Techniques for language learning have sometimes been slow to change and practitioners have often tended to stick rigidly to outdated methods. But the people at Berlitz know a thing or two about breaking the mould and trying new things when it comes to language learning. Here Stephanie Gibbs talks us through the importance of challenging pedagogical orthodoxies and the importance of engagement, particularly in remote or hybrid classrooms.
In my lifetime I have learnt languages in much the same way as people learnt Latin hundreds of years ago, through the grammar translation method. It was painstakingly slow, didn’t require me to utter a single word and used heavy bilingual dictionaries, some of which I still have on my bookshelf today. I still have a chip on my shoulder about not being able to properly speak German, even after so many years of study.
140 years ago, Berlitz ushered in a way of learning a foreign language that broke away from the grammar translation tradition and finally students were expected to speak: communication became the name of the game. I’ve been a Berlitz language instructor for 15 years and can comfortably say that if you want people to learn, they have to speak and wrestle with the language, practice and repeat in order to build up that muscle memory. However, after that major tectonic shift, things in the language learning world settled down and just… stayed that way, and even the older translation methods were still very much used in formal education settings around the world.
Today, Berlitz is a leading provider of language and culture services worldwide and a key player in bringing innovation in language learning to a much wider audience.
With the onset of the pandemic, the vast majority of lessons went online, like many other aspects of our lives, and the challenge became about how to make the process interactive and really engage the students, while not always being able to see exactly what they were up to on the other side of the screen. Maximum student participation has always been a central tenet of the Berlitz method, easy enough to apply with single students, but more challenging with a group and especially in a virtual setting. This is where interactive features and audience engagement come in to liven up the lesson: quiz features add excitement while serving a learning purpose, emoji reactions show engagement and confirm understanding, word-clouds require learners to dig into their memories for old or new vocabulary items. The result is a learning environment that is relaxed, fun and student-centered.
Digital textbooks are also taking off, providing vivid, interactive capabilities and experiences: hyperlinks take you to related activities, embedded audio and links to external material (in particular cultural tips that go hand in hand with a language) – it piques your curiosity, sends you down rabbit holes you would never have considered before and firmly makes you realise that knowledge and learning is like throwing a pebble into the water and watching the ripples.
So much for the live learning experience. Combined with on demand learning, it’s a great tool for learning a language. At Berlitz, we firmly believe that a human-led approach is the most conducive to getting results. And we also realise that flexibility is key: our always on culture means that we want to be able to learn and study at our own pace, following our own circadian rhythms. How can we best utilise the times of day when you are at your most productive and energised (early mornings for me) – take the learning to you, put it on your phones in your pockets and let you decide where and when you are going to do it, but also combine that with one-on-one coaching with a Berlitz instructor to really activate what you’ve just learned. So for those who can’t commit to a fixed schedule and are price conscious but results-driven, a blended learning solution such as Berlitz Flex or Berlitz Go could well be the ticket to pushing their language to the next level.
And my dictionaries? Today, I use them to prop up my laptop on Teams calls from my kitchen table - how the mighty have fallen!
Stephanie Gibbs has been working with languages and teaching since 2002. At Berlitz, she has provided pedagogical support for students and trained up new instructors. A particular area of interest has always been to coach students to make language learning a daily habit.