Connectivism and Language Learning


This is in response to the following question from a student in Iran:

I am going to start an academic project on the application of connectivism in the context of foreign language acquisition.

I was just wondering that since learning a foreign language is basically mastering some language skills practically rather than acquiring knowledge, to what extent it can be taught and learnt in a connectivistic manner. Also, according your experience, how effectively connectivism can be applied in the countries in which it sounds so novel and far-fetched because of rather poor infrastructures and learners' traditional attitude towards learning.


Language learning is a very large subject, as you know, so there is no simple answer regarding how connectivism can be applied to it.

I would highlight a few things:

- 'To teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect' - I have articulated this general principle a number of times, and would say it applies to language learning as well. The teacher's primary obligation is showing (as opposed to telling). The two aspects of this are:
    - modeling - providing provisional frameworks and scaffolds that offer perspectives into the structure and use of the language
    - and demonstration - providing actual examples of the language (both written and spoken) as it is used
With respect to learning, practice and reflection are essential.
    - practice - we know that people learn a language much more effectively when they are immersed in the linguistic culture and required to use the language on an ongoing basis.
    - reflection - the learner needs to look at their own performance reflectively, comparing their own performance with the use of the language being demonstrated

- the learning process is going to be a version of 'aggregate - remix - repurpose - feed forward'. What this means is that language learning needs to be a creative act. It is insufficient to simply receive input and respond with the same content back. The learner needs to work with multiple inputs (to 'aggregate'), to reorganize and recreate elements of the language reflecting their own interests and purposes, and then to share this creation ('feed forward') in public performance or sharing environment. Each of these stages plays a particular role in learning:
   - aggregate - supports pattern recognition and comprehension (see literacies, below)
   - remix - supports modeling and categorization
   - repurpose - supports comprehension of change, practice and use in a language
   - feed forward - supports motivation for learning and reflection on practice

- the learning environment is expected to be a community or network of practitioners. This may include other language learners, but it is also important that the community include a sufficient number of people who are already fluent in the language. This community is not a formal community, but rather, a loose association of people connected by actions and conversations. Connectivism describes several attributes of successful networks:
   - autonomy - individuals in the network manage their own interactions in the network - they engage in voluntary associations, and freely choose the nature of interactions they participate in. They choose the subject of their conversations, the resources they will use to learn, and the structure and pacing of their own learning.
   - diversity - individuals in the network are able to interact with a diverse range of individuals - this will include people with different levels of language learning, but also people with different accents, different vocabularies, speaking on different subjects through different media (written, audio, video, etc)
   - openness - access to a language learning network is open, and conversations and resources are shared freely in the network. There is the expectation that people will join and leave as they wish, that some people will fully engage in creativity and interaction, while others will participate more remotely
   - interactivity - knowledge in the network is created through the interaction of diverse language-speakers, not through the dissemination of information. The content of the interaction may be anything - there isn't the need for 'learning content' specifically, and acquisition of the language isn't a latter of mastering a set body of content, rather, it's a matter of interacting more and more successfully in the network

- finally, language learning is supported in the individual learning through a set of critical literacies; these critical literacies are in essence an overview of what it takes to learn how to hearn, and it is expected that successful language learners will apply each of these principles. Here is a quick statement of how they would be relevant in language learning:
   - syntax - the ability to recognize categories, similarities and regularities - will help the learner identify how words and sentences are used in the language (for example, the structure of nouns and verbs, modification through adjectives and adverbs, and representation through pronouns and prepositions)
   - semantics - understanding how value and meaning are created in the language, truth-seeking and truth-establishing mechanisms, identifying intentions, reference, etc
   - pragmatics - detecting different contexts of use, framing, tense
   - use - pronunciation and accents, idiomatic expressions, conventions, cultural influence
   - change - modalities, tense (again), development and growth

There are things connectivism doesn't address. One is the issue of poor infrastructure and support. Of course the need for learning resources, learning communities and the essential information and communications technology are global concerns, and they are not sufficiently supported everywhere (not even in Canada). There are social, political and economic factors that influence this, and it is beyond the scope of connectivism as a learning theory to correct this, only to say that they are needed.

In addition, connectivism does not offer a quick way to change attitudes toward learning. My own experience is that learning in this way has given me a substantial advantage over those who learn in more traditional ways, and that the best evidence for connectivism is its success. However, that said, it may not create greater success in traditional measures of learning, such as performance on tests. I prefer to look at the much wider application of learning - in the capacity to learn new things and solve new problems, for example - than the narrower focus on grades and test results. Here we have to look at the more successful career of a person employing network learning, and not only and their educational performance.

This is a quick outline, though I hope it offers you the structure and the insights you were looking for.

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