Ed Tech vs.
Psycholinguistic Tech
June 22, 2019
Evgeny Chukharev, PhD
Linguatorium R&D
Your child is ill and you take them to the doctor's office. The doctor prescribes some pills, and you ask if they will help your child recover. "No," says the doctor, "but they are free and easy for you to give to your child at home."
When I told this made-up story during my keynote talk at the JALTCALL conference in Tokyo, Japan a couple of weeks ago, the audience laughed. However, when on a different occasion I asked a group of ESL teachers why they kept recommending Duolingo to their students, this was exactly the response I got: "Because it's free and easy for parents to use with their kids at home."
This reminded me of the state of healthcare before the advent of evidence-based medicine. Today's MDs will not prescribe medications that don't work, but a hundred years ago they would treat infections with mercury. Some patients would recover (despite the "treatment"), while others would die of mercury poisoning. If they died, however, the failure would often be blamed on the patients' lack of faith in the curative power of mercury.

The healthcare system has changed. Now before a new drug is approved by the FDA, it needs to be tested for its true effect in a blinded, placebo-controlled trial. In education, however, the "placebo effect" still occupies the central stage. Interventions that work are generally those that are fun for the students. In fact, student motivation and engagement are the top predictors of learning outcomes. And that may be fine for content learning, but surely not for language learning.

Mercury ointment used for treating infectious diseases
By Jhansonxi, CC BY-SA 3.0
Learning English, or Spanish, or French is not the same as learning science, math, or history. Language is not a "subject," it is a cognitive skill that is so deeply integrated into brain circuitry that you can't "learn" it by just doing things that are fun.

While educational technology in content classes can be helpful simply because it's engaging, that's not the case for language learning. In fact, what's needed for language learning is not educational technology. It's psycholinguistic technology. Something that works at the cognitive level, something that's grounded in our scientific understanding of how second language acquisition unfolds, and something that is, therefore, highly effective.
Evgeny Chukharev delivers his keynote speech at JALTCALL-2019 (Tokyo, Japan)
When a child has an ear infection, they don't need anything fun or engaging. They need ciprofloxacin, which is arguably very boring (it's just a white pill they swallow with water), but it works. When most people are trying to learn a second language, their brain actively resists language acquisition, and what they need is a "language learning pill": psycholinguistic technology that will override that resistance and help the brain acquire a new language.

And I am not talking about "a new magic pill." For decades we've known exactly how to teach components of the language system in the most efficient way. Best way of learning vocabulary? Adaptive spaced repetition. Best way of learning a foreign sound system? High-variability phonetic training. Best way of learning writing? Self-regulated strategy development.

What's been really frustrating is that it has been anything but easy (and sometimes plainly impossible) for teachers to use those best-available methods. And that's why, back in 2011, we started the Linguatorium project: to develop tools that would implement the best-available methods of language learning in a way that's easy for teachers and non-taxing on students. Tools that are almost as easy to use as ciprofloxacin, yet are as highly effective. When using an app for 10 minutes a day for a semester leads to a three-fold increase in long-term vocabulary retention (as shown in this double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed study), I call that "effective."
Find out more about the Linguatorium tools that implement psycholinguistic technology for language learning.

This blog post is based on Dr. Evgeny Chukharev's invited keynote speech at JALTCALL 2019 (Tokyo, Japan, June 2019).