Smart Phone = Smart Learner

I think it would be… difficult to argue that technology hasn’t had any impact on the domain of language learning.  Oh, sure, a hundred years ago (or whatever) you could just go to the country and talk to people the whole time to learn your language of choice to fluency.

But nowadays, that’s not so easy.  There’s crap like entry requirements for a country, which mean that practically you need to either have money to start with or you need to have the capability to earn it there.

Entry requirements are typically lowered though by knowing the language of the country you want to live in before living there.  And this is a very annoying paradox: how can you learn that language effectively before getting there?  Let’s take Japan as an arbitrary example: sure, there may well be Japanese people in America, but if you’re not actually Japanese, it’s £*”$ing impossible to get them to speak to you all day, every day (thereby creating a native learner’s environment).

This means that the relatively recent technology explosion is such a winner for language learners.  It means you can use the Internet to find material in your language of choice for free* and immerse yourself in it.  No, this kind of immersion is no substitute for actually talking to native speakers, but it does make every such encounter with a native infinitely more valuable.

So here, I’m going to take a quick look at a few options for what kind of technology we could best be using for [budget] language learning.  It’s assumed throughout that you’re using Anki as part of your study routine.

Option 1: Netbook

A few months ago, I acquired a new netbook and installed Ubuntu on it right away.  I figured it would do everything required of my immersion environment: allow me to watch videos and listen to music, use Anki, surf the Internet for interesting stuff in Chinese, use Cantodict, and so on.

And you know what?  It does the job pretty well, in general.  The main disadvantage though of a netbook is that while you can take it everywhere and use it everywhere (unlike a full-size laptop or desktop computer), it’s not necessarily easy.  I experimented with using it on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in Hong Kong: a netbook is fine for music/using Anki/surfing Chinese websites provided it’s not rush hour and you can sit down.  Otherwise, it’s relatively big and heavy and is thus hard to use if you’re standing up.  The netbook I bought cost 1800HKD, which, as noted, is fine for the things a language learner should be using.

Option 2: Smartphone

The smartphone I chose was a Samsung Galaxy Young.  It plays music; it has a built in radio; it runs AnkiDroid; Youtube works just fine; you can also surf t’Internet and input Chinese characters.

AnkiDroid is great and seems to support everything the main version of Anki does – even the endless pages of texts that sometimes fill up my cards.  (I haven’t experimented with the media options yet, because AnkiOnline’s handling of media is a little tricky to use… personally I’m happy with text-only cards.)

One disadvantage of the smartphone approach is that running multiple programs simultaneously is a little harder than using a computer – on my Ubuntu 10.10, I typically have a webpage or Anki on one half of the screen and a music video or TV show on the other half.  There just ain’t enough screenspace on a mobile phone for the two of them.  Also, although you can enter text in most all languages (I assume), it’s very fiddly compared to a proper keyboard.

A big plus, though, is the portability of a smartphone.  It’s light and small and fits in one’s pocket, meaning that it can still be used easily on rush-hour public transport.

Loading music onto it was a piece of cake, too: just put your mp3s straight on the microSD card in any folder, and they’re detected automatically by the phone’s music player.  (The mp3s came from my Ubuntu netbook.)  It even corrected all the garbled Chinese music info: big points scored there.

My Samsung was about 1300HKD, which I figure is a total bargain.

Option 3: iPad-Style Tablet

I don’t have a tablet yet, but when I have the money, I’m going to pick up one.  (Not an iPad though: they’re expensive, they have serious Linux-compatibility issues and there’s no freedom with apps, which means that you’re stuck with whatever Apple wants you to use.  This is also why I chose an Android phone over an iPhone.)

Typing on a tablet is never going to be as good or as accurate as a real, physical keyboard, but it’s a damn sight better than on a smartphone’s tiny virtual screen.

I think a tablet is probably the best of both worlds between a netbook and a smartphone.  It seems to occupy the Goldilocks zone of being neither too small nor too large (in terms of both physical size and storage capacity) whilst being capable of running every program that language learners need.

Conclusion

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with owning and using all three.  If you’re going to be out all day, then a smartphone is probably best because it’s easy to carry round.  If you want to do some serious study and need to easily copy-and-paste lots of information and edit it – or just input things manually – then a netbook is a cheap way of doing that.  If you want something in the middle that kinda does both things, a tablet’s probably the best choice.

Anything important I’ve missed out?  Disagree?  Thar be a nice, big, inviting comment box down at t’bottom fer ye ta leave yer opinions!

*I’m not going to debate the ethics of using the Internet to find free material for language learning, except by mentioning that (for example) if you’re outside of Japan, Japanese publishers would never factor you into their sales forecasts, and that practically speaking, you therefore won’t affect their profits at all, regardless of whether or not you pay for the material.

Also, it’s much, much harder to prosecute international pirates than it is local ones.  Just food for thought, y’know?

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