By Riley Bowden
Griffith Swidler had taken French classes before traveling abroad last year, but by no means did he speak French.
Not the way French people speak French, anyway.
He learned as much of the language as he could conventionally in a classroom, but as anyone who has learned a second language will tell you: books and worksheets will only take you so far.
“You have to experiment a lot,” said Swidler, who applies the same principle when teaching English as a second language to refugees at Lincoln Literacy.
In the search to find better ways to learn and teach English, students and teachers alike have been experimenting with online technology — ranging from YouTube to language apps. Teaching and learning a language is a personal experience that can vary greatly from one teacher or learner to another — but teachers agree that engaging with the language on a regular basis is a necessity for effective learning. And that’s why free and accessible online tools are helping.
Some of those teaching ESL in Lincoln report success with an application called Duolingo — a free language-learning platform available on any computer or phone. Swidler is a big proponent of the app.
After you create an account, the website asks you what language you want to learn and how long you want to study each day. The choices range from five to 20 minutes per day and are tracked as goals for learners. Users new to a language can start from the beginning or take a placement test.
Duolingo also caters to different learning styles. It uses pictures for the visual learner and has an audio function to help with learning pronunciations of words, in addition to traditional vocabulary and grammar memorization. You can even speak into the microphone on your computer or phone and have the app give you feedback on your pronunciation.
Rhonda Dutra Gross, a professor in UNL’s Intensive English Program, not only has her students use Duolingo, but she uses it herself because it’s engaging and convenient.
“I’m trying to learn French,” said Dutra Gross, who has taught English for 17 years in a variety of countries, from China to Brazil. “It works with your reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.”
While Dutra Gross acknowledged that she doesn’t know of any research that proves or disproves the effectiveness of technology in English language learning, she knows it has worked for her.
“I know that it engages my students well,” she said. “And for the next 20 minutes after I play a computer game with them, they are paying attention to me, which helps.”
Swidler agreed that there has to be supplemental conversation and work outside of a classroom.
“Right before I went to France, I didn’t want to show up and know nothing,” Swidler said. “I had taken classes here (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), but it was like 50 minutes and then you leave and speak English.”
The UNL senior global studies major said he didn’t feel like he was retaining much of what he learned after class. He found that to be a problem with the students he taught as well. So he kept experimenting.
One method he found especially effective for learning French was to watch French movies. He watched with the subtitles on and eventually progressed to watching without subtitles. It was a quirky solution for Swidler, but one that he said helped him a lot.
He now recommends that to his students.
“If you have time, go to the library,” Swidler said. “Watch a movie in English. Go online and read articles.”
In a recent newsletter, Lincoln Literacy also suggested that method for English learners but using American TV programs with subtitles. The newsletter cited a YouTube program especially prepared for English language learners the focuses on the American TV comedy “Friends,” which is popular around the world.
John Andrews, an ESL teacher at UNL since 2011, said he’s found that YouTube videos can be helpful as supplemental material to coursework.
Lincoln Literacy suggests YouTube as a way for language learners to supplement their weekly tutor sessions.
“Most of our volunteer tutors meet with you once a week,” the Lincoln Literacy newsletter said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can only learn once a week. You have opportunities to learn every day, if only you try. YouTube can be a helpful partner in learning English.”
The newsletter noted that these YouTube channels are especially helpful.
For those without Internet access at home or on a mobile device, language learners can go to a branch of Lincoln City Libraries and sign up for access.
Swidler, who had never taught before taking the position at Lincoln Literacy last summer, knew that he’d have to quickly adapt as hew as teaching students who knew little of his language, and he knew little of theirs.
In addition to the tech tools and strategies he now offers his students, he has some simple advice for the refugees he teaches: read as much as you can.
“That way you are learning about your community. A lot of them (students) are pretty new to America, so you are learning about your community and also practicing your English,” he said. “It’s pressure free, there is no one there judging your reading. Use Google Translate next to it.”