Connections, media and robots
This past weekend, I travelled to Mainz to join language experts from around Europe in discussing current developments in language learning. We ended up gazing into the future and debating the merits of robots.
The occasion was the 23rd gathering of the ICC: The International Language Association, a network for promoting standards in language learning. The meeting went under the title of "The 21st Century Language Teacher in Adult, Continuing and Higher Education". For details of the programme, see here.
Mainz was an appropriate choice of venue for two key reasons, relating to connections and media.
The capital of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Mainz sits on the west bank of the Rhine. Across the river to the north is Wiesbaden, the capital of Hesse, while directly east of Mainz, the Main river links the city with Frankfurt.
In other words, Mainz is a point of connection, an interface between cities, states and even countries. And teachers themselves increasingly have to be effective interfaces — or what one could call "connection artists" (not to be confused with "con artists").
Business English teachers, for example, have to act as interfaces between learners, sponsoring organizations, colleagues, research, technology, theory and other disciplines — including not just pedagogy and linguistics, but also organizational management, pyschology, sales and marketing, as well as intercultural theory and practice.
Mainz was also the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who was born in the city around the end of the 14th century and died there in 1468. Gutenberg was a media revolutionary who introduced movable-type printing to Europe.
Karl Damke, director of English studies and foreign languages at the Adult Education Institute in Wiesbaden, gave a highly entertaining talk locating Gutenberg's printing process in the historical development of media from oral story-telling and wall paintings, through to smart phones and apps.
Other topics at the meeting included a discussion of the growing phenomenon of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) at Italian universities by Francesca Helm from the University of Padua, and a panel discussion on the role of language teaching in integrating refugees (see here for materials in German provided by our sister magazine, Deutsch perfekt).
The gathering ended with a lively and highly amusing debate on whether robots will replace human language teachers in the classroom. An appalling thought, said opponents, who argued that the human component in teaching would be missing. A possible answer to teacher shortages, said proponents.
The majority of the experts present opposed the idea of teachers being replaced by robots, no doubt partly because they feared for their jobs. It was, however, agreed that robots — in whatever form — could be useful supplements to teachers.
I suspect, far-fetched though it perhaps sounds, that the day when robots are a standard feature in language teaching may be closer than we think.
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