Advanced English, Drawn from the Headlines

Samuel of Babbel’s Didactics team discusses our most recent Advanced English course, and how fluency can help paint a picture of how we show up to the world.

Samuel works in Babbel’s Didactics team, designing and optimizing our English courses to deliver the most effective and engaging learning experience possible. With our most recent Advanced English course, the lessons get learners conversant in everything from gender identity, to gentrification and urbanism, to new workplace models. We sat down with him to talk about why fluency in these themes serves not just learning, but how we show up to the world.

I think, first, we should talk about: Why an English course in English? The logic of that may not be apparent at first glance.

Yeah sure! Language learning is all about talking, right? You see it’s pretty much agreed these days that the more exposure a learner gets to the language they’re learning, the faster and more effectively they’ll learn it. In a classroom setting it’s now normal that a language is taught almost exclusively in that language from the start. And it works. That’s what I learnt as an English teacher… and as someone who successfully scaled the formidable cliff-face of German as an adult with no prior familiarity. And as someone whose work and personal life are now largely conducted in German, I’m the proof in the pudding, so to speak.

But, of course, I always had a friendly teacher on hand to explain things when I didn’t have a clue what was going on. With Babbel Classic at beginner and intermediate level, we introduce new vocabulary and explain things in the learner’s native language to make sure there’s no confusion. For advanced learners this becomes unnecessary, as they should already have a solid enough knowledge of the language they’re learning to cope with simple instructions, guidance, etc. In fact, it’s important at this stage that the learner develops the ability to be able to work things out for themselves, as they would in real life, using the knowledge they already have in a given context to work out the meaning of longer texts, audio recordings, new phrases and sentence structures.

At levels B2 and above you should have a good grasp of grammar, and it’s more about broadening your vocabulary, mastering different styles, and learning to express yourself in a nuanced way. Both in our new story courses and this first advanced course, we give tons of tips for mastering the English people really speak and have made sure that our learners get exposure to a broad spectrum of native accents, idiomatic language and different written forms. Because it’s important that people can communicate well with other people, and not just understand the weather report. Language is a living, evolving thing, and the content of these courses is as contemporary as it gets.

This course represents a pivot of sorts. Inasmuch as the themes it covers are arguably provocative. What was the impetus for that?

Are the themes provocative? They’re certainly current and, I think, important. The first unit deals with politics, which you could argue is vital in understanding how any society operates. It gives the learner the vocabulary required to understand the British and American political systems, to discuss and analyse those topics. Considering the radical shifts that are taking place across the West right now, I’d say this is essential for any learner, young or old.

The second unit takes a look at the Women’s Movement, personal politics, gender, and identity, which are some of the defining issues of the moment and certainly issues close to my heart. Language, identity, and power are so inextricably intertwined that it’s almost impossible to teach something like job titles without mentioning the history and current usage of these terms. I believe that learners of any language should be well-informed about current trends of thought and cultural debate in that language – at the least it helps keep you from making cultural faux-pas. And at best you’re able to take part in such discussions yourself and to understand the opinions of others. Babbel promotes diversity – and in fact is one of the most diverse places you could work – and my choice of topics reflects our values. I think it’s necessary to represent a range of opinions on any topic, of course. We teach languages and let our users come to their own ethical conclusions.

The final unit of this first advanced course covers urban topics like migration, gentrification, megacities, sustainability, and new urban working models. Again, these are highly contemporary issues, and now that more than half the global population live in urban environments, they affect the majority of people. What we’ve tried to do is equip our advanced users with a range of English language skills that will help them successfully navigate their everyday lives – to empower them and foster meaningful communication, whether they’re chatting with the Aussie guy that serves them coffee every morning, trying to get their head around the absurdities of the political scene, or living and working in an English-speaking country.

And this was actually the burning question I had going into this. If the pivotal aspect of language-learning is engaging in conversation, then what native speakers are talking about in a given language, in a given moment matters, right? Those topics are assets in the learning journey.

Yes, of course! If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you’ll know how many textbooks are outdated and ridiculously formal. If the person who’s created the learning materials is fixated on teaching some kind of petrified, ‘proper’ form of English, or has no awareness of current usage and cultural context, when you hit your local high-street you might find a lot of what you’ve learnt is irrelevant (“You what, mate?”).

Cultural awareness is a huge part of effective communication, and the ideas that are floating around at any given time influence what people are saying and thinking. You can see this in the language. In English, neologisms are constantly being coined, disseminated, and, if they’re very popular, they end up in the dictionary. This creative part of language sometimes gets overlooked, but it’s the most fun part. And as such, it’s a great advantage to focus on contemporary topics and language use instead of old-fashioned greetings and rarely-heard formulations (unless you’re a scholar, of course).

Also I don’t think you can underestimate the connection between linguistic ability and social status. The pen being mightier than the sword and all that. If I’ve had, say, an education that equips me to write history convincingly, and am able to express my opinions and desires in a clever way, I’m going to be able to shape my world and dominate others, right? But the odds are stacked from the start. If, like me, you grew up in a patriarchal society, the language being used all around you will be affirming those patriarchal structures without most people even being aware of it.

However much you want to rail against ‘PC’ values, it’s a fact that the English language is used to manipulate, discriminate, and disenfranchise on a daily basis. Drawing attention to these issues is the first step in changing that. What I’d like to do – and this is one of the advantages of online learning – is reach a diverse demographic, promote awareness, and empower people through language learning.

It also seems to me that the degree to which someone can see themselves reflected in the language they’re learning is going to impact their motivation and success, no? For example, if women’s or gender non-conforming people’s experiences or migrant experiences are invisible in that learning journey,  it’d be easy for someone with any of those experiences to see it as not being for them, and not a prism through which their experiences can be cast. Was that part of the thinking in developing this course?

There’s definitely a relationship between your attitude to the language you’re trying to learn and your learning success. It’s recognised that intrinsic motivation is a more powerful drive than extrinsic motivation, and we encourage learners to find something that connects them to the language they’ve chosen – whether that’s food, song, politics, or experimental poetry.

Your point about being reflected in the language is a little bit different though I think, more about explicit recognition of these themes giving people a way of finding their place in a new language, perhaps? When I asked French feminist writer and polyglot literary critic Hélène Cixous how she decides which language she’ll start writing a piece in, she responded that it’s all just one human language, and I get her point. Because despite surface differences, the human experience is incredibly similar, and that’s why we can even begin to understand each other. The diversity of our languages reflects different attempts at describing our environment, but since we all live on the same planet with other people who have the same general physiology, these environments and means of expression aren’t hugely different.

But I’m not invoking some kind of universalism here – variety is healthy, it keeps us on our toes. And language learning gives us the possibility of reflecting on our own culture, beliefs, habits – on where we come from – from the outside, so to speak. If I didn’t know that there are languages that have such a thing as grammatical gender, I might not notice similar or startlingly different traits in my own language and whatever effects this may have on the society I live in.

Coming back to your point, I think it’s possible to find ourselves reflected in any language if we look closely enough. But yes, these advanced courses aim to raise the bar a bit, approach some challenging topics and speak to a disenfranchised demographic. There’s something to be said for bumping up against uncomfortable linguistic realities that fire us up and provoke interest that goes beyond just ordering coffee, and the themes I’ve selected for this and forthcoming advanced courses aim to address topics that are important for anyone alive today.

Increasing people’s interest in and access to other languages is about giving people the opportunity to empower themselves. I mean, I can campaign for other people’s civil liberties, but it’s even better if people can stand up for themselves, right? So yes, I hope these courses spark a passion for the English language among disenfranchised groups… but not exclusively. Babbel’s mission is ‘Everyone. Learning. Languages.’, after all.