New Approach to Foreign Language Learning Puts Power-Glide Worlds Ahead of Their Peers
Advanced pedagogy offers hope for anyone trying to learn a foreign language
To begin with a small confession: until very recently, about six weeks before writing this review, we had never heard of Power-Glide language courses, despite being well-acquainted with a large variety of language learning resources.
Several things piqued our interest about Powerglide. We were curious why they had seemingly avoided the extensive marketing hype common to many of the others, and had opted for a more understated approach. We were curious why they seemed to be so well-thought of by teachers and home-schoolers and were the only company we've encountered that produced home-study courses eligible for academic credit. And most of all, we were intrigued by the promise on the very front of their Ultimate Adventure Course activity book:"Go from beginning to advanced levels in one course."
This review is based on our experiences with the Power-Glide Ultimate Adventure Spanish Course, designed for learners from grades 7 to adult. Power-Glide also produces a series of language courses for younger children, which will be reviewed here in the coming weeks.
The Limitations of the Status Quo
The vast majority of language courses we have encountered are eerily similar in their composition and organization. Typically, they are broken down into lesson-length chapters that correspond to an overarching grammatical topic, such as the complete conjugations of the verb "to be", or the present indicative tense of regular verbs. The chapters are often rigidly uniform in structure, confronting you with a list of vocabulary to memorize, some verbs to conjugate, a contrived passage or two to read, and a smattering of fill-in-the-blank exercises or the like. For some of them, it's as though someone just carved up a reference manual and pasted it back together in a different order and called it a course.
This would not be so much of an issue if this approach were actually effective. Unfortunately, psychological research has long demonstrated that learning by rote is inefficient, and is inconsistent with current models of how human memory works. Just through our own experiences, we have found that people who consider themselves fluent in a second language after as much as 10+ years of this kind of traditional study (including classroom-based learning) are the exception, not the rule. There is certainly something wrong here.
The Power-Glide Course
Our Power-Glide Spanish Course arrived in a nice little box, a little smaller than a file folder and about two inches thick. Tightly packed inside were a teacher's guide and a very thick 300-page activity book, along with a packet of CDs, including 9 audio CDs for a stereo or portable CD player, and one CD-ROM for a PC or Macintosh computer.
It was clear right away that this was a thorough and substantive learning package, one which could properly be called a "course". The course itself is organized into 267 "activities" (not "lessons"), each of which could be completed in a single session. If one works consistently at the course, it is realistic to complete it in approximately a year, however its flexible nature allows you to work at whatever speed suits you the best, whether faster or slower.
Learner-Centered Course Design
A fundamental flaw in the design of most popular language courses is that they are primarily developed from and structured around the grammar of the language. While a grammar may be the most efficient way to represent a language for linguistic purposes, it is not necessarily the most effective representation for learning purposes. For example, most courses will direct you to memorize the numbers in numerical order, the way they are "logically" organized in the grammar of the language. In our Power-Glide Spanish course, we are directed to learn numbers like 10, 110, 10100, 100, 10110 at the same time because they are easier to learn this way in the Spanish language. As well, we are provided with mnemonics, associations and other contextual information that make them meaningful to us and easier to remember. This is only a simple illustration; this principle is applied throughout Power-Glide, to topics large and small.
Activities = Active Learning
In flipping through the activity book, one can appreciate the enormous amount of work that must go into the design of a single Power-Glide course. Unlike the boiler-plate lessons common to other methods, no two Power-Glide learning activities are alike (even the background music on the audio CDs varies in each activity). Besides maintaining interest and making the course very engaging, the variety of activities supports multiple learning styles. It is well-established that some people learn better through visual stimulus such as pictures and videos, while others do better with written material, and still others may excel through aural means. Each of the activities, sometimes in combination with the CDs, appears to target one or more of the common learning modalities. By the end of the course, the student will have acquired the language through a balanced variety of modalities.
At the heart of the activities are small and large "problems" for you to solve (these are problems in the academic sense; not the kind that cause premature graying of the hair!). These problems are easily masterable in the beginning, and are virtually guaranteed to give you a sense of accomplishment from day one. After a while they gradually become more complex in nature, but are never onerous since you are always adequately prepared to solve each one, and are of the type you would actually need to solve in real life scenarios.
Something happens after you spend some time playing with the activities. In an almost magical way, you begin to develop a sense of the language, that is, how to use it, play with it and manipulate it for your own purposes. In fact, after a very short period of time you want to apply your abilities with real texts, people and situations. Because the activities make you search within them to discover vocabulary or how to communicate something, it becomes a natural habit to do this in real life situations.
Emphasis on Communication
While the unstated objective of the vast majority of other language courses is to churn out grammarians, Power-Glide's emphasis from the very first day is to develop your communication skills. (It is a strange paradox that people who have acquired a second language through traditional formal means almost always know more about grammar than native speakers, but usually can't communicate as well for practical purposes!)
Since the activities have you using the language from the outset, you are developing the very skills and "street sense" you need to actually communicate in real situations. A big component of this is that you are being prepared you to work out things on your own, and are being trained to look for clues and knowledge already out there in your surroundings. When you can do this, you very quickly develop a sense of confidence because you have skills in communicating with the language, rather than an isolated, finite set of specific vocabulary and grammatical ability. This confidence is vital to have, since it helps you cope with the inevitable uncertainty that all people face when attempting to communicate in a foreign language.
By contrast, other grammar- and memory-based traditional methods (i.e. virtually all other commercial and classroom methods out there) are somewhat analogous to always following recipes when cooking: if you have all the instructions directly in front of you, you can be successful, however if you follow one direction incorrectly or if you don't have your recipe on hand when you need it, you're lost.
Relax - Mistakes are OK!
The unfortunate subtext of school courses and others where grades are assigned is that if you are not speaking or writing a language perfectly, then you are not communicating well. In reality, real-world language use, particularly spoken language, is rarely error free or grammatically perfect even amongst native speakers, yet most people can usually communicate well enough to serve their needs. In light of this, it seems silly that so many language courses should emphasize correctness at the beginning stages. They are in effect, holding beginners to different standards than native speakers!
Power-Glide constantly reassures students that mistakes are ok, and are nothing out of the ordinary. The course designers are aware that language use will be awkward and clumsy at first, and that it is far more important that students get over any inhibitions in actually using the language rather than being correct. This reassurance goes a long way towards taking the pressure off and quieting the voice inside that tells you over and over again that "I'm no good at languages!". As well, at least for us, it makes the learning process -- and in the case of learning a second language it is a monumental one -- immensely enjoyable!
Story Provides Continuity and Context
The Power-Glide activities are knit together by an adventure story that is developed throughout the course. This is not merely a superfluous feature designed to appeal to younger students, but rather, like everything else in the Power-Glide method, has important underlying pedagogical purposes. The story, oftentimes amusing, helps keep the overall tone light and helps students stay relaxed and in the optimal frame of mind for learning and absorbing new material. The story also serves to provide continuity from activity to activity, often with cliff-hanger-type endings at the ends of activities that make learners look forward to the next one, thus propelling their interest through the entire course.
Power-Glide produces genuinely credible, serious language learning courses that reflect the most recent developments in language learning pedagogy.
Much to their credit, they deliberately avoid aggressive marketing as well as flashy graphics and features that other major courses use in order to make themselves appear fun and entertaining, just to generate high-volume sales. Instead, every element in Power-Glide courses is there to support the learning process.
We believe the pricing represents superb value, particularly when you consider how effective these courses are, and that they are equivalent to several levels of traditionally-oriented study.
Power-Glide course are currently available for Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese and Latin, and can be purchased at their website.
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