Innovative language programs expose online learners to new languages and cultures

It may seem counterintuitive – and a bit cold – to learn a foreign language sitting in front of a computer screen. After all, a big part of language learning is talking with other people. But students and teachers say online language programs provide a good foundation in fundamentals and offer exposure to other cultures in ways classroom experiences can’t.

Students from kindergarten to college, as well as homeschoolers, library patrons and refugees, are increasingly using online programs to learn languages for fun, credit, citizenship or world travel.   

After two years of Spanish at her public high school in Oxford, Avalon McKinney decided to try an online German course when she transferred to Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy to finish high school.

McKinney, who graduated as her class salutatorian last spring, enrolled in German as an elective during her senior year and says she learned more and preferred the pace and format of the online course. She previously attended Oxford High School north of metro Detroit and says there were too many distractions to really learn much. 

“I don’t think I would have realized I was interested in foreign languages had I stayed there,” McKinney says. “The teacher was always distracted with the kids. We were always reviewing and could not progress.”

Self-paced learning

Today’s online learning environment allows students to study languages they might not have access to in a traditional school.
The courses also allow students to learn at their own pace, whether that means going over vocabulary words or reviewing reading, writing, listening and speaking exercises.

“An extremely beneficial aspect of the online courses is this notion of ‘anywhere, anytime, anyplace,’ which offers students a flexibility they wouldn’t have otherwise in a face-to-face classroom,” says Alanna Prieditis, a Spanish and English instructor for Michigan Virtual School, a supplemental provider of world language courses available to Michigan students from sixth to 12th grades. Prieditis says this self-paced style allows students to take control of their learning.

Fulfilling state requirements

Michigan’s requirement of two years of foreign language study has many students turning to online courses when schools don’t offer their desired language or there is a schedule conflict.

Michigan Virtual School provides online courses and career development tools for some 500 schools across the state, and it offers seven languages and 20 advanced placement courses. 

MVS’s world language courses are aligned with the national standards from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and are taught by Michigan-certified online instructors – many of whom are native speakers. Courses include Spanish, French, German, Latin, Japanese and Chinese.

Prieditis says teachers often use audio and video tools featuring native speakers to illustrate authentic language use. MVS courses also offer discussion-board communication for student-to-student interaction and interactive practice activities to teach students about languages and cultures around the world.

Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy, attended by McKinney, is an online public school authorized by Manistee Area Public Schools and powered by K12 Inc., which has partner schools in more than 30 states. K12 uses Middlebury Interactive Languages for its world languages courses.

“It really expands that opportunity for students to interact with multiple languages they might not otherwise get the chance to learn,” says Dr. Dana Laursen, a former world languages instructor and vice president of curriculum and program effectiveness for Middlebury. 

“They’re really designed to be 21st century courses,” Laursen says. “They give the students a chance to learn to use the language in real-life settings.”

Studying a foreign language helps build cognition and links to other learning, including mastery of the English language, Laursen says. Online courses allow students to study a new language on their own time and at their own pace. 

“They can practice pronunciation and can play it over and over again,” she says. “They have the opportunity to do that without feeling like they have to be perfect.” 

The courses also include cultural lessons. 

“In every unit, we learned something about the culture, about how they celebrate Christmas, the way their roads work and the food,” she says. “It was really well-balanced.”

McKinney also studied Arabic through Schoolcraft College and plans to study international business in college. She spent time conversing with others in Arabic using various apps and online forums to practice and connect with native speakers. 

“It’s a really good start to a language,” she says of online language learning. “You get the basics and grammar which helps with the foundation. To speak it fluently, you have to get off the computer and interact with people.”

‘A better way to learn’

As a high school student in Holt, south of Lansing, Mer Harper took an online German course for two semesters through Lansing Community College, receiving both high school and college credits.

She also took several years of Spanish in a traditional classroom and found the online course preferential.  

“It was an adjustment at first, but I actually found it was a better way to learn,” says Harper, who now lives in metro Detroit. “The lectures were all prerecorded so you could go back in and listen to them and hear how the professor spoke in the language. You don’t get that in the classroom.”

The course also included virtual group projects and presentations, and students had the option for discussions via Blackboard’s online learning platform and live chats with the teacher and fellow students.  

Community access

Many libraries have joined in the virtual language learning movement, offering free online language programs to patrons who want to learn English as a second language and a variety of other world languages.

Capital Area District Libraries serves Lansing and Ingham County and began offering Pronunciator in 2014. Scott Duimstra, CADL’s senior associate director, says it’s popular among patrons, with more than 2,300 user accounts and more than 10,000 logins.

“We had other language instruction databases, but Pronunciator offered more languages and the ability to select the language you speak, plus the language you would like to learn,” he says.

As CADL’s community outreach librarian, part of Jill Abood’s job is to show patrons how to use Pronunciator. It offers basic instruction in 80 languages, along with options for live, teacher-led conversation classes online, various learning guides, pronunciation analysis, quizzes, flashcards, review exercises and cultural and travel lessons which are popular with people planning a vacation abroad.

Typically, patrons access the lessons from home or another remote location.  

“This is much more self-directed,” Abood says. “It’s not a class and you don’t get grades. It’s really more language learning on your own.”

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist, veteran education reporter and professional writer who lives in West Michigan. Connect with her at or
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