The headline “New study may revolutionize language learning” caught my eye the other day.
If I was hoping for a kind of miracle pill, or some means of downloading a language to my brain the way Neo learns Kung Fu in The Matrix, I would have been disappointed – the title of the article is a little optimistic. It don’t think this “discovery” is exactly revolutionary.
Nevertheless, it brings to the fore some “old knowledge” (as one of the commentators on the article puts it) that is worth revisiting for the language classroom.
The report suggests that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns, even if you haven’t a clue what it all means. Nothing new, perhaps, but how has this knowledge influenced teaching methodology, particularly when it comes to teaching beginners? Not much, it would appear. Beginner-level language courses still tend to launch into grammar from day one, and introduce vocabulary first in written form, before the learner ever has the chance to hear the language.
Without going into all the findings of the research, it rings true in the sense that this is surely the natural progression in first language acquisition: toddlers learn to speak by first listening, then imitating the sounds, and only then beginning gradually to formulate words in isolation. Not long after we moved to France I observed my 5-year old daughter begin to learn French from her school friends. I was fascinated one day to come across her babbling to herself unintelligibly much as you would expect a 2-year old to do. I realised that the sounds and intonation were not at all English-sounding, and it dawned on me that this “franco-babble” was an essential milestone for her in learning French.
Some feedback from a very brief Twitter conversation on the topic stipulated that that adults and children do not learn languages in the same way. This is undoubtedly true – it took my then-5 year-old only 7 months to reach the same level of French as her classmates – there are not many adults who could do that. As adults the way we learn a second (third, fourth etc.) language may differ significantly from the way we learnt our native language.
Nevertheless I wonder if the differences haven’t been overstated. This “new” research suggests that simply listening to a new language sets up the necessary structures in the brain required to learn the vocabulary.
One interesting line of enquiry which motivated the research was what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. It was found that even as adults each time we hear new combinations of sounds our brain develops new corresponding neural structures. The more exposure to the sounds, the better prepared we are to learn and retain the language.
The practical application of all this relates to how we can better harness the power of the Internet so that every hour in the language classroom is matched as much as possible with an hour of aural exposure to the language outside. In years gone by this kind of immersion was impossible – today we can surround ourselves with the sounds of a language through songs, movies, mp3s… according to this study language-learning is more about exercising brain tissue than learning facts, and an iPod may just be one of the best tools available for making those necessary neural connections when preparing to learn a language.
So what does that all mean for language teachers – should we not adopt the model of “trainer” or “coach” rather than “teacher”, if our role is to help learners exercise their linguistic neurons, rather than simply offload language facts. How should beginners’ classes look different? What if teaching “hello, good-bye, my name is , please and thank you” was replaced by a programme of listening to language spoken at a natural speed with activities designed to help learners identify and begin to practice the sounds of the language. How then should we help learners keep motivation levels high when swimming in long passages of spoken language before they have any “hooks” to hang recogniseable vocabulary on?
If you have any thoughts on this I would love to hear about it in the comments.
New study may revolutionize language learning, PhysOrg.com
For more discussion on these findings, E/FL 2.0 has an interesting post.
Most of the information I think I might need or want to keep either gets thrown in my Evernote “drawer”, or subscribed to in Google Reader, but the reality is that there are few sites that I read in detail. I said in a recent post that I don’t save bookmarks to my browser any more because there are too many to manage, but that’s not quite true. The few sites that I know I will want to refer to regularly and read in detail have the honour of being saved to my Firefox bookmarks.
Openculture is one of them.
Open Culture explores cultural and educational media (podcasts, videos, online courses, online books etc.) that’s freely available on the web, and that makes learning dynamic, productive, and fun.
This site is all about learning. It is a labour of love that provides links to audio, video and text resources in English for no cost other than the time you invest to study them. Rather than having to Google these resources separately, Openculture conveniently groups them together in one place. Most of the material is appropriate for listening and reading comprehension practice for higher level (B2 +) students of English. Here are just a few of the possibilities.
In the free audio books section you can download great online books from a variety of sources (Librivox, iTunes…), and in different formats (mp3, m4p…) Although some of the works are downloaded whole, many are formatted into chapters for easier handling. The books are categorised into fiction and literature (Jane Austen’s Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Canterbury Tales, Great Expectations …) non fiction (Aristotle, Descartes, Roosevelt …), poetry (Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson…) plus links to a number of specialist audio-book sites.
There are free online university courses and lectures in fields as diverse as archaeology, economics, geography, history and literature.
Language-learning has its own section, with courses in 34 different languages, including English and French. There is also general material on language learning skills.
If you have spent any time on YouTube, you have discovered that there is a lot of junk in online video land. However, Openculture provides links to a variety of “intelligent video collections“, touching on a large range of general subjects, as well as university collections.
Podcast collections include ideas, books and writing, film, music and museums, news and current affairs, science, travel, technology.
If you prefer reading to listening, the “life-changing books“ section will give you some ideas, although these online books are for purchase, not free download. If you were hoping for a free book, you can click through to a number of free fiction and non-fiction e-books, which, while not life-changing, will no doubt give you food for thought.
There are also links to a huge number of culture-related blogs.
Most days the Openculture blog has articles featuring new content which is a must for the feedreader.
You could spend hours just looking through it all. As for me I’m working my way through a list of 15 free Spanish courses on the foreign languages page.
What are you going to start with? So much free learning to be had! For some specific ideas on using Open Culture resources for language learning, try the following:
Newspapers aren’t dead – yet – how to use a pdf version of front page news for tried and true newspaper activities for language learners.
One of the obscure but interesting things I came across this week was PICOL – Pictorial Communication Language. You probably haven’t heard of it yet – it’s a fascinating project by some German graphic designers developing ” a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication.”
So what’s a language teacher doing writing about graphic design? Well, using these PICOL icons they’ve made an interesting short documentary entitled History of the Internet – very engaging. I thought it would make a good English lesson for Upper Intermediate to Advanced students (that’s level B2 for CEF fans), or an ESP class related to computer science. Here’s the online video. There is also a YouTube version.
History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.
Here are a few ideas I might use to craft an esl lesson plan out of this video. You can download a transcript of the video here: history-of-the-internet-transcript
Lead-in (10 minutes). What do your learners know about the history of the Internet? Brainstorm and mindmap a few elements of Internet history. Depending on how geeky your group is you may wish to set them homework the night before to do some very basic research (using Wikipedia, for example) so they have something to bring to the discussion.
Pre-teaching vocabulary (10-15 minutes). Assuming this is an ESP class you could focus on the general theme of language to talk about NETWORKS. Here’s a brief summary of useful material that comes up in the video:
remote connection, time-sharing, large-scale computer network, knowledge transfer, mainframe, interface, interconnected, TCP – Transmission Control Protocol, file transfer, packet switching, centralised/decentralised network architecture, node, compatibility
In ESP classes I love the way that students are usually the experts, and one of the most valuable language-learning experiences you can create is to have them explain their field to you using the language you are focusing on. Being a complete dummy in this area I will have a great time asking my B2 IT expert to explain to me what ‘TCP’ is, the difference between a mainframe and an interface, how ‘packet switching’ works for example.
You could also design a matching activity with a jumbled list of the words to be matched to definitions. A good online dictionary for computer and Internet technology terms is Webopedia.
Viewing (30 minutes). The clip is about 9 minutes long, the speech is very clear but quite fast, and the language quite challenging so even for higher-level students it should probably be viewed in three chunks. Why not design a different viewing activity for each chunk?
Follow-up. Lots of scope here. The documentary finishes with the real launch of the Internet in 1990. What I would probably do is to set a research activity where pairs have to imagine the script for a follow-on documentary concerning the main events in Internet development say from 1990-2000. This could either be structured for an oral presentation, or a piece of writing. I think this kind of activity is more meaningful when learners can do the preparation between class sessions, and can email their work for comment and correction before actually giving the presentation.
So those are some of the ingredients I would probably throw together. How would you use a video clip like this in a lesson? Share some ideas in a comment.
Every language learner has used video at some stage in their journey, and with the explosion of video on the Internet there is a huge amount of material to work with.
But have you ever been on YouTube and found that there are so many videos that you don’t know where to start? Which clips are good for my level? How do I know that they will be interesting? What if the sound quality isn’t good and I find it hard to understand?
If you have asked these questions, then there is a site that is specifically designed for you :
Yappr was designed by a guy who found that watching local television in his second language was the most fun and productive way to study.
On Yappr you can view funny or interesting videos uploaded from people all over the world, that are appropriate for language learning. Yappr members transcribe the videos and add the text, and may even post translations into 7 other languages.
As you watch and listen to the video you can pause it or replay the sentence you just heard as you follow the text. This exercises your reading and listening skills at the same time, and the video material helps your comprehension. It is a very low-stress and enjoyable way to learn. You can even download the full transcription of the video in .pdf format for vocabulary work.
The videos are graded according to their difficulty, and site members can rate the videos so you can see which are most popular. Learners also add their comments to videos, and can add them to their own favourites.
When you’ve had enough of watching videos, you can move over to the chat page where you can chat with other Yappr users. There are rooms for three English levels, and 7 other languages. You can leave messages on a forum, and search for other Yappr fans in your country.
If you are an English learner of any level, you need to have Yappr in your language-learning toolbox.