How Technology Can Help Language Learning

06/02/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed in 1989, which may be grossly summarized as "students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways", despite eliciting much controversy, has had a profound impact on education, especially in America. With technology making inroads into education and changing the face of learning, is this theory still relevant?

Intelligence, according to Gardner, is of eight types - verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic; existential and moral intelligence were added as afterthoughts in the definition of Intelligence. This is the first in a series of posts that explore and understand how each of the above forms of intelligence is affected by technology-mediated education.

Verbal-linguistic Intelligence involves sensitivity to spoken and written language, the ability to learn languages, and the capacity to use language to accomplish goals. Such intelligence is fostered by three specific activities: reading, writing and interpersonal communication - both written and oral. The traditional tools that have been used to efficiently develop verbal/linguistic intelligence - textbook, pencil, and paper - have given way to technology in many schools. eBooks, Internet lesson plans, online assignments and word processing software, or a subset of the above, are now ubiquitous in schools. Technology allows addition of multisensory elements that provide meaningful contexts to facilitate comprehension, thus expanding the learning ground of language and linguistics.

Research into the effect of technology on the development of the language and literacy skills vis-à-vis reading activities of children has offered evidence for favorable effects of digital-form books. A study shows that digital reading materials have become common in developing countries in early childhood classrooms to support engagement in storybooks while enhancing the emergent literacy among children. E-books are also being increasingly used to teach reading among beginners and children with reading difficulties.

Technology can be used to improve reading ability in many ways. It can enhance and sustain the interest levels for digitial natives by allowing immediate feedback on performance and providing added practice when necessary. Recent research shows that students are able to improve their sight word vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension through computer-based reading.

Technology can also help in improvement of writing skills. Word processing software promotes not only composition but also editing and revising in ways that streamline the task of writing. Desktop publishing and web-based publishing allow the work to be taken beyond the classroom into a virtual world that allows more constructive interactions.

Until social media sites took over at the turn of the century, electronic mail had been a good way to promote verbal/linguistic learning, through letter writing. The widespread complaint among language experts on the deleterious effects of technology on written skills arises from the use of homophones and new acronyms in messaging that creep into formal writing as well. A Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled "Writing, Technology and Teens," reports that although 60 percent of youths aged 12-17 do not consider electronic communications appropriate for formal situations, 64 percent admitted to inadvertently using some form of shorthand in formal documents. However, the web cannot be discounted as being "bad for language", considering that it also offers very useful tools such as blogging and microblogging that can help the student improve her writing skills with dynamic feedback. The possibility of incorporating other media into a written document (e.g. figures, graphics, videos etc.) can enhance the joy of writing using technology.

While there is indeed a hue and cry about the adverse effects of social networking sites on youngsters, there are people who believe in several benefits to language learners from social online communication. Margaret Hawkins, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Education, states that online communication offers more opportunities for expression and meaningful discourse than face-to-face discussions, greater linguistic production, more student engagement, and multi-directional interaction. She also believes that schools do not consider Internet activities as educational, especially in the realm of linguistic education.

Technology enhanced oral communication is indeed useful in that it allows students from remote locations, or from all over the world to communicate orally through video and audio conferencing tools. For example, students of languages in Australian universities overcome the problem of insufficient contact with native language speakers by using online audio and video tools that allow the development of aural, vocal and visual-cognition skills that are important in verbal and linguistic education. Oral group discussions in the form of video conferencing can help non-native speakers of a language with natural language negotiation and cultural intonations in ways that have hitherto not been possible due to geographic isolation/distancing.

As with anything to do with technology, there are also detractors who propose negative influence of features like animation, sound, music and other multimedia effects possible in digital media, which may distract young readers from the story content. The complaint that constant use of digital technology hampers attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, is also commonly heard. However, to be fair, such a complaint encompasses all fields and is not specific to Gardener's seven types of intelligence.

Such complaints notwithstanding, the symbiotic ties between linguistics and technology cannot be ignored. The award winning Bluetooth-enabled glove that converts sign language into spoken languages, speaks volumes of the close connection between technology and linguistics that benefits humanity as a whole. No less impressive is the Endangered Languages Project, that strives to develop technological tools to document marginalised and/or dying languages.

There is no doubt that computer aided language learning and computer mediated communication enhance teaching and learning experiences in the areas of linguistics and language intelligence. Although there have not been comprehensive studies on the use of technologies to aid K-12 English-language learners, there have been many individual computer programs and other technologies that accelerate the acquisition of phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and reading-comprehension skills and other language building blocks.