July-August 2019


 Is it possible to learn a foreign language online?

I always wanted to learn foreign languages especially French, Italian and Spanish. Alas no time…Getting two university degrees, working and raising my two sons was not an easy task.

My first attempt to learn French was quite an experience. It was some ten years ago when I enrolled in a French course in one of the best schools for adult education in Athens. We were five adults in the group. Our teacher was a middle-aged woman; Greek who had studied French in France. The problems started from day one when she told us to buy a certain coursebook. The book was no longer in circulation and we had to call bookshops and friends who searched in dusty bookshelves and smelly warehouses. We eventually found the coursebook –one copy came from Thessaloniki. We were ready to begin.

Our teacher was always cold. She would sit on a chair by the central heating unit. She would only stand if she wanted to write something on the board and immediately rush back to her chair.

The methodology she used dated back to the French Revolution. She read the passage –yes, the passage was read-, and asked some comprehension questions. She kept the cassettes at her home. ‘Next time I’ll bring the cassettes’. We never saw them. She would give us endless lists of verbs to conjugate and lots of grammar rules to memorize.
Being a teacher of English it was easy for me to adapt the material to my own learning style and be successful. The other members of the group suffered. We finished A1 and A2 Level in two years without writing a test. The following year it was only me who wanted to continue so the French course never started.

A couple of years later my friend Pepy Frytzala, lecturer at New York College, and I went to Paris for the ALTE International Conference. To brush up my French I installed the Rosetta Stone app on my computer and started practicing. I had made an agreement with Pepy, who is fluent in both English and French; she would let me do the easy talk in French. It was not easy at all. Pepy waited patiently for me to draw the right words and phrases from the French file in my brain and would very often rush to my rescue.

Two months ago I enrolled in an online course with Wellesley College in Boston to learn Italian using the EdX platform which has been developed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There is no fee but there is an audit access to the course. To continue receiving content you need to upgrade, take tests, and get a certificate which costs 49 dollars, part of which support a local hospital. The day I registered 1,000,000 people did the same.

The course content is delivered through videos, podcasts, dialogues with native speakers, interviews, etc. You first see a vocabulary list with English translation. You can hear how words are pronounced as many times as you wish. To check vocabulary learning you do matching exercises on quizlet. Points on grammar are explained in a power point presentation form. Then you watch a video featuring native speakers in authentic situations. You can watch the video with English subtitles, with Italian subtitles or without subtitles. (I do all three) You can also adjust the speech speed. Comprehension questions follow. Then you watch the same video again but with embedded activities this time. The video pauses and comprehension activities pop up usually with true-false questions. You check grammar with multiple choice questions, gap-filling exercises, choosing the right form of verbs, converting articles, nouns and adjectives from singular to plural and vice versa etc. Then you write a paragraph on a relevant topic. You can share pieces of writing with other course participants and communicate with whoever you want. I have spotted a Greek name from Kastoria but I have not contacted him yet.

Now that I study word lists again I realise how much effort learners need to put to internalize vocabulary and grammar and use it in appropriate situations. I go through the material many times (repetitio est mater studiorum), I use my linguistic skills to identify word roots for text comprehension. I print the text and read it aloud as fast as I can. Sometimes I ask my younger son Dimitris to hear me reading and comment on the flow. Dimitris patiently pretends hearing me reading aloud in Italian and wonders if something has gone wrong with me.

Will I eventually learn a foreign language online? I don’t know. In fact, today it is possible to learn many things online as long as you have the discipline and determination to achieve something with unwavering focus.•

I am about to complete a course in ‘Leaders of Learning’ powered by Harvard University and I have also enrolled in a French course with Weston High School.

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