The three Keys to successful Language Education

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Steve Kaufmann, a former Canadian diplomat, as well as founder and president of KP Wood Ltd, a company involved in the international trade of forest products. Steve is also the founder and CEO of LingQ.com an online language learning system. Steve speaks eleven languages, having recently learned Russian at LingQ. Steve maintains a blog on language learning, and wrote a book on language learning called The Linguist, personal guide to language learning.

Recently this blog published an article entitled :”How Online Language-Teaching Start-ups Lack Educational Expertise, and Why Language Learners and Teachers Should Worry”

Here is my response:

It is quite common for language educators to claim that they can teach people to speak foreign languages in schools, when actually their success rate is very low. In elementary and high school, after years of study, most kids graduate without being able to speak the language they were learning. Various types of independent language schools, despite high costs, also produce poor results, with a majority of learners still unable to speak despite months or years of study.

When governments or learners are persuaded to pay these expensive school costs, they are told that the use of professionally developed teaching material, and credentialed teachers, will make it possible to teach learners everything they need to know about their new languages. Students use the latest text books, and the most up to date language labs, and talk to their teachers and fellow students in class, engage in role playing, and other activities directed by the trained teacher. But the results are disappointing, in the vast majority of cases.

Language schools are here to stay, of course, as the pedagogical experts behind these schools strive to find the best ways to teach languages. Unfortunately, the people running these schools often have limited experience learning foreign languages in the real world, and either are committed to maintaining the existing teacher-centred business model, or are prevented from deviating from it for various bureaucratic reasons. This is going to change as a result of the Internet.

The traditional classroom has worked well as a business model, and is a billion dollar industry. It has not worked well as a learning model. The vast majority of learners do not  benefit. The existing model is very expensive to operate, whether paid for by tax-payers or learners. Unless the results improve, this system is simply not worth the money invested. It is now being challenged by a much more cost effective alternative, the Internet. Schools will have to adapt or perish.

The Internet is a fertile new space for the development of  effective and inexpensive learning solutions.Costs will continue to come down, and the variety and effectiveness of programs offered will continue to increase.

The three “Keys” to successful language education.

Any language learning system, to be successful, has to take into consideration the three keys of language learning. The three keys to language learning,  as explained to me by Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Director of the San Diego State University Language Acquisition Research Center, are; motivation, time with the language, and the ability to notice.

Motivation:

Only a motivated person will learn another language. Without motivation, the learner tends to resist the language, learns a few words and grammar rules, but never achieves a comfortable level in the language. This is true for all unmotivated learners, whether independent learners using the Internet, or classroom learners.

Motivated independent learners on the Internet can use a wide range of resources, including rich language content, promising new learning systems and a variety of learning communities. The cost of these programs is a small fraction of the cost of school language learning, and in many cases free. An unmotivated independent learner can also use these resources, but typically does not do so in a sustained manner, and thus is no more successful than an unmotivated learner in the classroom.

Motivated learners learn. A motivated classroom learner can be successful, but at a much greater cost than is the case with a motivated independent learner.  What is more, the vast majority of unmotivated learners in the classroom are still paying (or someone is paying for them) the high cost of classroom learning, even though they are not learning.

Canada’s Commissioner for Official Languages, Graham Fraser, reported that to develop one successful French language learner in the Canadian Public Service, (someone who could actually use French at work), costs around one million dollars, if the cost of the vast majority of unsuccessful learners are taken into consideration. The Canadian Public Service language programs have been developed by leading pedagogical experts and use only credentialed teachers.

For these two reasons, the inherent lower cost of Internet based learning, and the ability to concentrate resources on motivated learners, the cost of developing successful language learners on the Internet is a small fraction of the cost of developing successful language learners in the classroom.

When talking about motivation it is worth noting that for many people, the kind of learning that takes place in the classroom, where the teacher chooses the learning material, and imposes learning activities, is demotivating for many people. Younger learners, in particular, are more comfortable using the Internet and various mobile devices to find information.

Time with the language:

Language success is dependent on the amount of time the learner can spend with the new language, listening to the language, reading it, speaking it and writing it.

Classrooms are not very efficient in their use of language-contact time. First of all, the learner has to spend time to get to the classroom. What is more, once in the classroom, the learner has to share language-contact time with classmates who are usually not proficient in the language. Often the teacher’s explanations are not in the target language.

The time the learner can spend listening to a native speaker, even on an mp3 players, or reading, or speaking to native speakers represents much more intensive interaction with the language, and a better use of time, than sitting in a classroom. The repetitive exposure to the language is more effective in transforming the learner into a comfortable speaker of anew language, than explanations and drills in class.

Classroom instruction instills in the learners’ minds the idea that language learning has to take place in the classroom, and that a teacher is needed to teach the language. The need for constant exposure, for the investment of lots of time alone with the language, listening and reading, tends to be downplayed. Surveys have shown that the majority of classroom language learners do very little additional listening or reading or speaking on their own.

Once the learner understands that listening to interesting content on an mp3 player is more productive than classroom time, the focus of learning can shift to what happens away from classroom. All of a sudden there are hours and hours of time available for study, while doing other chores, exercising, sitting on a bus etc. The time available for learning expands significantly as learners become aware of how to use this time, and where to find the language resources that fit this kind of learning. The available language-contact time increases once the classroom-centred model is abandoned. The classroom model is wasteful of time.

Noticing the language:

To learn to speak a language, we need to improve our ability to notice what is happening in the language. Skilled language learners are those who notice words, structures and even the sounds of the language they are learning. They become alert and attentive to the language.

In the classroom, the teacher introduces vocabulary, grammar rules and other details of the language, according to a curriculum or timetable that does not necessarily meet the interests or needs of the learner, and in the same order and at the same rate for all learners. Passing tests on these details often becomes the main goal of language learning in the classroom, at the expense of learning to communicate.

These details of the language can be discovered and retained better by the learner through lots of pleasurable reading and listening, using online dictionaries for unknown words, keeping lists of those unknown words for review, consulting small grammar books from time to time, and googling for grammar information as required. Vocabulary or grammar information that the learner discovers in this way, through frequent listening and reading, and active enquiry, are more easily remembered because of the repetition, and because the learner pursued questions of interest to him or her.

What is more, this method of learning develops a spirit of independence, and the alertness and attentiveness needed for language learning success. The classroom, at great cost, reduces this spirit of independent learning and enquiry.

Conclusion.

The classroom will have to incorporate many of the resources that are available on the Internet, and these new learning styles, in order to reduce costs, increase effectiveness, and meet the expectations of more and more Internet savvy learners. Schools and teachers can help learners navigate and choose from among the vast quantity of programs and resources becoming available. The role of teachers and schools will, therefore, change to a focus on coaching, providing advice, encouragement, and feedback, rather than just teaching the language.

Therefore, if learners and teachers need to worry about Internet start-ups it is because these start-ups represent the future of language learning, a future where results and not credentials or pedagogical pedigree will matter. Those schools and teachers who are able to incorporate the new opportunities offered by the Internet will grow and prosper. The relative weight of classroom instruction time in the learning process will decline, but skillful teacher-coaches, and blended learning schools will be able to influence far more learners than the small number that are able to attend the classroom today, and a far lower cost. The future is bright for language learning.

Image: Wayne Pearson

Related Links:

  1. The Linguist on Languages
  2. LingQ – The future of language learning
  3. The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey
  • http://twitter.com/bnleez bnleez

    “The Internet is a fertile new space for the development of effective and inexpensive learning solutions”

    In order for this statement to have meaning, certain contextual dichotomies (not as discrete opposites but rather extremes that fall along a continuum) need to be addressed beforehand: (a) explicit/implicit learning, (b) native/non-native speaker, (c) instructed (formal)/naturalistic (informal) learning, (d) deductive/inductive inference, (e) concrete/abstract thinking, (f) declarative/procedural knowledge, (g) intentional/unintentional learning, etc. Without considering these dichotomies, the risk is that some may interpret any use of technology as being fruitful.

    It’s been my experience that noticing, consciousness-raising, attention, etc. is best served through interaction (with human beings) which provides feedback, recasts, and positive/negative evidence back to the language learner.

    “The classroom, at great cost, reduces this spirit of independent learning and inquiry”

    I guess this depends on who’s teaching the class. If we are talking affordances (i.e., potential for action), the classroom (with a teacher) offers more to motive students, provide strategies that lead to learners engaging in the language (in and outside the classroom), and help language learners notice differences between L1 and L2 in ways that better lead to intake (gasp). I recognize that potentiality and reality are two different things, but the classroom can (and does in some cases) breakdown the barrier between formal and informal learning. In other words, it’s easier for formal learning environments (like schools) to incorporate informal learning than vice versa.

    It will remain the job of the teacher (i.e., as didactic leader, facilitator, and coach) to play “curator” in orchestrating the learning ecosystem that evolves around the language learner.

  • Anonymous

    bnleez,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I do not understand your first point about dichotomies.

    As to the second point, what you say can be true for certain learners. However, a majority of learners are not motivated and do not respond properly to the teacher’s leads and suggestions. On the other hand, independent learners often are happier charting their own course. I think schools and teachers have to achieve much better results to justify the much higher costs associated with classroom learning.

    • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

      Steve writes on all these education blogs and sometimes I think he should be writing on various Econ blogs. Responses are more or less the same, people attached to their linguistic and pedagogical studies write comments like bnleez.

      It’s quite simple, the west is getting dumber and spending a lot more money and wasting a lot more thought doing it.

      Learning is simply this: gaining knowledge you didn’t have before.

      Except on an impractical level it has nothing to do with “instructed (formal)/naturalistic (informal) learning…deductive/inductive inference”

      Steve (and he’ll tell me if I’m putting word in his mouth) simply wants to show that the openness of the internet gives us the chance to find our own “food”. People can talk until they’re dry in the mouth about developing better teachers and programs (and god have they!). But kids are learning on their own online without even realizing it.

      For the most part, annoyance of brick of mortar is on the way out , people want to grab and hug and stick to the status quo, it’s always that way. Despite all the writing on the wall.

      • ChinaMike

        Chris,

        Of all the dichotomies that you could have chosen to disparage you actually choose two of the most important.

        instructed vs. naturalistic could otherwise be understood as what comes out of the teacher’s mouth vs. what comes out of a native speakers mouth in a natural setting.

        and

        deductive vs. inductive could be explained as me teaching you the rules vs. you trying to figure them out on your own with the resources at hand.

        Seems to me to be pretty important dichotomies when it comes time to creating a language learning program!

        • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

          Your definitions seem then to make his letters (a) and (b) repetitive. Whether or not we focus on his textbook dichotomies is moot. The conclusion he jumps to is a non-sequitur:

          “Without considering these dichotomies, the risk is that some may interpret any use of technology as being fruitful. ”

          When Steve’s full statement was:

          ” The Internet is a fertile new space for the development of effective and inexpensive learning solutions.Costs will continue to come down, and the variety and effectiveness of programs offered will continue to increase.”

          We’ve talked talked deep into the comments on Steve’s blog about some technologies being quite a big waste of money, eg Language Labs. If the whole of Steve’s piece is read he makes it very clear what is fruitful:

          Motivation, Time and Noticing the Language.

          Steve didn’t give anyone any reason to even begin to think that if don’t consider certain teaching processes that we’re in danger that we “may interpret any use of technology as being fruitful.”

          I’m sure bnleez is very intelligent and could spin circles around me in any pedagogical debate, but it seemed less like he was thinking critically and practically and more like he’d just read that for a class and it was fresh on his brain.

    • http://twitter.com/bnleez bnleez

      Clarifying my comment about dichotomies…

      You say, “”The Internet is a fertile new space for the development of effective and inexpensive learning solutions”

      I say, it depends. This statement depends completely on how learning occurs: deductive vs. inductive reasoning, etc. Learning depends on where learning falls along the continuum of the various dichotomies that I’ve listed before. This is what we should be talking about, regardless if it involves a teacher or not, or online or f2f.

      You say, “a majority of learners are not motivated and do not respond properly to the teacher’s leads and suggestions”

      Really? I would say that most students entering into a classroom (or starting a non-credit class online) that first day are motivated to learn. And as the course progresses, students generally rely more on teachers (or someone else) to lead and suggest in an effort to motivate them to take more responsibility for their own learning.

      You say, “independent learners often are happier charting their own course”

      Well, yes, they do. But most students need assistance (from teachers or some other more knowledgeable other) as they move from being dependent, to independent to interdependent learners. I would say that most learners need some level of mediation in order to experience such transformation. And finally, the pursuit of becoming an interdependent learner comes from teachers (or some other more knowledge other) who provide choices for language learners through the differentiation of content, process, and product. I realize you are advocating that if learners have total control over how they are to learn, they are better off. But I would argue that the paradox of choice (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM) is alive and well.

  • Steve W

    I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that bnleez hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s talking about. But in fairness, his post does give a flavor of the mental training ed schools provide, and it’s not savory. There may still be a case to be made for the classroom and the teacher, but he certainly doesn’t make it. At any rate it doesn’t matter. The “pedagogue” is going the way of the blacksmith.

    A motivated student, by listening, reading, and consulting reference materials, can learn a language in 6-12 months. It’s a fact, and we all have to admit it – if we put aside our desire for profit and power over others. Thanks to the internet it is possible to do this at no charge. This too is a fact, and an ever-expanding one.

    I look forward to the imminent collapse of “certified” knowledge in favor of just plain old knowledge. In this way the internet is, somewhat counterintuitively, helping us recover our instinct for both learning and for helping others to learn, by shattering the ramparts thrown up by people who game society through dubious credentials and inscrutable verbiage.

    No dichotomies, no affordances, and no “curators who orchestrate evolving learning ecosystems”. And no fat checks to the bursar every six months. Just learning and sharing.

    Steve Worboys

    • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

      I especially agree with paragraph 3. I’m disappointed though that you feel that way about blacksmiths, I was planning to get my MA in Blacksmithery and do believe that there’s a place for it in modern society.

    • ChinaMike

      Steve,

      It isn’t an actual limb that you are on. It is more like a twig.

      We are in the dubious habit of using professional language on this site. And in many cases it obscures more than it illuminates however if you can’t understand what was said maybe the better approach would be to ask for clarification.

      Good questions, after all, are stepping stones to knowledge.

  • http://www.myeslfriends.com George

    Steve your simple (3 item) list resonates with me and my experiences in the online learning world. Just yesterday I told a group of Edupunkers that I and others can play the part of mentors or guides. We can each teach and impart to the learner our tools for their quest. There are very powerful mentors of every kind but we cannot share the most important secret. That tool or more correctly called the master tool lies within them and only they can find it and wield it.

    Much as the master ring in Lord of the Rings, one ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them. Sounds chilling and a bit sophomoric but I try to remember to remind them that there is a master tool that brings all others into fruition and without it any efforts are doomed to at most a shadow of their true potential.

    Each must go beyond the tools we mentors offer on a personal hero’s journey. Deep within their most personal hopes and fears. They must find their own purpose and motivation. Not what the world says is important. Not family nor even their immediate goals. The purpose/motivation is usually very deep and takes some serious searching. But to those who find it, they find that the greatest strength and empowerment to do many things that then lies within their grasp.

    But I digress…. Thanks Steve, the best wisdom can be found in the most simple. Your words are profound but wasted on those who are not on the quest.

  • Rickinalbi

    I appreciate Mr. Kaufman taking time to react to my article. Given the lack of clash between our two pieces, however, I have trouble understanding why he characterized his piece as a “response.”

    Mr. Kaufman’s article certainly does not contradict anything that I wrote. In my article, I claimed that none of the founders of a certain group of start-ups, all of whom are promoting their foreign language curriculum materials, have a background in language education. Mr. Kaufman’s response does not address this claim. I then argued that writing curriculum is hard, and that experience in education would likely make a difference in the quality of a curriculum product. Mr. Kaufman is silent on this point as well. Next, I noted that because these start-ups have no educator in high-level management, they may suffer a systemic bias in their decision-making processes that will work against the educational quality of their product. Mr. Kaufman does not address this point. Finally, I argued that these factors should cause us to be skeptical as to the quality of the products these companies produce. Again, Mr. Kaufman says nothing directly on point, even though he heads one of the companies I mention.

    Instead, Mr. Kaufman claims that classroom learning is ineffective and expensive, and that Internet learning is effective and cheap. To the extent those claims are true, they are irrelevant to the questions of curriculum that I raised. Good curriculum delivered over the Internet can be just as good in the classroom. Bad curriculum used in the classroom is no better if it is uploaded to the Internet. Bad curriculum delivered to the self-learner is particularly harmful, since the self-learner has no teacher to guide the instruction and correct the errors in the curriculum material. To adress my skepticism as to the products at hand, then, we need something other than a general discussion about classroom learning and the Internet.

    Mr. Kaufamn next says that motivated students who engage heavily with a foreign language will learn that language better than other types of students. This, however, holds true for any subject, and is patently obvious to anyone who has taught. It also has nothing to do with whether that learning takes place in the classroom, over the Internet, or anywhere else. More importantly, it has nothing to do with curriculum — the sole subject of my article. True, the Internet gives motivated students access to a vastly wider range of curriculum materials. If the materials on the Internet are poor, however, or if the motivated student makes bad selections, then that increased access is meaningless. Immersing oneself in bad French, for example, is only going to lead to a mastery of bad French.

    Even after Mr. Kaufman’s piece, then, we are left with the question underlying my article: why should we believe the materials I question will help people learn a foreign language, when the people behind the start-ups producing those materials have no experience in language education?

    • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

      How do you immerse yourself in bad French with a tool like Lingq? You become immersed in the French you wan to learn. A Parisian may think your Quebecois French is bad, but it’s your French.

      Also why does one need a director of education? Have you looked at the state of education lately? Since we’re the subject of foreign language acquisition, which program, which schools, developed by which educational professional has been effective?

      I’m glad it seems we all agree that “motivated students will learn better than other types of students” a lot our problems and founded in the appearance that the “studiers of teaching” have made things quite more complicated than they need to be, perhaps because the interconnected world is chomping on their domain.

      Who taught and developed the curriculum for Steve to speak 11 languages to a degree that he can have political discussions and read that languages classics? It was Tolstoy, Marquez, Voltaire, not the work of a director of language.

      School made me think that I didn’t have an ear for languages, but I speak three pretty well now, no thanks to the “system” despite its cost.

      Which director of education was responsible for Moses McCormick’s ability to speak 40 languages at an everyday level? I’m afraid your curriculum would have turned off the kind of learner Moses is, if you developed something for the kind of learner Steve is.

      We agree that we need to motivate. We disagree that we need to hire pedagogues for a hundred thousand dollars a year to run websites that probably have less revenue than that. The market will decide which programs are most effective.

      • ChinaMike

        Chris,

        Am I understanding you correctly? Do you think the only effective approach to language instruction is Steve’s?

        • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

          No, you are not understanding me correctly. I used three examples, including myself, all of us have similarities and differences. I would defer to Moses and Steve since they are more accomplished than I.

          Not sure where I inferred that I think Steve’s approach is the best way necessarily. I will agree with Rickinalbi and Steve that a motivated learner is usually the best learner.

          I do agree with Steve on a basic level, just like in English (you pedagogues will have to find the study for me, to me this point is self evident) the more I read the better my vocabulary gets and it’s no different in a foreign language. When I get to read things I enjoy, I read more.

          Add some listening and there you have you the meat of the Lingq system. The majority of the content is user chosen, self appointed curriculum, which in my case are articles about Polish politics, Steve’s case are about Russian Brothels (ask him :)) and in Moses’s case about talking about his everyday hobbies. (By the way, of my examples, Moses does not use lingq very often).

          The meat is there for successful language learners: reading and listening. Even if the goal is speaking.

          We should keep in mind that any writing or speaking that occurs will have to have had some form of listening or reading to precede it.

          • ChinaMike

            So, can I infer that you have only seen three examples of a successful language learning instructional process?

          • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

            No you can’t.

            It would be silly to do so. I used examples. Why are you so silly? Why do chose to infer things for absolutely no reason?

          • ChinaMike

            Dear Chris,

            Actually I appreciate being called silly. Thank-you.

            Then I am assuming, since these are merely examples, that you have more. And since you have examples of successful programs (many, some, a few?), would you mind sharing with us how you go about judging whether a program is successful or not?

      • Rickinalbi

        You ask how you could immerse yourself in bad French on a site like LingQ. I preface this by saying that I will be talking about how sites like LingQ could provide bad material. I am not saying that LingQ has materials like this.

        Materials that are riddled with spelling, grammatical, and pronunciation errors would qualify as “bad French.” Materials full of slang that do not identify that material as slang would also qualify. Materials that are mistranslated would qualify (For a humorous slant on this, find the Monty Python skit about the man using a Hungarian phrasebook to buy cigarettes). Materials that use regional language and fail to point out that fact would qualify. Of course, students should be exposed to regional language and slang – but they need to know how and where that language can be used.

        If Mr. Kaufman and his competitors were to put excerpts from the great literary masters on their websites, they would be making strides to assuage my skepticism (we would still need to think about things like the quality of the translations and the usage of contemporary language, but questions of quality would obviously dissipate). From what I have seen, however, the sites I discuss are not providing that sort of material to any great degree.

        I am not willing to blame the current state of language education entirely on the curriculum. There are lots of factors at play here. In terms of curriculum I think have been successful, however, I guess I’d start with the Foreign Services Institute materials. Old, ugly, and some problems with sexist language, but a certain set of my motivated students learn from them. I kind of like Capretz’ French In Action, and have been successful with it in a couple of cases with older learners. I’m intrigued by the online French curriculum by Carnegie Mellon, though I have not used it. I am not enamored with any of the ESL curriculum I have used, including the small amounts of the Cambridge materials I have worked with. I supplement all my standard curricula like crazy, with lots of original materials.

        If the average student were sufficiently motivated and talented so that they could learn 40 languages, we would not be having this conversation. For better or for worse, I have to focus on the ordinary student, with all their time-constraints and other limitations. In addition, I need to bring students’ reading and writing skills up to par, and they need to speak on more than everyday life issues. What these polyglots are doing is interesting and should be examined, but it is far from clear that it would work for everyone. What works for extremely gifted students does not necessarily work for average ones.

        In terms of the need for educational expertise, I must still disagree. You are right in saying that there is lots of work in the educational arena that isn’t worth the paper on which it is printed. I would say the same about many novels I have read. The fact that there’s lots of garbage, however, does not mean that it’s all garbage or that something good won’t come out of it. Moreover, educational expertise is central to the core product these start-ups produce. If the founders of these start-ups don’t have the funds to pay the salary of someone experienced in education, they either need to develop that experience themselves before putting their product on the market, start granting some deferred compensation to those experienced persons, or find some other product line. We would not let a company bring an untested pain reliever to the market simply because it lacks the money to hire medical personnel. I see no reason to use a different standard for education companies. And remember, I am only saying we should be skeptical. If these companies publish some positive results in terms of language acquisition – which would consist of a whole lot more than testimonials and the number of people who subscribe to the site — my skepticism will start going away. To date, we have not seen any such results.

        I also am not convinced the market will decide what programs are the most effective, if what you mean by “market” is the private sector. For-profit universities are coming under increasing scrutiny for their recruiting practices, their over-dependence on student loans as sources of revenue, and their lack of academic support. Some of the greatest universities in the United States are publicly funded. Studies are starting to reveal that charter schools may not be more effective than public schools. To the extent curriculum is a problem, I would remind you that curriculum production in public American schools is a private enterprise. The public-verus-private issue requires much more analysis.

      • Rickinalbi

        You ask how you could immerse yourself in bad French on a site like LingQ. I preface this by saying that I will be talking about how sites like LingQ could provide bad material. I am not saying that LingQ has materials like this.

        Materials that are riddled with spelling, grammatical, and pronunciation errors would qualify as “bad French.” Materials full of slang that do not identify that material as slang would also qualify. Materials that are mistranslated would qualify (For a humorous slant on this, find the Monty Python skit about the man using a Hungarian phrasebook to buy cigarettes). Materials that use regional language and fail to point out that fact would qualify. Of course, students should be exposed to regional language and slang – but they need to know how and where that language can be used.

        If Mr. Kaufman and his competitors were to put excerpts from the great literary masters on their websites, they would be making strides to assuage my skepticism (we would still need to think about things like the quality of the translations and the usage of contemporary language, but questions of quality would obviously dissipate). From what I have seen, however, the sites I discuss are not providing that sort of material to any great degree.

        I am not willing to blame the current state of language education entirely on the curriculum. There are lots of factors at play here. In terms of curriculum I think have been successful, however, I guess I’d start with the Foreign Services Institute materials. Old, ugly, and some problems with sexist language, but a certain set of my motivated students learn from them. I kind of like Capretz’ French In Action, and have been successful with it in a couple of cases with older learners. I’m intrigued by the online French curriculum by Carnegie Mellon, though I have not used it. I am not enamored with any of the ESL curriculum I have used, including the small amounts of the Cambridge materials I have worked with. I supplement all my standard curricula like crazy, with lots of original materials.

        If the average student were sufficiently motivated and talented so that they could learn 40 languages, we would not be having this conversation. For better or for worse, I have to focus on the ordinary student, with all their time-constraints and other limitations. In addition, I need to bring students’ reading and writing skills up to par, and they need to speak on more than everyday life issues. What these polyglots are doing is interesting and should be examined, but it is far from clear that it would work for everyone. What works for extremely gifted students does not necessarily work for average ones.

        In terms of the need for educational expertise, I must still disagree. You are right in saying that there is lots of work in the educational arena that isn’t worth the paper on which it is printed. I would say the same about many novels I have read. The fact that there’s lots of garbage, however, does not mean that it’s all garbage or that something good won’t come out of it. Moreover, educational expertise is central to the core product these start-ups produce. If the founders of these start-ups don’t have the funds to pay the salary of someone experienced in education, they either need to develop that experience themselves before putting their product on the market, start granting some deferred compensation to those experienced persons, or find some other product line. We would not let a company bring an untested pain reliever to the market simply because it lacks the money to hire medical personnel. I see no reason to use a different standard for education companies. And remember, I am only saying we should be skeptical. If these companies publish some positive results in terms of language acquisition – which would consist of a whole lot more than testimonials and the number of people who subscribe to the site — my skepticism will start going away. To date, we have not seen any such results.

        I also am not convinced the market will decide what programs are the most effective, if what you mean by “market” is the private sector. For-profit universities are coming under increasing scrutiny for their recruiting practices, their over-dependence on student loans as sources of revenue, and their lack of academic support. Some of the greatest universities in the United States are publicly funded. Studies are starting to reveal that charter schools may not be more effective than public schools. To the extent curriculum is a problem, I would remind you that curriculum production in public American schools is a private enterprise. The public-verus-private issue requires much more analysis.

    • Anonymous

      It’s true that some learning materials available online are dreadful. I know, because when I started pursuing language study online I made some mistakes, and even dropped a few bucks on stuff that I now know to be laughable rubbish. But I learned. I also learned that the best materials are very often free. To name a single example, consider the materials available from the language departments of the University of Texas. Anyone interested in getting a hold of excellent audio-visual, as well as textual materials in languages such as French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Hindi can find at the UT websites an outstanding collection, all developed by professionals.

      Observing the existence of bad product is properly balanced by observing – and recommending – good product.

    • Anonymous

      To me curriculum is irrelevant. You cannot teach a language you can only learn a language. The highest goal of a language class is to motivate and encourage, not to instruct.

  • iaing

    Rickinalbi, you don’t need any curriculum to learn a language. This isn’t a neuroscience degree or civil engineering.

    I am wondering how many people the “experts” in this discussion have actually taught to speak a new language from scratch to fluency? I’m guessing that Steve has helped far more people, learn far more quickly and effectively, from scratch to fluency, than the “experts” combined.

    My mother taught me most of my native language, without a curriculum and without annointing a high level curriculum product management educator. Let’s get real here.

    Your points don’t really need addressing because they are not at all relevant to quickly and efficiently learning a new language. The only curriculum you need is to listen, and read a lot of, repetitive material in your target language at progressively more difficult content levels.

    Truly efficient language learning essentially boils down to an exercise in gaining access to a wide variety of graded audio and text.

    • http://www.polymathisthegoal.com Chris Sarda

      Agreed iang, pedagogy like other social sciences (recently in sociology and linguistics on other forums) often irk me, they seem to be filing a never ending nail. Perhaps it’s because I’m a business major all I care about are results. Just bring out the damn nail clippers!

      Steve by the simple fact of him being able to do it, and not be a language professor, but a business owner, and relaying simple tips that he’s learned along the way, has helped me a hundred times more than any of my foreign language teachers in high school.

      Results.

      I see Steve talk and write, and I think if that num-nut can do it, so can I. :)

    • Rickinalbi

      I would be quite pleased to have you “get real,” and join me and the other parties to this discussion in the reality-based community. In order for you to gain the necessary credibility, however, you need to work on a couple of things.

      First, you need to stop contradicting yourself. In your first paragraph, you say one doesn’t need a curriculum to learn a language. Later, you say that the “only curriculum” one needs is to listen and read “repetitive material” in the target language and/or gain[] access to a wide variety of graded audio and text.” Both statements can’t be true. Reality-based conversation requires you to pick one position or the other, so that the conversation proceeds in a logical manner.

      Second, you need to become familiar with the notions of “the definition of terms” and “evidence.” For instance, you do not clarify what you mean by “fluency.” Anyone who has worked in language education knows that the term is subject to lack of precision and abuse. You also need to specify how those six to twelve months to obtain “fluency” must be spent. In addition, you need to provide some evidence to support that claim, because its truth is not at all obvious. Now, there might be some room for agreement here. Put someone who is motivated to learn and good with languages in the intensive FSI program and define fluency at some particuar level on a widely-available scale (ACTFL, CEFR, FSI), and we could probably find common ground. Mr. Kaufman can obviously speak for himself, moreover, but I don’t think even he would agree with your idea that “all you need” is graded texts. He freely admits to referring to grammars from time to time, among other things.

      Third, you need to learn how to focus on the issue presented. My article and comment expressed skeptcism as to whether the curriculum materials certain companies provide – such as various, graded readings – should be trusted as being of the quality we should use in our learning. Part of your response (which I think is the part you really intend to say, but feel free to correct any misimpression) is that all we need are graded readings. Even assuming that is true, however, you have missed the point: why should we trust these particular companies to provide those readings and the related gradings? What makes them competent to do so? Mr. Kaufman could quite plausibly qualify, given his skills as a linguist, but the others? And do we know that Mr. Kaufamn chosen the articles on his site? My understanding is that many of those pieces are submitted by other members of the community who may or may not have Mr. Kaufman’s skills.

      Fourth, you need to learn that what you are “guessing” and “wondering” has no place in this discussion. “Guesses” of the sort you offer don’t advance the discussion. If you are truly “wondering” about something, moreover, why don’t you make some polite inquires to find out? Just be prepared for answers you did not expect.

      Fifth, you need to edit out irrelevant comments. The fact that parents teach their children the basics of their mother language to create fluent six-year-olds has little to do with how adults learn a second language to the fluency required of students at a university or the workplace — especially if we talk about adults using “graded texts. Of course, there is an exception to this idea if you define fluency as the level of speech possessed by the average six-year-old. For the record, if that is indeed your definition, then I would agree that most adults could reach “fluency” in six months to a year.

      Finally, you need to exercise your meta-cognitive skills have to edit out comments like “let’s get real” and to eliminate sarcastic quotation marks around the word “experts.” Once you do, I suspect you will be greeted with open arms in these discussions. I also assure you that an increase in self-control will result in a reduction of the severity of the tone I use in any future message directed to you.

  • Anonymous

    I am not saying that people cannot learn in a classroom and that teachers cannot influence learners and help them. I ma just saying that the cost is prohibitive relative to the results. Very few learners really improve. In college there is a rapid attrition rate as learners fall off. In school kids have to stay the course, at least in places like Canada where the second language is compulsory. They continue to occupy a seat in class and learn nothing.

    And then there is the adult learner. Most do not learn much, despite going to class. In Canada, from my experience, only those immigrants who expose themselves to the language in their lives, actually learn English( or French). The majority go to ESL class and progress very little.

    Then there is the civil service in Canada. In one typical case, a senior civil servant I know of in the Canadian aid agency was assigned to learn French, a full year on salary, in Quebec city. The purpose was for him to be assigned to francophone Africa. At the end of the year he declared that he was not capable of operating in French and was assigned to a non-francophone country.

    If he had studied on his own, using the methods we use at LingQ, I believe the would have learned more. I do not know that for sure, of course. But what I know for sure is that it would have cost a lot less money.

    My point is that the additional cost of traditional classroom centred learning is not justified. One class a week or two is enough. The costs need to be brought down and the Internet is the way to do it.

  • Anonymous

    The truth remains that if you really want to learn a language, all the resources you could possibly want are available online for free. Teachers are great, if you can afford one. But they are just confidence coaches, and once you are on the right road, there is no more need for them. I am not here to defend Steve Kaufmann’s system or to jump on the author of the article concerning the frailty of some internet language-teaching startups. I like teachers, when they aren’t idiots. Of course, you never get 7-day free trials with such teachers, like the trials you always get with the internet language-teaching sites. And not just that; a typical subscription online to one of the language sites runs (say) $50. I’m wondering how many teachers will ask for $50 for a 6-month commitment.

    Ha ha ha. Just kidding. We all know the answer.

    • ChinaMike

      Let’s see…for you teachers are
      1. Expensive
      2. Nothing more than confidence coaches.
      3. Not needed because of all the free resources flooding the Internet.
      4. Are idiots sometimes (Yep, combine the two and we get expensive idiots)
      5. Don’t offer free trails
      6. Don’t (or do?) ask for $50 for a 6-month commitment (????)

      Strelnikov,

      Thanks for adding to this storehouse of knowledge we call the Internet!

  • Anonymous

    In the long run, teachers of simple things like human language will be overwhelmed by the internet. The classroom cannot compete with a virtual world. Teachers fear the internet for the same reason dictators do: they can’t control it, they can’t dictate the terms in which learning will occur, and they can’t accept that all the arguments in the world will not impede the natural, real-time interaction of people from all over the world learning from each other, at no cost.

    • ChinaMike

      Strelnikov1905,

      Ah, the greatest fiction in the world is that something we spend perhaps 1,000 plus hours on (to achieve a fairly high level of competence) is cost free.

      But why stop at language learning? How about math, science, history, sex education, art and education itself? Once one can learn a language on-line without people (since your prognostication calls for teachers to disappear) the elimination of all teachers in the instructional process is a fairly simple matter.

      • Anonymous

        You know what? ChinaMike is right. He’s convinced me. The internet is a false dawn. The sooner we expose it for the fraud it is, the sooner we can get back to the classroom and get real, high-performance learning from people who know what all those deep acronyms mean. Naturally they’ll need to be paid…

        • ChinaMike

          Dear Strelnikov1905,

          Say again, what did I convince you of?

    • ChinaMike

      Yes, you are right. In fact, language learning is so simple, that some people have been known to learn an entire language within what, mere days.

      And I liked the way you compared dictators and teachers. Brilliant! You could of gone a step further by saying that not only do we both fear the same things but we also love the same things as well. CONTROL! The more the better!

  • Anonymous

    In the long run, teachers of simple things like human language will be overwhelmed by the internet. The classroom cannot compete with a virtual world. Teachers fear the internet for the same reason dictators do: they can’t control it, they can’t dictate the terms in which learning will occur, and they can’t accept that all the arguments in the world will not impede the natural, real-time interaction of people from all over the world learning from each other, at no cost.

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