Learning Languages Online
Virtual Cramming

Learning programmes should provide motivating elements
Learning programmes should provide motivating elements | Photo (detail): © s_l - Fotolia.com

Learning language online is in trend. Yet even if the technical possibilities are constantly growing, learners should not forego the support by a qualified personal teacher, says Uwe Bellmann.

Mr Bellmann, how do people learn a language?

It sounds trite, but you learn to speak a foreign language best by speaking it! The methodological principle is called “learning by doing”. At the same time, young people and adults learn a foreign language in a way different from that in which small children learn their native language. In addition to the development of speaking skills, further foundations must be laid, especially in an academic context: knowledge of grammar and terminology, for example, but also skills in listening, reading and writing.

You can also practice these skills outside the classroom. What opportunities are offered by online learning environments for language acquisition?

Today we’re in the comfortable position of being able to offer our students a combination of traditional classroom teaching and online tools. This is also called “blended learning”. It means that you practice speaking in the classroom together with a teacher and fellow students. Parallel to this in an online learning environment, a Webcourse, you practice the other linguistic skills alone, undisturbed and concentrated, and acquire the additional knowledge at your own pace – brisk and fast, or with many repetitions and extra exercises.

Learning on Web 2.0

In other words, an online only linguistic environment without personal support doesn’t work?

No, without inclusion of a traditional course or a distance learning course with personal support by a qualified tutor, language skills can’t, in my opinion, be seriously taught. It works only in the rarest cases, with highly motivated students or in learning a clearly defined sub-area, such as acquiring a certain technical terminology. The much-lauded possibility of collaborating with other online learners, so-called Web 2.0 learning, also can’t completely replace a course, but can only serve as one methodological component among others.

Where exactly does online learning come up against its technical or methodological limits?

Uwe Bellmann, Professor of Applied Linguistics/Specialist Languages Uwe Bellmann, Professor of Applied Linguistics/Specialist Languages | © Uwe Bellmann For example, in evaluating freely written texts. Essays can’t be mechanically evaluated. Teachers can do this better than machines. In oral language training too, students generally benefit more from working with a teacher than with software. Spoken language is an active interpersonal interaction. I therefore don’t think much of providers of speaker apps who sometimes promise we can learn a foreign language in a very short time exclusively by means of a software and without contact to a teacher or other speakers.

Anticipate errors, provide assistance

In your opinion, what exactly should a good online language learning course do?

Many apps that are called learning programmes are actually testing programmes. In a kind of quiz situation, they pose questions about information according to a true/false pattern, sometimes present solutions and calculate scores or percentages. But this has little to do with effective learning. A good online language learning course should offer a variety of exercises. Learners should be able to choose individual learning pathways and repeat exercises free of stress. But the most important thing is the quality of the automated leaner feedback. I mean that the learner should receive appropriate feedback and assistance at every point in the learning programme.

How can such a learning environment be implemented?

The technical side of it isn’t the problem. The big challenge is of a didactic nature, namely to anticipate what errors the learner typically makes in what situations and contexts and to place corresponding learning notes in the programme. Every learner needs individual assistance to deal with his specific problems. And in such a way that he becomes as active as possible and isn’t simply presented with a ready-made solution. This is incredibly time-consuming. I sometimes work fourteen days on various options and versions of an online exercise, on which my students then need to spend only ten minutes in the Webcourse.

What role does phonetics play in online learning? You have there the opportunity of checking your own pronunciation virtually live.

The use of so-called speech recognition systems is attractive, but it also has its pitfalls. For example, a system attuned to British English gives an American, who speaks his native language correctly, poorer results than the average German learner of English. In my opinion, spoken language should be located where it belongs: in living speech between people.

Massive, open, online

How do online courses have a positive effect on the motivation of participants?

Unlike traditional language courses, in a Webcourse you practice very intensely; you give answers more than once or twice per lesson. Moreover, online courses can specifically address the individual needs of the student. Where possible, learning programmes should provide motivating elements of play. But it should be said that in general learning motivation is very much an inner attitude of the learner, which depends mainly on whether he knows clearly the use to which he wants to put the learned language.

What are the current trends in online language learning?

Trends come and go. Only a few developments are sustainable. One of these could be the so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This means that many people (massive) can take part for free (open) in an online course. A fee must be paid if successful participants want a certificate.
Uwe Bellmann has been Professor of Applied Linguistics / Specialist Languages at the Leipzig University of Technology, Economic and Culture (HTWK) since 2010. The focal points of his work include the development and implementation of Webcourses, information technology, foreign language learning and the development of teaching and learning aids for foreign language training.