Friday, February 12, 2010

Outsourcing Language Learning?

I was reading this article on InsideHigherEd the other day about Drake University's "Outsourcing" of language learning. In short they replaced formal classes lead by tenured faculty (or just faculty who had second language acquisition experience) with the following:

small discussion groups led by on-campus native speakers, a weekly session with a scholar of the language, a one-semester course on language acquisition and the use of several Web-based learning technologies.

In other words, lower paid undergraduate or graduate students from abroad that probably have little experience with actual second language acquisition.

I don't doubt that a learner, when immersed in a foreign language and foreign culture situation can pick up conversational skills. For this I would go back to the learning-acquisition hypothesis --> Acquisition being a "natural" and subconscious process of picking up certain information while Learning being a more structured way of picking up information where you actually have to think about what you are picking up, how it works, and how to reproduce it.

You might be able to justify the methodology Drake is using if you are strictly a follower of the acquisition model. This however does not work for two reasons.

1. Universities are places of higher learning. There is nothing wrong with conversational skills in a foreign language, however I should hope that if you are paying money for a university level education in a foreign language that you are getting the benefit of someone who can help you attain a certain degree of mastery.

2. This model completely ignores the Learning aspect of the learning-acquisition hypothesis. Some structures NEED to be learned. They can't just be acquired. By having people in small talk-circles you are sabotaging a student's learning by not providing an expert in the "classroom". I can be the best speaker of Enlish or Greek but that doesn't mean I can teach others the language without any special training. I can speak Greek to you until I am blue in the face, that doesn't mean that you will pick it up.

Even if we are limiting ourselves to conversation, conversation is a very complex social activity. People make judgements about you from what you say and how you say it. In order to make language learning a successful endeavor for students you need BOTH acquisition AND structured learning to take place so that when they walk out the door they don't make a fool of themselves ;-) Saying "I speak little [inset language]. Please I can haz coffee with milk?" only gets you so far. In the beginning it might be cute - but from what I've seen, people do get tired of it, and mock you behind your back.

Drake program - FAIL
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