Teacher-led language training Vs. self-paced

In this article, BiCortex asks experts in language training from across the globe to give us their opinion; when is comes to self-paced versus teacher-led language training what are the factors that students need to consider?

Do you think that an off-the-shelf language platform can fit the learning needs of all students?

The answer is of course no. A phase containing “…can fit the learning needs of all students” cannot be true, and therefore it damages whatever follows.

Generic platforms are fine to start dipping your toe in the water. However if you’re serious about learning a foreign language you need to think carefully.

This is especially true once you get past an elementary level as there isn’t a single solution or one size fits all option.

It’s a variety you need, language learning with depth and breadth. Students’ need to combine self-learning platforms and teacher-led language training. They can include movies, graded readers, exposure to everyday conversation with native speaker or more ideally, all of these.

To put it simply, self-paced-off-the-shelf platforms require a lot of student discipline. You will need motivation, determination and accountability, which not everybody has.

Off-the-shelf platforms often lack content to reach an advanced language level. The reason being languages are bigger than most people realise or what most platforms can successfully deliver.

Languages are multi-faceted

They also don’t provide a practice environment, especially for speaking and listening. Sadly, knowing vocabulary does not equal being able to speak a language. Nor does vocabulary perfect your speaking or allow you to understand natives who may talk super-fast, chaotically, or perhaps with a regional accent. Languages are multi-faceted and so too should be your learning.

Self-learning platforms are really good at giving you a basis on which to get started. You can practice repetition and memory recall and grow your vocabulary.

Moreover, they’re a fantastic support when you are already learning with a teacher. I personally use them myself to gain new words and phrases and reinforce grammar knowledge. They teach me new things which I can instantly use with native speakers of my target language (Mandarin).

Jaap Grolleman studies & works at GoEast Mandarin, an online teacher-led language training (Chinese) school based in Shanghai. 

teacher-led language training class

Do you think that improving speaking or listening can still be achieved with self-paced solutions?

To kick things off, there is no silver bullet when it comes to language learning; but there is one secret weapon you will need which is a great teacher. Your teacher will identify your learning style and needs and hand you the best plan. They will also provide adequate corrective feedback and emotional support to keep going when you don’t feel like it. Everyone needs a personal secret weapon and finding the right teacher for you is just that.

You can improve your listening skills on your own by listening to audiobooks, podcasts, tutorials and even TEDTalks. It will take time and effort to find something suitable for your level and needs, but it is a worthy investment. Try to find something that you are interested in; that way you are actively engaged with the content whilst listening to the language. This type of listening activity will give you that extra training that your ears need to recognise the new language.

To improve speaking skills, you need to speak. Crazy, right? It isn’t easy to find a conversation partner; especially someone who’ll help you grow your language skills. They need to be patient with you when you struggle to express your thoughts, whilst not making you feel uncomfortable when they correct your errors. That’s why a great trainer is necessary for teacher-led language training.

Do you listen to yourself?

Something you can do to improve your speaking skills is to read text out loud. Building muscle memory, whilst getting you accustomed to using the language verbally is key. People generally think they sound horrible when they speak a foreign language – NO! They just don’t sound like they do in their native language. Reading out loud and maybe even recording it (!) will help you get used to your voice in a foreign language. Over time you’ll start to correct your mistakes intuitively.

Don’t just think children’s books, instead, read articles, blog posts, tutorials or even recipes. Practice talking about things you want to talk to other people about, so when the time comes to have a conversation you are ready. Importantly, if you don’t understand something you are hearing or speaking, look it up, or ask your teacher in your next lesson.

Ivan Manev – Founder and CEO at Worddio

Is bigger better? Some platforms teach one language and others teach multiple languages. Do you think that the quality and content of all the languages is equivalent?

There is a shared idea behind all online tutoring platforms, which is to provide tutoring service at your doorstep. Each platform has it’s own USP (unique selling point). Some platforms decide to focus on one specific customer need e.g. vocabulary, whilst others prefer to allow their users to find, in a single solution, the answers to most of their needs.

The substantial difference between the two approaches is undoubtedly in the amount of work planning required to be done by the development team. In the case of the step by step language learning, the development team needs to have in-depth preparation, knowledge, and of course, delivery. They need to be competent when reviewing, checking, and approving the quality and the qualification of the teachers. Simple vocabulary building tools are much easier to develop and maintain.

Nevertheless, the quality on depends entirely on the seriousness, commitment, and professionalism of the founder, the teams behind each platform, and on the overall vision. There are excellent examples of small and large, focused and broad – the key is finding the right tool for the specific student.

Yasmin Fariello Peer | CEO Easylore

It is clear that virtual teacher-led language training has increased since COVID-19. What about self-paced solutions? What’s the future of face-to-face versus virtual training versus self-paced?

Virtual training of all types have certainly increased since the beginning of the pandemic. It remains to be seen if this is a long-lasting trend or if this was a temporary response to an unprecedented situation. Although face-to-face classrooms suffered an exodus during the Covid-19 pandemic, face-to-face teaching is slowly but steadily recovering.

It is certainly unlikely that in-person teaching will disappear, and certainly it will not happen in the near future. The reason is simply that, at least as for foreign languages. The ultimate aim is to socialise and network with other human beings and that means person to person interaction.

The key here is not to think in terms of virtual versus face-to-face; both need to combine together in harmony.  Combining face-to-face with virtual training will be for sure the strongest trend in the coming years. But it’s mixing learning that is new, already back in the 90’s, we all adopted the term “blended learning”. It already meant the combination of one-line and in-person learning. The only difference is the development of digital tools that were not available in the 90’s.

Currently, Self-paced is gaining space. But what is self-paced in the end? Somehow, self-paced simply consists of a smart combination of face-to-face, virtual lessons, language apps and other resources. Why smart? Well, to make the most of self-paced platforms, the learner must understand that foreign languages cannot be learnt without authentic human interaction. 

Frederic Parrilla – Marketing Manager at Clic

Why students choose the language training delivery method to be face-to-face, virtual with a live trainer or a self-paced solution? Is it mainly based on budget? Or is it based on the most appropriate method for each student?

Given the necessary time, transportation, and money, I think most people would prefer in-person language training because face-to-face contact makes open communication more convenient and varied. Most people love that personal touch.

However, distance or virtual education shouldn’t be discounted as less effective. Studies have found no clear disadvantage in terms of educational outcomes with virtual vs. in-person study. In fact, in some disciplines, distance learning students actually perform better than in-person students.

When done well, virtual language learning can have a number of advantages over in-person learning. Virtual language learning often allows for flexible scheduling. For example, busy expats can do their language study at 10 p.m. after putting the babies to bed, or they can do it at 5 a.m. with the aroma of coffee at their elbow. 

Virtual language learning can also incorporate gamification. Making learning achievements into items you collect or levels you can beat makes learning addictive. 

Further, virtual learning can be cheaper, but one shouldn’t go for the bottom of the barrel on cost. The end goal is language proficiency, so the learner should be willing to invest in the solution that will help them achieve that proficiency regardless of whether that is an in-person or a virtual learning option.

Darren Jansen, Marketing Manager from IVANNOVATION

What would be the minimum age for children to use a self-paced tool? What about for virtual lessons with a teacher? And what would be the best way to help children to learn a language?

In my opinion young learners should be at least 12 years when being introduced to self-learning tools.
In the case of digital tools (there are also analog tools), it is of course important to individually know how the child’s family generally handles digital media and electronic devices.

Virtual lessons with a teacher can start much earlier, around elementary school age. Short units are particularly important here.

Children generally learn very well when movement is integrated. Music can also be an important tool.

In addition, objects also enrich the learning experience. Engaging all senses is the goal here.

Visual, auditory, and haptic/motoric learning should be the focus to child-centered language instruction.

Farid Feriduni, Academic Director at Dialoge – Bodensee Sprachschule

Do you think that a blended approach (self-paced + teacher-led language training) will grow within the next few years?

The number of students utilizing a blended approach to language learning that includes a mix of self-paced platforms and virtual classes with live teachers is likely to grow over the next few years thanks to the complementary nature of these two approaches.

Recent technological advances have led to an explosion of new self-paced platforms that offer innovative ways to learn an ever-growing array of languages online. At the same time, live online classes have become more convenient, affordable and accessible than ever.

While it’s possible to learn using either method, both have drawbacks if used alone. When combined, however, they complement each other and help compensate for each other’s shortcomings. 

Studying with a live teacher is the most traditional language learning method. However, students who use this method exclusively often find themselves wanting opportunities to practice that go beyond the resources their teachers provide.

Since many self-paced platforms take a gamified approach to language learning, they present an enjoyable, engaging and interactive way to reinforce the skills students learn in class. This makes them attractive to students looking for additional language practice. Increasing numbers of teachers have also begun recognizing the pedagogical value of self-paced platforms and recommending them to students as supplementary materials. 

Drawbacks of self-paced learning

On the flip side, students who initially make exclusive use of self-paced digital platforms often have trouble staying motivated. They generally suffer from a lack of speaking practice and may not know where to get their questions answered.

More and more of these students are realizing that supplementing their use of self-paced digital platforms with live virtual lessons improves their motivation and gives them more opportunities to ask questions and practice their skills.

As a result, it’s likely that increasing numbers of students will choose to combine these two complementary approaches moving forward.

Anne Meredith, Program Manager, The Chinese Language Institute

Teacher-led language training or self-paced. What solution would you recommend and why?

Both teacher-led language training classroom lessons and self-paced learning have their place in a comprehensive language program. They shouldn’t compete with each other, but compliment. Imagine how much faster and further a teacher could lead a class if everyone could speak and understand, even at a basic level.

Self-paced lessons like Pimsleur let the student have control of their learning, letting them proceed at their own pace and within their daily activities. Lessons can be done anywhere and at any time that’s convenient, on a phone, a tablet or a computer or from an Amazon-Echo device (Alexa). They can practice and progress during a commute or at the gym.

Learners can stop and start the audio, or repeat a lesson as many times as they wish. Some learners blow through the course in a few months, others take their time, and do the lessons more slowly or use them to enhance other learning with textbooks, in a classroom, or with a tutor.

With a self-paced program, they can choose to work on the things that matter to them. Maybe it’s perfecting their accent, or they want to learn more about the culture or the grammar.

Drawbacks of teacher-lead language training

A classroom gives learners the benefit of being able to ask questions and to interact directly with the teacher and other students, but the class happens at a certain time and for a specific duration each day or week.

The curriculum is determined by the teacher, not the student’s need or interest, and often because there is so much to cover, little time is spent on actually speaking.

We believe that learning to speak should be the first step in any language learning journey.  Once the sounds and the structures are embedded in long-term memory, then vocabulary acquisition can truly begin and learning blossoms.

Mary E. Green, Executive Editor, Pimsleur Language Programs, Simon & Schuster, Inc.  

Learning style: self-paced platforms versus teacher-lead language training

For self-paced platforms like language learning apps, Duolingo or Rosetta to name a few, the users are in complete control of their learning environment (speed, timing, area of learning, etc.) which can encourage more learning because they will feel relaxed. However, this style of learning means that the learners HAVE to understand their learning habits and styles (what works and doesn’t work for them) and be able to encourage themselves to keep on learning without quitting.

In other words, this type of learning fits better with veteran learners and/or disciplined people, otherwise, the learning can fall apart quickly due to the learner feeling they’re stumbling around by themselves in the dark without anyone to urge them on.

Virtual classes to babysit students

Virtual classes with a live teacher are suitable for those who have little or no experience in learning and in need of guidance, be it regarding the subject of learning or the metaknowledge of how learning in itself works. They will essentially have someone to ‘babysit’ them, leading every step of the way which can be a great comfort for rookie learners.

On top of that, should they ever feel disheartened or lost they will have someone to help support them through the rough times too. The downside of that however is that this tends to be more costly as it involves hiring a real human being to help you. Besides, as opposed to an automated system on self-paced platforms which tend to be tried, tested, standardised, and proven to work (at least to some degree), when you sign up for a virtual class with a real teacher, the consistency of their teaching quality can vary and there is no guarantee they can always deliver, as humans are much more likely to err than machines.

Mr. Arthit Juyaso, principal at DUKE LANGUAGE SCHOOL

Do you think that corporations are moving to self-paced platforms from traditional in-company teacher-led language training? Why?

It is obvious that new technologies have become a powerful tool for language learning. However, we consider self-paced platforms to be more of a complement rather than a substitute for traditional teacher-led language training.

Learning a language with a teacher is always preferable as you receive additional inputs beyond the usual vocabulary and grammar structures. A self-paced platform has a limited amount of information; once you are done there is no more to learn. Moreover, it is important to have someone to guide you when you have doubts.

Combination of self-paced and teacher-led is better

We believe that the combination of both systems would be particularly effective. The user would have the best of both worlds. On the one hand the advantages of a face-to-face class and on the other hand, the possibility of extra practice at home.

All in all, corporations may eventually move to self-paced platforms, basically because they will take into account the economic factor, as self-learning is usually less expensive than the traditional teacher-led one.

Núria Carreras Pedret, Head of the Contents Development Department – www.lewolang.com

Which way is better FOR YOU to learn a language? Self-paced, online with a live trainer or face-to-face?

Research by The Sutton Trust in the UK in 2019 found that 1 in 4 students had a tutor, and that number will only have risen during the pandemic. Off the back of research within our tutoring community, we found that, while English and Maths tutoring dominated the market, languages tutoring came in as the third most popular subject for tuition.
This means that a large amount of language tuition is taking place. This demonstrates the utility of learning languages in partnership with an educator.
The essence of learning a language is mastering the spoken word and this can only be achieved effectively in dialogue with another individual. As such, while hiring a tutor or studying online with a live trainer may be expensive, it will certainly enrich your learning. I never learnt with a tutor alongside me but was still able to learn French as a second language to the point where I was a fluent speaker, and Spanish to a conversational level. But this was largely down to live, face-to-face interaction with native speakers.

Blended language training works better

So a combined self-paced and face-to-face approach worked well. And I would find it hard to say that any one single approach could ever work effectively. Learning by yourself in your own time is how we pick up the background structure and continuous self-study is key to reinforcing vocabulary. Of course, if you are struggling, then hiring the services of a friendly tutor will work wonders (or should do if they’re a good, qualified tutor) but this isn’t necessary for all.
The face-to-face work is crucial to developing a natural feel and understanding of the culture and sound of the language in real time; that is, the essence of learning a language. The necessary frequency that comes with this stage means that a tutor will almost always be too expensive. And in any case, you wouldn’t want to tackle this stage with just one single other person. The beauty of learning and speaking face-to-face is that you meet many other individuals, picking up on their unique styles and idiosyncrasies, constantly building your own style.
So, what to do with this? Understand that both self-paced and face-to-face for effective language learning. Learning online with a tutor is a very popular and valuable model for language learning, but should be turned to only after you have exhausted the two former options … or if your tutor is your next door neighbour working for free!
Ludo Millar, CCO of Qualified Tutor | Leaders in tutor training