While thinking about your dream language learning program, it is important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of learning a language online. Whether or not a program is in person or hosted virtually, a quality program will balance cultural context with language learning skills, such as active skills (speaking, writing) and passive skills (listening, reading). Other intangible skills gained while learning a language include cultural competency, heightened problem solving skills, sensitivity of diversity, and increased creative thinking. This article will list the top pros and cons of learning a language online.
Pro: Learning a language online can be highly flexible
The benefit of enrolling in an online program is that you can adjust the schedule to your own. Whether you’re balancing a full time job, home obligations, or creative ventures, language learning can progress both part-time and full-time. Your home space can also transform into a creative learning space by decorating objects with vocabulary on sticky notes or by writing, drawing, or printing out a menu for your meals. If living alone, you can initiate two way conversations as practice or could even teach some words to those living with you. Learning a language online allows you to stay in your comfort zone so you can create your learning space according to your own taste and preferences.
Con: Limited face-to-face speaking opportunities and limited networking
One of the allures of learning a language abroad is getting to walk around different neighborhoods with the intention of getting lost during the first week. You’ll be able to ask for directions from strangers as well as chance upon a tea house or noodle shop you may have never been able to find otherwise. Learning a language through immersion -- employing what is learned in the classroom to real world experiences -- is the best way to gain proficiency and think like a native speaker. Beyond the daily interaction with strangers (ordering food, buying metro tickets, chatting at university extracurricular clubs), the friendships gained while learning a language abroad can be instrumental to career networking, research opportunities, and higher education.
Pro: Learning a language online can be accessible and affordable
One of the greatest benefits of learning a language online is that it is accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds. There are programs, resources, and scholarships online for anyone and everyone. With live classes (especially in small group settings) or in individualized tutoring, feedback can be given immediately and digital tools can make the online classroom feel like an in-person one. Small group discussions or focused diction and pronunciation drills are now feasible online through using virtual break-out rooms. All this to say, you can experience many of the benefits of an in-person classroom without the hefty price tag.
Con: Limited ability to gain crucial intercultural competency skills
An essential albeit frequently bemoaned aspect of learning a language abroad is processing culture shock. Despite the strong emotions and immense frustration associated with culture shock, it is an essential element to learn to navigate cultures different from your own. This experience can result in increased empathy, a richer appreciation of the host culture, a deeper understanding of your own culture, and the ability to navigate between cultures. Whether navigating hierarchical spiderwebs in an internship in Beijing, employing respectful markers in relationship titles in Kyoto, or understanding body language in Bengaluru, the nuances of a society and its language are best learned in person.
Pro: Studying languages online is best for introductory students
Learning a language abroad can be especially challenging if you aren’t already an intermediate or advanced speaker. This is especially true for individuals who may decide to live in a city where the target language is spoken alongside local dialects or other languages, such as if you decide to live in Chengdu, China where the majority of locals speak Sichuanese instead of the textbook Mandarin one may be studying! Navigating an accent, different words, or even an entirely different language (such as Marathi in Mumbai when learning Hindi) can be overwhelming if one doesn’t have a solid base in the target language first. Thus, mastering the basics online can help build the foundation to study, volunteer, work, or live abroad later.
Con: Fluency is best gained when immersed in a language abroad
Language learners living in their host country will learn to put down their dictionaries and instead rely on circumlocution (using basic words to describe a complex word one hasn’t learned yet -- a language learning scaffolding technique) to communicate with locals. A significant detriment to online learning is the ease and constant access with which one can pull up a digital dictionary to check a word to say in a sentence without actively integrating it into their mastered vocabulary. While online resources serve as a great method of reviewing a language, they should not be the primary model of learning a language. While these tools are useful, they can act as impediments to gaining proficiency in a target language or in thinking like a native speaker. That’s why learning a language through immersion and uninterrupted communication is the best way to gain fluency.
Pro: Protect your and your host community’s health and safety by staying at home
In the age of COVID-19, we all have to think about our impact on other communities. As the vaccine isn’t available to all yet, the best way to ensure your health is to remain at home and follow all health protocols as outlined by health officials. A key element of learning a language abroad is acting as a cultural ambassador to your home country. The most respectful ambassadorial role is in prioritizing language learning and exchange without risking infecting your teachers and friends.
Con: Inability to visit cultural heritage scenes
Although some government and NGO websites have initiated virtual tours of UNESCO World Heritage sites or other cultural treasures, it is not the same as being able to visit the place itself. Walking tours can show the streets that one may wish to roam while abroad, but one cannot select the pathway chosen to walk. While virtual connection is unique and helpful, it cannot replace the experience of living in the host country and speaking with strangers, friends, teachers, and more in your target language while under the awe of the architecture of the Taj Mahal or the gleaming gold from the Forbidden City.
Whether you Learn Online or In-Person, Stay Motivated!
Regardless of whether you will attend a virtual or in-person language learning course (or even both!), it is crucial that you must be motivated to learn your target language. First, reflect on why you wish to learn the language and use that angle to connect with native speakers. Craft realistic language goals and speak with others who have learned the language; you will come to understand that you can’t become fluent overnight (or even after a few years). Make mistakes, have fun with the language, and when you doubt your proficiency advancement, remember why you decided to learn the language in the first place.
This article was originally published in February 2014, and it was updated in March 2021.