Posts

Language Learning Company Connects Students with Native Speakers

Fluency in a foreign language is an excellent, useful skill to have. Unfortunately, many teenagers see language learning as just another chore, especially if they are having difficulty grasping the concepts.

Studies have shown that listening to native speakers makes it easier for your brain to pick up a new language. However, it’s hard to get interested in a TV show when you don’t understand what’s going on.

Human interaction is one of the best ways to create interest in learning another language. After all, if you’re just learning the language to pass a test, or satisfy a school requirement, it’s easy to get bored with it. If you’re actually trying to use it to communicate with another person, learning a second language becomes much more satisfying.
Enter Learnosity, a company that produces language learning software.

The Journal reports that Learnosity is partnering with Voxbone, a company that provides toll-free numbers for international calls, to connect students from different countries.

Currently, students can call a Voxbone number and become part of a conference call with other students to practice speaking the language they are studying. Learnosity then provides teachers with an interface that tracks who is saying what and allows each student to be graded individually.

One of Learnosity’s goals, however, is to expand the concept so that students can call native speakers of the language they are studying and talk to them directly.

The idea is that students could use their own cell phones or phones provided by the school to call students in a different country and practice speaking the language. Each student would get a chance to practice speaking the other student’s language. Since Learnosity is partnering with Voxbone, the calls would be billed as local calls instead international long distance.

Learnosity’s CEO, Gavin Cooney, explained the value of the program to The Journal, saying “We can’t provide every student in a country with a laptop, broadband connection and headsets, but we can easily put a phone in the hands of every student. In fact, they already have one in most cases. Also, there is no learning curve for the student. And teachers don’t have to book computer facilities within the school; they just ask the students to take out their phones and dial in. This removes a significant barrier to entry.”
Of course, for this to work in countries like the US, schools would have to start allowing cell phones in class or provide special pre-paid phones specifically for these calls. Still, most teenagers love to talk on the phone, and this program would probably make language classes a little bit more exciting for the students involved.

More UK Students Studying Spanish 

Spanish is set to overtake French as the most dominant foreign language studied in UK schools, according to the head of the AQA exam board.

Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive, made the prediction based on this year’s GCSE statistics, in which a record number of students sat for Spanish GCSEs, even as foreign language entries declined overall. Approximately 93,000 students took the Spanish exam this year, 2,000 more than last year. Meanwhile, the number of French entries declined from from 177,288 to 168,042 and the number of German entries declined from 62,932 to 59,891.

Why is Spanish making gains even as other languages fall? Some educators are calling it the “Messi effect,” crediting the popularity of Argentinian football player Lionel Messi, but that’s far from the whole story. 

As Andrew Hall told The Telegraph, learning Spanish is increasingly being seen as a smart career move for students:

“It is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. I went to factories in California where people had to have Spanish as a fluent second language. I think more and people are speaking Spanish. I think students recognise that it is a very important language to have.”

In The Independent, Pearson vice-president Lesley Davis referenced the “Messi effect,” but also underlined the importance of Spanish to UK businesses:

“We know it’s becoming an increasingly important language for business with our recent Pearson/CBI Skills Survey showing that half of employers want Spanish speakers. Young people are also more exposed now to Spanish culture from music to food to high-profile Spanish speaking personalities.”

Meanwhile, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TESConnect that more students were choosing to “work smarter, not harder” by choosing Spanish, which is considered one of the easier foreign languages to learn:

“It’s very similar to our language in many ways,” he said. “It’s quite a straightforward structure. They find French more difficult, particularly because of the accent and so on. A lot of schools have found it’s a very popular subject.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by mikecogh

Word Poverty Hits the UK

The BBC has reported that children in England are to be offered lessons to improve their formal English skills amid fears that British children are suffering from “word poverty”. The question is, just because we don’t use a word frequently does that mean we don’t know it or do we have it in mind but choose to use an alternative? Children often use modern or fashionable words which, for example, their grandmother hasn’t heard of. Just because Grandma doesn’t know it doesn’t mean it’s not a word.

A word exists as long as another person understands what you mean. For example the word bling meaning jewellery, Grandma might not know what it means but the child who sits next to you at school knows what you are talking about.

Global Language Monitor (GLM) a US based company have stated that they believe that the one millionth word will be added to the English language sometime in June 09. New words the GLM have been tracking include Obamamania, bankster and bloggerati.

Children’s vocabulary can vary depending on parental guidance/teaching, geographical location, education and life experiences. For example, a child who excels at reading is likely to have a wide vocabulary as they have had more exposure to words, plus their standard education.

English is one of the main core subjects in schools in the UK; do we really need to give children extra lessons? Also should we not encourage children to develop the English language as our ancestors would have done?

British School to Teach English as a Second Language

Earlier this year, a report showed that in 1 out of 9 British schools, English is no longer the language spoken at home for the majority of students.

Now, in a proposal that’s sure to get people talking, a secondary school in Leeds has announced that they plan to teach English as though it were a foreign language to everyone – even students born and raised in Britain.

City of Leeds School’s student body is quite diverse, including 55 different nationalities. Students’ families come from all over the world, with some of the largest groups being Pakistani, Czech Roma and Traveller. According to the Yorkshire Post, less than a quarter of the students have English as a first language.

The school is rated as “requires improvement” by Ofsted, though that’s not entirely unexpected considering the challenges faced by its pupils.

Head teacher Georgiana Sale explained the problems faced by the school to the Yorkshire Post:

“Many of our pupils are not only new to English but they are not even literate in their own language. In some cases we are the first people to put a pen in their hand…Around half of our children are new to the country within four years. It is generally thought it takes five years to properly learn a language and that is when you have total immersion it. A lot of our children don’t have that because it is not being spoken at home.”

But what about the English students? Apparently, having parents who speak English doesn’t guarantee that a student will speak English well enough to excel on the GCSE exams. So, the instructions will aim to help these pupils improve in spelling and grammar. Ms. Sale told the Telegraph,

“The demands on the formality of language and the standards of spelling and grammar in GCSE exams are getting higher and higher. The level of language written and talked by the vast majority of our native English speakers would not be high enough to get A grades…It won’t be taught like you or I learned French. It’s going to be differentiated according to what they need and a lot of my children need to be taught English as a language.”

What do you think of this plan?

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by James Sarmiento

Can Computers Help Preserve Indigenous Languages?

According to the BBC, nearly half of the world’s 6,500 languages are expected to disappear over the next 100 years. Languages die when people stop speaking them and stop teaching them to their children. This has happened all over the world, with one of many examples being the fate of Native American languages after Europeans began to settle the continent.

Native Americans were confined to reservations, and Native American children were taken from the parents and sent to boarding schools, where instructors would punish them for speaking their native languages.

However, many Native American tribes are now making efforts to revitalise their languages through language learning and immersion programs in schools. One Native American couple, Mary Hermes and Kevin Roach, founded a non-profit organisation called Grassroots Educational Multimedia to provide people with tools to learn Native American languages.

The organisation teamed up with a company called Transparent Language to create language learning software for the Ojibwe language. The software allows Ojibwe students to create flashcards and watch videos of native speakers conversing in Ojibwe.

Another benefit of this software is that it has helped to document the vocabulary and grammar of the Ojibwe language. Before this project, the language’s grammatical structure was poorly documented.

So, with this software, GEM and Transparent Language have created a portable system people can use to learn Ojibwe at home, created a record of native speakers’ conversations, and created a map of Ojibwe grammar.

Even better, this approach provides a way to circumvent the emotional issues involved in trying to revive a dying language. As the Earth Times notes,

‘The history of the near genocide of the indigenous people of North America and the repression of their cultures and languages has meant that many emotions can get stirred up when indigenous people try to learn their own languages. They may encounter feelings of shame that they don’t know their indigenous language, feelings of anger at the trauma their people have endured, and feelings of embarrassment when they attempt to speak their language with the vocabulary of a two year old. Tribal elders who are fluent in the indigenous language may feel too jaded or just be too few in number to offer enough assistance. Often the indigenous language learner hits a place of cultural loss and insecurity that they have great difficulty overcoming.’ –Earth Times

Practicing at home, at a computer, gives language learners a chance to overcome these issues privately, and means that elders who grew up speaking the language can more easily pass it on. Also, this software gives students learning the language at school a fun way to practice outside of class.

Hopefully, this approach will help linguists document endangered languages and help language activists teach them, at least in places where computers are readily available.

Foreign Language Skills Lacking for UK Students 

UK foreign language students often leave school barely conversational in the languages they study, according to a new study from the Guardian. The survey polled 1,001 students and former students to gauge their attitudes toward learning foreign languages and their experiences with the UK school system. The results were not good, to say the least. Some lowlights:

  • 8 in 10 students who studied popular languages in school said they were only able to understand “basic phrases.”
  • 4 in 10 who studied Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese felt they would have have difficulty “understanding, speaking or writing anything.”

Ouch! And before you start blaming “kids today” for not being motivated enough, keep in mind that 3 out of 4 students agreed that “languages provide a valuable understanding of other cultures” and 7 in 10 had a goal of learning a foreign language in the future. So what’s going on? The Guardian implies that the way language classes are structured and taught isn’t helping students learn the practical conversation skills they value, and that schools don’t treat languages as important. Experts quoted in the article differ on whether the upcoming reforms to A-Level language classes will help or hurt. The Guardian concludes:

 With a clear conflict emerging in the Guardian’s poll between young people’s interest in languages and a sense that their studies are not matching their aspirations, it remains to be seen whether the reforms can rescue language study in the UK from terminal decline.

Ouch! In an ironic twist, the survey also showed that while 1 in 5 UK students are bilingual with a home language other than English, their built-in language skills are not being recognized and rewarded by the school system. Even more depressing, almost 40% of these students don’t consider their home language an advantage. According to Cambridge University’s language centre directer, Jocelyn Wyburg, negative attitudes toward non-native English speakers may be to blame:

“I’ve talked to young people who don’t want to admit they have another language or, if they have a qualification won’t put it on their CV. They’ve been reluctant even to be proud of it.”

What can the UK can do to help students learn foreign languages in school, and to help students who already know a foreign language value the knowledge they have? Let us know in the comments!

 

Should Computer Languages Count as Foreign Languages?

In the UK, the government is struggling to encourage more students to pick up a foreign language. Across the pond in the United States, however, some legislators are taking a different tack: allowing students to learn a computer language instead of a foreign language.  The states of Texas and Oklahoma were the first to allow students to substitute. Now, New Mexico and Kentucky are jumping on the bandwagon.

Should learning a computer language count as learning a foreign language? Why not encourage students to learn both?  In New Mexico, at least, funding appears to be the main issue.  Senator Jacob Candelaria, the senator who proposed the measure, told the Albuquerque Journal that computer classes would not necessarily replace all foreign language instruction:

“Districts could still teach Latin, French or Spanish, but it provides the incentive for them to incorporate (computer) coding into their curriculum without it being an unfunded mandate.” Read more

northern-Ireland

Schools in Irish Translation Debate

The 11-plus examination is the entrance test for Grammar Schools. In Northern Ireland they are debating as to whether or not an Irish translation of the exam should be provided.

According to the BBC an Irish language education body has requested that all schools provide suitable translations for the test so that it is fair.

Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta who are the representative body for Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland has written to schools about this matter.

The BBC quote spokesman Seán Ó Coinn as saying ‘parents could remove their children from Irish language schools or take legal action if a suitable translation was not available.’

“We’re unclear what the implications might be, and it very much depends on how parents react,” he said.

When last years 11-plus Grammar school tests took place, 150 out of 327 students sat the Irish version.

It is so important that we provide translation for all just because a pupil speaks both English and Irish doesn’t mean they are comfortably taking such an important test in English, they may feel more confident in doing the test in Irish if it is their first language.

The Welsh Assembly Government work very hard to ensure that Welsh translations are available for all in business and education, the Northern Ireland Government should be doing the same.

Teaching Language With Twitter

Your mental image of a knight probably includes weapons like a sword or a lance. However, a university professor in the United States just earned a knighthood using more modern weapons, specifically Twitter, Facebook and Skype.  According to WACH, a local Fox News affiliate, Dr. Lara Lomicka Anderson will be knighted by the French government for incorporating these technologies into her foreign language classes.

Dr. Anderson teaches French to students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She is being made a Chevalier of the Order des Palmes Academiques for her innovative teaching techniques that include the use of tools like Twitter as well as international travel. As Dr. Anderson explained to WACH,  “One way I do that is through a partnership with a school in France located outside of Paris, and we use all of these technologies to promote a collaborative partnership among students.”

The two schools partner so that the US students can learn French and the French students can learn English. Each student is assigned a partner from the other school. Social networking technologies like Facebook, Skype and Twitter become the glue that hold these partnerships together, giving students a convenient way to practice languages with each other.  After a year’s worth of study, the American students then travel to France to meet their study partners “in real life.”

The Ordre des Palmes Académiques was instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte  to reward those who “advance the French language.”  This won’t be the first award Dr. Anderson has received for her work- according to a press release from the university, she was also awarded the National Award for Excellence in Technology by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language and Cengage Learning in 2008.

How Does Learning Another Language Affect Your Brain?

How does a learning a new language shape your brain? Are the brains of bilingual people different from those of people who only speak one language? Despite our advanced medical technology and  fancy brain-imaging machines, our understanding of how the human brain works is still in its infancy.  This is true where learning a new language is concerned, as well.

However, an interesting case study recorded in detail by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim at the University of Haifa may shed a little bit of light on the subject.  Dr. Ibrahim observed a brain-injury patient who had been fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic before he was injured. As he recovered, it became apparent that he had a speech disability called aphasia as a result of the injury. Even after undergoing rehabilitative therapy, some disability remained.

The interesting thing is that the man in the study showed a much greater improvement in being able to speak and write Arabic after rehabilitation than he did in Hebrew. Although Arabic was his first language, he was fluent in both before the injury. So, to Dr. Ibrahim, the patient’s experience seems to indicate that language skills for a second language are stored in a different part of the brain than language skills for your first language are.

In an article posted on the Science Daily website, Dr. Ibrahim explained why this one case study was significant:

“The examination of such cases carries much significance, since it is rare that we can find people who fluently speak two languages and who have sustained brain damage that has selectively affected one of the languages. Moreover, most of the evidence in this field is derived from clinical observations of brain damage in English- and Indo-European-speaking patients, and few studies have been carried out on individuals who speak other languages, especially Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, until the present study,” he added.