Foreign-Language Instruction, Digitally Speaking

Lissa Gotwals for The Chronicle

In a computer lab at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, freshmen like Katherine Richardson gather to take a Spanish course online.
November 06, 2011

Wylder Fondaw struggled with an online Latin class in high school. So when he arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this year, he hesitated at studying a language online. But the freshman had no choice: At his skill level, if he wanted to take introductory Spanish, an online class was the only option.

Instead of showing up in class four times a week, Mr. Fondaw conjugates verbs on a computer program in his sparsely furnished dorm room. He attends a live class every Tuesday afternoon—but it, too, is virtual. The class convenes via Web-conferencing software. If students want to answer a question, they click an icon that depicts a raised hand.

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Even as online education booms, fully digital language classes like Mr. Fondaw's remain uncommon. But North Carolina's experiment­—driven by growing demand for Spanish instruction, limited classroom space, a shortage of qualified instructors, pedagogical innovations, and cost savings—is one of several efforts nationwide that are starting to map an online future for teaching languages.

In Virginia, James Madison University recently began offering credit to students who complete a 16-week course in Spanish that is produced and largely managed by Rosetta Stone, a company whose yellow-packaged programs are sold at malls and airports.

At some community colleges, online classes help language departments continue to offer less popular languages, like German or French, that might not attract enough students to fill a classroom. And, perhaps most promisingly, some universities have found success experimenting with hybrid language classes that shift much of the work online but still meet regularly face to face.

These experiments come as students are increasingly interested in learning foreign languages. Enrollments grew by 6.6 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2009, extending a climb that started more than a decade ago, according to the most recent report from the Modern Language Association.

In many respects, language learners have never enjoyed such a rich variety of tools. They go online to watch weather forecasts on TV from Belgium or to visit the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris. They hook up with chat partners on or They listen to lectures on smartphones through ChinesePod. They create journals of their learning at, join asynchronous audio discussions on Voice­, and immerse themselves in the simulations of Rosetta Stone. If they want to ditch commercial products altogether, they can check out free online resources like the BBC's multimedia materials or the University of Texas' guide to French grammar.

Or better yet: They can learn French from a "talking kitchen." The service, designed by language specialists and computer scientists at Newcastle University, in England, tracks users' actions with "motion-sensor technology similar to a Nintendo Wii," says a news release that unveiled the system last month, and "it speaks to you like a car's Sat Nav as you prepare a French dish."

Yet, despite this flowering of technology, there's one thing that language learners don't often do: earn college credit for a fully online language class.

A late-2010 report from Eduventures, a consulting company, identified only one fully online bachelor's degree in a foreign language: at National University, based in California. Even at the course level, online language classes are not prevalent, says Fernando Rubio, an expert on tech-based Spanish teaching who co-chairs the language department at the University of Utah.

"You can learn other disciplines by interacting with the material itself," he says. "But in a language, you need to interact with human beings."

Can you recreate that interaction online?

The technology to do so is improving. That was evident during a recent session of Mr. Fondaw's Spanish class, which convenes via a Web-meeting program called Elluminate. (Chapel Hill shared a recording of the class with The Chronicle for this article.)

"Buenas tardes!" says the lecturer, Anastacia G. Kohl, welcoming students to the once-a-week live meeting of class.

As they listen to Ms. Kohl's voice on a headset, the students see a virtual classroom on their computer screens. The space contains three main sections: a box with a list of class participants; another for text-chatting; and a large whiteboard featuring slides related to the day's lesson, such as a cartoon of a home with its parts labeled.

The discussion unfolds in audio and text only; no participant can see anyone else's face. Students log on from dorms or from a computer lab in the language building. Ms. Kohl teaches from home, in jeans and a T-shirt, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

"Denme una sonrisa si me pueden oír bien," she says. Give me a smile if you can hear me well.

Yellow smiley-face icons flash next to each student's name.

"Muy bien," the professor replies. Very good.

Ms. Kohl invites general questions. Writing in the chat box, one student asks about a vocabulary word: "in english, what's 'el bidet'?"

Ms. Kohl ducks this moment of cross-cultural awkwardness by explaining that the word is the same in English, but that its meaning is hard to describe because Americans generally don't use bidets.

Satisfied, the student types back: "ohhh i see, gracias."

The lesson then proceeds like any other Spanish class, only instead of the natural sound of a live conversation, the dialogue sometimes has the "over-and-out" feel of people communicating via walkie talkie.

"Vives en una casa o un apartamento?" Ms. Kohl asks. Do you live in a house or an apartment?

"Vivo en una casa," a student replies, speaking rather than writing. I live in a house.

"Te gusta tu casa?" Do you like your house?

"Sí," the student replies. "Me gusta mucho mi casa." Yes. I like my house a lot.

The university's department of Romance languages redesigned introductory Spanish courses with help from the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of technology to improve learning and reduce costs. Chapel Hill experimented with hybrid classes first, and then, in 2010, plunged into fully online introductory classes.

Some students struggled, so professors adjusted, placing true beginners in a hybrid class that holds some sessions face-to-face. But for students who come to the campus with some exposure to Spanish, the only introductory option available to them is online.

Not everyone has been pleased. The student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, called the changes "shameful" in a 2009 editorial. "When resources are too tight to provide enough classes to meet demand for a foreign language, the answer is not to transfer sections online," it said.

But to his surprise, Mr. Fondaw enjoys the Web-based course. The 18-year-old freshman, majoring in chemistry, takes Spanish to satisfy a requirement. He likes that the class is mostly self-paced, so he can get work done at his convenience and then put Spanish on the back burner as he focuses on science.

And the class isn't fully virtual: Mr. Fondaw practices speaking in small group sessions with his classmates, and he can visit Ms. Kohl in person during her office hours.

The instructor herself was skeptical of the format at first. One thing she loves about teaching is interacting with students. But her online class has coalesced into a community. She now considers teaching it to be a rewarding experience.

Still, there is one thing she can't do online: gesture. In a low-level language class, losing that ability is no small thing.

"I use a little bit more English than I would use face-to-face, because they cannot see my body language," she says. "But if we ever switch to Webcams, that might change as well."

Others are less bullish about fully online language classes. In 2003, Mr. Rubio designed an online, first-year Spanish course at Utah. Plenty of students registered. They liked not having to come to campus. But after a couple of weeks, many dropped out. The course succeeded for only a small group of students, who were motivated enough to keep up with the daily grind of constant practice that is required in language learning.

"Unless you're very disciplined," Mr. Rubio says, "if the course is fully online, it doesn't work."

In 2008 his department scrapped the fully online class in favor of something that has worked better: a blended model that consists of two days of classroom sessions and two "virtual days" of online activities. Preparing vocabulary, reading a text, describing a painting for a writing assignment—students can do that online. Now, when they come to class, they spend most of their time orally communicating.

The blended approach improved retention. In academic year 2010-11, the attrition rate was 9.1 percent in hybrid introductory Spanish classes, compared with 12.5 percent in fully face-to-face ones. Utah's costs have also dropped, since the number of students served per instructor increases in hybrid classes.

One thing that hasn't dropped is proficiency. Hybrid students "speak Spanish and write in Spanish just as well as the students who take four days a week face to face," Mr. Rubio says.

But what if forcing students to participate in class at a scheduled time means you might no longer attract enough of them to offer a section at all?

At the community-college level, that can be an issue for less popular languages, like French or German, says Jason Green, distance-learning director at Pulaski Technical College, in North Little Rock, Ark.

But, he says, "if you offer an asynchronous course, it can be a demand aggregator. So all the students who are interested in taking that language can come into that one section."

Mr. Green teaches an asynchronous class in French. He uses software that allows instructors to create an audio discussion board, where instead of just posting text comments, students can record audio clips. Mr. Green records his own voice clips in response.

It seems likely that academe will see more such approaches. Students will drive the demand for online language instruction, says Samantha Goldstein, a research analyst at Eduventures. Already they're getting more and more comfortable with online education in general. And they know about services like Rosetta Stone and Livemocha.

Which means more students will very likely be asking this question: Why can't my college do this, too?