to discuss what they learned.
The defining feature of this challenge was that you weren’t able to pick the language you learned. Did that affect how you tackled it?
Veronika: Well, I dropped learning it in a week! I got Greenlandic and even though I was determined to find materials and start learning, I couldn’t find anything online or offline. I don’t know, maybe I’m banned on Google? Another thing was that I wanted to get an Asian language – I was very much interested in Japanese and Korean, but didn’t draw them. Two things combined, a short talk with Nicki – et voila! – I switched to learning Korean.
Nina: I should have done what Veronika did. I was fine with not choosing the language myself – actually that helped me, since I already have so many “want-to-learn-languages” on my bucket list. However, the language I drew, Belarusian, is used by so few people that I will never really have the chance to speak it. So I think for me it was more the lack of purpose.
Ben: I also had several languages I was hoping to get – I was hoping for an African or an Asian language, so when I picked out Tongan, my motivation to do the challenge evaporated. I tried reading a bit around the language, and read up on a few unusual features, which sparked my interest in it, but when I started reading about Tonga and the culture and traditions, I found myself becoming motivated to learn Tongan. So for me, being a language nerd and looking at what makes this language unusual and then learning about the culture helped me tackle the challenge.
Nicki: Yes, I think there was a certain thrill to it and made me enjoy the whole process more. I really wanted a challenge and was keen to see how I would get on learning a tricky language and maybe even one I wasn’t super keen to learn. I thought it would be a good opportunity for getting to know myself better, to see how I cope with frustration and overcoming obstacles. Actually, I got lucky with Hebrew as it was one of the 7 languages in the pot I really was interested in.
David: When I saw the Scottish flag on the piece of paper I picked, I realized that I knew… nothing! The first thing I tried to do was to exchange languages with someone else, but at the end I decided not to be weak in the face of a good challenge. Since I drew Scottish Gaelic, the second thing I did was to look for the number of Gaelic speakers. That wasn’t very motivating either. I tried to understand the pronunciation, I wanted to have a look at some texts in that language, I wanted to listen to people speaking it… and none of that was motivating, either.
What obstacles stood out? Did you come up with any useful strategies for learning?
Veronika: I didn’t really know where to start! It was a bit confusing, trying to find an approach for a language for which you haven’t even seen the alphabet. But there is an alphabet in Korean and it saved me – little by little, YouTube lesson by lesson, I gained some knowledge on the writing and learned some easy words along the way. I went on social media and saw lots and lots of accounts for self-organising that helped me to get a routine – every evening I tried to do 2-3 more 7 minutes lessons. I had a notebook where I wrote everything and even accessorised it so that I’d also like how pretty it looked.
Nina: None, really. I had some time to spend going by metro for an hour every day. I did find learning material, although a lot of it required me to learn the Cyrillic alphabet first. Which was a challenge since the Belarusian alphabet is similar to, but not the same as the Russian alphabet. But after a while I found apps and websites that were good enough to start with. I don’t know if I can call it a strategy, but in the end I picked some 2-3 websites / apps and moved forward with them, sometimes surfing for additional material to keep me curious like Wikipedia inn Belarusian, the latest news on Belarus and the like.
Ben: Tongan isn’t exactly a widely-studied language, so resources available were somewhat limited. However, I did end up using a PDF of a book used to teach Tongan to students, and found some pretty obscure vocab lists. So from these, I cobbled together a good old-fashioned set of flashcards. When I learn, I like to start by binge-learning as much vocabulary as possible, so I did this for Tongan too. However, in a language with only 17 letters in the alphabet (including “ng” and the glottal stop represented with an apostrophe), words quickly started sounding the same. So then I learned some grammar, and made ridiculous sentences to help remember words. For the grammar, I ended up finding a bank of pop songs translated into Tongan. Slightly random, but I was then able to deduce grammatical structures. For example, Prince’s Purple Rain in Tongan taught me about sentence structure with the modal verb “to want” as well as how to negate a verb.
Nicki: The first obstacle was the alphabet. Without being able to read it, you cannot really use a dictionary or even use Google Translate. So, I gave myself a week to learn it. I was quite strict about it. I tackled it in a very special way: I bought lots of paper and calligraphy pens and just kept writing it over and over and over again until it really stuck. It was a wonderful experience, very relaxing and almost a bit like meditation. A bit of colour-coding and – BOOM! Done in a week. Also, now I have a lot of beautiful posters of the Hebrew alphabet on my walls, hahahaha. And I feel a very special connection to the letters as they have transformed from seemingly random squares and squiggles to symbols that carry meaning.
Another obstacle was that I have not learnt a non-European language before and have no knowledge of semitic languages whatsoever. So I could not draw on previous knowledge of vocabulary or grammatical structures. How did I overcome it? Gritting my teeth and pressing on, regardless.
David: The pronunciation is really difficult. I am one of those who keep saying all the time that Danish is an impossible language to learn because of its pronunciation… but go try Scottish Gaelic. The first time I compared a normal conversation with the script, I just thought: why God, why this language! Then I started looking for lessons and courses on the internet. I used Memrise to learn some words and I kept reviewing them on a regular basis. That helped me to link written words with pronunciation. Every time I saw a sentence in Gaelic, I wanted to know how it should be pronounced. That definitely helps, so now I can say I’m ready to learn Danish.
Were there any unique features to the language you learned? Did you get a unique window onto the culture of the language?
Veronika: Indeed I did! The whole aspect of there being different ways of addressing different people – mentors, peers, bosses – is a bit similar to Russian, but there is much more to it. It was actually very interesting to see how the language mirrors the culture.
Nina: Yes, the alphabet (again: similar to Russian, but not the same) and the fact that the language is only spoken in secret in Belarus since the main language there is Russian and the government assumes that only the opposition speaks Belarusian. So that part was definitely something new for me and quite interesting.
Ben: Such a small alphabet. So many personal pronouns (including dual of each of the plural pronouns). A number system in which “235” is literally just “two three five”. And, of course, syntax and a verb system unlike any language I’ve ever studied. Any language geeks out there should definitely learn a Polynesian language! As for the culture, I learned a great deal about life in Tonga through Facebook – though if you Google Tonga, about 50% of the results are just pictures of the flag bearer for Tonga at the 2016 Olympics.
Nicki: Well, once my Israeli colleagues at Babbel came forward to offer their help and share their stories, I got quite a unique window and warm-hearted welcome into the culture. So much so that I actually decided to go on holiday to Israel to experience the culture, history, and language firsthand and practice my new Hebrew skills. What an amazing experience… and it made all the tricky language bits like the root consonant system, all the masculine and feminine forms for more or less everything, even verb endings, so much more bearable.
David: The language is fascinating. The verb comes first in the sentence, there are normal and emphatic personal pronouns, there is lenition in the language, which means that sounds are pronounced softer or change in certain cases. I wish there were more speakers to practice the language with. I was also surprised by how many people speak Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. Apparently only 1.1% of the population speaks it. I probably won’t have problems speaking English if I go there in the future.
Did you feel the urge to reach out to native speakers during or after the challenge? Have you used the language since the challenge?
Veronika: I sadly haven’t used the language since the challenge in any way other than watching k-dramas, hahaha. Now and then I hear words I know, so I’m pretty sure I don’t need subtitles anymore.
Nina: I was about to a couple of times, but I just didn’t even get past the first few sentences of saying hello or goodbye. So, honestly, at this stage practising with a native speaker is of no real use. I would’ve ended up in English or German anyway. And no, never used it again. Still thinking of switching to Russian at times. And I did open the Babbel App a couple of times to learn a few Russian words, ha.
Ben: I tried. In Berlin? No luck. On Facebook? I was a creepy stranger from Berlin writing to people saying “please be my friend and practise Tongan with me” to any people I found with their location set to Tonga. I hope to one day meet a native speaker and see if any of the things I learned are actually real or not, especially as a lot of the time, Tongan does sound like I am just making up words. However, for the time being, it’s an excellent ice breaker to be able to say “dinosaur” (uliekauau’a) in Tongan at parties and networking events…
Nicki: Absolutely. It made all the difference talking to native speakers. It is much nicer for me to learn with other people and it was great that I could practice my skills and also learn the “real” Hebrew like it is spoken on the streets. Of course I want to sound like a local, not a schoolbook.
I went to Israel after the challenge, so I kept using the language, made new friends there and as a consequence am still using it now, sending texts in Hebrew, listening to voice messages of my new friends and such. It is such good practice! The trip has given my motivation an extra boost and I really fell for the language so I am sticking with it. I also just set up a German-Hebrew tandem with one of my colleagues to keep practising my speaking skills.
David: I think it’s very important to find people who can speak it on an advanced or native level. This is the only way you can practice it for real. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone, that’s why I’m not sure if I’m correctly pronouncing what I’m saying in Scottish Gaelic. At least I can say about the day that… tha i brèagha! (it’s lovely).
What did you find most rewarding during or after the challenge?
Nicki: I really liked the language coffee breaks. People came together and talked about how they tried to tackle the challenge, talked about problems, the creative solutions they came up with and shared insights about features specific to their language like specific grammar phenomena, pronunciation, idioms, etc. – and I always love a good language fun fact!
Ben: I think it was the atmosphere of people talking about all the different languages they were studying, walking around and hearing references to Wolof, Maori and Vietnamese in the corridors of the office. It was fantastic to see people talking about language learning, and still now afterwards talking to people more about language learning as a result of having taken part in the challenge is something brilliant.
Nina: I agree with that. I really liked the exchange between people about how they did and also your little challenges, Ben. For me in particular, because I know most Babbelonians only through the training classes I put on. And it was great to make my brain work on something different than daily work.
Veronika: Being able to read the ingredients of things I buy in local Asian supermarkets – not all, of course – but it’s an amazing feeling when I can read something and don’t necessarily have to elaborate! Reading Korean is now my party trick.
David: I liked meeting people all the time to talk about languages, the summer challenge itself, in coffee breaks or in the kitchen while taking lunch. Communication is the basis or human interaction, and we did it no matter how many codes we had available. We were teaching or showing each other these little pieces of language we were learning, and sharing is also a really good thing.
So, the next iteration of this challenge is underway. Nina, Veronika and David — were there aspects of your experience with the first round that you’d want to see reflected in a second go at it? Nicki and Ben — how has the first version influenced what you’re doing with the second?
Nicki: So, we did a survey of all the participants to get feedback about what worked and what didn’t, what people liked and what they hated; we wanted to know where problems were and what they would have changed about the experience. We took their feedback into account and decided on a few changes: So, this next round people will be able to choose their language and we hope that will help with motivation. Also the pool of languages is a lot smaller, so that the participants can form groups to learn together, practise speaking and help each other- something that a lot of people thought would have improved their learning.
Ben: So as Nicki said, the second round has been optimised, and the smaller pool of languages will actually be all 14 of the Babbel languages. We are also hoping to create a nice community with native speakers of each language working at Babbel helping out with those learning the language. This time, we’re keen to create an even stronger community than we had previously, since the feedback we got was that people liked this and it’s something that plays a major role in motivation.
Nina: Sounds like all is reflected already. Maybe in addition to that: I would love to learn more about how to speak proper dialects in foreign languages (or rather: how to get rid of that German accent in the first place..). So it would definitely involve speaking a lot with natives and practicing pronunciation rather than grammar or vocab.
Veronika: I would love for everyone to push themselves further! Random language is fun, but how about “Impossible Language Challenge” where we learn languages that are the opposite of our native languages? That’d be twice as fun!
David: Definitely, I would like to apply methods I used in the past to learn the language I randomly picked, but this time with the motivation I have to learn the language I selected. It is going to be really interesting to look at the whole experience once we finish the next challenge.