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You can learn a language online — here’s how!

Your online language class with UW–Madison Continuing Studies is exactly the same as your face-to-face class, only completely different. Let me explain.

The goal of our language class­es is to get you talking, as research shows that the most powerful tool for learning a language is communicating with others. We maintain this goal whether you’re taking a language class in person — or entirely online.

How we translated in-person language learning to a virtual setting

When the safety of our staff and learners forced us online in the spring of 2020, we piloted diverse online models until we found the perfect blend, ensuring our virtual students could reach the same level of speaking proficiency as they would if meeting face-to-face.

Adults approach learning logically, so our program has always played to this strength. Instructors introduce new parts of a language bit by bit, using reading and listening activities to show you how these parts appear in real-life situations. Outside of class, learners use written activities to review what they learned and take a deeper dive.

However, the most important part of our program is practicing the language through meaningful conversation. In a typical 90-minute in-person class, students work in pairs or small groups every five to 10 minutes to practice speaking.

Picking up our in-person model and transferring it intact to Zoom was not possible. Screen fatigue, poor connections, audio feedback and slow attempts at dividing learners into breakout groups were not acceptable substitutes for the vibrant energy of our classrooms.

So, we started over.

In our in-person classes, the instructor weaves together teaching, listening, reading, speaking and pronunciation in a beautiful tapestry. If you pull the tapestry apart, the instructor spends about 30 minutes introducing new concepts and reviewing former ones, 30 minutes leading students in reading, listening and pronunciation activities and 30 minutes guiding students in conversation in pairs or small groups.

To make a pedagogically sound online learning experience, we separated each part and found the best modality to deliver that learning activity. So, while the online class may feel very different at the beginning, it is the same class, just organized and delivered differently.

So, what’s it like to learn a language online?

Since the most important part of learning a language is using that language to communicate with others, our online program is unique in its carefully planned weekly conversation class that allows for effective speaking practice. In preparation for this virtual conversation practice, students work through instructional material on their own throughout the week, then small groups of students who meet online with a UW instructor to work through targeted speaking activities. Here’s what our unique blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning looks like:

Flipped instruction: Instructors record themselves introducing new vocabulary and grammar with their personal tried-and-true tips for approaching new language concepts. This solves screen fatigue and technical issues and allows participants to choose their own learning schedule. The course platform easily integrates additional resources for vocabulary or grammar. Learners are in the driver’s seat, deciding where they need more practice and how best to use their time.

Reading activities: Our program builds reading skills by guiding you through strategies to approach a new text and working through pre- and post-reading questions. Teaching reading live during a virtual class is slow and ineffective, so we moved reading to an asynchronous online activity. Instructors walk you through texts with written or recorded instructions, give you time to read on your own and provide a way to check your understanding.

Listening activities: Our courses have always incorporated audio activities to expose you to more accents and different situations than one instructor can give you in class. Since these activities were already pre-recorded, it was easy to adapt them so that students could listen on their own. Many of our students say they are more likely to do additional listening activities in an online format.

Pronunciation practice: Your instructor will specifically teach pronunciation of new words in the pre-recorded lessons. Meanwhile, the course platform provides additional audio and video that targets certain aspects of pronunciation, allowing you to hear different accents.

Writing exercises: Simple writing activities and short essays are one more way to reinforce and deepen understanding of new language and vocabulary. In many cases, our online classes use the same textbook or materials as our in-person classes. We provide answer keys for written exercises, and instructors give personalized feedback on several short essays.

Virtual conversation practice: The final step to acquiring a language is for you to put those language structures into practice by speaking with others. The specific format of the virtual conversation practice varies according to the participant’s language level. Beginners need more direct guidance from the instructor, so in lower levels, small groups of three to six students meet with a UW instructor for a minimum of 30 minutes. These beginner groups work through targeted speaking activities sent out ahead of time, covering everything learned that week. In intermediate and advanced levels, the group size increases and meets for longer blocks of time, implementing a mix of formats to give participants the maximum amount of time to practice speaking in both small and large groups.

Many participants report speaking more in this online format than in a traditional classroom, and they appreciate having the instructor present the entire time. Groups are varied each week, so you get to know the entire cohort of students, who come from all over the country.

Steps to online language-learning success

Part of any learning experience is learning to learn, and online learning will take a different approach. Be patient with yourself. Here are a few more things you can do to set yourself up for success:

Make a schedule: Since your online language class is much more than the weekly meeting for virtual conversation, scheduling time throughout the week to work through the different pieces of learning is important. This will prepare you to take full advantage of the virtual conversation class. The more time you can invest in your learning, the more you will learn.

Communicate with your instructor: The number one thing learners and instructors miss in the online format is the impromptu interactions that happen before and after class. To create a sense of normalcy, we provide online forums for asking questions. Instructors often record themselves answering your question, so that the entire class can listen to the answer if they choose. Remember that your instructor is accessible via email. Don’t be shy.

Contact us: Finally, don’t hesitate to email us if you have questions or want more information.

Study a language online with UW–Madison Continuing Studies language programs. We promise it will be exactly the same as in-person learning, only completely different.

This article has been updated from an earlier version, originally posted January 11, 2021.