Surfing the Web to Learn the Words

Language learning has come a long way since flash cards and verb conjugations.  Now, language learning is as much connected to social networking and the latest software developments as it is to textbooks.

Since the advent of the Internet, people have used online technology to learn everything from where to find the best organic strawberries to how to tell if their child has whooping cough.

In today’s age of globalization, online learning is changing the way people learn languages and replacing  traditional classrooms or person-to-person interaction.

But some experts believe that online learning will never replace physical schools and traditional teaching methods.

Man vs. Machine

Through language learning programs such as Rosetta Stone and the BBC’s free learning website, it is now possible to learn a new language entirely online. But the Internet’s contribution to language learning goes beyond these programs. Now one can practice speaking a new language on LiveMocha, chat with other avatars in a different language on Second Life, or even learn to speak a science fiction language such as Na’vi or Klingon. Even graffiti — New York City’s street code — has now become an international language, thanks to the Internet.

Traditional classrooms are also increasingly integrating technology into their language-teaching methodologies, said Mimi Blaber, director of Language Immersion Program at the City University of New York LaGuardia Community College.  She also guest-teaches a course called “Teaching Second Language in the Technological Society” at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, showing teachers how to incorporate technology into their classrooms.

Rosetta Stone, perhaps the most well known language learning software, is a program based on what the company calls “dynamic immersion.”  Originally based only on CD-ROMs but recently updated with online components, Rosetta Stone uses pictures and audio in an attempt to replicate the way that babies learn a first language and eschews direct translation.

Rosetta Stone may be effective for many, but it’s not cheap.  Packages run from several hundred dollars for a single level of a language to a thousand dollars for the latest product, called Totale, which combines the more traditional CD-ROM learning with online coaching and interaction with native speakers.

As with most things on the Internet, there are free versions of language learning programs out there as well.  The BBC hosts a free learning site with resources in 36 languages.  Free forums even exist for invented languages, the latest example being Na’vi, a language specifically invented by University of Southern California linguist Paul Frommer for the movie “Avatar.”

LiveMocha combines social networking with peer-based interactive learning.  Users sign up, complete exercises and get corrections, tips and advice from other native speakers.

Clint Schmidt, the vice president of marketing and product at LiveMocha, said the site has 5 million users from over 200 countries.  While the fact that it’s free makes it an attractive and accessible option for many, there are issues with what each person gets out of the service.

“The biggest challenge is consistency,” said Schmidt.  “Some members of LiveMocha go to great lengths to provide highly detailed instruction to others, but there are some members who just provide a tip or two.  Another challenge is the tension between grammatical precision and ‘this is how we say it.'”  But Schmidt believes that the self-correcting and sharing nature of the site makes it work.

The Writing on the Walls

The technological boom has not left behind the quintessentially New York language of graffiti, as the Internet has changed the way many aspiring artists learn to write it. In the heyday of subway writing in the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti artists – or writers, as many of them call themselves – used to gather at subway benches like the one at the 149th Street-Grand Concourse station in the Bronx to compare and develop their styles. These days, writers visit 149st.com and other graffiti archive websites like it to find out what’s new and fresh in graffiti around the world. In January, a New York-based group released the software Graffiti Markup Language, which seeks to archive graffiti tags.

149st.com founder and longtime graffiti documenter Eric “DEAL” Felisbret said the readiness with which writers can share their latest triumphs online has allowed people to egg each other on globally.

But graffiti’s online presence is damaging it as a street culture, said Meres, the founder of Queens graffiti Mecca 5 Pointz. The Internet has made it too easy for aspiring artists to skip certain stages of growth, he said, from simple “tagging” of their names to the more complicated “pieces,” or masterpieces. It has also made certain distinct local styles something of an endangered species, as artists don’t have to depend on writers in their own neighborhoods to show them how it’s done anymore.

“It’s not the same as back then when you used to have to learn it the hard way on the streets,” he said.

(Click here for a video: The Language of Graffiti in the Age of Pixels.)

There is a limit to technology

Some language-learning professionals argue that technology will never replace in-person interaction in the learning of languages.  Roberto Fernandez, the manager of the midtown Manhattan location of the New York Language Center, said that while teachers use computers to help students with homework and keep them updated, the center is entirely focused on face-to-face contact.

“The way we teach English as a second language is the old-fashioned way,” Fernandez said.  “You need that rapport between the teacher and the student, especially for explanation.”

Blaber is an enthusiastic proponent of using technology to teach language, but not at the expense of teacher-student interaction.   Basic steps like letting students use PowerPoint to give oral presentations and downloading podcasts to listen to for practice can have a big impact, she said.

Blaber explained that the language-teaching profession has moved from behaviorist models, which focus on rote memorization and repetition, in favor of constructivist models that are more dynamic and bring in what are called authentic materials, like YouTube videos and online newspapers in the language one is studying. But some of the new language-learning programs lag behind.

“A lot of the technology that’s out there is still this behaviorist, I call it drill and chill,” Blaber said, specifically pointing out the multiple-choice format employed by many sites.  “Students might go to that once or twice, but the interest really drops off.  It’s not truly interactive, it’s just telling you yes or no.”

Using real, authentic materials avoids that trap, Blaber said, whether the learning is online or in person.  “The example I use with my students is, what would be more exciting for you to talk about?  All the vegetables at the green grocers, or how the volcanic eruption in Iceland has stopped transportation throughout Europe?”

She encourages the use of games like Second Life and a new site called Xtranormal, which allows users to write their own short films and animate them with pre-designed avatars, and thinks that the future of technology and language learning lies in online gaming, because it allows for real interaction.

Will online interaction ever replace human contact when it comes to language learning and teaching? Never, said Blaber.

“You cannot take a small baby and put a baby in front of a TV and expect that the baby is going to learn another language,” Blaber said.  “The baby can’t learn English from the TV.  But if you put a person into the equation, the baby will learn that language.”

Megan Finnegan, Emily Johnson, Musikilu Mojeed

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