Tuesday, April 17, 2012

time and the toefl

It has been a while since I gathered my thoughts about this idea, and they have changed since a whole generation of Saudi students has risen up the ranks, struggling mightily with the issue of time. I almost feel like telling them, time is one of the skills, but it's the most important skill, since it is part of all the other three sections (I used to say that about vocabulary, but they can learn vocabulary).

They've risen to the top of the program; they are fairly good writers, having finally mastered the spelling of five or six thousand words that they need the most, and picking up the western organizational habits by listening carefully and complying willingly to what their teacher says. So they have fairly good skills, and even their reading is not bad, if you give them enough time to go left to right, pick up every word carefully, and put it together. But alas, this is where it falls apart. They are too slow, too deliberate. And they can't become faster readers until they are better readers in terms of pure quantity.

So the question is, when you have fifty questions in fifty five minutes, and a student gets 45, say, on the paper-based, turning into a 450 if all three skills are equal, and you wonder, if you gave him/her five more minutes, or ten, or fifteen, would it make a huge difference? I'm sure it would. I wonder about the other factors: how continuously rushed on the time can cause minds to slip in haste; how stress causes a freeze at crucial times, etc. I'd actually like to see this tested out, live, with Saudi students. Maybe it has been! I'll do the research. A related question would be: how does this mirror their academic experience, or, in real life, do they actually have that five or ten more minutes, if they choose to use it?

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guest Post

Advancements in Language-Learning Technology
By Sofia Rasmussen

As the world grows more and more connected, fluency in multiple languages is becoming an increasingly valued skill. Multiple language speakers are needed as translators for companies and diplomats. Multi-language teachers and professors are needed in droves, whether that be at an elementary school that serves both Spanish- and English-speaking populations, or through online PhD programs whose students might realistically hail from France, Egypt, and China -- all in the same online class.

A wealth of technologies are available to help the world-traveler, student, or businessman learn a language. Some enable the learner to grasp grammatical issues and acquire a wide vocabulary; others provide the learner with a translation, facilitating a conversation he or she might be having at that moment. Some are more adaptable to the classroom; others fit in the palm of the hand and can be taken around the world. Some are free; others are expensive. All help the world to be a place where people understand each other better, and more easily that language-learning methods of the past.

The Holy Grail for many years was a device that could translate from the speaking voice; now, there’s an app for that: Google Translate for iPhone or Android. When it first came out it could only translate between English and Spanish; now, it covers sixty languages. It has a little trouble with background noise, talking quickly, and thick accents, and the translations are not exactly competent yet.

If you really want to learn a language, though, you might do better with other cell phone apps. MindSnacks, Babbel, and iStart aid in memorizing vocabulary, and iStart gives grammar lessons and explanations.

Software for language learning continues to be improved. PC World gives its Editor’s Choice to Rocket Languages Premium and Rosetta Stone version 4 TOTALe. They say that Rocket presents its material in a way that hooks the learner, and encourages long hours of practice. Rosetta Stone offers hour-long virtual classroom sessions, guided by an instructor on live video feed.

Now more than a decade old, digital music players like iPods are still deceptively powerful tools for the language learner. Learners can listen to music in foreign languages, which allows the student to grapple with the language in a realistic setting and provides exposure to a handful of difficult words per song. Music players can also be used for podcasts and news reports in a foreign language. A teacher, Ms. Grace Poli, started an after school iPod program for English language learners and reported “they were so engaged.” Students also listened to audio books, both in English and in their native languages.

Another technology Bursztynsky recommends is digital jumpstarts, which are story-telling or movie-making software programs which allow students to develop language skills through “scaffolding reading.” They are disks which combine “sound, vocabulary, the teacher’s voice, pronunciation, and background information into one program.”

Skype is an invaluable resource for language learning, if you know a person you can call who speaks another language, to improve communication skills. Skype can be used in the classroom as well, for classes to interact with foreign language speakers.

Gone are the days of memorizing flash cards; learning a language can now be a high-tech, interactive, conversation-based experience. Maybe, finally, the world really is growing smaller.