August 23, 2004

Beyond Study Abroad: Experiential and Service Learning in Language Education

The goal of this paper is to examine the current context of experiential and service learning in the field of language education with an emphasis on the short-comings of the current model of language teaching vis-à-vis experiential and service learning. A model for the future consideration of experiential and service learning in language education will be posed and used to generate scenarios for language teaching future possibilities. Finally, the implications of this model and subsequent scenarios will be discussed.

Defining experiential and service learning

Harkins (2004) defines experiential learning as “action linked to knowledge creation.” Drawing upon the work of Craig (1997), Harkins adds that important dimensions involved in experiential learning include activity, reflection, and application. Experiential learning acknowledges that action must be a part of the learning process in order for learners to be able to fully produce and use knowledge. Service learning is a kind of experiential learning in which “students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities designed to promote learning and development” (Harkins, 2004). Experiential and service learning draws upon multiple learning theories, including those of Piaget, Vygotsky, Kolb, and Gardner. In general, experiential learning involves learners in being co-creators of learning as they produce knowledge in context.

The future of experiential and service learning is exciting! As knowledge production and innovation become the central focus of higher education (and hopefully all education), experiential and service learning can be the site of learning. Experiential and service learning will operate in a context characterized by the following:

1. real time communication

2. virtual reality contexts

3. personal leadership models leading to individualized learning contexts

4. stronger life-long learning focus (--family focus)

5. multidimensional models of human interaction

6. central use of technology

The value of these innovations means that experiential and service learning takes on a central place in both formal and nonformal education. This distinction between formal and nonformal education is increasingly less important as knowledge production and innovation become integrated into individuals’ self-definitions.

The current state of experiential learning in language education

Language learning has always been experiential learning, to some degree. The act of speaking another language itself can be experiential in that the student must actively participate in order to be successful. But experiential learning can be so much more than this. Experiential learning has been assumed to be a part of language education. Study abroad, for example, is a form of using the language in context, and study abroad has been a part of language learning before language instruction was formalized.

However, other popular approaches to language instruction have de-emphasized the role of experiential learning. The grammar translation method, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, emphasized learning languages from reading the “great texts” of that language. Language was learned through the process of reading and translating from the target language (L2) into the student’s native language (L1).

More recently, the communicative model of language instruction re-emphasizes experiential learning. The communicative model assumes that language use should be the central focus; the structure of the language can be learned later. While grammar translation emphasized language form (learning verb conjugations, for example), the communicative model suggests that when a student is motivated by the content, the structure of language can be more easily taught. Therefore, language materials following the communicative model focus on what the learner needs to do with the language: reserve a hotel room, buy groceries, go to the doctor, etc. The communicative model, by its nature, assumes that it is also experiential (Swain, 1985; Shafer, R.E., Staab, C., & Smith, K., 1985; Long, H.M. & Porter, P.A., 1983; Krashen, 1984; Cantoni-Harvey, 1987; Allen, J.P.B., 1983; Day, E.M. & Shapson, S., 2001). Communicative language learning came about in the early 1980s, and it continues to enjoy popularity today. Language learning has been resting on its laurels with regard to experiential learning.

Future language needs

As technological advancement and globalization endure, language learners of the future will have a greater need for experiential learning to be the central focal point of their education. Software that may be able to provide instantaneous translation will render unnecessary the focus on the grammatical structure of language that has been characteristic of current and past models of language education. Language learners will require a new model—one that helps them become good observers of the cultural and pragmatic uses of language in context.

Scenarios for Language Learning Futures

The following scenarios for the future of experiential and service learning in language education have been developed by synthesizing the model described above with Harkins’ (2004) heuristic scenarios for experiential and service learning. All of these scenarios take into account technological advancement and the move to a knowledge and innovation-based economy.

#1 Student-Centered Scenario (Individuality Product)

Learners can access language courses tailored to their specific needs. To some degree, this already exists in the form of language for specific purposes (e.g. workforce language training), but in this scenario, individualized language learning is focused on the individual’s specific needs, which may be the result of an individual’s personal context creation. Adaptive technology is used effectively to create experiential contexts for learners to practice language use in context. Learners can “language share” with other language learners around the world through internet chats, interactive video chats, and other technology that allows real-time interaction.

#2 Think Tank Scenario (Knowledge Worker Product)

As knowledge workers invent their own work, they invent unique language needs. Language education adapts to meet the needs of knowledge workers by using adaptive technology to create innovative language learning opportunities available at all times, in all places. The bulk of such learning is software management and cultural and pragmatic support which is all directly tailored to the specific knowledge-production context in which the learner will use the language. Different contexts may be added as a learners language use needs change.

#3 Free Electronic Higher Education/On-Campus Development Teams Scenario (Collaboration Product)

As learners work in teams to create innovate products, they may require language learning to facilitate collaboration among team members or to market their products globally. In this context, language learning is part of the free electronic higher education program, and is geared specifically to the context in which learners need to use the target language. Again, the focus of language learning in this context is software management and cultural/pragmatic support for language use in the collaborative context. Learners develop their language competence within their collaborative development teams.

#4 Student Services-Based Curriculum Scenario (Student Culture Product)
Harkins (2004) defines this context as one in which “[c]lients. . . have matured within a student culture nurtured by redefined and upgraded student services. Clients leave college able to work well with clients of similar programs in higher education or industry.” In this context, language learning may be used as part of the culture creation of the students’ collaborative culture. Linguistic norms may, in fact, be one of the factors ensuring students’ successful transfer from experiential learning environments to higher education or industry work contexts.

#5 Global/International Learning Scenario (Global Citizen Product)

As global citizens work in multinational environments, they use language translation software to be effective cross-linguistically. Language learning in this environment utilizes software management and the development of cultural and pragmatic competence.

#6 Old Economy Personnel Development Scenario (Employee Product)

People with a talent for language learning are located early in life and sponsored to develop their capacity as multilinguals. They are given free language software and well-supported to develop pragmatic and cultural competence in critical world languages. They are supported in their education by language software corporations who then hire graduates to become future software engineers, beta testers, etc.

#7 Home College Scenario (Family Centered Convenience Product)

In this scenario, language learning is a multi-generational project. Families learn languages together, perhaps as part of adapting to a new context due to immigration. Second-language acquisition research (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991) suggests that adults learn languages faster, and children learn languages better (as in, closer to native-like proficiency). By learning languages together through adaptive technology brought directly into households (perhaps a video-game format), children and adults benefit from each others’ strengths as language learners. This type of language learning project may be community-sponsored, with an emphasis on helping new immigrants adapt to local surroundings.

#8 Experiential Innovation Scenario (Innovation Centered Industry and Artistic Products)

Students are selected for their ability to integrate language into other knowledge products. These learners have a talent for creating new contexts for knowledge production and understanding the diffusion of new language. Students receive free higher education in exchange for future collaboration with government and industry in application of their expertise related to the diffusion of new language and knowledge.

A Roadmap to the Future

The brief scenarios described above suggest possibilities for future language education that bring experiential and service learning to the core of language learning. These scenarios are very different from the current trends in language education, which advocates study abroad as a radical form of experiential learning in language education. How can language education be better prepared for the future language needs of learners?

If language teachers want to incorporate experiential learning in courses, they need to be in language teacher education programs that emphasize experiential and service learning because “we teach what we’ve been taught” (Lange 2003). Experiential learning needs to be brought into teachers’ metacognitive awareness so that experiential language learning can be defined more broadly than a three week course in the country of the target language. Language teachers must approach experiential and service learning with the future in mind.

References and Recommended Readings

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Baker, A., P. Jensen, et al. (2002). Conversational Learning: An experiential approach to knowledge creation. New York, Quorum Books.

Beard, C. and J. Wilson (2002). The Power of Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Trainers and Educators. London, Kogan Page.

Behrman, E. H. (2002). "Community-Based Literacy Learning." Reading: Literacy and Language 36(1): 26-32.

Brown-Harris, J. and S. Stock-Ward (1999). Workshops: Designing and Facilitating Experiential Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.

Cantoni-Harvey, G. (1987). Content-area language instruction: Approaches and strategies. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley.

Day, E. and S. Shapson (2001). "Integrating formal and functional approaches to language teaching in French immersion: an experimental study." Language Learning 51: 47-80.

Hamalainen, K. and E. Siirala (1998). "Experiential Learning: From Discourse Model to Conversation. Interview with David Kolb." Lifelong Learning in Europe 3(3): 148-53.

Harkins, A. (2004). Alternative Futures for Experiential and Service Learning. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota.

Kaufman, D. (1996). "Constructivist-Based Experiential Learning in Teacher Education." Action in Teacher Education 18(2): 40-50.

Kenny, B. (1996). "Knowledge, Experience, and Language Teaching." System 24(4): 449-60.

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Kolb, D. (1983). Experiential Learning. New York, Prentice Hall.

Krashen, S. R. (1984). "Immersion: Why it works and what it has taught us." Language and Society 12: 61-64.

Lange, D. and M. Paige, Eds. (2003). Culture as the Core. Greenwich, CT, Information Age Publishing.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and M. Long (1991). An introduction to second language acquisition research. New York, Addision Wesley.

Long, M. H., & Porter, PA. (1985). "Group work, interlanguage talk, and second language acquisition." TESOL Quarterly 19: 207-228.

Meagher, M. E. (1995). "Learning English on the Internet." Educational Leadership 53(2): 88-90.

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