#EDCMOOC Digital Artefect: Language acquisition “across the screen”

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The theme of week 3’s readings and activities was “Being Human”, through which we explored ideas of what separates the technological from the human, culminating in the question of whether we could actually be living in a “post-human” world.

Two of the week’s readings relate the theme of being human to education: Kolowich, S (2010) The Human Element.( Inside Higher Ed)
and Monke, L (2004) The Human Touch, (EducationNext ). According to the course materials, Kolowich (2010) “make[s] a case for the inclusion of more video and audio in online teaching, in order to increase the sense of presence and ‘human-touch’ for distance learners”, and we are also met with the following questions: “If we accept that ‘humanity’ is an ambiguous category at best, where does that leave claims like the ones made here for ‘the human element’ as a touchstone for good course design? And why are video and audio constructed here as being ‘more human’ than, for example, text?”

I think that these more abstract, philosophical questionings on the elements of on-line course design obscure the most pressing question:  can learning actually happen without these human elements? Especially in the learning of foreign languages, it seems the inclusion human elements–video, audio, and other interactive technologies–are not just being included because as anachronistic vestiges of a pre-internet, more “human” style of education, but because foreign languages cannot be acquired without them.

Television as the “fourth wall”

As television came to occupy the ubiquitous place it does in North American society, sociolinguists asked why, given that people in all corners of North America ( for example) are watching the same programming, does dialectological variation still exist? In other words, both children and adults spend hours upon hours listening to the same news presenters, kids’ TV characters, and dramatic actors speaking (and most of the time in the same standard West Coast dialect), and yet we all continue to speak in our own regional dialects.

The long prevailing view of sociolinguists is that while TV can shape your attitude toward different dialects, it won’t actually change the phonological or phonetic features of your speech because of the lack of interaction with the speaker. (Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics, 2006) You may her someone speaking in a certain way, but you don’t respond or interact with that person, so you will not take on their speech features.

Interaction in SLA

In terms of SLA (second language acquisition) research in particular, the necessity of not only input of, but output of and interaction with the target language exists in the (otherwise wildly divergent )behaviourist, cognitive, and sociocultural theories of SLA.  You can’t learn a language by just reading it or hearing it: you have to produce it, write it, and interact with others using that language.

So arguments of the “humanness” of texts versus video, audio, Skype, chats, forums, etc. is beside the point. Without some sort of output and interaction on behalf of the second-language learner, no language learning is going to occur at all. This being said, research on the details of that interaction, its form and quantity, and the quantifiable learning outcomes it may lead to are far from conclusive: here is a review of the research from 2003, (and more recent reviews are sure to exist.) But the bottom line for language teachers working solely or in part with technology and e-learning is that interaction is unquestionable.


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