Researchers at MIT have coined the term "Wait-Learning" — learning at a time when a person would otherwise be waiting, and hence wasting time… Their research work involves foreign-language learning.

They surmised that instant messaging provided an excellent application to test whether a program could enable wait-learning for language vocabulary. Often while chatting, conversations feels asynchronous; the person who just sent a message waits for a reply.

They built a program, called WaitChatter, that works in Google Chat. It's an experimental program, only able to teach Spanish and French vocabulary to English speakers. They experimented with WaitChatter and got positive results, which they published online in an ACM publication.

Here's what the authors said about the amount of learning:

"In just two weeks of casual usage, participants were on average able to recall 57 new words, equivalent to approximately four words per day."

TechCrunch has a nice article explaining how WaitChatter works.

WaitChatter is not ready for prime time. It's an experimental program and it only works in Chrome and only if you disable Google Hangouts and go back to Google Chat. Still, several concepts about WaitChatter and the concept of wait-learning are intriguing:

  1. Wait-Learning, though not an original concept, is a good one…We learning professionals ought to figure out how to maximize efficiencies in this way. Of course, we'll want to make sure that the additional learning doesn't compromise the main task. We know multitasking is illusory, often hurting one task or another, so we'll need to be careful.
  2. Embedding learning opportunities in other applications may enable such efficiencies, if we do it carefully.
  3. Part of the vocabulary learned was learned based on the words that came up in the chat. So for example, if the word "dog" came up in the chat, WordChatter might focus on the Spanish equivalent "el perro." We know from the general research on learning that alignment between the learning context and the performance context produce learning and remembering benefits, and the authors cite research that such contextual learning benefits language learners as well.