A while ago, a club member sent me a link to a blog (in English) on learning Swedish, assuming I’d be interested, given that I’m learning Swedish.
Actually, I wasn’t really. I’m learning Swedish mostly by listening to the radio, doing conversation with a native speaker and, to a lesser extent, reading the news in that language, not by reading blog articles in English about, for example, differences in regional Swedish slang words.
The blog was nicely done though, the writing and images were professional, and the content was entertaining, which made me wonder who was behind it. That wasn’t hard to find out, as it was difficult to miss the promotional content for an online course, organised by a company that has similar courses in many languages (never a good sign…)
The blog content was good enough that I signed up for the online course just to keep informed about what other online learning organisations are doing, rather than with any real expectation that I’d be using it to learn Swedish.
And no, of course I didn’t, as it was the usual rubbish content manipulated in an unoriginal way by software so as to recycle and test the more superficial meanings of beginner-level vocabulary, along with an unhelpful focus on the hardest-to-learn-if-you’re-just-starting-out grammar areas, and not a lot of skills practice.
I had a go at the final test, which I’d estimate to be an A1 or A2 level, though not really either. But I didn’t do well at it (I quit mid-way through, actually), despite estimating my own level at at least B1. I tell myself that this was because what was being tested was specific knowledge of the content of the course (which I hadn’t done) rather than a more general knowledge of the language itself.
In short, if I’d done things their way, from the beginning to the end, I would have passed the test. But what was being tested was the content of the course, rather than competences in the language itself. And no, those aren’t the same thing.
Italy, for example, is full of ‘badante’ (women from poorer places who live in with elderly Italians who are no longer independent, so relieving their children of having to lock them away some place more costly). Without exception ‘badante’ speak excellent Italian (at least compared to a you guys…), though sometimes with a noticable slav accent. Unlike a typical club member, though, they often find the standard Italian language tests, which are designed for people who’ve done well at school and university, hard-going.
Buy a course, or take a free one such as Duolingo, and often, I’d say INVARIABLY, what you are expected to do is to toe the line, study everything, and study regularly. Asking questions about what’s in the course is not encouraged, and you may not have the option to skip the boring/useless parts (the course designers know better about how you should learn than you do, or at least think they do). Do as you wish, as I described myself doing above, and you won’t pass the test and may not be allowed to proceed to material that interests you more.
WHAT’S IN THE COURSE?
Seems like a reasonable question, one that’s usually answered by publishing a ‘syllabus’ of content and activities, perhaps with the underlying methodological logic. A simple webpage would do it.
But no, it’s usually the same old nonsense, jazzed up with a bit of software, and not written with anything like the professionalism you’d get if you bought a course book produced by a real publisher, of the type used in language schools around the world.
The publishing industry keeps up with the trends in learning methodology, of course it does, because that’s the perfect excuse to ditch the previous edition of the book and get everyone to buy the newer, better version. Year after year. Publishers love new methodology!
And their course book writers get old and retire, to be replaced with younger ones, who have different enthusiasms and experiences, so who’ll innovate new ways of teaching and learning.
In the thirty or so years I’ve been teaching English, there’s been a revolution in the way materials are designed. Teaching, and in theory learning, is so much easier than it used to be because the tools are infinitely better. Ditto with Italian. Compared to when we began our Italian language school, back in 2005, there’s so much more, and some of it is even of reasonable quality, which is amazing considering that the state education system has barely made it out of the stone age.
Innovation? Improvement? Out with the old and in with the new? Not the ‘methods’, not the apps, not the 24-CD courses with lifetime guarantees. Not the club website, either, to be honest. We write something once and chuck it up there – use it if you please, or ignore it. ‘Methods’ are marketing gold, of course. No matter if you actually learn the language in the end, as long as you buy the course on the promise you will eventually do so, and ideally not take up the guarantee when you quit.
Duolingo makes a big thing about using data to find out what works (they all have Phds apparently, though not in teaching…) and improving the components of their courses that don’t. By ‘works’ they mean keeping students coming back to their site or app, though, not acquiring real-life language skills necessarily. Do you know ANY app or course (apart from real language schools that is) that use quality controlled internationally valid exam material and/or techniques to evaluate students’ progress? Nope, neither do I.
To be fairer to DL, they’ve innovated some lovely little stories lately, and my Spanish conversation partner says they have online discussion groups (she’s learning French and Italian), and various other learning opportunities to supplement their basic course. Now, if they’d only stop insisting that students study everything, in the order they pre-determine, and pass a test before proceeding. Then I’d be impressed!
Anyway, back to the free trial I signed up for, and agreed to receive emailed language-learning Tips from (Go on, amaze me!)
Tip 1 was basically ‘now you’ve signed up, click here to use our course’.
Tip 2 covered what makes them different from the competitors, such as the ‘real life language skills’ included in the course. Wow! You mean actually reading and listening? Space-age stuff, which rather confirms what I mentioned above, that the others don’t bother with much besides the grammar and vocabulary.
Tip 3 was the unhelpful information for someone learning Swedish that they also offer an English course, did I know, and if I was an English langauge-teacher perhaps I’d consider using it with my students? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.
And Tip 4, which arrived this morning, contained two jewels: the first was that I should use a particular button on the website to generate an activity to help me remember the vocabulary I’ve learned so far (not a bad idea, assuming the vocabulary selected for the course is high frequency and useful); the second was that, in my enthusiasm for reviewing the many vocabulary items I’m supposed to have learned by this point, I should please not forget to study some grammar. Well duh, grammar? What’s that?
Perhaps other Tips are on their way to me as I write this, but what I’ve picked up so far from the email sequence is ‘study vocabulary, but also grammar’.
Do I, personally, do any better in terms of language-learning tips? Decide for yourself with these two links: