Have you seen this!?
How cool is that!? Seriously, that is awesome. I want one.
But it’s also kind of scary, right? I mean, from a language teacher’s perspective, anyway, it’s just one more way that the traditional language class is becoming obsolete.
I can hear you now – “But that technology is so expensive!” – But according to their webpage, full price is around $300. That’s less than an Xbox One or a PS4, and it’s less than buying your own iPhone SE from Apple. “But translators aren’t that good!” News flash – they’re not bad! Sara-Elizabeth blogged almost two years ago about how Google Translate has come a long way. And sure, you can see a few grammatical errors in that video, but is there anything there that impedes understanding? Not really, and isn’t that what we tell our students we’re aiming for anyway?
This technology is cool, and I love it. Maybe that’s surprising coming from a language teacher, but let’s be realistic. I speak two languages. One. Two. That’s it. And as much as I would love to learn another – or several others – the reality is, it may never happen. At this point in my life I simply don’t have a need for another language, and I don’t have the time, energy, or resources (that is, the community) to push me to learn another language. Sound like any students you know? So, for all those thousands of languages that I will, very likely, never learn, this technology would open up a lot of opportunities – and with really, really little effort.
Thomas tweeted this video yesterday and asked for responses. Stephanie came up with my first argument “against” this very cool earbud: “It’s like saying, playing a musical instrument helps students’ brains and development… Why not just play music on an iPad?” And someone replied, “True, why play guitar when you have Guitar Hero….” And I said, “Yes! That’s why actually learning a language matters!”
But then someone else pointed out, “But Ss don’t sign up for music because of brain research. They want to be in band. Must make WL as compelling as band”
Well. Yeah, but they’re still getting the brain benefits! And…but…did I learn Spanish because it was going to help me strengthen my brain or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s? Well, no. Those are cool benefits, and I pull them out all proud-like when someone tells me how they see no benefit in learning a second language, but let’s get real, are we really going to convince kids to learn a language because it’s going to help them become better at logic or increase reading comprehension, or even if it’s going to improve their employability and increase their potential future salary? Probably not.
So the challenge to world language teachers is now (really, it has always been, but it’s just becoming more obvious now) the second part of that tweet. How do we make Spanish class as compelling as band? I don’t know about your school, but where I teach, band is a big deal. The kids are proud to be in the band. They love playing together. There’s a camaraderie that develops between the “band kids” – even if they’re not good friends. They’re willing to stay after school, show up early, and practice at home because they love band. And I guarantee you, none of that passion has anything to do with the fact that playing an instrument increases your IQ, improves test scores, or helps with spatial reasoning.
So, why is actually learning a language better than wearing a very cool earbud? Well, because it is! Because translators are getting better, but they’re still not that good (yet) at conveying emotion, sarcasm, or some of those tricky words whose meaning changes based on context. Sidenote: I was going to list idiomatic expressions here, but Google already knows that “raining cats & dogs” is “llueve a cántaros” and that “aquí hay gato encerrado” actually has nothing to do with a cat. Seriously, Google is good.
But the biggest reason real language is better than fancy earbuds is the experience. Because I can read translated books, but there’s just something special about reading a story in its original language, exactly as the author intended it. Because sure, I could watch a TV show in Spanish with English subtitles, or I could use this very cool new technology and even hear the show, but it’s just not the same. And music? Music was my students’ biggest motivator this year, and I can’t imagine how listening to a song in Spanish through that translator would be in any way satisfying. Maybe technology will get there someday,
And even if it were, I’d still want my students to actually learn language – and to want to. So, how do we make it compelling? Well, we do those things I just mentioned! We read books and stories that are full of interesting, compelling material, and that teach us about parts of the world other than our own. We listen to lots of music and expose ourselves to new artists and even genres that we would never hear about if we only ever listened to music in English.
And we watch TV. This year in Spanish 3, we watched the first season and a half of El Internado. It was great. There are so many resources available for it, and the show is truly compelling. It definitely caught students’ attention. We watched the first two episodes sporadically throughout the year in Spanish 2 and my students are hooked. They are so excited to watch regularly in the fall. Some told me before the end of the year that they are torn – they want to watch over the summer, but they also want to wait and not get ahead before we start again in the fall. It makes me very happy.
But El Internado is, perhaps, not the right option for every group of students. In fact, the last couple of days I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t think it’s a very good match for my incoming group of Spanish 2 students. On the whole, they’re less mature and more, shall we say, trouble-maker-ish than last year’s Spanish 2 classes. Add to that my desire to start the year in Spanish 2 with a telenovela unit that will (hopefully) get kids hooked and make them want to earn those TV-watching days (which they do by not speaking English).
So I’m changing it up. Right now, I’m not sure what show we’re going to use, but that’s a pretty good excuse to binge Spanish-language shows on Netflix, right? I have no doubt I’ll get complaints from Spanish 2 kids who want to watch what Spanish 3 is watching, but I’m secretly hoping that that will work out in my favor and make both shows more compelling for both sets of kids. Maybe they’ll all start watching both shows on their own!
So yeah, technology can be scary and intimidating, but all subjects have this problem, right? How many math teachers do you know who complain about calculator use? Science and social studies teachers who bemoan students’ constant and unabashed use of the Google search bar rather than their own brains? It’s not just world language teachers, and it’s not that school doesn’t matter – we just have to adapt and figure out how to 1) use the technology to our advantage, and 2) make what we teach meaningful beyond what the technology can do.