If you want to effortlessly become an expert in a new language, you’re probably too late. That’s an opportunity largely reserved for children.
And yet, adults regularly set out to study a second (or third, or fourth) language. They embark on the difficult journey for different reasons. Some want to gain better job prospects, others seek to socialize in new circles, while still others just want an educational way to entertain themselves.
Research is revealing that these reasons may influence how far someone is able to travel toward proficiency. So programs intended to make that process easier and faster are tapping into the science of motivation to improve their methods. That includes the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, which helps members of the military gain proficiency in new languages in as little time as nine months.
“Without that intrinsic personal motivation, it’s hard to reach the levels we expect and hope,” says Parandeh Kia, associate provost for educational technology at the institute. “Achievement is not comparable.”
Of course, not everyone has access to an intensive, in-person training program run by the U.S. government. But technology-enabled tools that aim to deliver language instruction at scale are also building incentives into their systems to help learners make more progress.
“We’ve really learned that the most important thing is to keep people motivated,” says Bozena Pajak, director of the learning science team at Duolingo, a language learning app developer. “We can’t teach them if they don’t come back.”
Costs and Benefits
Any physical or mental activity that doesn’t happen automatically requires some effort. What propels a person to apply that effort?
That’s the kind of question asked by researchers who study motivation. Like Amitai Shenhav, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, & Psychological Sciences at Brown University. His research lab examines what makes a task mentally demanding and how and why people overcome that difficulty.
Determining whether to invest cognitive resources in a task—or, put more simply, “push some gears in your brain”—is akin to running a cost-benefit analysis, Shenhav explains. What does the effort cost, and is the payoff worth it?
For a difficult task like learning a language, decreasing the costs—say, by making the learning easier—may change how motivated a person is to do it. For example, research suggests that learning “chunks” of words in a new language that you can combine to form a sentence is easier than having to build each sentence from scratch.
“The more automatic you make something, the less it requires those same incentives to do it,” Shenhav says. “The experience itself shouldn’t be so demanding that you’re having to think about, ‘what’s the point of doing this?’”
Another way to change motivation is to increase the benefits by making the learning process more rewarding. Shenhav points to video games that, despite being difficult, help players to achieve “greater-than-expected outcomes” because they contain “rewards that happen frequently and are surprising.”
“The incentive structure just keeps you motivated,” Shenhav says.
This kind of cost-benefit analysis might help explain why language learning is harder for adults than for children, in addition to age-related differences that affect brain plasticity and the amount of time available to devote to developing new skills, says Joshua Hartshorne, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College and director of the Language Learning Laboratory.
“If you’re a three-year-old immigrant and your parents put you in daycare, and if you want to have friends, you are going to need to learn the language,” Hartshorne says. In contrast, as an adult immigrant, “you have the choice to just hang out with other expats.”
For a typical adult, then, the high cognitive costs of learning a language require a lot of willpower.
“You’re more likely to succeed in running a marathon than learning a language really well,” Hartshorne says. “You want to be realistic about how motivated you are.”
Motivation, Military Style
With famous golf courses, beautiful beaches and a renowned aquarium, the Monterey Peninsula in California’s Central Coast boasts unparalleled experiences. And that’s what instructors strive to offer their service-member students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, which looks out over Monterey Bay.
We’re trying to do this unnatural thing in this unnaturally compressed time.
Students come to the institute, located on an army installation, to learn one of 16 languages that the military prioritizes for its purposes. In cohorts of six to eight people, they spend seven hours a day in class learning from native speakers how to read, listen and speak, interpret news reports from other nations and understand the practices of foreign cultures.
Their mission: become proficient enough in a second tongue to start careers as military linguists. Depending on whether they’re studying Spanish, or Tagalog, or Mandarin, they’ve only got nine, 12, or 16 months to accomplish it.
“When we’re talking about second language instruction, we’re talking about something that is unnatural,” says Johnathan Gajdos, dean of the center’s Persian Farsi School. “We’re trying to do this unnatural thing in this unnaturally compressed time.”
The best way for adults to acquire a new language is to immerse themselves in it, Hartshorne says. That’s the opportunity the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center offers to the 2,500 students it has at any given time, through extensive classroom instruction and opportunities to study abroad in other countries.
But the institute also works to make that immersion increasingly effective and efficient. New students participate in an orientation that aims to teach them how to become “autonomous learners” ready for an intensive academic program, says provost Robert Savukinas. Course reviews are collected not just at the end of each session, but also in the middle, to catch and correct any potential problems before too much time has elapsed. Faculty are specially trained, and some publish research about their efforts in the institute’s two academic journals: Dialog on Language Instruction and Applied Language Learning.
The school continually refines its own teaching resources, using what language researchers refer to as “authentic materials,” such as YouTube videos, to ensure real-world relevance, and also digital tools such as the Global Language Online Support System, a bank of lessons also available to the public.
“We have to build our own curriculum,” says Col. Gary Hausman, who runs the institute. “We can’t just use a college textbook, we go through it so fast.”
Practices intended to incentivize students to learn—to decrease the costs and increase the benefits of their mental efforts—are built into the program. Students are paid to be there, and if they successfully complete their training (testing with more fluency than a typical university graduate who has studied foreign language for four years, according to the institute), they receive bonus pay. Set schedules and military-style order mean students don’t have to rely on their willpower alone. And as an accredited community college, the institute offers many students the opportunity to earn an associate degree for their studies.
Tapping into students’ internal sources of motivation is a priority, too. That starts with giving them a chance to indicate which languages they’d most like to learn, when possible. Small class sizes mean instructors can give individuals assignments on topics relevant to their personal interests. Through school-wide language performances and competitions, the institute tries to create a sense of belonging for its students.
Those who arrive with a love for learning about other people and different cultures are easy to teach, says Sgt. 1st Class Rebecca Babcock, chief military language instructor for the undergraduate Persian Farsi program who also leads the military studies curriculum revision program.
“For those that maybe didn’t have the same level of motivation, it requires us to be a bit more creative,” she adds. “That’s something we work hard at doing.”
Most adults who want to learn a language don’t have the resources of the world’s richest military at their disposal. Instead, many turn to technology companies that aim to offer high-quality instruction to the masses.
User motivation is key to how these digital tools are built and marketed. Some appeal to people hoping to learn a new language for better employment opportunities and economic mobility. Others offer educational entertainment that feels fun but also more productive than spending time on Instagram.
You can’t make the first part of learning a new skill easy.
Voxy is an example of the former. A startup with offices in New York and São Paulo, Brazil, the company has raised millions of dollars for its adaptive software designed to teach English to people who want to learn it for work. Its direct clients are companies, mostly based outside of the U.S., that offer the product to their employees. Other clients have included Queens Public Library in New York and Chobani, which famously employs refugees at its U.S. factories.
Although Voxy offers support for learners in 14 specific languages, the platform is designed to teach English to people no matter their first language, says Katie Nielson, chief education officer. It starts with videos that immerse users in English using simple phrases, like name introductions.
“You can’t make the first part of learning a new skill easy,” says Nielson, who has a doctorate in second language acquisition. “It’s always hard and you’re always bad at it.”
But Voxy does try to make the learning feel more rewarding. Like the Defense Language Institute, Voxy’s method draws on authentic materials like news stories, training manuals and videos that are relevant to users’ careers in fields like aircraft maintenance or nursing. To embed quizzes in these resources efficiently, the company uses natural language processing algorithms.
The Voxy platform also tailors reading prompts to an individual’s interests. But it relies on technology, not human teachers, to personalize which pieces students see.
“Language is a tool we use primarily to convey information. When you learn a language, you’re always learning something else with it,” Nielson says. “Giving people access to content that is interesting to them, that is at their level, is the secret to getting people to do language learning.”
Voxy recently earned a research-based design product certification from the education technology nonprofit Digital Promise. The company reports that 4 million people have used its system, and that 90 percent of learners improve their proficiency between tests after three months.
According to Nielson, results tend to be best when companies pay for their workers to supplement software-based learning with participation in weekly live, remote, small-group classes with Voxy instructors.
"That's the Cadillac version," she says.
Dueling for Attention
Work is not the primary reason people use Duolingo. The company, an edtech “unicorn” with a $1.5 billion valuation, says the bite-size lessons that its app offers in 36 languages compete largely with social media platforms and mobile games for people’s time and attention.
People come to the app for a variety of reasons. According to a recent survey of more than 15 million users, 22 percent of respondents in the U.S. say they use Duolingo for school. (This may have something to do with the fact that half of the app’s users are under age 30.) The next most-popular purpose was for “brain training,” the disputed idea that certain activities convey cognitive benefits for staying mentally sharp. Travel, work, and family each notched about 11 percent of the votes.
Duolingo supplements these personal motivations by building gamification techniques into its lessons. It rewards users based on how long they keep up their “streaks” of daily use, recognizes top achievers in leaderboards, and gives out “gems” that users can spend in the Duolingo shop to buy digital costumes for its owl mascot.
The company is constantly running A/B tests and experiments to try to keep people coming back to the app, says Pajak, the company’s director of learning science, who has a doctorate in linguistics. With such a heterogenous user pool, making changes that appeal to some users without alienating others can be tricky. For example, the company got positive results when it tested a feature permitting, but not requiring, users to explore more levels of instruction within a lesson unit before moving on to the next one.
“This allowed us to give to learners this extra depth, the harder experience, through leveling up, while also allowing learners who were not ready for it to do more content further down the course,” Pajak says.
With its colorful graphics and gamified rewards, Duolingo is fun to use. As a free tool, it’s widely available and widely tried. But no matter how driven people are to return to the product, one question remains: Does its language training work?
“It’s definitely more straightforward to measure user engagement, because the metrics are easy,” Pajak says.
Yet Duolingo is collecting evidence to prove and improve its effectiveness, too. Last month, the company published results of a study showing that 225 people who used the app to study Spanish and French reached the same level of listening and reading proficiency in half the time as people studying those languages through university programs.
(Study participants were chosen randomly from among a pool of users who met certain criteria, including having little prior knowledge of Spanish or French and not taking additional language courses. The study was run by Duolingo scientists and a professor at Northern Arizona University.)
Still, Duolingo is designed to offer people choices. Depending on what users are looking for, they can aim to finish a whole course, or just brush up on a few lessons.
It all comes back to … motivation.
“The way we look at it,” Pajak says, “our learners can get what they want out of Duolingo.”