15 October 2010

On-line language learning -- new solutions or new problems?

Way back in 2001, Wilfried Decoo gave what I consider one of the most important lecturers in the history of language learning.  The transcript has disappeared from his university site, but is still available on archive.org . The lecture was entitled "On the mortality of language learning methods", and was a brief history of the predominant language learning methods of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Decoo said "Of all disciplines, language learning is one that is the most ignorant of its own past." He notes that of all fields in academia, language learning is unique in this regard.  Science, mathematics, literature, law... in every other field of study, the history of the subject is an integral part of the student's workload.  In fact, he goes on to say that if there is any mention of past methods during teacher training, it is usually only to say how wrong it was and to show why the new method is better.

But the picture Decoo paints is of history repeating itself.  Of "instant experts", ignorant of the past, making authoritative statements and declaring that they have discovered a new, better way to teach language, but almost inavariably they're saying the same thing as thousands before them.

How will language learning progress if teachers continue to make the same mistakes, generation after generation?  Even then, things haven't progressed quite as Decoo predicted.

Almost 10 years on, the Communicative Approach is alive and well, thanks to the behemoth of the English teaching industry.  The Communicative Approach's core strength is that a native speaker needs minimal training to teach his language using it, making it the only way to fill the demand.  People involved in TEFL tend to believe and repeat the hype uncritically, and it is widely accepted as a progressive and modern approach, despite being recognised as limited and outmoded in the 1990s.

Decoo also predicted that our methods now would be led by the internet, but we're only now at the stage where internet language programs are truly becoming the mainstream.  Sites like livemocha offer various free and fee-paying courses, modelled loosely on the Rosetta Stone software.  Rosetta Stone itself is moving onto the net.  A new generation of electronic learning software like Hot Potatoes is giving teachers the tools to produce their own tasks quickly and easily.

But as Decoo said in 2001, the method is being led by the medium.  He said that "The irony of Internet as the new panacea is that it has less functionality compared to a well-designed CD-rom for language learning."  This is no longer true -- the internet can now do almost anything a CD-ROM can do, but in terms of access time, it is an awful lot slower.  Comparing the Rosetta Stone online demo with a demo CD of the same package, or comparing LiveMocha with anything else shows the experience to be less immediate, and I find those little delays let my brain cool off and switch off.  I get bored or impatient or both.

Decoo says that all courses pick one feature as their key selling point, and in this case that selling point is interaction with native speakers.  LiveMocha has amateur marking (which is often excellent, but equally often of little or no value) and both push heavily the idea of social networking and language exchange.  But this interaction is not integrated with the course design, and the courses themselves do not equip the learner with sufficient language to engage in meaningful interaction.  Talking to native speakers is an add-on, a sideshow; yet it is used as a keyword, a catchphrase, the hook to draw you in.  LiveMocha bolsters this with the supremely arrogant soundbite "Livemocha brings language learning out of the stone age".  Nice.

Hot Potatoes has a different problem.  It is a toolbox to allow teachers to make a limited set of learning tasks.  Where's the harm in that?  The moment something becomes easier, it will be done more often.  One of the tasks in hot potatoes is the gap-fill, which I discuss in an earlier post.  There is no support on choosing when each type of task is appropriate, so there is a very real danger that tasks will be designed around the tools available rather than around educational goals.  It is a case of, as Decoo puts it, the medium making the method.

Computers offer up infinite options, yet somehow they seem to limit us more than they enable us.  It is an interesting paradox.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog from the HTLAL site. Many thanks for providing the link to the paper by Decoo. It was fascinating reading, and really hit the nail on the head in terms of the recurrent "latest thing" approach that besets language teaching.

I plan to read through your older posts, and may comment if I have something to say, but wanted at this point just to thank you for your efforts, and especially the Decoo paper, the reference to which I've already forwarded. Best regards.

Nìall Beag said...

(In reply to deleted post)

Sorry Chris, I'm grateful for the offer of a free trial, but right now I'm not willing to accept solicitations for course reviews. Besides, I'm not learning Mandarin, and moreover, as a minority language enthusiast I find it offensive that the language is being referred to as "Chinese" when it is not the first language of the majority of Chinese citizens.

I wish you luck with your course, but as this blog does not endorse it, I have removed your post.