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Vol 3, No. 4 (June 1986)

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Technology Is Good, but Humanity Is Better

James E. Alatis

The author challenges language educators to use the computer wisely, as a tool for more effective learning of language which is so crucial to the building of world-wide bridges of understanding in this age of economic interdependence and nuclear threat.


KEYWORDS: humanism, teacher input, bandwagon, language lab, limitations of computers, capabilities of computers, multi-media, individualization, economic interdependence, human interaction

The title of my talk is: "Technology Is Good, But Humanity Is Better." I should like to begin with a frank confession of inadequacy. I am a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, with a mechanical aptitude of zero, and the humanists' absolute abhorrence of things technological. One of my early exposures to technology was when I was trying to study and preserve the dialects of modern Greek spoken on some of the Greek islands. At that time, I had to carry a large, cumbersome, reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder, which was as large as a suitcase, and weighed 40 pounds. Since there was no electricity on the islands at the time, I also had to carry around with me an automobile battery, a converter, and a transformer, in order to record the interviews necessary for my dialect study. When one thinks of the advances which have been made with miniature, portable cassette recorders, it boggles the mind! And the thought of recording the interviews on video cassettes, as well, and of the enormous capacity for storing and analyzing data now made possible by computers, my dialect geographer's dream has come true!

As to the title of my talk, it is reminiscent of a time when I was first introduced to the work of Noam Chomsky. Since transformational generative grammar threatened to abolish the phoneme and to make phonemics obsolete, I was concerned about the future of linguistics. At this point one of my mentors had to reassure me: "Don't worry, Jim, linguistics is still good." Hence the locution "Technology is good, and humanity is still good, or even better." It isn't being threatened and is certainly not obsolete.

Undoubtedly, the so-called "newly-dawned golden age of micro-technology" has caused an explosion of interest among language educators. We hear, for instance, that:

Learning is taking place electronically, and more of what we know, store, and recall in the future will come to us from electronic sources. Like it or not, we are all in the midst of a microelectronic revolution. The time is fast approaching when society will be so integrally hooked into technology at home, at school, and at the office that those of us unwilling or unable to use the new technologies will be the equivalent of people today who cannot read and write; namely, functional illiterates.

The information revolution confronts all of us—especially those of us in the humanities and the arts—with an awesome choice: We can passively and ignorantly surrender to the information explosion—try to avoid it and become its victims—or we can actively and wisely accept it and utilize its technological advances to revolutionize the traditional model of education. (Lindenau 1983)

When I first presented this paper I had just come from New York City where I attended the 1985 Joint Annual Meeting of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), American Association of Teachers of German (AATG), American Association of Teachers of Italian (AATI), American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP), and the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) held in cooperation with ten other leading language associations, including the International Association of Learning Laboratories. The theme of the


conference was "Citizens of the World Through Language Study." Over 2000 people attended ACTFL in New York, but it is significant to note for this paper that there were at least thirty papers on Computer Assisted Instruction and Computer Assisted Language Learning. I attended only two, but they were excellent. One, by Dr. Walter V. Tuman, now of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and a graduate from my own university, Georgetown, was entitled "Technology and its Implications for Language Teaching." This exciting and futuristic presentation introduced the Computer Assisted Language Learning Bibliography—an overview of computer-aided language learning. It discussed the application of recent developments in electronic voice, data, and image transmission to the teaching of foreign language. Since that paper is so consistent with the theme and the arguments put forward in this paper, I am taking the liberty of citing two excerpts from it, one from the introduction and one from the conclusion. Introduction:

We would be doing a great disservice to our discipline if we retreat and leave the translation of pedagogical principles to those primarily engaged in technological investigation. This in large measure explains the sorry state of computer software which continues to remain in an infantile stage, since a truly productive collaboration has not yet been arrived at between programmers and pedagogues." (Tuman 1985, 2)


The distance of the traditional classroom from actual foreign language settings is tremendous and...applications of technology serve to make the real foreign language world appear a little closer...The incorporation of varied teaching strategies supported by technology and providing access to...multifaceted-learning -modes will have inestimable effect not only on foreign language instruction but on all aspects of the presentation of information for teaching activities." (21-22)

The other session I attended at ACTFL was entitled: "Using CAI to Promote Oral Communication," and was presented by Dr. Donna Mydlarski, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Continuing Education of the French Center, University of Calgary, Canada. The session presented a number of ways in which CAI materials may be used to develop oral skills. In particular, it focused on the cooperative use of microcomputers and on the discourse that occurs between learners. During the discussion period, Professor Mydlarski informed the audience about an experiment with synthesized speech being conducted in Canada, where it was found that the synthetic speech could hardly be distinguished from natural authentic speech. This has enormous implications for future developments in CALL, especially for those skeptics who are still waiting for the "oral" aspects of computer assisted instruction to be perfected.

I cited these two papers to further demonstrate that a "computer boom" in underway. Indeed, the current educational computer boom has created new potential for the language profession to improve the effectiveness of language learning and teaching. But to utilize this potential to best advantage, and toward the most direct realization of our educational goals, we must take a rational approach to the whole matter, resisting the temptation to jump on every passing bandwagon. For this purpose, it is important to remember the lessons we learned from the first wave of language teaching technology that started with the introduction of the language laboratory. The results of empirical research concerning instructional technology have left little doubt that technology can be downright destructive if it fails to function in relation to a specific and clearly defined objective, and if its application is not based on genuine needs. Purchasing equipment in response to a "technology push" and not on the basis of an "education pull" is a disastrous practice that turns technology into a hostile intruder. This is exactly what took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As John H. Underwood has pointed out:

Following the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the language profession went into a crisis. Whatever we were doing was obviously inadequate. We needed new methods, new tricks. In the midst of this state of apprehension and self-criticism, the language lab manufacturers began touting their marvelous machines. The hardware was impressive, and great hopes were advanced: technology would save the foreign language profession. Schools everywhere rushed to buy the new machines, and a lot of money (including federal grants) was spent.

But once the hardware was installed, most schools did not seem to have a clear idea what it was for. Labs were "often mandated by administrators who themselves knew little or nothing about foreign language instruction but had been convinced by others that the machines were going to revolutionize foreign language instruction and produce near-native fluency in all students" (McCoy and Weible 1983, 110). The manufacturers, meanwhile, had conveniently glossed over the software question, and it quickly became clear that good software was not easy to find...Meanwhile the students quickly tired of the novelty, began to resent being forced to sit here with those uncomfortable earphones on, and started taking the booths apart. (Underwood 1984, 34)

Unfortunately, there are indications that we have not learned our lessons from the past. The new surge of public interest in new micro-electronics technology seems to have resulted in a strong inclination to take prompt advantage of sales opportunities. Once again we see hardware manufacturers pushing their equipment in locations where the essential prerequisites are utterly lacking. As Peter Strevens once said about the language lab: "Many educational administrators seem to 'latch on' to the computer 'like new nations starting on a national airline, or building an atomic bomb: simply for prestige'" (Strevens 1981). If this situation continues, the language profession will soon find itself falling into the same patterns of failure that killed earlier instructional technologies. Language educators have a major responsibility to change


this attitude and to remind the computer-assisted language learning enthusiasts that:

When the music stops they may find themselves far from home with nothing but spoken instruments and badly frayed sheet music, though painful memories of language laboratories ought to be fresh enough to keep us from making the same mistakes again so soon. Computers will prove no more to be panaceas than did anything that earlier technological developments brought us, and we would do well to act cautiously and patiently. (Putnam 1983)

If there is a lesson to be learned from the language lab episode, it is that employing the new instructional technology must be done on the basis of a careful and sound evaluation of the subject, rather than on the blind enthusiasms of some ill-informed laymen and generalist administrators. For this purpose, we need to define the ultimate function of the computer as a piece of instructional equipment, recognize its limitations, and identify the areas in which it can perform most efficiently to yield meaningful results. We need to evaluate with precision and care what we want and need to teach, and how the use of computers can best help us achieve our objectives. Scholars in the field have time and again emphasized that "the success or failure of any technological aid will have less to do with what it can do than with what we actually end up doing with it. There is nothing particularly wrong with the audio lab once you recognize its limitations—the problem was the mindless way we went about using it" (Underwood 1984, 39).

What are the limitations and the capabilities of the computer in the context of language learning and language teaching? To state the obvious, the instructional computer is nothing but a highly elaborate—very highly elaborate—extension of "chalk" and "blackboard." At best, it can help us transmit more information to people with greater efficiency than ever before. To expect more from the computer then to serve as "A dictionary 'which consults itself' at a high speed" (Steiner 1975, 309) is to seek to force it into unsuitable roles. As Geoffrey R. Hope has explained: "Teachers who hope to rely on the computer for much beyond the formal mechanisms of language may be neglecting the best communicative device possible: themselves and their classrooms. Computers should be used for what they can do best: by expecting too much from them, we risk creating more problems than we solve" (hope 1984, 16).

To state the matter differently, the humanistic goal of language teaching is not merely to provide linguistic skills: it is an attempt to make of people responsible and fully integrated personalities, conscious of their unique and privileged tasks in society. We must emphasize that learning is not just storing a series of facts or developing specific capabilities. Above all, it takes responsibility for the integrity of everything we are as ethical creatures. This humanistic objective involves a successful completion of three educational endeavors: namely, passing "information," transmitting "knowledge," and imparting "wisdom" (Alatis 1983, 10). In this hierarchy, instructional computers are firmly in the first category (i.e., passing information). Thus the core of the humanities is not, and can never be, within the grasp of the machine.

This means that the "new technology is not a threat, but a challenge. Only those with closed minds need fear it" (Last 1984). Perhaps one of the greatest lessons which our many experiments with instructional technology have taught us in the course of the past twenty years is that modern language teaching does not depend on technology or methodology, but on the qualities of the individual teacher. To quote John H. Underwood again: "We will learn to 'talk' to our computers, and we will teach them to 'talk' to us. But at the same time we must not overestimate the value of this 'conversation.' As Bolt (1968, 90) reminds us in an early paper on Socratic CAI, the most effective learning aid that we have yet discovered is not computer-assisted instruction but 'teacher-assisted instruction.' There can be no better 'communicative' learning environment than the warm and responsive presence of other human beings" (79-80). It is necessary to emphasize this point in order to assure the cynic that, like the blackboard, the computer can be safely treated as a creative part of classroom life. To condemn the computer out of hand is to refuse to come to terms with an important aspect of modern culture. As Underwood asks: "If we are going to be Luddites, why not start with something truly inhuman and vicious, like the automobile" (96).

The computer, then, is an instructional tool which can help teachers to transmit information to students with greater efficiency, and it "can best assist teachers if it is seen not as a replacement for their work but as a supplement to it" (Higgins and Johns 1984, 9). "The best of these machines with the best of programs cannot compensate for the skilled teacher and the dynamics of human interaction in a classroom setting. When we put these discussions into the context of what the microcomputer can accomplish to extend the teacher and enhance the interaction which takes place in the classroom, we have begun to define realistically the role of the computer" (Scebold 1983, 14). Once its limitations are recognized, the machine's potential can be properly exploited to provide some of the optimal conditions for language teaching. Robert Ariew has explained some of the advantages of computer assisted instruction as compared to other, more familiar teaching tools. He states:

One of the most obvious advantages is the ability of CAI to bring together several media. It is possible to imagine CAI activities which make use of all the following: letters of various sizes, styles and emphasis, line drawings, color drawings, graphs and tables, animation, sound in the form of melodies, noises, and possibly voice with background music. Presentations and activities can be designed that involve the students in a multimedia experience. When one adds the second obvious advantage, instantaneous feedback, the combination yields a unique teaching environment. (Ariew 1984, 44-45)

Researchers have also pointed out that, programmed imaginatively, the computer can offer many advantages for


individualized instruction. To quote Geoffrey R. Hope again:

Good programs can offer...individualized attention and can allow students to work at their own pace. Students can work in privacy without fear of reprisal or ridicule regardless of how slow they might be or how often they give incorrect answers. Immediate diagnosis saves time and frustration and helps students weed out their errors. Computers possess the quality of infinite patience. They treat each student in the same way without favoritism. They are also very consistent in their responses, regardless of how many hours they have been working. (Hope 1984, 16)

However, the computer is a machine, and a machine can only operate within its limits. The heart of the language profession is a humanistic function that lies outside the boundaries of the machine. Geoffrey Hope points out that: "To the extent that the subject matter resembles the teaching of other bodies of facts and principles—history, medicine, the sciences—the computer can offer a dynamic way to present material and check on students' progress. When we attempt, however, to simulate the experience of speaking a foreign language via the computer, we encounter enormous difficulties" (Hope 1984, 11). The reason for this is that foreign language instruction is not merely a mechanistic attempt limited to the teaching of "bodies of facts and principles"; it is an enormously complex activity involving various aspects of a whole culture at a given point in time. As an integral part of a human organization and influencing life, language cannot be treated as a subject independent of the realities it represents. Thus foreign language acquisition requires a warm and immediate "contact with another human being which no amount of electronics could ever replace. This is true even when the teacher is acting the role of routine manager. In the early days of language laboratories, when mechanized drill-and-practice was seen as the panacea for all language learning problems, many teachers discovered that if they read a drill over the console microphone of a class, it seemed to be more effective than if the same drill was played from a tape recorder. Such basic things as eye contact and smiles between teacher and students, and moment-by-moment control of pacing, turned a dry exercise into something closer to communication. In that sense, it over-ambitious to see the computer as a teacher" (Higgins and Johns 1984, 6).

How can it be otherwise? "Language is perhaps the most specifically human of mankind's faculties" (Robins 1967, 23). As such, it is the only medium which can enable man to fulfill his needs as a social being. As the author of I'm OKYou're OK, Thomas Harris, puts it: "Without you I am not a person, for only through you is language possible, and only through you is humanness made possible" (1967, 25). To make this point clear, let me repeat my position as a committed language educator. I subscribe to a philosophy of language teaching which emphasizes the humanistic basis of the language profession. It defines the ultimate function of language study as an attempt "to achieve an understanding, as complete as possible, between people of different linguistic backgrounds" (Fries 1955, 10). I strongly support the notion that learning a foreign language is a "liberalizing" experience because it serves to free one from the shackles, the restraints, and barriers imposed by such limitations as confinement to a single language. Indeed, I have stated before, and have always insisted that even the study of language as language is a humanistic study: That is, all the uses and manifestations of language and linguistic communication, in all their philosophic, social, geographic, and ethnic splendor, are the basis of a humanistic discipline.

Seen in this light, language study assumes a function that extends beyond academic objectives to social and international considerations. It can be charged with the task of contributing to the improvement of the human condition—indeed, even to the survival of mankind.

I would like to emphasize this humanistic philosophy of language study because we live in an age in which the gap between the mathematical symbol and the word grows constantly wider. As a result, many departments of knowledge have begun to recede from the sphere of verbal communication. To quote George Steiner:

Until the seventeenth century, the sphere of language encompassed nearly the whole of experience and reality: Today, it comprises a narrower domain. It no longer articulates, or is relevant to, all major modes of action, thought, and sensibility. Large areas of meaning and praxis now belong to such nonverbal languages as mathematics, symbols logic, and formulas of chemical or electronic relation. Other areas belong to the sub-languages or anti-languages of nonobjective art and musique concrete. The World of Words has shrunk. One cannot talk of transfinite numbers except mathematically: One should not, suggests Wittgenstein, talk of ethics or aesthetics within the presently available categories of discourse. The circle has narrowed tremendously, for was there anything under heaven, be it science, metaphysics, art, or music, of which a Shakespeare, a Donne, and a Milton could not speak naturally, to which their words did not have natural access? (Steiner 1967, 12)

All this is leading to a retreat from logocentric (i.e., word-centered) humanism, and is happening at a time when the need to enrich language and exploit its creative potential as a medium of communication, in order to build bridges of understanding between peoples, has become imperative. To underscore the importance of cross-cultural communication, international cooperation, and transnational coordination, one only has to remember the dazzling diversity of linguistic and cultural expression that exists around the world and the dramatically increased interdependence between various nations. The theme of interdependence has, of course, many variations, but a short glance at the economic structure of our world reveals the fact that there is no radical independence in the life of any modern nation. Leonard Silk in an October 29, 1982, New York Times article wrote:

The greater interdependence of the world economy has made it more difficult


than ever for a single nation, even the United States, to act alone to attack one problem to the exclusion of the other. In using tight money and high interest rates to stop inflation, the [Reagan] Administration caused unemployment to rise not only at home but also abroad, as other nations raised interest rates to protect their currencies.

High rates in the United States also made the dollar so dear as to hurt American exports, engendering pressures for protectionism. High unemployment world-wide endangers the entire economic and monetary system.

Likewise, for a single nation to try to attack unemployment simply by stimulating internal demand can also be perilous, as the Carter Administration found in 1979 and the Mitterrand Government in France and the Trudeau Government have since learned. Solving unemployment and inflation together will require greater international policy coordination. (Ping 1982)

Indeed, many American corporations report that more than a third of their incomes now come from exports or from foreign investments: U.S. exports now exceed $230 billion annually and American firms have invested an equal amount abroad. We export one-third of our farm product. We import nearly half the oil we consume and are far more dependent upon others for many minerals. Foreign investment has become the basis for one-fourth of all income produced in the state of South Carolina. Diagonally across the U.S., the state of Washington, home of the country's largest import manufacturer and second largest container port, exports three-fourths of its wheat and half its timber cut. Overseas loans by U.S. banks exceed $300 billion (Groenning 1982, 4).

Economic interdependency inevitably results in cultural interaction, and cultural interaction requires international understanding of much deeper, more profound sort than we have been capable of in the past. There is ample reason to believe that in the absence of such an understanding the cross-cultural conflicts between various nations can readily draw the superpowers into dangerously confrontational positions. Language is the single most effective force which can be used to prevent the disaster that threatens the world today.

To sum up: science and technology form some of the most basic elements of modern culture. "There is as great a sum of illiteracy in not knowing the basic concepts of calculus or spherical geometry as there is in not knowing grammar. Or to use C.P. Snow's famous example: A man who has read no Shakespeare in uncultured: so is one who is ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics" (Steiner 1967, 17). To condemn technology out of hand, therefore, means to yield to an irrational tendency indicative of Luddite prejudices. However, it is important to have always in mind that technology is created by man and for man. Thus its application must never be isolated from the mainstream of educational programs whose ultimate objective is to make of people responsible and fully integrated personalities. Our single most important bulwark against unfavorable technological intrusion is our acute awareness of the humanistic task of education.

What this means in the context of computer-assisted language learning is that the computer must be given a chance. It must be "allowed the breathing space to develop whatever potential it may possess" (Last 1984, 103) to facilitate language teaching and language learning. However, we must remember that computers are here to help us reestablish the humanistic authority, the sphere of the word, by promoting language studies as an avenue toward democracy, social justice, and world-peace. For this purpose, we—language teachers—must take the lead. The worst thing that can happen is if we do not get involved with computers. "We who understand best what it means to teach and learn a language will have to make it clear what we want, and what we don't want, from the software people. We must not allow our ignorance or timidity of technology to cause us to sell out our principles, or beliefs about what is good and right and sensible in our profession. If we say nothing the computer people will give us what they think we want, or what is easy to program, or what they have always done. This is the time for the language teaching profession to make a principled statement about 'what' ought to be done (Underwood 1984, xv).

However, if we are to provide the leadership which is required, we need public awareness and professional unity. In this connection, I find it appropriate to make a quick reference to the crucial role which the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and its sister organization, the Council for Languages and Other International Studies (CLOIS) have played in the United States. The need for unity, organization, and initiative is the primary reason why these organizations exist. As a result of our continuous efforts to sensitize and "educate" the policy-makers to our concerns, we have now many laws and a significant volume of legislation supporting the Joint National Committee for Languages and the language community in general. I am happy to say that CALICO is one of the most recent and important members of this coalition of thirty organizations.

To conclude, language is the simple most characteristic attribute by which we distinguish that very special creature known as man. It can, therefore, provide the key to the many basic problems that beset mankind. In this context, language is not merely a verbal skill or a mechanical instrument for forming grammatically proper sentences, but a highly sensitive and sophisticated tool of human understanding and rapport between people whose background and experiences can be drastically different. Thus, all men have a stake in language study. Domestically, it can help to solve some of our most pressing national problems. Internationally, it can contribute to the maintenance of democracy, social justice, and world peace and increase the probability for human survival in a nuclear age. As committed language educators, we have a moral obligation to combine our efforts and to use all areas of language teaching, including computer-assisted language learning, and everything else that modern technology can provide, in order to ensure the achievement of these national and international objectives.

Members of the language profession should always keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of technology is to


serve humanity, and not the other way around. Technology is good, but humanity is better. The proper use of technology can make humanity even better yet. But the proper study of mankind is man, as Alexander Pope once wrote, and the proper understanding of mankind—and the most human of its faculties, languages—is man. Technology is good, but humanity is better!

Author's note: This is an abridged version of a paper presented at the CALICO Conference on Language and Technology in Tokyo, and repeated at the CALICO '86 Symposium at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.


Alatis, J.E. 1983. The application of instructional technology to language learning. CALICO Journal 1 (June):10.

Ariew, R. 1984. Computer-assisted foreign language materials: Advantages and limitations. CALICO Journal 2 (September): 44-45.

Fries, C.C. 1955. American linguistics and the teaching of English. Language Learning 6:1-2, 10.

Groenning, S. 1982. Beachheads in international education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Council of Education. 14 October, Minneapolis.

Harris, T. 1967. I'm OK—You're OK. New York: Avon Books.

Higgins, J. and Johns, T. 1984. Computers in Language Learning. London: Collins ELT.

Hope, G.R. et al. 1984. Using Computers in Teaching Foreign Languages. CAL.

Last, R. 1984. Language Teaching and the Microcomputer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lindenau, S.E. 1983. The teacher and technology in the Humanities and Arts. Paper presented at the Ninth International Conference on Improving University Teaching. July, Dublin, Ireland.

Ping, C.J. 1982. The search for international community and education for interdependence. Quoted by President of Ohio University, 4 November.

Putnam, C.E. 1983. Foreign language instructional technology: The state of the art. CALICO Journal 1 (June).

Robins, R.H. 1967. A Short History of Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Scebold, C.E. 1983. Equal time. CALICO Journal 1 (June): 14.

Steiner, G. 1975. After Babel. London: Oxford University Press.

Steiner, G. 1967. Language and Silence. New York: A Theneum.

Strevens, P. 1981. Old Myths, New Technologies and the Better Management of Learning.

Tuman, W.V. 1985. Technology and its implications for language teaching. Paper presented at the joint annual meeting of AATF/AATG/AATI/AATSP/ACTFL, New York City.

Underwood, J.H. 1984. Linguistics, Computers and the Language Teachers. Rowley: Newbury House Publishers.

Author's Address

James E. Alatis

School of Language and Linguistics

Georgetown University

Washington, DC 20057