I’ve been learning foreign languages since primary school. I started with an after-school French club, added German and Spanish at GCSE and A-Level, studied French and Spanish at university and last year took up Greek. What’s perhaps unusual these days is that all my language learning has been done through traditional methods. Aside from a couple of Greek vocabulary flashcard-style apps, it’s been classrooms, textbooks and handwritten homework.
So I was really interested to see a ‘changes in language learning’ session on the programme for Learning 2012, facilitated by Jenny Zhu and Hank Horkoff. Several years ago Jenny and Hank created ChinesePod, designed to make language learning easier for adult students by combining modern teaching principles with new technologies. Lessons recorded as podcasts (often by Jenny herself – a native speaker of Mandarin) are accessible via mobile phone as well as online, offering total flexibility for learners to choose the appropriate difficulty level and route through the content depending on their personal interests or needs. Also available are flashcards, exercises, grammar notes and so on. ChinesePod saw huge success and earlier this year, Jenny and Hank sold it and started on their new venture, OpenLanguage. OpenLanguage has a similar aim: to help busy adults learn a new language by making use of the technology they already rely on.
Principles of language learning
Hank began by asking those of us in the room why we’ve chosen to learn second langauges. Responses ranged from the pragmatic (professional or relocation reasons) to the personal (ancestry or in-laws, for example), as well as lifelong interest in some cases. What is more consistent is that achieving competence in a foreign language takes time – years, usually. This is a very different beast from much of the workplace learning that most of us are involved in for our day jobs.
According to Hank, it’s generally agreed that three things are needed in order to achieve that competence:
- Level-appropriate input from a native speaker
- Review activities
- Speaking practice and feedback from a teacher
Problems in language learning
But – as anyone who’s tried to take up a new language as an adult, balancing it alongside other demands of work and family life, will tell you – there are some common and significant challenges.
- Limited time and access: I’m lucky that I live in London, where it wasn’t too hard to find somewhere I could enrol in a Greek course, and that my work allows me the flexibility to work from home when required to ensure I can get to class on time! Not everyone has these luxuries, and finding courses that can be slotted into an already busy working week can be tough.
- Lack of relevant and appropriate materials: Whether you sign up for a class, search for online courses, or take a self-study approach it can be very hard to find materials that hit the mark. All too often, the focus is on things like pets or school subjects – fine if you are a school-age learner, but perhaps not as relevant for adult learners who may need more business-focused vocabulary or more natural conversational tools for speaking to family, for example. In other cases, materials might be at the wrong level or even just plain boring.
- Few practice opportunities: I’ve experienced this myself – in a large class, we do a lot of role play conversations in pairs, but chances to practise speaking with the teacher and get feedback are much more limited. And if you take a self-study approach rather than signing up for a classroom course, those opportunities to practise with a native speaker are even fewer and further between. While it’s possible to develop a very strong grasp of a language through writing, reading and listening, true fluency is incredibly hard – if not impossible – to achieve without that interaction with native speakers. Why else would universities send language students abroad for a year?
- Varying levels of motivation: Personally, I’m driven to learn Greek because my other half is bilingual and it’s important that I can communicate with his family in Cyprus. I’ve also always enjoyed learning new languages, which helps a lot. But for people who are learning for less personal reasons, perhaps because of their line of work, it can be difficult to remain motivated, especially when you’re on the way to evening class after a long day of work or spending your weekends doing homework at the kitchen table like you did as a teenager!
The OpenLanguage approach
To try and overcome these challenges, OpenLanguage looks at the lifestyle of the typical adult learner and particularly the technology that’s already embedded in that lifestyle, and designs language learning options that fit seamlessly into it. OpenLanguage’s Tablet Textbook can be used on a smartphone, tablet or PC and delivers the core components of the traditional textbook with added multimedia and data benefits. ‘Edutainment’ lesson media is designed to bring the learning to life, combining native-speaker input with engaging delivery and real-life, relevant situations to help learners really get the most from the digital resources.
Hank and Jenny are not saying that classrooms and traditional language-learning approaches are completely redundant. But they do advocate making better use of those resources. In a 60-minute class, a total of about 15 minutes might be devoted to spoken practice with the teacher. The rest of the class is made up of instruction, review exercises and perhaps speaking practice amongst the group. Resources like those offered by OpenLanguage enable a flipped-classroom approach, making much better use of teachers for the things that really benefit from having a human, native-speaker instructor.
Making use of self-study data
One of the things that’s always put me off a self-study approach to language learning is not having any real measure of my progress. Given that my other half is fluent in Greek, I could have bought a few textbooks and worked through them with his help. But he’s not a teacher, he can’t always explain why something is right or wrong, and we’d probably struggle together to work out a sensible course of study and improvement.
Because so much OpenLanguage study is done on network-connected devices, there’s an oppotunity to collect data and use it to help address some of those challenges. For example, previously you might just use digital flashcards for spaced repetition; now your smartphone can record your ability to recall the right meaning or word, and then use an algorithm to intelligently schedule future reviews at appropriate intervals to help move the new vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory. Similarly, as data is logged on exercise or test scores, a recommended course of study can be developed, designed to stretch you to the next level at the right pace. So, rather than being potentially a second-best option, self-study becomes a personalised and adaptive learning experience.
OpenLanguage is also looking ahead to the creation of a ‘language graph’ or similar dashboard as an alternative to traditional language exams. This could provide a simple and accurate way to convey your language abilities – something which may well be far more useful for employers than a traditional language qualification.
Point-of-need language learning
By coincidence, just this morning I read an article by Imogen Casebourne about Google translate, the Babel Fish and the future of language learning. I absolutely agree with Imogen that even the Babel Fish wouldn’t render language learning obsolete, but certainly the ways in which we become multilingual are changing. OpenLanguage seems to offer structured, if more informal and self-directed, options. But I also like Imogen’s references to more point-of-need opportunities using GPS and augmented reality: I could definitely see this kind of thing being incredibly useful to me the next time I’m in Cyprus.
No doubt there are lots of other options out there and different people will inevitably have different preferences as their motivations and circumstances vary. What’s clear, though, is that those options will continue to expand and I for one hope that this will make it easier than ever before for people to take up new languages.