Language Learning in the 21st Century: Part II – Technology Makes English the Global Language

By Michael Hurwitz

[Note: This series is being brought to you by ETCJ associate editor Lynn Zimmerman. See Part I: “Technology Is a Game Changerand Part III: “Chinese As the Language of the Future.” -Editor]

English has become one of the world’s most widely-spoken languages as well as the most popular second language and lingua franca of academics in no small part due to the heavy concentration of top universities and the large quantities of educational materials produced in English-speaking countries. Another reason for its popularity is the huge amount of entertainment content and other media produced in the Anglosphere. For instance, nearly every English-language training school here in Shanghai has a TV in the lobby showing DVDs of “Friends” (老友记, Lǎoyǒujì) or other American television shows to help students practice their English.

One of the great victories of the Information Age is the ability of learners the world over to access content in almost any language, giving them unprecedented variety in terms of learning style, pace, and method. English-language TV has been around for decades, of course, but the spread of high-speed internet and satellite connections has made accessing content, be it entertainment or educational, much easier. DVDs and streaming web video, for instance, have brought English-language educational content to places that had none just a decade ago. In addition, technology like smart phones and tablets has made mobile  learning much simpler and more effective – convenience and flexibility can make it seem as though there’s more time in the day, so to speak, for practice in speaking and listening as well as exposure to a language, and with English in particular it’s easier than ever.

Access and exposure are crucial factors in the newest round of technological innovations that is altering the language-learning landscape. The latest technology has also enabled positive shifts in the pedagogy of language learning and teaching, especially with English. Technology permits the deconstruction of the traditional classroom experience to make listening to lectures, engaging with learning material, and practicing individually more convenient and feasible for learners. Lectures, for instance, can be lengthier or constructed in a different way because a student no longer needs to be in a classroom with a teacher. Lectures can be divided into sections for more concentrated or focused listening, and exercises can be designed to be inserted at specific points, without worrying about time constraints or student fatigue.

A student can also peruse digital flashcards (and hear authentic vocabulary pronunciation) at his or her own pace. Digital flashcards afford the convenience of learning thousands of characters without carrying heavy books or cards, and they also assist learning by providing instant feedback on performance. In a classroom using traditional methods, the teacher would need to create individual plans to meet students’ different needs, but with digital content, individualization is much easier.

Language is, as many academics and marketers alike have pointed out, inextricably linked with culture in ways that we’re still discovering today. Speaking and learning a language can provide deep and accurate insights into the culture that produced it, and it’s this connection, in concert with some of the technological developments discussed earlier, that has helped make English so widely-learned and spoken. A Chinese student who was reading the classic novel Catcher in the Rye to improve his English, for instance, found that the harsh language of the characters gave him a better understanding of contemporary American culture.

English-speaking culture and media, particularly from the US and UK, are among the most widely-known and consumed in the world so there are many resource for learning and teaching English. A good example is Open Language (specifically EnglishOne), which has created an online platform to make developing lessons and content exceptionally simple for anyone who wants to teach English, or any other language, from anywhere at any time.

4 Responses

  1. Michael, an excellent assessment of the role of English the important language of communication. I’ve got two small anecdotes to support this: My family and I were having lunch in the Dutch town of Alkmaar. The young man who was our server automatically spoke to us in English. I answered him in Dutch (which I speak) and he said: “Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch, I’m Bulgarian.” On another note, I have a Swiss friend who tells me that meetings between Germans and Swiss German are held in English – because it is a foreign and neutral language for both. While I totally agree about English as a world language, I still think it is crucial for English speakers to learn other languages. (I do this in disagreement with Larry Summers …) Becoming fluent in at least another language makes you think and more likely to behave as a world citizen – which we all are.

    • Ulrike,

      Research also shows that language learning has cognitive benefits as well. You not only learn the language, you develop other cognitive skills along with it. My students and I watched a video tonight called Speaking in Tongues which is about several blingual programs in San Francisco. It made your point about the importance of learning other languages to develop global citizenship, but it also stated that the students on average at the schools perform as well and better than students in traditional monolingual schools. I loved your story about the Bulgarian waiter.

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } (via @icansia) – Today, 4:28 […]

  3. Love Lynn Zimmerman as she was one of my EDU program professors at Purdue. This is an interesting and useful series to explore. Using it as a source for another class at Purdue with Mohammed Errihani.

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