Can you learn a language without a teacher?
First, an often overlooked fact: we all speak our own mother tongue (almost) perfectly. As children, we didn’t learn to speak on our own, however. We didn’t just have one, but several teachers: parents, relatives, and friends were constantly by our sides throughout the learning process. They encouraged us, listened to us patiently, made us talk, read us stories, sang us songs and rhymes, and corrected our mistakes, day after day.
So, even if we assume that it’s possible to learn a language on one’s own, by being immersed in the country and practicing every day, few learners will be given such a favorable opportunity. They will need a trainer.
The core mission of the trainer/coach in successful modern language learning, whether delivered in person or remotely, has indeed been validated by research on many occasions. A study* conducted by the University of Maryland, for example, suggests that the rate of disengagement of users on language applications is almost total after twelve weeks, without the intervention of a trainer/tutor/coach.
The trainer’s three hats
Unlike in the traditional French approach, the mission of the trainer is not to “teach” a language, because a language cannot be taught, it must be learned.
The trainer (or coach, or guide, or tutor) has three hats:
- Sparring Partner: giving learners the opportunity to practice the target language, at their level, on a regular basis.
- Trainer: providing learners with interactive feedback, offering more relevant expressions and vocabulary and helping them to gradually master them (and not by correcting “mistakes”)
- Coach: accompanying and guiding learners throughout their journey, providing learning advice, relevant and motivating resources, and constant encouragement in order to sustain motivation and engagement.
A qualified and experienced language trainer can also play the role of pedagogical advisor: by carrying out a diagnosis of the future learner, assessing their levels and skills, helping them to clarify their objectives while allowing for the means and resources available, helping them to draft a learning path designed to achieve these objectives, regularly monitoring progress towards them and making the adjustments required to ensure targetsare met.
However, the quality of a trainer is not intrinsic. There are good trainers and poor trainers. An inexperienced, unmotivated trainer or a poor communicator can have a catastrophic impact on learning.
Today’s trainers are overwhelmed by tech issues, logistics, and administrative management
In the 1980s and 1990s, all of the above seemed obvious: language schools promoted the quality and qualifications of their trainers. In the more professional language schools, they were the stars, and customers devoted a lot of time and resources to identifying the providers with the best trainers.
However, at the beginning of the 2000s, with the rationalization and industrialization of corporate training systems, the trainer was gradually pushed into the background by technological applications, administrative management, and logistics.
The “miraculous” technical qualities of the new digital platforms, each one more “innovative” than the last, were constantly highlighted, while the inefficiency, the cost, and the “outdated” approach of traditional trainers were constantly denounced.
Was this unfair? There is no doubt that in some cases, they were right.
Loss of credibility of the traditional trainer
Some language schools, including certain household names, hired young people without qualifications or experience in droves and put them in front of learners. It was inexpensive, relatively easy to manage and learners and buyers didn’t seem to care, as long as the “teachers” were native speakers.
The result of both the industrialization of training and the “low cost” approach of part of the market has negatively impacted the credibility of language trainers, reducing their job security and provoking a rapid decline in pay and working conditions.
However, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, because many high-level trainers, with the talent and the passion to motivate their learners and accompany them to mastery of the skills required, were also badly affected. Faced with an increasing lack of recognition, many have abandoned the profession.
The failure of the notion of self-access learning
To boost the development of a market in which trainers would now no longer be needed, a number of pedagogical theories emerged in the 80’s and 90’s promoting the concept of self-access learning, an approach that claimed to boost learner autonomy and increase learning effectiveness.
But the profession quickly realized that in language learning, interaction with a “live” trainer/coach or tutor is essential. Fully autonomous e-learning courses have, in most cases, been a resounding failure, with disappointing completion rates.
So little by little, the trainer came back into the spotlight and began to find his place, first as a tutor and then as a facilitator of the face-to-face part of the blended learning programs.
Shown the door, the trainer comes back in through the window
Web 2.0 tools now offer trainers and learners unprecedented possibilities in terms of interactivity, flexibility, follow up, and integration. Partially freed from the laborious and unrewarding aspects of correction work, the trainer can focus more on the learners and their needs.
The use of Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to create highly personalized learning paths, which can adapt to the learners’ characteristics, preferences, and progress.
More importantly, these technologies facilitate the integration of face-to-face or virtual interactions between trainers, learners, and pedagogical resources, erasing geographical boundaries and time constraints
In the 80’s, distance learning first developed through telephone communication. This market segment took off in the early 2000s with the liberalization of the European telecoms market and the increased financial competitiveness due to the use of offshore trainers in low-cost countries.
Today, remote classroom training represents between a quarter and a third of the French corporate language market volume.
Gradually, thanks to technological advances, telephone courses have given way to videoconferencing (Skype) training. Today, despite the persistence of a number of barriers, training by videoconference combines the advantages of face-to-face training (live interaction with the trainer, better consideration of human relations, more complete communication than over the telephone, the ability to handle beginner levels) with those of distance training (simplified logistics, traceability of exchanges, integration of resources, time flexibility).
The classroom trainer, who was shown out through the door, has come back in again through the window.
Web Star trainers
By becoming more visible, trainers are gradually regaining their central role in learning, motivating, and inspiring learners, inventing new, more exciting pedagogical approaches, inspired by the world of YouTube and social media.
And many of them are successful. Christina Rebuffet, an American who was originally a classroom trainer in Grenoble, is now a YouTube star, with nearly 400,000 subscribers to her channel “Speak English with Christina” and videos with millions of views. Today she is bursting with projects, producing blended courses linked to her videos, and hiring other trainers to meet a massive demand, ready to pay the price she requires, in exchange for access to the top quality teachers they want.
The same is true for Jason R. Levine, better known as “Fluency MC”, who has developed a rap-based approach to memorizing language structures and vocabulary, which has been a phenomenal success, in amphitheaters as well as in classrooms, on video and on Skype.
These two examples, among many others, demonstrate that thanks to the window offered by videoconferencing, trainers can reclaim their place at the heart of the learning process. But to do so, they will need to be well trained, because this approach requires a very different type of pedagogy from that used in the classroom. The quality, irreproachability, and professionalism required are much more demanding.
The author – Andrew Wickham
Andrew Wickham is a specialist in the field of language training and an expert on the professional training market in France. He has had many roles, from language trainer to Director of studies, from language school owner to language training manager in the multinational TOTAL. Today, having authored three editions of the study: “The language training market in the era of globalization”, he works as an independent consultant, supporting language schools, informing the profession about the latest trends through a magazine called “Market Watch” and advising corporations on how to structure their language learning offer.
*Katharine B. Nielson, “Self-study with Language Learning Software”, Language Learning & Technology, Volume 15, Numero 3, October 2011, pp. 110-129.
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