This App Can Teach You a Foreign Language in “Micromoments”

Flickr / Moyan_Brenn

Every day, we all waste a multitude of tiny, unavoidable moments waiting for some small feature of the digital world to load. But on Monday researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) released a new browser plugin called WaitChatter, which takes advantage of the daily waiting to learn new languages in their literal spare time.

The basic concept behind WaitChatter is that the wasted time waiting for a chat partner to respond to a message, for an app to refresh, or for a computer to connect to WiFi can be used for something more productive. With WaitChatter, these “micromoments” of useless wait time can be exploited to layer in simple vocabulary quizzes on a foreign language.

They found that they could teach an average of four words per day — not a ton, but also pretty good considering it did not come at the expense of any other productive activity.

The array of micromoments targeted by the new desktop app is already long, but it will no doubt expand quickly. As mentioned, the idea is to take advantage of reliable modern time-sinks, from the wait for an email to send to the wait for an elevator — though the less software-based the delay, the more proactive the user will have to be in bringing up the vocabulary teacher.

Right now, the system assumes all users are native English speakers, and it only contains dictionaries for French and Spanish education. The team of course has plans to expand to more starting and teachable languages. The browser plugin is also currently only available for Chrome, and affects only conversations over GChat (not Google Hangouts).

The idea of inserting micro-learning opportunities into life is not totally new, but these researchers argue that prior work has simply shoved learning into activities that already occupy the users, like reading their social media feed. By specifically making use of downtime, the researchers avoid ever competing for a user’s attention, often against more intuitively fun activities.