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Ask a Professor: What are the Pros and Cons of Learning a Language Online?

In an in-person class, students have a lot of extra visual aids where students can rely on interpreting people’s facial expressions, gestures, body movement, and so forth. But they don’t have that with classes online. They don’t have all that extra information—they have to really depend on and focus on understanding with their ears. So I think that’s a good thing.

Professor John Chang, Master Lecturer of Chinese at the University of Southern California

In the prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic period, many in-person classes are still taking place online. This includes language courses, where learning often relies on strong class engagement to support students’ comprehension of foreign material.

Language courses have become a mainstay of higher academia, supporting both core learning requirements and students seeking to pursue careers that rely on multilingual expertise to support globalized business needs.

According to a 2019 report released by the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages, 56 percent of employers said their foreign language demand will increase over the next five years. Meanwhile, the 2020 Global Online Language Learning Market reflected the boost in demand, stating that online language learning accounted for $8.17 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $20.37 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 12.1 percent during the forecast period.

Apps like DuoLingo are gaining popularity and traditionally in-person classes have moved online. In 2020, Duolingo’s user base has reached 42 million active users per month, up from 30 million in December 2019. When the spring peak of the pandemic hit globally in March 2020, the app saw new sign-ups jump by 108 percent from March 9 to March 30 worldwide and increased by 148 percent for the same period in the United States alone.

With a wealth of distance-based resources available, how does online learning compare to learning a language through an in-person course? And is it really possible to learn a language online?

We spoke with a language professor about the feasibility and challenges of language learning online—and how students can best prepare to learn a language at a distance.

Meet the Expert: Professor John Chang

John ChangProfessor John Chang is a master lecturer of Chinese language at the University of Southern California’s East Asian Languages and Cultures department. Chang’s research specialties include technology, language learning, and online learning.

Chang previously served as the Chinese Language Program Director of USC’s EALC department from 2011-2012. He also served as the lead programmer and tech support for the language learning platform, iWillSpeak, hosted at USC, from 2010-2011.

Q&A with Professor Chang on Language Learning Online Have your classes moved to online/hybrid learning models? If so, what has that shift been like? How has this impacted your teaching style and students’ understanding of the material?

Professor Chang: Yes, we’ve moved our classes online. We were given an option to do a hybrid, but I think all of the instructors are a little afraid to go back to campus. So, we thought it would be best to move classes completely online. Even with this move, I think I was well-prepared. My classes and my teaching hasn’t been affected too greatly.

I do observe that in terms of the receiving end from the students, with the switch to online classes, some of the student interaction isn’t as strong as compared to if we meet via in-person classes. And that I can understand. This is really the only thing that I think has been a little drawback with moving classes to an online structure. And while I’m prepared, I don’t think it’s the same. But I imagine that the students just aren’t getting the same engagement, so it can be a bit of a loss for the students.

Teaching online is interesting. If we were on campus, I would have met the students in person and gotten to know them that way. I teach intermediate-level classes this semester, so while I know many of the students in the department, it’s different to meet some of them and get to know them through their presence online. I can identify their voices very clearly, but I don’t always know how they look, because using their computer camera is optional. And you can ask but you can’t force them to open and turn on their webcam. The fact I don’t get to see their face is probably one of the reasons class may not always be as engaging.

But you know what? There is the other side to this. On the other hand, I think it can be a good thing to learn this way because they have to purely rely on their ears to engage in conversation, to learn the content, and to interact with people. So, in a sense, in an in-person class, students have a lot of extra visual aids where students can rely on interpreting people’s facial expressions, gestures, body movement, and so forth. But they don’t have that with classes online. They don’t have all that extra information—they have to really depend on and focus on understanding with their ears. So I think that’s a good thing.

I also have a little advantage over other teachers because I know programming, so if I need something I can code a few pieces of software to support students’ learning.

One big challenge for students learning Chinese is how do they pick up their tones?

To address this problem, I wrote an application to pinpoint words’ syllable and tone. It will tell students immediately when their tone is incorrect so they know exactly where to make corrections. The app calculates the grade automatically to determine a score.

If, for example, there are 100 characters and they missed 20 characters, then their score is 80 percent. So they are very aware that it’s graded and I do see some improvement. I placed the app on a webpage, but it’s only for me and my classes because it doesn’t scale very well. What are your thoughts on language learning apps as compared to traditional language classes? What do you think about synchronous versus asynchronous language learning models?

Professor Chang: I do encourage students to download apps and try them if they have the time and can spare a few dollars. I like those apps and they’re helpful, but I think those apps are better for casual learning. In comparison to structured school learning, the content and vocabulary in the app don’t quite match what they can learn in class.

Courses and work are already a lot for most people, so I don’t think most students will have extra time to use those apps on a regular basis unless they’re really disciplined and motivated.

At the beginning of each semester, I conduct a questionnaire. A few of the questions ask about students’ use and attitudes toward mobile apps. To my surprise, they’re not very enthusiastic about using them. While some have tried it, they say that they would only use it once in a while and then stopped using it.

I think part of the reason is that the school textbook already has lots of vocabulary and stuff to learn. So unless those apps are tailored to the lessons that we do in class, I don’t see them as being very popular with students.

In regards to learning models, I think a synchronous learning model works better than an asynchronous learning model.

With an asynchronous learning model, I have no idea of how much students have learned or how well they have absorbed the content, even if it is a small class.

With a synchronous model, there are designated sessions that allow me to work with the students on a daily basis. I know if they have skipped a unit, are missing homework, or if there are certain days they didn’t review or they didn’t study. And with this information, I will have a better idea of how they are doing. What are some methods teachers can use to set up their students for success? And what can students do to best prepare to learn languages online?

Professor Chang: It’s been several months since we moved to teaching fully online in mid-March, and with that, I transferred the classroom setting over to the online setting.

In class normally we go over vocabulary and grammar. Then we go over some content and students take turns practicing followed by a breakout session. I transferred over this model to an online presence, but I don’t think it has been a very productive way of learning. And that’s probably also why there is less engagement by students with the material than in person.

I’ve come to the realization I will probably adjust it next semester by passing on to students the responsibility of preparing themselves for class instead of feeding them all the contents of lessons during class. I will make them responsible for learning the content as much as they can prior to class, during which we only talk about questions or difficult concepts in certain sections. I’ll make them study hard and then in class I’ll check their comprehension with both verbal and written questions.

That being said, I think the instructor is really the key to supporting successful students. Although there are faster and slower learners, they are all learning. And to a certain degree, they are all trying, so teachers should be able to see some progress. And if there’s a problem, it’s also the teacher’s problem to help fix.