Teaching Elementary Spanish—Can Technology Replace Human Interaction?

At Sonrisas Spanish School, we have been saying for years that the best way to teach Spanish is to have a talented teacher using an effective and fun curriculum. We call that the fundamentals of foreign language learning. So it is with much distress that we have been hearing many stories of foreign language teachers being replaced by technology—usually video, computer and audio-based programs. We realize that these changes are usually motivated by budget concerns, but this situation begs the question: Can technology replace human interaction in the foreign language classroom?

Most foreign language teachers are going to instinctively answer this question with an affirmative “no,” but this response goes beyond job-preservation. From our experience as language teachers, we understand that language learning is an inherently social experience—one that is related to human interaction. In our classrooms we see how children respond to non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions and the context in which the language is being used. We see how sharing literature, verse, rhythm and music engages children and helps them connect with language. We see how children are able to use their imaginations and all of their senses to effectively acquire language. So, we know in our minds from our experience and knowledge of what works in the classroom that technology cannot replace human interaction. We also feel this in our hearts. Thankfully, much of the neurological and linguistic research backs up our conviction.

Recently, I learned of some new research that reaffirms our conviction even more. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, is discovering just how true it is that technology cannot replace human interaction in language learning. Using new brain activity mapping techniques, her research shows that babies learn language easily through contact with real humans, but not through television screens and audio recordings. Her findings are really quite astounding. To see a video of Ms. Kuhl giving a talk about her research click on the following link:

Patricia Kuhl: The Linguistic Genius of Babies

In her online article, Science Grows on Acquiring New Language, in Education Week, Sarah D. Sparks says of this new research, “(I)t has already deepened the evidence for something most educators believe instinctively: Social engagement, particularly with speakers of multiple languages, is critical to language learning.”

It seems that this idea—that language learning depends upon social interaction—is sufficiently intuitive and logical to refute any claims that technology can replace human interaction in language learning. Furthermore, all of the big tech language companies like Rosetta Stone, Muzzy, and Little Pim make some kind of claim that their programs are modeled after the way children learn their first language. But guess what? Children don’t learn their first language (and as Patricia Kuhl’s research suggests, they can’t) by sitting alone in front of a computer screen trying to negotiate meaning without any social input. And what are the pedagogical consequences when we attempt to teach language in this way? Bret Lovejoy, Executive Director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, seems to think they are grave. He believes that if the choice is between no language instruction or a computer program, the choice should be no instruction. (from Replacing Teachers with Technology by Meredith Orban.) The best that most studies related to using technology to teach language can conclude is that technology can be used as a supplement to a live teacher in the classroom.

It is my hope that we in the foreign language teaching profession can reinforce the idea that technology cannot replace human interaction in language learning. If we can solidify this idea in the minds of administrators, teachers and parents then our language learning children will be all the better for it. At Sonrisas Spanish School, we have always embraced a human interaction model of instruction. We feel that all that is necessary for effective foreign language learning is a talented teacher, effective, standards-based curriculum and fun. We do not believe in using videos and computer programs to teach foreign language. Our curricula and music give teachers the opportunity to teach elementary Spanish in a way that maximizes the social interaction that is so important in language learning.

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