Students and instructors struggle with online foreign language classes

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 2:24pm

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Design by Jessica Chiu

As students and instructors alike adapt to  remote learning, the foreign language courses — which rely heavily on personal interaction — are trying to make the best of the new normal.

On June 22, the University of Michigan announced a reopening plan for the fall semester along with a blueprint for the procedures and guidelines for the U-M community to follow. In the fall, large classes were to be entirely online, medium classes could be a hybrid of in-person and online and small classes could resume in-person work as they would in a normal semester. As the summer progressed, there was a sharp increase in the number of classes taking place entirely online, even in classes with few people enrolled, like foreign language courses. 

According to the LSA website, the University offers classes in more than three dozen different languages. 

LSA freshman Kamryn Maples is taking French 101 this semester. She described learning in her online class as “a little messy” and said the greatest obstacle has been staying engaged during Zoom calls.

“I feel like I’m learning a lot less because when I’m in the classroom, I’m forced to listen to every single word,” Maples said. “I can’t just use my phone to look up a word real quick. I have to actively be paying attention and studying the vocab prior. ”

Her frustration with studying a language online extended to her learning environment, which was not as calm and focused as most in-person classrooms would usually be. 

“It’s hard for people to understand not everyone has a silent environment to do their classes in,” Maples said. “I feel like we’re doing our best to do something, and sometimes we have technical difficulties or a not-quiet room, and the teachers can’t really blame us for that.”

Technical difficulties have been an issue in many people’s Zoom classes, whether it be faulty microphones, slow internet or Zoom application crashes, which are inconvenient for students and instructors alike. 

“A lot of the frustrations are with technology,” Spanish lecturer Mar Freire Hermida said. “Zoom not working for me or for students, connections that are a little slower than others, students who get kicked out. Then, of course, they get really stressed out because they want to come to class but the technology is not there. I try to support them, but it doesn’t matter. The stress is there, and it’s real.”

To overcome the virtual challenges, Spanish lecturer Yeray Ramos Silgado tries to ensure his class makes a greater impact on students than technology-based language-learning methods.

“I believe that technological applications like Duolingo can help learn a language, but a language is spoken between humans, it’s the interaction between them,” Ramos Silgado said. “So, if humans don’t interact, I don’t think that the learning process is going to be the same.”

Engineering freshman Selma Zuhric, who is currently enrolled in German 103, also expressed irritation with trying to comprehend a foreign language with uncooperative technology.

“Technical difficulties take up some time,” Zuhric said. “There have been two lectures already where our instructor’s internet has been unstable, so we didn’t really understand anything she was saying, so that was kind of tough.”

Individual attention and feedback is an important part of successfully learning a foreign language. When these classes were in-person, feedback was simple and quick. Now that the courses are online, some students feel they are not receiving the personalized attention they need, according to LSA freshman Kassidy Bright.

“It’s a lot harder to be one-on-one (with my professor) when it’s not in person because you can’t stay after class and ask a question because they end the meeting, so you have to go and email them,” Bright said. “Office hours are confusing because you have to book it. You can’t just walk in whenever. It’s a lot of different things. I feel like it’s a lot harder to get help now just because everything is so tense and strict.”

Zoom-based classes, with all their technical difficulties, have also made students wonder if their time is being used as effectively as it would have been in-person. 

LSA sophomore Jack Glanville, who took an in-person Spanish course last semester, feels like his current Spanish 231 class isn’t providing as much information as a face-to-face class usually would.

“I think we are learning at a slightly slower pace than in-person, just because you can’t fit as much into a 50-minute period online,” Glanville said. “It takes time to transition into breakout rooms and back, so I think we’re just learning a little slower.”

Lecturers have also realized the additional time online activities take. Ramos Silgado, for example, felt the need to revise his course content as a whole because of the limited amount of time he has to present it to his students.

“Before COVID, in a regular, physical classroom, there was time to do about five or six activities per 50-minute class,” Ramos Silgado said. “But now, carrying tasks or activities in an online Zoom meeting takes much more time.”

Some students have taken it upon themselves to build their own foreign language communities where Zoom falls short.

“Aside from being able to communicate with my peers in class, we’ve actually started organizing outdoor study sessions,” Zuhric said. “We’re trying to get them to be a weekly thing, just so that we can talk to each other in German and get a little more comfortable with the language.”

Freire, like other instructors, is working hard to combat awkwardness among students in her class. The key here is to focus on student engagement, Freire said, which can be a difficult task to tackle through a computer screen. 

“I am trying to be more and more intentional about how we support each other in this classroom, so we do a lot of work in small groups,” Freire said. “I’m trying to have students use the reactions in Zoom so they can show each other that they really like what someone else thinks – that it was a great idea, or it was very well-said, or just kind of laugh together, even if it is just through the smiley face.”

Ramos Silgado also noted the importance of forming connections with others while learning a language.

“I think what is being missed is the sense of community, the human part,” Ramos Silgado said. “I know that we’re doing what we have to do, trying to take health as the most important factor right now, but the human part – the emotions, the feelings, the connections, the sense of community – I think that even (the students) are missing it.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kara Warnke can be reached at kjvarnka@umich.edu


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