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Can Foreign Language Immersion Be Taught Effectively Online?

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Screenshot from Middlebury Interactive Languages' high school Chinese curriculum (Middlebury Interactive Languages)

Learning to speak a second language often starts with memorizing words and phrases like colors, numbers and salutations. Soon teachers introduce present-tense verbs and students work to build simple sentences like, “I go to the store.” In the classroom, students practice dialogue with one another and the teacher, hoping that by slowly adding conjugations and more vocabulary, they’ll be able to apply the language in real life.

Middlebury Interactive Languages is trying to flip that model on its head with an online program that expects a lot from beginners. Based in pedagogy developed at Middlebury College’s immersive summer language programs in collaboration with the technical expertise of K12 Inc., the program is trying to redefine how language has been taught for years both online and in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

One of the basic principles behind Middlebury’s pedagogy is that students must interact with authentic language as it is spoken in reality. To do this, course developers traveled all over the world filming real conversations between people in different countries speaking the language. For the Spanish curriculum, they might have conversations from Spain, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala and Argentina, demonstrating the various accents, dialects and cultures associated with the Spanish language.

Culture and language are inseparable in this model, which currently includes instruction in French, Spanish and Chinese.

The videos are the basis of all the activities in the online program. “It’s really taking what’s truly happening in an immersive situation,” said Aline Germain-Rutherford, chief academic officer of Middlebury Interactive Languages and linguistics professor at Middlebury College.

These real-world interactions are not simplified or slowed down for beginner language learners. Germain-Rutherford says initially teachers often push back against the Middlebury curriculum, arguing students must learn basic building blocks of language before they can be exposed to more complicated, authentic forms of speaking. Middlebury’s program takes the opposite approach.


“We present the language first, and then help the student to develop learning strategies and reading and listening skills to identify key words and make sense of it,” Germain-Rutherford said. Using immersion as the point of departure, the program’s activities scaffold strategies to find meaning. And often learners have more skills to unravel language than teachers give them credit for -- after all, they learned their primary language without any trouble.

“We forget all the prior knowledge of the learner, all the skills we have in our first language,” Germain-Rutherford said. “We need to remember that there’s a lot of resemblance between families of languages. And when we are new to a language, we rely a lot on the resemblances. We don’t need to understand every single word in order to make sense of a situation.”

Teachers often think of students beginning a new language as empty vessels that need to be slowly and carefully filled with words and structures, Germain-Rutherford said. But that’s not how people learn, and there are a lot of contextual clues in a video that can help learners decipher a conversation and begin to make meaning for themselves.

At level one, the Middlebury curriculum has students watch a conversation between native speakers with the sound off the first time. Students are prompted to hypothesize about the conversation based on body language and other locational clues. “We activate the normal skills that anybody has in a new situation,” Germain-Rutherford said, “We really try to use everything we know in context to make sense [of the language].”

While the videos are never simplified or artificial, the tasks asked of students are level-appropriate. Beginners might be asked to count how many times they hear a certain word or to answer whether they think a speaker is angry or not. The tasks become progressively harder as the learner moves through the course, but the base material always features native speakers engaged in authentic conversations.


“We learn not just by receiving something, but by doing something with it,” Germain-Rutherford said. “So a lot of our activities are task-based.” The program tries to simulate project-based learning, which research shows both helps students internalize what they’ve learned and gets them thinking about themselves as learners.

A student might be asked to create an itinerary for a monthlong group visit to a country where the target language is spoken. Students must research the country on websites using that language to learn about its transportation, tourist attractions, lodging and food. Just as they would when researching in English, students have to make choices about what information is both useful and reliable.

“We have at different moments self-assessment rubrics or self-reflective rubrics, where students look at what they’ve done,” Germain-Rutherford said. These activities are intended to prompt students to think about strengths and weaknesses and find strategies to fill in gaps.

“The more a student is apt to monitor his learning, the more engaged he is,” she said. It’s also important to help online learners become autonomous and self-directed, as they don’t have the structure of a physical class to keep them on track.

One of the most difficult parts of a language class to transfer online is practice speaking. Germain-Rutherford says there’s really no substitute for engaging in real conversations with other people, which is one of the reasons she is fond of the districts that are using the Middlebury curriculum in blended learning classrooms. Still, the program tries to give students speaking practice with exercises that require students to record themselves and submit audio to their online instructor. The teacher can then send written or oral feedback on those audio clips.

Grammar can be a tedious part of learning a second language for many students, but Germain-Rutherford says she and the other course designers have done their best to embed grammar in interesting ways that require critical thinking, not just rote memorization. For example, the program might present a student with a transcript of a conversation with some parts highlighted. The student is asked to identify patterns in the highlighted text and make a hypothesis about a grammar rule. The program then serves up practice activities to test that hypothesis, which are immediately graded. After the student has had this chance to engage with the material, the program offers the actual grammar rule and asks the student to complete practice activities to solidify the rule. Finally, the student is asked to use the rule in relation to the authentic text or video.

The elementary school curriculum consists of animated fairy tales from target language countries.
The elementary school curriculum consists of animated fairy tales from target language countries. (Courtesy Middlebury Interactive Languages)

“It is quickly put back into the reality of the context, so we never look at the language as just a combination of structures and words,” Germain-Rutherford said. “It’s a way of engaging the reasoning of the students. If it’s just receiving the explanation of the rule, the retention won’t be as great as if we have been participating in making that rule.”

She is adamant that if a student hasn’t helped create an understanding of the language or made something with it, then they haven’t learned it.


Baltimore County Public Schools are using Middlebury Interactive Languages to pilot a Spanish-language program in fourth and fifth grade. The district is making a big push to graduate students proficient in a second language by the end of high school, so they are starting language instruction earlier. As a brand-new program in just 10 pilot schools, the curriculum has been developed in tandem with Middlebury’s online content, so that two teachers can move between the 10 schools supporting students who are doing much of their learning online.

“Middlebury did the best job at providing opportunities for students to speak,” said Brian Schiffer, director of social studies, fine arts and world languages for the district. “Teachers can go in and hear them as they’re recording words.” The elementary school curriculum, which is new to Middlebury’s portfolio this year, is based on fairy tales from target-language countries. The stories are animated, but the speakers are still native. Schiffer said he and his colleagues like the fact that the program is both a cultural and lingual immersion.

In Baltimore’s blended model, students complete the Middlebury curriculum in the computer lab with another teacher there to help with any technical problems. When the language teacher is present one day a week, the focus is on speaking with one another and group work.

While Middlebury’s program was developed to stand alone, the company has found that increasingly districts are choosing to use the curriculum in a blended environment. “Some activities are best when you do them in class, in groups, and the teacher can go from one to another and guide the students,” Germain-Rutherford said. “However, there are other learning moments when you can individually work on it and go deep on it either in class or at home.”

Middlebury also contracted Johns Hopkins researchers to conduct a third-party evaluation of the program's effectiveness, which was published in 2013. Overall, the Johns Hopkins team found that students and teachers liked the program, felt it aligned with curriculum standards and provided an engaging way to develop language competency, although it's worth noting the study was limited, based on interviews at one Kentucky school.


Language teachers use Middlebury’s pedagogy for its engaging videos, opportunities to practice speech and immersive qualities. But some are less enamored of the technology itself. Jason Noble, a high school Spanish teacher, has been using Middlebury for three years, first through a partnership with Christian Schools International, where he was an online teacher, and now through Iowa Learning Online, the state-supported online learning platform. He has been complaining about a glitch when students submit assignments to the program that are supposed to be auto-graded and added to the grade book, but instead disappear. It happens only to a few students and is easy for a teacher to miss.

“You don’t know that something didn’t get submitted until a student emails you and says it’s not showing up in the gradebook -- if the student is conscientious enough to do that,” Noble said. He complained that Middlebury’s customer support has been poor and the problem has persisted for three years.

Christian Schools International (CSI) ended up dropping Middlebury in part because of problems connecting their learning management system to the program. Teachers found grading difficult, and when Middlebury tried to improve that aspect, CSI lost some of the flexibility to change content that they liked about Middlebury in the first place, said Marita Damghani, a consultant to CSI. In the end, the consortium moved over to Sevenstar, an online learning company that had the Christian content they wanted, teachers and materials all rolled into one.

“I am concerned if they reached out with a phone call or a chat, and they weren't told the solution,” said Jane Swift, CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages. Over the past two years, she says, the company has been adding more and better qualified customer service people to try to address complaints like Noble’s. The company has also hired regional implementation leaders with education backgrounds that make school visits to identify and solve common issues.

The auto-grading problem that has so frustrated Noble is a loading issue, according to Swift. If a student clicks to another screen while an assignment is in the process of being submitted, it never gets saved. That processing time is a little longer than students expect because big audio files are bouncing between the school’s learning management system, like Blackboard or Moodle, back to Middlebury and then back to the school again. Swift says Middlebury is working to integrate more features like “the spinning wheel of death,” which gives students clues that if they move on they’ll lose their work.

“We’ve been monitoring our support statistics for the past two years and have seen significant improvement, both in the time it takes us to resolve a concern and being able to provide an acceptable resolution for a client,” Swift said. That’s come from a lot of hard work, and basic tech support for schools.

Most problems arise when the school's learning management system tries to integrate Middlebury’s platform. The company’s tech team has found that schools have different versions of software and very little technological support. While some problems originate at Middlebury, many are either a function of how the program is being used or slow Internet at the school sites. Middlebury’s program is bandwidth-intensive because of the video and audio elements, making it difficult for many schools to support it.

“In a perfect world, all schools in the U.S. would have perfect connectivity and modern hardware and software that could connect to ours,” said Reinhold Lange, senior director of digital strategy. “But what we have found more often than not is that there are problems downstream from our system.”

“If students and teachers are having challenges, we are going to be forefront in the industry to address those challenges,” Swift said.


She’s clear the mission of the company is to provide strong language pedagogy to students who might not otherwise have access. In today’s reality, that means providing a lot of tech support that could be more efficiently offered by school districts themselves.

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