Is there a classroom after the classroom is gone?

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Reporting from the geriatric desk at Language Log Plaza: I retired from the classroom almost 13 years ago and I sometimes miss teaching linguistics to my students. I’ve continued to consult with lawyers on their criminal and civil law cases and I still write articles and books, but I’ve found that I rather miss my daily contact with students. So, in an effort to keep some kind of contact alive, I set up my website in such a way that if people who want access to some of my papers on it, they first have to email me and tell me something about themselves and why they want access to this material.

Even when the information they give me is minimal, I usually give them my password anyway. We often have two or three email exchanges about their questions, but most of the time I never hear from them again. Once in a while I actually get an opportunity to teach that is more than simply giving them access to my published papers. One example of this bears some amplification. Here’s the story.

Over a year ago, a 37 year-old linguistics student in Iran wrote me for some help with her master’s thesis on a forensic linguistics topic and we had a series of email exchanges that she claims were very helpful. Her English was minimal, but I could usually figure out what she meant. It didn’t take long to discover that I was helping with her English as much as with her thesis topic. She eventually completed her thesis and in the process greatly improved her ability to write in English, well enough in fact to cause her department chair to ask her to teach English courses to students at her university,

She accepted the job and now our almost daily email exchanges have turned to the problems she’s having with the beginning English textbook that she’s using. I don’t know what that textbook is, but it is full of samples of American English, including tape-recorded examples. Her emails, among other things, concern American culture, pop icons, celebrations, holidays, and scads of “how do you pronounce this?” questions. Many questions are about grammar and usage issues that most native speakers take for granted without even thinking about.

I’ve greatly enjoyed my new after-the-classroom classroom role and I wonder why other people, retired linguists in particular, don’t do the same thing. If you can find a struggling scholar in another country, especially one who has only limited access to current scholarship, you can become a tutor by email. I certainly recommend it, both for the overseas learner and for the long-distance tutors like me. I suppose it helps to be a linguist, because language specialists can give the most up to date information and the reasons why certain language features work the way they do. As a side benefit, we can always hope that we might offer some subtle improvements in international cooperation as well.

But maybe such language learning collaboration is commoner than I suspected. For example, Atsuki Kobayashi runs a website, where users can write journal entries in the language that they are learning, and then get responses and corrections from a respondent who is a native speaker of that language. I know very little about it but the website says that this also works two ways, when both users are learning each other’s language.

Now here’s a novel idea—learn a language dynamically (I would call it an electronic version of the submersion technique) rather than in the usual classroom method.

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