1001 ways to learn a language

There are thousands of languages and almost as many ways of learning them.

Books, vocabulary guides, individual or group language courses, at home, in school or online, exchange trips, immersion, e-learning software, mobile applications, adaptive learning, peer to-peer learning, chatbots or hypnosis… free or paid, over several days or several years. In their infinite diversity, all of these methods serve the same purpose: to promote language learning and open up communication with people all over the world. 

The issue of foreign language teaching has been much discussed for decades. Some criticize traditional approaches to learning, such as the standard classroom and top-down teaching, while others and express reservations about any methods that combine learning and technology. In reality, these judgments are made on the basis of relatively subjective criteria or training experiences with unrepresentative samples of students. In the Western world, language teaching is heavily influenced by linguistic theorizing. While these debates remain necessary for scientific progress, in our experience there is no one method that is clearly better than any other. Each has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. The only determining factors in the choice of approach should be how well it is aligned with the learner’s profile and expectations, and the constraints of the learning environment (budget, time, learning objectives, etc.). There is great diversity in the supply, which is good because the demand is also very diverse. 

Beyond the method adopted, it is a fact that the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn them. The brain, exposed to new language systems, becomes more elastic and develops cognitive abilities that can be transposed to the learning of a new language. Research has shown that in hyperpolyglots (those who speak six or more languages fluently) Broca’s area of the brain, which is responsible for language processing, is not constructed in the same way as in monolinguals. There is therefore a strong chance that learning a first foreign language will lead to learning a second foreign language! A real virtuous circle is created: learners gain confidence, leave behind any complexes and manage to communicate better. In the end, no matter which language is promoted or which learning method is chosen, the result will be the same: a greater openness to the world. This is why the promotion of a global language will never dampen interest in secondary languages, quite the contrary… and new technologies certainly have a role to play.

The promise of new learning technologies…

In the wake of new technologies (and more attention during the recent COVID period), e-learning and distance learning has progressed in leaps and bounds. In foreign languages as in other sectors, e-learning facilities are multiplying at a rapid pace, particularly under the growing pressure worldwide to be able to speak English. Innovative and connected learning solutions are emerging that can be grouped under the name EdTech, a contraction of the terms “Education” and “Technology”. This very dynamic sector is focused on the challenge of individualizing learning. 

Today, more than ever, we are faced with an abundance of new tools and online content: self-learning (tutored or not), MOOCs, courses with a teacher via telephone or videoconference, LMSs (Learning Management Systems) for organizing and gathering training resources, serious games, virtual reality, forums and platforms for networking (peer-to-peer learning), gamification… There is no shortage of buzzwords to illustrate the diversity of what is available. 

In addition to companies and universities, schools themselves are beginning to open their doors to applications for use in the classroom. In France, technological solutions are most welcome as the country’s education system struggles to produce bilingual students. In a study of English language skills, France ranked 23rd out of 33 European countries. This technology, which, while it may be primarily designed for English, actually benefits all languages. 

Among the most ambitious innovations, and one that is featured heavily in our online courses, is adaptive learning: a method that exploits data provided by the learner in real-time to offer a training course that is genuinely adapted to their profile (weak points, initial knowledge, expectations, objectives, interests etc.) and beneficial to their progress over time (forgotten material, revision requirements, memorization capacity). We are also keen on the spaced repetition learning approach, which consists in favoring shorter sessions, also known as microlearning, and spacing them out over time in order to assimilate the information learned over the long term, while also fitting more easily into learners’ timetables. In our experience, all of these methods contribute to an improved user experience and increasingly engage learners.

…and their limits

In the wake of new technologies (and more attention during the recent COVID period). Despite the plethora of language courses, methods and learning content available, certain questions persist. Do they really provide benefits? Are we learning better and more easily than before? Can we say for sure that more people have access to education? 

If we take a closer look at the statistics, we see that MOOCs, despite the hype they generated in the early 2000s, have a low success rate: only 5-10% of those who enroll complete the entire course. Moreover, those who do tend to be qualified students who already have a more developed learning capacity.

At the same time, and after two decades of constant innovation in educational technology, many sociologists and economists warn that not only are financial inequalities increasing, but educational inequalities are also becoming more pronounced. What conclusions can be drawn? Far from calling into question the benefits of digital learning, this reaffirms the importance of the learning experience, beyond the provision of educational tools and content. With the Internet, it is as if everyone has a library downstairs, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, this does not necessarily mean they are going to learn anything; they have to go there, identify something to learn, go back regularly, deepen their studies and memorize what they have learned. 

Today, the existence of educational resources and technologies, no matter how sophisticated and comprehensive, is not enough. While it is a decisive and valuable first step, it requires further initiatives to complement the learning experience.

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