language learning

Language Learning needs to be Flipped

EducationInvestor April 2014This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 3 April 2014.

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When it comes to language, Europe is in a unique position. In a small geographical area, connected by a common market and to some extent common culture, we have access to nearly all the world’s most important languages: English, of course, but German, Spanish, Portuguese and French all play major roles in global trade, too. And the European Commission is keen to get people learning: a year ago, it announced the lofty goal of making every European speak at least three languages, calling this multilingualism strategy “mother tongue plus two”.

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Picture “English Dictionaries” by John Keogh, Some Rights Reserved

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • andrew

    I’d need to be convinced these figures actually mean something in terms of language learning, as all my (limited) forays so far into these sites have not really shown any hard evidence (sometimes the “communities” with supposedly millions of learners helping each other are more like social chat applications or dating sites, sometimes these communities are not there at all). But a very interesting aticle Kirsten. And what I’m really interested to know is what the actual business data of these sites is : what’s their cash turnover and are they making a profit, rather than just being carried along by what seems to be endless amounts of risk capital and plenty of marketing hype. Because if they are, it’s a sign online learning can become a sustainable business model. Then the next question will be : does it actually work better than other bricks and mortar forms of language learning : motivation, you’re quite right, is the key – so sites like wiQiz seem to have opted for an ambassador to represent them (The very popular Jason T Levine, who travels around the world promoting his very motivating “hip hop” approach to memorization and his ideas about how online learning is sweeping away traditional approaches). The paradox is of course that it’s precisely a popular teacher, the language learning equivalent of Robbins, not an application, that is getting people excited about learning.

  • Eugène Ernoult

    Great article Kirsten. Motivation is clearly the key in any learning activity. I also think that language learning products and schools are complementary for a good language learning.

  • bnleez

    Thanks Kirsten for sharing your views and making me reflect on what it means to learn an additional language.

    I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective, if I may.

    When you say, “…the flipped classroom model seems to fit perfectly with language learning. There is no need to learn vocabulary or grammar in the classroom: this is the easiest way to drain a learner of all enthusiasm”…you are presuming that the purpose of assessment (between formal and informal learning) is the same. And since the purposes are usually not the same, and since assessment drives instruction (for better or for worse), well then, there lies the problem.

    Your argument, as I understand it, seems to be for incidental learning over intentional learning and/or perhaps implicit learning over explicit learning. I too am attracted to the benefits of incidental and implicit learning, which both warrant a closer look, both in formal (especially) and informal learning contexts. But we need to shift the narrative to include the role of assessment in order to conduct a more nuanced discussion around how, why, when, etc. language learners interact in an additional language.

    Stating the obvious, the purpose of assessment among language learners from Livemocha, etc. (informal learning contexts) usually has nothing to do with a standardized test used to gain employment and/or to further one’s studies (like in formal educational contexts). But beyond that, also we have the issue of “engagement”.

    Clearly, mobile learning, edutainment, social communities, etc. are fashioned around the notion of engagement. But engagement is only part of the puzzle. Learning also involves efficacy and efficiency. That is, language learning depends on the purpose(s) of assessment and the impact they have on instruction within a learning environment that is not only engaging, but also effective and efficient.

    So, when I hear phrases like, “…the flipped classroom model seems to fit perfectly with language learning. There is no need to learn vocabulary or grammar in the classroom: this is the easiest way to drain a learner of all enthusiasm”, I feel that this directive to persuade people to learn can be short-sided if we fail to discuss the purpose of assessment (in terms of engagement, efficacy, and efficiencies). Yes, it’s complex.

    In Mexico, in most cases, the flipped classroom model would not fit perfectly with language learning, although we have the technology and infrastructure required in many cases. What is missing, a lot of times, is the culture required to flip a classroom. Speaking more generally, any institution who uses formal, summative assessments to measure learning (and you may critique this reality all you want…I know I have), will usually not embrace engaging learning experiences only, until more (objective) empirical evidence becomes available in how edutainment, etc. measure up in terms of learning effectiveness and efficiencies.

    Based on the information presented here, I feel your research question is slightly off the mark“if Duolingo or other language learning products are so effective, then why don’t we use them in schools and universities?”

    I would frame it as follows, “if Duolingo or other language learning products are so ENGAGING, then why don’t we use them in schools and universities?”

    At the same time, I would invite those who do not have a financial interest in each one of these businesses to research topics related to the following…

    How do language learners increase their vocabulary (grammar, pronunciation, etc.) by interacting with others in Duolingo (Livemocha, etc.)? Among other questions that relate to effective and efficient language learning/teaching, not to mention assessment.

    Speaking as an educator/researcher: I think the narrative should be around independent, empirical evidence that bridges informal and formal learning contexts involving the teaching and learning of an additional language.

    Speaking as a business owner: I think the best thing for my bottom line would be to encourage independent researchers to look at the purpose of assessment within my organization as well as instruction (i.e., teaching and learning) in terms of engagement AND efficacy and effectiveness.