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Language learners: it’s 2015. Do you know where your humans are?

Language Learners: it's 2015. Do you know where your humans are?I’m going to IATEFL again this year. Last time was fun (well, depending on who you ask) and certainly gave lots of people lots of ranting material. But you don’t need conferences to see how the language learning landscape evolves. And if you just want to learn to use a language, you don’t really care. Here’s one thing I would like you to think about today. It’s important regardless of the language you’re learning or teaching.

1. If there’s an app for that (whatever “that” is)…

First thought to hold in your head for a while: language learning got a lot closer to those who learn. Apps are only a tiny symbol of what’s going on. If you’re keen to learn any language today, language schools and centres no longer call the shots. If you’re after more materials, libraries are no longer the only places to get them. For many polyglots, “at your fingertips” is a phrase that goes alongside with “at the tip of my tongue.”

2. …and if we’re still just getting started…

iPhones are not even ten years old, and iPads are an even younger thing. Google Translate launched in 2006 (and stoped sucking much, much later). Memrise and Duolingo are even more fresh. Every day, a new idea gets discussed. Every week, a new language learning startup is founded, publicized, or closes down. For learning in general – and language learning in particular – these are toddler times, at best.

3. …then what do you need your humans for today…

Teachers in language schools fear losing their jobs. Coursebook writers are rebelling against new ways of selling and publishing content. Native speakers no longer need to travel to find work – they don’t even change their pajamas to teach via VOIP. In case you just started learning languages, here’s a newsflash: none of these things were a concern ten years ago.

The question for any polyglot in 2015 is this: where do your humans feature in your plan? Do you know what your native speaker pals can help you with? Are you getting the most out of your classmates, are you giving them your best? And since language is so much closer, so much more available, is it still OK to rely on people to bring you it? Are you perhaps better off using your humans for what they are: an invaluable source of authentic practice, expert advice and strategy guidance?

4. …and how can you really benefit from humans in your language learning?

A friend of mine was once paid, quite handsomely, to have Skype sessions with a learner of English. His job was to go through a humongous word list and to give the learner an example sentence for every word. No discussion, no explanation, no exploration. A word, then a sample sentence. On to the next word and the next sample sentence.

This is wasteful on many levels. It was wasteful five years ago (when paper dictionaries were able to provide this kind of service for a fraction of the lesson price) and it’s even more wasteful now (where dictionaries are online, mobile, sound-enabled and free).
Language learning will always, at one point or another, lead you to authentic, unplanned human interaction. If it doesn’t, you’re just learning to code.

You, as a language learner, are much more powerful today than 10 years ago. Your choices sway the market. Your habits will make teachers, materials and syllabuses pay attention. And this will only intensify.

How are you going to surround yourself with people who are willing to help you learn? What roles will they play? And how can you make sure that your language learning remains what you want it to be?

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