At this moment, I don't know whether the One Laptop Per Child will exist next month. I also cannot predict whether Intel will continue with their Classmate project if the OLPC XO is abandoned. But I am Winter and I am optimist. I will assume that, starting next year, millions of children in the developing world will take a laptop home and will have some form of limited internet access.
Many have questioned the added value of these laptop programs in education. To inject more substance in these discussions, I want to present a specific case of real added value. Many innovative and imaginative scenarios have been given. But, frankly, I feel unable to predict such new uses convincingly. I didn't see Google coming, nor spam, so why should I be able to see the next innovation coming?
So I will focus on a well understood part of education. This is a part of education that I have never even seen mentioned in the discussions about these projects. I will introduce the subject with an, admittedly stale, joke:
Q: How do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: A trilingual
Q: How do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: A bilingual
Q: How do you call a person who speaks only one language?
A: An American
This joke tells us two things. First, if you are rich and powerful, eg, an American, everyone speaks your language. Second, the rest of the people will have to learn new languages after they enter school.
The language situation in the developing world is complex. Children have to handle national, official, school, playground, and home languages. For many children, these are five different languages. It is obvious that the laptop programs will have an impact on this environment. But I will ignore this and focus on the learning of foreign languages.
In most parts of the world, people can increase their career prospects by mastering some foreign language. Therefore, most countries have implemented language learning programs in their schools. For instance, in my country, the Netherlands, two or three foreign languages are mandatory for most children: German, French, and English. Many choose a fourth, eg, Spanish, Italian, Russian, or even Mandarin (starting next year). We can ignore the classical languages, Latin and Greek, for this discussion.
If we summarize centuries of experience, language learning comes down to practicing. The best-practice approach is to read, write, listen, and speak as much as possible. Technology clearly helps in the textual part, as reading and writing benefit from the internet, eg, on-line newspapers and magazines, and email is used in correspondence programs with foreign students. Technology also helps with speech. While learning a language, a student should listen and speak to native speakers.
In the Netherlands, qualified teachers can play this part. But without such a teacher, it is common practice to distribute recordings and spoken courses. The student can listen to the recordings and record her own speech and compare the playback to the examples. This is all well known and practiced everywhere in the world. Qualified language teachers are scarce in the developing world. How can the laptop projects help in language learning?
First, of course, by supplying loads of recent reading material in the target language and allowing correspondence projects. Just as in the developed world. Normally, our students listen to CDs or iPods to practice listening.
The target population of the laptop projects will have only limited, or no, access to these means. However, the laptops can supply the playback and also double as voice-recorders. Speech takes a lot of room on disk, but with free compression programs like Ogg Speex and school servers, this problem is largely solved.
The laptops do solve the major inhibitor of computer use in language teaching: Non- and sub-standard audio equipment. All laptops are quiet and have reasonable quality audio in/output. They are also small enough to do without headsets.
Teaching material is plenty. Look around in Google and you will find countless on-line or digital courses in any language you want. So any country that wants to include language courses on the laptop can either buy and adapt some existing course or ask its universities and publishers to develop a new one.
To summarize my point. Students in the developing world need and want to learn foreign languages. Language learning is most efficient if the students have access to a lot of original written and spoken material in that language. They also can use existing technology to help them practicing writing and speaking. With no access to alternative technologies, the laptop projects will be invaluable in enhancing the effectiveness of language teaching.
I will end with the title. Why is this un-American? Because North American students are some of the few students in the world who can safely choose NOT to learn a foreign language.