4 Ways Technology Enhances Language
Theresa Dold on 12/6/10
In the past, language learners faced a considerable number of obstacles that were practically
insurmountable without constant practice and contact with native speakers. Nowadays, insufficient
classroom hours, weak context for language learning situations and the lack of authentic input are all
becoming things of the past. Technology is constantly changing and enhancing the learning landscape,
especially for motivated students and creative teachers who embrace its power. This article discusses four
particular ways in which technology can be used to enhance L2 learning.
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1. Increased Time on Task
Question: If the average university student spends 240 hours in the language classroom over a four-year
period, and the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State estimates that English speakers
need 575-600 hours of study to achieve a low-advanced rating in a Category 1 language (i.e. Spanish,
Portuguese, Dutch), what is missing? Answer: Approximately 360 hours of language instruction and
exposure. For students of a Category 4 language such as Mandarin Chinese, 500 hours merely guides you
to a mid-intermediate level. Needless to say, learners at every level of any language must spend more time
practicing the L2.
Technology provides a way to minimize common classroom limitations such as short class periods. For
example, when the student/teacher ratio acts a limiting factor, technology can step in and lend students
access to authentic language produced by native speakers of various origins. Videos, podcasts and other
media give students the option to rewind and review material over and over again. Mobile apps such as
FlashCardz for iPhone allow students to become more autonomous learners outside the classroom and to
capitalize on individual learning styles. Indeed, technology creates opportunities to spend increased
amounts of time on language learning tasks.
Today’s technologies – by imitating and constructing associations, sounds, sights and social settings – also
provide L2 learners with language in context. When we are able to link a language to a context (to an
experience), we have a better chance of recalling the linguistic information to which we were exposed. To
this extent, multimedia serves the important purpose of combining everything from audio and video to
static pictures and texts to create contextualized learning environments. E-mails, spreadsheets, and word
processing are other examples of “contexts” that can and should be applied to language teaching because
they help students form associations.
3. Authentic Chunks
According to many experts, the best way to retain vocabulary in one’s L2 is to learn the small phrases, or
chunks, in which native speakers often use the lexical item(s) of interest. Many classrooms focus too
heavily on individual parts that ultimately become isolated from real speech. Technology, however, is able
to compensate by making learners aware of the ways in which certain lexical and grammatical elements are
grouped together. At Voxy, we try to draw learners’ attention to such chunks and collocations by
highlighting them in our online texts.
Image: Macmillan Dictionary Blog
4. Additional Input and Intake
Researchers have started to indicate that input – the exposure to both spoken and written samples of a
language, whether comprehended or not – is no longer enough for students. This input, they say, must be
converted into intake: the comprehended input that helps to further develop students’ linguistic systems.
Technology provides a way not only to increase language input but also to enhance the process of
converting input into intake.
Imagine the process of gathering online information for an upcoming presentation. This process requires
that one access, read and sift through large amounts of information (input) in order to choose what is most
important. For language learners, it is precisely this process of consciously and purposefully filtering
through large amounts of input that ensures the input-to-intake conversion. A simple worksheet assignment
hardly has the same effect.
For a more in-depth discussion of the ways in which technology enhances language learning, take a
look at this comprehensive technology module for language teachers created by Dr. Orlando Kelm of
the University of Texas at Austin.