Is content-based instruction the future of language learning?

Will Liney

Will Liney recently graduated from the University of Exeter where he studied International Relations, Spanish and Portuguese. He spent a year working at an International Film Festival in Argentina where he gained fluency in Spanish. For the past year and a half Will, along with two other University of Exeter graduates, has been developing Immerse, a multimedia language immersion website and mobile application that aims to immerse its users in the language they are learning through fresh and authentic content.

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Image Credit: EIL Ireland Image Credit: EIL Ireland

I know what you are thinking, yet another “expert” is taking to the internet to talk about the latest method of language learning. In all honesty, for me, the only way to truly become fluent in the language you are learning is to immerse yourself in it, go to the country, speak to and befriend native speakers, learn about what they watch and read. This will do you more good than 10 years of classes at home. My personal experience with this was heading off to Argentina for a year, where I lived with native speakers and worked in Spanish, I returned home fluent and I have been looking for a reason to go back out there ever since!

However, how do you best engage pupils in the language they are learning while they are at school? How do you motivate them to learn? I believe the only way to do this is to really expose them to the language they are learning, to provide them with an understanding of the wider context of why they are learning that language. A lot of the time, and I remember this at school, we didn't understand why we were doing it. "Everyone speaks English", "This isn't actually going to help me in later life" etc. I believe if you give pupils a reason, a genuine reason to engage with the language, they will become proactive and start to learn more.

Along comes content-based instruction (CBI). At its core, CBI is designed to provideAt its core, CBI is designed to provide second-language learners with instruction in content and language."At its core, CBI is designed to provide second-language learners with instruction in content and language." second-language learners with instruction in content and language. Historically, the word content has changed its meaning in language teaching. Content used to refer to the methods of grammar-translation, audio-lingual methodology and vocabulary or sound patterns in dialog form. Recently, however, content is interpreted as the use of subject matter as a vehicle for second or foreign language teaching/learning. I want to focus on its recent interpretation as I believe this is what will change language learning for the better.

When students are exposed to a considerable amount of language through stimulating content, they explore interesting content & are engaged in appropriate language-dependent activities. Languages are not learned through direct instruction, but rather acquired "naturally" or automatically. This goes back to my point about immersing yourself in the culture of native speakers; you cannot learn through forced grammar exercises, but you will learn naturally if properly engaged.

CBI supports contextualised learning; learners are taught useful language that is embedded within relevant discourse contexts rather than as isolated language fragments. Hence students make greater connections with the language and what they already know. If a student is given a genuinely interesting context, it provides a certain level of motivation for them to go on learning that language. Say you have a student who is interested in fashion - they will no doubt be reading about and watching content related to fashion. Put this into a context of language learning and you will have an engaged student. Furthermore, complex information is delivered through real life context for the students to grasp well and leads to intrinsic motivation. Students need to learn from passion, when a subject genuinely interests them, they read watch and learn more. Applying content-based instruction will give teachers and students greater flexibility and adaptability in the curriculum.

So there we are, a very quick rundown of content-based instruction and how it is going to change the language learning universe! A bold claim I know, but seriously, watch this space.

Do you use content-based instruction? Share your experiences below!

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