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Why librarians are embracing digital for language learning

At a recent gathering of librarians in Melbourne, an interesting discussion sprung up about the advantages and disadvantages of providing digital resources for language learning. Andrew Stokes gives a summary.

1. Expectation

Why choose digital?
Playing Candy Crush, doing their banking or learning English?

As the photo shows, we now do pretty much everything on mobile — and we do it everywhere and all the time. There is a clear expectation that if I can choose to play Candy Crush, do my banking or read the Sydney Morning Herald online, why would I expect anything different from the language learning materials I access from the library? Times have changed so much over the last ten years that it now seems positively old-fashioned to go to the library to find a book so that I can learn a foreign language… 

2. Digital literacy

… for most people, that is. Not everyone is digitally literate, and even those that are may have different literacies. There is evidence that the digital divide is becoming more nuanced: the younger generation are natives on their phones, but they may not be as adept as their teachers at managing applications like MS Word. As we report here, refugees who have navigated across continents using their mobiles may not be familiar with desktops or laptops, or with how to log in to a website. And then there is an older generation which is not comfortable with technology at all — and perhaps doesn’t want to be.

“Learning digital skills as a topic in itself can be pretty dry stuff; learning them as a means to develop other skills is more motivating.”

But for those who do want to improve their digital skills, the desire to learn English online can generate a virtuous circle. My personal experience of this is from an independent learning project at Aksum University in Ethiopia, where we found that providing digital resources not only gave “students … new and effective tools for learning English, the tools themselves motivated them to improve their general ICT abilities.” Learning digital skills as a topic in itself can be pretty dry stuff; learning them as a means to develop other skills is more motivating.

3. Especially suited to language learning 

Most library collections have a range of digital resources for education and training: highway code, citizenship, social media marketing, project management, languages… Of all these, language learning is the one which benefits the most from having multimedia elements — especially audio. Let’s think about reading, and look at just two different reasons why.

  • We know that there are good ways to read and bad ways to read. We want to get learners away from reading word by word, talking under their breath as they read, or following the words with their finger. One way we know we can help with this is for them to listen to a text being read by a fluent speaker. An educated speaker will naturally “chunk” the words into sense groups, stress the words that carry the meaning, link words together, and so on. This adds a whole new dimension to the reading experience.
  • A simpler example: we know English spelling is difficult and illogical. Seeing the word “thoroughly” is only half the story; you need to hear it as well. (Did you know that “furlough” rhymes with “merlot”? But then if you don’t know already how “merlot” is pronounced, the spelling won’t help — it really is nightmarish!) 

4. More engaging

And of course digital resources can be interactive and immersive, which makes for a more engaging learning experience. In the mid-1980s I studied Spanish at a UK university. In those days studying a foreign language was a very academic and theoretical affair, completely divorced from the lived culture, the spoken language and the people. 

But now, a link on a  library website can take us into a much more immediate experience. We can watch video clips, listen to conversation, interact with the language and get feedback on our performance. A well designed activity can locate me within this restaurant in Madrid. I can listen to people talking, I can see the menu, I can talk to the waiter.

Spanish Restaurant

I can’t actually eat the food — but I can experience the situation almost as if I were there. It’s very, very different from the days of learning a language from a book.

5. Convenience and accessibility

The current coronavirus crisis brings this into sharp relief — there are lots of places around the world where visiting a library is not an option. But there are other reasons why accessibility is an issue. Lucas Scully of Melbourne Library Service gives one such example in this interview where he talks about his library’s decision to experiment with the digital exam preparation program, Road to IELTS.

The big idea was that books for IELTS have become a bugbear. People register to do the exam, and want the practice materials quickly, but the IELTS books are so popular that we have to put them on hold. Sometimes they have to wait months – by which time they have done the exam. We’re not satisfied with the experience we are giving these people.

We wanted to try out Road to IELTS as something that they can use either in the library, or more usefully, at home. We like that it’s published by the British Council as this gives it the same cachet as the Cambridge books. Some of the advantages of the program are that:

  • It’s bright, shiny and new. It looks good.
  • Books are only available for a one-week loan with no renewal. This resource is available 24 hours a day via the website with no time limit.
  • We have found that books go missing, are written in, or lose AV components. Road to IELTS is completely secure in that respect.
  • It includes listening and videos, unlike books.

Conclusion

None of this is to suggest that books are a thing of the past: the data for print and eBook sales shows quite the reverse. But there was general agreement at our Melbourne gathering that digital resources have particular advantages for public libraries — especially when it comes to language learning.

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