Multilingualism and education

Learning languages in a virtual classroom

A lot of materials on the Internet that can help you successfully learn a language  Photo: Alex Slobodkin © iStockphotoA lot of materials on the Internet that can help you successfully learn a language  Photo: Alex Slobodkin © iStockphotoLearning a language via the Internet is difficult. Amongst other things it is also hard to motivate oneself to sit in front of the computer on a regular basis and study. Language communities may be able to help.

“Learning a language is something so natural that you don’t really even need an intermediary do it,” says Kerstin Adam, German teacher at the Humanities University in Lille. She recommends to her students that they do exchanges with native speakers. After all, classic forms of study such as vocabulary lists and the like are more effective when you can actually use what you learn. This is called the tandem principle.

Learning in a community

Video chat: body language is vital to learning to understand a languagePhoto: Claudiobaba © iStockphotoThe networking possibilities offered by Web 2.0 have made it much easier to find suitable partners for learning languages in an exchange type of environment. The members of a language community all have the same goal: learning a language. After introducing themselves on a profile page, people can then find a suitably matched partner. Common hobbies, for example, are a great to way to “break the ice” and get a conversation going.

When chatting with native speakers, however, it is very important that you already know how to write the target language. If that is the case, eager students can get started right away. “You don’t necessarily have to be good at a language to manage basic communication. Much of what happens in a conversation can be developed,” according to Kerstin Adam. You can work around missing vocabulary. Success will come when the right words have been acquired through the course of the conversation.

Another advantage of video chat, for example, is that you can see your partner. The gestures and facial expressions make it easier to understand what has been said. That is not the case in written chat. That body language is vital to learning to understand a language.

One free video community is Lingorilla, which as of March will be integrated into the paid subscriber platform LinguaTV. The site offers language training through short, entertaining videos in which the images as well as the gestures and facial expressions of the teachers help students comprehend the content. Once the material has been learned, members can then use it in exchanges with other members of the community for that language. The video platform even makes it possible to familiarize oneself and begin to understand certain dialects of a language. Another advantage is of course that participants come into direct contact with slang, something that doesn’t happen very often in a language course.

Motivated learning

People learning online have to motivate themselves Photo: Hector Joseph Lumang  © iStockphotoUsing what you’ve learned in an exchange situation helps you to better assess your progress as well. In language courses, where mainly the teacher offers guidance, praise and evaluation while people learning online have to motivate themselves as well as measure their own progress. In traditional courses, success is measured through the structure of the classes – what you’ve learned is then applied in follow-up courses. The same results, however, can be learned in exchanges with native speakers where students can actively use their freshly acquired knowledge. The motivation to delve deeper into the language then increases with the success of being able to communicate with others.

The numerous reasons why a person may want to learn a language makes it difficult to find the right method for everyone, but the Internet offers solutions for just about any objective. If a person is too timid to speak before having a grasp of the grammar, for example, multilingual web sites like can be very helpful. The site publishes articles from European newspapers in different languages, the concept being that you read a story in your native language – or at least in one you already understand well – and then to read it in the language you are trying to learn in order to more easily improve vocabulary, syntax and grammar.

Everyone learns languages differently

Important: exchanges with native speakers  Photo: Bo1982 © iStockphotoFor those looking for a more entertaining way to learn, video clips may be a solution – facial expressions and body language tend to be pretty easy to understand. Language exchange platforms offer videos that are tailored to the varied objectives of its members. There are other options as well. The Goethe Institut, for example, invites participants to their multimedia island in the “Second Life” 3-D community, which features a Tuesday German course and a daily German-language meet-up. The Jokers Download page on the site offers short detective stories free of charge in the form of mp3 files with associated texts. Students can listen to the exciting stories while they read the text that goes with it. In short, there is a plethora of materials on the Internet that can help you successfully learn a language, but if you want to really master a language and all of its facets, at some point you will have to take the plunge and sign up for a course.

Tanja Beeskow
is a freelance journalist and writes for and hö via Web-TV.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2010

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