A Connectivism Description of How I Learn Language

This description is not intended a set of instructions for language learning. The purpose here is analytical. It is a particular view of a particular education experience that can benefit a connectivist approach to education. This particular view can be understood descriptively, prescriptively or as a mindset. About 8 months ago my volunteer language tutor had to stop teaching. I postponed my own language study over a busy summer and recently started actively learning again, trying out an explicit connectivist approach, as I understand connectivism. A short commentary follows the description:

The text book that I was using with my former teacher is only half completed. The book contains mostly basic aspects of the subject area that is not going to change anytime soon. This is important as I consider myself a beginner student. In this situation, right now, I am more concerned with acquiring the basics (grammar, sentence structure, basic vocabulary) that will eventually and progressively get me to the point where I can shift my focus to the more dynamic conversational language and everyday use. Reviewing the first half of the text, as part of my jump back into language study, has been of particular benefit because connecting with printed characters has brought my reading back into practice.

My overall learning intention is focused on improving listening and speaking. However, no language skills exist in isolation. Despite the lack of direct listening or speaking instruction that the text affords, reading or visualizing language can have a strong positive impact on my main intentions of listening and speaking. The Japanese language has 2 simpler sets of symbols (compared to the main Kanji characters) that are not all that time consuming or difficult to learn, making the reading aspect even more useful way to improve my language ability. The text can help with a meta-skill like automaticity in language use, and has already helped bring my reading and speaking back up to former speed. Also, The the text is already in my possession, with my own notes in the margins, and it is portable enough to bring with me in transit (a common study time for me), all adding to its usefulness as a resource

About the same time that my tutor stopped teaching, the online learning website that I was using was bought out (or something). Back then I tried out the new website for a month or so and had some problems with the display and ensuing support, so finding one that produces less frustration would be nice, reducing frustration as I learn. My status as a beginner language student suggests that rote style learning can be an effective way to build vocabulary. It was also something that I enjoyed. This style of learning does lack some of the more authentic/contextual learning, however, I am not at the level where I can learn vocabulary in such a way. This again, is the nature of that connection to the more basic body of target knowledge that I need to build on in order to get to a point where I can learn more dynamically, as an active participant in the knowledge that I use.

Rote learning online is also something that fits into my daily routine, being able to complete lessons at various points of the day without much preparation time and on short notice. I do not use mobile internet technology, so this does limit my access to this type learning. Fortunately, these limits are not restrictive to the point that would affect their benefit to me, as I spend several days of the week working from home. I have other media (text, audio, daily situation) that I can use when I am in transit. The online rote learning strongly focuses (nearly isolates) vocabulary improvement, something that the other media do not do. The completion of such vocabulary lessons provides motivation and listening practice (especially for prepositions), in addition to the actual language benefit of increased vocabulary. Access right now does depend on finding a suitable website and whatever fess there are, if any.

Audio media provide an even better opportunity to fit target learning into the routine of my daily life. Especially in transit, throughout my day I listen to 30 minute lessons that are progressive in terms of difficulty, but also cumulative. I keep several dozen in external storage and can put up to about 8 of them on my current portable audio device which easily extends their total running time past any length of time that I would not have the chance to rotate fresh ones in. This also makes them accessible any time and place that I have a chance to listen.

Audio lessons obviously places a strong emphasis on listening skills, one of my main intentions, however improvements in vocabulary, fluency and even speaking are complements. These particular audio lessons are well designed in a relatively interactive style, considering the one way nature of audio. They provide a build up to actual conversation, being of quicker pace and more contextually based (although not quite authentic) language practice compared to the text and rote learning. However, all three of these media tend to isolate me as a learner; a situation I usually prefer but know is detrimental specifically to language learning, a socially based skill.

Thus, learning with another person needs to be at the core of my learning situation. I have access to many people that I can just practice with or who would voluntarily act as a “language exchange” partner. Although this concept is common around here I am not at the language skill level where this type of practice can be as beneficial as spending my in-person time guided by an “expert in the field” (ie: a native target language speaker who has experience teaching that language). My former tutor was a professional teacher (prior to volunteering) and it showed in her ability to aptly move between explaining a concept or running a planned exercise and authentic knowledge application. I do have access to several people who may be able to fit this role. There are also several organizations or schools that I can contact, but would prefer someone that I know (at least indirectly) for reputation purposes and because I need a frequent but flexible schedule (often too formal a matter in Japanese society).

My intention is to to study intensely for the next 3-4 months, with a tutor or collection of tutors hopefully 5-6 times per week. The difficulty will be in working out a schedule with someone and freeing up the time on my own. Synchronous communication technology, such as skype, is an option that can help with the scheduling restriction, in part. I would prefer at least some, if not a majority of, in-person learning, as non-verbal communication is an essential part of language use. The ratio of in-person to computer mediated learning might come down to situation limits. Regardless, with this amount of guided conversation practice over the next few months I expect to be at a point where I can learn in a more contextual, less structured way. The other three supplemental media will also help get me to this point by making efficient use of my time and increasing my vocabulary.

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A few points that make the above a “connectivism description”

Media, Affords and Bias – Much of the description tries to analyze the effect that each piece of media has or will have on the learning process. Strengths and Weaknesses are certainly a part of this, but I think the consideration runs much deeper. It is an attempt to identify how the learner’s understanding of a body of knowledge is skewed by the ways in which the learner connects to the body of knowledge. It is also the assessment of the importance of this impact on the educational intentions.

Language Distinctions – The language used should reflect the level of distinction where the connection takes place. For example, I tried to use the word language only when the description reflects something unique to language itself, otherwise I used a more general distinction like subject area or target knowledge. Notice that I only use the even more specific term Japanese once, when a characteristic unique to the particular language is relevant. George Siemens has used the phrase Collapse to the Point of Connection, and I am not exactly sure in what respect he meant to use this phrase, but for me it is fitting to describe this thought process here. Clarity in writing probably also factors into language distinction, at times.

Values placed on Knowledge – The description ties to lay out which knowledge is important with respect to the subject area and the intention of the learner. Throughout this description, authentic conversation and vocabulary are highlighted as high value knowledge. Various other knowledge, either that supports and leads up to the high value knowledge or that exists in itself, are also described.

Position of the Learner with Respect to Body of Knowledge – The connection to the subject area or body of knowledge is often cited in this description. Bodies of knowledge are dynamic on the contemporary edges, but static in the enduring core, and contain a spectrum of viscosity throughout. The point at where a learner studies, in relation to this body of knowledge, should be explored and accounted for in the design of education.

Relation to Intention and Situation – Intention could be considered part of situation but, considering its importance in the educational process, it is worth distinguishing explicitly. Throughout the description all factors try to relate back to the learning intention and the specific situations that are unique to this learner, including their networks.

It is interesting to note the dual role of learner and educator in this description. The connection with a tutor (a process within the process) is a dynamic relationship in itself that could be analyzed and described, separating myself partially from the role of educator. I am very willing to give up some aspects of control or intention, but only at this scaled down level. 

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