Independence is Everything

Language is changing. The net is making it happen.

There is a lot of talk about the net 2.0 generation and many of the exciting (and terrifying) things that will come to pass as we struggle to get a hold on what these developments mean. Language learning is no exception, and we have in the past few years seen quite a few blogs, services, and programs designed to help people learn languages. While the vast majority of these things come in different flavors, there is one unifying element that is common. All of them are designed with the independent learner in mind.

Independence is by no means new to language learning. Research has often talked about “learner autonomy” and its importance in linguistic development. However, old models of instruction involving a teacher in front of students imparting knowledge (what some colleagues and I have dubbed “chalkboard teaching”) are falling by the wayside. There are a couple of reasons why this is so:

• While cheap, it is teacher-centered, and it often fails to be engaging to students.
• Marketing for the classes is often not handled by the teachers, but by administrators of schools and businesses offering instruction. This results in a large majority of students who are simply not interested in what teachers are teaching. Very often true with English classes, which are often mandatory.
• The method itself encourages dependence on the teacher instead of development of new skills that would foster independent learning (such as learning how to use a target language dictionary, or identify one’s own weaknesses, etc.)

In addition, old models of instruction have not been very kind to teachers or students, with ready-made classes and syllabuses that are “one size fits all” and can often not be tailored to individual needs. Teachers don’t benefit because this often dehumanizes the very process that attracted them to teaching in the first place, resulting in lost career advancement, stagnation of skills, and a questionable future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been investigating the internet and other alternative means of language learning. What will language look like in the future? Here are some thoughts:

• Teachers will be less like teachers and more like trainers. They will have taught themselves a language to prove that they can walk the walk, and instead of following a “content-dump” model of language instruction, they will be periodically checking in on learners to investigate their progress.
• Language learning will be less about what you know and more about the learning habits that you develop in the direction of language learning.
• The idea of tests and quizzes will (ideally) fall away as a substandard means of assessing progress, instead focusing exclusively on real tasks to be accomplished in the target language.
• The learner will be trained to do most of the assessment themselves until autonomy is reached.

As you can see, the development of new behaviors and means of assessing these behaviors will be important. I have long not been an advocate of traditional assessment because it encourages substandard habits, but that doesn’t mean I am anti-assessment. Teachers have always worried about teaching to the test. But we always will, and so instead of avoiding the process, we should change the test to more accurately reflect the behaviors we want to occur. Indeed, learners’ being able to assess their own progress is crucial, and the future of educators’ careers lies in our ability to give up the power and show them how.

About the author:
Ryan Layman is the author of RyanLayman.com, a bilingual website written in English and Japanese to teach people how they can teach themselves a language. He is also currently Assistant Professor of English Language at Kanazawa Institute of Technology, where he has been teaching Japanese students for nearly two years. You can visit his blog www.ryanlayman.com.

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3 thoughts on “Independence is Everything”

  1. I agree with you here. I have been learing Italian for abt 14 months now and have learned so much faster than I learned French back in a rural high school in the 1970’s. I am now at an Intermediate stage after 14 months, but after 4 years of French, I was only still just past beginner stage.

  2. Very good article.

    It’s amazing how teaching is changing in this years. Classes will be more and more technicals (see e-books, that I personally adore)

  3. Marcia and Peonia, thank you so much for your comments.

    Marcia, I’m excited that you’ve had such good results with your Italian. I currently work in a school system now, and while I think it can be helpful for getting people on a path, I feel that it isn’t very helpful as the sole means of walking that path. Standards have more often than not made it more difficult for students who want to excel.

    Peonia, I’m very excited myself. I hope to be experimenting with some things of my own in the near future, and have been working on some e-books to encourage Japanese literacy among Western foreigners (who don’t have quite the literacy background that people from other East Asian cultures have). Are there any e-books that you personally recommend?

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