I’ve recently become an online language tutee after having taught online for the past 2 years. It wasn’t ‘til I suddenly became an online student that I started to really think about learning a language over something like Skype. 10 years ago technologies such as Skype and podcasting were seen as “disruptive technologies” as they provided novel ways of doing familiar tasks like learning languages. You don’t need a phone to phone someone and you don’t need a contract with a broadcaster to make your own radio programme and beam it across the globe.
From a teacher’s perspective, I used to think that teaching absolute beginners over Skype perhaps isn’t the best way to get started with a language. The initial interaction can be a bit strange for the tutee: you have to sit there whilst your teacher goes over the sounds of the language and basic introductory phrases. There’s no choral repetition here- the focus is entirely on you. It’s like some kind of examination. However, I now realise that the unease I felt whilst seemingly grilling the Welsh alphabet with absolute beginners wasn’t shared by my learners. My learners liked the fact that they were the centre of linguistic attention and that they weren’t being made to linguistically perform in a room of strangers after a fatiguing day at work. They also appreciated the time they were afforded to repeat themselves or to ask me to repeat phrases until they heard a difference in the sounds we were trying to contrast. When we are learning a language as a child, we are given undivided and total linguistic attention. Everything we say, even if it’s a just a blench is interpreted by the adults around us as having linguistic intent or import. This opportunity for language learning is never afforded to us ever again. Children who change to a different linguistic school environment get the next best thing, but thereafter you will never again get such focussed attention to learn another language. Online tuition gives you, even if only for an hour, the total and unhindered attention of someone who will listen to you stumble your way through a sentence and give you 1:1 encouragement and feedback.
This is the most expensive carpet
Whilst I do teach structured and more formal sessions online, the most optimum learning definitely occurs when the session resembles a conversation and not a lesson. The sessions I enjoy most as a teacher and as a student are the ones in which some material has been set beforehand, e.g. a youtube clip, a book chapter, a poem or a news article. These sessions can then function as much like a natural conversation as possible. The problem with formal and structured lessons over Skype is that they can quickly turn into a business conference call.
One of the reasons for this is the content of the lesson, or rather the context in which the grammar you’re teaching is set. A real challenge for language teachers in class is to select contexts that matter to their students. What’s the point in learning about some moribund aspect of Welsh or Chinese culture if you’re not actually interested in it? I love my Swedish coursebook, but it’s like something out of the ark. Here are some of the gripping chapter titles:
- En frånskild kvinna: a divorced woman
- A woman gets on with her life
- Ett bra köp: a good buy
- A tedious couple go to a department store and buy a new carpet
- Skvaller: gossiping
- Two women sit and talk about the salacious gossip in their block of flats: a couple has bought a new car, a neighbour ostensibly buys a lot of clothes and a student recently accidentally smashed a wine bottle on the stairs (whilst in a state of complete sobriety on returning from the off license during the day)
- I Tvättstugan: in the laundry room
- Mr and Mrs Nillson patronisingly instruct a foreign couple who have newly moved into the block of flats how to properly operate the washing machine in the communal laundry room.
- Kristina och kärlekan: Kristina and love
- Kristina, who is 25, is utterly desperate to marry a man and start a family. Sometimes she goes to a dance, picks up “some boy” and before they righteously “part ways at her door” they agree to meet for a coffee the next day.
These are meaningless contexts to me and I don’t suspect that they’re particularly impactful for anyone else either. When I was at secondary school I remember a peer of mine getting into a disagreement with our French teacher, “why do I need to learn how to say when I put the bins out in French?!” they asked frustratingly. They weren’t being insolent (as the French teacher thought)- they had a point. What Welsh 13-year-old puts the bins out, let alone would need to communicate this information to someone in French? We don’t learn things we’re not interested in. However, somehow in adult education, we forget about meanings that matter. We seem to unquestionably accept any reading material or context offered. The Mari Lwyd? The 1997 Devolution Referendum. The Assassination of Olaf Palme. The Emirate of Granada. Japanese tourist sites. Celebrating Ramadan. We don’t mind because ultimately in a class situation we can’t choose. We can’t say to our fellow learners and our teacher “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in Mr and Mrs Nillson’s condescending laundry room nonsense”. However, online you can say this. You’re paying someone in a very direct way, which puts the locus of control on you. But above the economic power the Skype language learner has, the best online language sessions are those in which the conversation is led by the learner talking about something that interests them. The learner can control the context. Even better are situations in which a mutual interest between the tutor and the tutee can form the basis of discussion. I’m lucky in that my tutees are all interesting people with lots of interesting stories to tell. There is always something that people want to tell or share. Something motivating to them in their lives that can be used to motivate them in their language learning endeavours.
The best learning happens in these situations. You can almost forget your respective roles of learner and instructor and focus instead on communicating with each other. Something that works really well is for the tutor to send the learner a glossary of any words or phrases that they needed translating during the course of the conversation’s flow after the session has finished. These make for the most meaningful word lists for learners to learn because they learnt these words, not in the context of someone else’s discussion about purchasing a carpet, but in a meaningful, natural and actually-experienced conversation. Learners can then think “oh, I know the word for that, we learnt it when we spoke about volunteering” whilst they search for a word in the target language instead of thinking “We learnt that word in the third session” or “we learn that word in the chapter about buying a carpet”. Natural and meaningful links can be created between words.
Another aspect of online language learning that needs celebrating is that fact that it’s a medium that democratises language learning. Not everyone can afford the time or money that adult evening classes require. Initial costs associated with evening classes can be a real barrier to taking the initial language learning step- you’ve not only got to pay the course fee, but also buy the often eye-wateringly expensive text and exercise books. Websites like italki offer a huge range of community teachers offering informal tuition as well as professional language teachers with a myriad range of prices. Somewhere in the world is someone charging an agreeable price. Teachers are scattered across the globe so mismatching timezones also mean that you can always find someone to teach you at a time convenient to you.
Watch our for your pronunciation…
The challenge presented by Skype learning for the teacher is to understand what the goals of the learner are and to respond to these accordingly. If the learner just wants conversational practice online, then that’s fine. But if they also want to continue learning the language and make some linguistic progress, then the online conversations need managing in order to make sure there’s still a learning goal or target in the session. This could be something like using vocabulary used in the previous session in a new context, or it could be using a particular pattern that was set as part of some previously set homework. Without keeping an eagle pedagogical eye on the interactions, the learner won’t progress and sessions will stagnate. If the learner is interested in more than just practising chatting, then tasks need to be set outside the sessions. My online tutor has a nifty approach to improving my pronunciation online by giving me a little “watch out for” section at the end of the wordlists he sends at the end of each session. “Watch out for how you say “g” in the following words (they’re hard, not soft G’s)”. The little notes approach is a good one, you can also give little hints about grammar “Remember that you need two negative elements in a negative sentence: you said “mae e ddim” instead of “dyw e ddim”. Whatever you ask your tutor to do, there should be some kind of reflection provided after the session. If you want to progress then ask for homework, a wordlist of vocabulary you learnt in the session, a list of errors you made. Anything that means you’re not just shutting the laptop lid and not thinking about your Skype session ’til the next one.