Monthly Archives: December 2012

Interview With Aaron Myers: How To Succeed As An Everyday Language Learner

Today I talk to Aaron Myers of The Everyday Language Learner, a blog dedicated to empowering regular people learn a new language. 

Aaron has been called a ‘language learning guru’ by many. But what I found most impressive isn’t the guru part, but his attitude that anyone can succeed at language learning given the right approach and resources, a view that I passionately share. 

Most of the learners on OpenLanguage are busy adults juggling work, life and learning. I asked Aaron for some practical methods, activities and tools that can help you make the most out of your learning.

A few key takeaways from the interview:

  • Finding a learning path that suits you, your lifestyle and goals. At the risk of sounding like a life-coach, effective learning does start with knowing who you are and what you want.
  • Knowing the key elements in learning a new language. You need input, study, review and practice to form the basis.
  • The importance of natural, comprehensible input. If you are learning a language to communicate in real life, then expose yourself to real language, not vocab and grammar lists.
  • Setting up anchor activities to make learning part of your daily routine.
  • It’s extremely important to have fun with learning. Find resources and activities that will help you enjoy learning.
  • Learn smaller chunks regularly rather than one big chunck infrequently.
  • What to do when you hit a learning plateau: raise your language needs. We only learn a language to the level of our needs.

I hope you find these tips useful and applicable. Thoughts, comments welcomed!

The importance of ‘edutainment’ in language learning

‘We don’t deserve students’ attention, we earn it!’  This is a motto that I live by in my daily work, a thought perhaps echoed by many who teach adults or young kids. Students come to the classroom and go through motions, but are they really learning? As educators, we are competing with all sorts of media distractions for students’ time and attention. The internet and mobile devices have made it an even more fierce and head-on collision. But instead of fighting or ignoring it, we can actually take our cue from the media to make our work better.

Those who’ve seen Sal Khan’s videos can probably attest to his amazing gift in explaining complicated concepts and connecting with students. This ability is especially important in the lecture and input stage to introduce key concepts to students. It can also be found in many teachers, but not all. However, with the help of technology and multimedia, we can now centralize engaging and effective instruction and broadcast it to masses of students so that they can benefit from the best instruction.

There’s an crucial element in this types of lesson media, one that I call ‘edutainment’ where the content is as engaging as it is educational. Think about your favorite teacher at school and what they did to ignite your interest and engage you with the subject. You looked forward to their class and each class was a deeply rewarding and fun experience. You would never fall asleep listening to them. They were superstars in their arena. That’s what I am talking about.

At ChinesePod, we pioneered the concept of ‘edutainment’. It led me to firmly believe in the power of edutainment in inspiring students and delivering great instruction at scale. There are innate qualities which make one an ‘edutainer’ but there’s a lot that can be defined, trained and practised. I’ve often found that the best teacher presenters might not be the best curriculum designer or writer. Different skill sets are required. When setting up a team to curate edutainment content, I look for people with different skills to balance engaging star quality and academic depth. If one overrides the other (and there are many examples of that), the content isn’t going to help students succeed. The pedagogy needs to be the backbone; the engaging factor brings it to life.

In the past year, I’ve had the chance to coach other language educators to produce and publish their edutainment content on OpenLanguage. I am very proud of the results we’ve achieved with teams such as Arabic Anywhere and Ruspod who are creating deeply engaging content with solid academic design. One of the other products on OpenLanguage EnglishPod China was recently awarded Best Education Content in 2012 by iTunes China. And I keep mentoring new teams to help  educators produce and distribute their language courses on OpenLanguage. I hope our work will help students get high quality edutainment content from the best teacher presenters and academic experts no matter what language they are learning.

But edutainment alone isn’t enough. It’s best used in the input stage to get the ball rolling. Students need tons of study, practice and feedback to internalize the language. I will write about my experience designing those in future posts. For now, let’s hold the thought and work to engage students.


Why most language apps won’t help you learn a language

I am a huge advocate for using mobile technology in language learning. In fact, the centerpiece of OpenLanguage is our Tablet Textbook app. There are too many inefficiencies standing in the way of students and teachers that technology can step in to fix.

However, I also believe that technology is only the plumbing. It’s not the methodology. In order to learn a language, you need input, study, practice and review. But most language apps are not designed with this framework in mind (nor are many books or classroom studies). They tend to only target a very narrow aspect of language learning, e.g. vocabulary or grammar and imply that students will be able to learn a language this way. Granted that many learners might only use these apps as a small part of their learning or consuming them as rewarding gaming experiences. But if you are remotely serious about language learning, knowing 500 words or a bunch of grammar rules won’t get you there.

If you are learning a language to communicate in real life, you need what the extraordinary linguist Stephen Krashen calls ‘comprehensible input‘. It means that the language you are learning should be presented to you with lots of context, messages or clues. But having those visual and audio clues alone are not enough. The language also needs to be realistic, authentic and high frequency, i.e. language that people actually use. That’s why using dialogues is one of the most powerful ways to learn a language. They give students lots of context about the language and mirror the exchanges in real life. I am not saying that there’s no place for vocabulary and grammar. But those should come from a natural dialogue rather than being disembodied and presented to students as an end on their own. They are means to an end, the end being using them to communicate. Starting the other way around with words or grammar, you end up knowing a bunch of isolated words and rules but still unable to communicate using the language. I’ve repeatedly seen the power of this approach at my work. And that’s also why we insist that on OpenLanguage, all lessons start with a natural and level-appropriate dialogue and then broken down to words and grammar structures, NOT the other way around.

The purpose of this post is not to discredit language apps. If anything, we need more apps that seamlessly blend technology and pedagogy. If you are using a vocabulary or grammar app, by all means continue to benefit from it. But also look for other resources that help you put what you’ve learned in context so that you can really communicate in the language you are learning.