The following guest post is from one of my friends, Andrew Zeller, whom I met while we were studying together in university. He has been very active in film making, as well as language learning for many years. To date, he has studied Japanese, Korean, and French, not to mention also having majored in Chinese at university.
He recently came back from a year abroad teaching English in Seoul, Korea, so he has had a first hand look at what it means to both learn about and to instruct in a foreign language.
Will language teachers ever become obsolete, replaced by technology? Can the traditional classroom setting still compete with the numerous (and often free) resources available online? What is the current best way to learn a language, and how will that change over the next decade?
One can only speculate about the future, searching the past for trends and patterns. It is nearly impossible to select one instruction method as the best, since no two people learn exactly the same way, at the same rate, and with the same goals and expectations. But if we consider human nature as constant, then there are aspects we can predict. For example, it is generally more comfortable to speak with another human than to a previously recorded message or an artificial voice. It is also a human tendency to use whatever language is most familiar to us, the instinctual escape route for a language learner struggling to express themselves. English speakers may become even more numerous, or Mandarin may become the new lingua franca. It is currently uncertain. But knowing multiple languages will always be more useful than knowing one. As someone who has studied four languages (French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean) and taught one (English), I would like to offer the following recommendations for both language teachers and learners.
1. The more you know in one language, the more you can learn in others.
Languages are interconnected, living in the same part of our brain. We naturally translate in order to understand. In my studies of Chinese, I came to know much more about my native language: English. Being able to read and listen in another language also grants you access to the wisdom of scholars whose articles, books, or lectures may not be available in your mother tongue.
2. Nothing can fully replace all of the benefits of a language teacher.
This I learned through trial and error. There are many good books, ebooks, CD’s, podcasts, online videos, educational TV shows, websites, and other resources online for learning languages. The self-study method works if you can keep yourself motivated. Taking a class may be more expensive, and sometimes the teacher’s methods don’t work for you. But think of the benefits: a language teacher can answer your questions, create customized lessons for you, listen and correct your speaking mistakes instantly, share real life examples of how the language is used, share cultural background, act out different scenarios with you for practice (at the grocery store, bank, etc.), praise your accomplishments, build your confidence, and ensure that what you say or write will be understood by others. There isn’t an app that does all of those things.
3. Classrooms are places where we try not to fall asleep.
This is something we all grow accustomed to feeling. An ideal classroom shouldn’t feel like a “classroom”. This is why good teachers move desks around, hang up artwork, invite guest speakers, show media, lead activities, suggest group projects, encourage presentations, and supervise discussions. It’s hard to learn anything when you feel like a microphone recording a lecture. Learning is not entirely invisible. In the best classrooms, you can witness learning actually happening.
4. Immersion isn’t enough.
I lived in South Korea for 1 year. I traveled in China and Japan for several months. I have spent many hours around people not speaking English. I could pick out the words I knew and understood. Then I could imitate and mimic those words or phrases later. It made my pronunciation and intonation sound more like a native speaker’s. But this alone did not expand my knowledge or vocabulary. Study is an essential component for improvement, as well as output: speaking or writing. Travel isn’t always necessary for immersion either, since you may find native speakers of your target language in your hometown (or online).
5. Vocabulary cards and tests are good for short-term memory, but not long-term.
This has proven true for me with every language I have studied, including English. I remember words that I have used in sentences in writing or speaking. I could write down that “Raconteur” is a noun with French origin, meaning: a person who tells stories in an interesting way. Or I could write: “By reading Life of Pi, I discovered that Yann Martel is a raconteur.” Take a word and make it your own.
6. Word Usage > Vocabulary > Accent
Reducing your accent when speaking a language is the least important element. As long as you speak clearly, who cares if you have an accent? It is much more valuable to have a large vocabulary. But even with a large vocabulary, one should ideally know how to use each of those words. Word usage includes grammar and context. While specific grammar rules (the “why” of language, isn’t always necessary), the “how” is essential to build comprehensible sentences and questions.
7. Listen to yourself.
One advantage of current technology is how easy it is to record your voice with a camera or phone. This is an extremely useful tool. Although you may hate the sound of your voice, listening to a recording of it will help you understand what others hear when you speak. You can use recordings to compare your speaking from the past to the present, as well as with other learners, teachers, or native speakers.
8. Imitate. Act. Play!
We all start to learn through imitation. This is a form of acting. Why not embrace it as acting? When my students pretended to be waiters, job applicants, airport staff, or salesmen, they had a “language experience.” This can be much more engaging because using the language is initiating actions and producing consequences. If it’s fun and makes you laugh, it will be even more memorable. This is why games (physical games, board games, computer games, etc.) can be very effective teaching tools when used properly.
9. A little each day goes a long way.
I taught English to classes of High School students in South Korea for 50 minutes each week. Unless they were working on a project, I could see some brains shutting down after 30 minutes. A week would pass and it would be hard to remember what they learned in the last class. In comparison, I have friends who study their target language just 10-20 minutes per day (3-5 times per week). They are able to remember what they’ve studied and build upon it. This is the current study model I follow.
10. You will improve if you keep practicing.
This little motto is is the easiest to understand but the most frequently forgotten. Don’t give up!
The best way to learn a language is to take it in (by listening and reading) and use it (by speaking or writing). There are many methods of doing so, and the trick is to find what works for best for you. Technology won’t replace motivation or practice, but can be helpful in giving you more ways to practice or feel motivated. We shouldn’t fear a tool for communication just as we shouldn’t be afraid of learning a new language. Robots or software may one day make effective translators in some situations, but it will take immense innovation to make them into good teachers.