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Context, correction and custard tarts: What you can’t do with mobile learning

It started with a picture of a cake, and ended with reflections on mobile learning. Read on to find how I got here.

1. The joy and anguish of autocorrect

The custard tart that you can see on the photo above was delicious. It reminded me of the last time I ate them (in Portugal) and I felt like sharing it there and then. I snapped the photo and went about uploading it on Facebook, with a comment about how I miss Belem now that I’m not in Portugal any more.
Which was all good and well – until my autocorrect decided to change my favourite Portuguese word “saudade” into “sausage.”
First, I chuckled and thought little of it. Then I started thinking.

2. Context: one thing your smartphone is not smart about

If I uploaded the picture anyway – with references to Belem and with that autocorrect “mistake” – some of my friends would still be able to understand what I’m on about. They would see the photo, read the other words in my comment, put two and two together and conclude that “sausage” must be an autocorrect failure for “saudade.”
Computers, tablets and smartphones, however, don’t work that way. Instead of context clues, their basic stimulus for action is statistics. The outcome of an electronic translator will rely heavily on one factor: how often was phrase X translated as Y before? Google Translate has the explanations:

3. Know what your gadgets can’t do

My smartphone is not smart enough to figure out these things: 1) I visited Portugal and I liked it there, 2) The cake on the photograph reminds me of Portuguese cakes, 3) I tend to use more than one language in my everyday life. If it was, it would have left my “saudade” alone.
In general, it takes some time for your mobile learning aids to become “truly yours.” Flashcard software needs to be fed, used and given feedback to be of any real use. Podcast managers are only as good as the foreign language podcasts you subscribe to, use and update. Translation memory is a tricky one – but this, too, will improve and become more suited to your needs with time.
This is a problem for people who are encouraged to change their smartphones every year and don’t care enough to update their settings and preferences from the old one – or for those who move from one computer model to the next without backing up their data. In other words: for most of us.
But on a larger scale, this is a challenge for everyone who claims that mobile learning is something good and helpful. If it’s so customizable – why isn’t it, really? If I can have my own translator, my own textbook and media library in my foreign language – all in my pocket – why won’t it be more “me-like?”

4. Move the mobile learning – your way

There’s one thing you can do about it. Whether you wish for a better German podcast experience – look for a hack to improve your Japanese flashcards – or get frustrated by what your Polish translation software thinks you mean, there’s one thing you can do.
Use it often, feed back to the system and back it up every time you switch devices. Make sure that the information your gadgets get is the information that helps them suit you better. Use it, get frustrated, note down the bugs and fix them. Ask lots of questions. Phone support. Hack around the default settings (you’re not “default,” are you?). And when you move, make sure your stuff moves and is there, on the new machine, ready to be used.
There’s a scene in Skyfall that makes me purr with joy. Bond gets a new Walther PPK from his Quartermaster: this model only activates when it recognizes 007’s fingerprints. He wraps his hands around the grip and the pistol comes to life.
The question, then, is this: how to make your language learning gadgets that good – that customized?
Any thoughts and ideas welcome below.

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