Monday, 8 August 2011

Guest Blog Post: Language Learning in Online Classes, Lindsey Wright

Lindsey Wright is a keen linguist and she is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She blogs at about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning and the possible future of education. In this guest blog post, she considers the advantages and possible barriers to studying languages online.  

There are many benefits to speaking and understanding more than one language. Professionally, learning a second language may increase students' job prospects or enable them to attain a higher education. In other circumstances, a second language may present the opportunity to better understand a friend or relative. Moreover, when travelling to different regions, knowing the primary language of the area can help when communicating with merchants, drivers, and local residents. Additionally, learning another language often forces students to use skills and knowledge from their native language which may otherwise be forgotten, reinforcing past lessons and making the student more articulate and successful in reading and writing. Still, students who weren't afforded the opportunity to learn a second language during their formative years may feel their potential for success is limited. However, this conventional wisdom may be slightly flawed.

According to New Scientist, a magazine devoted to scientific discovery, adults may actually have a better grasp of the meaning of a language, beyond simply memorizing. In fact, the major issue preventing adult students from learning another language is a lack of defined time to do so. Individuals with family and professional obligations may be unable to schedule specific blocks of time during the day to devote strictly to learning another language. VLEs (virtual learning environments) are convenient and enable anyone with the desire to extend and consolidate language learning in their own time to do so, but VLEs or online classes aren't for everyone. Prospective students should consider all of the advantages and disadvantage to make the decision that is most suited to their individual needs and abilities.
According to research by the U.K. Department of Education, e-learning provides many positive factors in terms of participation, retention, and attainment. Web- and technologically-facilitated study creates a sense of engagement, excitement, and involvement; personalizes the learning interface to individual needs; and improves communication. Some of the other key advantages(and disadvantages) are listed below.


Many institutions offer language courses online that are more affordable than traditional campus-based education. Additionally, many of the most substantial costs (housing and living expenses, travel and transportation) are completely avoided. This potential savings allows many students to learn a language without going into debt.


Online courses enable students to determine their own class and study schedules. How long and how often to focus on the language is entirely at their discretion. This element of distance learning has long been the most popular attraction for many. Flexibility makes online learning more accessible than any other language learning method.


Opportunities to learn languages outside of a classroom have exploded over the past few years. Many accredited and reputable institutions now offer some form of foreign language program through a virtual learning environment.


In the online environment students retain a considerable level of anonymity. Factors such as age, status, physical appearance, race, gender, or disabilities are invisible. This unique aspect allows students and instructors to focus solely on the content of the material. Moreover, students who might feel self-conscious about their understanding of the language have the freedom to introduce their concerns without fear of ridicule or judgment.

Individual Attention

Learning a language online allows for a high level of dynamic interaction between instructor and student, as well as between the students themselves. By sharing ideas and resources in an open forum, students are free to learn from each other. The synergy of the virtual classroom is one of the distinctive traits often unmatched in a traditional classroom setting.


Lack of access can exclude otherwise eligible students from learning a language online. Especially in rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, individuals may not have adequate systems or a reliable connection. On the other hand, some potential students who possess the technology may not have the proficiency necessary to succeed. Individuals lacking computer savvy may face significant challenges in researching and interacting over the Internet.

Finally, the school's own technology can prove to be problematic. Reliability and constant availability are key, and unfortunately even the most sophisticated servers and instructional technologies may have issues.

No Face Time

Students with a learning style dependent upon face-to-face encounters with teachers and peers may find a virtual learning environment isolating. Some web-based classes use video conferencing and allow classmates and their instructors to at least see each other remotely to some extent, but even in those cases a video feed is definitely not the same as direct interaction.

Time Management

Procrastinators or those who always need extrinsic motivation to stay on task and complete work will be more likely have difficulty in a flexible online learning environment. Online language learning requires students to monitor their own progress and determine how often and how long to focus on course materials. This is often considered the greatest challenge of any distance learning program, and keeping up with the diligent practice necessary for language study can make learning a language in an online environment doubly demanding. Students should devote at least 9 to 12 hours per week to distance education to maintain a steady pace and successfully retain what they study.

When comparing the pros and cons of learning a language in a virtual setting, it does seem that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. However, every individual is unique and should examine all options and their potential pitfalls. When considering online language learning, prospective students should evaluate their own situations and capabilities. There is no denying that learning a new language can be exciting and beneficial, but the avenue through which one chooses to pursue that study makes a tremendous difference.


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Learning a new language is not just about learning the words. Instead, one is required to think with a new set of labels for everything around them. Recognizing this, many language courses use pictures and symbols to illustrate the meanings of new words instead of handing out vocabulary lists with translations into one's native language.

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