Magazine article Computers in Libraries

When Books Are Your Friends

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

When Books Are Your Friends

Article excerpt

Recently, I resumed studying two languages I'd studied when I was younger. I never quite reached fluency in either and have long regretted that. So now I'm taking classes for one language at a local study center, and I'm sitting in on a weekly language table for the other language where I work. I'm lucky to be working in a big library in a big city where these opportunities are readily available. But apparently, thanks to the net, opportunities for learning languages online abound these days.

This is new compared to when I was a fulltime student. There were email lists and bulletin boards for language learners in the 1980s and early 1990s, but they were nothing like what you can do today. Whole sites now exist just to help people learn new languages. Conversation sites help native speakers of one language who are learning another connect with their opposites--native speakers of the other language wanting to learn their own. These sites enable real-time chat and even video conversations between the users. Free flash card utilities for vocabulary and grammar drilling are so abundant I still haven't been able to pick a favorite. Learning-focused sites such as Smart.fm take this one step further and surround the old-school flash card practice mode with smooth interfaces, interactions with other users, and listening practice. Many sites connect learners directly with tutors online, many times across international borders. It's a language learner's paradise.

The site that really got me thinking is Lang-8.com. For any language learner, one of the hardest things to do is to learn to write in the new language. For some languages, learning to express yourself through the written word is nearly identical to speaking and listening. But in my experience, there's a lot to learn about writing in a new language, and you'll really need a fluent writer reviewing your writing regularly or you'll never get the hang of it. Lang-8.com focuses on exactly this role: It's a social network for language learners, with a focus on improving writing skills. You sign in and specify your native language; your target learning language is part of your profile. Then, you do what you would do on any other social network: You write down whatever might be on your mind, and other people comment on it. But the trick on Lang8.com is that you write in your target language; the people who comment on your writing are native speakers of that language, and their comments are precise corrections of your post.

The first time I tried this, my mind just about exploded. I wrote something simple in my target language, such as "Hi everybody. I'm new here. I used to study this language, and now I'm trying to learn again." Within 20 minutes, three different people had corrected my post. I know enough about what I'm studying to tell that these were native speakers and that the suggestions they made were dead on. I couldn't believe it! By the time I'd checked in again the next day, six different people had offered up corrections; they didn't miss anything in my brief post. As with any other social network, I've "friended" some of these people. But the real currency on Lang -8.com is the corrections. So when I don't have time to write my own journal entry, I spend a few minutes correcting English learners' recent posts. It doesn't take long, and the gratitude you receive for the assistance you give far outweighs the work required. The two-way interaction on Lang-8.com reinforces the learning process and focuses the social activity on helping us learn each other's languages.

That Makes Me Think Of ...

Currently, learning languages is one of my hobbies, and Lang-8.com provides a social fabric for a distributed community of fellow hobbyists to work together to help themselves. At my day job, I work on--oversimplifying a bit--moving big piles of data around, lining them up for safe storage and stable deployment to users, and keeping some sort of record of all of this. …

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