by Natalie A. Fallert, DLINQ intern, Candidate, MA International Education Management

I have never been a student who wanted to learn online, but when COVID-19 pushed courses into Zoom rooms, I had to join my peers in remote foreign language classrooms for the first time. 

Before sharing my story, it is imperative to recognize that COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and that remote teaching in 2020 is teaching through a global crisis. As our societies open borders and increase mobility, the place of remote learning in the language learner’s experience may forever persist, but in these moments of uncertainty it is important to recognize that we are all doing the best that we can, instructors, students, and administrators alike. 

On March 10th, 2020 I learned that I would be attending online graduate-level French courses until the end of May. Up until this point I had learned French primarily through full-immersion experiences as a camper and counselor at the Concordia Language Village,  Lac du Bois, as a student with IES, as a French family’s Aupair, and as an English teacher through the government sponsored TAPIF program. With a background in language learning and experience as an elementary teacher at the Latin School of Chicago and high school English as a Second Language and French as a foreign language teacher, I approached the remote classroom with curiosity and a critical eye for innovation.

Through the transition from face-to-face learning to learning remotely, during a pandemic, I looked and longed for certain features of the classroom. As a student in learning environments in the past that were not satisfactory, I developed a habit of taking notes on what was “Great” and what could be “Even Better If….” As the remote courses progressed and I grew more frustrated, I decided to adopt this note-taking strategy. Separating myself from the remote language learning environment as a student and moving into it as an observer of pedagogy helped me to survive, and the possibility of making the experience more engaging for future language students has led me to write this article. The following comments and suggestions are derived from notes taken as a remote language student with instructional experience in spring 2020.

Remote Foreign Language Learning Would be Even Better if We...

Embrace Vulnerability: Learning another language is vulnerable because it requires re-defining the words used to express oneself and doing so virtually can be even more difficult. Instructors can acknowledge the discomfort, foreignness, or difficulty of teaching remotely to encourage students to be open about their own challenges as remote students. Using emotions vocabulary,  such as those listed in the figure to the right, can support instructors and students to genuinely contribute to brave space discussions and learning reflections.

Figure 1. Emotion wheel. From “The Emotion wheel: what it is and how to use it,” by K. Hokuma, 2020,

Set Boundaries: Consider which activities need to be done synchronously and which ones we can be completed asynchronously. Give clear instructions, time to work alone, and the opportunity to present findings to the class, so that students can build quality work without spending all day on Zoom. Set and respect clear boundaries around instructor availability hours, meaningful use of synchronous time, and meeting start and end times to show students how to do the same. 

Resist the Attention Economy: Work with students to set community agreements around technology use while in and outside of the Zoom classroom. Read Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing for more ideas. 

Support Collaboration: Deconstruct instructor/student power dynamics by co-creating the syllabus, vocabulary lists, readings, and activities with students so that they are as equally invested in the time spent online as instructors. Negotiated curricula will encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and encourage them to be more autonomous and creative as they dive into linguistic nuances, culture, or educational technology that can support their life-long learning . Read bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for more ideas. 

Re-define Immersion: Don’t recreate your face-to-face immersion classroom. Gather energy from your students and guide them to re-define immersion for the remote learning classroom and at home. Encourage them to agree as a learning community to turn off automatic translation, to change keyboard languages, change the language on their devices, instant message in-language, and consume media in the target language outside the classroom. Students could also collaborate to generate resources to transform their work spaces with images, symbols, objects, or vocabulary labels of common items that reinforce and represent the target language and culture. 

Communicate Instructions in Multiple Forms: Communicate information to students in multiple forms to align with Universal Design for Learning Guidelines by creating a Panopto video, writing out an email, or recording your voice to explain instructions. Include instructions in both visual and audio formats to ensure comprehension and to offer choice to students who may prefer a break from looking at a screen, or to work on their audio comprehension skills. Look here for more information about early and ongoing communication. 

Invite Guest Speakers: Speaking on Zoom for two hours straight is tiring for everyone, including instructors. Share the air by inviting lecturers or friends from different parts of the target-language world with different accents to speak about topics related to the course objectives. Demonstrate how to have engaging conversations with native speakers by introducing the speaker, modeling conversations, considering time zone differences, and discussing cultural norms for the speaker. Students could prepare for the guest speaker by researching them ahead of time to prepare questions and engage with the speaker afterwards with opinions, using specific vocabulary, or with further questions. Deeper learning could be developed by co-creating a course podcast, looking at transcripts of sessions, translating portions of transcripts, or publishing summaries on a course blog.

Arrange Student Language Partners: Languages are melodic, rhythmic, and musical. When linguistic codes are still being developed it can be more confusing than helpful to converse with peers who have not yet learned the necessary vocabulary, pronunciation, expression, or word order to communicate comprehensive thoughts, rather than to converse with native speakers. Build opportunities into asynchronous activities for students to meet regularly with native speakers on apps such as Tandem or Conversifi. Also consider matching students at similar levels of speaking and listening comprehension to each other for internal language exchanges across courses or course sections. 

Build-in Healthy Competition: Create group classroom challenges on language learning applications such as H5P, Quizlet, Duolingo,  MemRise, Babbel, Drops, HelloTalk, Busuu etc. that build a healthy sense of low-stakes, ungraded competition for asynchronous use to foster motivation, memorization, and community. Build relevant engagement challenges with students, track student progress, and include opportunities for delight for students who significantly engage with material such as a potluck Zoom party, or a creative exercise in class using the new vocabulary.

Make Time for Play & Discovery: Language learning online is not always fun and it doesn’t need to look like an arcade, but adult play, the joy of learning and mastery can be very motivating for students. Diversify activities and give students ungraded time to explore and investigate new aspects of language and culture. Make time for students to play with areas of the language that interest them by building blogs on in-language websites or organizing opportunities for virtual internships for volunteering for advanced students. Read more about building diverse interactions into the digital classrooms through mobile‐assisted learning, tandem learning, and service‐learning. 


About the Author: Natalie A. Fallert is currently a DLINQ Summer 2020 Intern and MA candidate in International Education Management from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies with a language focus in French. Her professional goals are to contribute intentionally as a thought leader to the field of International Education and as a scholar-practitioner. Her current research focuses on the impacts of virtual study abroad on eco-paralysis, and she aspires to continue to work on the intersection of social justice and environmental sustainability. 

Photos by JESHOOTS.COM, Tim Gouw,Wes Hicks on Unsplash