Second Language, Second Nature

Linguistics grad Kate Day learns that her future is unwritten—in any language

Learning another language is one of the best ways to enhance your career prospects, sharpen your mental faculties, and otherwise enrich your life. But if you don’t have the time or money to invest in classes, tutors, or immersion experiences, making a serious commitment to it can seem nearly impossible. 

That’s why language-learning software, and online apps like Duolingo—a free program that offers instruction in 19 languages—have exploded in popularity in the past few years. Their potential to revolutionize language learning is extraordinary—but that potential is still largely hypothetical, in part because online learning just isn’t yet as effective as traditional methods.

Kate Day, a 2016 honours graduate from Saint Mary’s Linguistics program (the only one in Atlantic Canada) is focusing the next phase of her academic career on how these programs can work better for more people, providing better feedback to learners, focusing more on spoken rather than written language, and ultimately making good on their potential.

I was really blessed that my program is small, and the support I’ve received from my professors has been amazing. Dr. Asp and Dr. Plews are just intelligent, wonderful people, and really helped me to explore where I was the most curious.

“[Learning apps] teach you how to read, essentially,” says Day. “They’re trying to eliminate the teacher, and the result is a more passive type of  learning. In terms of feedback on your accent, your diction, and on your ability to think critically about the grammar, they’re lacking.”
In September 2016, Day headed to Carleton University, working toward a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies, on a Master’s Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The scholarship was awarded for her proposal to analyze how “corrective feedback” can be incorporated in language-learning apps.

“In a classroom,” says Day, “if you make a mistake, a good teacher will force you to think through to the correct answer, rather than simply give it to you. You have to have the correct response elicited, over and over, to drum it in.”

Working with the constraints of today’s limited artificial intelligence (AI), language apps have a hard time competing with that kind of one-on-one attention. That may be one reason why as of 2015, Duolingo had 70 million registered users, but only 15 million using it on a regular basis. 

“It would be amazing to work in artificial intelligence on these issues, or for a company like Duolingo,” says Day. “Or even curriculum planning in schools. I’m from New Brunswick, and though it’s the only officially bilingual province, there’s a lot of work to be done on language education in classrooms.”

But Day is holding off on making any firm career commitments yet, preferring to see where her studies take her next. At Saint Mary’s, Day was able to explore her strengths and weaknesses, and find her focus. “I was really blessed that my program is small, and the support I’ve received from my professors has been amazing. Dr. Asp and Dr. Plews are just intelligent, wonderful people, and really helped me to explore where I was the most curious.”

With two years of post-grad studies coming up, those curiosities and ambitions could change again, especially in a fast-changing field. After the next two years, she wonders, “who knows?”