How tablets accelerate the ease of learning a foreign language

by Dan Nickolai

January 18 2012

Dan Nickolai is Director of the Language Learning Center at St. Louis University


"Interacting with tablets outside of English can help boost the proficiency and functional competence of any foreign language learner," says Dan Nickolai, Director of the Language Learning Center at Saint Louis University

Every few years new technology emerges that promises to innovate around foreign language learning and instruction. From the printed press to the phonograph to the portable music player, each new development serves to advance the accessibility of foreign language programs and materials. Tablet devices and the accompanying ecosystems of apps are contributing significantly to this progression of technology.

iPads and Android devices are being recognized on college campuses across the country for their potential in the language classroom. The popularity of these tablet devices has been, in part, fueled by new approaches to teaching foreign languages. Recent trends in language pedagogy have called into question the efficacy of repetitive grammatical drills that focus on the linguistic accuracy of any given utterance. Instead, educators have embraced communicative teaching methods that emphasize the importance of conveying information, even if this is done so imperfectly. Linguistic precision has thus been eschewed for practical performance in many classrooms. This, in turn, has led to the development of what is now known as task-based instruction. Students are expected to be able to complete tasks in the target language, such as reserving a hotel room or train ticket, instead of demonstrating their ability for exact rote memorization.

Communicative teaching methods are complimented and enhanced by technology that is primarily task-based, such as the various applications found on mobile devices.

Capitalizing on apps for language learning

One of the principal purposes of apps is to increase productivity or to otherwise facilitate our lives. Individual apps can provide driving directions, find nearby restaurants, give weather forecasts, and help us comparison shop, among many other things. Capitalizing on these tasks for language learning only requires the identification of equivalent apps from other countries and cultures. This might be the French Yelp, the Spanish-version of Craigslist, or the Japanese-language weather app.

Taking the directions example, a student might be asked to explain the best route from Le Louvre to Notre Dame in Paris. Students can use the same technology that a native speaker would use to accomplish any given task. Research also suggests that the authentic use of language in this way serves as a boon to the acquisition process.

Tablets and smart phones represent the arrival of truly mobile computing. The processing power and small form factor of these devices permit language learning activities in virtually any space. Successful implementations of task-based learning rely on everyday mobile technology that is freely available from the Apple and Android app stores. Of course, there is also a slew of applications designed specifically for independent language learning, but these are not representative of the push for task-based instruction in higher education.

It should also be stated that the language learning potential of tablet devices is in no way limited to the few examples of task-based instruction outlined above. These mobile devices connect users with foreign language newspapers, videos, podcasts, and streaming online radio. This level of remote accessibility into other cultures and languages is completely unprecedented.

To begin to unlock the language learning power of mobile devices, it is sufficient to explore how you might use the technology if your first language wasn’t English. When identifying which apps would serve this goal, the following practical considerations are helpful:

1. Was the app designed for and by native speakers of the language you’re learning?
 
2. Does the app have any inherent utility or practical purpose?

3. Would you download an equivalent app in English?

4. Will using the app help you achieve something or inform your decisions?

5. Is the application well-suited to your interests or needs?

Acquiring a second language can be expedited by selecting applications that align with personal or professional interests. Cooking enthusiasts can delve into recipes in French or Italian. Musicians can tune their instruments, reference chord charts, and share recordings in Spanish. Trivia, quiz, and crossword puzzle junkies can placate their gaming penchant in German or Russian. Everyday applications like these abound outside English-speaking countries and are at the world’s disposal.

Interacting with tablets outside of English can help boost the proficiency and functional competence of any foreign language learner. As stated above, identifying apps that are inherently practical or interesting serves to enhance this learning experience.

It is true, of course, that some apps will require more initial proficiency than others. Don’t be discouraged if your language skills have gotten a little rusty. Well-designed apps provide intuitive interfaces that help you anticipate the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary terms.

Comprehension is also eased by the mono-purpose nature of mobile applications. The overwhelming majority of tablet applications are designed for just one task, so you won’t have to sort through nutritional guidelines while checking bus schedules on a public transit app. By knowing the raison d’être of any given application, the corresponding context will facilitate meaning making. This task-based approach to language learning relies on authentic language used in authentic ways. Tablets are now proving to serve this purpose, both in and outside the foreign language classroom.

Dan Nickolai is Director of the Language Learning Center at St. Louis University
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