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Technically Dependent

I had the pleasure of meeting up with a buddy of mine, and 2x the more diligent student, Joe (you can catch him on Twitter). The issue of technology in language study came up, especially in relation to Pleco, the Chinese dictionary available on most smart devices. Now this isn’t say Pleco is inherently bad–it’s a fantastic dictionary which looks like it’ll only get more amazing once the new version (finally) gets released. What is more of interest here is how technology, and this sense of instant access, influences studying another language.

This is probably turning into an old debate of new versus old, technology versus books, but I still think it is an important aspect of our language learning that we need to at least concern ourselves with.

Basically, it came down to this: Pleco, and other dictionaries like it, suffer from Google syndrome–that is, information is instantly accessible. The answer is right at our finger tips, and as Ian Malcolm famously stated:

…it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it…

Okay maybe that’s a little extreme, but what I’m getting at here is that the knowledge we obtain from these instant access dictionaries required no effort to obtain it. Handwriting recognition is great, and has saved me large amounts of effort, but I never felt I learned much more about the character than a quick pronunciation or “oh okay”. It never really stuck. Sure, no-one wants to lug around a 1,000 page dictionary around with them (unless you’re me), but there is something magical, something satisfactory with a sense of accomplishment that comes with looking up the word by radical or stroke count (not by pronunciation please!) and gaining the knowledge about it yourself.

Not to get too Old-Man-In-Viridian-City on you, but ‘back in my day’ we didn’t have these fancy dictionaries. I had to look up everything by paper dictionary. It was tiring. It was time consuming. It lead to many ripped pages from frustration. But, you know, I remember those characters the best.

I doubt anyone will run off and remove Pleco (I sure won’t), but I wonder, perhaps, if we made it a bit harder to use–restricted look ups to by radical only, avoid handwriting or pronunciation input and use it in a more “classical” way, we might avoid Google syndrome and start learning.

2 thoughts on “Technically Dependent”

  1. Very interesting post! I’ve been thinking a lot about the role technology plays in language learning today. I absolutely agree that I don’t learn the words I look up. I’d love to have an effective dictionary + flashcards app (I’m currently using the paid version of KTdict C-E on iOS, but it’s not doing it for me).
    My colleague and I (I’m a chinese teacher) are always debating the need for learning to memorise and handwrite characters. He argues that no one writes anything anymore and so we shouldn’t spend so much time getting the kids to write.
    What do you think?

    1. I like Pleco as a dictionary, but you do have to pay for Flashcard support and some of the fancier dictionaries. Anki is my preferred flashcard program, though free on the computer, for iOS you have to pay for it.

      I think writing is very important, and if you say “no one writes anything anymore” it ignores how much people do write. Think of it this way. Apply the same logic to English–“no one writes anything anymore so we don’t need to teach it”. Could the same argument be made? If kids only learned to type and never to write, how would that affect their learning and functioning in society later in life?

      As I currently live and study in Taiwan, I find writing an integral part of daily life. Taking notes in class, filling out envelopes, bank forms, forms for immigration, housing contracts, etc. If I never learned to write, I’d find myself entirely unable to do many of these tasks. In fact, I find that by typing so much it has become quite difficult for me to write.

      I feel if teaching to write is ignored now, then it will be even harder to master later. The student will be entirely forced to rely on a keyboard to do anything.

      That’s just my experience, though! What do you think about it?

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