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Makers are the new learners: language learning and the makers movement


If your idea of learning a language involves staring at whiteboards and wading through grammar books, here’s a different approach. By focusing on doing things – rather than learning about and around them – your foreign language skills can develop in a fast and meaningful way. Are you ready for the maker-oriented language learning future?

1. People who make things

It used to be a handful of people gathered around one garage, somebody who knew other people in the same neighbourhood – doing things together. Close and hermetic.
Then TV DIY programs came along and changed everything. It was easier to get connected with DIY-ers and tinkerers from around the country – and the press, radio and print helped get ideas to spread. This was a different kind of tribe – vast, but still very centralized (as it depended on one TV personality, or one print DIY title).
Things changed again when the Web-based communities began to appear. It’s easier to talk back, to fully participate in any discussion. This no longer resembles a handful of people around one workbench. It’s no longer a centralized, one-way communication. Today’s makers movement works across localities, ideas and (crucially for us) languages.

2. Making: some people learn that way

It’s great if you learn languages by watching, seeing and reading things. Chinese characters can work that way, actually.
It’s also great to learn by listening to lectures, stories, songs and rhythms (Spotify tends to help a lot recently).
But there’s a different kind of learner who thrives best when she gets things done – when she makes something, tries, fails and tries again.
This is the kind of learner who enjoys Geoff Mulgan’s Studio School:

All good and well, but where does language learning fit in?

3. Task-based language learning (and why it works)

TBL has been around for a while. It has been proven to work, but a language classroom was never the best place for it.
Let’s take a quick look at why learning languages by making might work for you:

  • – It provides instant, concrete context for all new language (instead of a dictionary definition for “hammer” in Spanish, you get the word – and the hammer).
  • – It engages various areas of your brain and body (you will remember the German word for “jump shot” along with the memory of performing it – and the “muscle memory” of getting it right)
  • – It is rewarding on several levels (the purpose is not only to learn a language – it might even be incidental – the goal is also to make something, to get something else done and to enjoy the completion of a project)
  • – Learning takes place before, during and after the “making” part (when planning what to do, shopping for resources, and then – commenting, “writing up” or sharing news about what you did)
  • – Your learning network is instantly long-term motivated by something else than learning languages, and thrives on new challenges.

4. Four steps to instant task-based language learning

– Make it. Don’t even think about learning a language at this point. Get fired up about your project. Tinker. Fix. Build. Solder. Refresh. And then – when you need help, instructions, when questions need to be asked – turn to the language you’re learning. Use it then – at the point when it’s urgent, relevant and crucial to understand and be understood. That’s what makes it memorable.
– Flaunt it. Take pics, write up your project, prepare instructions, record a screencap or a podcast about what gets done and how. In a foreign language, of course. This doesn’t need to be perfect – the thing you made will speak for itself, and all feedback on language will be secondary to the awesome project you completed.
– Translate. I’m a fluent Polish and English user, but I’d be stumped if you asked me to explain in detail how to solder together a few simple elements. You, on the other hand, may know all the technical jargon for your DIY or project. You may be the person your movement needs to spread the word about the latest achievement, call for participants for the latest series of workshops – maybe even interpret on a trip abroad?
– Research. This one’s obvious – if you read and listen to things you care about, you will remember things better. And with the added interaction provided by the Web, get ready for unpredictable conversations around the topic as well! Added bonus: see how your craft is practised around the world. I bet the Polish school of stitching is interestingly different to the British one…
– Repeat.

5. Similar stuff, links, starting points.

“Make” is the perfect starting point for anyone keen to do stuff in the 21st century. So is “Instructables.
If money’s on your mind, see how language learning works when you run a business.
Read more on tribes in language learning – see what you’re getting when joining one!

(photo credit: Marc via Compfight)


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