Language Pals

 Originally posted on 100 Days of Ideas

I’ve been thinking a lot about language learning recently as I am contemplating a move to Buenos Aires and started brushing up (a.k.a. re-learning) Spanish. One thing I notice is that I am definitely staying away from the very grammatical and structural approach that I was taught with in High School. Granted, it does help that I have some grammatical foundation hidden somewhere in my subconscious, but I know that is definitely not the way to really learn how to use a language (at least for me). 

To cut to the point, I think language learning in school should be much more focused on using the language rather than understanding every nuance of the grammatical structure. As you become more proficient at using the language, then you can start learning more about the grammar. One of the problems with this approach is that it is hard to test and quantify how well students are doing. However when I think back to my language learning experience, I did well on my tests but was still far from being able to comprehend and speak the language. I feel like I should have been closer after four years of learning. 

My idea to achieve this in a simple and somewhat easily achievable way would be to have online language pals (somewhat like pen pals). Schools in the US could have sister schools somewhere else in the world and students would get paired up with a language pal at that school. This could occur at any age and would simply enhance the current curriculum rather than replace it.

There are of course plenty of issues with this model. What if both students can’t understand a word the other student is saying? What if they don’t know how to teach someone their own language? These are easily identified pitfalls and could be addressed with foresight and design. For introductory students, lessons could be geared around simple conversations to have with their language pals and important phrases such as ’I don’t understand,’ ‘what does that mean?” and ‘say that again.’

Interactive computer software/games could be built around this model to promote collaboration between the students. For instance, in one exercise the computer could show each student a picture of a horse and they can tell each other how to say ‘horse’ in their language. As they progress the software could continue to promote conversation with variations like showing one student a picture of an animal and asking them to describe it to the other student. This would make language learning into play and also make it relevant. It would also help the students ‘teach’ better. If their language pal is not understanding their clues, they will likely try using simpler words and simpler descriptions, searching to find a way to describe it so that the other student understands. This is just one example of a game that would help the language pals interact even though they don’t know each others language but many more could be created. And for older learners, the software might simply suggest conversation starters and offer new vocabulary to try to use.

This idea kind of got away from me as I got into it, and especially as I started thinking about the role well designed software could play, but what I really like about the whole picture is that the key to the positive learning outcomes is the interaction between the students. The computer acts as a facilitator and a moderator to help make the learning run smoothly and to make it relevant and fun. I also feel it would be fun to teach this class because students would be interested in learning new phrases to use or topics to discuss with their language pals and teachers could see their students apply the things they’ve learned in a very real setting.