The Impact of Distance Learning on Language Development

Photo of 2019-2020 French 5-6 Class taken by Arden Horacek. The students pictured (Sam Williams, Luka DeMay, Stevie Marthaller, Gabe Gardner) are dressed for the clothing vocabulary fashion show. 

This new school year has been different for students in a number of ways, but most notable for many is the four by four class semester schedule. The four by four class semester allows students to spend more time focusing on fewer classes, but it also creates a gap in learning. This is because there is a gap between when the class ends and when the more advanced class picks up next year. For instance, taking Algebra 1-2 first semester of freshman year gives students a better opportunity to advance in the class and dive into the material, but there will be about an eight month gap between finishing Algebra 1-2 and advancing to Geometry 1-2. While for some classes this may not be terribly detrimental, for language classes it can set back students greatly and prevent them from properly retaining information or advancing. 

Returning in the fall after a long summer break and being expected to remember all the information learned the previous year is already very difficult for some students. Even going from a first year language to a second year language after summer break is challenging; remembering all the vocabulary and syntax learned the previous year is met with groans and sighs. But going from a third to a fourth year language is even more difficult: the vocabulary list is longer, the tenses are more advanced, and even the basic sentence structures can easily slip the mind. Luckily, teachers have previously been able to combat this by doing a month or so of much needed review so that students can ease into learning an entirely new language. Unfortunately, with the new school schedule, there just simply isn’t enough time in the schedule to spend as much time reviewing. Reviewing material from last year can cost the learning of a unit from the coming year, meaning however you divide the year, there is going to be a gap in learning the language. And for students hoping to continue a language in college, or even trying to be bilingual, they can’t really afford to lose so much material in class. 

Already, students in language classes have noticed a gap in their learning after online school started and summer break. Lucy Benoit (12) is a fourth year student in AP Mandarin She explained her struggle with class this year, saying that “condensing the curriculum into one semester just means there’s less time to internalize each unit.” She too noticed how, because of the semester schedule, her class faced either losing a section of study or having less review time. Benoit found this transition after break to be harder than usual, saying, “it was a bit hard at the beginning after being out of practice. But, unfortunately, our timeline didn’t really allow for a lot of review time—we had to jump right into content. This definitely made it a little tougher to get back into things.” 

Benoit isn’t alone in feeling the challenges of continuing to learn a language. Spanish teacher Laura Valent also felt a difference in returning to class. She said, “Language classes can be challenging online. As language teachers we try to come up with communication activities for students to practice and make the language come alive…we take a lot of time to have students get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other so they can do these activities that can seem awkward when you do not know the people in real life.” French teacher Dana Miller also expressed the difficulty of teaching in a classroom setting where much of the practice is built up over time. “It’s difficult to go at a faster pace and it’s difficult knowing that language, where it’s sequential and constant practice that keeps it up, and having these huge gaps is going to be challenging and it’s going to be revamping the entire curriculum.” But Valent is confident that the work that the language departments have done to reestablish the curriculum is essential in continuing to learn a language. While she doesn’t necessarily see the classes catching up in the next couple of years due to the long term impacts of the coronavirus and distance learning, she is hopeful that eventually the classes will get back to where they were. 

Not to mention, learning through an online platform makes the conversational aspect of a language much more difficult. Benoit noted this difference, saying, “learning a language is pretty tough online because there’s less conversation and having that [in person] connection is really helpful.” Learning how to hold conversation in a different language is essential to the learning process. Not only will it help you to pick up different vocabulary or sentence structures, but it is crucial to dive deeper into the language’s culture. There are cultural differences that are most easily picked up through having a conversation with a native speaker. For instance, recognizing someone’s accent, diction, or slang only gets easier by holding more conversations; even understanding the subcultures within a country is easier when actually having a conversation versus just reading about it. Unfortunately, due to the format of the class, having those conversations is much harder, and there is less guidance. Miller pointed out that “the biggest impact might be on a speaking level” in advancing a language skill. Typically when discussions or conversations are held in class, there is a bigger element of teacher support as they move about, listen in and answer questions more immediately. Via Google Meets, or Zoom, teachers don’t have as much ease in helping the students to practice speaking or listening in a conversation. 

As Miller said, “thinking that we’re going to do a full year’s curriculum in a semester is just not realistic.” Students hoping to continue their language skills should know that the entire language department is doing their best to support them. Both Miller and Valent recommended that for students wanting to keep practicing and building the language, they should take time out of the week to invest in the language. Whether that means watching a film in the language or with subtitles, or listening to music, it can be very helpful. Both teachers suggested that watching a Disney film in the language is a great way to practice listening skills, as most students know the storyline and the animation is designed to go a little slower for young children to follow. Another way to keep up with the language is reading books at any level you feel comfortable or challenged with. The most important thing to continuing retaining all the information from class is self discipline. If you want to immerse yourself in the language, even for an hour, you have to set aside the time to do so. The language department is there to support you and even when doing something as simple as reading a magazine in a different language, “you will never not learn something,” says Miller. 

Leave a Reply