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.
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
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
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.
Technologies that only allow for listening include broadcast
media such as television and radio, recorded media such as
CDs, CDROMs and video, and digital versions of these. Some
people might also remember cassette tapes and vinyl records!
There are few technologies that allow for speaking without
also including listening. Even early wax cylinders and later
tape recorders allowed users to both record someone speaking
and listen back afterwards. Beyond such recording devices that
are asynchronous (not at the same time), most other
technologies addressing speaking are considered communication
media. So telephones, two-way radio and video conferencing not
only allow for both speaking and listening but also allow them
to take place at the same time (synchronous) and
between two or more participants.
Technologies that support writing are the oldest. From clay
tablets and carved stone through handwritten and later printed
books, and on to computer-based text, writing has been the
main technology for recording and transmitting language over
centuries. However many languages, including all the
Australian ones, never made use of writing and survived
perfectly well without it.
- Reading. Most
of the technologies that support reading are the same as those
that allow us to write, or we tend to associate the two so
closely that we rarely separate them. But chalk, pens, and
typewriters are only used for writing, not reading. And
television only allows us to read, not to write.
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
Increasingly educators look to multimedia as the best option to
provide rich environments that simulate reality and allow a range
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
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
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
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
Technology can be an extremely useful tool for a skilled language
teacher. It just needs to be used wisely to achieve identified
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!
- What ages and grades
is it suitable for? Some resources can span a wide range of
learner ages and stages; others are quite limited.
- What macro-skills can it be used for;
all or only one?
- What potential
learning objectives could it serve?
- Is it interactive or
only an information delivery device?
- Does it facilitate
student communication, and is that communication synchronous
- Has its benefit
already been proven by other teachers, especially in language
teaching, or will this be an experiment?
- How often will it
be used? Is it likely to engage learners on an ongoing basis
or will they only use it once or twice?
- What does it cost,
and is that cost one-off or likely to be recurrent? A lot of
modern software requires frequent paid updates to keep
functioning over time.
- Is it better than
existing or cheaper alternatives?
- Is it easy for staff
and students to learn to use? Does it come with clear
- What training will
staff need? Is it likely to be one-off or ongoing, and has it
been included in the calculation of the total cost?
- What supporting
equipment does it need? If it is computer-based, does it run
on all operating systems and how much memory does it need?
Does it require the purchase of extra equipment to access all
- What potential is
there for it to become obsolete? Every school (and home) has
equipment that either canít be used any more or no-one wants
- How reliable and
durable is it? Will it keep functioning over time with heavy
- How well is it
supported by the supplier? If you need help or it needs
repairs will they be readily available well into the future?
- Is it portable
enough to move from class to class, or will classes have to
move to it? Do you really need one in every classroom?
- Is it readily
accessible to most students and does it allow, or can it be
adapted for, use by those with special needs?
- Can resources
produced with it be shared or used in other settings, or does
everyone need to have the same (brand of) equipment?
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.