Technology and language learning

We live in an amazing age.  The computer is a mind-blowing technology that is almost unbelievable once you stop to think about it.  Electrons flying around in order to deliver information to us like never before.  For those interested in computers, I always recommend Martin Davis’ “The Universal Computer.”  It is a really interesting book that traces the intellectual history of the computer from the 17th century.

As far as computer and learning, and language learning, in particular, I feel like the benefits are overstated.  Now, I certainly don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I use many different websites and blogs to work on my Chinese ( nciku , zhongwen , Hacking Chinese ).  I use Skype to speak with my awesome Spanish language exchange partner, Dolores!  The internet has given us many valuable tools to improve languages.

How I feel when I think about computers sometimes:

Mind blown gif

 This is in addition to a bunch of cool online courses I have been lucky enough to follow. If you haven’t heard of online courses, here are some examples:  iTunes , coursera , Yale Open Courses. Imagine: you don’t have to physically present to hear great professor’s lecture!  You can sit in front of your computer and soak in the knowledge. “Sweet!” you might think.  “I never have to go outside again and I can still be wicked smart!”  I agree that being able to take really good classes is a great opportunity and I have taken many such classes myself, but never for language.  For me, as great as online learning is, it can not replace the real-live, in the flesh, face to face thing.

As Noam Chomsky says , the internet and technology are not guarantees of learning nor of understanding.  Putting someone in front of a computer program is not necessarily going to help them learn.   Language is a social tool.  You have to interact with people in order to be able to use it.  As Chomsky points out, interaction is important in any academic field, but especially in language!

Learning a language is a social activity.  While I think technology can be useful, I think sitting down with a CD or computer or software can be done at home after you have interacted with real people.  If I take a language class, I prefer that it be with a real person.  Just my preference.  I don’t say “Man, that was a good workout!” after watching swimming on youtube.  Yes, I sometimes watch swimming on youtube.  Please don’t judge me.

While I have sometimes been guilty of relying too much on computers or movies in the classroom, I have come to the conclusion that in a classroom, we should be interacting with each other as real human beings.  That is the best use of our time.  Anything else is best left for after class.


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