Learning English: Online or Offline?

Although it is difficult to accurately determine how many learners of the English language there are in China today, figures of between 200 and 350 million have been tossed into the air. At the higher end of these estimates, that’s not far off the population of the USA. English as the world’s Lingua Franca opens a plethora of opportunities from increased employment to a widening access of culture, literature and music, to enhanced education and travel destinations around the world. It’s no wonder demand is rife.
Da Xue Consulting have predicted that China’s EdTech market would reach $252 billion in value by 2020 having followed a 17% increase year-on-year. Owing to this surge in EdTech, should we be looking to online means to supplement, support and scaffold offline English-language education, rather than blindly wading towards total dependence? Now in the aftermath of COVID-19, are we looking at EdTech with rose-tinted glasses?

One area in China’s EdTech market making steady ground is English language apps – of which the world is home to an uncountable number. Chinese-founded VIPKid and DaDa ABC, for example, are arguably two of the most well-known to foreign eyes and ears. According to JMDedu, the main expenditure categories on education in China are: 40.8% competency-based, 32.9% specific K12 subject tutoring, 11.3% school fees, 9.6% learning apps and 5.5% other (social activities etc.) Furthermore, language learning companies enjoy around 22% of all EdTech investments, demonstrating their value in the industry.

Chinese native Iris, an Education master’s student at the University of Cambridge, said “[English Language Learning apps] should have a good system that can test all learners’ abilities and provide them with suggestions for the courses or materials that are suitable for them. It should also be able to give corrective feedback to students, either by online teachers or AI technology. Ideally, it should be informative enough to provide good quality resource for all-level language learners”.
For any foreign language learning, repeatability of new vocabulary, grammar rules and syntax are vital to consolidate new material. What’s more, learner efficiency is higher when individuals can self-select modules. For adult learners, motivation for learning English might range from business to academic or travel. In the instance of young learners without a basic grasp of English, self-selection of modules, let alone finding and filling their gaps in knowledge, becomes increasingly complex. This is a complexity that is heightened by the subtle divergences between Englishes – one example being British English and American English.
More often, it is assumed there are four basic elements to learning a language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Under the surface, linguists see three elements: form, content and use. Form involves three sub-categories of: syntax (arranging words to make sentences), morphology (the study of words) and phonology (the structure and sequence of speech sounds). Content is known as semantics and use is known as pragmatics. There is a lot more to language learning than meets the eye. In an ideal world, the most effective language learning apps would be cheap and fun yet rigorous and meticulous. For young and modern Chinese, lifelong learning has arguably become the only way to improve social competitiveness. English language apps enable user flexibility of time and space; they can be used for 5 minutes or 5 hours of the day, in the bath or on the subway.

Much of the research on Duolingo, for example, looks at whether it actually works. Other research analyzes the gamification of its course structure and assesses whether the app can work to complement the ‘traditional’ language classroom. Duolingo does have the potential to complement English-language curriculums; is easy to use and has a variety of tasks and activities to suit varying learner styles. It’s highly effective in reinforcing grammar rules and vocabulary through spaced repetition, yet it lacks the ability to teach learners a core facet of communicative competence – sociolinguistic competence. Or rather, knowing what to say and when to say it. Should reading others’ in terms of courtesy, friendliness, hierarchies, respect and authority be left to the traditional classroom?
Tailoring is key. An example of a successful English-language learning app is Jiliguala (叽里呱啦) – meaning Babble. The app enables parents to expose their toddlers to an all-encompassing English environment via instruction videos and animations. The founders, a couple who previously worked for Google, were able to catch the wave of demand for those 76% of parents who start their child’s English language learning before their 5th birthday. Jiliguala claims to have reached “one in six” toddlers throughout 2,300 villages, towns and cities across China – citing those in remote areas and elderly caregivers as key beneficiaries due to ignorance of where to give their child a headstand in English.

AI Tutoring Systems, for example, are built to provide customized and immediate feedback to leaners to enable them to go at their own pace, and fill their gaps in knowledge. How close they are from offering anecdotal, personalized and timely advice to a distressed Chinese teen grappling with English remains to be seen. The case for blended learning is very much prevalent. New Oriental and TAL have already begun to pioneer a blended learning model. A qualified teacher livestreams to numerous classrooms with local teachers on-site for classroom management. This two-teacher model enables access of high-quality teachers in remote areas and ups the interaction and engagement of students through its instant student feedback.

Based on my own experience as an English tutor – supplementary apps, flashcard websites such as Quizlet, interactive whiteboards on ClassIn and my own self-crafted linguistic corpora of over 15,000 words have helped progress my students’ language abilities. Bringing EdTech into my tutoring has no doubt saved me time, energy and money. But something I believe is key to being a competent tutor is empathizing and encouraging my students, in addition to finding their humor spots. If my student doesn’t laugh during the lesson, I see that as a failed lesson. The jury is out – finding the balance between online and offline English language learning is key.