An interview with Andrew Wickham, language training consultant, regarding current market trends and the changing role of the trainer in the context of the rapid expansion of distant learning.

Current market trends and the changing role of the trainer in the context of the rapid expansion of distant learning.

At a time when e-learning has become ubiquitous in language teaching, do you think it is really possible to learn a language without a trainer?
Well, the fact is almost all of us speak our mother tongue perfectly, without having had a formal trainer. Think of your own childhood. Yet toddlers don’t actually learn on their own; they have several language “trainers”: parents, family, carers and friends are constantly with them throughout the initial learning process. They encourage them, listen to them, make them talk, read them stories, sing them songs and nursery rhymes and correct their mistakes, day after day.
So, though we do have examples that show you can learn a language more or less on your own, through intensive or immersive practice, mostly in the country where the language is native, the vast majority of learners won’t have the time, the motivation or the opportunity to learn this way. They will need a trainer.
The fact is the essential role of the trainer/coach in successful language learning, whether ‘face-to-face’ or remotely, has been confirmed many times by multiple studies. It is particularly crucial to ensure learner engagement. A study* conducted by the University of Maryland, for example, tends to show that the disengagement rate of users of language applications in which there is no human intervention is almost total after twelve weeks.

What are the characteristics of a good trainer today?
Contrary to the traditional French approach, their mission is not to “teach” the language, because a language cannot be taught, it must be learned.

Exactly, the trainer is first and foremost a learning facilitator.
Yes, he cannot learn in lieu of the learner; he assists, encourages and accompanies the learner to help him to appropriate the language.
The trainer (or coach, or guide, or tutor) today has three hats:
Sparring Partner: giving the learner the opportunity to practise the target language, at his or her level, on a regular basis.

Trainer/Teacher: guiding learners’ progress along the chosen learning path, providing learners with interactive feedback, suggesting more relevant sentence structures and lexical items (rather than systematically correcting “mistakes”) and helping learners to progressively master them.

Coach: accompanying and guiding the learner throughout the course, offering learning advice, relevant and motivating resources, and constant encouragement, in order to maintain motivation and effort.
A qualified and experienced language trainer also plays the role of pedagogical advisor: assessing the needs of future learners, evaluating their level and skills, helping them to better clarify their objectives according to the means at their disposal, defining a learning path designed to achieve them and ensuring regular monitoring, to adjust the course to the needs and to the progress achieved.
A caveat, however: the quality of a trainer isn’t a given. There are good trainers and some that are not. A trainer who is inexperienced, unmotivated or a poor communicator can have a catastrophic impact on learning.


Would you say that the traditional trainer has more or less disappeared?
In the 80s and 90s, the critical role of the trainer seemed obvious: language schools extolled the qualities and qualifications of their language trainers: they were the stars in the most successful language schools and companies sought out providers who employed the best trainers.
However, at the turn of the 2000s, with the rationalisation and industrialisation of corporate training schemes, the trainer progressively disappeared behind the platform, the administration and the logistics, becoming almost invisible.
The “miraculous” features and technical qualities of digital platforms, each more “innovative” than the previous one, were massively publicised, while the inefficiency, the cost and the “outdated” approach of the traditional trainer were constantly emphasised.
Was this unfair? I can’t deny that in many cases, the loss of credibility was self-inflicted.

How do you explain this loss of credibility of the traditional trainer?
Some language schools, and not the smallest, got into the habit of hiring young people without qualifications and propelling them unprepared in front of the class, with a manual in hand. It was cheap and relatively simple to manage. Learners and buyers, lacking any frame of reference, were fine with it, as long as they were convinced that these ‘teachers’ were native speakers.
The result of both the industrialisation of training and the “low cost” response of part of the market was a loss of credibility for the language trainer, an increasing loss of job security and a rapid drop in pay levels.
Unfortunately, they threw the baby out with the bathwater: the many competent, high-level trainers, able to support and motivate their learners, were also impacted. Faced with the lack of recognition and the low pay, many abandoned the profession.

Do you think self-access training is a failure?
To facilitate the development of a market that claimed it no longer needed trainers, pedagogic theories were developed in the eighties and nineties around the concept of self-access, an approach that purported to develop learner autonomy and increase the effectiveness of learning.
However, it soon became clear that in language learning, interaction with a ‘live’ trainer/tutor is an essential component. In most cases, fully autonomous e-learning courses have proved to be a resounding failure, with disappointing completion rates.
The trainer has slowly come back into the picture in the new digitalised environment, initially as an e-learning tutor and more recently as a facilitator for the face-to-face part of blended learning. Today he is once again fully in the centre with the rapid development of “live blended learning” through platforms such as Skype, Teams, Zoom, Webex, etc.

So, it looks like the trainer was pushed out through the door and is now coming back in through the window (or Windows)? What does this new approach involve?
Well, Web 2.0 tools now offer trainers and learners new possibilities in terms of follow-up, interactivity, flexibility and integration. Freed in part from the laborious and thankless task of correction, thanks to automatically corrected exercises, the trainer can focus more on supporting the learner and his or her needs.
The use of Artificial Intelligence (adaptive learning) makes it possible to develop more personalised courses, which adapt themselves to the learner’s progress, profile and preferences.
More importantly, these technologies facilitate face-to-face or virtual interactions between trainers, learners and educational resources, breaking down barriers of space and time.
It started with the telephone. Telephone training, which has been around since the 80s, took off in the early 2000s thanks to the liberalisation of the European telecom market and the increased profitability resulting from the use of cheap offshore trainers in countries with large standard of living differentials.
Until the recent health crisis, remote learning with a “live” teacher accounted for between a quarter and a third of the market volume in France. It goes without saying that the impact of Covid-19 has massively boosted this solution and since it has shown it can work and has become an indispensable channel for business communication, we can safely predict it will make up at least two thirds of the market volume in the years to come.
Gradually, thanks to technological progress, telephone courses have given way to training by video conference (Skype, Zoom, Teams etc). Today, training by videoconference combines the advantages of face-to-face training (live interaction with the trainer, a wider spectrum of communication than on the telephone, better adaptation to low level learners) with those of remote training (simplified logistics, traceability of exchanges, integration of resources, flexible schedules).
In this context, yes, the face-to-face trainer, who was being pushed out through the door, is jumping back in through the window! (or Windows).

How has the trainer’s role evolved to adapt to this new environment?
By becoming more visible, trainers are gradually regaining their place in the learning process, motivating and building learner loyalty, inventing new, more playful teaching and marketing approaches inspired by the world of Youtube, gaming and social media. Some trainers are now stars of the screen with innovative educational videos and blended learning courses, marshalling millions of followers. The dynamic has changed and trainers are back in business.
But to succeed, trainers will need to be well trained in these new tools, because this approach demands a very different set of methods, approaches and skills. The personal and professional qualities required are very demanding.
And finally, online trainers have the same issue as face to face trainers: to deliver quality training sustainably, they also need to make enough money to be materially comfortable and able to invest in their tools, their skills and their well-being.

Andrew Wickham

Andrew Wickham

Consultant at Andrew Wickham Training and Consulting