The digitalisation of foreign language learning

Digitalisation is everywhere. It has become a political and economic buzz word, and it has moved to the top of the education policy agenda, at least rhetorically. Of course, foreign language pedagogy has been dealing with it for some time now. Two observations may lead to the following diagnoses.

Hardware Questions

On the one hand, questions of digitalisation often revolve around the hardware that should be available in schools and classrooms. Such considerations, of course, do not only concern the foreign-language classroom: Internet access, the whiteboard, the end devices used and permitted in the classroom. Concerning these hardware discussions one can say: the hardware that is available is an indispensable condition of digital learning, but even technological questions are pedagogical questions that have to be derived from the general educational goals of school education and the more specific goals of foreign language learning. The mobile phone debate shows the shortcomings: Since within a very short time (just over ten years!) smartphones have become a common mobile instrument of communication, social networking and the search for information, they cannot be seriously banished from education. However, they can and must be assigned a clearly defined (subject-specific and limited in time) and goal-oriented place in school learning, especially in a classroom whose goal is the development of communicative competencies.

Software questions

There are, so to speak, two learning worlds to be distinguished in terms of software. On the one hand, there is a huge range of software available for private self-learning. These products serve the private tutoring market or they are used in addition to school-based learning. From Babbel language learning programs to online dictionaries and online tests everything is represented, sometimes with very limited value. On the other hand, there is software for school-based learning: Meanwhile all publishers have developed completely digitalised components of the textbook or have even replaced it by a digital version. Of course, these integrated software solutions have the advantage of being graded according to years of learning and are thematically adapted to a specific language course in terms of language progression and vocabulary. Ultimately, all questions concerning the software can only be decided on the basis of how beneficial they are to language learning and whether they are really suited to enhance complex communicative abilities. The actual development is yet ahead of us: If language-related Artificial Intelligence solutions continue to evolve at their current pace, we can soon expect a great deal more here than we consider possible today.

The digitalisation of communication

However, the hardware or software debates should not be at the heart of the digitalisation debate. What is much more important is in what manner mobile digital technologies are changing communication and the social sphere itself. The notion of text may serve as an example. Digitalisation has substantially changed the quality of what we regard as text. Instead of reading a single textual unit, each electronic hypertext gives us access to an entire universe of texts, so that ‘reading’ now also includes the decision about the reading path, the selection of findings and information and their integration into one’s own knowledge or communicative purposes. This is just one example of the digital transformation of knowledge and communication. It is obvious that communication and learning are directly affected by the skillful way texts including digital genres are handled and produced.

Digital literacy

So, in light of the digitalisation of communication and of all discourses, we cannot avoid asking ourselves how a digital literacy in a foreign language could be defined. On the one hand, it must be a dimension of the general foreign-language discourse competence and be integrated into it. On the other hand, its development must account for the very specific digital modes of communication and their instruments. To me that seems to be the real task. I have expressed my views on this in a number of publications. On the one hand, I am making proposals how to systematize the whole issue in terms of foreign language didactics.

Here is a short essay on this topic. And here is an online video with a proposal for systematizing the discourse.

On the other hand I have dealt with the specific symbolic languages, the “multiple languages of digital communication” as I titled a contribution to a recently published, highly recommendable anthology edited by Daniela Elsner and Judith Bündgens-Kosten (Multilingual Computer-Assisted Language Learning; Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2018). In this book chapter I try to show that our narrow concept of language will not take us any further; instead, I argue, we need a complex, multi-literal concept of communication, which takes into account that in today’s acts of communication the combination of several carriers of meaning (text, image, sound, graphics, etc.) is the rule. Foreign language pedagogy must work towards such a complex concept of multimodal communication and discourse.

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Copyright © 2018 Wolfgang Hallet