In reply to David’s rebuttal: the future of language learning part 2

Firstly, I would like to thank David Petrie for this opportunity to debate and discuss that has arisen out of his thought-provoking post for the British Council Teaching English site and equally well-written rebuttal of my response to that post. For me this is one of the magic things about blogging: the opportunity to engage in critical, reflective discussion and debate on our teaching and learning beliefs, our pedagogies, our methodologies, with fellow members of the profession, so that much less of it becomes entrenched or gathers dust.

I will now respond to David’s rebuttal to my original points and weave in a few more points of my own along the way.

David explains that:

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that language is anything but social or used for anything other than a communicative purpose.  I don’t see, though, how this belief mitigates against learning in an online environment.  People do, after all, communicate quite effectively online. 

Absolutely. People do communicate very effectively online and language is used communicatively. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools are brilliant – I use Edmodo and blogs with my students regularly. However, does this use of language fully prepare learners for face-to-face encounters? I would argue that it doesn’t. Spoken communication and use of language involves so much more than words. Online communication recognises this: we try to bridge the gap between online and face-to-face communication by using emoticons ( 🙂 ) , abbreviations for paralinguistic devices (LOL! <sigh…>) [For more about this overlap between spoken and online communication, see my summary of Fiona Johnston’s talk at IATEFL this year: Write here, write now- developing written fluency ] and we manage most of the time – give or take a few arguments when tone is misread. However communicating in this way does not fully capture the diversity of spoken communication. For this reason, I feel that while online collaborative platforms are a valuable additional opportunity for meaningful language use, learning language exclusively through their use is insufficient. I think online learning may be better suited to content learning, which we are able to package in words and diagrams, rather than language learning, which is a lot more complex to package. (This perhaps being one of the reasons why technologically based language learning has seen lots of change and innovation, and is continually evolving, but has not taken over classroom-based language learning despite this kind of prediction.)

However, in addition to this, David argues that sites such as Vocaroo mean that speaking can be included in online learning too. Yes, again, absolutely. In response to this, though, I would like to highlight the difference between this form of speaking – making a voice recording, listening to someone else’s voice recording, responding to that voice recording in a further recording etc – and a face-to-face conversation. If you are not sure what I mean by this, record yourself and a few friends having a conversation. Now try and transcribe it. Can you capture the full meaning of what was said? How much code do you need to be able to do that? Do you notice how you pick up what your friends are saying, interrupt or overlap and complete their utterances? Do you notice the wide range of different tones used? What about non-verbal communication? How do you capture it all? Now how do you transfer that to online communication such as that done using Facebook messenger or similar? Spoken conversation is co-constructed and we have to co-construct differently online, mimicking spoken conversation but adapting to the different medium. Clearly it would not be possible to interact online using discourse analysis transcription coding to capture spoken communication – it would take far too long and be too complicated; beside which, until technology enables us to see what someone is typing as they type it, then mimicking interruptions and overlaps, as they happen in spoken conversation, are not possible in any case. So I would say tools such as Vocaroo are great for helping learners to practice speaking in terms of stringing words together fluidly and coherently over the piece of discourse as a whole, and certainly lend themselves to practicing presentations or other single-turn speaking, but they do not enable learners to practice genuinely conversing in real time in the target language. (And this, together with the social side of language learning, is why PSP Speaking and Thursday night English-speaking pub night are so popular with our students – they recognise that in order to use English more competently, as well as learning and developing skills, they need opportunities to converse in English.Skype and other similar video-conferencing software such as Adobe are another possibility, but even this is limited.

I would argue that since language began as caveman noises which in turn became utterances and developed into the complex form of spoken communication as we know it today, if learners want to learn language in order to be able to use it face-to-face, then they need opportunities to use it face-to-face in a supportive setting. If they don’t live in a situation/community/location that allows this, then the language classroom and, indeed, the language community of the language school, can provide such opportunities. Returning to the social side of language learning, I would also argue that online socialising is no replacement for face-to-face communication. As a friend of mine who is currently working in a small place, far away from friends and family put it, and I paraphrase, “I feel isolated. Having people on the end of a skype call is not the same as having them there with you.” To illustrate this further, would you prefer to spend the evening having a drink while talking with people in Second Life or similar and trawling Facebook, sat at your computer, or join those people for a drink in real life? Being able to communicate online is brilliant, and social media have helped bring like-minded people together from all four corners of the world, it is true (#ELTchat is one such shining example, as is the British Council Teaching English Facebook page); but think how excited we get at the prospect of attending a conference and talking to members of our online PLN in person! I believe there will be no small number of learners who feel the same way about their course mates. (I know I’d give anything to be back in a room with my fellow M.A. DELTA course mates of 2012-2013, for a good discussion, and our Facebook group just isn’t the same – as a small example!)

Well, despite the length of this blogpost, I’ve only scraped the surface of David’s second blogpost and there is so much more there to deal with. However, for now, work beckons and will be followed by a 3-day holiday from the computer, so you’ll have to wait a bit for the next instalment! 🙂

open clip art org

Computers are great but grrrr! 🙂 Photo taken from via Google image search labelled for commercial reuse with modification.


9 thoughts on “In reply to David’s rebuttal: the future of language learning part 2

  1. Yes! That’s what I tried to say yesterday during a presentation at uni, but the professor didn’t want to understand… Of course sts learn through cmc tools, but face-to-face interstion is important indeed. Imagine those sts Who cannot interact in real life? I don’t believe teachers would be helping them only using fb, Skype or whatever. Technology is great when we know how and when to use it.

    • Glad I’m not the only one trying to say it! 🙂 I love technology but I don’t think it means the end of language schools. I believe co-existence would be a much better bet!

  2. Splendid post, Lizzie. If I were playing devil’s (David’s?) advocate I’d suggest that CMC in the year 2034 might offer us a substantially better approximation of real-life communication than it does now, perhaps even enough to take the place of a face-to-face encounter. If that should prove to be the case, I think many smaller language schools will suffer.

    The thing that struck me most about David’s original post was the sense that Monica was a helpless, undiscerning victim of the ELT publishing industry, the corollary perhaps being that she hadn’t mastered the language because she had failed to negotiate the bewildering array of tuition and self-study options available to her. I would suggest that students are actually critical, self-aware and experienced users of a range of learning media and learning environments, who choose to learn in a way that they know suits them best.

    So of course the students from your class are eager to join reading group and PSP – they have already determined that face-to-face learning is for them. Those who prefer to work online at their own pace are at home, doing just that. Whether they make any progress will depend on a range of factors, like the materials, their teachers/mediators, their individual differences as learners, other demands on their time, etc. And just as there are good and bad language schools, there are good and bad online options.

    I don’t doubt for a second that interaction with other human beings is a necessary condition for language learning, but if you’re telling me it has to be face-to-face interaction at the pub…well, I’m not so sure about that. Technology is continually helping to break down the barriers between physical separation and spoken interaction, and as those barriers fall the language school classroom looks ever more outdated.

    • I will get round to replying to this, Matt, but I think it might end up being the stuff of another blog post! 😉 Thanks for such a long, detailed, well-thought out reply! 🙂

  3. Very good points, Lizzie; reciprocity conditions and demands do not apply when recording oneself, although processing conditions/demands may. In that sense, then, recording can be viewed as an excellent way of rehearsing in ‘delivery’ type situations, rather than interactive situations defined by context, interlocutors and topic.


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