SNL’s Rossetta Stone Thai Skit and Learner Aspirations

This SNL skit got one thing right: adult language learners have diverse learning aspirations. Some want to get back to their roots; some want to communicate with foreign friends and co-workers; and some are doing it in order to broaden their perspectives. But traditionally, all of these aspirations were obscured by the industrial-age language learning economics that thrived on mass production and mass markets. Learners with different aspirations and goals were given the same set of books and enrolled in the same kind of classes. Enter web 2.0, the old economics no longer needed to apply. Innovative learning solutions can offer a great degree of personalization to help learners pick and choose what they want to learn and achieve their specific goals. But too much freedom and personalization might not be a good thing. It might result in haphazard learning pathways and hit and miss results. I think the challenge for educators and entrepreneurs very much lies in how do we provide personalization but ensure that learners achieve their goals instead of going astray.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons in this regard from my work at ChinesePod. When we started in 2005, we wanted to create content that the adult learner could immediately use. Why force a learner to go through 10 chapters of content before learning how to talk to a cab driver or ask where the bathroom was? In order to support the self-study learner and their varied levels and interests, we adopted a very modular approach in our academic design. It means that learners at one level would be able to study any lesson in that level without prior knowledge of an earlier lesson. Learners loved this approach and the freedom it offered. And to this day, I live by the modular approach. But I also see many students get lost in a sea of content (2000+ lessons and counting). The fact is the majority of students need hand holding and structure. So we’ve spent the past 2 years trying to make sense of the massive body of content on ChinesePod and try to bring the necessary structure to it. I can tell you that retro fitting a very mature product isn’t easy. And given all the lessons I’ve learned, I feel that personalization and structure could be balanced. Here are a few things that I wish I knew:

  • Personalization isn’t randomness. It should be driven by high frequency and relevance. You need to know the type of learners you are dealing with and their different aspirations. Dividing them into key personas and map out their goals are crucial. It will help you determine the kind of high frequency language and situations they need. So in many ways, it’s a customer discovery process.
  • Offer structure in your courses, but modular lessons within courses. One problem I have with traditional language books is that lesson 5 is usually a significant jump from lesson 1, making it hard for most adult students to follow and remix the content. One way to balance that is to offer modular lessons within courses so that students will smoothly transition and be able to remix content that better suits their needs. Of course, this isn’t saying lessons should be modular in a way that there’s no progression at all. But easing off the transition is really important.
  • Balance function and grammar. I am rather pragmatic when it comes to grammar. I feel that if a grammar structure is not going to be used by the student, they probably won’t learn it by heart. So let’s expose them to grammar that they actually use for the purpose that they are trying to achieve. Start with natural, high frequency language and distill the grammar structure from it instead of the other way around.
  • Always give students structure to fall back on while encourage them to venture out and personalize. The way we do it on OpenLanguage is to compile courses that chart out a clear road of progression while having extra content in the library that students could search by level, topic and function. In short, a student should never not know what lesson they should study next nor should they not have the ability to study a lesson that’s more relevant to them.

These are some of my quick thoughts on understanding learner aspirations and designing language learning materials to help them reach their goals. As more and more educators curate their own material, I hope the lessons I’ve learned would be helpful to you. And I’ve love to hear your thoughts!

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