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Can you really learn a language completely online?

Can the internet ever truly compete with good old-fashioned language learning? I’ve taken a look at what’s what…

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

Some years ago, when I had just turned eighteen, I remember walking into a flea market about halfway between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz in Berlin. A lost English teenager with a far better German accent than I probably deserved given the work I’d put in, I was just getting used to being able to interact fairly seamlessly with German natives without being detected as a foreigner. Knowing that I had to start my first year of university in September and with little intention of spending the hot summer days working on German grammar, I chanced upon a massive two-volume English-German Langenscheidt dictionary for not more than a couple of euros which stood out on the table of the market amongst various pieces of DDR memorabilia on display. Excited by the bargain, I snatched the pair of books, thinking that a new age of learning might just have begun.

An actual photo of the moment described above — spot yellow dictionaries in bag!

When I started learning my languages, and I would imagine it’s the same for you, purchasing or borrowing huge reams of printed information was inevitable. However, it’s now 2022. Translation AI has progressed in leaps and bounds, and post-pandemic we’re more dependent on the digital world than ever before. So, let’s ask a question which is becoming more and more relevant and to which thousands of classroom teachers across the world would undoubtedly respond “NO!”: can you really learn a language completely online?

Just so you know, I’m assuming we’re talking about a language other than English, which as the global lingua franca enjoys more resources for learning than any other, as well as endless multimedia learning possibilities. It’s also worth adding that I’ve written on this topic before, and know there are lots of amazing language teachers out there on the web. So, let’s take a look at the central hurdles you’ll need to overcome in order to master it.

Building your initial vocabulary: 4/5

So, you’ve picked your language. What’s next? Well, a lot of courses, online or otherwise, are going to focus on building your vocabulary. Most language-learning apps take a vocabulary-first approach, whereby exposing you to as many examples as possible you’ll slowly pick up the language. This works well for casual learners and will undoubtedly help you build your vocabulary, but to really become fluent many users will need to master recognising and using the vocab in its correct context and in contexts useful to you. This is where some apps fall down with sentences such as “Excuse me, I am an apple” (although it turns out this is a learning technique), but on the whole for most languages the internet has good resources for learning the basics — provided you don’t mind going a bit off-topic every now and again.

Grappling with grammar: 1/5

Grammar is a bit like a run-down train station in a small town. You can sit, protected and relatively happy in your little bubble without really challenging yourself, maintaining the illusion that you know everything that’s going on, but to get anywhere in the wider world you’re going to have to go through it to get somewhere, even if it’s not the most pleasant experience. Sadly, grammar’s almost universally considered as a chore, and so many online programmes almost completely dispense with it in the hope that users will learn through osmosis. This is fine for learning some phrases for your holidays, but is an incredibly poor basis for trying to achieve fluency later down the road. Grammar has to be the foundation: whatever you build on top will surely crumble if you don’t get it right in the first place.

That’s not to say there aren’t good grammar resources out there on the internet, but finding the same kind of integrated teaching you’d get in a traditional classroom is going to be incredibly difficult. And that’s assuming you’re learning a language that’s even got reliable resources available online. You’ll probably be alright for Spanish, French, or German — but want to learn Hungarian, Slovak or Finnish? That’s gonna be tough. Want to learn a non-European language? Good luck with that.

Passive language development: 5/5

One thing that has definitely improved immeasurably in the last ten years is access to media in other languages, in particular television and film. It’s easy to forget this, but it’s really not so long ago that if you wanted to watch a foreign film you had to order it from some strange website and just pray that the DVD worked in your player at home, or go to an arthouse cinema (if you were lucky enough to have one close by that might be showing a film in your language). Now, our choices are abundant, and it seems almost de rigueur that Netflix should form a huge part of passive language progression, due in large part to blockbuster successes like La Casa de Papel and Dark. It feels weird to have only started my language learning in the last 15 years and find myself saying “I wish I had that when I was growing up”… but it’s hard to ignore. You win this round, internet.

Active language development: 2/5

This is a tough one, because inevitably the way that we perfect our active language (speaking and writing, especially the former) largely depends on the type of person you are. For the bold and brazen among us, the internet offers lots of opportunities for active language learning. You can go to online tandem meet-ups, join classes, participate in virtual exchanges; there are so many opportunities, and of course this is basically a good thing. However, as I’m sure most of our readers would testify, it’s unlikely to beat that most ancient method of linguistic improvement which remains incredibly effective: sticking a new learner in a foreign country with little more than a phrasebook and whatever grounding they’ve received up to that point. No one gets really good by only swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

In the end, I carried that incredibly heavy pair of dictionaries on my back around Germany and the Czech Republic for a few weeks, resenting them more with every coach or train station I had to drag myself to. They were then promptly relocated to the UK, where they were free to gather dust in a whole different time zone. Although they might not have proved that useful, but truth be told I’d have been lost without so many of those awful grammar books, including one for German that was gifted to me by my mum and has both her and my university contacts written in it. Who knows where that book will end up or what the internet will be capable of when it changes hands again, but I know what my advice will be: take the best bits of internet language learning and be grateful for them — but remember where the real challenges are best overcome.

What’s an indispensable part of your bookshelf? Did you learn your languages completely online? Let us know in the comments!

Can you really learn a language completely online? was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.