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.