Tips for Building a Language Rich Environment Online

Sometimes teaching a foreign language online can feel like forcing a round peg in a square hole. Your LMS of choice is likely designed by Anglophone speakers for an English-speaking audience, which creates a constant friction between the two languages. If this is an obstacle in any format of foreign language instruction, it is an especially significant problem in online courses: after all, your course website is no longer just an aid, but the very environment in which the learning process is taking place. However, moving your course online can also provide you with the opportunity to build an immersive experience from the ground up. Rather than disseminating contents, you are now creating a learning environment for your students to explore, and it’s possible to do so in a way that feels authentic. Here are some practices for building a language rich environment online which I have found helpful throughout the years.

Practice # 1: Translate your LMS

Exclusive use of the target language (or at least in the 90% range) is recommended by the ACTFL because it maximizes language exposure, and thus increases learning. Luckily for us, most LMSs work in different languages. Take advantage of this function and create your course website in the target language, including announcements, buttons, navigation menus, and other interactive features. This will reduce greatly the noise and keep the code-switching at a minimum.
Obviously, there must be some exceptions to this practice, depending on the proficiency level of your students. For instance, English is always my language of choice for policies and announcements in beginner-level classes: I’d rather deviate from the gold standard in my field than have students be unaware of an upcoming deadline or in the dark about our grading scheme. However, as time goes on and my students’ mastery of Italian progresses, English starts to disappear from our website and all relevant communication.
It’s also possible that you will need to contact IT support once in a while: having your basic interface in a different language might create a few problems. In this case, switch it temporarily to English, and set it back to the target language once your technical problem is fixed.

Practice #2: Encourage Exploration.

I try to envision my course websites as a road map, which allows students to be clear on expected outcomes but also empowers them to set their own learning path and go beyond the basic requirements for completion. For instance, I nearly always include a library of optional resources and tools that students can explore according to their personal and professional interests. Another way to encourage exploration is using badges to create different learning paths that students can follow to master different skills, or set different levels of mastery that can be pursued in the course. These different strategies will help reinforce the idea that our online course is not just an infusion of content from the top to the bottom, but an opportunity to practice a new language and dive into a different culture.

Practice #3: Build a Community in the Target Language

Think of your online class as a community of language practitioners that primarily meets in your online environment. It’s a small conceptual shift, but it helps promote social interaction in the target language. There are many ways to foster this sense of community.

  • Don’t be afraid of showing your face. Introduce yourself with a short video (ideally in the target language, but with captions), in which you welcome students and share tips for success. This will help students perceive you as a real human being, and will set the tone for an interactive course in which everyone is expected to practice and participate.
  • Create discussion threads in which your students are encouraged to practice social learning. You may also use the discussion boards of your LMS or external tools (such as Piazza) to promote study groups in the target language. You may want to nudge the discussion with detailed prompts or questions, or you can ask TAs (if you are lucky to have them) or peers to moderate discussions. This online community can be used to promote cultural exploration, or encourage meta-linguistic learning, or even just reflecting on the learning itself, in order to encourage good study habits.
  • Schedule opportunities for practice. Nobody likes office hours, but how about a bi-weekly zoom café –rigorously held in the target language?

Over time, these opportunities to practice the target language will create a community of speakers, and may work in a similar way to an extracurricular language club–something which may be severely restricted or downright impossible to organize face-to-face this fall, as many campuses will enforce social distancing.

Practice #4: Think visually.

This is one of the most spectacular changes I have witnessed since when I started using Blackboard in 2009 (how time flies!). Today’s LMSs allow us to integrate visual content in a slick and intuitive way, creating pages that look more and more like blog posts; your students can thus access visuals and other media in an easy and centralized manner. This is not merely an ornamental feature! Visuals are an immense help for the foreign language learner. Integrating images, icons, and infographics is an excellent way to avoid relying on translation (in English or the source language of your institution) and allows the instructor to gradually scaffold vocabulary. You may also use captioning of visual and multimedia material, not only to foster accessibility, but also to allow students to consume videos that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

Practice #5. Incorporate authentic experiences.

“Travellers” by semuthutan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

This incredible ability to incorporate materials will also free the instructor from the constraints of artificially created language learning material which, let’s be honest, can often feel stiff or pointless. For instance, you may incorporate a field trip taken through VR tour (here is a list of free ones!), a podcast in the target language, or a digital publication. These are all examples of real-life activities that take place in the target language, and expand learning way beyond the borders of your class.

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