I’ve just gone back to school.
It’s my first class at a university in many years and it feels good. But it’s also been strange for a few reasons.
The first is that it’s just odd to be back in a formal learning environment after so much time away from it.
The second is that I’m taking the class in Portuguese, a language I’m learning. I’ve often given the advice that learning something else in a language is a great way to also learn that language. Now I’m putting that to the test… wish me luck!
The third reason that this class is strange is that, because of COVID, it’s entirely online.
Of course, that’s normal now.
But it’s a lot different than my previous education experiences have been.
The experience has gotten me thinking about the future of education—and of English learning in particular.
We understand a lot more than we used to about how people learn languages. And there are a lot of exciting new technologies in the language learning space.
But much of the way English is actually taught continues to mirror how it has been taught for decades.
Many schools and language teachers focus on outdated materials.
They heavily emphasise textbooks with fill-in-the-blank activities that help you memorise verb conjugations. They use grammar books, vocabulary lists, and other forms of boring, artificial content.
But people are waking up, and people around the world are questioning what the future of English learning will look like.
And like my online university class, it will be different from what we’re used to.
Here’s my prediction about what will change—and what will stay exactly the same.
A shift towards English tutors from classes
It used to be that if you wanted to learn English, you had to go to your local English school. You’d pay a lot of money for a native English-speaker or fluent non-native speaker to drill you in grammar basics for a semester.
If you were lucky, they’d use engaging activities and lots of conversation. If you weren’t lucky, well, you tried again the next semester and hoped for a different teacher.
The internet has made it super easy to find online tutors in English.
They are often well-qualified. You can schedule classes with them whenever is convenient for you. And you often get the benefit of a one-on-one class.
Not only that, but online tutors are often much less expensive than in-person classes at an English school. And if you don’t like the teacher, it’s easy to switch.
My prediction: As we get more comfortable “Zooming” strangers for our education, we’ll be seeing a lot more English tutors and fewer in-person classes.
More independent learning
But having said that, I think people will find more and more value in independent learning.
The benefit of English teachers is not just that they know English, but they can teach it. They can build a learning programme for you. They know how to design a curriculum, what should be taught first, what next, and so on. They provide materials and a structure.
But it turns out that it’s pretty easy to create your own system to learn English independently.
It’s not that difficult to build your own curriculum, set up a system to help keep you on track, find your own listening and reading materials, find writing tools, and do independent speaking activities.
These days, it’s even easy to find a conversation partner to practise English for free.
My prediction: Because so much is available at the click of a button, I think we’ll see a lot more independent English learners and fewer taking formal lessons.
More engaging materials with a focus on real content
I think he’s hit the nail on the head—this is exactly the kind of material language learners want more of.
When I was learning French, I relied extensively on Inner French. It is a podcast that does much the same as Leonardo English: it provides really interesting audio content in a way that was accessible to me at an intermediate level.
I think we’ll see more of that because language learners are waking up. With more choices, I think they’ll gravitate to higher-quality materials. I think the following will become especially popular:
- Podcasts. Podcasts are continuing to explode, and I think we’ll see more, high-quality English podcasts continue to emerge. I think we’ll also see English learners flock to audio-based apps like Clubhouse.
- YouTube and Netflix. Video will continue to take centre stage in our daily lives, and I think that trend will continue with language learning. YouTube, Netflix, and other video platforms will continue to provide great opportunities for independent learners to get practise listening—provided they listen and watch effectively.
- Language learning apps. I think we’re going to continue to see language apps emerge. I think they’ll move past a basic, highly gamified type of app like Duolingo, and move more towards an interactive, hybrid app like Chatterbug or Pimsleur. At the same time, I think people will continue to overestimate how effective language apps are. Effective learning will still not happen from 5 minutes a day of study but from consistent language input and use.
I think we will continue to see a growing demand for English immersion experiences, but I think they will look different than they have.
English immersion experiences have traditionally required a great deal of investment of time and money. You would have either needed to splurge on an expensive English immersion course, take two weeks to go on holiday, or even pack up and move to an English-speaking country.
Those types of immersion experiences are great if you can do them. But they are time-consuming and expensive, so they’re not accessible for everyone.
But it’s easier than ever to create similar types of immersion experiences right from home. In fact, if you want, you can go your entire day in English wherever you are:
- You can listen to your morning news in English
- You can set your computer and your cell phone to be entirely in English
- You can listen to English podcasts or music on your ride to work
- You can have a conversation in English with someone on the other side of the world at lunch
- You can read English books or watch English television at the gym
My prediction: Immersive experiences in English, like moving to England for university or moving to Australia for work, will still occur. But there will be massive growth in the at-home immersive environments that we can create for ourselves.
What’s not changing
Learning English will continue to require substantial effort
With all of this change, I think there are a number of things that will remain the same. Specifically, I don’t think that how we learn will change very much.
For example, even with all the developments in artificial intelligence, I don’t think we’re going to be able to “AI” ourselves to fluency anytime soon. No one will be able to learn for you.
There really is no substitute for hard work. You will still need to put in the effort to actually learn English.
My prediction: Just like you need to exercise to get fit, you will still need to engage with English to learn it. It will continue to require sustained effort.
You will still need to make time for it
Learning English doesn’t just take effort—it takes time. As nice as it would be to learn instantly, you’re going to have to make time for it.
That’s not going to change, and our lives aren’t set to get any less busy.
My prediction: you will still have to find the time to sit down and engage with English. You’ll continue to be most effective as a learner if you study consistently over months or even years.
Active learning will still be key
Active learning happens when you consciously engage with your material. This can look like identifying and looking up words you don’t know, creating vocabulary flashcards, of writing a summary of a text. Active learning means mentally chewing and processing information.
Passive learning is the opposite. Passive learning is what you’re doing when you're laying back on the couch and watching TV. You may be watching or listening, but you may not be deeply processing the information. The information kind of washes over you, but you’re not working to absorb it.
Active learning is effortful and much more effective than passive learning. And it will continue to be essential to making real progress in English. Until someone figures out how to implant linguistic knowledge deep into your brain, you will have to actively get it in there yourself.
My prediction: As many opportunities as there will be to learn passively (whether from TV or YouTube videos), the most effective activities will still be active learning.
The future of English learning is bright
How we learn English is changing. And like I have had to do with my university class, I think English learners will adapt.
But if I’m right in my predictions, I think most of those changes look promising.
I expect we’ll see that learning a language and connecting to others becomes less expensive, easier to do from our homes, and perhaps more effective.
And I think we can look forward to it being more enjoyable than ever before as we see high-quality and fascinating materials become increasingly available to learners at an intermediate English level.
But I think some critical things won’t change. At its core, learning English will continue to require effort and dedication.
You’ll have to make time for it. And you’ll have to do it actively.
And actually, I think that’s a good thing.
Because in many ways, it's’ all that effort that ultimately makes learning English so rewarding.
To quote the late, great, Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing worth having comes easy.”