I had the pleasure of meeting up with a buddy of mine, and 2x the more diligent student, Joe (you can catch him on Twitter). The issue of technology in language study came up, especially in relation to Pleco, the Chinese dictionary available on most smart devices. Now this isn’t say Pleco is inherently bad–it’s a fantastic dictionary which looks like it’ll only get more amazing once the new version (finally) gets released. What is more of interest here is how technology, and this sense of instant access, influences studying another language.

This is probably turning into an old debate of new versus old, technology versus books, but I still think it is an important aspect of our language learning that we need to at least concern ourselves with.

Basically, it came down to this: Pleco, and other dictionaries like it, suffer from Google syndrome–that is, information is instantly accessible. The answer is right at our finger tips, and as Ian Malcolm famously stated:

…it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it…

Okay maybe that’s a little extreme, but what I’m getting at here is that the knowledge we obtain from these instant access dictionaries required no effort to obtain it. Handwriting recognition is great, and has saved me large amounts of effort, but I never felt I learned much more about the character than a quick pronunciation or “oh okay”. It never really stuck. Sure, no-one wants to lug around a 1,000 page dictionary around with them (unless you’re me), but there is something magical, something satisfactory with a sense of accomplishment that comes with looking up the word by radical or stroke count (not by pronunciation please!) and gaining the knowledge about it yourself.

Not to get too Old-Man-In-Viridian-City on you, but ‘back in my day’ we didn’t have these fancy dictionaries. I had to look up everything by paper dictionary. It was tiring. It was time consuming. It lead to many ripped pages from frustration. But, you know, I remember those characters the best.

I doubt anyone will run off and remove Pleco (I sure won’t), but I wonder, perhaps, if we made it a bit harder to use–restricted look ups to by radical only, avoid handwriting or pronunciation input and use it in a more “classical” way, we might avoid Google syndrome and start learning.