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Learning Language Virtually Anywhere

May 15, 2012

How Effective is Virtual Language Training?

Beth Ashworth – Director, Language Solutions interviews Matteo Preabianca

Skype. Google Talk. WizIQ. iChat. These are names of online learning platforms more and more students are using to learn languages. For many international assignees, this style of training is a good alternative to face-to-face classes. But some clients remain unsure if online training is right for their employees. IOR Italian language teacher Matteo Preabianca explains some of the benefits and possible drawbacks of virtual language training.

 What does a typical virtual class look like?
In many ways, a virtual class looks the same, because it can include all of the activities of a face-to-face class: writing, speaking, listening, and reading. Speaking becomes absolutely necessary when working online, and it’s Matteo-Preabiancaeasy to review grammar rules via online resources, e-books or other  manuals. Every two weeks I hold a writing lesson, switching off the microphone and using only text chat. For reading, I send a link to a newspaper article to the student, who reads it aloud, while I correct his pronunciation and aim to increase his vocabulary.

For conversation practice, I  try to involve other speakers so they have contact with voices other than just mine. Examples of this are to arrange a meeting between the student and a colleague of mine,  hold a conference call, or if possible, have a guest teacher join me during the lesson. Virtual training is especially good for improving listening capabilities, because I can switch off the webcam to make the student focus solely on that skill.

What surprises, positive or negative, do your students have about the online format?
Most students find the flexibility to learn anytime, anywhere, most appealing. It sounds silly, but my students like the idea of learning Italian while eating a snack or wearing their pajamas. Another positive aspect of this type of learning is what I call “filter breaking.” Having the computer between the student and the teacher makes less confident or nervous students much more  willing to open up and talk. Since language is so much about communication, anything that makes communicating easier is a big plus. And, since non-verbal methods of communication, such as body language, are limited by the format, it prevents the student from relying on those too much, and forces him or her to focus on speaking instead.

One of the challenges with virtual language lessons is the unexpected interruptions with internet connectivity or poor performing computer hardware. This can frustrate both student and teacher. Creating an environment of productivity is important, even with something as simple as maintaining good posture. Students perform their best when sitting at a table or desk when in front of a computer.

Sometimes students who work with a virtual teacher while on assignment might miss the human contact of face-to-face lessons. However, if they start with a virtual teacher pre-departure, they can take comfort in the familiar face waiting for them once they arrive. Starting virtually pre-departure makes their transition faster and smoother, and also allows for better continuity of training than switching teachers post-arrival.

Do you notice a difference between your online students and your face-to-face students?
My online students are more independent and self-reliant. In a classroom, the teacher is always present, which makes students more likely to ask for help. In online classes, if a student cannot remember a word or grammar rule, he can easily look it up without worrying that the teacher thinks he is “cheating.” The virtual method mimics more closely  how students will use the language in real life. As a result, it tends to make them feel freer and more confident.

My online students also have the added benefit of my more or less 24-hour online presence, so they get more practice talking with me outside of class. Since this contact is through text chatting, their informal writing skills are often stronger than face-to-face students.

What advice would you give to a student or company that is trying to decide between virtual and face-to-face classes?
Assuming easy access to the Internet, I think virtual classes are more beneficial than face-to-face lessons for many students  because there is a greater likelihood to connect with the teacher more often.  Virtual classes also eliminate the cost of the teacher traveling to the student’s location, so they can be less expensive. And because no travel is required, students are much less likely to cancel classes, and so they tend to use all of the hours their company authorized. Classes are simply easier to schedule. This is especially true with international assignees, who travel frequently for business. No matter where they are in the world, they can keep taking their language classes. And if the target language is a business need rather than just for getting around the host country, students can further evolve the benefits of their international assignment by continuing with the same teacher online, even once their assignment is over.

Matteo Preabianca is a San Francisco-based Italian, English and Chinese teacher and translator. A native speaker of Italian and English, Matteo has been working with students aged 6 to 65 years old in Italy, the UK, Austria, Mali, Switzerland, and Russia for the past 5 years. In addition to teaching, Matteo has also written extensively about teaching languages, including a Chinese language guide for beginners and an article on teaching Italian to Russian students.

Matteo has a degree in Cultural and Linguistic Mediation, with a specialization in English, Italian, French and Chinese idioms and culture, from the Università degli Studi di Milano. Presently, he is attending a degree course in Modern Languages for International Communications.

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