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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Thornhill

My Top 5 Tips for Online Language Learners... and Their Teachers (2.5 A3)

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

In this class I'm taking (first time back in class in a looooong time) we reflected on what it takes to successfully learn a new language online. A colleague of mine asked me about my thoughts on this one.

So Dan, I've always wanted to learn French, as you know. Let's say I just signed up for an online French class. How should I approach that?

I would treat it like any language class, online or not. First, remember that you don't have to be Shakespeare... or Molière! Keep it simple and stick to what you know how to say. It's frustrating not to be able to communicate, so don't add to that by trying to say stuff you can't say yet. Be patient and you'll get there.

Also, don't be afraid to copy from what you hear. Did you hear a chunk like n'est-ce pas? (right? in English) on the end of a sentence? Take it and use it! Using chunks will make your speaking sound more authentic and will keep you from translating word for word.

I'm an experienced language learner, though. What happens when you're in class with people who aren't catching on as fast as you are?

Don't be afraid to "teach" them a little yourself. Think of your class as a community, and the members of a community all gotta help one another. If you're there to lift them up when they need it, they'll be more likely to return the favor if you ever need it.

You can also give them concrete tips that you yourself use when learning. For example, when tackling a challenging reading, try to predict or make educated guesses about the content by scanning for cognates, international vocabulary, and familiar words; examining associated titles, captions, and images; and considering the possible intent of the text.

That makes sense, though I am not so worried about reading French. It's the listening that seems hard.

You're so right about that - listening is a very tricky skill, especially for English-dominant learners of French and Spanish. Remember to preview the information you need to get out of the audio and then break it into 30-45 second segments, depending on how dense it is. That works like a charm every time.

That makes a lot of sense too. Many people still find the idea of learning a new language daunting, especially online. What would you say that online language teachers could do to make the prospect less intimidating?

I would say first, remember to scaffold any kind of practice. We as teachers, who already speak the language proficiently, can't simply explain how to form questions in the language, for example, and then tell the learners, "OK now go do it". We have to give lots of comprehensible input before the learners take on a new language task.

Then, I would tell them to keep their expectations level-appropriate. Learners who are just beginning with a language can't be expected to perform like advanced learners to get a good grade. Risk-taking should be rewarded more than accuracy at the lower levels.

You've said a lot in that vein, about risk-taking, participation, and what you call engagement.

Yes, we definitely want to evaluate risk-taking and engagement, not just participation. The learners' responses to the activities you plan serve as evidence of participation. Engagement goes beyond that. Engagement implies more than just stating your own viewpoint or "speaking" when spoken to. It implies that you're collaborating and helping your colleagues broaden their knowledge and skills. It implies concern beyond yourself.

Hmm, I never thought about it like that before. So, how would you make language tasks more engaging, then, as a teacher?

Well, take reading and listening tasks, for example. We read and listen to get information. It's not enough to simply demonstrate comprehension with a list of comprehension questions. That's not engaging. That's doing the minimum. It's essential for learners to apply the information, and that they be eager to do so. How is it relevant to them? How can they use what you're giving them? If you can't answer these questions, and they can't either, maybe you should reconsider just how engaging your lessons actually are.

Speaking of planning, I hear online classes are tricky to plan.

Yeah they are! As an online language teacher, you have to plan for all the off-the-cuff, verbal scaffolding you would typically do in a face-to-face class. Everything you ask the learners to do has to be spelled out and crystal clear, or else every day will be a time-consuming slog through mountains of emails and messages. The planning is tedious, but if you do it well, you'll create a vibrant learning community that fosters love for the language and its cultures.

And that should be the goal of every language teacher.

You got that right!
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