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Language learning and online platforms: new options, new questions

Creative Commons License(photo credit) Jesse757 via Compfight

Three bits of news inspired this blog post. And if I’m lucky enough, once you’re done reading you’ll have a lot more than just three questions. Why is this one important? One word: connections.

Good news (really?)

1. Duolingo works. Probably better than college language courses – possibly better than paid online alternatives. Two years ago, few people heard of it and thought it possible: today, it’s here and gets people hooked on languages.
2. New Myspace is here. Yes, it matters – there is a new social media player in the game, the one everyone almost forgot about. This is another chance to show your art, connect around an idea, meet someone.
3. Google Plus now enables Communities. If you still need to be reminded why tribes and communities work in foreign language learning, this would be a good place to start. And if you’re curious how this can help your language study – there’s one way to find out. Join a community that uses your language – or create one now.

Four things no one told us about social online learning

Teachers and learners are negotiable. Verbling works on this premise all the time. Udemy makes it super easy to learn, but also to start teaching. And the thing I like most about Memrise is how mems (tricks to aid memory) can be shared and created by anyone. I may teach you something today – but tomorrow, could it be your turn?
You are the syllabus. Who decides what gets watched on YouTube? Who chooses the next topic on your Google+ hangout? Who can bring new qualities, new ideas, new angles to any conversation? That used to be the teacher’s role – or her principal’s, or the authorities. It’s still the case in brick-and-mortar language schools, and don’t get me wrong: this can be an awesome skill and a huge enrichment to well-led lessons. Online, though, you push the buttons.
Term-time is forever. I may decide to get that German course going on Memrise and Duolingo tomorrow. Or I may put if off until next month, when work is less hectic. I will take my time – or speed things up when I feel like it. There’s a certificate and a course to prepare for – but I made these rules myself. It’s not just that you can do that, too: the fact is that there’s no one else to do it for you.
Learning and teaching skills will change. The reason I no longer use cheat-sheets and paper dictionaries is not that I’ve stopped learning. And when someone asks me whether I miss language teaching in my new job, I honestly reply that I never really stopped the kind of teaching I would miss. All the above symptoms mean that learning and teaching any language requires a different set of skills – and that it’s best, in my view, if the teaching and learning skills aren’t separated

Into the new: questions to keep asking

  • Am I learning or teaching (or both?)
  • Who is this for?
  • How can I make this better?
  • What’s the next lesson? Does it exist? How do I find / make one?
  • What can I contribute?
  • What can I get out?
  • Is all this enough?
  • What happened there?

In five years, if we’re lucky, nobody will care about Duolingo and Memrise – as the tools or platforms we’re now given to teach and learn with will be even better, more amazing and inspiring. But the new will always keep coming, and for every language learner / teacher out there, the new responsibilities will be coming along as well.
Start now. Ask those questions and make them a habit if they work. One thing’s for sure: you’ll need them a lot.

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