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eLearning in a Foreign Language

By Danielle Geary / June 2012

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While distance education is growing more and more popular by the year in a variety of fields, eLearning a foreign language is still, well…foreign, in many ways, especially when it comes to research, data, and teaching methodology. Online second language courses differ radically from other subjects in which students interact and communicate in their own language in order to learn new material. In China alone, more than one million college students are enrolled in distance education programs, of whom 60,000 study English [1], but just how successful are such programs? In the article, "Learning Beliefs of Distance Foreign Language Learners in China: A Survey Study," researchers investigate the learning beliefs of English language learners in China in order to answer the following questions: What is the nature of learning a foreign language? What is the role of the teacher in the new virtual classroom? What language learning strategies should educators use? How essential is self-efficacy? Presented are findings from this study and lessons that can be learned for foreign language education.

Researchers recruited 90 online learners enrolled at Tsinghua University in Beijing—30 first-year English students and 60 third-year English students. The survey was administered through both mail and e-mail methods, and the response rate was about 80 percent. It consisted of 48 questions that addressed the difficulties they experienced as distance language learners. It also inquired about the role of the teacher, ways to provide feedback, strategies in foreign language learning, the nature of language learning, and the role of student autonomy for the online language student.

The findings of the study were not extremely surprising, but do lend credence to certain L2 (second language) learning beliefs. As for the nature of language learning, for example, distance language students' opinions concurred with those of traditional classrooms: foreign language acquisition is not a simple matter of learning grammar, many different teaching methods and activities must be part of the lessons, and learning a foreign language requires a prolonged period of time. Although distance students agreed that online classes make language learning considerably more challenging, especially due to the lack of immediate feedback, first-year English students appeared to find it more difficult than third-year learners. The most important conclusion in the experiment was that third-year students had a greater understanding of the value of student autonomy when compared to beginners. The biggest obstacle to distance language learning, according to the study, is limited communication between students as conversation partners as well as between students and the teacher, making natural practice and repetition through interaction with others quite limited. Clearly, there is a considerable gap between passive learning and active learning, especially in an online environment.

Notably, there are several leadership themes throughout the article that would be especially beneficial to online second language educators. Undoubtedly, first-year foreign language distance learners have a harder time mastering the course objectives. Perhaps distance education curriculum leaders should change the standard for first-year language students at their institutions, making the beginning foreign language course six credit hours; this would provide more time for interaction between students and more opportunities for feedback from the teacher throughout the semester.

Secondly, the study emphasizes the importance of having variety in lesson plans, and different strategies for addressing the four aspects of language; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Leaders in foreign language education must be privy to the fact that teaching a foreign language online creates a unique set of circumstances in which students cannot typically communicate in their own language in order to successfully learn new material, especially without a teacher present. Lectures must contain an array of mini assignments that foster all aspects of language. This requires an enormous amount of planning, preparation, and technology, and even more so in a virtual classroom where the entire class period depends on multimedia that is working properly and that can be downloaded and transported in and out of the online room with every new activity.

Finally, and in summation, online foreign language instructors must accept that their role is limited to a certain degree. Even more than in the traditional classroom, online students must prioritize, take responsibility for their learning, organize their time, and understand that they may need to invest in a tutor for extra practice in order to master the material. As leaders, instructors should emphasize to their students the importance of self-efficacy in online language learning and should maintain a high standard, even when some of their students, inevitably, will not. Clearly, the study shows that it is absolutely essential for both the instructor and the students to understand that "active learning" is fundamental to the success of online learners.

About the Author

Danielle Geary is a Lecturer of Spanish at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has 12 years of experience teaching Spanish and ESOL. Geary studied TESOL at the Center for Cross Cultural Study in Seville, Spain and earned a master's in Spanish Language and Culture from the University of Salamanca in Salamanca, Spain. Her dissertation research involves an ethnographical field study on adult study abroad over a month's time in Costa Rica. Her research interests include language acquisition, instructional technology, and distance education.


[1] Chi, G. and Zhang, X. Learning beliefs of distance foreign language learners in China: A survey study. Science Direct 38, 1 (2010).

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2241156.2254416


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