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Two kinds of free: the price(s) of free language learning

free language learningFree foreign language learning is either a worthy ideal or a cheap trick played on customers – depending on who you ask. But isn’t there another way of looking at language learners – and at the notion of “free”? Once again, answers can be found in some unexpected places.

1. Richard Stallman, software and making a ruckus

If you’ve never heard of the Free Software movement or the GNU project, you’ve got homework to do. And even if you’ve only just discovered Stallman thanks to his recent Wired article – it’s still a really useful read and I recommend it for reflection on how we work with computers. Richard Stallman is a man who is not afraid of making noise about questions that matter. And even if you don’t agree or follow everything he proposes – it’s worth thinking about the kind of arguments he makes for software, and reflecting on parallels with language learning.

2. Free (as in “gratis”) or free (as in “libre”)?

There are two kinds of free, and English has a quirky way of mixing them up. For wannabee polyglots, this is best demonstrated by a few examples:

  • First, there’s not-free. Not gratis and not “libre.” Rosetta Stone comes to mind here: pay for the software, and you get access. The software decides what you learn, and how – there’s no freedom to change the code, techniques or premises of the software. And lending it to other people lands you in trouble with copyright law.
  • Secondly, there’s free as in “gratis.” Duolingo is a good example of this. It lets you access the language learning system at no cost, and you don’t have to pay money at any time to learn a foreign language. You can’t influence the way you are taught (not straight away), and you can’t use the source code / key philosophy to learn any language in any way since Duolingo offers just the service, and not the software – and only for a number of languages.
  • Lastly, there’s free as in “libre.” This is much harder to achieve: apart from money, you’re also free to tweak the methods, experiment with them, reverse-engineer them, lend the materials to others. Think about meeting people in the street and picking up words as you chat – or reading news and blogs and Wikipedia entries in the language of your choice. Not much else, though… Why isn’t there a lot of “libre” language learning? We’ll have to think about “freedom” a bit more.

3. Four Software freedoms – and how they might work for language learning

Richard Stallman notes four key criteria for truly “libre” software in his Wired article. In short, these are:

  • the freedom to run the program as you wish, for whatever purpose.
  • the freedom to study the program’s “source code” and change it, so it does what you wish.
  • the freedom to make and distribute exact copies when you wish.
  • the freedom to distribute your modified versions, when you wish.

Mapped against any language learning method, this means one thing: trouble. Take it from a former language school manager: you don’t want to teach like that. Except you really, really should – and may have to in the near future. Let’s try a thought experiment – imagine a language learning method conforming to Stallman’s freedoms as far as possible.

As a user, you would be free to decide how, why and when you want to use the school / method. One week you would prepare a presentation, the next – revise some grammar in a self-study area. Schools dread this: they prefer you in neat little rows. But in reality, with some experimenting, you are likely to soon find a good working relationship with your tutor.

You would be able to access the methodology, resources, texts and philosophy behind how things are taught – and try to tweak this, so it does what you wish. Another pain for every school: you’re seen as a havoc-wreaking dilettante who would upset the whole system. What’s more likely, though, is that with the help of an expert, you would pick and choose the parts of the system that are relevant to you.

The third and fourth freedom are extremely hard to even imagine in a language school – 99% of them rely on fees from students. But what if a school allowed you to transfer your place on the course to someone else – or to bring a few friends / colleagues on to a lesson? With the right pricing and classroom management, this could be arranged. And as for the fourth freedom, this is the ultimate goal of language study: to teach people well enough so that they can go on teaching others.

4.Towards “libre” language learning?

Several language learning methods have, at times, come close to the “libre” ideal (dogme comes to mind). But what would your perfectly free vision of language learning entail? This is not just blue sky thinking. This could be a real discussion with perfect economic sense – sooner than we can imagine. Answers on a postcard / comment / email, please!

(Photo credit: @carolrainbow / eltpics, some rights reserved)


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