Overcoming the challenges of virtual language instruction

Ginger Marcus, professor of the practice of Japanese language, explains how she and her students dealt with the difficulties of learning a language through online tools.

Ginger Marcus

Learning the Japanese language as a college student is difficult, even under normal circumstances. Mastering the language and the nuances of its cultural context during the COVID-19 pandemic, through remote learning, is especially challenging. But Ginger Marcus, professor of the practice of Japanese language, and her students met the task head on this past semester, devising methods to continue practicing the language and exploring its nuances through online tools.

Since on-campus classes were suspended, Marcus’ students have scattered not only across the country, but around the globe. Because synchronous learning is essential for many language courses, in which pronunciation and real-time verbal feedback are key, Marcus and her students have often met virtually at odd hours and under less than ideal circumstances.

“There's three classes a day in the first year of Japanese: at ten, at one, and at three. I surveyed my students to see if they wanted me to teach the 10 am class at 8 pm, but the results of the survey were, ‘No, let’s stick to class at ten, one, and three,’” she said. At least seven students have returned to China, where they continue to take Marcus’ course despite a time difference of up to 13 hours. For some of them, China’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for incoming travelers has forced them to participate from hotel rooms, where internet access is sometimes limited.

Marcus has also experienced challenges in adapting her pedagogical approach to the realities of remote learning. She uses a teaching strategy called “performed culture” to help students learn a new language. “I always tell the students that our classes are more like a drama class that you find in the performing arts department than your typical language class where you have to fill in worksheets or work closely with text,” she said. “With the performed culture approach, students throughout the entire 50-minute session are learning how to participate in Japanese culture by performing in both spoken and written Japanese based on the context. We as instructors create and manipulate context, and they have to alter their speech or their writing according to what the other person does or says, which is what communication is all about.”

In a typical on-campus class, Marcus might ask students to use physical props – to negotiate the borrowing of an item, for example, or to write something down – while a third student observes and describes the action taking place. Supplying students with a stream of input to process and respond to is essential for language acquisition, Marcus notes. To accomplish this, she uses familiar classroom tools. “We still try to teach the spoken skills in context, the way we would normally do in class, but I now use PowerPoint presentations to create the context,” she said. “Let's say we're pretending that John Smith is sick and he can't come to class. I have a visual of John being sick. And then I might say, ‘Oh, how come John's not coming to class today?’ and students respond according to the visual on the PowerPoint.”

There are also cultural norms expressed in the Japanese language itself which can dictate how one behaves, what one says, and when and how the body moves. “Body language is also part of the performance. This is what I mean about the performed culture approach – it’s a performance,” she said. Teaching body language and cultural norms through remote learning has been a challenge. “For instance, if you’re introducing yourself in Japanese, you don’t sit in your chair; you really have to stand up and do a little bow,” Marcus explained. “But to get the students to do that from their beds or their hotel rooms, I have not made them stand up when they would normally need to.”

Particularly troubling to Marcus are instances of inaccurate language use that can become habitual and therefore difficult to relearn. “We had to give up some of the attention to detail that we normally have in class, for instance, close monitoring of pronunciation,” she noted. “It takes so long to go back and forth on Zoom to correct someone's poor pronunciation, or even to make a small correction, that sometimes I'm less compelled than in a classroom setting to correct small mistakes. The problem with that is an error can become fossilized, so it’s a balancing act as an instructor between knowing when to intercede and when not to sacrifice the flow of the class.”

Some of Marcus’s students also faced technology challenges related to being far from campus and traveling home to other countries, such as needing to secure reliable internet connections. For some students, however, the move to remote learning has helped them feel more comfortable asking for help in class. “I normally do 50 minutes of teaching, but then I always allow time for questions after class. Now with this digital format, a lot of students open up more about their concerns. They feel freer, I think, to express the issues that they’re having – like ‘Why am I struggling with X?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ – when normally they would just leave the classroom.”

Occasionally, students also use this time to share their experiences, which Marcus welcomes. She senses that, for many students, these online classes are a welcome connection to each other and their normal routine, despite the often cumbersome format.

“Some of them are all by themselves in their dorm rooms; a lot of them are international students,” Marcus said. “I have a feeling that they like seeing each other and having the community again, even if it’s only online.”