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May 24, 2023

Five “human touches” help us learn language in ways apps and technology cannot

By Catherine Jodar, Founder, Language Advantage

There is an old adage that says something like, “If you want to really master something, teach it.” There is much wisdom and experience in those words. My own case was a little different, because I wanted to learn how to teach new languages to people. While my knowledge of the subject matter—the new language—continued to grow as I taught it, I think I learned most about how to teach people new languages by being a student/learner of language myself.

Raised in Europe, I was fluent in French and Spanish, and had provided instruction in these languages. When I came to Canada, I wanted to perfect my English. I needed to become more comfortable using it and adapt to the Canadian version of English, too. Many Language Advantage coach-teachers have similar experiences. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and know many different languages, so they too are experienced, continuous language learners.

My personal experience truly enables me to empathize with our class participants as they begin their language training. I remember the feelings and identify with the psychological challenges and barriers they face. I understand how students—adults especially—approach the task of learning a new language, and how this experience can bring anxieties, doubts and fears to the surface. We need to clear these roadblocks to learning, or at least find ways to work around them. Until we do, all the good grammar and proper punctuation in the world will not give learners the confidence they need to communicate effectively in the new language.

One of Language Advantage’s most appreciative class participants said, “I didn’t realize that I had a lot of past negative experiences…. My anxiety was having an impact on my ability to learn…and we came up with strategies that really helped.”

Now, a few decades since my student days, we are entrenched in the age of information, big data and artificial intelligence (AI). It was inevitable that robotics and digitization would start to automate language learning. With new tools that look, sound and perform more like human beings every day, are language teachers becoming obsolete?

Not likely.

University of Toronto’s Gillian Hadfield says that language is also a tool for communicating culture, a crucial aspect of humanity that artificial intelligence has not (yet) mastered. “These…are the systems on which we rely to solve the challenge of ensuring that people behave the way we want them to in our communities, workplaces and social environments. Only with confidence about how everyone around us is likely to behave are we all willing to trust and live and invest with one another.”

In the article Can Robots Replace Human Teachers?, Maahir Mehta says bots can definitely help teach certain factual things about language, like grammar, spelling and syntax. Now, with ChatGPT, technology can even compose written content on any subject, to any specifications we like. AI tools are now being programmed to read human facial expressions for emotional reactions in real time. But this is where a major divide emerges between machine and human capability. Because human emotions are subjective, emotional AI is prone to bias, especially when cultural differences are considered. Machines cannot always recognize speech difficulties or show empathy and encouragement to someone feeling timid about speaking in a new language. Mehta says, “Humans are social animals and inherently prefer to learn from other humans. Robots… cannot practice skills like sharing and teaching from life experiences.”

Until machines actually acquire some of these human abilities, your best bet is to work with language-learning experts who can also equip you with the thinking, history and culture that support that new language. Because these contextual aspects of language—the things the bots cannot teach you—will give you the most confidence and comfort socially as your knowledge grows.

Here are five tips that helped me learn language more fully and easily, and kept me in the game when I felt discouraged or frustrated with my progress. Use these, along with any technology, apps or programs you want to try. You will find more enjoyment, fulfillment, and well-deserved pride in your own language-learning capabilities and accomplishments.

  1. Find a coach-teacher you can trust and confide in.

Learning a new language is really all about you. Everyone learns differently and at different rates. We all have different expectations and apprehensions. The relationship with your coach-teacher is completely confidential, supportive, and totally personalized. The more they know about you, your journey, goals and anxieties, the more they can adapt things and smooth the route for you.

At Language Advantage, our programs are flexible and adaptable, both in subject matter and the approach to learning. All our coach-teachers are experienced language tutors and language learners, so they remember how it feels to be a “beginner.”  They are friendly, patient, accommodating, and interested in making learning easier, less stressful and even enjoyable for you.

  1. Set small, achievable goals for your progress.

The key is “achievable.” Confidence grows when you see progress. Maybe you want to be able to read the entire business section of the Globe & Mail in a year’s time. Start with short articles. Choose four or five new words or idioms each time and look-up their meanings. Try using anything you learn in different, simple, daily-life conversations—asking for directions, ordering coffee or buying items at the grocery store.

Share your objectives with us. Your coach-teacher will gladly help adjust the program to include some of your out-of-class learning. Maybe even suggest new tips or ideas that can boost your progress and accomplishments.

  1. Find opportunities to engage in the new language and culture.

Another wonderful feature of information technology is the endless ways it gives us to enrich ourselves. Podcasts, videos and talk shows supplement radio or television programs that already exist in every language on an infinite number of subjects.

Try attending (live or virtually) concerts or cultural events related to the language you are learning. Research the history, art, cuisine and geography. Understanding more about the context of the language makes it more engaging and interesting.

  1. Accept that learning takes time and you will not be perfect.

Be kind to yourself. Mistakes and misunderstandings will happen, but it is not the end of the world. Build your skills, step-by-step, and avoid comparing yourself to others whose experience will never be the same as yours.

The professional coach-teachers at Language Advantage are experts. They know how people learn languages. They will remind you that everyone faces the same challenges when they begin, and give you encouragement to keep going.

  1. Take risks. Be courageous and able to laugh at yourself.

People who are willing to take risks are more likely to participate in class situations. More participation is associated with greater levels of oral correctness. Taking risks, even small, measured ones, makes it more likely that you will get involved in activities, practise more, talk with peers, and learn by correcting mistakes and reinforcing knowledge. Better language proficiency naturally follows.

Your coach-teacher at Language Advantage can work with you to take “safe” risks with your language learning. They can be a wonderful aide and audience, a place to experiment, make mistakes and learn without risking offence or judgement. Maybe even share a laugh or two!

There have never been more ways to improve your language skills. Today, people need fulsome communication, not just words and phrases. Learning another language, with an appreciation and knowledge of the culture and lifestyle that goes with it, can only enhance your overall experience.

Use all the wonderful technology and automated tools to help you learn. They continue to improve all the time. But never forget that language and human communication are skill sets that are best acquired with the help of other human experts, like the experienced coach-teachers at Language Advantage.