Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Social Networking: a Game Changer for Language Learning?

I recently took a break from research to do a few days of substitute teaching at a local university’s ESL department. One of my duties was to supervise a group of students in their computer writing lab. I personally thought it was a waste of time for both me as a teacher, and for the students who where given a daily scenario about which they were to write a paragraph-long response. I could have understood the merit of such an activity about ten years ago, but obviously the curriculum developers for this program have yet recognize the widespread use of computers among modern university students and their ability to access the internet from their classrooms, dorm rooms, or even mobile phones.

During this exciting hour of supervising the students in the lab, I found one student fidgeting away on Facebook instead of writing his assignment. Now, in dealing with ESL students I have always taken the approach of American higher education — that is, they are students, but they are adults, and thus do not need me to babysit them, give them permission to go to the restroom, or any other such form of coddling (academic or otherwise) afforded school children. Upon noticing my coming around the corner this student quickly shrank down his web browser and attempted to look gainfully employed in his work before my smile yielded a guilty smirk from him. He seemed amazingly surprised when I told him to go ahead, and that I use Facebook all the time.

While talking to him, I observed that he was playing a zoo animal game of some sort (he’s probably 20), and chatting with a few friends. One chatbox was filled with his native Kazakhstani, another was an obvious flirt with some girl somewhere in the world but in English, and the third was a chat with another student across the room (who had managed their chat more covertly apparently) also in English. After a few minutes he finally stumbled out an “and you don’t mind the Facebook?” to which I replied of course not. My response seemed to confuse him even more until I explained that he was using an English-language version of Facebook, playing an interactive game in English, and having two live conversations (again, in English), all at the same time.  He was learning…he just hadn’t realized it!

As the map above shows, Facebook (light green) has become far more than the college connection it once was.  It’s now a worldwide phenomenon and is growing everyday.  And, websites like Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of what a few years ago would have been a slew of webpages and applications.  Even only 5 years ago just about every country had their own unique online chat program.  They were usually available in only one language, and these different systems rarely allowed users to communicate with those using another service.  Yahoo Messenger and to a lesser extent AIM and Microsoft Messenger seem to have weathered the first decades of the internet, most other smaller services have not been so lucky.  Google and their slew of “killer apps” have taken much of the information realm off the desktop and onto the web, bringing with it handheld data access.  Gmail, Google Maps, and the soon to be release Wave are the game changers of information management that neither users nor Microsoft could have ever imagined a decade ago.

Social Networking

Sites like Myspace, industry leader Facebook, and explosively growing newcomer Twitter are a game changer themselves.  More than merely moving email from Outlook to any internet access point (gmail), these Social Networking sites connect people — people who would have perhaps never bothered with such technology, instantly, continuously, easily and in a dynamic manner that makes staying in touch an integral part of the day.  Just this past week, I realized upon being ‘friended’ by a fellow soldier from my army days that I had lost touch with these 500 or so people I spent so much time with.  So, I started a group for my old unit on Facebook.  Within a day there were 13 other veterans in it.  Within two days that number had reached a hundred, and by the end of this week we were numbering somewhere around 250.  When you think about it, that’s amazing!  Of 500 people I have not seen in years, half have managed to find each other again in a matter of days on Facebook.

Facebook you see, is amazing.  There really is no reason not to promote this product here, because like google, it’s moved beyond the scope of being the property of one company and is now yet another piece of online real estate owned by the world (its upcoming IPO aside).  Like Coca-Cola and Disney, Facebook couldn’t close its doors and drop out of existence today even if it wanted to.  Somebody, somewhere, would keep it going.

The internet changed the world 20 years ago when it connected universities and countries and businesses together.  Suddenly free information exchange became an integral ideal of our modern global psyche.  But the internet, while overall free from control, was not free.  In fact, the cost of access in the early days of the internet precluded many from accessing it.  Then, as webpages became more complex and the quantity of data increased, broadband and other high speed (and high cost) connections became to required conduit for connection.  This meant that if you couldn’t afford DSL, if you didn’t have your own connection, computer, etc that you could not connect and that no matter how much information was out there, it wasn’t for you.

Then, along comes Facebook.  It has a simple interface, requires very little bandwidth, can operate on a slow connection, or even on a mobile phone, and allows anyone with an email address (which thanks to gmail, everyone in the world can now have for free), access to everyone else.  Students now have Facebook pages.  Parents have them, companies, organizations, schools, bands, even favourite foods have facebook pages.  The fact is, anyone and everyone can be on Facebook, and they can all connect, communicate, and converse with everyone else.

That, is a game changer for the Language Learning Industry.  Students, all students, anywhere, can now chat with, send messages to, and share information in English (or any other language).  Finally, the biggest challenge to teachers and students has a solution.  That challenge — an overall lack of language exposure, of contact time, or access to content, is no more.  If your students have a computer, access to an internet cafe, or even a smartphone, they have access to the language they are learning.


The game has changed.  Now, the question is how we, as an industry, will change with it.


December 20, 2009 Posted by | Industry Tends, Teacher Resources | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Overall Decline of Full-time Jobs Indicative of Language Training Industry

The German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, reported recently that the number of full-time jobs in Germany has seen a drastic decline while

Sabine Zimmermann

part-time positions have been on this rise.   Citing a parliamentary inquiry by the socialist Left party, the paper reports that the number of full-time workers had dropped by 1.4 million, or six percent, between 1999 and 2008, while the number of part-time jobs rose by 1.3 million, or 36 percent.  The article also points out that more workers are also being forced to work two jobs, citing an increase of 1.8 million dual-job workers between 2002 and 2007.   Sabine Zimmermann, an economic expert for the for the party, told the paper that loose government regulations making it easier for businesses to create a part-time based work environment are forcing “millions of people into cheap jobs and poverty.”

While this may be news for many in Germany, a country with great social and worker protections, it’s nothing new for workers in countries like the United States which has seen a massive shift from full-time to part-time employment in recent decades.  While the overall global economy may be a bit late to the game on this trend, within the language training industry full-time jobs are now exceedingly rare.

10 years ago it was quite normal for teaching positions, including ESL — teaching English in non-English speaking locales, to be full-time and sometimes even salaried positions.  It should be noted that teaching English has never been a high-paying career.  But at one time, a teacher could work a reasonable number of hours each week and live a comfortable living in the country in which they were working.  Starting in about 2000, many teaching posts began to transition from salaried jobs to freelance positions in which the teacher is classified as a contractor to the school or company in which they teach.

This move from full-time to freelance work has made for major changes in the industry.  Primarily it has shifted the cost of doing business from the language school and onto the teacher.  It allows employers to avoid paying taxes, pensions, health insurance, and other benefits and expenses required by governments of workers.  This of course greatly changes the financial formula for teaching.  Originally many schools offered a higher upfront wage to freelancers to cover some of the added expenses incurred over hourly or salaried teachers.  My first ESL post was in Poland and it was freelance.  At the time I was making 32 Polish Zloty per hour which came with a guarantee of 25 hours per week.  So at 3200 zloty (at the time around USD 1500), I was able to live quite well in Poland.  Over the years I’ve followed teaching jobs in Poland, and today those same jobs (actually even that SAME job) now pays freelancers the equivalent of around $600 per month, even though the cost of living in Poland is now around three times what it was when I taught there.  This does not bode well for teachers.

Germany has by far been the leader in systematically lowering pay among ESL instructors.  Strange, as it’s by far the largest ESL market in Europe and equally odd since German students pay more for their English lessons than anyone else, but this is the case.  The German government loves to regulate anything and everything — especially anything that has an effect on their citizens.  Unfortunately though Germany has shown a bit of a dark side when it comes to language schools.  Language schools almost universally hire foreigners.  Foreigners are not Germans.  And unfortunately for a country which works so hard to protect it’s workers, the German authorities have shown no interest whatsoever in protecting the rights and working conditions of foreign English teachers.

Freelancers, especially non-EU freelancers, pay among the highest income tax rates in all of Germany.  They also are responsible for paying mandatory contributions into the German pension system, mandatory social insurance contributions (even though if they lose their jobs, they are not allowed to receive unemployment benefits), and pay for mandatory German health insurance which can easily cost 3-500 euros for a single person.  In this mix is an added problem, that being that freelance English teachers are among the lowest paid workers in all of Germany.  In Berlin pay for freelance teachers is around €12/ hour.  In Nuremberg this rate hovers between €16-22 depending on experience.  Munich comes in tops with pay in the 20’s being the norm.  Of course, this pay is only based on classroom time.  So while a teacher in Berlin would receive €24 for a two-hour class, he would not receive anything for the hour or travel to and from the location of the client, nor any pay for the hour of preparation of materials for that class, nor for the time spent grading assignments, etc.

Overall it makes for a system where a skilled, in-demand worker may work 50 hours a week yet only be paid for 20.  That 20 hours will be paid at a rate lower than nationals of that country would make, and of that pay, a large portion of it (often 60-75%) is to be paid back to the government for the privilege of working.

As mentioned above, this does not bode well for teachers.  But what school owners and governments fail to recognize is that it doesn’t bode well for them either.  Systems such as these create a class of impoverish workers among people with high-demand skills.  It puts the very people whom are needed to provide German (and Polish, and French, and Chinese) workers with the invaluable skill of learning the international language of science and business in a very awkward situation.  Their willingness to come to these countries, to work long hours, to spend their days educating the very workers the country needs, are rewarded with poverty.

Putting teachers in such a position is a sad affair for these countries and in the end results in a lower quality of education for its workers.  Teachers with skills shall inevitably be forced to look to other markets for work which rewards their skills with a living wage, while countries like Germany and Poland will be left with only the lowest quality of teacher.

Germany led the ESL industry down this path from reasonably paid salaried positions, to full-time hourly employment, to part-time employment, and finally to freelancers.  They have done this to save money.  Now they need to reverse the policies that have made these deplorable working conditions the norm.  To save their industry, and to protect their citizens from unscrupulous school owners increasing profits by providing low-quality courses from underpaid teachers, they need to step in, and regulate the Language Training Industry just as they would any other industry.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Industry Tends | , , , , , , | 1 Comment