It is intuitively true that a social element is essential for language learning. The purpose of language is communication, which is an inherently social experience. However, as we design learning experiences, it is helpful to reflect on broader research which illuminates the ways in which learning may be accelerated.
Rob Hutter at Learn Capital wrote about the boom in EdTech in 2012, which I believe is still true today:
The reason that social is so important for the edtech market is less about viral growth and network effects on a first order basis and much more about the simple fact that as humans, we’re wired to learn socially. We evolved that spectacularly complex piece of neuroanatomy called the neocortex to cooperate with each other and increase our propensity for survival, and it’s exquisitely sensitive to social phenomena. At the most basic level, social cues and social emphasis patterns drive the deployment of encoding energy in our brains…social software designs drive learning productivity, pure and simple.
The effects of social situations on learning has long been a subject of research. Lev Vygotsky, established this social connection in his research on childhood development in the early 20th century. He isolated a specific social environment which is particularly effective in learning, where a child is collaborating with someone just above his or her level of skill or understanding. It is in this Zone of Proximal Development when the child learns best. In his book, Mind in Society, he stated that “human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” (p. 88) He demonstrated through his research that this is true for children. He went so far as to say that this social interaction is actually a requirement for specific kinds of learning in children:
learning awakens a variety of internal development processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. (p. 90)
What of adults?
We’ve all experienced, as adults, that it is possible to learn many skills on our own. However, many of us have experienced accelerated learning in social situations. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger explore this in Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. They describe communities of practice where
apprentices gradually assemble a general idea of what constitutes the practice of the community… what other learners are doing; and what learners need to learn to become full practitioners. It includes an increasing understanding of how, when, and about what old-timers collaborate, collude, and collide, and what they enjoy, dislike, respect, and admire. (p. 95)
This context provides an effective learning environment, within which the novice may construct an individual learning path. Lave and Wegner argue that teaching is not central to learning, but that we learn when we actively participate in a community. The learning path from novice to master is accelerated by social engagement, where observation is an important element, as well as the generative process of active learning.