The Future Of: Learning Languages

Featuring Dr Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford

The Future Of series asks UOW experts and researchers a set of five questions to gain some insight into the future states of our lives, our communities, and the world.

Dr Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford is Senior Lecturer in French and discipline leader for the Languages and Linguistics programme in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Her research interests include language contact in French multilingual creolophone societies and Technology Enhanced Language Learning. 

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

My research is twofold. My sociolinguistics research is related to my PhD investigation on patterns of language use and maintenance of heritage languages in young generations of multilingual speakers.

Based in Mauritius, my study investigated language shift and language maintenance in situations of language contact between English, French, Creole and a dozen Asian heritage languages.

I have now added Australia and French New Caledonia to expand my expertise on changing patterns of language use, since I believe that younger generations are our future as they will be our leaders of tomorrow. Thus, my Australian research focuses on the maintenance of heritage languages in Australians of Indian descent.

In New Caledonia, I examined factors influencing language shift between generations as Melanesian Indigenous languages are competing with French, English and other migrant languages from the Pacific in the home context.

My second area of research is in Technology Enhanced Language Learning (TELL) as I believe that teaching and learning need to embrace potential offered by technology.

However, the challenge for language practitioners is how to use technology efficiently to enhance learning in a pedagogically sound manner.

One of my current collaborative research aims at building a hybrid learning model to improve the oral communication skills in students of French.

The novelty of this model is to engage students across the undergraduate curriculum whereby more advanced students assist their less advanced peers by providing them with formative feedback on their spoken language using new technologies.

The advantage of this blended approach is in using social learning to engage students collaboratively and increasing their assessment literacy.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

Artificial Intelligence or AI with computers are constantly evolving which can be both exciting and daunting. We can now instantly translate on Facebook, Google in a variety of languages without even speaking or interacting with native speakers.

We can shop, order food in a restaurant, buy train tickets using our mobile phones in multiple languages! Which is great!

Nevertheless, can we get algorithms to engage in diplomacy, cultural nuances, idiosyncrasies and non-verbal cues? Can AI use different tone of voices, make decisions and care for other people like we humans do?

I would not think so, but when we combine algorithms with social, analytical, creative and specialist skills in innovations, then we could say that the sky is the limit!

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

Anglophones assume that they do not need to learn another language than English and they can rely on their mobile devices, which is a very superficial way of engaging with people.

Establishing business and commercial links requires more than specialist knowledge in a subject, it requires making connections with humans, having an awareness and understanding of their cultures and values.

One of the challenges with the new technologies is to show their limitations from an academic perspective. Technology might allow you to solve a problem - for example order a meal and get a train ticket - but it does not enable you to engage with people and immerse yourself in the culture of the language you are studying.

Learning a language is sequential and it takes time. There is no app, to my knowledge, that can teach students the cultural nuances and how to behave in different social contexts.

However, that is not to say that technology is not useful. It is a learning tool and the challenge is how to use it efficiently.

Where do opportunities lie for young people thinking about a career in this field?

Research in second language acquisition has shown that studying a foreign language is a good way of boosting one’s brainpower because when you learn a new language and its culture, it isn't just about learning how to read, write and speak that language; it is also learning skills that go beyond language proficiency.

In our language and culture classes here at the University our language students carry out group and individual tasks in French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish which require them to communicate, negotiate, analyse and present that information to either specialist group or a lay audience.

These are exactly the kind of social and global transferable skills that employers are seeking in the graduates they want to employ in areas of banking, computing, journalism, law, teaching, marketing or tourism.

In all these industries, a modern language integrated in any degree will speak volumes on the Curriculum Vitae.

What's the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

It is never too late to learn a language! Learning a new language is a social experience as it gives the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, with different life experiences.

In the same way as any discipline, to be proficient in a language takes time because language learning is sequential and it is not an easy transferrable skill.

One of our students specialising in Mandarin is running a Languages Café where students and staff can engage in weekly conversation with students on exchange from China, France, Italy, Japan and Spain over a cup of coffee.

Another co-curricular program we have is the UOW Language Ambassadors into local high schools scheme, where students go on placement at local high schools to assist with the teaching and learning of their specialist language.

This is a great opportunity to include a work experience whilst still at university and enhance one’s language skills by teaching the language. It's still early to say whether the Language Ambassador Program is having a positive impact on increasing student numbers enrolling in Modern Foreign Languages in schools, but it certainly is having a positive impact on exposing students to foreign languages and motivating them to study languages.

What is clear for the future, however, is that the more stakeholders collaborate on the ground to promote the teaching and learning of languages, the easier it will be to reverse the perception that monolingualism is the norm in Australia.

For more from Dr Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford you can visit her UOW Scholars profile, which links to her papers and publications.

Explore UOW's International Studies undergraduate courses.