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Foreign language learning in the future
Will everything be digital?

All kinds of options are available for individual language acquisition – depending on the learner’s specific needs.
All kinds of options are available for individual language acquisition – depending on the learner’s specific needs. | Photo: Wavebreak © plainpicture

How will we be learning foreign languages in 50 or 100 years’ time? What role will be played by digital media in the foreign language lessons of the future? And is it in fact possible to give meaningful answers to these questions today?
 

Attempting to predict what foreign language lessons might be like far in the future seems a bit like reading tea leaves. It is impossible to make any reliable statements about what will happen in 50 or 100 years’ time on the basis of current research. The well-known Horizon Report on the use of digital media in schools and universities is thus based on a maximum horizon of five years.

Despite these misgivings, I have agreed to outline a possible future scenario, but on two conditions: firstly, that I will be predicting not one but three possible scenarios, and secondly, that I will state explicitly that my predictions constitute a purely subjective view of the future of foreign language learning. No scientific evidence can be provided for any of them.

A sceptical view of fundamental change

Fundamental changes to foreign language teaching and learning do not come about as a result of “new” media, however these may be used. They come about only because new methodological approaches are developed (such as the communicative approach in the 1970s), or because existing approaches are used differently, or indeed are used in the first place (or in a more widespread or consistent manner). Advances in foreign language teaching have been stagnating for some time. In my view, this has a lot to do with the fact that conflicting requirements are blocking one another. For example, calls for standardization and the teaching of testable skills on the one hand and the desire for learner-oriented, activating and/or differentiating lessons on the other. I see no evidence that anything about this conflict will change in the near future. The eclectic range of methods that is on offer – with each person picking those elements that suit them best – helps ensure that institutions, teachers and textbook publishers are able to live with what is in fact an unsatisfactory situation. If nothing changes, foreign language lessons will still be much the same in 50 years’ time as they are today.

outines can only be developed if mental blocks are overcome. outines can only be developed if mental blocks are overcome. | Photo: © jungeblodt.com Digitizing foreign language teaching will also do nothing to change this, for digitization is not a (new) methodological approach – it can only support didactic methods on the macro and micro level, and perhaps make some new or different activities possible that allow certain principles of a method to be implemented in a different and perhaps better way. I believe that it is counterproductive to hope that technology will fundamentally change the reality of teaching: if one simply switches the media or technology used but otherwise changes nothing, no real development will take place. Furthermore, all the principles and methods of foreign language teaching can be supported by the entirely different digital media – meaning that digitization can be used just as well to expand upon particular principles as to continue with the current eclectic range of methods.

Foreign language teaching can and will be transformed only when teaching and learning habits change comprehensively, tried and tested behavioural patterns are adjusted or abandoned, and new routines are developed. All actors must actively contribute to such a shift, as this is the only way in which foreign language lessons might actually look somewhat different in the future.

A positive view of gradual change

There are certain developments that I am pretty sure will come. What is more questionable is the consequences they will have. There will definitely be gradual changes, especially in terms of lesson organization and the development of learning media that can be used for individual learning – both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Digital tools will continue to transform (and ultimately facilitate) the way teaching and learning are organized. Digital registers, software for organizing and processing exams, software systems to deal with all administrative processes at educational institutions, and learning platforms that provide teaching and learning materials and support learning processes will be more widespread – though not necessarily used everywhere – in the future.
  • As a result of this development, it will be possible to gather more data about learners and their learning (the buzzword in this context is learning analytics), and research on foreign language teaching and learning can be based on different data sets. In certain areas this will lead to new insights.
  • Such insights will be used to create more adaptive learning materials for more individual learning.
  • It will become even easier to access target-language material and virtual target-language communication opportunities; media will become even more multimodal and differentiated.
  • In addition, even more teaching and learning materials will be available free of charge (though I am intentionally saying nothing here about the quality of such materials).
Theoretically, the last three developments will give rise to more opportunities for self-directed learning.

Tabula rasa – the future is (still) a clean slate Tabula rasa – the future is (still) a clean slate | Photo: © Colourbox

A bold view – hope springs eternal

However, I can also envisage a different future scenario. While this goes beyond gradual changes and is thus quickly distorted by sceptical views, it exists nonetheless. It has a lot more to do with the methodological design of foreign language lessons in general than with the use of digital media. It is not technology that provides the motivation for such changes; instead, they come about because of a will to consistently implement a learner-oriented teaching style that will thus also promote self-directed learning.

In my vision of foreign language lessons, informal and formal learning phases will be consistently combined, as will heavily controlled, less controlled and uncontrolled learning phases. From the outset, lessons will revolve around genuine (authentic) communication with speakers of the target language – often in virtual form, though also in physical form at different learning sites (see Krommer 2018). The role of teachers will change: they will not by any means be rendered superfluous just because learners take greater advantage of opportunities to communicate digitally with target language speakers and use target-language material and exercises that are available online. On the contrary: teachers will become even more important as language learning advisers and facilitators, because only they can help learners as they engage in self-directed learning – thereby allowing them to make meaningful use of the aforementioned possibilities and giving them targeted and specific help when they face problems of any kind relating to content and, above all, to form (Rösler 2013: 162). Foreign language learning will no longer take place only in a specific (class)room, but at very diverse learning sites. It will also be characterized by a variety of different forms of work and interaction. A lesson with a teacher who is physically present is just one form, while independent learning (for example at home) is merely another; there are many others that can be used, depending on the particular teaching and learning goal (as suggested by the teacher or chosen on a self-directed basis by the learner). Blended learning scenarios in which various methodological approaches and didactic decisions are combined at different levels (see Würffel 2018) characterize everyday foreign language teaching and learning.

Perhaps this does not sound exotic enough? Admittedly, my proposals are not new, yet in my view they are still far from being consistently implemented.
 

Literature

New Media Consortium (NMC) (2017): Horizon Report. Higher Education Edition. (10.02.2018).

Krommer, Axel (2018): Authentische Kommunikation in digitalen Medien. Schluss mit Simulationen. In: Magazin Sprache.

Rösler, Dietmar (2013): Sprachnotstandsgebiet A – Herausforderungen an die Fremdsprachenforschung. In: Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung Volume 24, Issue 2, p. 151-168.

Würffel, Nicola (2018): Hausaufgaben im DaF/DaZ-Unterricht. Ein altes Thema (digital) neu denken. In: Info DaF Volume 45, Issue 1.


 

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