These days, you can find a language learning app for anything.
There are photo translator apps that extract words from your pictures for instant translation. Apps to carry with you as you travel. There are even language learning apps for children of all ages.
With all these options, it sometimes seems like apps are replacing the traditional classroom experience altogether.
But why not have the best of both worlds?
Online language learning courses offer the structure and community of a traditional classroom, plus the convenience and functionality of app-based learning. Plus, with numerous free and paid options, it’s possible to find a virtual language course that suits any learning goal.
Read on to learn about the best of the best in online language courses!
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Why Learn a Language Through an Online Course?
As convenient and effective as casual language learning apps can be, learning a language through an online course can be a better choice in certain circumstances.
Lay the foundation.
Sometimes—especially when you’re just starting out—it helps to build that language learning foundation brick-by-brick.
Through an online course, you can build a solid, structured foundation for your language learning. Basic grammar and the simplest words form the cornerstone and the foundation. Conversational essentials and more advanced vocabulary build the walls upwards, held together with the mortar of additional grammar and syntax.
Learning in a structured way can give you more confidence in the language, since you’ll be covering all of the important bases.
Learn to play by the rules.
Learn the official rules of the standard language—before you learn to break them.
Depending on how you plan to use a language, you may ultimately be more interested in learning its slang than its formal register.
That said, if you don’t learn the rules first, you won’t know when it’s appropriate to deviate from them…or how to do so in a way that native speakers will understand.
Elucidate complex concepts.
An online course can really put you through your paces, giving you the discipline to learn the language thoroughly—not just the fun stuff, but the tough stuff.
For intermediate or advanced learners, an online course can help explain the more complicated facets of the language, such as thorny grammar questions.
Learn like a pro.
If you’re looking to earn a degree or a professional certification, a casual language learning app can be a great supplementary learning resource. But it probably won’t confer real college credit or official certification.
Many online courses, on the other hand, allow you to earn credit for a professional certification or university degree—which is probably a lot more impressive to HR than seeing all the language learning apps you downloaded on your phone…no matter how useful they’ve been in your pursuit of fluency.
Enjoy the flexibility of an online classroom.
Learn wherever you are, as long as you have an internet connection.
You can carry a classroom in the palm of your hand or reach it right through your laptop. Take your learning with you, everywhere you go—just like the more “edutaining” language learning apps.
You can attend a college-level course whenever you have a few moments to spare, no matter where you are. Pretty powerful, hmm?
Learning a language through an online course gives you the best of both worlds: The structure and interaction of the classroom experience with the convenience of “anytime, anywhere” access.
4 Ways to Get the Most from the Virtual Classroom
Even though most of us have had many hours of experience in both classrooms and websurfing, the virtual classroom is a magical combination of pedagogy and technology that may not seem as intuitive as you’d imagine.
Here are a few tips for successfully navigating online language courses.
Tip #1: Find an online course that supports your goals.
Everyone has different reasons for wanting to learn another language.
Some people are simply language junkies, lured by the charm and beauty of each unique form of human expression.
Then there are travelers who want to master the world’s most useful international languages.
Others want to learn a language to bolster their current career, whether through studying business Chinese or acing a widely-recognized placement test to prove their linguistic mettle.
Some want to pursue a career centered on using their language skills. Their career dreams might include becoming an interpreter or a translator.
It’s important to find a language learning course that supports your goals, whatever they may be. This might mean checking out a free trial, or viewing the syllabus and reading materials before signing up, whenever possible.
Auditing versus earning credit.
Some online courses let you learn a language for just the price of the work you put in. However, you are essentially auditing the course—there will be no certificate or college credit when you complete it.
If you are in a situation where you need to earn college credit from your online course, make sure that that’s part of the program. In almost every case, there will be a fee associated with a program that grants college credit for an online course.
The same is true of an online language course that offers you a certificate of completion, or some sort of professional certification.
Tip #2: Know your paid courses & MOOCs.
No, I’m not talking about the slang insult. A MOOC is a “massive open online course,” which describes many of the free online courses available today. However, not all of them—or their paid counterparts—are created equal.
Examine the course structure.
Some online courses follow a set schedule. Some are asynchronous, meaning you can work on them whenever you like. You can take a hiatus, and then finish up later.
The important thing is to be aware of deadlines—if there are any—so that you don’t miss them.
You have to know your own schedule, availability, and habits to make language learning through an online course work for you.
Maybe you don’t consistently have a lot of time to work on course projects.
Then again, maybe you need deadlines to keep you on track.
Look out for “gotchas.”
Some online courses will give you lifetime access to the materials. Others will only allow you to access the materials for a limited time.
You may need to finish a certain portion of the course, meet all your deadlines, reach a specific score on the exam and pay a course fee in order to get college credit or professional certification.
Read the fine print to make sure there are no deal-breakers.
Research the prerequisites.
Just like traditional classes, some online courses have prerequisites that you must meet prior to enrollment.
For instance, you may have to successfully complete Spanish I & II before you can enroll in the online Spanish Grammar & Composition course you’re considering.
Learn to navigate the online classroom.
If you’ve never taken an online course before, it pays to take time to familiarize yourself with the way they work. Many providers offer a short, free course that teaches you how to use the video controls and other functions of the online course software.
It’s also important to check out the hardware and software requirements before you enroll. Make sure your PC or mobile device has a compatible OS for the course. Use the web browser that works best with the course video players.
Some courses also require additional software, like Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Tools like these are almost always free downloads.
Don’t be in a class by yourself.
Remember to connect with your fellow students. Contribute to the course’s discussion board or associated Facebook group. You can study or practice your language skills with other people in the course, who are working their way through the same academic challenges you’re facing.
The instructor is usually available to help as well, whether through the discussion board or directly through email.
By building community with your teacher and classmates, you’ll get much more out of learning a language through an online course than you would by trying to fly under the radar. You might even find a new friend or two in the process.
Tip #3: Think outside the textbook.
Learning a language through an online course can give you a solid, structured foundation—in other words, it can teach you the official rules of the language.
In real life, though, language often breaks the rules.
A lot of traditionally-structured language courses don’t have the flexibility to include contemporary resources like movies and music videos, or dialogues drawn from interviews and TV shows.
That’s why it’s important to supplement your language learning diet with up-to-the-minute morsels of pop culture. A source like FluentU can hook you up with the latest, cutting-edge language usage.
Learn directly from real-life sources and red-hot media…from countries where the language is spoken and used every day.
In addition to an ever-growing library of curated, contemporary videos available for learners of many languages, FluentU offers interactive exercises and quizzes that help you assess what you’re learning. You can also enjoy personalized suggestions for videos at your current language learning level.
Tip #4: Don’t forget your study skills.
Many online courses use video-based lessons. These are stimulating and entertaining.
But there’s a downside: It can be very tempting to just grab the popcorn, watch along and forget about basic study skills like taking class notes.
Don’t just press “Play” and go on autopilot!
Taking the time to take notes can really help the lessons sink in. A language learning notebook is a faithful companion as you work your way through your online courses. It can track your progress and keep you motivated.
It’s actually easier to take notes in an online course than in a traditional classroom. Most online coursework is done at your own pace. And you can always pause the video to catch up with your notes or loop it back to catch something you missed.
When you want to rapidly review a lesson, most online courses give you the option of watching a lesson at a faster speed. This is where it pays to familiarize yourself with the controls for your online course interface.
Keeping to a set study schedule may also help keep you on track. But don’t miss out on spontaneous learning opportunities.
With short videos or texts comprising many lessons, you can squeeze in studying whenever you have five or ten minutes free—even if you’re in a waiting room or standing in a long line.
7 Online Language Courses to Get the Most from the Virtual Classroom
For Learning’s Sake Alone: Unaccredited Courses
Udemy: Business-style training with deep discounts.
Aimed largely at a business and personal development audience, Udemy mostly offers paid courses. Check their website often to catch their frequent sales, with staggeringly deep discounts.
Courses are presented by individuals and companies with expertise in the subject matter, so you know you’re learning from the best. Plus, they offer lifetime access to course materials, meaning you can study at your own pace. This makes Udemy a fantastic option for professionals, students or anyone with a busy schedule.
Some of the languages offered include:
FutureLearn: Start with the free tier and upgrade according to your needs.
FutureLearn focuses on education for job seekers. Their course materials are provided by cultural organizations like UNESCO and the British Library, as well as traditional schools from around the world.
Their university partners include such notable institutions as Trinity College Dublin (home of the Book of Kells), Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of Oslo and King’s College London.
As a FutureLearn student, you can pick your learning plan from three tiers: Start with the free tier, upgrade to lifetime course access or choose one-year access to unlimited short courses.
Learn from a wide array of online language courses:
- Irish Gaelic
MIT OpenCourseWare: Skip registration! Get free and instant access to MIT language curriculum.
If all you want is the knowledge, and you have no interest in a certificate or degree, why waste time registering?
All the materials from former MIT courses are instantly available to anyone online. With a couple of simple clicks, you get immediate access to the online course curriculum for studies in:
Filter by course features like online textbooks, complete audio lectures and instructor insights. Check out just the undergraduate or graduate courses. With MIT OpenCourseWare, you do all the steering to determine your own course.
Get Credit Where It’s Due: Work Toward a Degree
EdX: Free with paid options for certifications or graduate degrees.
EdX has free online language courses, generally available from extensions of top universities and world-class cultural institutions like the Smithsonian.
There are paid options for professional certificates and traditional master’s degrees. EdX also offers paid “MicroMasters programs,” which develop one specific skillset geared towards a particular career.
You may have had high school language classes and want a refresher before you dig into undergraduate-level material. Look for AP language review classes, which can get you back up to speed and ready to progress.
In the realm of modern languages, you can find courses in:
- Mandarin Chinese
The Open University: Courses for honors-level bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Based in the UK, the Open University (OU) offers paid honors-level bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now a half-century old, OU was a pioneer in distance learning.
OU is accredited in the USA and has students from all over the world.
The primary languages available are:
A few undergraduate modules delve into other languages, like Welsh, Italian, Latin and Chinese.
If you’re studying outside Europe, be aware that you may be subject to additional course fees.
Ed2Go: Online courses taken through local universities.
Ed2Go offers online courses that are certified by local universities and community colleges.
Their current language offerings are:
Both registered students at the local universities and continuing education students can take advantage of the convenient online courses through Ed2Go.
Most of the online language courses last six weeks (24 course hours)—although some of them, such as the entire Speed Spanish series, are as long as 72 course hours.
Some of the courses are targeted at language use for a specific purpose, such as Spanish for Law Enforcement.
New courses begin each month and two new lessons are released every week.
BYU Independent Study: Middle school, high school or college credit for online language courses.
Part of Brigham Young University’s Continuing Education program, BYU Independent Study isn’t just for college-level learners.
Whether you’re a middle school or high school student who wants to learn languages not available at your local school, or an adult who wants to start lessons at a more basic level, BYU Independent Study provides numerous for-credit course options.
Their online course catalog includes several modern languages, as well as a couple of classical ones:
- Mandarin Chinese
- Biblical Hebrew
Whatever your language learning goals, there’s almost certainly an appropriate online course to help you meet them. You can get the benefits of structured classroom learning with the portable convenience of an app.
And you won’t even need to wear a college sweatshirt or learn the school song… unless you’re into that kind of thing, of course.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Keep up with her latest adventures in language and learning on Twitter.
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