Technology and Multilingualism

  • September 20, 2012

  • ***** The ITTO Online TEFL TESOL Blog posted an infographic describing the ways that people from around the world learned to speak English, which included traditional courses, interacting with native speakers through immersion programs and absorbing entertainment in English, from Harry Potter to World of Warcraft. English is fairly ubiquitous, which means that native speakers of English need to reach a little further to find exposure to another language. However, Internet technology is making it easier to become multilingual, as Jennifer Jenkins writes in today’s post. Jennifer is an expert in online education whose work is regularly featured on

    From Skype to
    Online University Classes, the Internet Emerges as a Top-Notch Way to Learn a Language

    Speaking more than one language is an increasingly valuable asset in today’s world of global business and diverse communities. The ability to seamlessly converse with people from multiple places is an obvious advantage, and recent studies show that multilingualism may also promote cognitive function, improving reasoning skills and possibly even ward off dementia. In the past, learning a second or third language usually meant being born into families with multilingual parents, or into dual-language communities like
    Quebec, Canada, whose people speak French and English. But rising Internet technology may be changing all that.

    The Internet space is quickly emerging as a fertile ground for language instruction. Students of all ages, from kindergarten to retirement, can find online programs that teach the basics of language acquisition from the comfort of home. Many are fee-based, but there are quite a few resources available for free, as well. As research continues to show the benefits of bilingualism, demand for Internet-driven language content will in all likelihood continue to grow.

    People who grow up speaking and thinking in only one language are in the minority. “Available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual,” revealed a 1999 study by the Center for Applied Linguistics. “In addition, there are many more children throughout the world who have been and continue to be educated through a second or a later-acquired language, at least for some portion of their formal education, than there are children educated exclusively via the first language.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with being monolingual, people who fall into this category may be missing out on other benefits.

    “Whenever bilinguals speak, write or listen to the radio, their brains are busy choosing the right word while blocking the same term from the other language,” the Washington Post said in an article looking at the advantages of bilingualism. “This is a considerable test of executive control — just the kind of cognitive workout, in fact, that is common in many commercial brain-training programs, which often require you to ignore distracting information while tackling a task.” For bilingual people, however, the workout comes naturally and, many say, promotes cognitive strength for life. “Bilingualism is a very powerful road to cognitive reserve, and cognitive reserve is a very powerful defense against dementia,” a 2012 article in the Canadian journal Trends in Cognitive Science found. In other words: it can keep adults smarter and sharper, longer.

    Achieving these benefits is a lot easier today than it used to be. New websites and products can go a long way in actually promoting fluency. Most programs start with basic vocabulary building and simple grammatical concepts, but soon delve into conversation, culture, and real-life applications. When used properly, many Internet language programs can emulate the benefits of immersion. Video chats on services like Skype keep learners connected to native speakers and teachers, and smartphone apps and cultural podcasts make sure that the language travels everywhere the student does.

    Many programs are available, but some approaches are arguably better than others. “The quality of feedback is important,” Mike Levy, head of the school of languages and linguistics at
    Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, recently told The New York Times. “Sites with human contact work best. This shows the advantage of humans compared to computers: a computer is never as subtle or intelligent.”

    Following is a list of some of the most profitable, and popular, online language learning programs. The approaches vary, but the goal is always the same: to enable learners, mostly adults, to capture some of the benefits of multilingualism without having to uproot or seek a full immersion.

    • RosettaStone: This popular language learning program is based primarily on a CD, but includes a growing number of online components, including real-time conversations with teachers and video chats with other learners around the world.
    • TellMeMore: TellMeMore is offered in a similar CD-based format, but it comes with speech recognition and pronunciation diagnostics online, and also allows students to play a variety of Internet-based vocabulary and language building games, including crosswords, to “relieve boredom.”
    • Livemocha: Based entirely on the Internet platform, Livemocha is an intensive language-learning program designed for the savvy web user. It supports a robust “community” of teachers, native speakers, and educators, and actively seeks to imitate an immersion experience from behind the computer screen.
    • Word2Word: This free online program promises to help dedicated language learners master the basics of any of the hundreds of languages in its library. Most of the lessons come in the form of vocabulary-building games and resources culled from around the web.
    • British Broadcasting Corporation Languages: Though not sporting an extensive range of foreign tongues, the BBC does provide robust—and free—access to language instruction. Lessons rely heavily on video instruction and streaming television shows.
    • Online Courses at Universities: A wide range of schools offer language instruction as a part of their online, or extension, course offerings. Through these rigorous courses, students are often eligible to earn credit and access many university resources.

    There is no right or wrong way to go about learning a language, particularly where the Internet is concerned. In most cases, truly mastering another tongue requires a varied approach. Listening to lectures and doing drills is part of the equation, but interacting with native speakers, absorbing colloquial language on television or radio, and playing games like crosswords or arcade-like challenges often provides the variety the brain needs to really absorb the nuances. The Internet makes all of this possible if students have the motivation and passion to learn.