Monday, 7 March 2011

The distracted goldfish

'We are not only what we read,' says Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid.

  'We are how we read.'

The internet has changed both.

We read 140-character Tweets, Facebook updates, news tickers, digests, digests of digests.

And we don't actually read either; we flit and we float - our attention permanently diffuse.

We skim sideways across the net, like a long-legged fly, touching only faintly any text.

How can anyone learn a language in such conditions?

More pointedly, how can anyone be taught a language in such conditions?

Surely, learning a language is a long process requiring depth of study and the kind of commitment that only 14-year old boys playing Dungeons and Dragons seem to have.

Well, maybe not.

As language learning migrates to the web, we can already see how it is altering the formats of traditional textbooks.

The chapter devoted to the present perfect, for example, becomes a series of discreet exercises hyper-linked to point-of-use scenarios.

If you need a word, you don't consult a dictionary and jot it down in your colour-co-ordinated notebooks; rather, you Google it and deploy crtl+c/ctrl+v.

In this situation, people don't learn a language, they learn how to use one, to appropriate it as a tool to get something done.

If that sounds familiar, then perhaps it's because Business English is at the forefront of the changing language-scape.

Our learners are time-pressured, and used to skimming texts for what they need to know, while holding a conversation on the phone.

Perhaps, then, in order to engage the new learning mind, a lesson now needs multiple points of abbreviated contact - teaching phone skills via a mobile conversation while a skimming a report, as the computer idly turns over headlines and video in the background. 

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