We’ve got trouble, my friends, right here in language city!
That’s trouble with a capital “T”, that rhymes with “C” and that stands for “Courses”.

coursestermOkay. Maybe it isn’t that dire, but I have noticed a troubling simplification of what is now considered “courses” and “lessons”.

I am a traditionalist and, to me, the term “language course” means a large body of reference materials, divided into smaller lessons. Each of those lessons is then split into specific learning sections, which often include short readings, vocabulary lists, grammar explanations, and exercises. If I were to sign up for a course in Spanish, I would expect many lessons that span a few days each as part of an overall teaching curriculum which would span a few weeks or months.

Even a book for self teaching would be broken into many chapters and lessons, with multiple forms of presenting a variety of information. The entire body would then be called a “course”.

But we live in the “byte” age now. Everything is shortened into small units while being presented as more. We share information with links via messages no longer than 140 characters. We send messages to each other in “texts” which even use shortened words and acronyms. We don’t get news anymore; we get “sound bites”. We have documents which are just a few pages long and containing fewer words than a short blog post, and we call those “books”.

And so too, we have our leaning compacted into smaller, simpler units while still bearing the terms that imply they are more than they are. This can be seen in some of the most popular language learning websites.

Memrise calls each of its group of vocabulary drills a “course”, even though they contain no grammar or smaller lessons. Duolingo at least calls its word groups “lessons”, but they are essentially the same as Memrise’s courses, just in a slightly different format.

Busuu and Livemocha work a little harder, incorporating other learning methods into what they call “lessons”, such as writing, listening, and recording. Not all those are available on Busuu unless you upgrade to a premium account, though, and Livemocha seems to change the format of its site every month. I have yet to visit it twice and find it the same as before.

Is this the true future of language learning? I know there is a growing movement which de-emphasizes grammar, focusing more on SRS methods, but should those really be called “courses” and “lessons” anymore? We used to call a list of vocabulary words that we practised “drills” and “flashcards”. Anki, which is built around such a practice, calls its list of words “flashcards”. Should it be calling those “courses” instead?

Are sites like Memrise and Duolingo popular because they don’t include any noticeable grammar components and make it sound like people are perhaps doing more than they are when they can list the “courses” they have completed?

Maybe I am too out of touch, or just not “getting it”, but I have a hard time calling something I can complete in ten minutes a “course” when that is normally the term used for something that takes weeks or months. I would rather refer to vocabulary groups as “decks” or “units”, and have them being part of a larger learning activity, not the sole component.

Does what we call them really matter? Please let me know what you think.

  • I hadn’t paid much attention, but I agree with you. In my head, Memrise sets were “sets” or “decks”, not courses. But now that you mention it, I see what you mean. I think a lot of the word choice might all be geared towards marketing and so accuracy, per se, has taking a backseat. Maybe…