Think you don’t have time to learn a new language? Before you answer, think about all those precious seconds you spend every day just waiting for things: for emails to send, smartphone signals to connect, friends to reply to messages, or even elevators to arrive.
MIT computer scientists say these moments are perfect for “micro-learning,” or learning in tiny chunks spaced out throughout the day. So they’ve created a new set of apps to make it easier.
The apps, collectively called WaitSuite, deliver pop-up prompts to smartphones and computers when they detect these types of idle moments. One app activates when it senses a device is trying to connect to Wi-Fi, for example, while another activates when it senses Bluetooth signals from elevators nearby.
In these scenarios, the apps generate quick, flashcard-like exercises, like asking you to translate words into another language. And unlike other self-help apps or boredom-busting games on your phone or desktop, these prompts happen automatically; you don’t have to switch apps or close out of whatever program you’re already using.
“WaitSuite is embedded directly into your existing tasks, so that you can easily learn without leaving what you were already doing,” says PhD student Carrie Cai, who leads the project.
So far, the only program available to the public is WaitChatter—a desktop Chrome extension that works with Google Talk (also known as GChat), quizzing users on French and Spanish vocabulary while they wait for responses from friends. In another cool twist, the program chooses words from users’ recent chat history; if they’re chatting with a friend about getting coffee, they may be prompted to learn “coffee” in another language.
In research presented at a 2015 Association for Computing Machinery meeting, Cai and her colleagues found that people who used WaitChatter learned about four new words per day, or 57 words over two weeks. Next month at the same annual conference, the team will present new research on the other WaitSuite apps it has developed.
These apps may have an added bonus, as well: The researchers found that WaitSuite actually enabled users to better focus on their primary tasks, since they were less likely to check social media or otherwise leave the app or program they were using. (Built-in learning and improved productivity? Sign us up!)
As mobile platforms become more open, Cai and her team hope to release more WaitSuite apps to the public, and expand WaitChatter to mobile texting. They’re also considering expanding it to other desktop programs, such as Facebook Chat and Slack.
The apps are currently being used to teach foreign-language vocabulary, but Cai says they could also be used for topics like math, medical terms, or legal jargon. The team also hopes to test other formats for on-the-go learning—like audio prompts for when people can’t look at their screens—and to study how micro-learning might benefit people with cognitive disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD.
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They even say that WaitSuite could be used to encourage mindfulness and stress-reduction exercises during idle moments. “Rather than checking social media, someone waiting at an elevator might instead be reminded to stretch, take a few deep breaths, or reflect on their day,” Cai says.
Besides the social benefits, research suggests that learning a second language can create new pathways in the brain that might protect against age-related cognitive decline. To be fair, there’s no proof that learning a few new words here and there would have similar benefits.
But Cai says that the apps were partly inspired by existing research that’s demonstrated how micro-learning leads to greater memory retention, compared to longer sessions of studying.
“In our studies, we observed that many people already spend their idle time engaging in compulsive digital activities—e.g. checking social media, or playing Candy Crush,” Cai said. “Wait-learning aims to encourage more meaningful use of this time.”
Even without a good scientific reason, a tool like WaitSuite might still be worth a try. After all, you’ve got nothing to lose, and valuable time to gain.