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There's a new app that wants to help you learn a foreign language while you waste your time
The rise of online messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Chat and WhatsApp, has created a new type of downtime. - photo by JJ Feinauer
The rise of online messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Chat and WhatsApp, has created a new type of downtime. Between messages, users wait patiently for responses, and according to MIT's Carrie Cai, that is time ill spent. Those moments between messages are prime intellectual real estate, according to Cai, and should be treated as such.

That's why Cai and a team of other developers from MIT have created the WaitChatter app, an extension for Google Chat that allows users to work on learning a foreign language while they wait for a response.

Given all the time that is wasted due to waiting, we wanted to explore how to use these moments as opportunities for learning, Cai said according to a press release by MIT.

According to Cai, WaitChatter works like most other apps aimed at teaching a second (or third) language. The app uses basic flash cards, providing users with a word and space to guess its English counterpart. What makes WaitChatter different is that it's attached to the bottom of Google Chat, so the flash cards pop up every time a user is waiting for a message response.

According to the developers, people who use WaitChatter "during casual instant messaging" learned, on average, four new words per day.

The app incorporates what the creators call "wait-learning," or the belief that taking advantage of sporadic downtime is an underused method to learn new things. According to an article published by the researchers in 2014, the "wait-learning" techniques used to develop WaitChatter will hopefully "be applied to many other domains, such as while a learner is waiting for the bus or on hold with customer service."

There are a lot of busy people out there looking for life hacks and productivity tricks, Cai said, according to MIT. Weve just scraped the surface for studying different ways we can help people make the most of these micro-moments.

According to Big Think's Robert Montenegro, the WaitChatter app also relies on what's called microlearning, which is when educators (or apps) emphasize short periods of intense education in place of long periods of less focused learning.

According to eLearning Industry's Sandip Kar, microlearning is a method that lends itself particularly well when studying focused material, but not so much when trying to get a more broad education, and has gained more prominence due to advancing technology. WaitChatter, with its focus on a single subject course (learning a language) and its reliance on technology, makes it an easy fit for effective microlearning.

Because of this, Montenegro argues, WaitChatter has the potential to be a game-changer for those with short attention spans.

And as The Atlantic's Gwynn Guilford wrote last year, roughly 1 in 20 American children, which she defines as being between 4 and 17 years old, are currently being treated for ADHD, and the medication isn't actually doing much to improve grades.

"Studies tracking the impact of ADHD meds report no improvement in academic performance in the long term," she reported. "And kids taking the drugs are in some cases more likely to drop out of school."

According to Montenegro, advancements in microlearning techniques could mean all the difference in "taking advantage of those low attention spans."
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