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Want to learn a language? Try TikTok

Social media are becoming an increasingly integral part of our everyday lives. We’re spending more time on our phones, but this is mostly on unproductive activities, which can take a serious toll on mental and physical well-being.

But what if we could make this time productive? For example, spending time on social media could help you learn a foreign language.

Read more: Our smartphone addiction is killing us – can apps that limit screen time offer a lifeline?

How do Australians use social media?

In January 2021, almost 80% of Australians were “active users” of social media compared to 58% in 2015. Facebook remains the most popular social media platform. Others such as TikTok and Instagram are gaining a stronger foothold with younger audiences.

At the end of 2021, TikTok even surpassed Google as the world’s most popular web domain. This is not just in terms of social media but based on global internet traffic, which includes platforms hosted by Google such as Gmail and Google Maps. In Australia, TikTok is the fastest-growing social media company and was the second-most-downloaded app after Zoom in 2020.

TikTok’s success is largely due to the interactive and highly engaging nature of the audiovisual content that dominates its platform. Users often spend hours scrolling through their feeds, and popular channels boast millions of followers.

This upwards trend among young users — who visit social media platforms “multiple times a day” — has led Australian school teachers to turn to TikTok to engage with students, particularly during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Young people looking at their mobile phones
The allure of social media for young people can be used for productive purposes such as learning a language.

Social media as an educational platform

The role of social media as an emerging educational platform, particularly for foreign languages, deserves greater attention. In lieu of face-to-face lessons, private language teachers have turned to platforms like TikTok and Instagram to attract and teach students.

Language educators are harnessing the popularity and success of social media by creating content to help their followers improve their language skills. This is primarily done through short, interactive videos. These are designed to teach content in short chunks, an approach called “microlearning”.

Research indicates this is an effective tool for students and teachers alike. It breaks the lessons down so users can absorb it as part of an “everyday scroll”. Content in this form is easier to engage with (from the learner’s perspective) and more likely to be retained.

For example, English students can watch short videos to improve their vocabulary or practise the pronunciation of difficult words — or even mimic simple conversations.

Students studying Mandarin can learn some helpful phrases for going to the hairdresser; French students can practise distinguishing between two similar sounds; and people travelling to Italy can learn how to order their first espresso.

This TikToker teaches basic Korean.

Videos can offer general guidance on language learning or even illustrate — in a highly relatable manner — the obstacles students may encounter when studying Mandarin.

The platforms’ high functionality allows teachers to use visual and audio cues. On platforms like Instagram, they can also create quizzes or save content via “stories” for students to access later.

It’s engaging, accessible and not just limited to language learning. Popular channels feature educational content on topics such as cooking, learning to play piano, or simple “life hacks”.

Read more: How creative use of technology may have helped save schooling during the pandemic

How much can you learn?

Social media content won’t take you from a complete beginner to a native speaker in a few weeks. But a little bit of exposure each day can have a significant effect.

If you’re a beginner, this will mean finding channels aimed at teaching you the basics. Many channels on TikTok and Instagram cater to a variety of levels, and incorporate grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking videos to help you learn. However, it’s key to engage with “comprehensible input” — that is, language you can understand but which still challenges you.

More advanced users may find they benefit more from videos dedicated to slang, idioms or improving their vocabulary.

Ultimately, everyone’s language learning journey is different. How you can harness social media in that journey will depend on what your individual goals are. And as more and more language teachers take to social media platforms, the channels and platforms to choose from are numerous.

Read more: Australian students say they understand global issues, but few are learning another language compared to the OECD average

Is it worth it?

Just like changing the language on your phone to your target language or increasing the amount of music you listen to and movies you watch, social media offer another tool to allow you to increase your daily exposure to your target language.

But the advantage of social media is easy access. It’s likely something you’re already engaging with daily and potentially even feel “addicted to”.

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