To Notice and to Learn

Observations on ideas, human mind, and the world around us

Nudge Idea: Reinforce foreign language vocabulary with (almost) no effort

Okay, in a previous post summarizing the book ‘Nudge’, I described the concept of nudges, in which you can reap large benefits from very small, seemingly effortless changes.  In my last post I described an example idea to help conserve napkins, which relied on a nudge to (hopefully) create enough motivation for people to undertake a small effort.  Now I would like to offer an example of what I think is a more interesting type of nudge, where the conscious additional effort is close to zero–almost literally getting something for nothing.  An example of this kind of nudge is changing from opt-in to opt-out defaults, which has a large impact on 401k enrollment, organ donor registration, etc.  The idea presented here is related to foreign language learning.

All of us who have studied a foreign language know how difficult of an endeavor it is, and know that many hours of dedicated study that are required.  There are many teaching methods (including some innovative approaches online), with some trying to create more motivation  (via games, immersion-like situations, etc.) to reduce the perceived effort.  But what if there was a way to help reinforce vocabulary which required no additional dedicated time?  Most of us spend hours reading information online in our native language, and one by-product of this is that we are subtly reinforcing our knowledge of the vocabulary words–but these need no reinforcement!  What if, instead, we judiciously substituted foreign language words that we’ve mastered in place of native language words?  I think this can be done in a way that requires very little extra comprehension time (perhaps a few milliseconds for each word), which means that we finish reading in virtually the same time, with little extra cognitive effort.  But what we’ve gained is the reinforcement of some foreign vocab at virtually no cost.  Here is a more concrete description of the idea, with some hypothetical mock-ups:


To reinforce foreign language vocabulary words one has already mastered, by having a browser plug-in automatically translate words we’ve learned and interweaving them on our page among the native language words.


A web browser plug-in could allow us to add words to a list of known vocabulary.  Whenever we download a page in our browser (say a news article), the plug-in automatically translates those known foreign words within the page, thus “interweaving” native and foreign language words.  This would rely on natural language processing (NLP) algorithms to get the translations correct (NLP methods are approaching 90+% translation fidelity levels, e.g. Google Translate).  There would be easy ways for the user to modify the vocabulary lists and adjust the settings on how much of their pages are translated.

A detailed example is mocked-up below.  First, an original article in English, from 2010:


This is how it might look to a user who is at a basic level in Spanish (apologies if there are any errors, I’m not an expert in Spanish):


The user can right click on any of the translated words and see a menu like the following:


The user can assign the words to any of three categories:

  • Level A words are well known and can be “interweaved” seamlessly in the text
  • Level B words are familiar, but not always perfectly recalled, so the number of these on a page should be limited
  • Level C words are those being learned by the user, so there should be very few of them on a page, unless the user wants to spend time specifically on language learning.

Then there are settings to adjust how much automatic translation occurs on the page:


The user might use settings like the above if they want to read fairly comfortably and quickly without too much effort; if they want to actively practice their vocabulary, they can increase the Level B and Level C settings.  There also may be some pages they don’t want to have translated (such as email messages).  Finally, this could integrate with web-based flashcard systems so that people can undertake more direct dedicated study.  Note that this is not a method to learn another language (that must be done through other means), but this is merely an aid in reinforcing vocabulary that has already been learned.

Nudge Dynamics:

The nudge being leveraged here is our automatic processing of language that doesn’t “cost” us any conscious effort (see a prior blog post on how remarkable our instinct for language is).  By replacing known foreign words for native words, if it can be done in the right way, foreign vocabulary can be reinforced without any additional dedicated language learning time.  In practical terms, the difference between spending 15-20 minutes a day to review flashcards versus spending no extra time is probably the difference between doing something and not doing it…which is thus quite a nudge.


Categories: Innovations in Learning, The Human Mind and Psychology

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. fascinating . I’d like to try it.

  2. I tried an early chrome extension that did this (it was a bit of a power hog so I uninstalled it after a while) – I love this idea. It reminds me a bit of those old stickers you could put around your house that came in those “Spanish/French/Russian (pick your language) in 10 minutes a day” books – so you’d look at the window in your room, but you’d see “ventana” as reinforcer every time.

  3. Here’s a six-minute YouTube video where I talk through this concept:

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