Learning a Language: The Digital Shift

It’s been said before that learning a second language makes for a richer, happier life. Certainly, words can offer a unique window into the world of a foreign culture, revealing diversity and similarity in the ways that we experience and understand life in separate places.

There are plenty of studies to suggest beneficial links between secondary language acquisition and increased career potential, higher levels of professional and cultural empathy and it’s even been found that people who learn a second language in adulthood, can better avoid cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s.

Governments world-wide regularly flag foreign language acquisition as an important skill for matters of both business and diplomacy, and yet they’ve waged a war on foreign language departments and programs.

Despite the many benefits to being bi or multi-lingual, language, studies at traditional institutions have been under attack for the better part of this decade through a combination of reduction in government support, and a decline in demand. A further complication arises from the fact that traditional methods of language learning have struggled to compete with the flexibility and convenience that the digital era has brought to language learning.

In the United Kingdom university language departments have been dealing with either closures or mergers since the early 2000’s, in large part thanks to fewer students opting to study pure language degrees, prompting The British Council to issue a warning – the UK needs language students to remain globally competitive in the wake of Brexit. But dramatic cuts to funding have also taken their toll on language studies in primary and secondary schools.

In America there is only one source of funding for language programs in primary and secondary education, the Foreign Language Assistance Program, and it too has faced uncertainty over the last decade. Even for international students studying in an English speaking country, even ESL (English as a Second Language) courses have come felt the sting of government budget cuts.

Up until 2005, language studies in Denmark were supported throughout the educational system and 40 percent of pupils left secondary school with a good basic knowledge of three foreign languages: typically, English and German, as well as either French or Spanish. Yet today in Denmark, after changes to funding for departments and programs dedicated to language learning only 4 per cent of students graduate from secondary school with three foreign languages.

It seems where-ever you look in the traditional institutions of education, learning a foreign language is a subject in decline.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean language acquisition is falling. In fact, in Asia and the Middle East, second language acquisition is a booming market, albeit these students are no longer traveling to London, New York, Sydney and Auckland for lessons.

Thanks to the internet, there are plenty of non-traditional routes to secondary language acquisition, and it seems more and more students are turning to these flexible and collaborative online options in lieu of the more traditional route of attending classes at college, university or language school. Distance learning options get more popular with students each year and the online language education market has experienced massive growth over the same period that traditional institutions have been struggling.

Online language learning has become a huge industry and apps like Busuu and Babel have developed innovative new strategies to attract and retain users. While old heavy weights like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo have developed their own immersive technologies, and filled out their courses to the brim with relevant and modern everyday language for learners. A 2012 study suggested it takes around 34 hours of Duolingo lessons in a foreign language to learn the equivalent of one college semester.

Even individual learners are developing their own innovative ways to acquire a second language. Social media websites like reddit are full of recommendations from people regarding online or computer assisted learning options. More hands-on examples of new collaborative forms of learning include online games such as Minecraft, where students interact with and play with users in another country, learning the in-game terms in that language, to start their journey to fluency. This sort of collaborative learning works with all kinds of social games, and a student can easily introduce themselves to the basics of say, Spanish by learning the words and phrases associated with playing card games on a Spanish casino game site online.

Sub-communities, where fans of a show get together to work with one another to provide subtitles for foreign language dramas from Korea or Japanese anime are huge, and many of the lead translators on these projects are entirely self-taught using the tools available to them on the internet.

This year language learning app italki had over 3 million students take lessons in 112 different languages, while the non-profit Arabic-language learning platform, Edraak, has over nine hundred thousand active users. The desire to preserve and share languages is still strong, across large parts of the world, and in an increasingly globalized society, being multilingual might become necessary.

If traditional institutions want to compete against the new digital market that the 21st century has created, and remain relevant to students, it’s time they redeveloped their strategies for attracting and teaching students. The last decade has proven, they can no longer rely on the support of government funding to keep language education alive.

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