Learning languages in the digital age

By Tom Shugg, from online Chinese tutorial company, My Chinese Tutor.

Learning a language is a wonderful opportunity which allows children to broaden their view of the world, Australia’s place in the world and the many communities living here.

It means understanding and learning to speak, read, write, listen and think in another way, and to explore and appreciate the wealth of knowledge that is part of each language and its culture. I have fond memories of learning Japanese in primary school in the ‘90s. Our teacher for three years was a lovely Australian woman who was not Japanese and had spent a collective total of four months in Japan in her entire life.

She was not fluent in the language but she did the best she could with the resources that were available at the time.

Back then, access to language teachers highly proficient in a language was a rarity, and the pressure for schools to teach a language was such that many classroom teachers found themselves thrust into the position of language teacher without having the right amount of experience for such a role. The digital age has presented methods of learning that just weren’t possible before. Technology in the classroom has allowed a whole new raft of resources to be made available to students learning a language. Through video-conferencing software, students now have the ability to connect with language teachers in the country whose language they are learning.

Overseas language teachers can be broadcast to an entire classroom of Australian students and students can engage with native speakers in all matters linguistic and cultural. Online Language Learning will change the way we teach and it will change the way we learn.

In some Australian schools, it has already started to do just that.

My Chinese Tutor (www.mychinesetutor.org) has a team of Chinese teachers who are based in Beijing and deliver lessons to Australian classrooms online.

The lesson plans they teach and the learning materials they provide have all been developed to align with the Australian curriculum and the lessons are designed to be interactive.

By broadcasting a Beijing-based teacher into the classroom via an interactive whiteboard or polycom unit, the students are able to engage with the teacher as though they were physically located in the room. In a primary school setting, the My Chinese Tutor program involves a weekly 25-minute class, and an additional one hour’s worth of follow-up material such as worksheets and activities.

The 25-minute class is divided between a language component and a cultural component.

In addition to students being able to practise their pronunciation with a Beijing native, they also learn about China’s 5000 years of continuous history and experience ancient Chinese customs such as paper cutting, calligraphy, folk dancing and even cooking. There are currently 20 schools in Victoria using the program and that number continues to grow as schools — particularly in rural areas — seek a way to leverage the technology they already have in the classroom to provide their students with access to a high-quality, stable program. It is schools in regional areas that stand to benefit most from the use of new technology in the language learning space.

These schools have typically struggled the most, having advertised positions for years in a bid to attract suitable language teachers. However, it is more worrying when a regional school does manage to find a language teacher and they invest in the additional resources required to support a program, only to have the teacher leave after a year or two, rendering the entire language program defunct.

Through use of technology and a language service, students now have access to a stable and engaging program that can support them from Foundation to Year 10 for a long time to come. Aside from creating an increased availability of teachers, new technology has also allowed for the classroom language lesson to become a lot more dynamic. Learning a foreign language can be difficult and students have historically struggled to maintain motivation with it because its relevance can seldom stretch beyond the classroom.

A modern language classroom that uses technology creates a context around learning a language that people normally have to get on a plane to experience.

Australian students — some of whom have never been overseas — can interact with native speakers in a foreign country directly and indulge their curiosity about what food is eaten, what cultural traditions there are and other unique aspects of the country that are different to Australia. Technology in the classroom doesn’t just unlock the door to language learning, it plays a vital role in cross-cultural awareness and understanding.

In the case of My Chinese Tutor, participating Australian students are made aware of China not in an abstract sense, but in a very personal, first-hand sense by engaging with teachers in Beijing and seeing aspects of Beijing city broadcast live into their classroom. Huge advancements in classroom technology have occurred over the last couple of years and schools are getting better at incorporating this technology into the curriculum to create a more dynamic learning environment.

Language learning in schools is a part of the curriculum that stands to evolve the most with the aid of technology as schools country-wide will no longer be limited by geography or physical resources.

A classroom and its students in some of the most remote parts of the country can engage with people all over the world, to the point where their remoteness will not present any disadvantages in education. Technology and its capacity to connect people provides all Australian students with an opportunity to think globally and operate in a world where you will only be limited by the extent of your imagination.

For more information on the My Chinese Tutor program, visit mychinesetutor.org

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