A Guide To Teaching Languages Online If There Are No In-Person Classes

One after another, schools and universities are announcing the cancellation or postponement of in-person classes in the 2020-2021 school year. Syracuse University still plans to go forward, but with a long list of regulations, precautions, and equipment to ensure student and faculty safety. The new Fall Open website details the steps that are being taken, but with the situation changing rapidly and dramatically on a daily basis, the only thing certain is uncertainty. Stay tuned.

The Long and the Short of Learning Languages

In this vast and turbulent sea of information, we focus here on one archipelago of concern: language instructions. Syracuse boasts robust foreign language education. The Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics aims to “open the door to new cultures and bridge divides by learning or improving your language skills.” The Department teaches 17 languages, offers nine majors, three master’s degrees (in French, Spanish, and Linguistics), plus a master’s of science degree in computational linguistics. Many of the majors are interdisciplinary, with courses cross-listed with other departments and colleges. Is this impressive, robust educational program really at risk of closure?

Language is a discipline that demands diversity and, literally, understanding. To learn a language is to break down barriers obstructing communicating, building bridges that facilitate connection and comprehension of people from diverse backgrounds. It might help to have the students and teachers in the same room but, if that’s unfeasible for safety reasons, what to do? Happily, there are abundant solutions for learning and teaching languages from a safe distance.
Linguistic Courses: Lessons for Lifelong Distance Learning

A Paradigm for a distance learning fallback can be found in the model set forth by the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT for the short-winded among us.

Nearly a decade ago, MIT launched open language courses that have made world-class education available to all those with an internet connection. These include a vast array of linguistics courses, all taught by video conference, with course materials distributed and discussed over the internet. The courses are open not just to the elite cadre of MIT’s brainiacs but to a much wider audience of “lifelong learners.”

The lifelong learning trend has been catching on worldwide, and far beyond learning linguistics and languages. Way back in 2008, Syracuse University introduced its Lifelong Learning Institute as a core feature of its Gerontology Center, since renamed the Aging Studies Institute. Such programs have since entered the mainstream and have gone online.

But it turns out that learning languages has been big business for quite some time, a robust and highly competitive online market. Companies like Rosetta Stone and Babbel have been duking it out for supremacy in this rapidly growing market. According to abstracts from a report by Technavio, the Online Language Learning Market size is forecast to grow by $18.6 billion from 2020-2024, a stunning CAGR of 18%, led by online Courses, Solutions, and Apps.

Are Commercial Language Learning Programs Adaptable to Universities?

While Syracuse has pursued a robust offering of online courses for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students, languages and linguistics do not appear to be among them. Given the uncertainty about the fate of the forthcoming semester, would it not be wise to consider options for preparing for the possibility of teaching language courses online?

This is not just a matter of inviting students enrolled in a course to a lecture on Zoom. There is no reason to believe that this would in any way be an effective substitute for in-person language instruction. The question, therefore, arises as to whether there could be a broad-based partnership of the leading providers of online courses and university departments seeking more effective and proven programs that are ready to go at short notice.

Certainly the online learning companies are seeing this potential, with or without institutional cooperation. In June, Babbel announced that it was discounting subscriptions for U.S. students, with a three-month language course offered for just under 15 bucks through its student portal. While admitting that “nothing is quite the same as being in a live language classroom with other students, Babbel’s language courses are created by real language teachers and native speakers, stressing its scientific approach to language learning that’s been shown to be effective by researchers at Yale, CUNY, Michigan State and other universities.

In fact, starting on March 21, Princeton University has partnered with another top language learning provider, Rosetta Stone, to offer courses in no less than 30 languages, in five learning levels, as an “e-resource” free of charge to students, faculty, and staff. One need only register with an @princeton.edu email address to access Rosetta Stone on a computer or any mobile device, on or off-campus.

This is not an endorsement of any particular language instruction vendor. But the business model and the operational paradigm are compelling ones. Universities are in a pickle: they don’t wish to lose out on tuition or alienate students or put their faculty out of work. On the other hand, they must comply with state and federal regulations and guidelines. The idea of integrating existing online language courses with Zoom-based lectures and small-class Zoom studios is therefore a compelling one. It’s a win-win for the language learning companies too. They give away or discount their course but acquire a much larger customer base and powerful institutional partners.

Translation Agencies Also Have a Role to Play to Help Out Universities

Structured language learning courses, however well-assembled and tested, do not provide a comprehensive set of language learning tools for university-level language instruction. There are vast amounts of syllabi, books, handouts, and more that need to be replicated and distributed digitally. While many of these resources are already online, some of these resources require translation and curation to facilitate practical online usage.

That’s where translation and localization companies can enter the picture helpfully. Translation and localization language services are also huge and growing industries, estimated at a worth of $24.2 billion annually, responsive to the continuing trend of globalization. Any company that wishes to market and sell to international markets, and support customers abroad, need to adapt their materials to each target market.

Translation agencies are set up to service their needs, supporting their business clients with far-flung networks of linguists, on-call to service their needs in diverse language services: not just translating documents and localizing websites but also providing transcription from audio to text as well as subtitles and closed-captions for vast amounts of video material. Online remote interpretation is also increasingly in demand via phone, and increasing via video.

Many of these services can be easily adapted to service the remote language learning and teaching support needs of faculties and students worldwide should in-person studies become temporarily or permanently available. They would be wise to follow in the footsteps of their language-learning program counterparts, offering “sweetheart deals” to universities and other institutions of higher learning. Their role would be to “fill in the holes” that would no doubt be left in the wholesale migration of language learning courses online. They already have the linguistic networks in place to do the job on short notice and at scale.

The Bottom Line for University Level Language Learning in 2020-2021

It is clear to us all, especially in the United States, that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis is not fast abating and may, in fact, be accelerating as the Fall 2020 Semester approaches, in Syracuse and across the nation. Administrators and faculty involved in language instruction should be actively seeking out alternative structures and fallback alternatives in the event that in-person courses are no longer tenable.

The possibility of private partnerships with established online language learning providers and with translation and localization service agencies should be actively explored and contingency preparations put in place immediately. It was one thing when the pandemic crisis and lockdown descended on us unexpectedly last winter. It is another thing entirely to be unprepared at this late stage.

There is understandable and justified pride of professors and instructors in the superiority of in-person classes. There is a fear of being replaced by software and machine learning algorithms. But this pride and these fears need to be put aside in the interests of students and learning institutions. There is an urgent need to translate available language resources to be in place to support a potential move online. There is no excuse for the coming school year of language learning to be “lost in translation.”

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