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Reflections on online language instruction

I’ve had the experience of alternately learning and teaching languages online for about 5, hedging on 6, years now. I’ve learnt, and taught, 1-to-1, 1-to-many, though never many-to-1 (I’m not sure that’s a model that helps anybody!). I’ve worked in classes in 5 different languages. All of this, I think, gives me a little bit of insight into some of the ups and downs of online teaching of languages. Here are some of my reflections.


  • Video is not essential, but it’s very helpful

I say this because actually looking at someone and engaging with them is tremendously helpful. We’re engaged in communication here, and putting faces to voices is part of what elevates this from talking on the phone. I do have students and teachers who leave video off, often for reasons of increasing internet reliability and speed, and that is fair enough. But to the extent that it is possible, having video on and having that the main thing on screen is the optimal set-up.

  • It’s easy for any party to be distracted

Which is related to number two. It’s very easy, sitting in front of a computer, to be ‘distractable’. To drift off to other things. On the part of the teacher this is very unprofessional, and on the part of a student it’s to your own disadvantage. I suggest shutting down every other program you can. Don’t leave things minimised or running in the background.

It can be useful to have other files open, so there is an argument for some minimal use of other windows/tabs. If so, it’s not a bad idea to be up-front about this – because if you can tell that the other person appears to be ‘doing’ something rather than interacting with you directly, this is very off-putting. For my part, I sometimes have the text under discussion up, and sometimes I’ll have a dictionary program or webpage open for checking things on the fly.

  • Not all teachers are created equal

I’ve had great teachers and I’ve had bad ones. The worst had no video, appeared distracted, and I am pretty sure counted some lessons that were cancelled as part of our ‘block’. I didn’t continue with him. Great teachers are knowledge, friendly, engaged, and are making a good go at the online platform work.

I don’t think I’m a great online language teacher. I don’t think I’m terrible, but it’s not my preferred medium, as I explain below.

  • Timezones!

Assuming that participants are at least in northern and southern hemispheres (typically my experience), the time difference can alter by up to 2 hours (as one timezone starts Daylight Savings/Summer Time, and the other timezone ends it). Here are my tips for dealing with this: (1) plan in advance. Don’t leave it up to the other person to work out these details, make sure you’re on top of them yourself (whether you’re instructor or student). (2) Calendar programs can help – I use google calendar, and it has a feature to set the time-zone of an event. So I’ll often put in tutoring sessions based on the other person’s timezone. Then, when timezones shift, it automatically appears shifted in my calendar and I can either adjust when it is for me or for them, with discussion. (3) http://www.timeanddate.com/ is a great website that let’s you save your own personal clocks, and it has a feature called “International Meeting Planner” that helps you line up times across zones. This is my go-to tool for keeping track of multiple timezones and meetings.

  • It’s not ideal, but it can work.

Why online language learning at all? Often there’s not a better option. My Gaelic improved immensely from online classes, because I gained a speaking context for a language I’d predominantly learnt with books. I have one Mongolian student who just doesn’t have many other options for learning Mongolian. The internet makes possible language learning that otherwise could not take place, and it enables communication and a verbal exchange that might otherwise not exist. That’s why it can work.

But it’s not my ideal. Personally I’d rather teach languages in small groups of 4-6, in person. All the TPR, TRPS, CI, WAYK type stuff that I love is quite difficult to do online. Without shared space, shared context, and physical embodiment, many of the things that make the first levels of language instruction concrete and comprehensible, I find, are forced to recede and a more ‘grammatical’ approach takes over. For some of my students, that’s fine – I’m tutoring them alongside or in conjunction with a grammar approach and so I’m not trying to fight that. I wish I could solve all the problems of online language instruction, but I suspect that for me to do so would require more in-person teaching experience first, to bring to the online platform.


I’d love to hear some other thoughts, experiences, questions.

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