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Babel Fish

October 20, 2010

Oopsie! When I made an off-hand remark about language teaching at last Friday’s Scottish Government Technologies for Learning Workshop (tagged #ediff), little did I know that I would be starting off a thread that would have a life of its own.

Babel-fish As part of our discussions in the afternoon, I was trying to get across the notion that we may need to re-evaluate how we teach all subjects. In trying to illustrate this, I posed the question, “Why do we need Modern Languages when we’ve got Google Translator”. I also pointed out how I’d used my phone for translating on my last trip to France, and someone else chipped in that the new Windows 7 phone will (does) offer simultaneous translation. As a result of this remark, Nick Hood posted a very well thought out and argued AudioBoo and on the back of that, The Rest Is Silence has an excellent post about why we study MFLs in school (though I was disappointed that I can’t comment directly on the blog).

Of course, I do not think MFL, or indeed any other subject per se, could or should be replaced by ICT… and that wasn’t really the point I was trying to make. What I was trying to say was that, given the tools we have at our disposal, why are we teaching subjects in exactly the same way? Why do we continue trying to subvert the tech to allow us to work in the same way we have always worked when we should be looking at how the tech opens up possibilities for even deeper understanding and knowledge?

datamath calc The only analogy I can think of is the calculator. This innocuous device was once the bone of contention for teachers as it was ‘cheating’ and so on… the self same arguments that were made about the biro, the jotter, the slate, the… Look, I’m sure you get the point, but just in case you don’t, watch Karl Fisch’s brilliant thought piece, “What If?” (If you haven’t seen it, watch and share it with a colleague). Today, the calculator is as much a part of a pupil’s school kit as books and jotters and pens and paper. It has become ‘normalised’. I also find it interesting that there are ‘calculator’ only ‘no calculator’ papers in many Maths exams… an eminently practical solution.

As I see it, we need to accept that tech can enhance how we teach to produce better results for our pupils. I am assuming that no translation software can accurately catch the nuances and fluency or social context of another language, but it can do the brute force basic conversion. For the finesse and the skill you will always need a teacher. Someone who can impart his or her love of a language and a culture and a people. Someone who can guide a pupil to a fuller understanding, and who can bring a subject to life.

So… if I offended any MFL teachers, I apologise! Some of the best and most innovative uses of tech in the classroom that I have seen have come from Languages teachers like Joe Dale and Jose Picardo. My basic point is simply that we should use tech as a means of improving the teaching of all our subjects rather than as a replacement for those subjects! Honest! PACE?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010 8:14 pm


    Thanks for your response. If it had been just a matter of a single remark, I might not have been so concerned. It was the inclusion of the remark in the IFF summary of the day that did it, considering the reach of that particular document.

    Hope you made it out of the Apple Store solvent.


  2. October 21, 2010 8:39 pm


    I do believe that these online tools could be incorporated into classroom use and I may look into incorporating it into my peer support sessions as it seems pupils use them as a ‘fix all’ tool which then causes problems. A very fair point too thoguh, I’ll take ot back to my teachers after the october break and see what their view is.

    Sorry you could not comment on my blog post, I’ve been trying to find a way around that but I think there’s a button I forgot to press before I published my post, whoops! Glad you read it.


  3. November 20, 2010 6:28 pm

    Hi Neil

    Interesting post. I had a discussion with a B.Ed. student I’m supervising just the other day. She’s looking at supporting writing with talk, and her literature review will look at the importance of writing and why children should be able to do it.

    That got us into considering the past, when writing wasn’t a necessary skill because professionals such as monks or scribes did it for us. I’m reading a biography of Edward Longshanks, and he could read but the skill of writing was seen as unnecessary, even for a king.

    That got us considering the future, and how humans will be able to receive and transmit information directly through implants in the brain. We already have chips being inserted to cure various maladies such as depression, and scientists have experimented with chips that increase the cognitive power and retention of lab rats. Within the lifetime of some of our pupils, they may well be able to send and receive information directly by plugging their heads into a terminal. At that point – do reading and writing themselves become redundant?

    Nice to meet you on Thursday.


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