Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some thoughts on the shift of foreign-language learning from classrooms to the web

The concept behind Help a Reporter Out—or HARO, for short—is pretty simple. Journalists (which, according to them, includes bloggers—nice!) can submit requests for sources. Sources then get emailed all such requests, and they can pitch themselves as sources. Then it's up to the journalists to decide whether or not to use the sources.

A few months back, a friend of mine forwarded me this request for a source:
I'm looking for sources to discuss the shift of foreign language learning from classrooms and one-on-one tutoring into the online, Internet realm. Can languages be learned as well online? Why is this format gaining ground? Are high schools getting out of language teaching?
I've heard nothing since, and the journalist has posted nothing related to language learning since then, so I'm guessing that the article was killed.

In any case, I thought the questions were interesting, and, after the jump, you'll find my quick answers to the questions.
To answer your questions quickly, I'm very much of the opinion that languages can be learned online. Given the unimpressive results of U.S. language learning in school, you're not setting a high bar when asking if learning online can be as effective as learning in school. The answer to that question is a solid "Yes" followed by "and my money's on it being even more effective".

The resources available on the net enhance a language learners ability to learn immensely. Immediate access to native speaker tutors. The ability to instantly look up vocabulary, written characters, verb conjugations, grammar rules, etc. Exposure to any sort of target language content you could want via the internet. These far surpass the traditional "Crack open the text book, start on unit 1" approach that lingers in many schools.

I would say the two biggest reasons that this format is gaining ground are (i) traditional learning methods are boring and (ii) traditional learning methods are ineffective. Perhaps the efficacy of the newer learning methods remains to be proven, but that they have managed to dial down the boring is beyond doubt.

I think it's premature to say that language teaching is dead in high schools (see here), although I would hope that the traditional teaching method gives up the ghost. I think we're going to begin to see more approaches like that of Drake University, which systematically leverage the power of online tools within an academic institution.


  1. Traditional learning methods are effective. People -do- end up speaking the language, so they must have been.

    However, newer methods might be more efficient.

  2. That hasn't been my experience at all.

    In my high school, there were dozens of students who had taken five years of French, Spanish or German, and even the best among them could do little more than find their way to a bathroom.

    The results in college were slightly better, but, even there, those who didn't study abroad tended to be extremely limited in how they could use the language.

    Those results ÷ the amount of time spent = inefficient.

  3. I think we can agree that the most important factor in language acquisition is motivation.

    People who study languages "on the web" are undoubtedly those who *want* to learn the language. Most U.S. high school kids are taking foreign language because it is a requirement for college.

    I do agree that web tools are very helpful, but there is no reason those can't be integrated into a classroom environment.