Language Lessons and the Future of Learning

Earlier this year I took a weeklong trip to Ecuador. I visited three cities in eight days, and by the end, I wanted to stay put even if staying put meant only four days in one place. I bought a one way ticket from Cuenca to Quito so that instead of a 12 hour bus ride, I had a one hour flight to catch my longer flight back to the States. Cuenca is one of the larger cities in Ecuador, but you can see the city in a day and spend half of a second day visiting museums and catching up on whatever it is that you might have missed your first day.

So I had time to spend, and I decided to spend it on Spanish lessons. For eight dollars an hour, I took 10 hours of private lessons in two days and was sufficiently exhausted by the end of it. What was remarkable though was how much one-on-one Spanish lessons without any real structure so got at all the things that I think about when I think about online learning, the future of learning, the (insert fashionable phrases we think of when we think about learning today) learning.

Personalized and Adaptive Learning- When it’s one on one, it seems pretty obvious that it would be personalized. I filled out a form where I had to write what I wanted to focus on. I left it blank because I only had ten hours, but the woman who enrolled me prodded and asked what it was that I wanted to do. Gramatica? Vocabulario? And I nodded my head and said yes, grammar and tenses and conversation. It wasn’t much of an assessment, but the real assessment happened when I began my lessons and had to tell my teacher in Spanish what I wanted. She knew English, but I had taken enough of Spanish in another foreign country to know not to rely on it. Without the confines of a predetermined structure, she found exercises for me to do and beyond just exercises, she adapted the conversation, instruction, and difficulty as we proceeded. It was immediate, real-time, and effective.

Play and Experimentation- When learning a language using only the language that you’re learning, you’re forced to play and experiment. You find patterns and then attempt discoveries based on those patterns. Sometimes you’re right; other times, there was an exception you had no way of knowing. Regardless, when it’s one-on-one and conversational based, you experience a vulnerability that you quickly learn to translate into play and experimentation.

Informal and Just in Time Learning- In the time I spent with my teacher, we went down many conversational rabbit holes where I learned about Ecuadorian and South American history, the current political climates, and what we felt would happen. We also went down several conversational paths where we discussed what we thought about life and how to live it. I would try to say a phrase or express a thought, and because I needed to know it right then and there, whatever I learned from my teacher would stick because I was immediately applying it. And through this “informal” learning, I was constructing and formalizing knowledge structures.

And lastly, you always know more than you think you do. There’s a confidence (and humility of course as well) you need for learning that’s not always apparent. I hadn’t spoken four straight hours of Spanish in over five years and when I heard Spanish on the subway in New York or in a movie on Netflix, I would be lucky to understand a quarter of what was being said. But I spoke and listened for 10 hours in Spanish, and spoke and listened for several more hours with my Argentinian and Peruvian hostel mates, and if I had 10 more days, I could have kept going.