Opinion | Language learning is being stifled in the pandemic

Resources should be more available for online language learners.


Thomas A. Stewart

Various flags are seen on Monday, October 15, 2018. There are 120 flags being displayed on the Iowa Memorial Union Pedestrian Bridge to recognize the international students on campus.

Yassie Buchanan, Opinions Columnist

Online learning during the coronavirus pandemic has brought many new challenges to the classroom. These challenges are especially noticeable in language courses.

According to an article in The Daily Iowan, professors and students have been trying to adjust to these newfound circumstances.

A large aspect of language learning is the ability to hear and speak the language with others. With hybrid learning and online learning platforms, these opportunities are farther and fewer between.

Additionally, there are many students who had been looking forward to the opportunity to learn languages abroad but now are having to do their best with virtual learning.

Shannon McNeal is an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa studying Chinese and Spanish, with a minor in Arabic. McNeal had plans to study abroad over the summer to get more exposure to these languages and practice speaking Chinese and Spanish, however she was unable to take advantage of this opportunity because of the pandemic.

“You don’t get the same benefits learning online as in person,” McNeal said, when asked about the struggles of reverting to virtual language learning. “You can’t make the same connections in class because you can’t do pair work and if you do, you’re basically with a stranger so it’s more uncomfortable. In person there is more willpower to try because you have the opportunity to get immediate feedback, whereas recording dialogue and submitting it to Canvas, there is a delay in feedback and the feedback is not as detailed as it would be in person.”

McNeal added that the Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese programs hold conversation hours to give students more opportunities to use the languages.

“It is a little awkward because everyone is at different levels, but they do provide a casual setting to use the languages and ask questions,” she said, when asked about these conversation hours. “Unfortunately, it is only one hour a week and lots of students have classes during those times, including me. I do appreciate the efforts that are being made in the department to accommodate virtual language learning, but COVID has not made it an ideal situation.”

Studies show the best way to learn a language is through exposure. According to an article by The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, input and output of language are important in acquiring skills in these languages. This means having the opportunity to converse in new languages and use them for reading and writing are both essential practices in developing the language.

Students attempting to learn languages during the pandemic could benefit from more access to platforms where they have the ability to connect with one another, practicing speaking, and using the language in a more comfortable setting.

One possible solution to these challenges would be to set up pen pal programs with institutions overseas to give students the opportunity to communicate and connect with people who speak the languages they are learning.

There are no easy fixes to the challenges that come with adjusting to online learning during a pandemic. With no real answers as to when things will return to some form of normalcy, it is important that we are paying attention and actively trying to accommodate students and help professors face these newfound challenges.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.