our words make worlds

How do we manage the digital revolution? Reflections on Language Acts Debate #4

Language Acts and Worldmaking held its fourth debate - ‘Has the digital world revolutionised language pedagogy?’- in Bush House on the 21st March.  

The debate revealed two sides to the story of technology in language learning. On the one hand, advantages are undeniable: we can use learning apps, we can watch foreign-language TV, films, videos. We can access an unimaginable quantity of written, audio and visual material online, and students and educators are given unprecedented ways of communicating with one another and of working creatively together over long distances. On the other hand, as speaker Antonio Martínez-Arboleda put it, there is a kind of flooding of our lives with information and stimuli which, unless well-managed, risks distorting our sense, no less, of reality, and of the contours and facets of the world around us. A particular, and well-documented, risk is that the sheer quantity and diversity of information available blinds us to the importance of its quality.

A common example might be this: a student searches online for a particular construction in a language they are learning and finds several hundred thousand examples of its usage. A huge, teeming, wonderful resource at our fingertips. But also a vast dataset, with many entries from totally unknown sources, that we may well not have the skills to sift through. Do we know what this information actually tells us? Who, for instance, determines which of these results we see first (and, realistically, exclusively)? We all know the answers – money paid to search engines, location data, various algorithms – but how many of us bear this in mind when we’re looking at the results? Amongst other things, with the increasing automation of our access to the online world, it is also more difficult than it used to be simply to search the internet in a language other than the one Google determines for us based on location data that we can't hide. Type 'google.fr' into a browser in the UK and you still land on an English-language search page.

My own personal bugbear is getting students to use paper dictionaries in class as well as online searchable dictionaries. I find myself really struggling to explain why, as undergraduates in a university modern languages department, they still need to know how to use these giant, expensive, heavy books when they each have access to the same information via the phone in their pocket. But I feel, strongly, that they do. I’m no twenty-first century Luddite, but being just about old enough to have done my BA with paper dictionaries and grammars as my primary language tools, and yet young enough to have witnessed first-hand the invasion of WordReference.com, I can see that one does not (perhaps not yet) replace the other. How, one of my arguments goes, do you find things by accident if you only use a search function? What about browsing, about finding things that grab your attention without any other purpose? The same argument holds for high-street bookshops, where you can come across things you don’t expect, without the aid of an algorithm that will only show you results that match what you’ve done before. How do we break out of moulds, how can we truly learn, if we only search for, and are only shown, things we know already? The vast wealth of information available to us online can be liberating, but it can also be extremely, and deceptively, restrictive.

A further question raised by the audience towards the end of the event was in relation to the idea of access: it is all very well to debate the merits and pitfalls of digital technology for language learning, but are we yet at the stage where we can overlook the question of access to often expensive hardware? I was reminded of this question recently when trying to open an online document during a meeting and being thwarted by my comparatively ancient personal laptop. Is it now expected of me that my personal equipment reach a minimum technical specification? We require students to fill in evaluation forms online and are asked to remind them to bring a smartphone/laptop/tablet to class in order to do this. Will these institutions provide portable devices for their students in the same way that they provide desktop computers in the library? Furthermore I find myself wondering: are the same people who implement these policies also those who sympathise with the view that increasing dependence on personal technology has the capacity to damage attention spans and to shut down intuitive thinking by instantly providing answers? I suspect there is a certain amount of crossover.

Are we now at the point where you need a smartphone to participate in society, and in learning? Is our education increasingly dependent on the consumer electronics we purchase? We must not only consider the question of cost – especially since the purchase of a smartphone or tablet is never a one-off but is rather an entry into an ongoing and fast-paced cycle of updates and upgrades – but also of groups whose access to this equipment is problematic for other reasons. Older people are particularly at risk of being left out of this revolution. Indeed, in his response to the debate speakers, Carlos Montoro suggested that we are living not in a time of revolution but at the dawn of a new era of civilisation. In which case, it is even more important that we allow ourselves time and space to reflect on how we adopt new developments, and on whether we are quite ready for the wholesale jettison of ‘old’ methods of learning, research and communication.