03 March 2014

Language learning software: a continual disappointment

If I've gone a bit quiet of late, it's because I'm getting less comfortable writing about other people and companies. You see, I've been trying on and off for a while to develop some language learning software, so there's a risk that anything I write could later be construed as just another company bad-mouthing the competition. On top of that, I'm now becoming a bit cautious about going into depth in my criticism and giving away too much of the thinking behind my software.

Anyhow, at the weekend I was having a break from coding and decided to have a little audit of my competition, including a lot of projects on sites like indiegogo and kickstarter. In recent months, the number of language learning applications being touted on these sites and elsewhere has skyrocketed, but I can't say I'm impressed with the quality of the proposals.

For the most part, these projects are touted as "revolutionary", but to anyone with any awareness of the language learning marketplace, it's just the same old stuff everyone else is already marketing. Among the main "differences" that people try to use to sell their wares is "real, conversational language" and "language to help you as a traveller in real situations". Tied to that is "no boring grammar". Whether this is the right way or not is not my point (not yet -- I'll come back to that) -- what's most depressing that everyone is doing the same thing and calling it "new and exciting".

Now from listening to the pitches, I get the feeling that this isn't just shysterism -- they genuinely believe that they're doing something new and different, which means they can't have researched what's available, and they can't know much about teaching.

This does put them in good company, though. One of the world's biggest language software vendors was founded by someone with no background in teaching, but who had been overseas for a bit (putting him on the fringes of my "professional language learner" category).

Now, many of the proposals are too thin on detail to be investable, and true to expectations, these ones never pick up any meaningful number of pledges. It's all well and good to tell me it's going to be immersive and revolutionary, but what is it going to look like? What is it going to do?

Of those that go into a little more detail, many seem like glorified flashcards, and many take their cues directly from Rosetta Stone. Others still are just a blend of absolutely standard techniques -- translations, gapfills, word-rearranging, picture-word matching etc etc.

It's these ones I would be most interested in, because if teachers have been using these techniques for all these years, they must have some merit, and if we can improve on them with technology, then we should do so. Sadly, once we've seen a demonstration (in those cases where development has progressed far enough for there to be some kind of prototype), there's no real innovation presented. A cute picture of an animal to go with your new vocabulary does not an innovative pedagogy make!

One product that looked reasonably unique among the crowd (not found on the crowdfunding sites) was one that used Microsoft's Kinect hardware to track the user, to allow more "active" engagement. While the presenter was enthusiastically telling us about how this opens up all sorts of possibilities for "interactive environments", nothing in the demonstration was any more sophisticated than a Total Physical Response lesson, and while TPR is still used by some teachers, it never really took off as it was always a very limited technique. Anything in this package that wasn't just eTPR (to coin a phrase) was essentially vocabulary practise, selecting things that the computer asked for in the target language, and I imagine most users would find it easier to just use the mouse to point and click the item requested than to move about in front of a webcam. Furthermore, as more and more of the software market migrates to tablets and smartphones, the touchscreen really seems a much more mass-market technology to employ.  The limitations of the product prototype on display fulfil Wilfried Decoo's observation that "the medium makes the method" -- ie that most new movements in language learning are just the most obvious means of the application of a new technology to language learning.

I even came across one project for a learning game that recreated the "bad old days" of early "edutainment" software -- it was a fairly basic shoot-em-up game where the educational material wasn't really part of the game, instead being an interruption to gameplay: you walked up to a door and couldn't open it until you gave the correct translation.

But in my opinion, the single worst thing that I came across was perfectly harmless and ordinary until I got to the bit about what they wanted the money for: to translate the lessons. Yes, "template teaching" is alive and well in the computer world. Remember folks: every language is different!

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