Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/skypes-real-time-translator-end-language-learning

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G87pHe6mP0I

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rek3jjbYRLo

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/events/distinguishedlecture/andrewblake

[3] DW Lernen is at http://www.dw.com/en/learn-german/s-2469

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CS0011542XX-0100V0

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

http://www.channel4learning.com/sites/extra/

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

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