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Changing the rules, one French SPiiKA at a time

Mr. David-Living Asiam, Language Coach at Spiika

…How one EdTech is revolutionising French-language education by focusing on speaking

The fear of making mistakes, discomfort, embarrassment are among the most often cited reasons people have foreign language anxiety.

“As such, the teachers and learners alike fall into the trap of focusing on grammar structure, syntax, and conjugation, whilst ignoring speaking,” David-Living Asiam, a conference interpreter, translator, and language coach at Education Technology (EdTech) startup SPiiKA, has said.

“We are too transfixed on the theoretical, but take any language, you do not learn it by learning the rules first, you learn it by learning to speak first and that is what is missing,” he remarked of the deficiency in teaching and learning French in the country.

“Once you push those rules first and people feel they have to get their sentences grammatically right before being able to speak, they are discouraged. With all our languages, we make atrocious mistakes and we improve over time. This comes first and the rules later to correct the mistakes. Once we feel free to make mistakes, we are able to communicate better and learn faster,” he explained.

A loved language

Currently, French ranks fifth with approximately 300 million speakers globally, behind Mandarin (1.117 billion); Hindi (615 million), and Spanish (534 million), with English taking the cherry, accounting for 1.132 billion speakers, or 14.3% of the global population.

Whilst the aforementioned makes for modest reading for French, it has an ace up its sleeves – the number of countries in which it is spoken enough to be regarded as a major language. Coming only after English (59), there are 34 countries in which French is spoken; 25 of them are in Africa.

A study undertaken by L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and published in 2018 found that the number of people speaking French has shown a steady increase: up nearly 9.6% since 2014.

African connection

Measuring from 2010 to 2018, 22.7 million more people speak French: 68% of these are sub-Saharan Africa, while 22% live in North Africa. The Americas are home to 7% of the world’s French speakers, while Europe is home to only 3%.

French remains the sole official language in 11 African countries and the second official language in 10 of them. It is also the main or only language of instruction in schools in Benin, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo; eight of which a member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to which Ghana also belongs.

Tongue-tied

The benefits of learning a second language are well-documented and cannot be overemphasised. Numerous studies have shown that, on a personal level, it enhances problem-solving skills, improves verbal and spatial abilities as well as boosts memory function, creative thinking, and attitude towards other cultures. More significantly, perhaps, it has become increasingly impossible to avoid persons speaking other languages in the light of rapid globalisation, with a possible impact on career prospects.

As one author put it, “The ease of global travel and the internet have collapsed the barrier of distance that once kept the world’s communities separate.  From the corporate marketplace to the individual consumer, from the pre-schools to universities, from the beach vacationer to the global jet set, the world community has become integrated and interdependent.

Institutions of higher learning are scrutinizing applicants to identify future world leaders. Employers and businesses are seeking applicants who can navigate the modern global economy.  It is through learning another language that students can develop both these skill sets… Simply put, language learning is necessary for students to effectively function in the modern global marketplace.”

Not an island

After years of paying lip service to the acquisition of French as a second language for most Ghanaians, the advent of the continent-wide Free Trade Area – AfCFTA – has made it impossible to avoid, as our border would be open as never before.

It comes then as little surprise that President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, whilst describing Ghana as ‘an English-speaking island in a French sea’ called for a concerted effort towards french education saying, “I think that, of course, as Ghana’s export potential grows, capacity to export its produce and manufactured products– especially value-added products– increases and intensifies; so Ghanaian companies will be looking to populate their international sales and exports departments with people who have the ability to speak in the English and French languages.

“I can see that coming very easily. In any event, the greater the links the stronger the integration; and you are talking about links of language, of culture, of blood. All these are important links that enable people to live in the same space.”

Despite the aforementioned and the fact that most Ghanaians are at least, bilingual – English and an indigenous language – the mere mention of French conjures up the stuff that nightmares are made of in the minds of many Ghanaians – young or old. The reverse appears to be the case in many francophone countries, where there is an eagerness to learn English. The problem? The teaching methods which emphasise learning by rote, repetition, and an obsession with learning the grammatical rules of the language. The solution? Speak the language!

The SPiiKA Model

Going live in September 2019, Spiika does not seek to merely instruct but to coach new learners. The language-learning service, which is seeking to transform how we learn French as a second language by focusing on speaking. Its approach is anchored on three cornerstones. They are Language Coaching, which simulates real-world interactions; the use of intuitive audiovisual learning materials, which are watched, listened to, and comprise daily exercises.

After basic appreciable competence has been gained, the innovative icing on the cake – the SPiiKA Buddy is introduced. SPiiKA Buddies are native French speakers, mostly in France or Canada, some of whom are seeking English language exposure, with whom the new learner converses.

The model has proven uber-successful with Mr. Asiam stating that the 15o-plus trained SPiiKAs, including professionals, students, and parents of students, have witnessed assessable growth in their spoken and written french. This is also attributable to the emphasis on small class sizes to aid deep interactions and its flexible digital-first set-up.

“Our mission is to ensure that Africans can speak to and understand one another. We are unhappy that we are pretending to be teaching French in the country; people come to classes and get grades but they can’t communicate effectively. We want to ensure that the value from learning French is actually realised,” said Mr. Asiam.

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