How I'm Using My iPad To Learn Languages

avatarMille Larsen
7 mins read

There has been a lot of talk about the iPad since it's announcement, but it's been a lot of reaction and uninformed opinion, and very little helpful advice for using the iPad to learn languages. 

I'm out of town for three days, and I left my laptop at home and brought only the iPad. Instead of writing posts in advance and scheduling them, I'm writing this post on my iPad. I'm putting this device to the test.

Ok, so that's how I'm using the iPad to write about learning, but...

How am I using it to learn?

First, there are tons of apps available for language learning. From phrase teaching apps to flashcard apps, to dictionaries and translation tools, there are endless options in every language. All the iPhone apps plus the new iPad apps.

The iPad has a full size web browser. This means that all the web sites I use to learn, look up vocab, or even chat in other languages are all here. And the compact, lightweight iPad is much handier than a laptop and the battery lasts much longer. It even fits in the seat-back pocket!

I filled it up with Italian movies before my trip. This way, that four hour flight could be spent getting my ears more accustomed to hearing the Italian language spoken. And occasionally I'll notice a word that comes up a lot, which I don't know, and I can go to the Notes app and make a note of it. 

And finally, on top of everything else, the iPad is also a big iPod, so I also have hours of Italian lessons, music, and conversations that I can listen to in the hotel or at the airport, or wherever. I also have several foreign language podcasts that I can watch or listen to. 

What could make it better?

The iBooks app needs more language books. Granted, there are apps to allow loading PDF files, but those I have tried so far leave something to be desired for user experience. I'm sure given a little more time, those apps will mature. But none of this makes up for the iBook store's need for more language learning content. 

But I also think the idea itself of language books could be replaced by feature rich apps, allowing lessons to be read, exercises to be completed, and audio to be heard where it applies, without the need for pause, fast forward, rewind.

I would love to see an app make use of the touch interface as a way of teaching people how to form the letters of various alphabets. In particular, an app that helped me learn to draw Arabic characters would be awesome.

Advantages and disadvantages to using an iPad

The world is still not WiFi friendly

The first thing I found was that Wi-Fi can still be somewhat of a luxury. I stayed in a different hotel each night of my trip: Friday just north of Seattle, Saturday in downtown Vancouver, and Sunday in downtown Seattle.

I wasn't off in the 3rd world somewhere. These are modern, western cities. Moreover, I stayed in some rather nice hotels. All of them offered free internet service to guests, but only one had free wireless. The other two offered wireless only in the lobby, and you had to pay extra to access it.

There's nowhere to plug in an ethernet cord anywhere on the iPad, so with the exception of one night with access at the hotel, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops. For writing blog posts, I wrote the whole post in the Notes app, and then went to the coffee shop and pasted it into WordPress.

I am going to look for some sort of traveler's access point to take with me for future trips, but even if I do find something sufficiently small (and inexpensive), the necessity of carrying it with me starts to take away some of the iPad's luster.

Data consumer vs content creator

As a consumer of data, I have very few complaints about the iPad. Watching movies on the airplane was quite enjoyable - especially compared to the guy next to me struggling to work his 17-inch laptop in that confined space! Reading books is pleasant. Web pages are a breeze.

As a creator of content, however, I am not as positive. Writing blog posts with that on-screen keyboard was tedious, and adding HTML tags to those posts was a torture I thought only Dick Cheney could have invented. Next time, without a doubt, I'll pack my bluetooth keyboard.

Adding photos was unnecessarily difficult. Even after I've written custom WordPress plugins and Flickr hacks to make it easier to get my iPhone photos into the blog, I still experienced pain and frustration... though I imagine this could be eased somewhat with more robust plugins now that I see where the pain points exist.

My only other complaint was that the audio of my movies was hard to hear, even at full-volume, over the droning engines of a Boeing 737. Most of the blame here belongs to those obnoxiously loud airplanes, and some of it probably belongs to the movies themselves. Still, it'd be nice if there were a way to boost the sound a bit from the device.

There were some positives, too

So far, it seems like this has been mostly complaints, but there were several things to like about the experience as well.

Most importantly, the fact that an iPad is a dream to carry to, and use in, a coffee shop. Instead of a heavy laptop with short battery life and long cables, I was carrying something like a magazine. If you have to go out for internet service, this is a big deal.

As I already mentioned, the iPad's form factor was a perfect fit for the confined space in economy seats on an airplane. On the flight out, I was next to a guy squinting to watch a movie on his iPhone, and on the flight home I was next to a guy contorting his arms to operate his enormous laptop. Both of them gave up, whereas I watched several movies comfortably with my 10-inch screen resting on the tray table.

I still hadn't found anything on iBooks that I wanted, so I haven't been using my iPad for reading, and I actually brought an Italian book, to do some reading. But thanks to a helpful tweet, I've found some Italian books, absolutely free, so in the future my bag will be even lighter!

And finally, the ability to pack light can't be understated. For this three-day trip, I fit everything I needed into the tiny space under the seat in front of me. I didn't even use the overhead carry-on storage. Being on the move with nothing but a backpack is completely liberating to a traveler.

Are you using an iPad?

Well, that's a good summary for now, and a good place to end my first post written entirely on an iPad. Are any of you using an iPad? Have you discovered any interesting apps or other ways of using this device to help with language study? Let me know in the comments!