November 20, 2017

Re-thinking language instruction

  By the time we finished school, 90% of my generation hated the mandatory Irish lessons. Hundreds of thousands of kids (aka language learning machines) failed to master even rudimentary communication in the language we had studied for years. If the teachers had set out to kill the language, I'm not sure they could have done it more effectively. But, of course, they didn't set out to kill it, they set out to teach it, which would sound almost comical, if it weren't so tragic.   

There is no single reason for the failure of traditional language teaching. It's more like a constellation of bad pedagogy, irrelevant objectives, a school system that was calcified in another era, etc. Crowning it all was the illusion that you could and should teach a language to children, i.e. that you could/should explain it to them. The teachers' focus was grammatical, rather than psychological - What are the structures of the language?, rather than How might we induce the language learning process?  It didn't seem to occur to anyone that if the kids were encouraged to use the language they would pick it up painlessly and quickly. Nothing (and I mean nothing) could have been less relevant than lectures on declensions or the conjugation of prepositions (they do that in Irish) to a bunch of children, but that's what we got.

I don't want to harp on about my particular country. I used it to make a point but it was definitely not unique. For the most part, language teaching the world over remains in a fossilized state. The paradigms that inform it are often more Quintillian, and less web 2.0 even though there's tons of amazing alternative ideas on the web these days - try Stephen Downes' Stephen Web, or Connectivism for starters. (These treat learning generally, rather than language learning specifically, but they are relevant.) As far as I can see most kids leave schools to this day, with an abysmal record on language learning.

 Yesterday I talked with JP Villaneuva. He's a tremendouly talented linguist and teacher who is leading the new SpanishPod team that launched last week. (You can sample his excellent work here.) Well, JP and I share a belief in the need for change in language teaching - in this case in how Spanish is taught. (Note: I'm not saying there are no good Spanish teachers out there. Of course there are! I'm saying the discipline as a whole needs change.) JP and I will be working together and reporting here as we progress. (I'm delighted to say that we also have an awesome tech team behind us to help make our ideas possible!)

 Over the coming week and months I'll try to bring concrete examples of what we might call 'language learning 2.0'. I beleive ChinesePod has already demonstrated a number of these, but I'm keen to keep developing the discussion beyond Mandarin. We certainly have ideas over here but we realize that you, the Big Brain, know far more than we ever could. I hope you'll all stop by to add to the conversation in a 'co-active' way.

Ken Carroll

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  1. Michael says:


    Technology changes how we can better target smaller increments of learning and the pool of tools that we can use to improve the learning process。Maybe some day we will actually come up with some better tools than pencils, paper and books which revolutionized learning in their day。

    I doubt we will ever find a tool more powerful than the alphabet。

    In terms of language learning I see a lot of what you and others are doing as an outgrowth of a major strand in language pedagogy in the 1990s which was to put the learner at the center of the learning process。 A lot of what we are seeing is an outgrowth of that fairly simple change in thinking。

    Sometimes a great deal of complexity can spring from fairly simple perscriptions。

    Finally, do I detect a change in your thinking? Are you now preparing to address the teaching side of the equation?

  2. admin says:


    Observant as ever! I certainly see learning as the issue. I was hoping to re-define ‘instruction’ in newer/different terms. As long as there are classrooms there will be pedagogy, even if it describes the teacher as facilitator rather than instructor. (For some techers, that could be lectures, for others the role may be pure facilitation.)

    In our case, much of the pedagogy comes at the level of instructional design, where we match what we know about learning to the parameters of the medium. It also plays out in the social context – people learn from each other and the community of practice is, I think, relevant.

    A teacher could facilitate a group discussion but take no direct part in it. If the learners grapple with new concepts, practice in the target language, and actually learn stuff without teacher intervention, is there any pedagogy involved? I think there is.

    On ChinesePod or SpanishPod, the role of the teacher (or is ‘practitioner’ a better word?) is to design the learnign object, deliver it in a way that is engaging, build context around it (this to me, is as much about context managment as content management)and keep the discussion productive after that. I would say that this is pedagogy and this is where I want to probe. Perhaps the term ‘instruction’ was a bit misleading, though!

    Ken Carroll

  3. Henning says:

    I find it hard to believe that there can be such a thing as “learning 2.0” without something like a “brain 2.0”. But there certainly is “distribution 2.0” – you can transfer good instructors and instructions now all over the world. I bet with the CPod crew you could pull off awsome classroom Chinese instruction without *any* technology. But you could not reach your global audience that way.

    I furthermore think the comparision with your personal school experiences need to be challenged in two respects:

    1. Time
    My school language text books already seem to have been much different from yours. When I started with English at the age of 10 we did lots of songs, games, and kids’ stories – in fact I learned the (English) “Head & Shoulders” game/song that you taught at CPod within the first months of my English classes. Later (age 15 upwards) we discussed some remarkable short stories and novels (1984, Brave New World,…).

    My French text books later (age 16+) were not bad either. Of course they included grammar, but also vocab on getting alcoholic drinks, going to the discoteque, etc.

    Not as fresh as CPod, maybe, but on the road getting there. Of course I had all sorts of teachers, but you cannot blame the concept.

    2. School vs. voluntary education for adults
    The idea of a school is to equip a child with a broad and generic set of skills that might be of use in a variety of settings. It is learning “on stock” with high uncertainty about actual future demands or interests. How often do you hear “I never needed that advanced math in my life” – but on the other hand you meet those for whom exactly this math knowledge became the very foundation for their future profession.
    You can debate what belongs to this “stock” and what not, e.g. if grammar knowledge will become relevant later or not. But that is a different story, isn’t it.

    Actually you need to compare CPod not to school classes but rather to elective courses in post graduate University education. In my eyes only that comparison is truely fair.

  4. Orlando Kelm says:

    I remember once talking to David Maxwell (President of Drake University, and one who has been attacked over the years because he doesn’t hold to traditional academic language instruction). Anyway, he mentioned how students generally think of foreign language as unimportant (to their own life), irrelevant (i.e., not interested in literature and linguistics only), and impossible (i.e., difficult to learn). One interesting thing that he added was, given the increasing enrollments in Spanish as compared to the dropping enrollments in other languages, Spanish needed to lead the way in changing how foreign language is taught.

    My own sense and hope for the future is related to the tendency where nowadays students often want to learn Spanish, not to travel abroad, but to use it in their own communities (emergency responders, nurses, medical fields, social workers, etc.). When students want to learn for real, the old traditional no-results programs won’t be able to survive. Enter SpanishPod and JP!!!

  5. Paul Hildreth says:

    As a language teacher (in a former life) I found this post very interesting and strking a lot of chords. My son is now almost 17 and since he was born I spoke nothing but German to him (I’m not German – I learnt German at school, studied it at university and then became a German teacher) and he grew up being able to flit effortlessly between the two. He wasn’t bi-lingual (as I said, I’m not a native speaker) and I didn’t even attempt to teach him grammar or writing, thinking that he would get this at school. I was very disappointed in the school’s provision for my son and once he reached 12/13 he gradually stopped speaking German with me. However it has given him a good grounding and he is now studying it at A-Level. I do still have some concerns as one reaches a point where there is still a need for grammatical awareness if one is to be able to make the language work for oneself, and my son is only now starting to tackle work that I would have expected him to be comfortable with in Year 10 – which means there has been a real shock to the system for these students. I’m not disagreeing with you, Ken – I agree totally that the best way to learn a language is to speak it which is why I took the opportunity from day 1 to try and give my son a head start with it. I’d certainly do it again.

    As a linguist I’m looking forward very much to seeing the Spanish Pod and would love to have a go.

  6. Thank you Ken and Orlando for your enthusiasm! These theoretical discussions are energizing!

    When I was growing up, I always thought the next millennium would be like in the sci-fi movies; we’d all be wearing space suits, driving chrome-plated hover craft, and computers with colored lights would accept commands in the form of polite small-talk.

    I did not imagine the iPod, the digital camera, the internet… definitely not ChinesePod.

    The point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to imagine the world of the future in terms of style. It’s harder to imagine future technologies in terms of function.

    Right now, it’s hard for me to imagine language learning of the future: the style gets in the way. Frankly, the idea of electronic devices replacing books as the primary text in the classroom is… distracting to me, but my distraction is based on a lot of assumptions. I can just hear my students saying “my battery’s low,” or “the wireless network’s down,” or some other lame excuse that has nothing to do with what my goal is and always will be: trying to motivate the students to practice speaking the target language.

    Still, I’m the guy that didn’t imagine ChinesePod. Maybe I was blind to the huge vacuum there was in terms of listening comprehension materials that are not either level-inappropriate, tiresomely inaccessible, and/or murderously boring. From day one, the traditional language classroom is production-oriented; “listening for pleasure” is seen as an advanced skill.

    Anyway, my point is this: we have blind spots in our curriculum that technology can help us bring light to. Given the abysmal failure rate of traditional language classrooms in the US and in other countries, I would guess that our blind spots are many and huge.

    So what does it take to learn language? Among other things: learner buy-in and commitment; daily, meaningful written and spoken target-language communication in real-life situations; access to target language media for authentic consumption. Can technology help us improve the way we do any of these things?

    It’s not even a question of “if;” the question is “when” and “how.”

    Maybe it won’t be space suits and hover crafts; maybe it will be in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

  7. I heartily endorse the idea of changing how we teach languages. I salute Chinese pod. We are taking a similar approach at except that we have a “target language only” approach and more help on vocab acquisition. Ken and I have disagreed on this before but it is not really that important. The important point is to put the learner in charge and give the learner choice. In other words to help the learner discover the language rather than trying to teach the language.

    In schools I would give young children a survey of languages based on listening and reading, with no expectations with regard to output. If they put in the time they will learn. At a later stage they can always try to focus on output.

    I discuss these ideas at my blog.

  8. Bryan Ballot says:

    ChinesePod has been a very enlightening experience. Chinese is the 6th foreign language I have studied and I have used several methods from the traditional “magnus, magni, magno…” style of grammar drills in Latin (I never could construct a complete sentence) to total immersion in conversational Japanese (I drowned). I have also learned by picking up bits and pieces from native Spanish speakers and can only successfully insult your mother fifteen different ways. The only foreign language that I learned to the point of fluency was French – after 3 years of grammar and not being able to say or understand anything outside of a classroom, we were required to start listening to French radio broadcasts. Initially, it was unintelligible (no one even said “Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?” even once!). After two years of this sort of immersion on top of the background in grammar, I actually could communicate successfully. But who has 5 years and a student’s schedule for study? Not I. I’m a grown up now and have to work for a living, and have a home and family to maintain in my “spare time”.

    I initially started learning Chinese a little less than a year ago. I initially got a private tutor – a very nice and knowledgeable Chinese woman who had taught Mandarin in Guangdong. It lasted only a few months until we totally frustrated each other. She wanted to do immersion – I was drowning. I totally frustrated her when I didn’t get all of my homework done (ref. full time job, home, and family). Meanwhile I found ChinesePod. Its brief dips, dunks, or splashes of immersion from native speakers in high use terminology are short enough to not drown (and lose interest), useful and current enough to use in everyday speech, and flexible to be fit in on a busy schedule. This is definitely the best experience I have had learning a foreign language. It is also more than just the fact that Mandarin doesn’t conjugate verbs, decline nouns, and change the ending on every other word in the sentence to match the gender and number of everything else – I did try another method of learning Chinese first. ChinesePod is useful. It is repetitious without grammar drills. …and it’s just plain fun!

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot that ChinesePod also includes written Chinese, too! Many of the spoken courses do not even begin to address this aspect. (…and I won’t start on the lack of utility of the “How to Write Chinese” books that I’ve got in a dusty heap in the corner.)

    I would say that this is a bit more than just Language 2.0. It is like going from DOS to Windows; it is a revolutionary change in the basic working mechanisms for the end user, not just a new version of the old approach.

  9. admin says:

    Henning makes the point that not everyone has had the same (bad) experience at school.I ‘d say that the mainland European countries tend to be better at learning languages. For the English speaking world, however, it’s another matter and a problem that is shared with most Asiabn countries that I know of.

    Appreciate all the other points – there are some gems here.

    Ken Carroll

  10. Warren Ediger says:

    On the subject of reforming language teaching, there’s a thought-provoking presentation here – – entitled “The Portable Classroom: How iPods Will Change Language Education.” It’s by Dr. Jeff McQuillan of the Center for Educational Development in Santa Monica, CA.

    Look for it under the heading “Using iPods and iTunes for Language Education.”

    Warren Ediger

  11. Matt says:


    When I learned German in school, the real goal was to teach English grammar — by studying a new language from the outside, we were supposed to learn to take a more anlaytical look at our own language. (of course there were other reasons: to foster international understanding, etc., but giving an analytical view of grammar was probably most important)

    When you learned Irish, the motives were (I imagine) different — to “save” the language, preserve the national culture, etc. But then it sounds like they taught the language with emphasis the other way around. I can’t imagine why. Did they re-train ex-Latin-teachers to teach Irish?

    The analytical teaching style worked okay at the high school level, especially for the kind of kids who took German in a place where Spanish would be 100 times more useful. But I can see why it wouldn’t work as well for younger kids, and when you’re trying to get through to _all_ the kids, not just the most academic ones.

  12. Hi there, i am looking for info on online education but sometimes i am left wondering , is there any true value to online education ? .

  13. Roddy says:

    I to was “taught” Irish for 14 years and “learnt” nothing. At the time the process destroyed any interest in learning to speak another language. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to visit other countries as an adult that the interest was rekindled. I think immersion is definitely the way to go and hopefully future VR software will enable all those who can’t afford to travel to become immersed in another culture and discover an interesting and fun way of becoming fluent in another language.

  14. One of the central aspects of “learning” is that it’s something the LEARNER does. This sounds like common sense, but its implications for helping people to learn are vast.

    As Roddy points out, fourteen years of “instruction” — efforts from the outside to inject skill and knowledge — resulted in almost no change in Roddy’s ability to read, write, or speak Irish.

    That’s not to say no one could learn in such a system, just to point out the vital importance of the learner’s goals (or lack of them).

    The linguist Geoffrey Pullum made a point about language preservation that’s pertinent here:

    …there must be little kids who speak the language with each other because it is their only language or else their favorite. Little kids who would speak it even if they were told not to…

    If someone wants to learn a language, then he has to choose to spend time on that language. He’ll make that choice because of what he values, whether the value is a passing grade, or a promotion, or enhanced travel, or the chance to date someone who speaks that language. And he’ll value language instruction to the extent it helps him achieve what he values.

    The rest is commentary.

  15. Mario Braga says:

    Ken, hi!
    Your job on Chinesepod is actually very impressive. You are taking the lead on this whole venture.
    Altough your many kinds of jobs on language resources, i guess that you should consider to do a CantonesePod.
    Best regards,
    Keep moving!
    Mario Braga.


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