Why do many language courses not work?

by Carl Taylor

Needles in haystacks
The internet has transformed the way we learn, including the way we learn languages. More and more people are searching the internet to find language courses and they are trying to study with these courses online from online colleges.

The advantages are clear: you can study when you want, where you want and you can work at your pace.

However, language learners face two major hurdles: How do you find a good online language course? And how do you learn a language online?

Finding the right language course is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Key into a search engine phrases such as "learn Spanish online" and you will see thousands of links. Somehow you need to figure out which of these courses are any good, which are appropriate to your needs and which help you to achieve your learning goals. This involves asking questions such as:

  • Who wrote the course?
  • Who is the course written for?
  • What level does the course target?
  • Does the course follow a recognised syllabus?
  • How comprehensive is the course?
  • What pedagogical approach has been adopted?
  • Has the course been designed for online use?
  • Is there a demo lesson?

Designed for the internet or books on screen?
One of the biggest mistakes many online language courses make is that they are not designed specifically for the internet and self-study online. The internet offers huge chances for learning. But if the online course is nothing more than a printed book on a computer screen, then it becomes self-defeating. Why read a text about grammar on a computer screen? It is far more comfortable to sit down with a book and a lot easier to read.

And 'designed for the internet' does not mean lots of links, animations, bells and whistles and things to click on. Animations distract and too many hyperlinks lead to confusion as learners can quickly click their way into a maze of info-glut and find no way out again.

The reason why many online courses are not genuine internet courses is that the people who create them don't understand a great deal how language learning material should be organised and generated for online use. They probably have no specialist pedagogical knowledge; and they probably have no internet specific pedagogical knowledge. If they are primarily IT people who built the site, then you might get an innovative site technologically speaking, but it won't be pedagogically innovative.

The opposite is true for many authors who write language textbooks professionally. They may know how language learning material should be organised in a book, but they do not understand how the internet works, so they will tend to write content for the internet as if it were a book. It is actually quite rare for IT specialists and textbook authors to work together as a team to create online courses. And yet it is blindingly obvious that IT specialists need to understand the underlying pedagogical approach of the content in order to realise the course as an online product. And authors need the input of IT specialists at an early stage in order to consider how best to organise the content for online use and achieve maximum learning potential.

( What about ) Syllabus, topics, levels and learning goals
Another problem for learners when looking for a course is the syllabus. Look in a search engine for a language course and you could get a site from the USA, Japan, or even Australia. So what syllabus is a course based on? A Japanese syllabus? An Australian university syllabus? An international one? Or none at all? Has the course been put together by an enthusiastic amateur who thought it might be a great idea to write a course? Or has it been written by a professional team, writing for European learners? Does the site actually offer a language course or just a random selection of topics: grammar description, lists of vocabulary, information how to 'communicate' in certain situations?

Even if you are not worried about the syllabus, you will want to know what the content is about. What are the topics of the course? Do they meet your needs? And how comprehensive are they? Do the units help you to interact in general everyday situations that you are likely to encounter?

There is also the question of level. Are you a beginner? Is the course for beginners? Does the course even say who it is for? And 'beginner' according to whose definition? The Council of Europe has described very clear levels of attainment for European language learners. Does the course meet these requirements? Does it even mention or acknowledge them? Will you achieve a recognised level, such as the European level A1 Breakthrough, or A2 Waystage? Or will you just get a piece of paper from an organisation that says, 'Well done! You have completed the course'?

And finally, there is the question of approach. Does the course really help you to learn? Does it engage you actively in the learning process? This is important because all too often an online course will say, 'In this unit you will learn about the simple present' or 'You will learn how to ask questions'. Then you will get a text to read. Reading is not learning. Learning is more than just reading. Check out how often you are told you will learn something and you sit there and read a text. Learning is more than that. A site that helps you to learn will organise the material in such a way that there is a clearly structured learning process and not just a collection of reading texts.

Remember the Chinese saying: Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand.

An industry based on failure
The language learning business is a huge industry. It lives off failure - your failure to complete the course or finish the CD. It's a well-known fact that most students in adult learning classes drop out mid way through the course. It's a well-known fact that people buy CDs and self-study courses and never complete them. In some cases they never even listen to the CDs or open the books. The reality is that many start with good intentions but give up because they simply can't keep up. But you keep trying - and the industry lives from this. How many promise: This time it will work! This method will achieve the results you want!

Learning to learn
So this leads to the question: How do you learn online? A motivational speaker once said there is a saying in English, 'ready, willing and able'. He said you may be ready to learn a language. You will certainly be able to do it. Show me somebody without a defect who can't speak a language. But are you willing to do it? Are you willing to learn a language? This requires effort, dedication, commitment, time. Are you willing to put in the effort, find the time, stick to the schedule? Are you willing to switch on your brain? These are fundamental questions that any learner must ask themselves before they embark on a language leaning course. Failure to be honest with yourself and address these questions will inevitably lead to failure to learn.

Learning is a skill, like any other. You need to know what to do and how to go about it. A good language course will have structured both the content and the learning process for you. But you have to structure your time. You might also have a lot of blockages that you need to resolve, bad experiences from the past that hinder your learning. It's surprising how many people had a bad learning experience in their childhood or at school and have said that's it. I'm no good. I can't learn anything. They defeat themselves before they begin.

You need to overcome these blockages and make sure that when you learn, you are in a good positive space. You need a strict schedule and you need to stick to it faithfully. The world is full of dabblers. If you dabble with languages, you might pick up the odd word or phrase. That may be enough for you. However, if you genuinely want to learn a language, you need motivation, time, a positive attitude and self-discipline.

About the author

Carl Taylor is the author of numerous language learning textbooks. He is also the co-ordinator of two online language projects for the European Commission www.stellacourses.eu and www.grammarexplorer.eu His personal website is www.pendragon-elt.co.uk

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