By Lindsey Wright
Photo credit: CarbonNYC
That the Internet connects users around the world and provides resources in all languages is no surprise. Users in Spain, China, the United States, and Egypt can all interface online, the only barrier being language. Yet what if this was no longer a barrier? What if individuals could use the Internet not only to research information and connect with individuals who share a common language, but to also learn a new language? The Internet as a multilingual learning source is a dream that is slowly becoming reality. As new repositories of linguistic knowledge are developed and new strategies for independent language learning are honed, the possibility of using the resources of the Internet to develop a set of global skills is rapidly increasing.
According to a 2001 Gallup poll, approximately 26 percent of Americans are conversationally fluent in a second language, though this number drops to 16.3 percent when respondents are asked to characterize how well they speak the language. This number is surprisingly low considering today’s economy becoming more and more reliant on commerce with nations across the globe. While many companies are trying to prepare for this reality by courting bilingual professionals, the Huffington Post points out that many are finding a dearth. The fact of the matter is as a nation, America simply isn’t ready to compete linguistically in a global marketplace.
What is even more interesting is the Humanities Resource Center Online report that of the 26 percent who do have a conversational knowledge of a second language, only 2.8 percent of those who were bilingual had learned their second language in the classroom. The vast majority, 83 percent, learned their second language at home, likely via an online school or through language learning software such as Rosetta Stone.
The reason for this is largely that classrooms simply can’t meet the language learning needs of all students. As such it is essential that multilingual education is developed outside of the traditional classroom context in order to better prepare for a job market that increasingly demands cultural sensitivity and bilingualism. The Internet is an excellent place to start. With its endless supply of information, instantaneous global connections, and ability to adapt to changing needs, web-based language learning is the next frontier in multilingual education.
The idea of learning a second language through independent study is not new. For as long as individuals have traveled, they have brought back tales of people who spoke different languages, and books to assist those who would travel after them to learn. That this independent study model would transition to the Internet is no surprise, and many companies have jumped at the opportunity to provide their employees with the chance to study a second language, often for free.
In fact, several institutions have already pioneered programs for those interested in learning English as well as other languages. For instance, the BBC’s Learning English website offers language learners the chance to explore grammar rules, build vocabulary, and acquire idiom proficiency. Likewise, the British Council’s Learn English site caters to kids and adults alike through a variety of games, interactive videos, and even a special section for those learners who are enthusiastic about football (or soccer, as it’s known in the States). Another resource, the English Listening Lesson Library Online helps students to acquire English language skills through videos, songs, games, and other resources designed to mimic natural language acquisition.
If you’re proficient in English and want to branch out to another language, Language Perfect provides you an opportunity to study with a number of resources at your fingertips. These include native speaker pronunciation, student-based competitions, vocabulary lists and testing. Although it costs $100 for a yearlong single-license subscription, the results are excellent, based on research conducted by the New Zealand Board of Education. While this program doesn’t teach grammatical conventions with the same degree of isolation that is commonly found in a language classroom, the vocabulary-building and reading development portions of the program allow students to develop grammatical skills naturally, much as children develop grammatical skills in their native language.
In the realm of free websites, the BBC’s Language site offers excellent resources for individuals who want to learn any number of different languages. This site offers introductory lessons, games, vocabulary builders, and links to other free sites that offer additional language lessons. One of the site’s most useful features is its message board. Available for each language, the message board allows for conversation between language learners of various skill levels as well as native speakers.
Whether you’re looking to learn a new language through an online course, sharpen your skills in a language you already know, or simply gain enough knowledge to ask for directions in a foreign country, the Internet has a wide variety of resources available. Multilingual learning has stepped out of the classroom thanks to the development of web resources that use native language acquisition through participation and repeated exposure to learn a new language. From the free resources of organizations like the BBC to the in-depth exploration provided by sites like Language Perfect, it’s now possible to learn a second, or even third language from the comfort of home.
Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.