Language Learning in Anonymity - A Digital Dilemma
TennesseeBob Peckham

Are students drawn to the anonymity and independence of online experiences? Before we answer, we need to mention a fundamental human reaction to language learning in a public space: foreign-language anxiety, with fears of public errors, disapproval of teachers, ridicule of  peers, especially in aural/oral activities. The consequential mental blocks, short-term memory lapses, as well as avoidance and passivity strategies to deal with our fears. All of these may inhibit our ability to actually learn a language in the public space of a classroom. It is also, as research testifies, an important factor inhibiting people from learning a foreign language

Americans are flooded with an abundance of the very devices which facilitate anonymous, independent, and very mobile learning. 45% of us have tablet computers, and 68% have smartphones, according to

Technology Device Ownership: 2015 (Pew Research, 8/29/15)

In 2013, 84% of American adults were internet users, mostly wireless:

Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015 (Pew Research, 6/26/15)

Pew research, in analyzing the ways in which we are now life-long learners, finds that a quarter of all Americans have had online instruction about something that interests the, and 16% have taken full online courses.

Lifelong Learning and Technology (Pew Research 1/22/16)

Each year, thousands of foreign language courses are offered online for free and for a fee We know that by 2012, 25.8% of all students in title IV institutions were taking some or all of their credit courses online (13.3%/12.5%).

Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State, Fall 2012 (DOE, June 2014)

After the MLA survey, there has been considerable growth in online foreign-language course offerings. Looking at French alone as an example, we can see the emergence of whole programs (including B.A., .A.A, M.A., M.Ed.) online:

Armstrong State Univsity 
Valdosta State University
College of Coastal Georgia
Clayton State University
Oregon State University
Gloucester County College
Athabasca University (Canada)
University of Wisconsin - Madison (32 hours)
Front Range Community College  (A.A. in French)
Univ. of Louisiana, Monroe - B.A. in Modern Languages with a concentration in French
Fox Valley Technical College (1st, 2nd yrs + advanced conversation)
University of New Orleans (Master’s Degree in Romance Languages)
Auburn University - online M.Ed. in Foreign Language Education: French

I have a list containing at least 50 additional programs, mainly for other languages (German, Arabic, Spanish, Latin, etc.)

Until recently, an online foreign language course was unthinkable, and what existed was highly discouraged, but the number of good courses and students enrolled in them has increased dramatically with digital and mobile technologies, including video-based VoIP, the gamification of foreign-language learning activities, compensating for the increasingly crowded schedules of working students. While the MLA does not mention online course enrollment, they recorded it whenever the record was offered. One might well ask if these were all offered for report. What about students who took "independent study", a-synchronous courses, courses to be transferred from one institution to another, courses attached to a state system rather than a single institution, transferrable courses taken but not actually transferred within the survey period?  Currently, there is a surprising growth of whole online foreign-language degrees. A significant number of innovations in digital communications have occurred since the year 2000, with the development of mobile-specific learning strategies, beginning with podcasts, and becoming highly prolific sometime after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. This is part of the explanation for a rapid recent expansion of online learning, which parallels a growth in independent or autonomous learning.

We may have more students studying a foreign language in college than we can accurately survey if we count those who have chosen to study on their own. Now autonomous learning is as old as informational resources, but what would motor such a giant step away from the classroom and the presumably adaptive instruction of an observant teacher? Technology is a large part of the answer. Even standard classroom-taught foreign language classes make extensive use of digital technologies, MALL (mobile-assisted language learning), in some cases flipping the classroom, where concepts are introduced digitally. Students are nearly all digital natives, having grown up with computers, iPods, cellphones and smartphones. There is an increase in non-credit and independent-learning foreign-language courses offered by universities, some of them intensive or immersion. The digital component of their learning is already adaptive, sometimes more so than a teacher would make it for the classroom.

Attention given to level-appropriate and comprehensive input for digital audio and video, adaptive digital pedagogy, mobile apps, text-to-speech apps, communicative formats like Skype (finding partners and coaches through free online services), Face-time, Google+, and the availability of both digital and independent standard multi-language assessment tools (SOPI, COPI, LTI, TELC, STAMP, ACTFL OPI), as well as language-specific tests (TFI, DELE, JLPT) , have turned the tide for independent foreign language learning by motivated individuals. Non traditional students, raising kids, frequently working full time may well understand the value of learning a foreign language, but they may see its value in real-world results, rather than in grades and credits, and with the right equipment, might be willing to study it on their own if they thought could reach a measurable proficiency to show or demonstrate to an employer. What about students who find the language they were learning in K-12 is not taught at their university, and there are no language requirements for graduation. A student like this may well continue as an independent learner. A number of universities even have centers for independent language learners. Even without this, there is abundant software, like Rosetta Stone and Fluenz.  There are special web sites for the independent learner, like Livemocha, Babbel, BBC Languages, Italki, Pimsleur and Transparent Language. According to to Peter Bol (Harvard) keynote at Foreign Language Education and Technology Conference 2015, Duolinguo a popular independent learning site for foreign languages had reached the 100 million accesses mark in July of 2015. There can be little doubt that independent learning is at least a  part of the drop in college foreign-language enrollment noted in the latest MLA survey report.  It should be noted that there is no good way to estimate the number, and that success is a long way from guaranteed in independent learning, as the following study by Katherin B. Nielson indicates:

Nielson, Katherine B. "Self-Study with Language Learning Software in the Workplace. What Happens?" (Language Learning & Technology 15, no. 3, October 2011)

and an investigative article by Holly Young in The Guardian

Young, Holly. "Myth: young people have abandoned language learning (The Guardian 2/11/15)

The latest witness to whole online programs in French comes from

Les Cours en ligne sont-ils l'avenir des départements de français (France-Amérique 16.3.17)

This trend is bound to grow, because it deals with two major problems not adequately addressed by traditional classroom programs: xenoglossophobia (foreign-language anxiety), and the scheduling problems of  non-traditional students. In the meanwhile, our need foreign-language-proficient employees in the workforce will continue to grow. This is likely to be more pronounced with college students than with younger students, because adults seem to be more successful online.

Robert D. Peckham, PhD
Director, Globe-Gate Research
University of Tennessee at Martin
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