Nerdy guys in lab coats.
White mice in cages.
Colored liquids in test tubes and beakers.
But you’ll never find any of these inside a language laboratory. No microscopes, no Bunsen burners and no graduated cylinders. They’re not exactly cooking up a new, strange language in there, like a multilingual Dr. Frankenstein working on some linguistic monster.
So what then is a language lab, and what sort of ungodly experiments take place inside? Read on and find out.
What Is a Laboratory for Language?
Okay, let go of that idea of scientists working with test tubes and beakers for a minute.
A language laboratory is a facility—usually a room in a university—where students use technology to learn a new language. It’s said that the language lab was made possible by Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, which allowed the recording and reproduction of sounds. The University of Grenoble’s language learning facility, established in 1908, is considered one of the very first.
The language lab has always reflected the technology and the thinking of its time. So, in the 1960’s, when analog cassette tapes were all the rage, students donned bulky headsets and countlessly replayed recordings of native speakers pronouncing words, phrases, sentences and even entire dialogues.
This Audio-lingual Method was the preferred wisdom at that time. It postulated that language can be learned in specific discrete units and, in order to master a language, one has to do countless, repetitive oral drills. And so the language lab became a hub for those familiar “Listen and Repeat” schemes. If you didn’t know any better, stepping into one would feel like entering a cubicle farm or a dated call center floor.
The conventional language lab’s heyday lasted from the 1960s up until the early 1970s, with 5000 labs in existence just in the United States alone.
But when the Audio-lingual Method began to fall out of favor in the late 70s, as Chomsky and others began questioning its underlying principles, the perceived importance of language labs also took a hit.
The Language Lab Renaissance would come in the 1980s. With the increasing popularity of the computer, new possibilities were made available to language students. The computer was more versatile as a language learning tool and soon, video and software added more layers of learning experience.
The development of the World Wide Web really skyrocketed things and the explosion of apps, interactive programs and digitalized material meant that information was not only democratized, it was practically made limitless.
The language lab has truly come a long way from the cassette tapes of old.
The Language Labs of Today
Let me ask you a question.
What gadget are you using to read this post?
Is it a tablet? A mobile phone? A computer?
Don’t look now, because what you’re holding or what you carry around in your pocket is a veritable language laboratory. In fact, it’s just as powerful, if not more powerful, than what universities had in their air conditioned facilities a decade ago.
So if you think your phone is only good for posting pictures to Instagram or telling people what you had for lunch, then you’re really not tapping into some tremendous potential right in front of you.
Today’s tablets and smartphones are slowly blurring our definition of a language lab as just one room in a university or school. Instead of walking into a language laboratory, students are taking the whole lab with them wherever they go. This virtual version of the language lab room has not only increased in power, with capabilities not even dreamed a generation ago, it has decreased in size so much that you can even tuck it under your pillow.
Not to mention, this language lab room has become even more social, because students are having real-time chats and discussions in the virtual world, as opposed to sitting isolated with a giant headset on.
So what does it mean to “build” your own language lab?
It means downloading the right apps to help you create a space for learning. Although our original definition of a language lab as a “room” has changed, the part where it says that you should use technology to learn a new language has not.
The 5 Best Online Language Labs for an Explosive Learning Experience
Let’s start with the 2013 winner of Microsoft’s “Innovate 4 Society Award,” Babbel.
The app will take you through a whirlwind of interactive courses that can teach you grammar and vocabulary through interactive games, tongue twisters, dialogues, songs and sayings. Individual lessons can be completed in 15 minutes. It’s an app that helps build basic conversational skills with its pronunciation section, where you get to record your voice and compare it with that of a native speaker. There are also listening exercises where a dialogue is set up and you supply the missing words.
Babbel is perfect for beginners who wanted to dive into their target language, as well as intermediate learners who need scaffolding and support for past learning.
FluentU is simply quite peerless when it comes to providing authentic language learning videos.
Housing the web’s largest collection of language learning video clips, FluentU’s app is a vital resource that reverses the whole immersion process. Instead of you going to the country where they speak the language, the app brings the language to you. You can literally stay in your room, in your favorite pajamas and learn from two French native speakers as if you’re sitting at a café in Paris.
Authentic video clips like interviews, newscasts and concerts come with interactive transcripts that allow an in-depth study of the specific concept or topic you’re interested in, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
Memrise is all about learning through play.
Up for gaining more stars, badges and points? This “gameified” language learning app will get you hooked as you try to get your name on the leaderboard. The more you use the app, the more points you get.
A vocabulary lesson, for example, would give you a variety of tasks and tests that will ultimately embed the words into your long-term memory. It would feel like you’re simply enjoying a series of game tasks, but lo and behold, you’re already learning Russian.
Forty-four (44) words per hour—that’s the Memrise call-to-arms. Its designer, Ed Cooke, is himself a memory and learning dynamo. He has gathered in one place all the best scientific research and memory-enhancing techniques that makes learning a new language as intuitive and fun as possible.
What you have with Memrise are rich, engaging media resources (audio, video, animations) and multiple game modes (Visual Learning, Review & Strengthen, Rapid Recall) that target different linguistic skills. All these are geared to not only boost learning, but more importantly, to ensure that you never forget what has been learned.
Duolingo green owl watches over 70 million learners (Bill Gates included) who have used their online portal and app to learn a new language.
So, how does Duolingo teach you new words? Well, you’ll be drilled, over and over until your phone’s battery runs out. For example, let’s say they want to teach you the word, el niño (the boy). You’ll probably be given multiple choice at first, so all you do is pick the correct answer.
Then they’ll switch it up and ask you to choose the correct English translation for the Spanish word. Then they’ll give you fill-in-the-blanks tasks. Next, you’ll probably hear the phrase being spoken, and you’ll have to type the words into a box. All this time, a cute picture of a boy will be accompanying the phrase so you’ve got something to go by.
But this is no cookie-cutter tool. Not everybody gets the same series of tasks because it will all depend on how you perform. Duolingo’s algorithm rates your progress and determines how to serve you best.
This app is perfect for the absolute beginner who’s intent on learning a language on the go, or while waiting for his latte at Starbucks.
You may very well ask, “How does Skype have anything to do with learning a new language?”
Quite a lot actually. And if you’re going to be building a well-rounded language lab, Skype should be on your list.
Think about it. Skype gives you the opportunity to talk to anyone in the world. This means you can cut through the geographical distance and get connected to specific people who can do a lot of good for your language learning cause.
Do the terms “native speakers” and “language exchange partners” ring any bells? Well, Skype is a way of getting in touch with these people.
“Language exchange partners” belong to a special group of native speakers who are also interested in learning your first language. So maybe you’re an English speaker trying to learn Japanese. You should strive to find a native Japanese speaker who’s interested in learning English, so you can trade the language skills you have for the ones he or she has. This way, teaching and learning goes both ways. You teach each other your languages and may become lifelong friends in the process.
Impossible? I think not.
Here’s a post that teaches you how to find these wonderful people and how to get the most out of your Skype.
As we end this post, let me remind you of what you have in your hands—it’s not just a phone, it’s not just a tablet.
It’s a veritable language lab that learners of yore could only dream of.
You have in your hands the power to learn a new language in a whole new way. I encourage you to use it.
Download the five apps presented here, take them for a spin and then invest time in them. Soon enough, you’ll be amazed at what technology can do for you.
You’ll never look at your smartphone the same way again.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.