When I was teaching Italian at the University of Hull a few years ago, one of the recurrent questions students asked me was: “Vincenzo, how can I improve my Italian?” Years after, in one of my EFL DipTesol training sessions the other day, Simon (the trainer) asked us: “How can we help students to improve their reading skills?” While I’m sitting at my laptop writing this blog, it strikes me that, after years and in two different contexts, one of my answers would be at least partly the same: by applying your technological world to language learning or the other way round, depending how you prefer look at it.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about this. The obvious objection could be: how do you know students are not doing this? They’re not, trust me. Or rather, only a minority is exploiting technology for these purposes and only to a limited extent. But you don’t need to take my word for it, although I’m talking from experience after many years spent teaching foreign languages. Ask other language teachers or ask your children.
Discovering technology for language learning: new opportunities
Really? How is this possible? In the digital era/world? If you are asking yourself these questions as I have been over the years, you’re probably thinking from your point of view, i.e. an adult who did not know what the internet and all related technology was when you were a kid. Because this is the crucial point. You did not have all this and you discovered a whole new world of opportunities when they were presented to you. Not for our children: smart phone, apps of any kind and for any taste, tablets and all the rest of it have always been part of their world.
Still, one might again object: the opportunities are still there, so why shouldn’t they use them? I suspect the reason might not be the purpose these tools can be used for, but the purpose they are supposed to serve. In other words, our children and teenagers grow up with smart phones they associate with leisure, that is, friends and fun, rather than study. They are addicted to them, but have you ever seen a teenager spending hours on a language app? They’re more likely to spend hours chatting with friends on Whatsapp or Facebook.
A different angle on technology
What lessons, if any, can be learned from this argument? I strongly believe that we as educators should encourage students to start looking at technology from a different angle, by showing them that, in the case of language learning at least, technology can always be fun but also useful. I have been fortunate enough to work both as a language tutor and language adviser, and my best results in this respect were always achieved in the latter position by talking to students individually and maybe taking them through some of these online resources to show them their value.
As members of that generation who has not grown up surrounded by technology, parents can play a similar role with their children, and encourage them to see beyond the entertaining side of the internet and toward its useful applications to language learning. They might even start playing with and learning a language themselves! Who knows?!?
Vincenzo has completed a MA in Language Learning and Technology and taught Italian at the University of Hull from 2006 to 2017.