From apps to podcasts, COVID-19 has forced language learning online

·4 min read
From apps to podcasts, COVID-19 has forced language learning online

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent Aly Murphy into lockdown, she figured it was finally time to start learning Russian.

Nearly one year later, she's still at it.

"I don't know if I'd have committed to it as fiercely as I have," said Murphy, a University of Ottawa theatre student who wanted to read famous Russian playwrights like Anton Chekhov without relying on translations.

"The Duolingo streak system is definitely a compelling reason to keep doing it, because now, I'm at a 340-day streak or whatever — and if I ever lose that, I'll be heartbroken."

Murphy is one of the many Canadians who've flocked to language podcasts, apps like Duolingo and Zoom-based classes over the past year, as the pandemic limits in-person instruction and gives people freedom to pursue interests online.

But when it comes to what the new virtual approach means for language acquisition in the long run, it's still an open question.

'A bit less personal'

"Some people like it better online. Some people miss the human interaction, because it's of course a bit less personal," said Samuel Coeytaux, director of Alliance Française Ottawa.

According to Coeytaux, courses at his French-language school remain full, even though there hasn't been a single in-person class since last March.

That's led to positive developments, Coeytaux said — like students signing up from across Ontario, even Montreal — but also negative ones, including a halt to the cultural immersion Alliance Française prides itself upon.

"Of course, online, we can't really have a petit dejeuner français with, like, croissants and French pastries," he said. "These days we can't have movie nights the same way."

Missing out on French-language breakfasts won't necessarily hamper one's ability to learn a language, but those sorts of experiences convey traditions and elements of day-to-day life that can't always be picked up via an app or in the classroom, said Jeffrey Steele, associate professor in the department of language studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

"The best language-learning is one in which the learners are actively engaging with fluent speakers — whether they be more advanced learners or native speakers, and particularly doing authentic tasks," Steele said.

Steele notes those tasks do include things like writing emails or chatting online, which may actually be more suited to the new virtual learning environment Canadians find themselves in.

"For the majority of second-language learners ... there's really a practical goal here, about being be able to use that language in their daily lives, to accomplish real tasks with other speakers," said Steele.

"There's so many ways in which online learning can either be lent to that — or sometimes be preferable."

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

'Go at my own pace'

The free Duolingo app — which teaches users vocabulary through short quizzes and conversations — has proven especially popular: the company reported more than 30 million new learners signed up when much of the world went into lockdown last March.

But apps like it struggle to convey the ebbs and flows of everyday speech, said professor Shana Poplack, the Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and the director of a sociolinguistics laboratory at the University of Ottawa.

It would never occur to me to try to learn a language over an app. Never. - Shana Poplack, Canada Resarch Chair in Linguistics

For Poplack, language acquisition requires two things: exposure to language as it's actually spoken, and the possibility of interacting with native speakers. She's particularly critical of apps that dispense rigid grammatical rules, like always using the French ne in a negative sentence — something her lab has found gets dropped in spoken French more than 99 per cent of the time.

"It would never occur to me to try to learn a language over an app. Never," Poplack said. "I would sooner jump on a plane and fly to the country where that language is spoken."

As for Murphy — who's set her phone to Russian and is grinding through a Russian-language version of the first Harry Potter novel — she sees the benefits of both approaches.

"I definitely wish that I did have more people to practise with, and that there was an in-person component," she said. "But at the same time, I really like being able to go at my own pace. And the discipline that's gone along with it."