“Language learning takes place within the framework of social interaction” – Making Sense: The Acquisition of Shared Meaning.

“Although, in adults, new vocabulary can be learnt independently of the presence of a partner, social interaction may increase the number of cues and referential information in much the same way as it does in infant learning” – Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

With AI spewing out new headlines every day, and the words “Large Language Model” now entering our daily lexicon, it’s easy to forget that language is our human creation, that it’s what has set us apart from the rest of the living beings in the world, and that it’s taken us countless, laborious steps to make the headway we have done in terms of teaching our machines to do what our infants do as a matter of instinct.

Many of us who seek to learn a language become enamored of the latest online tool, or AI teacher, and as a professional linguist, I’m known to use many of them myself, but they are all just one microstep better than that language teacher who buries his or her students in worksheets and wonders why they never speak.

The brain is an amazing machine, and the more we learn about it, the more we learn it isn’t easy to compartmentalize its knowledge. The word brain isn’t stored in your brain in a discreet folder as on a hard drive, ready for retrieval at any second. In fact, we have learned that different areas of the brain light up when you hear the word, or when you speak the word, or when you write the word, or when just now, you read the word. The word brain is then forming connections across these different areas, and also to other words and experiences you’ve had related to the brain, and one of the most powerful factors in creating long-lasting memories are our emotions. Emotions are a lot more genuine in authentic human interaction than the ones programmers contrive us to feel when we use their tools.

It’s also important to remember that learning a language isn’t just like memorizing your shopping list or your friend’s birthdays. It requires constant engagement and practice in authentic, communicative situations to truly become something that you use rather than something that you know. Think of how you learned your first language? You were constantly involved in watching and mimicking what your caretakers were saying to you, and eventually you learned to catch on and say a few things back. In these situations, your brain kicked into gear, doing the language processing that only it knows how to do – way better than any machine – and it can do it again if you put yourself in similar situations in the language you’re trying to learn.

Language learning was never meant to be a merely academic exercise. Humans evolved language because of social concerns and language learning works best when using the language for authentic communication in the community. That’s why our language classes are built around building community for our students and for teaching them the tools to communicate. Being in a social setting gives us something that phone apps just cannot.

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