5 Truly Innovative Digital Language Learning Tools for 2020

As more and more digital tools are developed, it is always handy to know which are genuinely useful and innovative for our learners. Thank you to Sarah Bromley, who certainly knows her stuff, for this guest post.

By now most teachers are familiar with the idea of using digital resources such as YouTube videos and online quizzes. Nowadays those things, while still extremely useful, are almost ‘old news’.

What are the emerging innovations that will further revolutionise language learning over the next few years? As the founder of a company that develops digital products for language learning, I like to stay on top of the new and cutting edge tools that are becoming available.

Here are some of the most innovative and interesting tools that I’ve come across over the past year. They’re not really classroom activities – more tools that can support students between lessons, to help them practise or supplement what they learn in the classroom.

Ludwig

Ludwig describes itself as a “sentence search engine” that helps you write better English by giving you contextualized examples taken from reliable sources. Your students can use Ludwig to ‘self-check’ their own use of English. 

What I like about Ludwig is that it has formalised what I have tried to do for years using Google searches. When writing Spanish I sometimes Google a construction to see if I can find a good number of instances of it in high quality Spanish websites, to give me some indication of whether it may be correct. 

Ludwig has made it possible for English learners to do this more easily by only searching reliable sources (mainly newspapers, it seems).

I discovered an interesting use for Ludwig recently. A student said “come to grips with” and I told him we in fact say “get to grips with”. He then pointed out that according to online Cambridge Dictionary, “come to grips with” was acceptable. I didn’t think I’d ever heard it so I suspected it was maybe American English. A search on Ludwig confirmed this by showing that “come to grips with” appeared mostly in American publications.

Go Correct 

Full disclosure – Go Correct was created by me, the author of this article. However, it did win a British Council ELTon award for digital innovation in 2019, so it’s not only me that thinks it’s worthy of a mention! The British Council obviously agree. 

Go Correct uses the ‘chat bot’ functionality in Facebook Messenger to send daily conversation questions. The student replies to the question with a short text or voice message and their reply is corrected by a qualified teacher. The student can also click on a mistake for more information and see statistics about where they make the most mistakes.

Go Correct solves a couple of problems for language learners. One – how to get regular practice producing English. There are so many opportunities online to listen to or read English but if a student doesn’t use English in their daily life, it’s easy to let days or weeks pass without ever writing or speaking it. 

Even if students do have opportunities to use English day to day, most of the time they’re generally understandable so the people they’re speaking to won’t correct them. The idea behind Go Correct is that students can discover their mistakes and learn from them.

Wordbit

WordBit is an app that shows you a new English word every time you unlock your phone. This is clever because it takes an action that we do regularly and turns it into a moment to learn a word in English. I believe it’s well known in psychology that to turn something into a habit, it’s best to attach it to something else that’s already a habit. 

I believe the idea is that we spend (waste?) a lot of time looking at our phones so why not make use of that time to learn more words of English?

After using the app I realised that most of the time I’m unlocking my phone to do something useful or important (eg. check my location on a map) and at those times it was annoying to have to swipe away the vocabulary before I could do the task. If they could make it show the word every time I opened an app that I waste time on (eg. Instagram) then that would be really valuable. Also, I’d like to them to fix a couple of technical problems and curate their word list a bit better – I saw some rather obscure or rarely used words.

Voicebook

Voicebook takes listening practice and makes it more useful. Rather than students simply listening and answering questions about the parts they can understand, Voicebook gently pushes students past their current level of understanding.  

Learners listen to an audio recording and view an empty template of all the words in the recording. They then transcribe the parts they understand and the software reveals the words that the learner couldn’t understand correctly, allowing them to re-listen to these parts and focus on understanding them.

The software is still at an early stage and the interface is currently only available in Italian, however there are several English recordings available which you can filter by CEFR level.

Lingbe

Lingbe takes the traditional idea of a language exchange, democratises it and gives it some structure.

In Lingbe, learners make voice calls with people who are learning their language and they earn credits for the calls they make. They can then spend those credits on calls with people who speak the language they’re learning. 

You don’t have to arrange a call in advance. The idea is that you go to the app at any time and there will be someone available to talk to. This takes some of the ‘admin’ out of a language exchange. It also means that you don’t need to exchange directly with someone who speaks the language you’re learning – you can earn credit by talking with anyone and spend it on the language you want. This is helpful if an English learner’s native language is not one that’s widely learnt.

While language exchanges are a great idea, they can be time consuming to arrange and I feel Lingbe solves that problem.

What’s missing from this list?

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any voice recognition applications in this list. This may be surprising because several have appeared over the past couple of years and it is definitely a growing area. However, the voice recognition language learning apps that I’ve tested don’t yet deliver what they promise. 

I found apps such as Elsa and Aivu to be disappointing. There’s still more work needed in this area. I’ve written more about voice recognition for language learning, in this article. I think voice recognition holds the potential to be the next big exciting development in language learning. In fact, it’s something I would love to work on if the opportunity arises.

Ed Tech – The Journey or the Destination?

I recently read a post which was, basically, a teacher evangelising about using technology in the classroom. She said ‘I am passionate about my mission to get all of our teachers to embrace technology’ (or words to that effect). In the same week I read a post that was entitled ‘How to Ace Your Next Observation Lesson’, the first idea was to include ‘some sort of’ tech. apparently lesson observers just go nuts for that sort of thing. But why?

Are these people suggesting that all tech is good? That having tech in your lesson somewhere automatically elevates a mediocre lesson to a great lesson? It would seem so. I remember being told by the supposedly expert teaching team at the FE college I was working in a few years ago, that I should ‘use Face Book’ with my learners between classes. It is worth bearing in mind both that the learners in question were adult pre A1 level and that I had never used Face Book. There was no explanation as to HOW I should (or even could) use it, nor WHY it was apparently such an amazing idea to supplement their learning this way. It seemed that they just thought that tech was good, tech was modern, tech was the sign of a progressive learning environment, tech made everything better (and don’t get me started on the lesson observations that were marked down because I didn’t use the interactive features of the whiteboard…).

Using technology in and between lessons has to be done to improve the overall experience for our learners. Using tech for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. We may see an interesting idea while tumbling down the internet rabbit hole and think ‘hmm, that looks fun I’ll use it my class’ – but first we should ask ourselves – WHY should we use it? HOW will it help our learners? WHERE does it fit with our lesson? and ARE our learners able to use it?

The SAMR model (Puentedura) takes these questions one step further and gets us to evaluate the tech by its application and purpose.

To better familiarise yourself with the whole SAMR approach there is an excellent video here. The basic idea is to reflect on why the tech is being used, is it merely as an adjunct? (such as replacing pen and paper with a screen and keyboard) or does it allow us to achieve something that would previously have been inconceivable? (like collaborating on a podcast with students from a school in a different country). The SAMR model also ensures that we consider the use of the tech in question, is it just for fun (which is not necessarily a bad thing – ‘brain breaks’ can aid learning) or is there a pedagogical purpose?

We need to be picky when it comes to tech, we need to evaluate what it is and why we are using it. There are loads of fantastic apps, programmes and software available out there – but we have to be sure that we are adding value to the learning experience with them, not just ‘teching’ for the sake of it.

References

Ruben R. Puentedura. Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006)