Learning rituals: from access to fluency

Digital culture presents us a wide range of materials for learning a language from scratch. While some may pose the question of what the beginning of the learning process looks like, we have apps and video series multiplying and many people offering free services, but media organizations haven’t reshaped for a better reading experience for the beginner who’s never produced in their second language and dives into the experience almost blindfolded, without tutoring, listening to completely new words and their combinations, sounds which don’t exist in their mother tongue and intonation patterns, vocabulary choices and style they’ll take an entire decade to fully understand. How to introduce new content without forcing participation?

The challenge every teacher faces is how to engage the class, but today we have to think ahead and present new alternatives for study which are beyond the space we share for a limited period of time so they can come back with something to refer to in their own individual experience, a reason to be more engaged followed by increase in group participation, where one pushes the other to achieve more. Entertainment has had that role for decades of language teaching courses, but as it changes, teachers should understand what stays and what doesn’t, where to find replacements or updates, and be aware that this extra step represents something for us and something else for them, but it should be a concern in preparation.

Aside the classroom apps, we have Duolingo, which became a favorite among the digital life enthusiasts for the intuition-based, easy to understand structure of what could be used as an extra push by anyone who knows how students struggle with a lack of rewards for their effort, which ranges from a “very good” in front of colleagues to the satisfactory automation now provided by software that takes into account the fact that they need to know where they are and how they got there. It’s hard to say which chapters of the self-study initiative are going to present a challenge, but it certainly helps having technology work for both teachers and students in their attempt to fully understand what’s being dealt with in and out of the classroom environment. Association exercises, basic listening comprehension, self-correction, simple wording, essential vocabulary. It all works out fine if you’re giving your basic level student a suggestion of study, but few are going to use their leisure time to focus on work, which is how most see learning a second language, whether they’re paying or not.

Then came Instagram. Click one video and get 30 others explaining how to pronounce a given word, why a grammar norm is applied a certain way, how to say something in the language you’re studying, comparatives and situational examples, all in 50 seconds. The lack of contextual reference makes people learn in a free association challenge, relies on empathy and memorization, smart edits and random tips, ultimately throwing editorial approved coursebooks in the trash can. There’s a reason why we learn how to introduce ourselves first, how to tell others what it’s like where we live towards the intermediate level, chase the right words to describe what we like to do and keep the conversation going once we already know how to make the easiest exchanges and then rehearse giving an opinion on something with phrases such as “I think” and “in my opinion”. None of that is really important if we can’t find the right context to use what we’ve learned and roleplayed for months, and it does take months, coming back to the more visible goals in between different types of activities; if we can’t start a conversation with someone from abroad, knowing the basic structures in a friendly debate is irrelevant, so you won’t be seeing a student ask a question such as “do you listen to rap?” and getting a life lesson with lyrics you’d never know about unless you’re an algorithm enthusiast or one of those music geeks; but their taste is important to keep in mind, especially in the beginning, when the references need to be there. Real language is always transforming, and relying on the old methods of learning is a mistake we can’t commit, especially if we put our marker stained hands where our conscience is and think about how much they’re investing in a transformative experience, not a sheet of paper with blanks to be filled.

YouTube reports that users watch an average of 8 minutes of video per day, which translates to a billion clicks. No wonder why the ads want a share of that pie, but are we thinking about how learning is a much smaller part of it? If those 8 minutes are everything I’ll watch during the day, how much will I spend trying to assimilate something completely new to me? As teachers, what can we recommend, considering it should fit in the same 8 minutes? Here’s a simple example: when your music teacher tells you to study 2 hours a day so you can improve your technique and formal knowledge, how much do you really go for? And before we forget what we wanna get from it, let’s put it in perspective: how much are musicians getting paid?

I want to share some of my strategy. Maybe it was time saving criteria that led Twitter to use the character limit as the principle of their platform. News stories aren’t read by many, fewer are discussed, but the clicks are there. Major networks have the concept of “impressions” to tell content creators how many people have been shown their content, regardless of engagement: it’s your visibility, or how these networks can help you reach those who would be interested in your content – or you. I’ve been reading headlines for years, and rarely clicking on the stories shown to me. It helps me in a sense that I want to be part of the conversation, and just taking a moment to read about it, even if it’s incredibly shortened, even if I don’t have the entire context, makes me feel like I did something important, which I’ll try to put into words expressing my views on a given topic, in mostly informal language, which took me a while to feel comfortable in using. But we should go back to the billion clicks and 8 minutes. There’s too many of us, and if we’re creating just to tell ourselves we did something, which is the most common perception of the web these days, then something needs to be done in terms of qualitative analysis. We know 6 out of 10 users will share a news story without reading it. Let’s say they’re interested in likes. What are they going to do with them?

The same could be applied to second language work. If you recommend reading the news in English to your students, then it seems appropriate to take those 8 minutes and split them in half, because the stats show they’re not so patient when it comes to how they spend their free time. You have 2 minutes, because naturally a second language makes engagement less likely. Can we say that Instagram is right? Not realy, because Instagram isn’t giving you the news, and that’s the whole point. But something’s being done, just not in the right direction, which I think is asking people to take a little longer to hear us out — and we really have to ask. Content is being produced, but the kind of content you’re looking for is not a replacement of the classroom, which should be there for the value of easing doubts and fears with the teacher, showing your production and your interest and getting to the next phase, where more recommended material is going to be personalized for your student experience, and feedback will be part of your learning process – human feedback, with the work of what we call curation, a reason to pay teachers a little more. If you’ll skip the 2 minute class, how about a 20 minute group correction of a text you took an hour to write? Are you going to miss it because the extras aren’t interesting enough? Then how’s entertainment working for you? What did you learn with Game of Thrones? What’s your favorite show on Netflix? Who do you subscribe to on YouTube? Do you get weekly e-mails from people you wanna be in touch with? What was the last thing you retweeted? How much TV do you still watch? Can you name a news anchor from abroad? Are you able to make comments on a topic raised by the media in English, do a grammar check and get your notifications popping from interactions?

We’re not doing any of this. We’re still stuck on learning “be”, “have” and “do”. The least we can do is show examples of text interpretation, introduce a phrase like “the author thinks that” and work our way from there. But does that take 8 minutes or 2 years? Language instructors need to incorporate the complementary references in the schedule, and have a follow up to check if they are really interested in expanding their knowledge. If the coursebook has problems (we tend to think it always has, because of how personal it gets), we’re supposed to adapt; but what’s the rule for extra materials? Having a sheet for your group and writing down what they’ve done in addition to the class is something I’d do and let others know about. “I watched an episode of Stranger Things with subtitles in English!” Then you could take this into account on the final grade. “I listened to the newest Queens of the stone age album!” Points for you, especially cause that’s a cool band. “I followed The Dodo!” That’s amazing, and it’s about more than just English.

It’s always more than just English. What we can’t do right now or whenever it is comes down to following students’ pace and always holding their hand. If we have materials to recommend and spend time (working) trying to find what’s good for them, let’s rethink what “materials” are. In a classroom, everything you say can be either complementary or essential. It’s our job to find out which, and level it accordingly, showing them where to go and what to do until they reach fluency, which is what schools are selling.

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