Walking a (Quarter) Mile in Learners’ Shoes

One FL instructor’s Online Study 

Dr. Roger Anderson, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

To celebrate finishing my Ph.D., I gifted myself (ha!) a three-month subscription to a well-known, commercial product to learn another language (heretofore: SLA).      

I had two goals in mind:  to resume my study of Hebrew, which I began almost ten years earlier, and to experience for myself learning a language using a commercial SLA product.  Reaching an advanced proficiency of Hebrew remains on my bucket list. My prior language study -in all the languages I’ve studied- was done in traditional synchronous classrooms. 

The name of the company /product I used is not crucial here.  The market offers many products, but my using one such product allowed me to remember crucial insights into the process of SLA worth sharing with colleagues.    

Every day for three months -without fail- I studied Hebrew with the online program.  Initially I spent one hour per day, but after the first month, I decreased it to thirty minutes because my own summer teaching load picked up.

The online program focused mostly on receptive skills (reading/ listening) with few activities in which I was speaking or “writing” (clicking on letters).  Receptive skill-building activities involved a series of pictures from which I would select the correct vocabulary item or grammatical feature.  The simplicity of this design was a strength, but also made for a somewhat monotonous experience.  Speaking and writing activities required that I only repeat aural items or provide cloze responses.   

Commercial products:  better? more fun?  

Being an SLA hobbyist/ pedagogue, it was predetermined I would enjoy resuming Hebrew study.  Evaluating the experience with that of the synchronous classroom, I concluded that the commercial product cannot compare to the latter in terms of learner enjoyment and efficacy, for the following reasons.  

First, my production of Hebrew (speaking/ writing) using the commercial program lacked meaningfulness. While I was tasked with producing (read /write) Hebrew, I simply parroted the provided material.  In other words, the online program did not address my interest in the usage of the language nor was it filled with material from my own life or interests.

For example, I viewed photographs of vocab items related to gardening through images of an anonymous English garden that I have never visited.  Essentially, these images served as flashcards;  I repeated the words and was never asked to do anything beyond verbatim repetitions.

In a synchronous classroom, the instructor can facilitate learners’ acquisition of the gardening vocab by asking about gardens contextualized within their own experience.  This would be a much more meaningful usage of the target vocabulary.  And more meaningful production in the target language is both more enjoyable and effective.

Secondly, using the commercial program, I was not given clear, and possibly inaccurate corrective feedback on my Hebrew production – particularly on my speaking.  Often frustrated, I couldn’t understand why my Hebrew speaking was being rejected, even after multiple times listening and repeating the targeted word.  In short, I could not see the distance between my incorrect utterance and the target utterance.     

A synchronous classroom can provide instantaneous, unambiguous feedback.  Ten years earlier, my Hebrew instructor would correct my inaccurate Hebrew utterance the moment it left my mouth.  Moreover, if my ear was unable to identify my mistaken pronunciation, she could shepherd me to it, without a lag or ambiguity.  A deeper explanation was always possible in her class, and in English, if needed. 

Thirdly, I was alone in my Hebrew study, using the commercial program.  As a pedagogue and SLA hobbyist, I didn’t think this would impact me as much as it actually did.  Of course, the isolation of our current global pandemic is impacting every aspect of life, so it is no surprise that it impacts SLA, too.  Nonetheless, I kept a rigid study regimen, even on the days when I felt less inclined.  

Reflecting on the absence of classmates made me appreciate the dramatic influence that peers can exert on learning.  Of course, communicating with peers increases the number of potential sources of corrective feedback on a learner’s production.  More fundamentally, however, peers are real interlocutors who are listening and evaluating the form and content of a learner’s speech, in addition to the personality with which they present themself.  

The SLA classroom makes possible un-simulated exchanges between two interlocutors.  Either in person or through a webcam, the two interlocutors must look into each other’s faces and listen to each other’s words, in order to engage in a meaningful conversation.  It is the real-ness of interactions with peers, the inescapability of your interlocutor’s discerning gaze, that creates an urgency to deploy your learning and to shape your interlocutor’s perception of yourself. 

In other words, when learners engage in synchronous, person-to-person communication, the learning transforms from something abstract into something of real substance.  In short, the language learned turns into something that matters!  It becomes a tool of self-expression, with an immediate outlet for application.  And using the tool of language, meaningfully, is both enjoyable and effective for SLA.  I was reminded of these subtleties in my study of Hebrew, alone.  

Finally, through the online program, I gained very little insight into the culture of Hebrew-speakers through this online program.  Compared with my past Hebrew teacher’s storytelling and cultural explanations of personalized anecdotes, the commercial program felt empty. Admittedly, this was among the most anticipated differences between learning from a (human) instructor versus from a (non-human) commercial product.  

Reporting my SLA observations with my learners

As a second language instructor of asynchronous university classes (French, Arabic), I shared my insights from this experience with my learners.  In doing so, I hoped to invite reflection on their own learning.  My take-away message was my strong preference -as a learner- for the synchronous SLA classroom, compared to using commercial SLA products.  

This chat took place mid-semester, so I could contrast my extracurricular Hebrew study and our academic course.  In a subsequent class, I received comments of admiration for my continued language study.  In the least, learners know that I am not unaware or have forgotten the challenges in trying to acquire a new language.

Conclusion:  my own SLA increased my empathy for my learners 

More than anything, resuming my own SLA and using a non-classroom option proved beneficial to my teaching.  It reminded me of the fun and frustration of learning an unfamiliar language. It enhanced my empathy for language learners in my own class and made me appreciate the subtle magic of a communicative approach in a synchronous classroom.

To my fellow language instructors, during this odd period of social isolation, I recommend beginning to learn a new language.  Additionally or separately, I also recommend language study through non-classroom methods.  Even a short stint with one may be a worthwhile experience for you professionally or personally.  Record observations on your learning, and compare them with what transpires in your classroom.  Why not then share these insights with your own learners?  They will likely appreciate hearing about your travails and knowing that you walked a mile in their shoes… or even a quarter-mile.