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Привет! 你好! أهلاً ! Bonjour! Hello…to Online Language Learning that Works

Most classroom models for world language instruction inherently limit the amount of exposure and immersion available to students. The result is frustration coupled with a fundamentally limited world language experience. Armed with a new model for online language courses, BYU Independent Study (BYU-IS) has set out to change that.

The international online course provider, offering both high school- and university-level courses, is associated with Brigham Young University (BYU), which has one of the largest university language centers in the world. More than 50 languages are taught at BYU regularly, with an additional 30 languages available with sufficient student interest--among the most offered anywhere in the United States.

Many factors contribute to the diversity and depth of language expertise at BYU. About 70 percent of BYU students speak a language other than their native tongue. Six percent of the student body is from outside the United States, representing more than 110 countries. The variety of language skills among the student body allows the university to provide a rich forum for language instruction. BYU Independent Study closely follows suit, offering nine high school- and five university-level world languages online.

Elements for Successful Language Mastery
The Standards for Foreign Language Learning, as developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, focus on five Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. Helping students communicate, gain understanding of other cultures, connect with other disciplines, develop insight into the nature of language and culture, and participate in multilingual communities can be daunting for any world language instructor--whether the instruction is taking place in a brick and mortar classroom or online.

Ultimately, four main elements are instrumental to successful language acquisition: reading, writing, speaking, and practice. Most foreign language courses, both traditional and online, are able to respond to most--but not all--of these elements. Commonly, the obstacles to success are not enough writing, not enough drills, and not enough speaking.

BYU Arabic Student Jordan Wilson, for example, said she "fell in love with Arabic" after attending Startalk, part of the National Security Language Initiative launched in 2006.

"I enrolled in a second year Arabic course in my high school and quickly realized I wasn't speaking enough to keep my level up," Wilson said. "We had group discussions and practiced dialogues in class, but I just didn't get the speaking exposure I wanted--especially with higher level speakers."

Extra Credit

BYU-IS Instructional Designer Jennifer Quinlan shared four tips for designing online language courses:

  • Include a heavy emphasis on speaking that features interaction with fluent speaker(s), recorded speaking models, peer interaction and feedback, and extensive opportunities to speak in a group setting;
  • Provide unlimited drills to assist with vocabulary and syntax mastery;
  • Include regular writing exercises that require creative expression; and
  • Provide regular one-on-one oral interaction with feedback and correction.

A New Model for Online Language Courses
In an effort to help students like Wilson achieve greater success in world language mastery, BYU-IS Assistant Director Steven Park began working on a different approach to language acquisition a few years ago.

"We were getting feedback from professors on campus that our online language courses were weak," Park said. "We recognized that we needed a new approach, but we hadn't found a solution that could create an authentic language experience. That's what I wanted to change."

He said he approached the problem with three questions in mind:

  • Can a student learn a language online;
  • BYU has a reputation for doing languages well. In an online environment, how do we provide a parallel genuine language experience; and
  • How do we give online students the ability to practice their language in a scalable way?

After research and experimentation, BYU-IS developed a model that relies heavily upon student-teacher interaction as well as peer-to-peer interaction. Course material consists of a combination of content from leading publishers and locally available native speaking instructors. Students are presented material in an engaging, interactive manner, much like many online courses. The difference is the emphasis on written and speaking assignments.

Students are required to submit written assignments in every lesson, which receives instructor feedback and comments. Students also complete one-on-one speaking assignments with instructors, preparing oral presentations that receive immediate feedback, correction, and instruction for improvement. A non-scripted dialogue with the instructor completes each speaking assignment.

To provide the ability to practice their language with fluent or native-level speakers, students are required to attend Conversation Cafés, virtual "rooms" which are facilitated by the instructor or teaching assistant (TA). The Conversation Cafés are open 20 hours a week and afford students the chance to interact as peers, providing feedback and practicing together. Students have the opportunity to prepare and practice partner speaking assignments, complete assigned drills from their lesson, and receive direct instruction and support from TAs moderating the café. Students can even work in cohorts, despite the courses being asynchronous, thanks largely to the high volume of enrollments BYU Independent Study receives.

"When you have three thousand students studying a language at any given time, the chance that there will be a handful of kids all working on lesson one this week is pretty good," Park explained. "The TA moderating the café can send those students into a breakout room where they can work collaboratively on the material that is presented in lesson one."

In some cases, Park said students might develop good working relationships and pace their coursework to be able to work together throughout the whole course.

Where brick and mortar world language instructors lament they don't have enough time with their students to make the language come to life, this online model provides extensive extra practice opportunities, which can better position students for language mastery. Offering students the opportunity to stop into the café and practice speaking 20 hours a week is something a brick and mortar school might have trouble duplicating.

BYU-IS currently offers university-level world language courses courses in Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic. So far, only Arabic is available with the new model, though Russian and Chinese versions will likely be approved before enrollment begins for 2013. BYU-IS is also working aggressively to transition all of its world language courses to the new, more interactive model with enhanced speaking and writing elements.

To check it out a demo of the BYU-IS language courses, visit Login as a sample student with the username byuonline and the password chinese.

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