By Sonja Burrows

We think of language learning as an in-person endeavor. At its most elemental level, what is language really about if not about me standing here – in person – talking and reaching out to you with my voice and the body attached to it? Language is about the words, yes, but it’s also about everything that goes along with them: my facial expression, the way I use my hands and arms when I speak, my posture, the earthy feeling of company that comes with a knowledge of my physical proximity. How can communication happen without those things? How can language be disembodied? How can we possibly learn a language without tangible, physical presence?

The short, messy answer in my opinion is that we sort of can. Because language – and especially language-learning – in addition to the fleshy elements outlined above, is also a cerebral process. It’s a process of making connections, putting together words and meaning, synthesizing new patterns and structures to create and express nuanced ideas with a different set of sounds and symbols. The process of learning a language is a very personal, internal journey. It can happen in the company of others, and it can happen in physical isolation.

And teaching a language – even in a live classroom setting – is truly nothing more than organizing serendipitous aha moments for students. Those instances when they suddenly, often inexplicably, get it. When something clicks, when they make a connection. Often when I plan a live language lesson, I realize that what I am doing is simply setting up personal discovery moments for learners – arranging content in such a way that people can unearth meaning for themselves. I want nothing more than for students to have their aha moment in my class – with guidance, of course, but as a language educator I truly believe that deep learning begins with the process of making it your own.

What do I mean when I say that language learning can sort of happen without physical presence? In essence, language learning is both cerebral and physical. People need to be able use language on-the-ground, communicating with others who are physically there. But people also need to use language in the digital environment, because the digital is of course a place where we all live, learn and interact every day. Language learning is as necessary, important, and effective in that space as it is in the live classroom. And the digital is an environment that naturally invites the cerebral aha moments that are fundamental to the language-learning process.

In sum, can the experience of making it your own happen only in a live classroom? Of course not. It’s great when it does, but discovery of this sort is not confined to the face-to-face environment only. You can make it your own anywhere, on-the-ground or online. You can have an aha moment all alone in your room, reading a textbook, staring at your phone, playing a game, listening to your teacher, talking to a friend. There is no limit to the places that can house your moments of discovery.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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