First, a quick life update – the reason this blog hasn’t been updated in a little while is that I have started a new job, in a new city, teaching in a school for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Blogging has taken a bit of a back seat as I have been settling in to my new life, but I hope to pick up again as I start exploring how we can use technology in our setting to meet the individual needs of the young people. I will continue to look at overall ed-tech issues, but there will be an increasing focus on how this applies in the setting of a small specialist school.
But I really wanted to talk right now about language learning. A year ago I finally got the chance to do something about being an embarrassingly monolingual Brit – a few months free to travel in Latin America and learn Spanish along the way. This turned out to also be a great way to explore using new technology for learning. I discovered that there are amazing tools out there that can help you connect with people, keep motivated and take control of your own learning journey, and new ones are appearing at an amazing rate. Here are the tools that have been of the most use to me personally.
I have to give a huge mention to the blog that started me off along this path – Fluent in 3 months. The author, ‘Benny the Irish Polyglot’ has an infectious enthusiasm and belief in the power of getting out there and talking. Reading this blog got me to make the decision to cut out English almost completely for the first three months of my trip. It also led me to pretty much all the other tools and ideas mentioned below. There are other great language learning blogs out there, but simply working your way through the Fluent in 3 Months posts from the beginning will set you well on the path to learning any language.
- Social networking
How do you really learn a language? You talk to people in that language. What the internet can do is connect us to people who are happy to speak to struggling learners. Which social network works best for you may vary depending on where you are and who you want to meet.
– If you are in the UK and want to find a language exchange group to meet up with in real life, try Meetup
– If you are travelling, Couchsurfing or similar may work best – you can find people to stay with, but even if that does not appeal there are great meet up events, or you can simply find somebody to have a drink with or show you around the city you are visiting.
– If you want to find foreign language speakers to talk to online, either as paid teachers or as exchange partners, Italki comes highly recommended. I have not used this one myself, but it is a social networking site designed for finding language learning partners or teachers for online chatting.
In addition I have used Facebook, Skype and Google Hangouts for keeping in touch with the great people I’ve met. There is nothing like a quick Instant Message chat to keep your reading and writing sharp and keep you in touch with colloquial language. Just learn to stay off these sites in your time set aside for studying!
For me, Duolingo has been an incredible tool. It is a free online language learning tool/game where you transcribe, translate or repeat sentences to slowly work through increasingly challenging lessons. You can also help translate the internet by contributing to crowd-sourced translations of online documents.
The main reason Duolingo has worked so well for me is that it is easy to use ‘little and often’. It can be hard to pick up your language books, your flashcards, your pen and paper every single day, but it is easy to do a couple of five minute online exercises to keep things ticking over, and this little by little approach builds to a powerful amount of learning over time.
This is a brand new tool, but has blown me away. It probably best suits intermediate to advanced language learners who can enjoy reading some texts in the target language.
Lingua.ly is a browser extension. It begins with basic dictionary type functionality – you can click on a foreign language word and it gives you translations. The clever part is that it saves the words you have looked up, and feeds them back to you, spaced out according to theories of long term memory encoding, as mini flash-card style quizzes. You therefore gradually build up a personal vocabulary learning list while reading whatever interests you.
This is studying by stealth. I love it. It means you can follow your interests and study at the same time, learning the vocabulary that you need and studying almost effortlessly. I think this type of learning tool could become more and more important for a wider range of applications in the future – imagine a tool that highlighted examples of figurative language in whatever you were reading and saved them for later review. Or a tool that plucked out the real life maths from newspaper articles and gave mini puzzles based on your current learning goals.
- Translation Tools / Apps
An obvious one, but not to be underestimated. The availability of fast improving translation tools is fantastic for language learning. Like Wikipedia, translation tools can lead you astray if you are not careful but with a little knowledge and application they can take you leaps ahead, helping you out with vocabulary and pronunciation and as scaffolding for being able to smoothly communicate and read at a more functional level while learning. Often it is these simple (but very clever) tools that have the biggest impact.
How else would you carry a comprehensive dictionary, language learning textbooks and books with you as you travel the world? Also worth noting is that there are (at least for Spanish) cheap and cheerful stories available for download that are specifically written for language learners. I recommend getting an e-reader that is single purpose (no games or internet) to help you focus.
In short, despite the ominous stories on the lack of language studying in Schools and Universities, there has never been a better time to learn another language. The interesting question is, does this mean we don’t need teachers? I haven’t had a single formal language lesson yet but have learned a huge amount. What is the role for a human teacher among all these options?
I am not a language teacher. I would love to know if there are there any teachers out there using these tools to good effect in the classroom? Can tools that work so well for self-teaching translate to the school environment? Do teachers see learning through technology as an opportunity or a threat?