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Learn another Language for Free

Would you like to learn another language? Have you spent the past few years talking about how you “really should sign up for a class?” Sometimes, it’s hard to find the time for continuing education.

Software programs like Mango and Rosetta Stone provide flexibility for people with busy schedules, but they are not cheap. However, free, convenient language learning programs are available through the magic of the Internet.

Here’s a round-up of some of the many places online where you can learn a language for free.

Open Culture has a list of free language learning resources on the Internet. These freebies include lessons in Spanish, Arabic, Irish, Hindi and even Luxembourgish. In all, 37 different languages are covered. The resources are mainly podcasts available from I-Tunes. Many of them provide only basic conversational instruction, but some are more in-depth.

The BBC website also has a great page with resources for beginner and intermediate-level speakers of several different languages from around the world. If you’d like to learn French, German or Italian, the BBC offers an email correspondence course with an assessment at the end. Audio and video courses are available for French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, German Portuguese and Chinese. You can also learn how to speak Welsh, Gaelic or Irish.

At MIT’s website, you can help yourself to free courses in Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Also, you can put the language you are learning into its cultural context by taking courses about foreign language literature and about different cultures. For the language learning classes, most or all of the reading material has been converted to PDF and is available as a free download. For literature courses, you do have to buy the textbooks.

If you live in the United States, you should also check out your local library’s website. Many public libraries provide free access to language courses from Mango or Rosetta Stone if you have a library card.

Internet access is also free at all United Kingdom libraries where you can research for information on learning languages. Your local librarian will be happy to help you get started.

Brain of a Bilingual Baby‎

New parents are bombarded by well-meaning advice about how their parenting techniques could affect their child’s developing brain. A lot of this advice is exaggerated, like the potential benefits of showing your tots “Baby Einstein” videos. However, there’s a scientific consensus that infancy and early childhood is the best time to become bilingual, and that early exposure to two languages can have lasting, generally positive effects on cognition.

But why is it that? Scientists are just beginning to understand how bilingualism affects brain development in infants, and a new study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences adds another piece to the puzzle. Read more

UK Economy Needs More Foreign Languages, Experts Say

It’s easy to advocate for the importance of foreign language learning in warm, fuzzy terms; for example,  it helps us connect with other people and it helps us understand people from different cultures. Foreign language learning does help us do these things, but a new report from The British Council reminds us that there is a another, more concrete reason to value foreign languages: money.

According to the report, the UK economy may take a hit in future years because there simply aren’t enough people speaking what the Council identified as the ten most important foreign languages: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and German. The report calls these languages “of crucial importance for the UK’s prosperity, security and influence in the world over the next 20 years,” but even the most commonly taught languages on the list are not commonly spoken by most UK adults. Read more

Once You Learn a Language, Do You Ever Forget It?

Many people who studied a foreign language in school don’t continue to practice it after they graduate. The conventional wisdom is that if you don’t speak a language, you will forget it rather quickly. As my Spanish teacher used to say: “Use it or lose it.”  But is that really the case?

The results of a new study published on the Science Daily website suggests that when it comes to learning languages, this conventional wisdom isn’t completely true. Even many years later, the brain retains some memory of the languages you used to know. The study looked at native English speakers that spent time overseas as small children and who had learned either Hindi or Zulu during that time.

In vocabulary tests, the volunteers were unable to remember any of the words of the languages they had spoken as children. However, Hindi and Zulu both have phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a spoken language) that don’t exist in English. When the researchers taught both the volunteers and a control group to recognize these phonemes, the volunteers that had learned the languages as children picked them up much faster than the volunteers who had not.

So, apparently, you never entirely forget a language you once knew. Of course, if you don’t remember any of the vocabulary, remembering what the phonemes sound like doesn’t help much if you need to communicate with someone in that language. However, it is comforting to know that if you try to pick up the language again, you won’t be starting from scratch.

The researchers who wrote the study concluded by recommending that children be exposed to different languages as much as possible, saying that “Even if the language is forgotten (or feels this way) after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language.”

English is Second Language for Students in 1 of 9 British Schools

New statistics released last week show that in 1 out of 9 British schools, English is no longer the primary language spoken at home by students.

1,755 schools in the UK (out of 15,288 total) reported that a majority of students spoke English as a second language in the annual schools census, according to the Daily Telegraph.

You could be forgiven for assuming that most of these schools are in London. You would also be wrong.  290 of the schools in question are in the Midlands, 172 are in the North  West region, and 162 are in Yorkshire and the Humber.

These statistics have some people (and politicians, of course) quite concerned. Read more

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.