At the crossroads of psychology and technology


Voxy’s Chief Education Officer Dr. Katharine Nielson explores research that is shaping how foreign language is taught

It’s not uncommon for phrases like “I took three years of Spanish in high school” or “I studied German for two semesters” to be paired with “…and I don’t remember a word of it.” Grammar drills, conjugation exercises, and rote memorization of stock sentences (Monsieur Calvet a un nouveau chapeau; A Juanita le gusta bailar con sus primos; and so on) have left many Americans monolingual.

Fortunately for adults looking to take up or revisit their foreign-language studies, there are a number of programs that look nothing like those well-worn approaches. Instead, today’s most successful language acquisition software taps into linguistic, psychological, and behavioral research to keep students engaged.

In this interview, Maria Khodorkovsky speaks with Katharine Nielson, Chief Education Officer at Voxy, to learn some of the methods and best practices underlying language-learning in the modern world. Dr. Nielson, whose doctoral research focused on technology-mediated language training, also provides tips for students that want to break out of the cycle of fruitless study to reach working fluency in their language of choice.

MK: How did you first get involved with Voxy and how has your linguistics background shaped the work you do there?
KN: I was working on evaluating and creating language programs when I was approached to help determine if [Voxy’s] product was worth funding….The premise behind it was in line with how we know adults learn languages and how we know distance language-learning works. [The premise] was originally to focus on relevant news and have learners learn from real-world materials. And we know that those things are very important for adults for a number of reasons. Adults need access to authentic content because they need lots of examples of real language in practice – not the language that textbook writers think might make sense, but real people speaking real language. And we also know that adults need content that’s motivating, because if you don’t pay attention then you don’t learn.
MK: How do you and your team develop Voxy’s curriculum? Who is involved and how do you determine which content to use?
KN: The largest part of our business is working with institutions. We have Higher Ed institutions that use us as a supplement to face-to-face instruction or as part of learners’ English language classes or as an additional service they offer to their students. Depending on the model, we integrate with their curriculum or we have our own….We make sure that what we offer learners meets their needs….We believe, based on a lot of research both in-house and external, that language-learning works best when it’s focused on what people need to have. We offer materials for anything from having job interviews to travel to managing employees to reading recipes. Whatever a learner wants to do in English, we offer materials to facilitate that.
MK: How much autonomy does the language-learner have in choosing the material? Is it completely up to them which direction their studies go?
KN: No. It’s guided because we also know that autonomous language-learning doesn’t work and that people don’t know how to pick the right things. So what we’ve done is we’ve built personalization algorithms that allow us to offer learners materials based on what they need and how they’re performing in English. So when learners first come to the site, they take what’s called the Voxy Proficiency Assessment and then we have an idea of their baseline English proficiency. They also answer a few questions about why they’re learning English: is it to prepare for a standardized test? Is it to get a new job? Is it because they want to enroll in college in the U.S? We ask them what their interests are, if they like sports or politics or arts and culture. Based on those inputs, we start building them a curriculum dynamically. But we don’t prescribe a whole course of action. We add resources as they’re working.
MK: From working with students and institutions at Voxy, are there any tips you can give second-language students?
KN: One of them is to understand that language-learning is learning a skill. It’s not learning a more traditional content area…. You need to be able to do something, because language is a tool that we use to accomplish tasks…. Language students should first ask themselves, “Why am I learning this language? What am I going to need to be able to do in the language?” And then look for a course that sets you up to practice doing those things.
When you start any new skill, you’re terrible at it, and so language learners shouldn’t be discouraged by [that]….If you understood everything up front, you wouldn’t be learning anything. Learning to do something new is hard. Learning to do something that’s a skill is hard because someone can explain it to you, but until you try to do it yourself, you don’t realize where all the gaps are in your competence. So when you go to a class and it feels very warm and fuzzy and you get a list of words and you translate them, that’s great, but that’s not helping you learn to speak the language at all….But if you go to a language class and hear an audio clip or a movie or listen to the teacher speak in real-time and you have no idea what’s going on, but you understand one or two words, THAT is a good language class.
MK: So would you say that there should be a certain level of discomfort that needs to be powered through in order to make real progress?
KN: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
MK: What kind of trends are you seeing in the language industry and how do you think foreign language study will look in the next 5-10 years?
KN: That’s an interesting question. I think we’re starting to see more people moving away from really traditional grammar and translation methodology for language learning and moving towards approaches that tend to work better. There’s been a lot of research about the psycholinguistic factors that need to be taken into consideration when setting up an environment for language learning, and I think we’re starting to see schools and products and companies building their tools around that research, which is important and something that I hope continues….A lot of language-learners will intuitively tell you, “I think the way I was taught is wrong because I can’t say anything.” And so my hope is that in the next 20 or 30 years…that people will start to rethink how we teach language, how we assess language.

For more information about Voxy, including course structure, independent research, and case studies, visit them on the web or connect on Facebook.
Interview has been condensed and edited.


by Maria Khodorkovsky