¿Cómo se dice? – How to Learn Languages Online

Memories of forcefully being sent to piano lessons or watching the clock seemingly go backwards during yet another boring French grammar class are those many of us have in common. Our protestation at being sent to these tedious classes was constant until our poor parents finally gave in to our demands. It is almost cliché to now hear adults regret these childish protestations and lament the opportunities they missed. When asked what is stopping them from learning the piano or French now the answer is simple, “I just don’t have the time”. 

2020 has given us among other things, the positive of having more free time than we could ever ask for and as a result, popular language learning apps such as Duolingo have seen a substantial increase in users. Gone are the days of dull and uninspiring grammar lessons as this new wave of interactive learning technology places an emphasis on speaking and fluency, equipping the learner from the very start with the tools necessary to succeed.  While some of us worked up a sweat in virtual gym classes or battled to get everyone to mute their mic on a Zoom work call, for others the extra free time was an opportunity to do something they had been putting off for years, dusting off that old Spanish or French phrase book and promising themselves that this would be the year that they finally master how to say “deux cafés s’il vous plait” while avoiding the derisive stare of the Parisian waiter.

One of the most popular websites offering language classes is Italki. Launched in 2013 in Hong Kong, Italki is a language learning platform where native speakers and teachers can advertise themselves for private one to one video classes. As of 2020 the site offers classes in over 100 languages and for many it has been the place where they could finally realise that long put off dream of one day learning to speak a second language.

For John Ferrara, a 63-year-old attorney from New York, this was very much the case. John’s story will be familiar to most, an unfulfilling experience with learning Spanish as a child in school led to a lifelong desire to go back and really learn that which he lost out on.  A trip to Costa Rica and a week spent learning Spanish face to face with native teachers showed John what he had been missing all those years, actually speaking the language. Like many in 2020 John found himself with a lot of extra free time and following on from a recommendation from his teenage son, he started classes with not one but two teachers on Italki. As of now John has completed well over 100 hours of classes with his teachers and he remarks that, “the progress has been incredible – I can really see that I can do this.” John credits his improvement to the one-to-one relationship he has been able to foster with his teachers while also being completely immersed in the language with nowhere to hide when things get difficult. Commenting on his teacher, he describes her as one of “the kindest, most competent and decent individuals he has ever met.” This glowing review a testament to the close bond he has created with his teacher.

While platforms like Italki and Duolingo have this year provided millions with the opportunity to learn languages, for some it has also given them the chance to make a professional pivot at a time when job security has never been so fragile. Marlene Arroyo, a 30-year-old architect from Mexico, is one such person who was able to make this pivot. She launched her Italki profile in February and while initially only offering 2 hours per day, she soon found herself offering more and more hours as her country went into lockdown and the demand for online classes rose. Having never taught formally before, she confessed that she felt “very nervous” and was not sure if she would be able to do something like this as she reflected on her first class ever as a teacher. 8 months later these fears clearly never materialised as Marlene has now taught over 1200 hours of classes with over 130 different students. Marlene credits part of her success to being able to teach from home as it is

“more comfortable for both student and teacher and it helps to create a familiar and safe learning environment while also making it more practical and productive for all. My students really enjoy the classes, and it has been a rewarding experiences for me to meet people from other countries and cultures from my kitchen table”

 When asked if this was a new career for her, Marlene hinted at a possible return to her previous job but that certainly teaching Spanish has been a revelation for her this year and a way to make the most of a difficult time.

As we come to the end of 2020 and the green shoots of hope in the form of various vaccines begin to sprout, many of us will look forward to a 2021 as a chance to return to what we missed out on this year. Concerts, foreign holidays and sporting events are high on peoples list and with that it might be easy to give up the things that saw us through those long days in 2020 but for others they have discovered something that is definitely not going to be cast aside as soon restrictions are lifted. When asked if he would be continuing with classes in the future, John was unwavering in his response

“without a doubt – once I retire, I’m planning to spend the winters in South America and with these classes I know I will be able to speak well enough to live there”

For the rest of us, finishing our two coffees next summer with a flawless, “l’addition s’il vous plait” will be the mark of a year well spent.

Cormac Breen

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