What will the English language be like in 100 years?

Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

One way of predicting the future is to look back at the past. The global role English plays today as a lingua franca – used as a means of communication by speakers of different languages – has parallels in the Latin of pre-modern Europe.

Having been spread by the success of the Roman Empire, Classical Latin was kept alive as a standard written medium throughout Europe long after the fall of Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change, forming new dialects, which in time gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian.

Similar developments may be traced today in the use of English around the globe, especially in countries where it functions as a second language. New “interlanguages” are emerging, in which features of English are mingled with those of other native tongues and their pronunciations.

Despite the Singaporean government’s attempts to promote the use of Standard British English through the Speak Good English Movement, the mixed language known as “Singlish” remains the variety spoken on the street and in the home.

Spanglish, a mixture of English and Spanish, is the native tongue of millions of speakers in the United States, suggesting that this variety is emerging as a language in its own right.

Meanwhile, the development of automatic translation software, such as Google Translate, will come to replace English as the preferred means of communication employed in the boardrooms of international corporations and government agencies.

So the future for English is one of multiple Englishes.

Looking back to the early 20th century, it was the Standard English used in England, spoken with the accent known as “Received Pronunciation”, that carried prestige.

But today the largest concentration of native speakers is in the US, and the influence of US English can be heard throughout the world: can I get a cookie, I’m good, did you eat, the movies,_ “skedule”_ rather than “shedule”. In the future, to speak English will be to speak US English.

US spellings such as disk and program are already preferred to British equivalents disc and programme in computing. The dominance of US usage in the digital world will lead to the wider acceptance of further American preferences, such as favorite, donut, dialog, center.

What is being lost?

In the 20th century, it was feared that English dialects were dying out with their speakers. Projects such as the Survey of English Dialects (1950-61) were launched at the time to collect and preserve endangered words before they were lost forever. A similar study undertaken by the BBC’s Voices Project in 2004 turned up a rich range of local accents and regional terms which are available online, demonstrating the vibrancy and longevity of dialect vocabulary.

But while numerous dialect words were collected for “young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery” – pikey, charva, ned, scally – the word chav was found throughout England, demonstrating how features of the Estuary English spoken in the Greater London area are displacing local dialects, especially among younger generations.

The turn of the 20th century was a period of regulation and fixity – the rules of Standard English were established and codified in grammar books and in the New (Oxford) English Dictionary on Historical Principles, published as a series of volumes from 1884-1928. Today we are witnessing a process of de-standardisation, and the emergence of competing norms of usage.

In the online world, attitudes to consistency and correctness are considerably more relaxed: variant spellings are accepted and punctuation marks omitted, or repurposed to convey a range of attitudes. Research has shown that in electronic discourse exclamation marks can carry a range of exclamatory functions, including apologising, challenging, thanking, agreeing, and showing solidarity.

Capital letters are used to show anger, misspellings convey humour and establish group identity, and smiley-faces or emoticons express a range of reactions.

Getting shorter

Some have questioned whether the increasing development and adoption of emoji pictograms, which allow speakers to communicate without the need for language, mean that we will cease to communicate in English at all?😉

The fast-changing world of social media is also responsible for the coining and spreading of neologisms, or “new words”. Recent updates to Oxford Dictionaries give a flavour: mansplaining, awesomesauce, rly, bants, TL;DR (too long; didn’t read).

How Oxford Dictionaries choose which new words to include.

Clipped forms, acronyms, blends and abbreviations have long been productive methods of word formation in English (think of bus, smog and scuba) but the huge increase in such coinages means that they will be far more prominent in the English of 2115.

Whether you 👍 or h8 such words, think they are NBD or meh, they are undoubtedly here to stay.

The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Amber Rudd gives us another ill-informed and imprudent attack on international students

Johanna Waters, University of Oxford

The home secretary, Amber Rudd, has outlined plans for a new student immigration system that would make it harder for graduating students to work in the UK. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference Rudd revealed government plans to create “two-tier visa rules” which would affect poorer quality universities and courses. This would essentially mean that “lesser” UK universities will be discouraged from recruiting international students.

This is not only yet another misguided and myopic attack on overseas students, it is also an insult to the rich diversity of universities on display within UK higher education. Because the fact is, universities excel in different academic areas. Yes, a few are outstanding across the board, but many post-1992 institutions which converted from polytechnics provide exceptional teaching in particular subject areas – and excellent international students are attracted to those programmes.

Then there is also the small issue of finances. A recent briefing from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory revealed that in 2014-2015, tuition fee income from non-EU students made up almost 13% of UK universities’ total income.

There is no limit on how much universities can charge non-EU students for their courses – but it has been estimated that the average fee for a classroom-based undergraduate degree in the 2014-15 academic year was £12,100 for a non-EU student. And many post-1992 universities are reliant on income from international students as a significant source of revenue. Just how the government propose universities replace the income generated by international student tuition fees, is as yet unclear.

International economy

What is clear, is that the government has failed fundamentally to understand the value of international students to British society. Non-EU students in the UK are thought to generate around £11 billion annually in export revenues alone. This includes tuition fees and other personal expenditure – international students often spend a lot on food and goods while residing in the UK.

The government’s proposal also fails to recognise the longer-term link between international student mobility and a successful domestic “knowledge economy” – because international students are tomorrow’s knowledge workers.

It is also a fact that creativity in industry relies fundamentally on international mobility. Just look at the success of Silicon Valley’s multi-billion dollar technology industry, which is dependent upon immigration. And many of its workers had immigrated as international students, before being headhunted to work in a particular firm.

International students are good for the economy.

The success of British industry is no different – it relies on creativity and knowledge transfer and exchange. And it is very shortsighted to think British schools and pupils will produce all the knowledge, creativity and insight that we will ever need.

Cultural diversity

International students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences also enrich the entire student body, not to mention society more broadly. They engage in a two-way cultural exchange that is of mutual benefit to both international students and domestic students – and to wider communities.

Although not a primary task of British universities, we are nevertheless trying to create citizens that are cosmopolitan and open-minded in outlook. And there are immeasurable benefits to be had from interacting with students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. If British universities are to be “world class”, then they have also to be “in the world”, in the fullest possible way. And they need international students to fulfil their potential in both a practical and philosophical sense.

Of course, it is not the case that international students are an unquestionable “good”. If we take a global perspective, there are some compelling social reasons for at least reflecting on what happens to international students when they return home. International students are nearly always the most privileged members of their home societies – and being educated in the UK only enhances and reinforces that privilege.

Consequently, British universities are rarely a force for “social mobility” in students’ home countries, and from a “development” perspective, we should be aware of the undermining and devaluing impact that UK qualifications might have on local education systems overseas. There are also neo-colonial implications of educating the next generation of leaders in other parts of the world. However, from a purely UK standpoint, we must continue to encourage and support applications from overseas applicants to our universities.

Fixing the figures

When it comes to immigration figures, the University and College Union and Universities UK have called for the government to no longer count international students within its statistics. The Australian government, for example, makes this separation, and classifies international students as “temporary migrants”, which, unlike “permanent” migrants, are not subject to caps or quotas but are “demand driven”.

Just another way of fixing the figures?

In a recent survey, 59% of people agreed that the government should not reduce international student numbers – even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall – only 22% took the opposing view. The study also found that the majority of people did not understand why international students would even be included in total immigration figures.

So given that there is no public desire to reduce the number of international students in the UK, it would instead seem they have become a target – because the government has no better ideas for reducing immigration. It feels like a “quick fix” and is not, I would suggest, the way to go.

The Conversation

Johanna Waters, Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Swedish children learn English through gaming

Pia Sundqvist, Karlstads University and Liss Kerstin Sylvén, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

An hour of homework or an hour of World of Warcraft? It’s not hard to guess what many ten-year-old boys would rather be doing when they get home from school. But now research shows that in non-English speaking countries, children are picking up a large amount of English from online computer games.

In Sweden, ten and 11-year-olds spend a lot of time at the computer and often use English rather than their native Swedish for online communication and gaming. In a recent study of 76 children, we could see that playing games seems to have a positive effect on their English skills.

Our work adds to other research that has been done in Turkey and Finland on how children learn language as they play computer games.

In our study, the children answered questions about the English they came into contact with outside of school, whether they liked English and whether they thought they were good at it.

They also filled out a language diary over the course of a week, indicating how much time they spent doing activities such as reading books, watching TV, and playing computer games.

The main purpose of the study was to investigate language-related computer use in English and Swedish, but also to look for possible correlations between computer gaming and a child’s motivation to learn, how good they felt there were at the language and the strategies they used to speak it.

In a previous study with 12-year-olds, we had seen that gaming was positively linked to English comprehension and vocabulary. We wanted to see if this also was true for even younger learners, who had only learnt English in school for a little bit more than a year.

Massive multiplayer bonus

Our results show a major difference between Swedish boys and girls as regards spending time “in English” at the computer outside of school. On average, boys spent a total of 11.5 hours a week doing things in English, of which about 3.5 hours were devoted to playing computer games.

To compare, the girls on average spent 5.1 hours on English, less than half of that spent by the boys, and hardly played any games in English, only 0.4 hours per week. But girls used Swedish much more than boys at the computer, primarily because they used Facebook more and did so in Swedish.

To our surprise, despite their young age and very limited experience of English in school, we found that some of the boys play massive multiplayer online role-playing games, a genre of games in which hundreds or even thousands of players interact with one another simultaneously in a virtual world such as World of Warcraft.

Since players in these online games are often from different countries, English becomes the default language for communication, both for writing and speaking. It was also very common among the boys to play multiplayer online games, such as Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, and League of Legends. They also enjoyed Minecraft and various sports games.

Among the few girls who played games in English, The Sims was mentioned, a simulation game that does not include as much oral or written interaction as online multiplayer games.

Picking up words

We divided our sample into three groups: those who did not play any computer games at all, those who played a little bit, and those who played a lot (four hours or more per week). We wanted to see if there were any differences in their motivation in speaking English, their self-assessed ability in the language, and what strategies they used when they ran into problems speaking it.

The non-gamer group consisted mainly of girls, group two was mixed, and among the frequent gamers all but one were boys. We found that motivation and self-assessed English ability were high across all groups – a very positive finding. Turning to Swedish was more common in the first two groups than among the frequent gamers. Although speculative, it is possible that the frequent gamers have more developed speaking skills than those who play games less frequently.

In previous studies we have seen positive correlations between playing computer games and English vocabulary skills. In the past, we have found that young frequent gamers know more unusual and difficult words, such as melt, roar, flesh, meat or hide.

In this study we showed that very young Swedes are involved in complex multiplayer online games. To succeed in such games, they have to understand game content and they need many English words to do so. Although this was not an experimental study with a control group, it is reasonable to conclude that gamers pick up words thanks to their gameplay.

Based on our findings, we encourage teachers to learn more about their students’ English activities outside of school. By acknowledging the English learnt in children’s spare time as an important source of language input, we believe student’s motivation in school can also be boosted.

The Conversation

Pia Sundqvist, Senior lecturer, Department of language, literature, and intercultural studies, Karlstad University, Sweden, Karlstads University and Liss Kerstin Sylvén, Associate Professor in Language Education, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lessons taught in English are reshaping the global classroom

Julie Dearden, University of Oxford

Universities and schools across the globe are offering an increasing number of courses taught in English. Parents and politicians alike are pushing for this change as English is considered a worldwide language of opportunity in education and business.

The decision to use English as medium of instruction has very important implications for the education of young people in non-anglophone countries and yet little research evidence is available.

EMI Oxford, a new research centre at Oxford University’s department of education, is currently carrying out global research into this issue to explore where and why English is being introduced as a teaching language and what happens in the classroom when it is.

Our first report has been written with support from the British Council, setting out the size and shape of English language teaching in 55 countries. Initial findings, being presented at the Going Global conference on international education, show that 83% of countries surveyed believed that they did not have enough qualified teachers to teach through English.

What “qualified” means is not yet clear as teaching qualifications do not seem to exist. It may be that not all teachers can teach in English. For example, older, more experienced teachers may find it difficult. If teachers cannot speak good English, the home language may still be used most of the time.

Going anglophonic

There is no still clear definition yet of what teaching in English actually means and how it includes other forms of bilingual education. It is also not yet clear exactly what the consequences of introducing English as a teaching language are on teaching, learning, assessment and teachers’ professional development.

There are many reasons why countries introduce English as a teaching language. They want their students to become bilingual, improve their knowledge of a target culture, and see English as opening up opportunities for students to work and study abroad. Countries may want to spread their own culture throughout the world or have political reasons for adopting English as a medium for instruction, such as nation-building and aligning a country with English-speaking neighbours.

Some institutions are not so sure why they are adopting English to teach in. One European institution told us: “Other universities hurry to copy us, but they don’t really know what is the objective of this hurry.”

The use of English is indisputably growing, especially in the private sector where it can give a school or university the edge over its competitors and is seen to offer students an international education with all the benefits that can bring.

The consequences

If this is the case, does learning in English create more inequality? What happens to those children who miss out on an education in English, who are not part of this social elite? Are we creating a two-tier education system of English-speaking “haves” and “have-nots”?

Education is a fundamental human right. So we could ask if education in your home language is also a human right. Some countries, such as Hungary, are hesitating to adopt English as a medium of instruction, asking themselves whether all students are capable of learning through English and if all teachers are capable of teaching in English.

Will the students’ understanding of the subject matter suffer if their level of English or their teacher’s level is low? Even though early studies in bilingual education showed that students performed well, some countries are reversing their policy on teaching in English as they fear that students will not perform as well in English as in their home language. Of course there are many reasons why this might happen.

Some countries, such as Israel, hesitate to go towards English as a medium of instruction as they wish to protect their home language, culture and education system.

Questions abound as to the use and future of the home language if English is the language of education. If students are taught solely in English it would be hoped that they acquire an academic language and a language of their subject, for example medicine, in English. This will help them to communicate in international conferences and read papers on their subject in English. But will it help them talk to patients in their country? And will the home language itself lose out from not being used in education? Is it a question of “use it or lose it?”

At EMI Oxford we are working on a global online survey of teachers to take place between May and October 2014 to help answer some of these questions and more.

The future of English

On the other hand, what will happen to English itself? If teachers in non-anglophone countries use English in a classroom of international students, the English used may well be very different from country to country and even classroom to classroom. Another interesting question is that if everyone is using classroom English as well as their home language, most of the world will be at least bilingual so will native speakers of English be at a disadvantage, will they be the only monolinguals?

Exams and assessment also pose a great challenge. If a subject is taught, or supposed to be taught, in English, which language should it be examined in? What is being examined, the subject content or the English? Who should write and mark these exams?

There are examples of countries such as Tanzania where many students fail exams as they are taught in a home language and then expected to take the exams in English.

Teachers in our research so far believe that English can improve communication, help the exchange of ideas and create relations between countries. They see English in the classroom as a way of facilitating world peace. Home students benefit from a language which opens doors and enables them to move globally in academia and business. Teachers are also internationally mobile and this creates opportunities for them to teach abroad.

In the classroom itself though, there is little guidance as to whether “English as a medium for instruction” means teaching in English only or a bilingual education. There seems to be a lack of clear guidelines on how to teach through English and a lack of support and teaching resources. Institutions find it difficult to find enough teachers and to resource exams.

What’s clear is that more research is needed in order to find out the long-lasting impact of English as a medium of instruction around the world.

The Conversation

Julie Dearden, Senior Research and Development Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why English language lessons are not the answer to radicalisation

Frank Monaghan, The Open University

David Cameron used an article in The Times and an interview on Radio 4’s Today show to announce £20m of extra funding to provide English lessons for Muslim women in the UK to prevent them from becoming “second-class citizens”. The prime minister’s announcement has come in for harsh criticism, particularly his implication that not speaking English was tied up with a person’s identity and could make someone “more susceptible to the extremist message”.

As a researcher studying the teaching of English as an additional language, my main problem with the proposal is the underlying assumption that if mothers could only speak English fluently then their children would not become radicalised.

This monolingual view of family life ignores the fact that these same mothers will be doubtless trying to raise their children to have sound ethics and morals, ready to make a contribution to society just like any good English-speaking mother – just through another language.

We have no evidence to suggest that there is any link at all between parental level of English and extremism, quite the opposite. Look, for example, at how some of the appeals made by parents of would-be Jihadis who have run off to Syria, are made in entirely fluent Standard English, often with regional accents.

An appeal made by a man whose daughter has gone to Syria.

A 2014 study on people’s vulnerability to radicalisation found that migrants not born in the UK, from poorer backgrounds and with strong links to their community were less likely to be radicalised than those from more privileged backgrounds. The English language is not the only form of “social capital” that fights extremism.

Hypocrisy in a landscape of cuts

Others have expressed further concerns about the new policy. Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, pointed out that this new funding, though welcome, “does not make up for a 50% (£160m) reduction in the funds available for teaching ESOL [English for speakers of other languages] courses between 2008 and 2015”. Of this, £45m was as recently as July last year.

This recent cut alone was, according to Doel, likely to lead to the closure of as many as 47 colleges offering ESOL classes affecting 17,000 students. While £20m in extra funding may sound a lot, if there actually are some 190,000 Muslim women in need of English tuition – as the prime minister claimed – this would amount to £100 a head. That won’t go far and appears hypocritical in the face of the wider funding squeeze facing adult education.

Others, including the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages, have questioned the prioritisation of Muslim women, arguing that to “ensure all migrants integrate successfully into British life … more funding needs to be made available to support both men and women from all religious backgrounds so that they can learn English”.

The main concern over the initiative appears to be suspicions about the government’s motives, with critics alarmed at the association the prime minister has made between a lack of English and vulnerability to extremism.

A further concern is over the possibility of deporting mothers if they fail to make sufficient progress in English after two and a half years. “You can’t guarantee you’ll be able to stay if you’re not improving your language,” Cameron said.

Any question that a spousal visa application could be denied to women who fail an English language test could have extremely serious implications for families. Legal experts have been quick to point out that such deportations could be challenged under the Human Rights Act.

Security creep into language lessons

Perhaps the answer to why the government insists with a ramping up of these kind of policies lies in the concept of “securitisation”. This has been explained by language scholar Kamran Khan as the process through which successive UK governments since 9/11 have forged the link between language, immigration and the threat of extremism.

The links are not hard to trace. Back in 2001, speaking in the House of Commons following local rioting involving Asian youths, Anne Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley, said:

We need to examine why those young Asian men were so keen to join in the criminal activity … There is little point in blaming the situation simply on racism and Islamophobia … The main cause is the lack of a good level of English, which stems directly from the established tradition of bringing wives and husbands from the sub-continent who have often had no education and have no English.

In 2002, the National Immigration and Asylum Act required that immigrants have “sufficient knowledge” of English for citizenship. Three years later the Life in the UK citizenship test was introduced, testing both English and knowledge of British life. A speaking and listening component was added to the test in 2013 – adding on another layer of difficulty to passing the test.

We knew that there would be further incentives and penalties introduced in order to make people learn English, thanks to indications given in a 2015 speech by the home secretary, Theresa May.

But if the government is seriously considering it acceptable to break up families because a mother has failed to make “sufficient progress” in her English, then we should all start to worry about who exactly are the extremists and just where the real threats to our civil society and its values lie.

The Conversation

Frank Monaghan, Senior Lecturer in Education and Language Studies, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On global campuses, academic freedom has its limits

Kevin Kinser, University at Albany, State University of New York

The Conversation’s international teams are collaborating on a series of articles about the Globalisation of Higher Education, examining how universities are changing in an increasingly globalised world. This is the second article in the series. Read more here.

Last spring, a New York University professor was prevented from traveling to the United Arab Emirates to conduct research. The UAE government did not like his criticisms of the use of migrant labor in the Emirates.

The fact that this academic scholarship was politically unacceptable to the Emirati leadership may not be surprising. But what is important here is that NYU has a branch campus in Abu Dhabi. The university promises that academic freedom will be protected there in exactly the same way that it is in New York City.

It turns out, though, that protection has its limits. As an NYU spokesperson later said, “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.”

As a faculty member in the United States, I am free to write and speak about any topic. But outside of the US, local laws and cultural prohibitions create a different situation. Plus, governments can use the visa process to keep out people with disruptive ideas. Under these circumstances, academic freedom simply cannot provide the same protections to faculty.

History of academic freedom

Academic freedom has its origins in the 19th-century German universities, where the freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and study (Lernfreiheit) were considered fundamental to the research ambitions of the faculty.

The concept was initially codified in the United States in the early 20th century as a formal rejection of wealthy industrialist control of university activities. In 1900, a faculty member at Stanford University was fired for criticizing railroad labor practices. Several faculty members resigned in protest and began organizing the American Association of University Professors to investigate similar firings of other faculty.

In 1940, the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities provided the modern framework for academic freedom that universities – including NYU – still use today.

By these standards academic freedom is considered “fundamental to the advancement of truth.” Therefore, faculty should not be constrained in their ability to examine and explain their subjects.

Freedom within borders

As universities become more and more engaged in international activities, the blanket protections of academic freedom are increasingly difficult for institutions to guarantee.

This is particularly the case for institutions that have opened branch campuses and other foreign higher education outposts. These locations are often established at the invitation and encouragement of local leaders, and many are financially supported with subsidies from the foreign government.

Sometimes this support comes with restrictions as to what subjects can be taught at the outpost or specifications on the students it can enroll. In essence, foreign higher education outposts have less autonomy compared to the home location as a consequence of these partnerships.

The Chinese government has banned discussions of some sensitive subjects.
Rasmus Lerdorf, CC BY

The potential threat to academic freedom for international higher education is clear in countries with authoritarian governments. According to data compiled by my research group at Albany, the Cross Border Education Research Team, the top countries to host foreign branch campus are United Arab Emirates (with 32 campuses), China (28), Singapore (13), Qatar (11) and Malaysia (9). All of these countries have governments that control dissent and have policies restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Restrictions in many countries

We’ve already seen what the UAE’s response has been to a critical academic voice. But what about the others?

Chinese-sponsored Confucian institutes, which are culture and language centers hosted by universities outside of China, have been criticized for avoiding controversial subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The government has also reportedly banned classroom discussion within China of sensitive subjects such as mistakes made by the Communist Party and the wealth of its leadership.

Most branch campuses in China have a senior administrator who represents the Communist Party, and preferences are given to party members in some hiring decisions.

Singapore has been criticized by academics for its laws against homosexuality and restrictions on public demonstrations. Similar charges apply to Malaysia and Qatar. Malaysia sedition law has just been strengthened to counter growing protests over government corruption.

Qatar’s strict censorship laws create circumstances where necessary teaching materials cannot be officially obtained, and criticism of the ruling family carries a steep sentence.

Freedom within campus gates

Nevertheless, international campuses usually have broad assurances from the host governments that academic freedom will be respected.

The reality of academic freedom in international education is actually somewhere in between the extremes of government control and the full ability of universities to protect their institutional autonomy.

My research team has visited over 50 branch campuses in countries around the world, including UAE, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Qatar. We found little evidence for restrictions on academic freedom on the campuses themselves.

Rather, we typically find an academic community that is allowed to debate topics that might be off-limits elsewhere in the country.

This academic freedom, however, ends at the campus gate. A free-wheeling discussion in the classroom cannot continue in a coffee shop. A publication meant for students’ eyes is not meant to be seen by the broader public.

Scholarship should not be controversial

Additionally, certain subjects are not even part of the curriculum, which is problematic.

We know of no scholar of queer studies, for example, teaching in Malaysia or Singapore. The most common subject in international education is business, which doesn’t usually pose a challenge to the existing social and political order.

And faculty we interview usually say the subject of academic freedom simply never comes up – they never run up against a problem, because like most faculty, their scholarship and teaching is simply not that controversial.

Moreover, people working and studying overseas recognize that there are different cultural mores that should be respected. Most, like taking off your shoes before entering a home, are accommodated with little affront to deeply held academic values.

Even ones that would be considered out of place at home, like gender-segregated learning environments, can be addressed without needing to reject the tradition it comes from.

But others truly are a bridge too far.

As campuses expand and establish a global presence, I believe, explicit restrictions on academic freedom should be vociferously challenged. And home campus administrators should not get complacent in the assurances from their hosts about the academic freedom they will enjoy.

It is clear that there are limits to academic freedom in international higher education. But that doesn’t mean that all engagement has to stop.

The Conversation

Kevin Kinser, Associate Professor of Education, University at Albany, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Just how effective are language learning apps?

Mike Groves, University of Bath; Diana Hopkins, University of Bath, and Tom Reid, University of Bath

Around 70 million people – including Bill Gates – have signed up for the language learning app Duolingo. The app has received plenty of media attention, and its creators claim that it can help anyone with a smart phone learn a new language.

The app is free, and promises all kinds of cutting edge features, such as adaptive algorithms to suit users’ learning speed, as well as gamification to boost motivation. They also claim that this app can provide members of poorer communities with access to language learning that would otherwise be denied them; a worthy aim indeed.

For those who haven’t tried it, Duolingo works as follows. The user is introduced to some vocabulary, and then every day they spend a few minutes doing language exercises, such as translating sentences.

There is a level of adaptivity: words that you get wrong come up again and again, while words that you get right come up less often – although they do still appear. This recycling and repetition is a core element of the app – it is what the creators hope will eventually lead to acquisition of new vocabulary. As users complete the exercises successfully, they can move up through the “levels”, and unlock bonus lessons on “flirting” and “idioms”.

Language learning in theory

As experienced language teachers, we wanted to think about whether or not this technology is really cutting edge. Clearly the delivery mechanism is new, and textbook writers would be amazed at selling 70 million copies. But in a field filled with spirited – and sometimes acrimonious – academic theorising about language learning, it’s worth investigating where Duolingo fits in.

The earliest modern language instruction was called “grammar translation”. It focused on translating sentences and learning the rules of the grammar as the primary goal. This type of rote learning is how many people learned Latin – including Monty Python’s Brian. It is also the method used by the teachers of generations of happy English tourists to France, who ended up knowing how to conjugate a verb, but utterly unable to make themselves understood without shouting in a strange type of pidgin English with a French accent.

Not the dative!

After World War II, a method called “audiolingualism” took over. This was based partly on the idea that positive rewards reinforce behaviour, and that rules and patterns form the primary systems of language. The drill – where students repeated sentences over and over – became the main learning activity. The American Army claimed great success with one form of audiolingualism, which become known as the “Army Method”. But it has been suggested that the motivation was more important than the method; and a soldier’s motivation is radically different to a school child’s.

In the context of the classroom, generations of school children sat in rows, chanting grammatically correct sentences after their teacher. But when they went to France, they could say little more than “la plume de ma tante est sur la table” (“my aunt’s pen is on the table”). This didn’t help in restaurants.

Through the 60s and 70s a number of new methods started to come to the fore, often based on a holistic, humanistic philosophy. From a contemporary point of view, these range from the charmingly eccentric “silent way” – where this teacher is forbidden from speaking – to the clearly
charlatan “suggestopedia” approach, where students and teachers are encouraged to have a parent-child relationship, and read out long dialogues to musical accompaniment. Some students objected to being psycho-analysed in class, and others were still unable to order their meal in a restaurant.

Charmingly eccentric.

Communication is key

Over time, a lot of ideas coalesced into what is generally known as the “communicative approach”. This catch-all label refers to methods which prioritise the function of language as communication, not structure. The idea is that, if you are speaking to someone, it’s good to get the grammar right, but it’s OK if you don’t: if you do get the grammar right, but your pronunciation is so bad that the person can’t understand what you are saying, that’s much worse. It’s equally bad if you are so worried about getting the grammar completely correct that you are too hesitant to take part in a conversation.

The great beauty of the communicative approach, or some would say its great failing, is its ability, like language itself, to adapt and adopt new ideas. It brings in ideas and techniques from all the history of language teaching, and as long as they help the students communicate effectively, they are accepted.

So where does Duolingo fit in with this theoretical background? Well, when using the app to learn, say, Italian as a beginner, you are drilled on sentences like “I am the child”, or “I have a bowl”. This is audio-lingual drilling: there is no communication happening. Instead of basic communication, the users are drilled again and again in decontextualised, effectively meaningless sentences.

Unlocking language skills?

But there are two things that no theorist would deny about learning a language: the importance of learning a lot of words, and the need for constant effort. And this is where an app like Duolingo really comes into its own: it reminds you every day to practise, and reinforce the words you have learnt, while encouraging you with virtual rewards (if that’s your thing). Since the chunks of time needed are so small, it can be done in the coffee queue, allowing the users to learn without sacrificing other things in their lives.

We believe that apps like Duolingo can be a useful supplement when you are learning a language – but not a substitute. It can help you learn some words, and some basic constructions, but it isn’t going to allow you to leap into a conversation in a new language. It’s better than nothing, but there are plenty of more effective options out there.

But perhaps we are missing the point. Language plays an incredibly powerful gatekeeping role in many societies. Speaking the right language, in the right way, provides a huge number of opportunities: so we maybe shouldn’t be thinking whether this app will help comfortably–off European tourists to better enjoy their holidays. Perhaps the creators are right, and we should be thinking about whether apps like these can provide any opportunities for those in the world who otherwise have none. If these apps can be used to tackle issues such as global literacy, then the aims of their creators can only be applauded.

The Conversation

Mike Groves, Course Leader of Insessional English (EAP), University of Bath; Diana Hopkins, Course Leader, University of Bath, and Tom Reid, Course Leader, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.