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.
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.
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