Language Learning and Computers
Self-Access TELL for the New Federal States
Andrew Wilson1 and Josef Schmied2
UNIVERSITY OF WALES, BANGOR, GWYNEDD LL57 2DG, UNITED KINGDOM
2ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LINGUISTICS,
CHEMNITZ UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY; D-09107 CHEMNITZ
This volume contains articles and abstracts based on papers given at the symposium on Language Learning and Computers held at Chemnitz University of Technology in February 1998. A further paper on the topic has also been included. In this Introduction, we aim to contextualize the symposium and outline the importance of computers for language learning with particular reference to the new federal states of Germany.
I. LANGUAGE LEARNING AND COMPUTERS PROJECT AND SYMPSIUM
The symposium was the inauguration of the British-Council-supported Language Learning and Computers project at Chemnitz University of Technology. The project and symposium both have the aim of supporting the development of technology-enhanced and self-access language learning in the new federal states of Germany (i.e., the former German Democratic Republic) and facilitating communication in this regard among language centres and English language departments. The symposium was attended by staff from many universities and higher education colleges in the new federal states as well as by recognized experts in TELL and related fields who came from elsewhere to provide the benefit of their experience. In this latter category, we were pleased to welcome Geoffrey Leech (Lancaster University), one of the world's leading English grammarians; Lou Burnard (Oxford University), a specialist in computer-assisted text analysis; Hilary Nesi (Warwick University), a specialist on dictionaries for language learners; Gary Motteram (Manchester University), a leading educator in the field of TELL; and Bernd Rüschoff (then PH Karlsruhe, now Essen University), an internationally known researcher and practitioner in self-access TELL.
The aim of developing technology-enhanced learning in the new federal states is not just a trendy fad, nor is it a PR exercise for providing the former GDR universities and colleges with IT and multimedia equipment: rather, it is a very important development from the perspectives of both language pedagogy and the present-day higher education environment, as the following discussion will explain.
II. THE IMPORTANCE OF TELL TO HE IN THE NEW FEDERAL STATES
A. TELL and Language Pedagogy
Traditional (especially pre-1960s) forms of language learning emphasized the learning of correct grammar almost to the exclusion of other skills, especially those of communicating in any real sense in the foreign language. Constructions were learnt and praticed using often rather unrealistic sentences; for instance, one 1940s textbook on Italian (Speight 1943) invited students to translate the sentence Uncle's yellow hat is in the river - hardly a useful or relevant example for the intending user of Italian. In response to the failings of this traditional "grammar and translation" approach, it began, in the 1960s and 1970s, to be supplanted to a large extent by communicative approaches, which subordinated the explicit learning of language structures and vocabulary to exercises in communication - most typically the "play acting" of scenes such as eating out, going shopping, and so on. The philosophy was that children learn language through exposure to natural input without explicit teaching of grammar and so on - hence older learners of foreign languages can and should do the same (cf. Krashen and Terrell 1983). A distinction was thus drawn between the (natural) process of language acquisition and the formal instructional activity of the language classroom, with the latter seen as at best irrelevant and at worst detrimental to the former. However, the communicative approach also had its faults. Whilst it no doubt encouraged a greater enthusiasm among many learners, who could now see the point of what they were doing, it also led to a reduction in language awareness - i.e., the ability to analyse, reflect on, and talk about language in detail. This led, in turn, to an over-reliance on pre-fabricated situations and language segments - i.e., restricted linguistic creativity - as well as a greater tendency to error (cf. Durrell 1997: 108-9) and difficulty in understanding error-corrective feedback. Fluency replaced accuracy as the end result, rather than complementing it. What we are now seeing is a synthesis of old and new: explicit learning of language structure is again on the agenda, but it is seen in the communicative context. Firstly - and this is the legacy of the communicative approach - there is a realization that the acquisition of language knowledge should stem from authentic usage rather than from made-up, learner-oriented examples. Secondly, language learning must not simply instruct and test learners in language structures, as the pre-communicative approach did (what Rüschoff [this volume] calls the "drill and kill" approach): rather, it must equip them with the cognitive skills to continue their learning of the language, and other languages, beyond the formal course of instruction. In this sense, language learning provision must allow learners to follow the learning style that suits them best, and especially it must help them to explore the language for themselves rather than simply providing pre-packaged instruction (cf. McEnery and Wilson 1997, McEnery, Wilson and Baker 1997). The third feature of this new approach to language learning, therefore, is the development of appropriate tools that enable students to explore language and acquire these cognitive skills. These tools for explorative, self-guided language learning are now being made available in self-access centres at universities, colleges and elesewhere.
These themes of authentic input, explorative learning, and tools to support self-initiated learning are central to the papers in this volume.
Rüschoff provides an excellent introduction to current thinking in learner autonomy and TELL. He explores the above points in detail and argues for the kinds of computer tool that are essential for enabling learners to take control of their own language learning: "tools to enhance the acquisition of language processing and language production strategies and competences".
The question addressed by Eckhardt's paper is a natural consequence of the kinds of ideas discussed by Rüschoff. Working in the context of autonomous self-access learning, Eckhardt argues for the importance of more helpful feedback in TELL, an element that is still generally lost in the transition from the classroom to the self-access centre. Most TELL programs at present simply provide an evaluation of "right or wrong" - Rüschoff's "drill and kill" scenario again - whereas what learners need most is guidance on why they got a particular exercise wrong and what action they might take to remedy their difficulty. Eckhardt sketches out how this kind of more useful feedback may be provided, using the example of the Chemnitz Internet Grammar (see also III below).
Leech's paper is concerned with the issue of authenticity. There was already a strong interest in exploiting authentic materials within the former GDR, both generally (cf. the corpus-based grammar of Giering et al. 1979) and especially within LSP (cf., e.g., Weise 1972). On a more global level, recent work in corpus linguistics has also been fuelling a trend towards using authentic language materials in teaching (cf. Mindt 1996, McEnery and Wilson 1997). However, it is arguable that there has been insufficient concentration on the nature and degree of linguistic variability - for example, between channels or registers. Leech draws attention to some important aspects of variation, highlighting results obtained in work on the new Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, Leech, Johannsson and Conrad 1999). He exploits corpora of spoken and written language to demonstrate how the grammar of informal conversation differs from the grammar of writing or of formal speech. This is the kind of research which materials developers need to take on board if learners are to be exposed to genuinely authentic material that is also appropriate to the aims of their course.
The focus of Nesi and Motteram is on (traditional) computer tools for language learning. Dictionaries are a very important tool for language learners and Nesi examines the advantages of the new breed of electronic learner dictionaries within the context of TELL. Motteram, in contrast, is concerned with enabling teachers to develop their own TELL materials. Learner contexts and styles vary so much - especially in specialized language teaching contexts such as LSP - that commercially-developed TELL software is not always available or suitable. However, Motteram shows that, with an easy-to-use authoring program (Toolbook), teachers - including those with little previous experience of IT - can develop their own courseware which can rival commercial software in quality and outclass it in relevance to the situation at hand.
The shorter abstracts in this volume showcase some of the activity that is already taking place in language centres and departments in the new federal states and the experiences that were shared in more detail at the symposium. It is pleasing to note how much of this activity fits into Rüschoff's blueprint for modern self-access TELL. Skowronek, for example, outlines work that has been done in the language centre at Potsdam University, where ESP students are encouraged to enhance their language awareness by exploring corpora. Bellmann presents a piece of software that enables the student to find his/her own way through the many tools and resources available in the self-access centre, whilst Freund outlines some of the many resources widely available on the Internet. Fett outlines some of the practicalities of setting up a new self-access centre, drawing on his experience in Magdeburg.
B. The Climate of HE
So far, we have emphasized the pedagogic importance of our symposium and project. However, the political climate in German higher education also has an important influence on pedagogic approaches. In addition to the concrete learner-oriented benefits that self-access TELL can bestow, it is also important in coming to terms with non-academic pressures and making sure that students suffer as little as possible from their effects.
There is an increasing movement in German higher education towards internationalization. This does not only involve largely education-internal phenomena such as staff/student exchanges, collaborative projects, and the introduction of BA and MA degrees: it also, more importantly, is concerned with enhancing the employability and functionality of our graduates internationally as well as within Germany. This, in turn, raises the question of what foreign language skills our graduates should have. It is certainly the case that English is the international lingua franca for most occupations and areas of activity. Thus, to function in the international arena, our students need to acquire a working knowledge of English - and possibly other languages - in addition to their other subject studies.1
For language centres, this has implications both for student numbers and for timetabling, points that we shall pick up in the following paragraphs. Furthermore, it means that more LSP (or VOLL2) materials have to be developed: students need to learn the specialized languages of their subjects (e.g. law, management, engineering) as well as basic communicative language skills. Language departments and centres in the new federal states have a long tradition of LSP based on authentic language data: the task now is to harness that tradition in producing self-access materials that are appropriate to current studentsí needs and to developments in our understanding of the process of language learning.
Self-access TELL may also be of use in supporting other, more traditional forms of instruction. For various reasons (student numbers, personnel shortages, etc.), it is not always possible to provide the ideal human-mediated provision for language learning, however hard we may try. Large classes, for example, may be an acceptable means of transmitting basic information from teacher to student, but they cannot constitute an effective language learning experience without more individualized tutorial backup - learner-specific feedback on errors, practical communicative experience, and so on. With developments in multimedia technology, however, self-access TELL can help to provide some of this kind of backup when it is difficult to do so with human tutors.
Timetabling is another, related problem. With more and more subject combinations available, plus the need to teach languages as ancillary skills alongside major subjects, it is difficult to schedule many formal classes. Thus, as Nesi (1993: 28) has noted, some students who might benefit from language learning opportunities may "slip through our net". Again, self-access can help to provide a solution to this problem: students may spend more time working with materials at their own convenience and furthermore may spend as much time as they like on their language learning. Tutorial support will continue to be available - indeed, is essential and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future - but the delivery of certain kinds of course material in the classroom (e.g. grammar) need not be as central or frequent as has previously been the case. Indeed, classroom instruction may not even always be the best way of presenting some kinds of material. McEnery, Baker and Wilson (1995), for example, found that students taught the English parts-of-speech via a TELL-program became more accurate, quicker and more homogeneous as grammatical analysts than a parallel group of human-taught students; these students also rated their learning experience more positively than the human-taught group. What we may perhaps foresee for the future, then, is a shift in the balance of language learning provision: the limited human-mediated contact time may be focussed more on communicative practice and facilitating autonomous learning, whilst the acquisition of language structure and language awareness takes place to a greater extent in the technology-enhanced self-access centre.
To sum up: self-access TELL has the potential to provide enormous benefits to students in the new federal states. Political and economic pressures should have a less deleterious effect on them than might otherwise be the case; more importantly, they will have access to a form of language learning that can leave them better equipped - both as language users and as learners - than traditional classroom instruction in isolation.
III. FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
In what has gone before, we have outlined the importance of the Language Learning and Computers project for language pedagogy in the new federal states. In this final section of our introduction, we should like to outline what future progress may be made.
At Chemnitz University of Technology, we currently have a project - Learner Behaviour on the Internet - running within the DFG-funded research group "New Media in Everyday Life". This project aims to study the development of exactly the kind of learner software that we outlined before. The objective of the project is to induce guiding principles for the development of interactive, learner-specific grammar programs for the internet and to produce a program based on aspects of English grammar which applies these principles. This latter pilot program is known as the Chemnitz Internet Grammar (or CING). The target group of users consists of advanced learners of English, as well as English teachers and linguists, whose native language is German, and the approach is explicitly contrastive (cf. Schmied 1999). The guiding principles will be presented in the form of general guidelines derived from studying the behaviour of language learners with current language-learning programs (on the internet). They will also be applied practically in the grammar program, which will concentrate on areas where there are substantial differences between English and German - for example, tense and aspect (see Hahn fc.). It will form a double reference work: a database that enables inductive language learning based on authentic examples and a description of the grammar that enables deductive language learning based on the "rules" contained within it. Through the related exercises and links, the reference work can be used for university-level language teaching and for in-service teacher training.
In the Language Learning and Computers project itself, there are a number of ongoing activities to extend the discussion of the symposium.
We have set up an e-mail discussion list - llcomp - to promote discussion of language learning and computers. To subscribe, send an e-mail to Majordomo@tu-chemnitz.de with an empty subject line and the message body subscribe llcomp. To unsubscribe, follow the same procedure but replace subscribe with unsubscribe. Subscription and unsubscription are moderated, so there may be some delay whilst your application is approved.
We also have a web site - http://www.tu-chemnitz.de/phil/english/llc/index.htm - which contains a bibliography, software reviews, useful links, and contact addresses. Everyone is invited to submit additional information for the site. We ourselves are actively assessing a number of existing TELL programs.
It is also likely that another symposium will be held in 2001.
The Language Learning and Computers symposium and project is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the first step along a road which should provide our students - and other citizens outside the academy - with the resources to become more proficient foreign language learners and users. These skills, in turn, should bring great benefits to the economic, social and cultural life of the new federal states. We hope that this small volume will stimulate and encourage further steps along this road.
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