What Gets Lost Teaching Languages Online?


Technology and the internet have influenced education and made changes to the ways people learn and teach, especially language. Learning languages is more widely available than ever for whoever is interested and willing to put in the work. As more people turn to online resources to pick up a foreign language, does the affordable price and flexibility of online language programs come at other costs?

What gets lost teaching languages online? When teaching languages online major components that get lost include nonverbal cues, clarity in pronunciation and listening, and the demand to practice verbally.

Of course, what you get and what is lost depends largely on the type of online learning program and the decisions of the teacher, but the nature of most online courses makes these characteristics of language learning more likely to get lost along the way. As a teacher, being aware of the potential pitfalls will enable you to prepare for and teach your way around them.

Losing Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal cues are an important part of communication. Many people fail to realize just how much we rely on nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and tone while communicating. Usually, the teacher would be demonstrating nonverbal cues while teaching whether intentionally or just naturally.

These aspects of communication are important to a language class in two ways:

  1. Learning the meaning behind nonverbal cues in a foreign language

Nonverbal cues, just as much as any other part of language, will vary across cultures. As a teacher, you will want to teach your students how they can use facial expressions, hand gestures, tone, or proximity to their advantage while communicating or what to expect so they can understand native speakers.

Online students either do not see their teacher or see them only through a recording. If you do not see your students at all, the students learning by watching and imitating nonverbal cues during the lesson is lost. If you teach through a webcam or recording, gestures may not come as naturally. You may find you are more limited trying to stay in frame and more sedentary than you would be if standing in the front of an open classroom.

  1. Students use the teacher’s and peer’s nonverbal cues for feedback while practicing speaking.

Whether you enforce as much use of the language as possible, assign presentations, or have students do dialogues, they learn to watch their listener, or listeners, reactions, and gauge understanding. This is very valuable because if students plan to use the new language with native speakers, they will use these same skills to be self-aware in conversation and identify when they need to clarify or rephrase.

Losing Clarity in Pronunciation and Listening

When learning a language, among the most important skills necessary to be successful are proper pronunciation and good listening skills. If you know how to read and write in a new language, can properly construct sentences, and have an extensive vocabulary that is great, but mispronouncing your words will quickly render your ability to communicate with native speakers.

Likewise, reading and producing written language is very important, but learning to hear and understand the language is essential to using it in conversation.

Clarity in pronunciation and listening can be lost entirely or just partially depending on the conditions of your online teaching program.

  • Text-Based Online Language Learning

If your online learning program is text-based, students learn from online material including textbooks, computer-based exercises, and other resources focused on reading and writing. In other words, your students will never know what your voice sounds like. In this type of online language learning program, students lose the demonstration of language directly from their teacher or even other classmates who are trying to use the language around them.

Often to supplement this, online materials will have audio files students play for pronunciation examples and experience listening. These audio files are designed for language learners, so they are a good example of proper pronunciation and accents, but are not entirely representative of the nuances you will hear in organic conversation.

In real conversation, people may be less clear and are often much faster. A teacher will, of course, speak slowly and clearly to students, but over the course of a class, the teacher will naturally vary in volume, speed, and clarity which challenges listening skills. This challenge is lost with text-based language learning.

  • Recorded or Video Chat Lessons

If your students received lessons of you teaching that are recorded or live streamed from a webcam, they get the benefits of hearing you speak regularly as they learn. What can impede on the value of this is poor connection or sound quality. If your video stutters, audio cuts out, or your audio is muffled this can prevent your students from hearing clear, correct usage of the language and therefore learning from it.

Losing the Demand to Practice Verbally

Reading and writing in a language are fundamental parts of learning a language, but speaking the language uses entirely unique skills. Once you have mastered recognizing written language and being able to form sentences by writing, the next step is start using it out loud.

The different accents and new words will likely feel and sound awkward in the beginning. Breaking through the initial anxiety of being heard trying to speak a new language out loud is a big step!

Once students are comfortable reading out loud or repeating after their teacher comes the dreaded in-class dialogues or questioning. Exercises like these are very valuable because they make students use the language spontaneously and often without visual aids, as it would be in real-life situations.

When reading or writing for assignments students have time to sit and think through the material before producing a response, but when speaking, you must respond on the spot to avoid interrupting the flow of conversation.

If you do not practice the skills of using the language and forming sentences in your head, they will not develop. This becomes a challenge for online language programs, as students are likely learning independently at home and may not ever have to speak. They either review and practice with text-based material or watch their teacher.

Only in live-video classroom do teachers have the chance to converse with students and put their skills on the spot, otherwise this important aspect of language learning can be lost.

What Are Some Ways to Cut Your Losses?

These losses are not necessarily inevitable! As an educator, it is up to you to identify what your students to be successful and deliver it to the best of your abilities. Consider working these materials into your teaching to maximize your online classroom.

  1. Videos

Whether you record videos of yourself as an example or link students to videos of others speaking the language this can add depth to learning. Videos will help to fill those gaps in listening skills and picking up nonverbal cues.

If you are uncomfortable filming yourself or for the sake of variety, some good video sources can be educational YouTube videos, clips from movie or shows in the language you are teaching, or music in the language you are teaching!

  1. Incorporate the Culture Behind the Language

Often courses fail to teach about the culture behind the language. Incorporate the culture into your lesson, especially the communication style of countries that use the language. This can cover nonverbal cues, high or low context orientation, introduce new vocab words, and help students understand the language and how it is used in real-life scenarios more thoroughly. 

  1. Assignments that Require Speaking

This may not be possible for all online language programs, but if you have the option, assigning verbal assignments or in class activities will highly increase the value of your class. This is easiest in classes that use webcams where teachers can ask students to speak, but there are other options to. Consider if you can ask students able to send in audio or video recordings of them answering prompts or reading aloud as homework or projects.

Making the Most of What You Have

As an educator, it can be easy to feel personally guilty if you see your ability as limited, but even without all the best circumstances, there are plenty of opportunities to help and educate students. Do not allow yourself to get overly focused on what is lost from a classroom setting and recreating those aspects.

Rather use your energy to take inventory of the resources and options online learning gives and how you can make the most of them. Lastly, do not forget to learn from your students! Be attentive to their concerns and seek their feedback to improve your class going forward.

Glen Brown

I am a Technical Trainer and Manager with over 20 years experience in IT, Education and Business. I have multiple qualifications on each topic including post graduate qualifications. I have a passion for sharing knowledge and using technology to do this. If you would like to know more about me please see the about page of the website.

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