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Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning

Even though I want to be a French teacher, I do not want to teach in a traditional classroom. Why? Because students learn best when they are not in the classroom. I feel that the classroom has a very limited role in language learning, and that teachers are mostly responsible for designing quality lessons and materials, providing support and feedback, and motivating students to become independent, autonomous learners. All of that can be done online.  When it comes to foreign languages, there is only so much a teacher can do – each and every learner has to put enough effort into remembering the new vocabulary and grammar concepts. The teacher cannot magically make that happen.

In 2008, the NYTimes reported on a study that found “Online Education Beats the Classroom” and once again a new study confirms that self-study (either alone or in conjunction with some classroom time) is much better than classroom time alone. Most universities in the US have introductory language courses that meet 3-4 hours per week, and some require students to spend time in the language lab.  I want to teach French to North American university students, but I do not want to teach one of those classes.  I want to teach classes that are either entirely or mostly online.

The ideal language “classroom” would be online so that students can access the material from anywhere at anytime. Language labs are nearly obsolete thanks to computers and mp3 players. And for students who work during the day or who simply cannot make it to campus at certain times (and therefore cannot enroll in language classes or use the language lab), being able to access all the material online at home would be a huge help. Especially for insomniacs like me who prefer to study at midnight!

I do think hybrid classes work best though because not all students are extremely motivated and they need that extra push to get the work done. Perhaps meeting once a week for an hour as a class, or even just having weekly meetings with the teacher, would motivate certain students. To me, the classroom should be reserved for teaching students HOW to study languages and HOW memory works and HOW to manage time in order for the students to become autonomous learners. In the classroom, we should learn how to learn, but the bulk of learning actual content takes place outside of the classroom.

I’ve heard complaints that online learning is not social enough, especially for language learning. I don’t agree with that either because there are plenty of language learning social networking sites. Even simply using Facebook or Twitter is enough to keep in contact with speakers of other languages, and IM and Skype are useful for writing and speaking to each other synchronously. We have all of the tools already – we just need to exploit them better. Another problem I have with this line of thinking is that everyone who learns languages wants to be social and speak to people in that language. That’s not entirely true either. Plenty of graduate students have to learn 2 foreign languages – but they are only required to have a reading knowledge of the language. Some people only care about understanding music and films and not so much about having a conversation. We all learn languages for different reasons.

Another reason why I prefer online classes is so that students can spend most of their time listening to the language (authentic, native language!) because it is the most important part of learning a language. Usually classroom time is reserved for explaining grammar in the native language or repeating vocabulary words that aren’t used all that often or reading dialogs with other non-native speakers, none of which is useful for everyday language. We don’t always use proper grammar. We don’t speak one word at a time. And we certainly don’t learn to speak another language by interacting with other learners at the same level. In fact, attempting to speak a foreign language with someone who speaks your native language is sometimes detrimental to your acquisition because you repeat the accent and mistakes that they make.

Listening to native speakers in natural settings is best, and the easiest way to do that is through online classes.  Teachers can produce or select the materials and base exercises on the grammar and vocabulary used. Most textbooks used in the traditional classroom do it the other way – explain grammar and provide vocabulary lists and then write fake dialogs or scenes to go with them. But that is not authentic language. I don’t want to down-play the importance of non-native speakers or teachers either, because there are plenty who have gained near-native status. And non-native teachers can actually provide more support and understanding for students who speak the same native language. I feel like I can teach French well to English-speakers because I know what it’s like to learn French – I’ve already gone through the process and I know what mistakes are likely to be made and why.