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The Power of Communities in Modern Language Learning

In the near future, foreign language students will interact online with other students around the globe, creating communities for exchanging language skills.

Language learning communities are the fastest growing part of education 2.0, with the three biggest services Babbel, Busuu and Livemocha having between one to eight million users and adding thousands of new users every day.

As they are so popular amongst adults, it might be worth trying to implement similar structures in schools, colleges and universities to strengthen language learning, a subject that often becomes the first victim of budget cuts.

Although every community has its distinct focus in business model and methodology or also design, the keystones are always the same: self paced learning through flashcards and exercises, further explanation of grammar and other language items based on material from renown publishers and, last but not least, practice within the global community.

One of the most difficult challenges to getting kids and young adults to learn a foreign language is to convince them of the necessity of speaking more than one. In Europe it’s easier because pop culture is dominated by English speaking artists and therefore their first foreign language is pretty obvious, even for young people. Of course, the big exceptions are the UK and Ireland, and the same is basically true for every other English speaking country. When the world’s de facto lingua franca is your mother tongue the usefulness of a second language is not that obvious.

Having said that, things change a great deal as soon as come into contact and build a relationship with a non-native English speaker. You suddenly have a reason and motivation to learn a new language. This can be parts of your family living abroad, friends you make during holidays, etc. 

What if classes or entire schools were able to learn each others language via a community based platform similar to the successful start-ups we already have on the market? The principle would be the same: learn the basics through self-paced, engaging and fun content. Then, let the students practice with their peers from across the globe, learning Portuguese with a class from Rio de Janeiro, French with a class from Paris, Italian from Rome, and so on and so forth. It sounds as exciting as it actually is. Language would no longer be something abstract whose usefulness might be disguised somewhere in the future due to missing immersion. Instead students would associate language learning with actual people they may even become friends with as well as their country and culture.

However there are currently unsolved downsides to community language learning. One of the biggest problems of language exchange on these virtual communities is the imbalance or lack of understanding and volountariness that the learning process needed to be an equally shared effort between the participants. In almost every case, there are some who just benefit but don’t put in the effort of sharing their native language with the other members, and there are only a few members who put in the work of correcting the exercises and giving advice. (Although I shouldn’t forget to mention that this is also tied to the fact that not everyone is actually able to teach a language, e.g. ideally has a teaching background or a natural talent to teach others.) In the school version one could prevent those problems as the teachers would still be in charge of the lesson development. They would be the ones who decide which of the two languages would be learned when, how long the students would do the asynchronous work, etc.

Another interesting aspect that should be implemented in such a system are rewards and game mechanics. Young adults love to challenge each other in games; therefore, a ranking system with high-scores and badges for good work would be a perfect addition in such a learning environment, keeping the students motivated to learn. This could be based on individual success but also on study groups or even the entire class.

As the system is online, students could meet on the platform outside of the actual lesson to play and work together which could also count as extracurricular activity and therefore have some influence on overall marks and further develop learners' social skills as important assets in our societies.

Last but not least, such a platform would build strong ties between two groups of students that would turn a student exchange between those classes into an even more enriching experience. The participants would already know each other, they would have spoken about all the things they could do together in their cities and thus the online experience would be extended and have an impact into real life. The relationships that would come out of such an intense experience, and therefore the understanding of each others' culture, would be second to none.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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