Eitan Noiman combines the tactical skills learned as a commander in the Israeli army with a passion for language and a degree in management in his position as CEO at Speaknow. Eitan has previous experience leading other successful startups. As a non-native speaker of English working in the world of business, he quickly became convinced of the need for strong language skills. Speaknow is a result of Noiman’s vision of a means to provide companies with workers with sufficient English skills and workers with the ability to demonstrate that they have these skills. Experience with the expense and time of traditional tests led him to develop an exam which assesses language level quickly and affordably. The innovation of Speaknow’s approach is due to Eitan’s leadership.
As the world has become more globalized with more contact between native speakers of different languages, the need for multilingual proficiency has become more urgent. Proficiency in multiple languages was always prized among traders and diplomats, and were common among captured peoples and exiles, but until recently, most people in the world could get by with one language. Now though, economic success in most of the world is dependent upon high levels of proficiency in at least two languages, and often more.
As the need to speak multiple languages increases, so does the market for language instruction, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry. While some of the instruction is effective, much is not. Along with the increased demands of language use, the understanding of what is involved in effective language instruction has evolved over the years.
The beginnings of language instruction was all about “classical languages”. People generally didn’t move around a lot, except for traders. Most of formal education was in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, which valued language learning for the sake of reading religious texts. Learning languages was primarily for the purpose of reading and writing Greek and Latin. With the focus on reading and writing, instruction was focused on grammar and translation.
The 1880s were a time of industrialism and colonialism. Ideas were spreading throughout the world. The first transAtlantic telegraph cable was laid, followed by the invention of the telephone. People needed to talk to others who spoke different languages. The Direct Method of language instruction focused on conversation, everyday vocabulary, and no explicit grammar rules. Use of the target language and repetition were key in this method. This, change in the conception of language instruction shifted the focus from the written word to effective communication in line with the demands for globalized spoken language.
With World War 2 and the Cold War, it became necessary to teach language on a larger scale than was possible with the direct method. In reaction to the lack of grammar instruction of the direct method, the audio-lingual method combined the focus on spoken language with a focus on correctness. Rather than teaching grammar rules explicitly, the focus was on the memorization of forms through drills. Behaviourism and training were the basis of this methodology, with positive reinforcement for correctness and negative reinforcement for mistakes.
The next phase of language instruction swung the pendulum back to a focus on communication rather than correctness. Along with the more progressive types of education that became popular in the 1970s and 80s, the focus of language classes became more on the process of communication. Rather than teacher-centered classrooms, the focus of instruction shifted to group work and realistic tasks intended to generate authentic communication.
In the last few decades, the paradigm of language instruction has shifted from process to specific proficiency skills. With the development of the CEFR (the Council of Europe Framework of Reference for languages), language proficiency is now seen as a collection of many smaller skills which the speaker can do. The hundreds of Can-Do statements break down the skills required for many different contexts and describe them on an increasingly complex scale to describe how proficiency progresses, and make the next steps transparent to both the student and the instructor.
Today, our understanding of language proficiency is multidimensional. We understand that different contexts require different skills, and we are able to examine language proficiency in a much more nuanced way than in the past. While accuracy is still understood as necessary for proficiency, it is seen as one part of the picture. How well a speaker can perform in a language is multidimensional, and higher level skills in one area can often offset lower level skills in another. As part of this understanding of language proficiency, assessment is seen as integral to the instructional process. Assessment provides formative data, which allows the tailoring of instruction and allows both the instructor and the learner to have a fuller picture of progress and struggles.
The newest trends in language instruction and assessment increasingly involve Artificial Intelligence (AI). Through the use of automation, learners are able to receive instruction and assessment precisely tailored to their context, skills, and needs. These technologies offer effective instruction and assessment to people in all areas of the world, and allow more democratic access to language learning.
In the future, as businesses become increasingly globalized, the need for proficient English speakers will only increase, and the range of jobs that require proficient English will increase. Gone are the days in which a programmer could sit in a back room without talking to anyone. Now, a programmer is likely to be part of a team of people from all over the world who need to communicate about specifications, bugs, and the like. People from all over the world offer their freelance services on platforms designed to connect them with people who need the services. This type of situation requires the ability to communicate in writing and to read effectively. As more jobs list English proficiency requirements, more companies will test for English proficiency as part of the hiring process or will require candidates to provide a verifiable test result. These demands will fuel the development of increasingly accessible user-friendly assessments, which will continue to inform the development and understanding of language proficiency and the types of instruction that will most help people to achieve at high levels.