4 February 2014

An optimist’s view of the changes in education and in our lives

changes in education

Changes in education are inevitable. An optimist always thinks that change is for the better. In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley describes the progress of human knowledge, a process of accelerating, spontaneous, change. Larger and larger human communities connect  and exchange goods, information, and ideas. Only the best ideas survive. As these ideas accumulate, they become part of our collective intelligence. The result, in the last few hundred years, has been a dramatic improvement in living standards, health standards,  and a reduction in the number of hours of work necessary to acquire basic goods and services.

In a book which I recently bought and read via the Kindle app on my iPad, “The Better Angels of our Nature”, Stephen Pinker shows that violence has been declining in the world, and this decline of violence is largely attributable to the modern, capitalist, democratic world we live in. These optimistic books run contrary to the negativism about the modern world that is so often passed on to young people in our schools and universities and pervades the media. Things are good and going to get even better.

Perhaps our education system needs a little closer scrutiny. The efficiency and effectiveness of public education, in fact, is a bit of an exception since it has not improved in most societies. In the US, the cost of K-12 education, in constant dollars, has increased by 350% since the 1960s with no improvement in results.

The solution to this is less public monopoly and more entrepreneurship. There are more and more sophisticated “smart phones” and mobile phones being bought everywhere. These are really hand-held computers, and they are already the main way people access the Internet in most countries. There are as many mobile phones as people in the world, 7 billion. This is true more or less on every continent and in most countries, rich or poor.

These are mobile learning devices and  with increased educational entrepreneurship surrounding mobile telephones, handheld computers and internet learning, we can expect education to finally take a significant step forward.

1)  Larger learning communities: The Internet is an almost limitless space for the creation of communities with common interests. Learners, teachers, schools and universities, and just plain entrepreneurs, are exchanging course content, ideas, learning systems, and other resources using a variety of media. A search for “French verbs” on google finds 653,000 pages.

2) Differentiation: The web is not only large, but it enables people of different cultures, with different perspectives, different skills,  and different ideas, to interact. This creates a dynamic marketplace where people can learn from from each other and influence each other.

3) Accessibility: With handheld computing devices, not only iPhone/iPad or Android, but many others devices that are coming forward to compete with them,  learning communities are more accessible. People are now able to connect anytime and anywhere,  while waiting for the doctor, reclining on a sofa, or lying in bed. Traditional concepts of time and space related to learning in a classroom or lecture hall are being cast aside.

4) Rich content: The distinctions between radio, TV, Internet, telephone, school, university, entertainment, education, are becoming blurred. Education is the acquisition of information, and the variety of ways in which information can be presented is constantly being expanded. Entrepreneurs are creating literary millions of applications for the hand-held devices,while books are becoming more accessible with the expansion of e-books and e-book readers.

5) Cost and speed: In many countries, companies are competing to develop faster and more powerful processors and higher speed wireless connectivity. This will further accelerate the pace of interaction and change, and bring in more participants with more diverse perspectives.

6) Customization: All learning depends on the motivation of the learner. Our brains learn all the time, on their own timetable. Traditional learning has been top-down, one size fits all, seeking to impose a curriculum. The Roman school child had a wax tablet to write down the lessons dictated by the master. Nothing much changed for 2,000 years. Now with individualized hand-held learning devices, the learner can be in control, choosing what to do, where, and when. The teacher’s role will increasingly be to coach, helping learners find what they need and what suits their interests.

Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist and educator, has placed computers in remote villages and Indian slums and watched children learn without teachers, using the Internet. According to Sir Arthur Clarke, famous science fiction writer, “a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be”. As Mitra said in concluding his inspiring TED lecture, education can be a self-organizing system.  The explosion of mobile access to the internet through hand-held computers symbolizes how a bottom-up, spontaneous, self-organizing system of education will change how we learn and how we live.

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.

8 January 2014

My 90-Day Korean Challenge

In a week from now I’m going to jump into Korean. I mean that I’m going to focus on this language for 90 days. I’m not new to Korean, I have dabbled in it over the years. I get tongue tied when I tried to say anything more than the few standard phrases that I’ve mastered, and I have trouble understanding what people say to me. I guess I am sort of an advanced beginner, and I hope to become a solid intermediate. Time will tell what I can achieve. I know from experience, however, that focusing with intensity is going to deliver results. I am doing this within the framework of the 90-Day Challenge.

It was while studying Mandarin Chinese in 1968 that I realized just how important intensity is in language learning. I remember thinking at that time that the more you can cram exposure to the language into a shorter period of time, the better you will learn, almost exponentially. A lot of people are too passive in their learning. They find reasons not to interact with their language. Consistency is key to success. Some people only have an hour a day while others have five or more hours a day to spend on their language. I don’t know how much time I will have every day. But I know that I’m going to make sure that I work with more intensity that I have done in the past.

I am going to let you know how things go, how I find resources, how I create the time to study more, and what kinds of activities I am involved in, and I invite you to follow me as I keep a daily vlog about my progress.

I won’t start until January 15th, so for now I’m staying with my Slavic languages. I listened to a Czech podcast this morning, and I am listening to Uncle Vanya by Chekhov in Russian in the car, and studying the transcript on my computer at LingQ. I have a week to go with my two Slavic languages and then I will be moving away from them for three months or so. I’m looking forward to doing Korean but I know it’ll be hard to leave these two languages which I enjoy so much.

My activities during my 90-Day Korean challenge will all be measured and made public at LingQ. I will also be vlogging and blogging frequently about my activities and my progress. You will be able to follow me and my Korean learning activities here, at my diary blog, and on my YouTube channel

If you want to join me and take up your own language for 90 days, have a look at the 90-Day Challenge on LingQ as well!

31 December 2013

The wonderful hospitality of Slovaks and Czechs

One of the delights of travel is meeting the local people. Language is often an important bridge in order to connect with locals. But in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it doesn’t seem to be a condition. We have been treated with tremendous hospitality everywhere, so far, both by people who speak no English and by fluent English speakers. Complete strangers in the high Tatras volunteered help us in fluent in English. My youtube subscriber Martin and his friends came to Poprad from Kosice to visit with us. We returned the favour the following day and visited Kosice. There Martin toured us through the old city and then invited us in to visit with his mom and grandmother. We were treated to cookies, slivovice and sour cabbage soup and lots of warmth and good will, as I tried to communicate with them in Czech while they replied in Slovak.



Then my wife and son and I visited Rožnov in the Czech Republic, where Hanka and David guided us through Valasske Muzeum or outdoor folk museum and treated us to a peasant lunch, which also included kyselice or sour cabbage soup.. The warm friendliness of their hospitality was really appreciated by Eric, Carmen and me.


I will be trying to upload pictures from my iPhone directly to my Facebook page if I can handle the technology. I must admit I am completely confused by Facebook. I don’t know where my comments and photos and up half the time. But if you click on the link you will find the pictures. I might add that I am also confused by WordPress. Whenever I try to upload a photograph from my iPhone, I am told that the file is too large. Anyway I think I will get there one day if I stay with all of this new social media and related technology. Or I will just stay with language learning which I enjoy much more.

Last night we arrived in the magic city of Olomouc. More friendly people as usual. Today we will visit Olomouc and Prostejov the town where my parents grew up. Check my Facebook page for pictures as we continue our travels.

28 December 2013

The importance of resonance in language learning

I am enjoying Slovakia. The people are gentle and helpful, even if a little shy at times. The scenery is wonderful, although there is not enough snow for skiing. I enjoy the food even though it is a little heavy at times. I can understand a lot of Slovakian and Slovaks seem to understand me, but the problem I experience is a lack of resonance.

Bratislava, Slovakia

I have been studying Czech for over a year and a half. I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of hours of Czech. It is hard for me to get my spoken Czech going when I am not stimulated by  an environment which speaks that language. We feed off other people when we attempt to speak a new language. Patient and friendly people help us speak better. The better we understand what people are saying, the better we speak. We respond to this stimulus in an almost musical way, in my opinion. The Slovakian language which I hear around me, even when comprehensible, is not on the same wavelength, nor of the same musical resonance, as the Czech that I am used to, and which I need to in order to warm up to speaking the language.

At least that is what I think. We will see when I get to the Czech Republic in a few days.

Czech Republic

24 December 2013

Language travels in the former Hapsburg realm

After three days in Vienna, my wife and I moved on to Slovakia. In Vienna, we had rented an apartment near the Schoenbrunn Palace. So of course we visited this famous palace. I was surprised to see how small Kaiser Franz Josef’s office and bedroom were. From there he ruled an empire of many nationalities and languages.


As long as identity was focused on church or village, and allegiances were dynastic, this patchwork of nations was able to hang together. With the rise of nationalism, not only did the smaller nations want their place in the sun, but the dominant German and Hungarian speakers wanted to impose their language. This all finally came unstuck after the first world war. Yet there is a certain unity in cuisine, and custom and geography that is still evident today. I have visited Austria the Czech Republic and Romania before, and today was my first day in Slovakia.


We stayed in a modern and comfortable business hotel called the Abba in Bratislava. It was a walk from the train station, and then a further walk to the old town. The old town was quaint and there was a lively Christmas market in the main square. That was yesterday. Today my son Eric and I drove our rented car and all the luggage to our ski resort in the Tatra mountains. My wife and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren came by train. We drove through farmland, and then forested mountain land where there had been a lot of logging. We were impressed by the quality of the roads.

I am surprised that tourism is not more developed here. There is a lot to see and enjoy, good food, and the people are very friendly.

My efforts in learning Czech have stood me in good stead in Slovakia. I can understand all the signs. This is a big advantage, since I always feel a little intimidated in countries where I do not understand what is written. Wherever I have used my Czech, whether speaking to taxi drivers or in train stations or here at our pension, people seem to understand me without difficulty, and I mostly understand what they have to say, except when they are talking quickly with each other.

I went down to the bar at our pension, and was warmly welcomed by the patrons of the bar who offered me a drink. As long as they were talking to me and speaking slowly I was able to stay in the conversation. Once they started telling stories amid hearty guffaws, fueled by the gin, beer, and wine that they were drinking, I sort of got lost. In an hour I will join them and others in a delightfully decorated Christmas dining room for my first ever Christmas eve in Slovakia. I am looking forward.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!





23 December 2013

Further re meet ups in Czech Republic and Slovakia.

It is looking as follows:

Dec 30 evening in Olomouc

Jan 1 lunch in Brno

Jan 1 evening in Znojmo

Jan 2 evening in Bratislava

Jan 4 evening in Prague.


Let me know if you are in the area and would be interested in meeting up.

20 December 2013

Language learning in the electronic age


Language learning has become tremendously more convenient thanks to modern technology. I just can’t say it enough. I discover new benefits constantly.

Yesterday was a day of travel. My wife and I flew from Vancouver to Amsterdam, and then on to Vienna where we now find ourselves. During the flight I read a diary of the year 2010 in the life of Michal Viewegh called Další báječný rok. I have the feeling that I got to know him personally just by reading his very frank entries in his diary. Therefore it was a shock to discover that in late 2012 Viewegh suffered a traumatic aortic rupture, which has affected his ability to continue to write novels.

I started reading this diary in Vancouver. His language is easy to read for a learner of Czech such as me. I then found some online sources for Czech e-books and audiobooks,  ereading.cz for e-books, and audioteka.cz for audiobooks. I was able to go to both sites, find books by Viewegh, pay with PayPal, and import them onto my Kindle app on my iPad, or in the case of audio books, import them to iTunes.

For much of the flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam I was able to read Viewegh’s diary and other works, while looking words up in my excellent Bitknights Czech dictionary, which I have on my iPad. I accumulate one hundred words on the dictionary, which appears to be the limit to the number of words you can save in your history file. I then email this history file as a CSV file to myself, and from there import it  into my vocabulary section at LingQ. Therefore these words which I am starting to learn will appear highlighted in yellow in my future reading at LingQ. So I am able to close the loop on reading that I do out of traditional books, e-books in Kindle and LingQ, and make sure that I acquire the new vocabulary that I encounter in my different forms of reading.

The convenience of the whole process, from finding the sources, paying with PayPal, carrying a bunch of books and audio books in my iPad, and closing the loop with the dictionary lookups back to LingQ, is just amazing. We live in interesting times.


16 December 2013

Sunset in Vancouver Dec 16


16 December 2013

Meet ups in Vienna, Poprad, Olomouc, Bratislava, or Prague

Meet ups in Vienna, the Tatras, Bratislava or Prague over Christmas and New Year. Anyone interested? Please let me know.