Language Learning in the 21st Century: Part I – Technology Is a Game Changer

By Michael Hurwitz

[Note: This series is being brought to you by ETCJ associate editor Lynn Zimmerman. See Part II: “Technology Makes English the Global Language” and Part III: “Chinese As the Language of the Future.”-Editor]

People have been learning languages since…well, since people have been, pretty much. For as long as we can remember, however, most people have approached SLA (second-language acquisition) with what we sometimes call a “classroom mentality,” meaning language learning must involve long hours in a classroom with static (sometimes outdated) textbooks.

This is the way language learning has been for a long time primarily because there really weren’t many alternatives: it was prohibitively expensive (and time-consuming) for most people to travel to a foreign country to learn in a native-speaking environment, and there weren’t many good or affordable ways to access educational or entertainment content in other languages. Those days, however, have come to a spectacular and speedy end since technology has totally changed the game.

In the Information Age, there’s really nothing you can’t do if you put your mind (and your web browswer) to it. First and foremost, learning a new language is about exposure and access. Hearing a language spoken proficiently, processing it, and then using it yourself is a fantastic way to advance your skills, and technology has made that easier than ever before. For example, programs like Skype have made live video chatting, not long ago an elaborate and expensive pipe dream, as convenient as a few clicks of the mouse.

While it’s been a boon to long-distance relationships and migrant workers the world over, it’s been even more beneficial for those seeking to learn a new language without the hassle and inconvenience of fixed classroom time. More than that, though, technology has enabled a sort of interactivity in language learning that was difficult to obtain before. Instead of just trying to absorb information, linguistic clusters, and grammar rules from a teacher or lecturer, learners can now dial up a native speaker on Skype and, very personally, both absorb and apply at the same time without sacrificing convenience or making an excessive time commitment.

It’s critical to remember, however, that many forms of technology are not as universally available as we’d like them to be. People without access to high-speed internet connections, tablets, or smartphones simply don’t have the same technological advantages as those who do. That doesn’t mean, however, that technological advances have passed the world’s poorest residents by when it comes to education and language learning.

The emergence of the ICDT4 (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) movement has helped bring cheaper and more mobile technology to places where ten or even five years ago there would have been no opportunities for this type of learning to flourish. Technology has not only made language education easier, but cheaper as well, expanding access to those who in the not-too-distant past wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it.

2 Responses

  1. Michael,

    In recent years I have heard some really interesting stories on NPR about creative ways in which people who may not have Internet access have been able to use their cell phones. There are two that stick in my mind. One is people using cell phone minutes as a medium of exchange much in the way that one wires “money” except you exchange cell phone minutes for money, goods, or services. The other was a case where a guy had to do emergency surgery and was able to call someone in the UK (if I remember correctly) to walk him through the process. If people can do this, I am certain they can come up with all kinds of creative ways to enhance their language teaching and learning. Lynn

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for an excellent article! I agree with Lynn that we are just beginning to find new and creative ways for learning a new language – which is for sure about access and exposure, and, I would add, motivation too. People really have to stick with learning a new language and to “dig in” to learn. Because, even if you’re in a country and have lots of exposure to the language there, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be learning the language. I know plenty of cases where that happened. I wonder whether technological innovations are going to help motivate people, that still seems to be an open question. Ulrike

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