Where Language Teachers Fit for Independent Learners

or why Duolingo alone is probably not enough to score you a date in a foreign language

There are countless apps, programs, and services available that facilitate independent language learning. Although self-instructed guides and textbooks have existed for a long time, the number of free resources now available makes it even easier for individuals to dive into the world of multi-lingualism. With promises like “Learn any language for free,” questions are raised about the necessity and place of foreign language teachers in this self-guided world. How do these programs compare to actual teaching methodologies? Is there still even a necessity for language teachers? While the world of language learning has been flipped on its head, I feel there are still developmental gaps that require a teacher or mentor to fill. Let me explain.

The Role of the Teacher

My 7th and 8th grade Spanish classes all started the same: over the muffled chaos created by packing twenty to thirty 12-15 year olds into one class, a bellowing “Take out your cuadernos and write la fecha” would shake the room. Hearing the roar of the alpha, we would naturally take our our cuadernos (notebooks) and scribble la fecha (the date). I should add that numerical dates were not permitted; we had to write out every single word. As painless as this may seem, to a group of middle schoolers, we might as well have been asked to tow a bus by our teeth. Whether for the sadistic pleasure of Señora Danielle, as an exercise in discipline, or a means to get us to learn dates inside and out, la fecha was a staple in my Spanish education.

Language lessons from 7th grade and through high school were more or less the same: go to class, write la fecha (even with different teachers), and then get down to brass tax. We’d open our textbooks, maybe do a reading, discuss vocab or grammar, do some exercises, role play with partners, maybe follow a video series that accompanied our textbook…the usual. We did all of these things because as far as we were concerned, our teacher knew best (even if we didn’t think very highly of them).

For most of us, the teacher was the be-all and end-all of that language. We treated them like walking-talking dictionaries when we had to do writing assignments. They would explain grammar and give us examples to jot down in our notebooks, which we would despite the fact that our textbook contained similar explanations and examples. We’d follow their course and lesson plans, because as far as knew, that was the right, nay, only order to learn the language in. They would give us pointers, show us tricks to remembering rules and phrases, and we would soak it up because that was the most (proper*) Spanish we got or could get at that point in our lives…without much effort at least.

Boy oh boy has this changed. Whereas our world was dictated by the collusion of an individual and his textbook, the Internet has opened an unlimited flow of information and media. Whereas we once had to look to our textbook for grammar, now there are countless websites that explain nearly every topic—each with different perspective and insight—and that give numerous examples to illustrate proper usage. Whereas we once had to follow the adventures of Jamie and la Catrina (the video series my class watched our senior year of high school) or concede to watch whatever was on Telemundo that afternoon, streaming services now let you choose from massive libraries of native, dubbed, and subtitled movies and shows. Additionally, programs and sites like Duolingo or Carnegie Mellon’s OLI have gone through the trouble of structuring your education for free!

Now, I am in no way suggesting schools give their foreign language faculty the axe and set kids up with 45 minutes of designated language learning laptop time. No. I’m saying that these innovations offer an excellent means for foreign language acquisition for the independent learner. These resources can without a doubt help supplement classroom lessons, but in terms of Joe Smith deciding one day to learn German, step one is no longer find a teacher (and I think for beginners, there’s good reason for that, but we’ll save that for another day). That being said, I think there’s one particular fallacy that should be cleared up.

Your One-Stop Language-Learning Shop

No single resource will satisfy all of your language learning needs: they have their limitations. Just like any textbook, online courses and materials do not fully cover every topic (at least not in the detail) that you may need or want. Moreover, they probably don’t develop all of the skills necessary for well-rounded success in a foreign language. I’m not saying there’s a problem with these courses, rather I’m drawing attention to the fact that where a program may excel in one area, it may be lacking in another.

Think about all the things we have to do: build our vocabulary, learn grammar, develop listening comprehension, raise our rate of speech, improve accuracy, and get enough exposure and practice to solidify everything. In instructor-driven learning, teachers implement a variety of different methodologies to develop these skills to round you out. What are these methods? Let’s take a quick look.

Learning Methods & Approaches

Most textbooks and courses follow a single or mix of language learning methodologies. Below are two of the more well-known methods:

  • Grammar & Translation – Gross amounts of attention are paid to (usually) prescriptivist grammar rules and vocabulary. Students then apply this knowledge by translating texts.
    The good: Students develop an accurate knowledge of the written language and syntax.
    The bad: You usually end up with poor speakers who are limited to literary language.
  • Audio-Lingua – Students listen to recordings of native speech, study the dialogs, and repeat.
    The good: It set a new goal of oral proficiency and resulted in the teaching of a number of sentence patterns with good pronunciation.
    The bad: The ability to carry on spontaneous conversation is often stunted and declarative knowledge of grammar is often underdeveloped.

I can state for a fact that some universities in St. Petersburg, Russia follow the grammar/translation method. The number one gripe most students have is that lessons are boring. I can understand that. All you do is study rules and then have sentences thrown at you to translate. That sounds awful, and I’m saying this as a professional translator. The audio-lingua method was popular in the 70s and has since been repackaged and sold under the promise that you can learn a language while driving to work (or whatever Rosetta Stone is currently promising). Parents of friends have told me that they would pretend to be WWII radio operators and spies during their German classes, but even then it didn’t improve their German much or make classes more interesting.

More recently, there’s been a surge in a third method: the communicative approach. Unlike the aforementioned methods, emphasis here is put on communication, and this is achieved by promoting classroom discussions (either between students or with the teacher). Bigger emphasis is put on native materials and while grammar is still taught, success is often achieved by prompting students with topics that necessitate certain forms.

Every method has its advantages and drawbacks, and a lot of instructors now apply different elements from each approach to develop a positive learning environment (something for everyone) and foster capable communicators. We’re not talking about instructors here though, we’re talking about self-guided courses.

Back to the Topic at Hand

Let’s look at one of the most popular language learning tools out there today: Duolingo. If you’ve used this program, then you probably recognized its teaching method above, but if you haven’t, here’s the deal: Duolingo is the grammar/translation + audio-lingua method reapplied with a cartoon owl and gamified. The two methods that get the most gruff from students (remember boring and ineffective?) have captured the world thanks to a point system. It had me going, too! I’m not too proud to admit that I was hooked at first, but it only took so long to realize where the flaws lie.

Programs like this are essentially parrot solicitors. Although you are technically learning a language, you’re being fed a form and evaluated on how well you repeat it. There’s little to no room for creativity, and students are entrenched in a single approach to what is essentially an open problem. Although Duolingo in particular offers “real world translation” practice, there is little relevant application of what has been gained. While the positive reinforcement and motivation that accompany gamification are wonderful things, being assured that you will master a language without having any real writing, speaking, or extensive listening practice may prove fraudulent for most learners.

It’s not all bad, though! What’s good is that it creates a fantastic foundation that willing students can build upon. Learning to swim is the hardest part; afterwards you just have to refine your technique and develop endurance. With a good foundation, you are better equipped to explore the world of native-language materials and move on to creation, something most of these courses do not provide. Additionally, daily practice is a near necessity for efficient language acquisition, and tools that can entice learners to put in even a few minutes a day are certainly welcome.

As I said, the problem here is one-stop language resources. If we were to think of Duolingo as our sole source of language practice, then we see the big drawback, but if we were to think of it as simply one resource of many, then it’s much more palatable.

What these programs offer is structure. Someone has already outlined the order you will be learning vocabulary, phrases, and grammar in (and usually with some sense of logic). In many cases, the structure is designed to get you talking right off the bat (talking about yourself and family), similar to most school textbooks. The idea is to get learners out in the world ASAP and utilizing what they’ve learnt. Unfortunately, this is what most resources don’t do: they don’t really release the learner into the wild and let them create (with appropriate feedback).

Crowdsourcing Feedback

Provided the learner is willing to leave the comfort of their program and venture into the unknown, there are opportunities for creativity out there, and I’m not talking about randomly engaging with strangers you overhear speaking your target language. Nobody is alone in their quest to learn a foreign language; there are loads of folks who are doing the same thing, and the best part about this is that people understand how helping one another can be mutually beneficial.

Teachers generate opportunities for creation: you might have had to keep a diary in a foreign language, write to a penpal, give presentations, or just submit writing homework. Whereas the teacher used to be the primary source of feedback, different websites have created platforms that basically crowdsource the feedback process. One example is iTalki—a social network for language learners. Here, a student can write a “notebook” entry in a language they’re studying and then post it. What happens next is up to chance, but your post will enter circulation and appear on the main page of the website. Fueled by a sense of community, other learners and natives of that language can read your post, comment, and make corrections. Even though the site operates on the honor system, it’s sometimes surprising how willing people are to read, rework, and respond to notebook entries. Again, feedback isn’t guaranteed, but there are other places to search, and you can always try again.

iTalki is only one example of a feedback exchange system; there are plenty of other options out there from penpals to Q&A apps with natives and fellow learners. Many of these also open opportunities for speech exchanges, because that’s what the end goal is for most learners, right? Fluent speech? Since we have a structure and self-guided grammar in place though, it’s no longer necessary for a teacher per se to be on hand to escort you through the language; however, we need feedback and it helps to have someone to talk to and engage with (otherwise we could just talk to the cat). The beauty of this is that we’ve more or less isolated a language skill, and it doesn’t take a certified instructor to develop it. In all actuality, this is something that any advanced speaker can do.

For individuals starting out, conversations will more often than not cover basic topics and fairly shallow depths. Nearly any more advanced speaker will be able to lend an ear to help you and even correct simple mistakes that you may make due to a knowledge gap or case of the jitters. For students who are further along or if pronunciation is an overt goal, then any native speaker who is patient enough to listen and willing enough to take notes can serve as a fine speech partner. It’s not a question of finding a teacher, just someone who will listen and correct.

Moreover, natives are in touch with the culture and have an intimate understanding of more nuanced language structures and constructions. Although my Spanish teachers were wonderful, I’m certain that an everyday native would be better equipped to recommend good Spanish-language TV shows, books, or music for me to gain extra exposure, and they would also be able to passively introduce me to the world of informal, everyday language. It’s not a competition, but it is a question of goals.

Where Teachers Fit

Pedagogy is a science and for good reason: it’s effective. When a group of individuals come together to learn, a talented and passionate teacher can work wonders. They structure education so that students can see what they are and will be capable of. They explain complicated grammar rules and structures in such a way so that everyone can not only understand them, but use them properly. They provide opportunities for practice so that students can build upon their production skills. These individuals possess a thorough knowledge and understanding of a language and do everything in their power to share it with their students.

Teachers cannot be replaced; however, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The countless resources out there today certainly facilitate the language learning process, and helpful natives can offer extremely useful feedback. So when do we need teachers and when don’t we?

This question falls entirely on the learner. Overcoming the limitations of “one-stop” language programs takes initiative and requires the learner be extremely proactive. By setting aside time every day, a student can follow a course, practice writing, set up a language exchange for speech practice, research language rules and usage, etc. This is definitely not for everythough, though, and this approach doesn’t offer any guarantees.

It’s not a fact that your writing entries will be corrected or that you’ll be able to find a speech partner with the same schedule or commitment as you. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that one entry may receive multiple corrections with conflicting information. Although a flood of people may edit your writing, they may not be so willing or able to answer why they changed something (other than “that’s just how we talk”**). Trying to find the answers on your own or relevant information on grammar/style/vocab/syntax may also consume more time than you’d like.

Teachers (in principle) offer that guarantee. They can tell you what mistakes you’re making, why they’re considered mistakes, and how to fix them. Instead of scouring the Internet for adequate explanations, teachers save you time by providing you the resources and knowledge you’re looking for and can illustrate usage on the fly, plus they’ll typically field your follow-up questions. Generally speaking, teachers usually like schedules; you have a set time and place (even if it’s your own apartment) when you’ll be learning, and whether it’s just to ensure you have someone to talk to or you need that external stimulation, regular practice is an asset. With that in mind, there is no limitation to what can be obtained from true teachers. Even advanced students have something to gain.

Conclusion

With technology where it is today, language learning is accessible to most everyone. Language skills can be built upon by learners at their own pace and in the comfort of their own home, but no single resource is enough and it requires a bit of will, discipline, and effort on the learner’s part—something that seems to grow exponentially as we progress down the road of language learning. Despite all of the options that exist, language teachers remain a tried and true method. Nothing can replace the individualist approach a private teacher can offer or that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when a teacher says, “You did well today.”

* I say proper because there were a handful of heritage speakers in my various classes. The difference was that kitchen Spanish and “proper” language don’t always go hand in hand, especially when you’re learning textbook-appropriated language versus a regional variant (and when it comes to Spanish, there can be quite a few differences).

** I know this is sometimes the case, but if the question is “why is it the present simple instead of the present continuous?” a general rule of thumb would be appreciated.

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