Posted by: sbilingual | October 26, 2011

How Steve Jobs made language learning easier.

As you may haveheard, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., passed away last week at the age of 56.

Steve doesn’t appear to have been much of a language learner (one somewhat unreliable source tells me that he spoke Malayalam, presumably learned during the time he spent backpacking around India), but it’s hardly surprising that the course Steve cut through technology has had many reverberations in the way we study languages. The changes are really knock-off effects from what was happening at a higher level, and much of it seems to be “someone would’ve done this sooner or later” kinds of things, but the big changes are obvious when I compare to the way I learned languages 15 years ago, and I for one am glad those changes came sooner rather than later.

Three ways he did that, after the jump.

  • Language-learning tools are now in our pockets and always at the ready. This is in large part thanks to the iPhone. The iPhone brought smart phones to the masses, which brought developers to the iPhone (and ultimately its competitors, like Android phones), which brought to our pockets lots of language learning apps and constant access to all the various language-learning resources that sit on the web. Now, using smart phones wherever they may be, language learners regularly look up words on the fly, study using spaced-repetition systems (like Anki), and note down things to look up later on them. Before the onset of smart phones heralded by the iPhone, you were using paper (dictionaries, flash cards, notebooks, etc.) or, if lucky, had an electronic dictionary or, more recently, maybe some mediocre app on a non-smart phone.
  • Devices now support multiple languages out of the box. To take an example, back in the day, getting a computer to write in Japanese was a big hassle. You need to install additional software, you needed applications designed to handle that additional software, and it was buggy as hell. This was true of both Windows and old Macs running the classic operating system that was ditched when Steve returned to Apple. With Mac OS X, however, you could set up the ability to type in a new language just by clicking a checkbox in your preferences, and Windows soon followed suit. Today, this out-of-the-box support for multiple languages seems to be just about everywhere—obviously on all my Apple products, but also on the Windows computer I use at work, my Blackberry, etc.That said, Apple under Steve Jobs always seemed to be ahead of the curve in supporting multiple languages. We’ve been able to write Chinese characters by hand in both Mac OS X and iOS devices for some time now, which is still not an out-of-the-box feature on most other devices. Using accented characters (like é or ñ) on a Mac remains cake, while my firm’s IT support told me that, to do the same thing on our Windows computers, I’d need to either select the characters from a list or enter a numerical hex key for each character (I ended up typing out the stuff I needed on my Mac). (If you know an easier way, I’m all ears, btw.)
  • We’ve now got easy access to all kinds of content. This comes from numerous things that Apple has done under Steve Jobs. First, now that smart phones are ubiquitous, any foreign-language content that is online is now in our pockets. Second, with MP3 players becoming common only after the introduction of the iPod, you can thank Steve for that foreign-language audio that you can easily burn or download and listen to wherever you like. Back in the day, I’d carry a portable CD player with me and listen to the one CD it could hold (and by the end of the day I’d invariably be sick of that CD). Third, iTunes gives us access to all kinds of language content, with my favorite being the free podcasts that you can pick up on iTunes from any corner of the world, but which also includes music and movies (a bit harder to obtain in foreign languages via iTunes because of anachronistic country-based limitations on which you can purchase) and apps.

Steve apparently set Apple up with the next four years of product development and a curriculum for its executives to help them think like Steve, and presumably did a lot of other things to ensure Apple’s success without him. I’m optimistic that Apple can continue its technological leadership over the medium term and hopeful for the same over the long term, so with a little luck, even without Steve, we language learners will continue to benefit from the ripple effect of Steve’s legacy at Apple for years to come.

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