Learn a Language, One Moment at a Time

There’s a lot of times in an average day when you’ll find yourself waiting. Waiting for your morning brew at the cafe, or for an email to show up — it’s often just a few minutes, many times a day. It’s far too short a time to get any real work done, but it adds up at the end of the week.

Enter WaitSuite, a language learning tool developed by MIT’s CSAIL. It’s a language learning tool, which aims to teach users words in a foreign language in these “micromoments” — the short periods of time spent waiting each day. The trick to WaitSuite here is in its ultralightweight design which integrates into other tasks and software on your computer and smartphone. Rather then having to launch a separate app, which takes time and effort, WaitSuite hovers in the background, ready to go when it detects a short period of wait time. Examples given are hitting refresh in Gmail, or waiting for a connection to a WiFi network.

The team behind the project calls this concept wait-learning; you can read the paper here. If you’d like to try it out, use the Chrome extension called WaitChatter. It quizzes you while you’re waiting on a response in GChat. We’d love to see the rest of the WaitSuite released publicly soon.

It’s a tidy piece of software that’s great for those looking for an alternative to compulsively refreshing social media while loitering. It probably won’t help you learn French overnight, but it could be a useful way to pick up some extra vocab without having to carve more time out of your schedule.

We don’t see a whole lot of language learning hacks here, but you might like to check out Adafruit’s take on the Babel Fish.

20 thoughts on “Learn a Language, One Moment at a Time

  1. Sometimes the best thing in life is to do nothing, and enjoy the silence. This desire to fill every moment of our existence with…something is motivated by our realization that we have short life spans, and need to cram it all in before we go.

  2. The studies that I know of show that learning efficiency is proportional to attention. You can not expect any advancements in learning from absent minded activity. Now how focused on language studies you are expecting to be exactly when a similar pop up shows up while you are waiting for the build that should have that annoying bug fixed? My opinion: complete wank. Appealing, because we like giving ourselves excuses to account for wasted time, but completely useless.

    1. I don’t know. Small children learn the language because parents and other adults are willing to talk to them. It comes from a need to communicate to the little one, and it starts long before the kid could hope to talk back. Language is social.

      A lot of the disappearing languages are disappearing because the adults didn’t or couldn’t speak the language to their children. And then later, there’s very little chance that someone is willing to just it around and talk to you. So “learning a language” becomes something done in school, a formal thing very detached from when your parents talked to you as a baby.

      Just hearing a language seems to be an important start, don’t concentrate, just be around it. People use endless tricks just to get a language out there. So you can see Star Wars dubbed in Navaho (I think it was) or get email that wishes you Merry Christmas in Salish, tiny little steps that are needed first.

      I’ve certainly thought that hooking a text to Morse code utility into a computer would help the learning of Morse code, every key typed the character is sent as Morse in the speaker. So you just get used to associating the sound of a character with the letter it represents. That doesn’t quite work here because learning a language isn’t just bout kerning words, but the grammar too.

      Michael

      1. I do not think that you can compare learning in babies with adult learning. As an adult you do not have such huge capacity to rebuild the neurons. So with age we must adopt, invent methods that are more appropriate for the slow aging brain.

        Small chidren are actually desperate to communicate. They behave funny and get distracted easily, but if it is something they want, they are super focused on what they do. They really really really want to speak, and they get to understand much earlier than they get the ability to respond. Another thing, as a native learner, a baby has no fallback path to native language. It really has to grow that language inside first. So it’s a kind of focused by no other choice thing.

        Distracted listening to unknown foreign language as music so to speak helps you to tune up, kinda, but unless you already have a solid foundation (e.g. know how to say la semaine en français and put it in context) it’s just entertainment.

    2. It should at least be a good refresher though – I’ve learned small amounts of a few foreign languages in the past, only to forget almost everything through disuse. If I had a prompt like this a few times a day I’m sure I’d remember more.

  3. Not so much “learning”, but I have an ebook reader on my smart watch (it’s actually the main reason I have a smart watch). Not so good for “refreshing gmail”, but it fills waits about 20s or more with something enjoyable, if not useful.

    To forestall a few obvious criticisms:
    * I realize not every book is suitable for reading in half-minute snatches. The ones that aren’t, I simply don’t read on my watch — there are enough suitable ones to keep me busy during waits, and there’s time to read the more demanding ones later, when I can focus on them.
    * While it probably isn’t as good, even on the books it works for, as sitting down to read uninterrupted, this isn’t a substitute; it’s extra reading time that’s free (i.e. doesn’t come out of my 24-hour daily allotment), so it only needs to be better than fidgeting with a pen, drumming my fingers, or that sort of thing.

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