Not every online language learner is on their way to becoming a polyglot, but an increasing number of students are turning to non-traditional means to learn languages, from Swahili to Chinese.
Tim Bacon, a 3D animator and coder, is one of an increasing number of language lovers who are adopting D.I.Y. methods to language learning. Fluent in German and conversational in French, he decided to begin learning Italian three years ago. At the gym, he listened to audio books during his workouts. But when he made his way through those, his learning stalled — until he turned to the Internet, where dictionaries, forums, and the ostensibly imperfect Google Translate facilitated his learning. He also practices his speaking skills occasionally with an Italian couple he met virtually on a language swap site.
“I discover the language and the culture in a more natural way than with a curriculum,” Bacon said, mentioning that he prefers the organic process that self-study provides. “I follow links to things or read topics on forums that interest me.”
The proliferation of independent language learners can be attributed, at least in part, to the rich variety of resources — lectures, discussion boards, and videos — made available courtesy of the Internet and technology.
Now, students can sift through websites such as MyLanguageExchange.com, Livemocha.com, and italki.com to arrange conversation sessions with native speakers. Students can also download flashcard apps on their smartphones, listen to audio lessons available on iTunes, or upload YouTube videos, allowing the masses to correct and critique their pronunciation. Foreign language and literature course work is also available through resources such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW). In addition, schools may offer online language tools for the linguistically curious, like the University of Texas’ Francais interactif, a free guide to learning French that is available online. The Internet knows no bounds, and language learning is no exception.
Sometimes, learning online can seem like the only viable option for those who want to learn a language, but whose schedules demand flexibility.
“Realistically, my life is too chaotic to be able to sign up for an evening course or other timetabled study group,” Bacon said.
However, the time commitment does not serve as a deterrent for Kevin Fairdosi, the owner of Houston French, a small business he operates to teach and tutor students in the language. Fairdosi also studies a host of other languages; to date, he has had varying levels of exposure to Spanish, Italian, Farsi, and Vietnamese. Most recently, he began studying Mandarin in preparation for a trip to China.
He turns to a host of websites and online tools to develop his comprehension and communication skills. For instance, he used a combination of resources to learn Farsi, including the website EasyPersian.com, the Pimsleur language learning system, and conversations with native speakers.
“There’s really no reason to limit yourself to learning online because language is about communication and interaction. There are so many people out there who are giddy to share their language with the world that you don’t ever have to pay,” Fairdosi said, alluding to another advantage of online language learning: the price tag, or lack thereof.
Bacon agrees. “Most online resources are free, and if not thereís no penalty for missing a class,” he said.
Bacon concedes that his reading and writing skills surpass his speaking and listening skills — a common occurrence among self-taught language learners. It’s also what gives pause to language instructors like Fernando Rubio, a professor at the University of Utah, whose research investigates how students develop oral and written language proficiency in online, hybrid, and classroom formats.
Rubio concedes that access to Internet resources can enhance formal systems of learning, and may even speed up the process of language acquisition.
“But you donít learn a second language only by being exposed to it in this way, if you want to develop it past a certain level of proficiency,” he said. Learners need something he calls “negative evidence,” a corrective process by which instructors explain grammatical errors.
“If you have a tremendous amount of exposure [to non-traditional methods], your experience is comparable to that of an immigrant who moves to another country and is exposed to a language,” Rubio said. “Without some form of formal instruction, you develop an intermediate level of proficiency.”
While Fairdosi agrees that learners must communicate with other speakers, he does not undervalue the tools that are available on the Internet. In fact, he thinks that these resources, often available for free or at a minimal cost, are a better alternative than expensive software like Rosetta Stone.
“To really be conversational, I think you do need the practice of speaking with someone on a fairly regular basis. You can do that online, but you won’t get the same kind of realistic experience that you get in person,” he said.
Finding native speakers and instructors demands research and commitment, and experts and students alike agree that learning a language online requires that students embody certain traits. They must have a strong desire to learn, a willingness to interact with strangers, the ability to work independently, and patience. Approaching language learning in an organized and methodical manner can also increase proficiency.
“The major challenge is just finding time to devote to it,” Bacon said. “Once you find a bit of time though, it doesnít really matter what youíre doing. Reading a book or a trashy magazine article, or listening to music [in the language you're learning]; it all adds up.”