Do We Need the Language Classroom?

This video was first published on 29 Jul 2012

First of all, I should say that I have my son and his family visiting from London, so I have two additional little grandchildren. I have one son, Mark, who lives here and he has three kids and my son, Eric, who lives in London, has two kids and they’re visiting, so it’s pretty hectic. I’ve even got my brother from Toronto coming to visit next week. So we’re going to be pretty busy here, but I did want to make a video because there’s been an interesting sort of exchange on my YouTube channel. 

A person who calls himself Cheeky something or other commented on a video that I did quite a while ago where I talked about the future of the iPad and mobile devices when it comes to language learning. I think they are phenomenal and I sort of compared them to the old clay tablet the Roman school children would carry around. Of course the iPad – and it doesn’t have to be the iPad, any of these electronic tablets enable you to read. They enable you to look up words you don’t know. You can store a tremendous amount of text and audio and even video there. You can communicate via Skype with native speakers. You can review flashcards. I mean there are so many things you can do on these mobile devices.

I use my iPad regularly. On LingQ I prefer to create my links at the computer, but I don’t read then. I go off and I can read in the comfort of sitting in my living room on my iPad. I can set my iPad up on my elliptical trainer. So I’m exercising and I have downloaded the audio which is running on my mp3 player. I could do it through the iPad, but I just don’t. It’s more convenient for me to have it going in the background. I’m jogging, I’m reading and with my finger I’m poking at words that I don’t know as they pop up so I can keep up and I’m listening to the text. I do that for 25 minutes and it’s a tremendous exercise of interacting with the language. I’m sure there will be more and more applications developed for iPhone, iPad or android or whatever, which to me is quite revolutionary.

Someone came on and said that these iPads are a distraction and that, essentially, you have to have that face-to-face interaction between the teacher and the learner in order for learning to take place. We’ve had quite a lively exchange and so I guess the question comes up, what is the future role of a classroom or a teacher insofar as language learning is concerned. I’ve often said that I believe massive input is almost a precondition for being able to learn grammar. That without this exposure to the language, the grammar explanations don’t stick. I’ve said that it’s very difficult and this is based on my experience as a learner and watching other people learn. 

It’s very difficult to learn these rules, study a few words and try and put them together because all of these grammar concepts take a long time to sink in. It requires a lot of exposure and experience with the language before these explanations start to make sense and start to stick and, therefore, my preference is to focus on listening and reading, vocabulary accumulation so that I have a more solid base in comprehension so that I can understand the language. I don’t worry about speaking for six months or for a year, depending on the language. I find that when I start to speak or if I have the need to speak, the bigger my vocabulary, the more familiar I am with the language, the better I understand what I hear, the better I do. So then what is the role of the classroom?

Well, the role of the classroom is not going to go away because most people aren’t motivated enough to learn on their own. Most people believe they can only learn in a classroom, so the idea that there are all these resources available on the Internet is relatively new. I find that the explanations of grammar I can find all over the Internet, so I don’t have to sit in the classroom and hope that the issue I have difficulty with is the one the teacher is going to focus on that day. I can zoom in on those issues that I’m interested in.

Now, I want to backtrack and say that at LingQ I would say the best tutors are people who are professional teachers. Teachers, whether it be ________ in St. Petersburg, whether it be Rinehart in Vienna. I’m not going to name everybody, but I deal with a lot of tutors. So that’s the second issue, I need tutors. Once I have spent enough time with the language, be it six months or more, then I need to talk to tutors, I need the tutors to point out my mistakes, I need to sometimes ask them questions. 

Steve Kaufmann

What also happens in the case of LingQ is you have tutors who create content about different issues of grammar and put them in our library so we can listen to them over and over again. We can listen to them in the target language. Whether it be ________’s content in German or ______’s in Russian, whomever, I can listen to it over and over again. So I’m listening and reading and also focusing on those grammar issues that I’m ready to focus on, that I want to focus on. 

So the role of the teacher remains important, first of all, as a stimulus. If I know that I’m going to be talking to my tutor it kind of keeps me going. I want to show my tutor that I’m improving. The tutor is very often a source of encouragement, a source of stimulus, but it’s not so much a matter of explaining things. That’s the thing, the teacher as an explainer. I just don’t see that as such an important role because the theoretical explanation is not going to do it. You have to see the patterns over and over again, refer over and over again perhaps to some grammar rules where the learner has the initiative. 

So in my exchange, of course, with this person on the iPad and language learning or something like that, in fact, I might put a link to that particular video, he was on and on about how if you don’t come to the classroom you can’t learn. It’s very difficult because there are five different future tenses. I mean, yeah, you can make the language sound as complicated as you want. I don’t think anyone can absorb five future tenses at one sitting, but if a learner had enough exposure to the language bit by bit by reviewing certain grammar rules, either on their own or by having their writing or their conversational language corrected, they’ll start to notice these things more and more.

Many people tell me at LingQ that they have learned much more with us than they have in a more traditional classroom setting. That’s not to condemn the teacher. I think there are lots of excellent teachers, but in a classroom with 15 or 20 other students the teacher decides the agenda and I think the learner needs to decide the agenda and the learner needs to control their learning. The other thing people like to criticize me for is that I’m just out promoting and pushing this product I’m selling and stuff like that. 

Of course I’m promoting LingQ, but why did I create LingQ in the first place? Because I think it’s helpful to language learning. Now, of course, we have a lot of costs at LingQ, so we’re obviously interested in encouraging people to come and use it and the more people who come and use it, the more we can invest in making it better. That’s no different than the commercial interest that a teacher or an ESL school has in promoting their form of language instruction services. It’s the same. 

Ultimately, what matters the most is where the best return on investment for the language learner is. In other words, is the language learner better off going to an ESL school? Say the person wants to learn English. Jump on a plane from Japan or Brazil, fly to Vancouver, enroll in an ESL school that’s $1,200 a month, stay in a home stay, do all of these things, is that a good return on investment? Ultimately, that’s what’s going to matter and the market will decide that. 

I think that it’s not ideal. I think a smaller number of instructional hours, a smaller number of hours of interaction, three hours a week. Five hours a week would be very heavy, in my opinion. One, two, three hours a week with a tutor either online or face to face and then some encouragement from the tutor, some explanation on how to learn and directing the learner to where they can find excellent resources. That’s a better use of the teacher’s time, better return on investment for the learner and it would enable teachers to reach many, many more people.

In the case of Canada and immigrants, apparently we spend $3,000 per head per year on immigrant language training. A recent study out of Toronto showed, at least amongst the Chinese-speaking immigrants who are the largest source country in Canada, that after seven years (a group of 3,000 of these immigrants were followed and were enrolled in language programs here) they made, essentially, no progress. No progress.

Sort of another group, the Slavic speakers, did make progress and the reason they made progress is because they were more likely to make friends with Canadians, interact more with Canadians and take a greater interest in the local culture. In other words, what mattered the most was what they did outside the classroom not what they did inside the classroom. 

That being the case, why spend $3,000 a year per immigrant or $1,200 a month for these ESL programs when there are more cost-effective ways you can utilize teacher resources. After all, it’s only a small percentage of immigrants that are helped through these language programs, many more are unable to get into these programs, so why wouldn’t we devise a more efficient way to enable teachers to help learners or to encourage learners to learn on their own. 

I think in that regard the iPad, iPhone, other mobile devices, android, the Internet and all the resources that are on the Internet are revolutionary. They have changed the paradigm and so to continue to insist that language instruction can only take place in the classroom as this Cheeky whatever is doing (he alternates between that and getting vulgar and insulting me) to me is crazy. I understand the guy. He wants to protect his job, that’s fine, plus that’s perhaps all he knows, but the reality is that there are so many other resources available today that didn’t exist even 10 years ago let alone 50 years ago.

So there you have it. He’s welcome to make a video and post it here as a response. Even though they are kind of a bit nasty, I haven’t deleted any of his comments. Yeah, I think the free exchange of ideas. It’s not, and I repeat this, it’s not anti teacher. While there are some teachers that are protectionists of their position and closed minded, I know a lot of teachers who are looking for new resources, looking for ways to do their job better who want to help more people. Some of them are members of LingQ. Some of them are the best tutors we have. 

I also recognize that in a public school environment a large number of students are not very motivated and, therefore, the teacher’s job really is to push the curriculum at them and force them to take tests and hope that most of them pass. And, of course, if we look at the results in Canada, even where many do pass (say they’re French) very few of them learn how to speak the language. So there is something fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing in the way languages are taught in the school system and I think to, basically, dismiss the iPad and mobile devices as… Audio ends here.

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1 comment on “Do We Need the Language Classroom?

Name *Annette

I think the most important thing for language learning is to find a method or methods that you enjoy and that match your goals. It is silly to say that only one method works. Also, as far as the results of classroom teaching go, there are many methods which can be implemented in the classroom. If students take several years of classes and still do not understand the spoken language or are unable to speak it, it doesn’t mean that the classroom environment doesn’t work for those skills. It just means that the methods needed to reach those goals are not being used and the specific environment created in those particular classrooms was not conducive to that type of learning. I had excellent instructors, but I reached my goals with a combination of classroom instruction and many hours outside of the classroom, both with assigned homework and with using the language in ways in which I chose for myself. Of course, I have to set the agenda for my classes, however, I give my students a lot of freedom to explore and to learn in the ways that best match their personalities and learning styles.

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