Monday, May 29, 2006

Why technology ?

I thought I'd set out and reply to a comment I received on a post a few days ago from Daniel.

"The overwhelming majority of humans on the planet who learn languages other than their mother-tongue are doing so without the aid of current computer technology.

it's a tool...a very good one perhaps, but not an indispensable one."

This post is an attempt to answer in more details a valid point that he has raised and also a way to help me put straight a few things in my own mind. It will be a bit long so please bear with me as I believe the points I'm going to make are worth writing about in more depth.

I guess Daniel's basic idea is that technology such computers and the internet are less important than we give them credit for, that there are other ways of learning languages which do not rely on such gadgets and are equally, if not more, effective and have the added advantage of costing far less.

It is a persuasive argument which is backed up by an enormous amount of empirical evidence, if we look at language learning both historically and on a global scale. It could be argued that multilingualism is the far more common than monolingualism. Also, historically speaking, the idea of a country in which everyone speaks just one language is a relatively new idea. Even in Europe, countres we think of a linguistically homogenous, were nothing of the sort until quite recently. So it certainly safe to say then that technology has not been not necessary for language learning.

That people learn, and learn well, second and third languages depends on three factors, none of which have the slightest connection with technology.

1 Need: Chidren growing up in multi-lingual language environments pick up languages easily, they quickly learn what they need to know in order to enjoy the company of their peers, to communicate with parents etc. Take them away from such situations and put them in a single language environment then they quickly forget what they have learnt. The other languages are no longer useful and hence get forgotten. Similarly, communities work on the same principle, the members learn and use language based on their utilitarian value. If for some reason the language ceases to fulfill a valuable social function, it too is forgotten. Examples of this can be seen in Greece with Vlahika, Pontiaka etc.

2 Desire. People learn a language because they want to, because in some way it will enhance their status, self-worth, standing in the community etc. Whether it be the members of the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy or the children of the Indian middle class. One of the good things about teaching in Greece is that the fact that most people realise the desirabilty of learning English. This does not mean that very student rushes to class, full of determintion to learn the present perfect rule or phrasal verbs, but rather I don't have to try and convince them that English is something that is going to help them. They may reject the learning but not the underlying desire.

3 Meaningful commuication on a regular basis. People learn when they have the chance to use the language(s) to do something, when they come into contact with its speakers in a way that requires them to do use it. Most languages learnt well are ones that are used often for conduct of real-life tasks.

So where does that leave us in countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Korea etc ? The current system of foreign language learning is, to put it politely, flawed. Put less politely, extremely ineffective. Bilingualism is not the norm in such countries and despite the fact that an enormous amount of time and money is spent of teaching foreign languages the results are disappointing.

This is where I feels that technology can and will in some way replicate once again the kind of learning experience which encourages language learning in poorer and more linguitically diverse countries. Paradoxically, it is going to take a whole lot of money and high tech tools to reproduce what is, and has been historially, a natural state of affairs, namely easy and regular contact with speakers of other langauges.

Traditionally, language teaching methodologies which place a teacher in a classroom with a a few books and a bunch of monolingual kids has been a cheap way to fob off demands for real foreign language learning. It is a pale shadow of the real life situations which encourage and reinforce such language aquisition.

However, technologies such as blogs, podcasts, skype telephony, teleconferencing, video etc. offer us the chance to provide meaningful contact with the other speaker of the languages we want to learn cheaply. And I believe it will go along way to recreating a sense of need and desire to learn within our students. It will open up to them the idea that what they are learning can be used to achieve any number of goals. None of this will happen spontaneously and the role of the techer will remain as vital as ever. However, this is where technology will have a defining effect on the way we learn and finally start fulfilling some of the hype that has surrounded it for so many years.


Franje said...

I'm trying to figure out a way to use blogging to improve my students' math skills and improve their motivation.

I have just discovered your blog, so I need to ask: do you know if just the act of blogging boosts student motivation?

teacher dude said...

Hi Franje,

Interesting question. The answer is, unforunately; maybe, sometimes. While I had some students who took to bloggin like a duck to water a lot weren't crazy about it. I think like all new techniques I let my enthusiasm get the better of my judgement sometimes.

On the other hand, if you can provide a good reason forthem to blog, which can be anything from higher grades to making new friends then it does help. I think that next year I will integrate what they do in the class more closely with what I would like them to do on their blogs.This year I just kinda of said,

"Look how cool blogging is, let's try it. "

Inevitably I got mixed results. On it's own it's doesn't automatically guarantee motivation.

As far as maths is concerned I'm not sure what to say. However, I would definitely recommend Cool Cat Teacher's blog (the link is on the right hand side of my blog, under blogs I read) for ideas. Also there is an excellent series of podcasts by Marc Prensky which I blogged about recently. The links are in a post I wrote last week. He touches on how a whole range of web 2.0 tools can be used to teach.

kassandra said...

Hi! I'm basically just popping by to say that I discovered your blog the other day, and have (going back and reading previous posts) found it very interesting. I'm in the field of creating multimedia English language CDs (those generally dinky CDs that come free with textbooks) myself, so it's great to find a teacher who's actually enthusiastic about, and well versed in, technology and its uses. And whatever the benefits of technology in language learning, I'm sure your students think you're just about the coolest teacher around!
Some other points pro using tech in teaching:
- it's a lot more fun than staring at a textbook as it's interactive and talks or writes back to you.
- many students already spend much of their time chatting online or playing computer games, so if you disguise the material as such, they won't view it as a chore but rather (hopefully) as an extension of things they would already be doing in their free time.
- It's a lot more versatile than a textbook, meaning it can incorporate features that slower students may choose to ignore, but which others can choose to take advantage of.
- and (basically your point) exposure, exposure exposure! Even if the material isn't teaching something specific, it's immersing students in an English speaking environment much more naturally than class CDs and the like do.
I'm looking forward to seeing what other insights you have on the subject!

teacher dude said...

Thank you Kassandra for your thoughtful post. I thought that my post would be a bit long and boring, however, I'm glad people got something from it.

I believe that computers help learning best when they don't teach, at least not in the traditional sense. Better somebody plays Counterstrike or gossips about Lordi on MySpace than a hundred grammar exercises.

As you say, if we can disguise the material then it works a lot better. The more we can get from the foreign language learning paradigm and the more we use technology to learn something (whatever that may be)through the medium of English, the better the results will be.

BTW I enjoy your blog, especially the stuff about Lesvos. It reminded me of the summers I spent as a teenager in southern Ireland, staying on my grandmother's farm.

dorapap said...

Hi! I'm back! A very interesting post today. Unfortunately there are some more "traditional" people, who do not want to accept that technology actually helps teaching and practicing new language. Keep up the good work!

daniel said...

i haven't met any such "traditional" teachers. most teachers i know recognize the potential benefits of technology much in the same way that caveman Grog's contemporaries recognized the benefit of tying a stick to a rock in order to whack things with it. with or without a stick, it's still a tool.

teacher dude said...

I think daniel that you have had better luck with your colleagues than me and Dorapap. Resistance to change is the norm in Greece.

For every teacher like Dora trying to push ahead there are ten who'd prefer not to change at all, and this is not limited just to technology.