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A Billion Dollar Idea: Instagram and Language Learning

A huge sum of money makes you think. And when someone pays lots of money for something you considered useless, it makes you think even harder. So when I found out how much Facebook was ready to pay to acquire Instagram, I knew it was time for some serious thinking.I never thought that an application designed for taking and sharing artsy-looking photos would be this popular. I never thought it could be useful. But there was somebody paying a billion dollars for it. There must have been something to it – I wanted to find that out. More specifically – I wanted to see if you could use Instagram to learn a language. As it turns out, the application has a lot of potential. Read on and I’ll clue you in – whether you’re an Instagram rookie or pro, I hope you’ll find these remarks useful.


1. The App

I’m not going to go into details here – photo fans probably know it all, and if you’re new to Instagram, it’s best to download it and try it our for yourself. In short – the most important features of the application are:

– taking photographs and editing them instantly with your smartphone;

– sharing photos with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and on Instagram’s own feed;

– tagging photographs – adding location, tagging friends and assigning keyword tags to photos;

– following friends, commenting and liking photographs.

Instagram, then, is to photographs what Facebook is to…well…photographs. You can see why they were keen to acquire the app – but that takes me to the next part.


2. The Potential (for language learners)

If you’re a keen language learner, you’re probably on the lookout for the latest learning solutions and applications (and might have tried some of the things described on this blog – for flashcards or learning by translation). The point is – you’re probably thinking about specially designed applications, and Instagram doesn’t look like its mission was to help every language learner out there.

Having said that, there are still two or three features which make Instagram really appealing to language teachers and learners. In no particular order, here they are:

– The social appeal. Instagram has lots of users, and they’re all keen to talk about pictures. This “otaku” aspect was something I’ve discussed in relation to TV shows and pretty much everything else – so it’s safe to assume that you’ll find someone who’s ready to discuss your picture (a quick search reveals: for Polish-related tags, over 23 thousand – Spanish, almost two hundred thousand…and so on)

– The visual context. Not everybody likes to learn by discussing what they’ve read or written – Instagram is a platform for those who like to learn by watching stuff. And because it’s so easy to use and tamper with – it can become your default medium of communication, if you wish.

– The instant and mobile access. This feeds into the “ease of use” mentioned above. Instagram is, first and foremost, a mobile app. It’s a tool of choice for those who want to find a clever way of taking snapshots with their smartphones. It makes serious photographers cringe; it makes journalists tremble – it changed things by fitting snugly into your pocket-sized life style. Isn’t it time for language learning to follow?


3. The Ideas

OK, let’s assume you’re sold on the idea of using Instagram to learn a foreign language. The question remains: how do you go about it? The obvious answer would be: “it depends” – people use the app for hundreds of different things, and your priority should be to find your preferred way of doing stuff with it. Here are some ideas that should work – regardless of who you are and what language you’re trying to learn:

– Foreign language photo-blog. Each photo you take can be tagged and described in a few words. This is your chance to describe your reality in the foreign language of your choice – and to make the words more memorable in a visual context. We’re not talking long, painstaking entries – just a few words in the language you’re learning, attached to a photograph, should be enough. And the cool thing is – these could probably spark a conversation with other users of that language!

– Flashcard sharing group. If you’re learning with some like-minded (and tech-savvy) individuals, here’s something you could try: follow one another on Instagram and share tagged photos with the rest of the group. Five people, sharing two photos a day over five months – that’s at least 1.500 accessible, relevant flashcards for the language you’re learning. Not to mention – one and a half hundred conversation starters.

– Follow the natives. This might initially take some time – picking the right tags to look for and sifting through the results is the easy part compared to keeping your follow stream active and attractive. After a while, though, the benefits become obvious. Having access to native speakers of your chosen language – and snapshots of their everyday reality – is a lot more engaging and motivating than learning about imagined people from course books. You can write back, too!


Language learners – would you use Instagram to beef up your learning skills? If so, let me know of your ideas!

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. cherhale says:

    Really interesting points. As someone who is constantly learning and teaching languages, I also wonder if offering language materials on Instagram would be valuable. I did some searches on Learn Italian, Learn Chinese, and Learn Spanish, and there aren’t a lot of people doing it – and those that were stopped posting or didn’t have many followers. I wonder if it’s just a matter of good marketing + consistency.

  2. Ramsel Ruiz says:

    Hey Wiktor. I’ve been working on something for a bit – Lexly @ http://www.lexly.me. It’s an app/website for conversation, and it uses social media inline in the conversation to give people something to talk about. There are other uses for it besides language learning, as the whole point of it is to encourage conversation in a fun manner, but language learning is a primary use case. This is a pretty old post but if you get this I’d be interested to hear what you think.