Tapping into students’ enthusiasm for interactive, online tools

During half term I had time to re- read the article in the Guardian about the ‘digital language divide’ and got into conversation with a few people about it. As well as mixing with people from different professions, I like to discuss language learning and the changes we are seeing with people of different ages, because this helps me understand how the different generations react to things. I enjoyed talking to Alex Marson from Vocab Express about this and we had such a good chat I asked him to write a guest post so that we can all benefit from the viewpoint of someone much younger than me!

It’s easy sometimes to look at the headlines and conclude that it’s a pretty bleak time for Modern Foreign Languages in the UK. Drops in the number of students opting for languages at GCSE, A Level and at university; unfilled teacher training places; and an all-new GCSE syllabus set to arrive in language teachers’ laps ready for first teaching from September 2016!

 But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom…

 The article in the Guardian examining the ‘digital language divide’, the extent to which your language affects your experience of the internet was fascinating. The report contains a number of fascinating observations and examples, both general and specific, including the surprising number of languages with little to no online presence and the role the digital divide plays in determining whether minority languages survive or become extinct. However the observation that struck me, within the context of language teaching and learning in the UK, came at the very beginning. While in the mid 90’s English made up 80% of the content on the internet, this has now shrunk to just 30%. This means a wealth of new information online in other languages to be exploited by teachers and learners.


Increasingly, a large proportion of the average young person’s time is spent online, with using technology fast becoming second nature. And while there are certainly potential problems associated with that – for instance, the number of hours spent reading books is reported to be dropping at much the same rate as the time spent ‘surfing’ is increasing – it provides a fantastic opportunity for teachers. Increasingly schools are recognising the need to embrace this and take full advantage of the additional opportunities it affords. The internet is of course full to the brim with authentic foreign language resources, as well as interesting and varied websites and apps – both language-specific and not – but it has also transformed the ability of teachers to come together as a community and share resources and ideas, from Facebook and Twitter (#mfltwitterati, anyone?) to forums and blogs.

With the vast majority of students now in possession of mobile phones which are at least to some extent ‘smart’, a modern day classroom – even one without computers or tablets – contains more technology than we could even have dreamed of just 5 or 10 years ago. Before you even begin discussing the wealth of apps – both free and paid-for – out there for language learning, these devices are a camera, video camera, voice recorder and word processor all in one!

And despite an endless series of newspaper articles and radio interviews featuring commentators scandalised at the thought of a mobile phone being used in a classroom, there are plenty of languages teachers up and down the country finding innovative ways to reap the benefits of the supercomputers in their students’ pockets.  At Vocab Express, we were staggered by the response of students to the launch of our mobile app, allowing them to be doing their vocabulary or grammar learning on the move, in their natural habitat: the mobile phone! A teacher commented at the time that “mobile technology is a format students are familiar with, and because of this we’ve found that they are more likely to take greater ownership of their learning, thus it’s incredibly conducive to their success.”

And young people are prepared to engage with languages. The prevalence and popularity of fun, almost game-like apps and websites runs counter to the idea that learning a language is “too difficult” or “takes too much time”. The Speak to the Future campaign launched the 1000 Words Challenge last year, with a view to encouraging people to learn 1000 words in a new language. To date, more than 30,000 people have registered for the challenge on Vocab Express, of which the vast majority are 18 or under.

We are keen to tap into students’ enthusiasm for interactive, online tools. Our recent League of Champions competition saw more than 33,000 students from around 250 schools competing to earn points by learning vocabulary in any of 14 different languages. Teachers reported engagement and enthusiasm from even the unlikeliest of students, and that this kind of event – with the languages department embracing the internet – is a great way of boosting the profile of languages within the school.

Thanks very much, Alex! This is really interesting and confirms my thoughts. What do you think?