Language Learning Online: Why and How?

Learning a foreign language is possibly one of your goals if you are reading this article, be it because you need one more language in your resume, you are fascinated by another culture, you moved to a new country for any reason, or just because you are interested in foreign languages. However, the task is not easy. A language is the system of communication that a particular people has adopted and been developing over centuries, so learning a language involves learning most of the vocabulary and idioms, and more importantly, the different ways that are combined to communicate a message. The best practice to tackle this task is to move to the country where the language is spoken: daily interaction with natives is the fastest way to get a grasp of how the language works. Unfortunately, this option is not available to everyone. Taking language classes could be a good alternative, yet learning can turn slow and prosaic: learning too little over many distant sessions, mainly you lose the element of daily contact with the language. We live in the 21st century though, it takes a computer connected to the internet to get access to a tremendous amount of text and media for almost any language. So could technology come to rescue? This article addresses the conditions that a computer-aided language learning system (CALLS, for short) should satisfy to make language learning online feasible:

You cannot drink a lake in one sip! The vocabulary of any spoken language is big, you cannot expect to learn it in 30 days – 30 weeks is more reasonable. A CALLS should allow the student to learn on their own pace, at their own convenience.

Although flexible pacing is desired, uncontrolled flexibility could ruin your learning. Ideally you need a daily contact with the language, if you cannot use the language every day, a CALLS should emulate this condition for you. It should encourage you to have close-to-daily recurrence (or drill) of what you learned.

Learning a new language is like exploring a new country, a CALLS should be efficient in that it guides you to the most used streets and squares (or, phrases and idioms) as quickly as possible. This way you’ll have the confidence to explore, on your own, the rest of the city/language. The failure to do this turns the alleged CALLS into a computerized version of a dictionary/lexicon, which is useful, but wont help you take your first steps in the language.

Interactivity & Immersion
The main point in using a computer for language learning is that your performance in solving some task is reported to you (i.e. feedback) and it affects the way the task goes further. The elements of game-play and rewarding should be an inherent part of a CALLS. A special case of reward is being able to understand the media (e.g. songs, films… ) in the language you learn, it is highly recommended for a CALLS to help students understand media early in study, even when it is still beyond their current level.

It is distracting having to use several resources to achieve different aspects of the same task. A good CALLS has to provide an integrated and convenient environment for the learner, so that using the CALLS becomes part of the routine for as long as it takes to learn the language.

These are the five elements I have learned from more than five years of building CALL’s, the next article will illustrate these concepts via a case study, stay tuned!

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