Taking language learning online has pros and cons

Analysis

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The pandemic forced language learners, just like most of us, to stay at home and continue to study via online platforms. Most schools have adopted an online agenda and hold classes online, even though they have the option to teach face-to-face as well. Whether this will continue in the post-virus era is yet to be seen, nor is it yet clear how such a change would affect the language teaching industry globally.

One of the major benefits of online teaching lies in convenience; teachers and students can save time on commuting, and can participate from the comfort of their homes. This however, won’t suit all; some chose face-to-face classes specifically to get away from the distractions of their homes, and to fully immerse in the class.

Another benefit lost to shifting teaching onto a virtual platform is the ability to interact with their groupmates. For some, the nuances of a live class can never be reproduced in a 2D environment.

“Interaction between students, the language learning experience, the ability to learn from the mistakes of the others, or questions arising from what classmates say; all these are lost online,” Tamás Légrádi, vice president of the Association of Hungarian Language Schools (NYESZE) tells the Budapest Business Journal.

As a skill, a language can perfectly easily be learnt and taught online as well as off. But, as is with other activities, most people need a schedule and also some peer pressure to commit to learning. The proportion of those who can acquire a language without any help is very small.

Highly Committed

“These highly motivated and committed people with one or more other languages under their belt make up less than 5% of students,” says Légrádi. The rest needs some supervision, a study plan, and the occasional push they usually get from a group class or teacher, he adds.

“Like working out, one could do it yourself; however, many opt for a personal trainer to have that extra push,” he explains. Though there are no official figures, Légrádi estimates that today there are about 20-30% less teaching activity than before the pandemic started.

“Initially, some schools were reluctant to switch to online teaching, but eventually many did,” he says.

The more technology-savvy transitioned more easily, and overall, with success, at least that is the feedback NYESZE has received from several schools. Organizing one-on-ones or group chat might have been difficult at first, but most overcame these obstacles.

The only thing that did not prove feasible is a mix of face-to-face and online teaching, that is, when a teacher is holding a class in the school and also online – simultaneously. When the first lockdown was lifted, many returned to the classrooms but they then again had to continue to study online from mid-fall. (Under the government restrictions aimed at combatting COVID, language schools do have the option to teach face-to-face, but a lot chose to hold online courses only today.)

Quality Guarantee

“Good language teachers continue to work in reputable schools, so whether it is face-to-face or online, people know the quality is guaranteed,” Légrádi notes. The expert believes that online teaching will stay with us after pandemic as well, but face-to-face sessions won’t disappear either.

“One class of a two-a-week course may be face-to-face, the other may be held online,” Légrádi thinks.

Student feedback is also positive: Those asked by the BBJ mentioned time-saving, the abundance of digital tools and materials teachers can share more easily, although they add that internet connections can sometimes be tricky and that for teachers, holding a class online is definitely more challenging (or at least requires more attention).

Overall, they don’t think that learning a language online is made more difficult than doing it face-to-face, though the experience is certainly different. When it comes to one-on-one classes, the difference is marginal. Here, just as in a group session, the teacher can share materials and, crucially, their attention is not divided. Some say they may be more motivated to study if they actually meet a teacher, but apart from that, the difference is hardly noticeable.

Taking Tech to Boost Language Learning

Online language learning is not reduced to video chatrooms. Apps have been around for a long time, and are gaining ever more popularity. They are definitely not the best way to study a language from zero, unless someone has a lot time of time and a knack for languages, but they are a handy addition to other learning regimes. The most popular ones use repetition as a method to memorize words, the more sophisticated ones cut scenes from popular TV shows, subtitle them and add a few exercises after each segment.

Many of these apps, including one Hungarian-based company, Xeropan, have seen a surge in their downloads since the outbreak of the pandemic, but they are thought likely to continue to rise in the post-pandemic era as they have proved themselves very convenient.

They do have their downsides, though: most are international and have no Hungarian version or, and the translations are often flawed. But what they most lack is the “human touch”: even if you filled the gaps correctly, or translated (or guessed) a sentence correctly, you will remain somewhat uncertain as your answers are not confirmed or explained by a teacher, users say.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 12, 2021.

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