How can technology teach language?

Technology cannot teach language. Itís just a tool that can be used by a teacher or a motivated learner to support them in the task of teaching or learning. The trick is to work out what are the best applications of technology to support teaching language and to use them in constructive ways. Otherwise a lot of time, effort and money can be wasted on just playing with technology without any meaningful language-learning taking place.

What is the best technology to support teaching language?

There isnít a single best technology for teaching language, and any we might think are amongst the best today will soon be replaced by new ones anyway.
Research over the last 50 years has shown that each new wave of technology that has been promoted as more effective than everything that went before, really hasnít increased the educational benefit to learners at all. In fact, as each new technology appears, it actually slows things down while people work out how to use it best and it undergoes further development. Itís only after 'new' technology has been around for a few years that all its problems and potential are worked out. Which is usually about when the 'next big thingí comes along!
What really makes a difference to language learning is the teaching method and the quality of teaching, not the tools that teachers use.
We can characterise language teaching technologies based on which of the macro skills they are best suited to although, increasingly, newer technologies address multiple skills. They may add video to qualify as multimedia or allow the user to make choices and changes to be interactive. Most technologies are also rapidly shifting to digital or computer-based delivery which is often referred to in language-learning contexts as Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL).
If a particular macro skill is being targeted it is probably best to use a form of technology that is narrow in its coverage. So, to focus on reading, older technologies like books and flashcards work just fine. Itís not necessary to use text on a computer, although it can work just as well.
If listening and speaking are the focus it will be necessary to use technologies that allow communication. So telephone, two-way radio, video-conferencing or other communication media would be better options.
Increasingly educators look to multimedia as the best option to provide rich environments that simulate reality and allow a range of
macro skills to be addressed at the same time. So CD ROM-based materials and other forms of CALL are rapidly becoming the norm. However itís important to keep their effectiveness in perspective. On a rainy day it can be very useful to let the students play language games on computer. But, on a sunny day, itís much better to take the class outside to play a real game in the real world using real language.
There are many benefits of using technology to support language teaching. But there are many disadvantages in using technology as well. The trick is to get the balance right and make the technology work for you and your students, rather than the other way around.

What are the benefits of using technology to support teaching language?

There are many benefits to using technology to support teaching language. Perhaps the greatest is in its ability to permit communication over distance and time.
Through communication media such as telephones, two-way radio and video conferencing, people can speak a language to each other over great distances. Using recording devices and exchanging recordings they can also speak to each other separated in time. Any text-based medium also allows people to communicate with each other, either synchronously (at the same time) such as in a chat room, or asynchronously (at different times) through email, discussion boards or letters. Broadcast media like television and radio, print media like newspapers and books, and most web pages normally only allow one-way communication; the listener canít easily respond. But all these technologies are very good at overcoming the kinds of separation that prevent face-to-face communication, and can permit language learning to take place without all the learners and the teacher being in the same place at the same time.
Most of the latest technologies are computer-based or digital. They can often integrate communication media with moving images and sound to create rich environments that simulate reality. This can be a great advantage when a particular activity is not easily accessible to the class. For example, city kids could explore the environment of their traditional country from a distance virtually, using digital reproductions with still and moving images, on-screen objects to interact with, and applying communication skills. Of course it would be much better to do this in the real world, but not always possible. And we must be mindful that such activities are only a casual substitute for reality, not a permanent replacement for it. Indigenous culture cannot be packaged in a computer game any more than it can be kept alive in a museum case!
Modern technologies are well known for their speed, repetition and accuracy. Computer programs and digital devices can present material very fast, over and over, and exactly the same every time. This can be a great advantage for drilling language to embed it in learnersí memories
Ė an essential step in learning language. Being able to use a machine to support student practice can free the teacher up to do other things like give students individual attention, or save an elder speaker from the tedium of having to constantly repeat themselves. However real speech normally varies from speaker to speaker and instance to instance. So there is a minor risk of students only being exposed to a single version of an utterance and learning an artificially limited pronunciation. There is also the danger of speakers becoming confident in communicating with a machine, but still not being comfortable speaking the language to other people.
Related to its capacity for repetition and accuracy, most modern learning technology allows learners to move at their own pace. So a room full of students can progress through material when each one is ready, without having to wait for others to catch up, yet still be able to pause and concentrate on individual problems as necessary. Or the teacher can force the pace at which a student must progress. In either case this is good for people who want to learn alone but needs to be compared with the benefit of communicating normally with others in the language
Ė its real purpose.
Student engagement is one of the advantages most often attributed to the use of technology in teaching. Many students enjoy using technology and, indeed, these days they, their parents, our colleagues and governments all expect technology to take a prominent role in the classroom. Engagement is clearly a benefit as long as the students engage with the content and learning, and not just with the technology itself. An exciting computer game that uses language may keep students thoroughly engaged for an extended period. But itís important to check and establish whether they actually learn anything from using it, or just have fun wasting time.

What are the problems with using technology to support teaching language?

There are at least as many disadvantages to using technology in language teaching as there are advantages.
Technology is often high cost. Although once its use becomes normalised, like laptops and mobile phones, the cost of technology can drop dramatically, the latest innovation usually comes at a premium price. And thereís always repairs and maintenance to think about. These costs, which can quickly drain a lot of precious funds from a language program, must always be weighed against the potential benefit. Will the investment produce an adequate return? Could the money be better spent on something more accessible and productive, like a teacher? Will it actually produce significant language learning outcomes or is it just an expensive toy? It can be tempting to keep students, parents and principals happy by having a classroom full of expensive gadgets and quiet students, but teachers also have a responsibility to ensure scarce funds are wisely spent to achieve identified language-learning outcomes.
Closely related to the issue of cost is that of obsolescence. We are all familiar with the incredible pace of technological change. Devices that were normal household equipment until relatively recently like record, cassette and videotape players are now all but museum exhibits. Try finding a slide or overhead projector to use in your classroom, or buying film for a camera!
Of course we canít turn our backs on new technology and the potential benefits it might have. But there is wisdom in waiting to see how widely innovations are taken up and how useful they become in teaching before investing precious dollars in them. Part of that process should include the obviously difficult task of anticipating how long it will be before they become obsolete and whether resources produced with them will still be useable well into the future.
These days the dominance of digital technologies can help keep resources accessible over time, or at least transferable, with each technological advance. We just need to avoid proprietary storage formats; databases that only work with one brand of software, for example, or storage on media that becomes superseded. Itís very hard to retrieve data from a floppy disk these days, and CDís and DVDís will probably be gone soon too.
New technology almost always comes with high skill development needs. This can be at substantial hidden cost if specialised training is needed and then sometimes difficult to obtain. If we are to implement new technology in language teaching we need to include the time and financial costs of training all the relevant staff and them developing adequate skills in the total price. Although the promotional material may say itís Ďplug and playí, it very rarely is.
The more complex technologies can even involve a skills barrier that is insurmountable for many teachers who already face too many competing demands. For community members it may be harder still. Thus promised skill transfers might not be realised and hiring outside technical specialists becomes necessary instead. As long as the technology is providing educational benefits that are in proportion to the costs, the investment can still be worthwhile. We just need to make sure the technology serves the interests of the class, not the other way round.
Some, but not all, technologies are heavily focused on individual learning where the student interacts only with the machine. While this can have some benefits itís important to remember that using language is essentially a social behaviour. Technologies that have an emphasis on interpersonal communication, interaction and collaboration will always support better language-learning outcomes. Language is rarely used in isolation in real life, unless youíre talking to yourself!
That said, many technologies offer only limited possibilities for spoken communication. They are more often literacy based and focus on the receptive language skills (listening and reading) rather than the active (speaking and writing). Even when communication is well supported, such as through video conferencing or internet telephony, there are technical limitations to consider. If learners are already relatively strong speakers they will be able to communicate fairly easily using their existing skills in the language. But beginner learners, who may not yet have mastered all the sounds and donít even know there are ones not found in English, may not be able to detect them and could acquire a faulty version of the language, missing important distinctions of sound and tongue position.
Technology often seems to dictate learning outcomes, not the other way around; how it should be. Normally designed by technologists rather than teachers and then sold to the education market, new developments are frequently packaged and promoted as being of educational benefit, rather than actually being designed to meed an identified need. Teachers can also fall into the trap of designing their lessons around what the latest technology can do, rather than identifying studentsí learning needs first and then applying appropriate technologies to meet them.
Once a teacher hands over control of their teaching to technology they are also exposed to the high risk of failure inherent in its use. We have all been in classes or meetings where a technical glitch brings proceedings to a halt and the audience is abandoned while experts press buttons and check cables. This means that teachers should, at the very least, always have an alternative means of delivering their content on standby. If you are presenting a language lesson using a computer projector, have overheads and handouts read. And work out what you will do if the sound doesnít work or the power suddenly goes off!
Current research is also beginning to identify some hidden issues about the use of technology in teaching. The supply of large amounts of information by several different means at once has been found to cause cognitive overload Ė too much information! Most learners can manage with pictures and sound at the same time, or pictures and text. But combine all three and deliver sound, images and writing all at once and studentsí ability to understand and learn
decreases rapidly.
The fact that this is often found in computerised language learning games has led to the identification of gamer syndrome whereby the students who watch someone else playing the game usually learn better than the one who is playing it themselves. Watching and controlling a game, remembering the instructions, working out strategic moves, listening and maybe reading as well requires a higher cognitive load than most people can handle, with the result that any new language in the game is actually less likely to be retained by the player than their audience who are under far less cognitive load.
Learning games and activities for the whole class using interactive whiteboards have rapidly becoming an everyday element of school-based teaching. Most teachers find that these are extremely popular with students who actively compete to touch the board. This has led to the identification of a star effect. Some students become so focused on being the performer at the front of the class that they will concentrate intently on getting the right answer and appear to be learning quickly. However, once their opportunity to be the Ďstarí has passed they can no longer see any benefit and so fail to retain what they were supposed to have learned, and lose interest in further participation, possibly even seeking to disrupt the chance for others to Ďshineí. Their focus becomes the game itself and winning
Ė on being the star, not on learning the content.
Technology can be an extremely useful tool for a skilled language teacher. It just needs to be used wisely to achieve identified learning outcomes!

How do you evaluate technology for language teaching?

The best questions to ask to evaluate the usefulness of a particular application of technology for teaching will vary significantly depending on the technology itself. For example, the kind of questions you would ask about a DVD would be different to those you would ask about an interactive whiteboard or a website. However, there are some questions that are worth asking about most:
If you ask most of these questions before you start using a particular technology, you will have evaluated it very thoroughly!


This page was first published on August 13, 2013 and was last updated on November 28, 2013. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise. If you have any suggestions for ways in which this document could be improved or made more accessible to users, please do not hesitate to contact the author, John Hobson.