Language Learning Hacks: Becoming a Babel Fish

Two girls overlooking the hillside in Kamakura, Japan.
Two girls overlooking the hillside in Kamakura, Japan.
Imagine being able to communicate with anyone, regardless of tongue, or anything, regardless of species. In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a small creature called the Babel fish performs instant translations, eliminating language barriers. Despite technology’s rapid evolution since the book’s publication in the 1980s, quick and accurate translations remain a figment of science fiction. Sure, Google Translate is an invaluable tool, but as judged by Jimmy Fallon’s series of hilariously warped translations, “Google Translate Songs,” the program is far from perfect. This leaves only two ways to fulfill your communication dreams- deep sea diving to discover Hitchhiker's mythical translation fish, or a commitment to studying the language of your choice. The benefits of multilingualism are extensive, from employment opportunities to new friendships. Despite this, knowing where to begin, finding resources, and staying motivated is tough. I’ve dedicated this summer to studying Japanese to get more in touch with my culture, and for future career goals. With daily possibilities for awkward language-barrier-induced encounters, I’ve had every reason to study as much as possible. Over the course of my first month in Tokyo, I’ve tried out many language-learning resources. Below are several programs available for language learning, and my experiences with them. The first of these resources is Memrise, available on mobile and desktop. The program emphasizes the importance of mnemonics for efficient learning and long-term retention. It also uses spaced repetition, reminding you when to review vocabulary at optimized times through email or phone notifications. I’m a self-proclaimed Memrise addict, having accumulated over one million points since I joined the website three years ago. It makes learning that fun. Plus, it’s free! One of the best parts about Memrise is that it offers the vocabulary for many commonly used language textbooks. This is great if you’re taking a language class at U of T, giving you access to the ways students at other institutions remember tricky vocabulary and grammar.  
Rachel Maddow sitting at news desk, with the caption "Imagine looking out your window and seeing Rachel Maddow (まど) staring at you!"
My mnemonic for remembering the Japanese word “mado” for window. Since making this image, I've never forgotten!
While Memrise is specifically designed for language learning, with courses available in over 200 languages, it can also be used for other endeavours, such as memorizing the faces of your favourite K-pop group! Next is Duolingo, one of the most popular language-learning platforms. You’ve likely heard of the app before, or like many users, tried it out briefly and obsessively before deleting it a week later. Available for desktop and mobile, Duolingo offers a broad range of languages, grammar lessons, and vocabulary. The platform is helpful for testing your grammatical prowess through sample sentences, meanwhile, Memrise is a better choice for efficiently learning large quantities of vocabulary. Every student’s favourite digital flashcard program, Quizlet, also offers an effective way to enhance your language-learning digitally. The quantity of user-created material is much greater than Memrise, as the platform makes it much easier for individuals to create their own study materials. Unfortunately, the lack of a spaced repetition notification system for non-paying members dampens the learning experience. Plus, the ease which with users can create their own learning materials makes finding mistakes in your study materials all too common compared to Memrise. Last but not least is Anki, a program that many hardcore language learners and polyglots swear by. It is available on desktop for free, and on mobile for a hefty price tag of $18.99. Anki lacks the bells and whistles of the aforementioned programs, with no added learning incentives such as streaks or points, and an archaic-looking interface. However, the program has many benefits, including the ability to add detailed multimedia notes to flashcards and a built-in spaced repetition algorithm. Many users take photos of signs or common images they don’t understand, translate them, and add them to their study deck. This makes it a great choice for students studying abroad. I hope you this helped you learn more about the digital world of language learning. Perhaps there are only a few years left until someone invents a real-life Babel-fish that doesn't produce errors worthy of late-night comedy shows. But for now, the best way to transcend language barriers is by optimizing your language-learning habits.

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