14 January 2014

Motivating language learners through statistics

Traditionally, language learners have been divided into three groups: those who learn informally on their own, those who attend school, and those who do both. In a classroom environment, the teacher can assign tasks to the learner and provide some overview and even coercion to ensure that the learner carries out these tasks, regardless of whether these tasks match the interests and preferences of the learner. Regular tests also provide some degree of measurement of progress, or at least the appearance of such measurement. Nevertheless, a majority of classroom language learners do not become fluent in their chosen language, and results are often disappointing considering the cost of the classroom learning model.

Recently, the opportunities for independent language learning have increased significantly, offering more variety and greater opportunity for learners to find study resources that match their interests and preferences. The Internet, MP3 technology, social networks, and a range of other language learning websites such as Duolingo, Lang-8, italki, LingQ, Busuu, as well as a multiplicity of apps for smartphones, have changed the nature of language learning. Language resources in the form of podcasts, radio station websites, YouTube videos, digital dictionaries and online grammar resources and more, are literally available at everyone’s fingertips.

The range of tools and resources is so great, that it is easy for an independent learner to feel lost, or to be distracted by the sheer variety of opportunities, not to mention the other distractions of the Internet. In addition, for most language learners, progress in the language is often slow. The goal of one day becoming fluent may seem far off. In this regard, the use of measurement and statistics can be extremely helpful.

Keeping track of time spent on different tasks

Time is perhaps the most important ingredient for success in language learning. If the learner is engaged in meaningful language learning activities, the expenditure of the necessary amount of time is bound to deliver results. The American Foreign Services Institute has estimated the length of time it takes English speakers to learn different languages based on classroom instructional hours. In today’s learning environment, where there is just as much opportunity to learn outside the classroom as in the classroom. these FSI numbers are a helpful indicator of the amount of time required to achieve fluency, whether in a classroom or studying independently.

It takes a long time to learn a language. The learner needs to commit to regularly spend time with the language, listening, reading, reviewing, speaking and writing. At least an hour a day is often recommended as a minimum in order to achieve significant success. For busy people to find an hour a day to spend with the language, requires them to study at different times during the day. It means using a lot of “dead time” during the day, in other words short snippets of time while commuting, doing other chores, waiting or simply going for a walk.

That is where time tracking software can be helpful. There are a number of apps available to help learners keep track of their learning activities, Harvest,Toggl and an app called ATracker, are some examples.

The learner simply starts the app when he or she starts an activity and turns it off when the activity ceases. The results are often surprising. Here is an example of one language learner’s activities as tracked by ATracker.

The advantages of tracking time

1) Learners can see how much time they actually spend on different learning activities.

2) The time report represents accomplishment, and thus motivates learners to study more.

3) Learners can set goals and plan their activities based on this data.

4) The total amount of time spent is usually more than expected,which can boost confidence.

5) Learners tend to stay on task,in order to avoid having to stop the time tracker.

6) The learning process becomes more structured and goal oriented.

Keeping track of learner activities and achievements

Language improvement is gradual, and can be imperceptible for long periods of time. Often learners don’t know if they are making progress. Many learners, whether classroom learners, or independent learners, take language tests like TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, or their equivalent for other languages, in order to obtain third party certification of their level in a language.

Success in these tests is mostly dependent on putting in the required time on effective learning activities, such as reading, listening, vocabulary review, and eventually speaking and writing. Sustaining these kinds of activities, with or without instructional hours, ensures increasing familiarity with the language and continued vocabulary growth, necessary for success in these third party tests. Providing ongoing measurement and visual proof of learners’ activity and vocabulary accumulation, provides valuable motivation for learners.

LingQ.com tracks both achievements and the activity level of learners and compares them to goals. Known words, saved words and phrases, words read, hours of listening, hours of speaking and more, are reported on each learner’s profile.

Typical LingQ profile

While these statistics do not always match the progress of the learner towards fluency, they do provide a snapshot view of learners activity and vocabulary growth. Measuring and displaying the evidence of ongoing activity and vocabulary growth gives learners a concrete sense of achievement. This can be valuable motivation when the learners doubt their own progress in the language. The experience at LingQ is that learners become quite dependent on these statistics in order to stay committed to their tasks.

A variety of factors influence the ability of learners to achieve fluency and then mastery in a language. Measurement can be a valuable tool in creating the pre-conditions for a breakthrough to fluency for independent learners.

5 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Tracking is very important for so many things that we wish to improve, so it’s no wonder that successful language learners should want to track time and activities. Not only is this motivating, but will allow a more streamlined approach when the learner understands what is working well and what isn’t. Eventually, you could figure out your 80/20 split, whereby 20% of the work you’re doing is giving you 80% of the results, and focus on that.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    I do agree with you that there are many apps available on smart phone these days, but as a translator I can say they are not at all accurate they just do literal translations. Any passionate language learner should join courses instead of trusting these kind of apps if they really want to learn a new language and use it fluently.

    • Kim Dammers
      Posted October 26, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      You’re right. But it can be even worse. While Spanish/English translations will usually give the correct meaning (with garbled grammar and occasional weird words), Korean/English or Mongolian/English “translations” are simply inept. Strange words and grammar that doesn’t look like either the original or English are the rule. If you don’t pretty much know what the original was about before translation, you generally don’t know afterwards. If you are trying to generate understandable (forget “correct”) sentences in Korean or Mongolian, you most likely will fail, even with many very simple ones.

  3. Posted February 25, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    In my view motivational strategies can never work in a vacuum. There are certain preconditions to be met before any attempts to generate motivation can be effective.

  4. Posted October 23, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    When I try to learn English on the internet, I see your teaching method it was so great for me. If you teach me English by mail I so appriciate. Than you.

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