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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 using what you learned to communicate with others. That goal has not changed as we’ve shifted to online instruction. We still use a variety of proven teaching techniques that work together toward the same goal of getting you speaking.

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 to make sure we helped our students reach the same level of speaking proficiency as they would face-to-face.

Adults approach learning logically, so our program plays 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 one and half hour 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 one of our traditional classrooms, the instructor weaves together teaching, listening, reading, speaking and pronunciation into 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, your online class 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 courses concentrate all the speaking practice into a carefully planned weekly virtual conversation class. Three to five students meet with an instructor for 30 minutes to work through targeted activities that pull together everything learned that week. Here’s what else you’ll experience in an online class:

Flipped instruction: Instructors record themselves introducing all new vocabulary and grammar with their personal tried-and-true tips for approaching new language concepts. This helped solve screen fatigue and technical issues as well as let participants choose their own learning schedule. The course platform allows us to easily integrate additional resources for more practice before the virtual conversation classes.

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 activities online. In our classes, we 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 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, and the course platform provides additional audio and video that target 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 most cases, our online classes use the identical textbook as the in-person classes. We provide answer keys for written exercises, and instructors give personalized feedback on several short essays.

Virtual conversation practice: All the previous parts of our program teach you how the language works and allow you to see and hear new concepts in different contexts, but the final step to truly acquiring a language is for you to put those language structures into practice. 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 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 time slot 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 conversational 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 or after class. To create a sense of normalcy, we provide online forums for asking questions, and remember that your instructor is accessible via email. Dont be shy.

Contact us: Finally, email us at if you have questions or want more information.

Study a language online with UW–Madison Continuing Studies language programs in 2021. We promise it will be exactly the same as in-person learning, only completely different.