San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Welcome to the virtual classroom

First in a three-part series on online language learning. 

If you really want to learn a language, there is nothing better than immersing yourself completely by living for a while in a country of the language. Even then, it works best if you supplement this experience with some structured instruction. But what is the best type of structured instruction?

Kate Galante

Kate Galante

I have generally discouraged people from buying expensive CD or DVD language learning programs, not because they are ineffective, but because people tend to fool around with them for a while and then leave them on the shelf to collect dust. In contrast, investing in a class, complete with teacher and classmates, usually creates a sense of responsibility and solidarity and provides the all-important factor of human interaction.

As it turns out, these are no longer the only viable options. Recently, a North American friend of mine, a recent arrival to Costa Rica, told me she had discovered Livemocha, a great Internet site for learning Spanish, and it was working for her.

Realizing I had let myself get behind the times and had never investigated language learning on the Web, I decided to bring myself up to date and help my readers find another resource for learning Spanish. Surely it couldn’t be too complicated.

Thus, I Googled “language learning online,” and – ¡Ay, caramba! – more than 62 million results popped up.

I tried; I really did. I spent hours poring over websites, examining sample lessons, comparing prices and generally losing myself in cyberspace.

I finally came to the conclusion that it’s impossible for one person to evaluate adequately the current state of online language programs. For one thing, these are mostly businesses concerned with making money, thus making it difficult to ferret out all the gimmicks and faults without actually taking a course. Since I am now too old to reap any benefit from becoming proficient in, say, Estonian or Hindi, I rejected this strategy. For another thing, there was a risk of my going insane trying to plow through 62 million results.

The best I can do is supply some general information, provide you with a more detailed account of how a particular program works, and, finally, furnish you with examples of some of the other programs I found.

First of all, there are basically seven types of online activities available:

1. Written instruction and “interactive” exercises giving you instant feedback. 

2. Flash cards, crossword puzzles, games and other amusements.

3. Verbal instruction and songs, giving you the opportunity to repeat what you hear or, even better, to record and compare what you hear and to use voice recognition technology to assess the degree of accuracy of pronunciation. (Some suggest, however, that a learner cannot receive proper pronunciation training over the Internet because the high and low frequencies are deleted from the signal.)

4. Videos, both static and interactive.

5. Tests scored by Internet teachers.

6. Live chats with native speakers.

7. One-on-one tutoring with a native speaker via webcam. 

Most programs offer some combination of these activities. Prices also run the gamut, from free up to $1,000 or more. Most of the free activities do not offer quality interactivity and are designed to lead you into more sophisticated aspects of the program. The one-on-one tutoring with a native speaker is the most expensive approach, ranging $9-$25 per lesson, depending on the package purchased. In addition, some programs offer courses for children and group or school rates. Most sites offer sample lessons. Be aware that some sites are difficult to navigate or don’t disclose prices until you go to the shopping cart and have divulged at least your email, if not more. 

Keep in mind, as well, that the market is evolving, but still immature. To some degree, there is a lack of understanding of how new media enable learning; thus, a lot of the content is simply standard classroom techniques dressed up in techno clothing. Moreover, some content may be coming from software developers, rather than teachers. 

In a word, al-though there may be drawbacks, the advantage is that you bring the classroom into your home or to your mobile device, arrange your own schedule, pay much less to do all this, and still maintain some of the responsibility, solidarity and human interaction that keep you going.

If this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are always traps and glitches. 

The most treacherous trap is the word “interactive.” When it comes to choosing the right program, true interactivity is the key, and many programs play fast and loose with the word. “Interact” means “to act, one upon the other.” Thus, whenever you can receive a response to your activity, whether machine or human, you have interactivity. There are, however, degrees of interactivity. For example, when you complete a fill-in or multiple-choice exercise in Spanish, and the machine then shows you what you got right and wrong, this is interactivity, but at the lowest level. At best, it is just a bit faster than looking up the answer key at the back of the book. To be truly effective, interactivity should involve some kind of personal response to the student. This is mostly going to be more costly, although there are programs that offer live chat programs where you and a Spanish speaker become language-learning pen pals.

In short, even if Internet courses are not a substitute for total immersion in the culture of your chosen language or interaction with a teacher and classmates, they may be the next best thing. 

In the next article, we’ll take a look at Livemocha, the program that launched me into this tangle in the first place.

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