Talking in the Library

Jason Teshuba describes how access to online language learning programs is invigorating America’s libraries

Sometimes big, transformative events can begin with just a few small steps.

In Benicia, California, a library literacy director faced with budget cuts found a new path for immigrants to learn English. In suburban Chicago computer labs, Eastern European immigrants and their children learn each other’s native tongue. In Oklahoma City, an engaging, multi-layered program has brought the library to the forefront of local language learning.

Across the country, libraries are democratizing language learning, offering multiple avenues for exposure and shattering stereotypes about the role they can play in the community. Advances in language learning software have made possible much of this growth. The relationship has been mutually beneficial, with libraries expanding in scope and impact, and language programs reaching out to new audiences in new places in fresh and exciting ways. The libraries highlighted in this article have all taken advantage of Mango Languages’ software, but we believe that our observations are part of a broader trend in the industry that empowers both libraries and language learners.

Talking the Talk
In an increasingly interconnected global community, where cultural obstacles and international borders are steadily being rendered less definitive by the integrative influence of communication, technology and commerce, the cultural currency of language is becoming more and more important.

In juxtaposition to the multilingual global community is a relatively bare American linguistic landscape that highlights a potentially alarming dichotomy: while 65 percent of the world is bilingual, only nine percent of Americans speak more than one language. That discrepancy is even more troubling when you consider the fact that America is increasingly multicultural and multiethnic: 18 percent of Americans do not speak English at home and nine percent of Americans do not speak any English at all. The result is that, at a time when the world is growing increasingly closer and more interconnected, the vast majority of Americans lack the basic skills needed to communicate and compete.

The fast-growing popularity of language learning tools and programs is an acknowledgement of these new realities, and a confirmation that many people are eager and willing to learn new languages. But while the benefits of learning new languages may be clear, the accessibility and affordability of traditional methods are still an issue for many Americans. It is here where public libraries have begun to gain significant traction. By offering online and computer-driven language learning tools to communities around the country, libraries have had some noteworthy successes opening up new linguistic and cultural vistas to families and individuals who would otherwise not have been able to utilize them. The synergies between public libraries and automated language learning programs are significant, and anecdotal evidence from around the country reveals some exciting new support for the notion that many patrons are “checking out” more than just books at their local libraries.

As some public library systems are discovering, there are ways to move forward with effective and engaging language learning programs, even when budgetary limitations and funding cuts limit available resources. One such system, the Benecia Public Library (BPL) in Benicia, California, has done so with particular success. Located on the east side of the San Francisco Bay area, BPL serves the nearly 30,000 residents of the city of Benicia and is accessible to the more than 400,000 residents of Solano County. A significant part of the library’s mandate is language and literacy education, focused particularly on the large local Spanish-speaking population.

For more than 20 years, BPL’s literacy program has provided one-on-one tutoring to English speaking adults. With changes in the city’s demographics, the program began offering ESL classes for non-English speaking residents. The classes are a critical part of the library’s outreach to the Spanish-speaking community and provide a significant, tangible service for residents. In early 2011, California state funding cuts triggered limited local budgets and forced the library to lay off staff for the adult literacy & ESL program; the layoffs had a large impact on the ESL small groups and classes that were an integral part of the programming. BPL needed to continue its efforts to reach out to the community, but no longer had the resources to pay staff to teach classes.

The ESL classes have been critical for those who struggle to find employment without basic conversational English skills. Library staff knew they needed to find a way to continue offering these services without the instructors they’d relied on for decades. In conjunction with volunteers who help non-native speakers continue to hone their skills, a digital program has successfully provided a new and effective way for students to learn a new language.

The results have been dramatic. The program has proven to be both affordable and effective. For the first time, a single instructor can track the progress of anyone involved in the literacy program to see how often and for how long they’ve been practicing their English skills. Library patrons are able to log in and continue their efforts from home on their own schedule.

“For our patrons, the interactive nature of the program and the friendliness for even a first time user make it a great way to start learning a new language,” says Lynne Price, BPL’s literacy services supervisor. Price maintains a weekly language lab workshop where volunteers can answer learners’ questions and evaluate progress. Many participants also complete lessons by logging in from home.

In the face of staff cutbacks and budget cuts on both the state and local level, the ability of BPL to continue its traditional role as a hub of language learning for the community is truly remarkable. Perhaps most encouragingly, BPL’s willingness to take risks and try new approaches to maximize available resources has been rewarded by enthusiastic participation from users who continually demonstrate that they not only value the software, but that they are putting it to good use.

“I’ve seen students start using this software and truly take off,” added Price. “Because they can learn at their own pace and on their own time, motivated learners can progress very quickly and get much more comfortable in conversation. I’m so thankful that we’ve found a way to continue our mission and help people find the tools to succeed in improving their language skills.”

Branching Out
The greatest potential for the use of language learning programs may be in their ability to ramp up service to supplement and expand more traditional programs on a broader community- and region-wide scale. Oklahoma County’s Metropolitan Library System (MLS) provides an excellent example of this dynamic in action.
MLS is a significant presence across Oklahoma County: a positive force bringing together diverse communities and engaging underprivileged areas and populations. MLS is composed of 12 full-service libraries and five smaller libraries that cater to more than 700,000 residents. Like so many communities across the country, in recent years the Oklahoma City metro area has adapted to the realities of an increasingly multicultural demographic profile. MLS identified a growing need for better and more accessible language learning options, and the system wanted to increase the visibility of its language learning offerings to boost awareness and encourage more patrons to take advantage. Traditional language learning classes were already available at many MLS branches, but the existing system did not have the ability to reach out to a wider audience. Structural barriers to entry included cost (the classes necessitate a small fee to cover the instructors), timing (many in their target audience did not have the requisite scheduling flexibility to make the class times), and variety (different language classes are offered at different libraries, but local options, even in the most popular languages, are always limited). Faced with those challenges, MLS determined that a more agile and flexible approach to language learning was the best option.

After adopting a system-wide online language learning program, MLS now offers more than 50 language and English language learning courses, including basic and more advanced lessons. Not only does this depth and breadth of online functionality eliminate the logistical and financial roadblocks of trying to teach every language course at every branch, the program’s accessibility has expanded beyond the libraries themselves: library patrons use the software at home, enabling them to learn both at their own pace and in their own place. MLS has continued its paid language classes, but they now work in conjunction with the introductory courses offered in many more languages than it was able to offer previously. MLS has benefited in some unexpected ways as well. The system’s push to expand the program and increase participation has been boosted by a program framework that includes a fully-trained staff of language educators to help manage the program and its users, and by a diverse array of supplementary promotional materials to help get the word out. Librarians are excited about the possibilities for their patrons, who in turn have taken advantage of a benefit many do not associate with their local library.

Since MLS adopted the program in 2010, users have logged more than 12,000 sessions. Oklahoma County residents seem thrilled to have the added language options and the library has grown as a hub for language learning among both English speakers and for those learning the language. Many users have expressed excitement about the availability of a free program that is easy to use, accessible and flexible, and uses the latest technology to teach conversational skills and cultural context. MLS has even been able to successfully build valuable new relationships with local schools by inviting them to use the program. The bottom line is that the MLS library system has leveraged this popularity and ongoing success to deliver language learning capabilities on a broad scale and strengthened their ties to the community in the process.

Public Works
Perhaps most important is the way in which language learning programs can embrace the cultural realities along with the social aspects of acquiring and using language skills. Light years ahead of the “read and repeat” rote memorization of the past, the best new language learning programs use interactive and engaging strategies to make the process both fun and relevant, and they deliver those lessons in a cultural context that resonates with learners. Teaching not just the “what” of a language, but the “why” of a different culture keeps students interested, inspired and engaged, and they learn faster, learn more, and retain more information.

Steve Browne, an adult librarian at Mount Prospect Public Library just outside of Chicago, has witnessed that phenomenon firsthand. The library added Mango Languages to its resources several years ago under his watch.

“I thought bringing in language learning software would be a great way to add something to our offerings that would be of value to patrons.”

What Browne — and librarians and administrators around the country — are starting to appreciate is that the best technology-based language learning helps users become not just multilingual, but multicultural. Browne specifically cites the new program’s cultural references as a selling point.

“What appealed to me was the way in which the program helped our patrons understand the place, not just the language. It’s critical to knowing how to use certain words and phrases and I’ve seen firsthand that it makes a world of difference for travelers.”

The Mount Prospect Library has actively promoted the new program, and the results of that promotion have been both impressive and inspiring. The library has experienced the gratifying sight of different generations coming in to use the program: grandparents from Eastern Europe who want to improve their English, as well as their children and grandchildren who want to learn their ancestral tongue and communicate more clearly to forge a stronger connection with their older relatives. The Russian language component of the program has seen particularly active use.

“Most people are casual learners and it’s very welcoming to beginners. It excels at getting people started and excited about a language.”

Skills that Translate
What Browne and other library administrators are realizing is that programs like Mango Languages not only provide language learners with new information, they provide them with the tools they need to draw important connections between those pieces of information; combining vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and culture into a dynamic language learning cocktail. Excited users find that they are not just conjugating, they are communicating; adopting the rhythms and cadence of language in an intuitive and memorable way. Fundamentally, learning a new language is a creative endeavor, and libraries, as a traditional venue for creativity and intellectually stimulating activity, are the ideal public resource for engaging communities in the activities of learning new languages. As centers of knowledge have always done, they provide invaluable opportunities for expanding horizons and celebrating cultural connections. Today, next generation language learning systems are helping to further that mission, and they are doing so in ways that are compelling, affordable, efficient, and effective.

Jason Teshuba is the CEO and founder of Mango Languages.