It’s impossible to deny that technology has ushered in a plethora of language-learning options that learners can access from the comfort of their own homes. Many of these options come in the form of apps that gamify learning and provide a framework for learners to absorb their target languages in easily digestible pieces. These apps can be extremely helpful when working with popular languages such as French, Spanish, or Italian, but have not fared so well when working with Asian languages. In many instances, apps fail to provide learners with appropriate grammar rules for them to grasp concepts such as sentence building and instead function more like glorified phrase books. The most notable aspect missing from this form of learning is the human connection. With online tutoring, students receive direct instruction on phonology, grammar, and conversation.
People choose to learn languages for many reasons: to connect to heritage, to learn more about a culture, and for professional development, to name a few. One of my favorite reasons to learn a new language, however, is for travel. As an avid traveler, I often desire to be able to communicate at least at a very basic conversational level in the target language of the country I am visiting. Traveler learners, like me, are often left to choose between clunky self-guided textbooks and phrasebooks or sleek apps. However, undertaking a target language that requires more nuance—for instance, a tonal language—requires more attention to detail. Over the past month, I have been taking online Flexi Classes to learn one such language: Vietnamese.
Flexi Classes offers instruction in ten languages: Simplified and Traditional Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese Hokkien, Russian, and Italian. With the exception of Italian, all of these languages are notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn, and especially in the instance of languages such as Vietnamese, language-learning resources are few and far between.
Further, a wide majority of resources only offer Vietnamese in the northern dialect, which varies in phonology and vocabulary from the southern dialect. I was able to access instruction in the southern dialect with native southern-dialect Vietnamese speakers—something that is virtually nonexistent elsewhere. In many Asian languages, there remains a lack of quality instruction and organized curriculum available.
A major hurdle that learners of Vietnamese face is pronunciation. Many travelers will pick up a guidebook, learn a few phrases, and attempt to order some phở or a bánh mì only to be faced with a very confused-looking Vietnamese worker.
This is because the pronunciation of tones, consonants, vowels, starting consonants, diphthongs, triphthongs, and ending consonants all make a huge difference in how words are pronounced and therefore understood. Unlike a language that one can more or less jump into with some basic pronunciation concepts, languages such as Vietnamese and Mandarin require a nuanced and complicated understanding of pronunciation before one can begin to have even the most basic conversations. I therefore decided to start my Vietnamese journey there, in the thicket of phonology, in order to approach reading, grammar, and vocabulary with a relatively greater sense of ease. For this reason, it was imperative to have face-to-face classes on a platform such as Flexi Classes to get pointed instruction and feedback on these specific and precise aspects of the language.
Each Flexi Class broke down these individual topics, and while they were technically group classes with a possibility of up to four students, I was often the only student in each virtual class. Students have the option to either follow specific tracks with specific teachers or to choose individual classes based on topic. As a creative director myself, I have a keen eye for design and user experience, and I was impressed by the sign-up interface for classes. There are options throughout the day and night, giving learners in any time zone access to classes at a time convenient to them—I typically sprung for evening classes, which was morning time in Vietnam. Each class came with a downloadable PDF and audio file, which I could access before the class to prepare, with new words, sentence structures, dialogues, and roleplays, along with slang and local flavor. The classes are one hour long each, which I found to be the perfect length before getting the dreaded language-learning-induced brain fog. The well-instructed classes are organized and structured, which offered me a relaxed, laid-back approach in which I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to learn and instead could focus on what I was learning. Students can study anywhere, any time, and have complete flexibility to cancel, re-book, and change classes.
According to a report by Technavio, the global online language-learning market size is estimated to increase by $29.96 billion from 2021 to 2026. However, the offerings are typically fragmented and leave students to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of curriculum organization. The leading drivers of this online-learning explosion are cost benefits and flexibility of language choice. The necessary software and hardware are the minimum requirements for online language-learning programs. Other benefits include easy registration, flexibility of timing, customized learning materials, live chats and forums, immediate feedback on quizzes and tests, and self-paced learning. Thus, the low cost of online language learning, coupled with its benefits, will drive the growth of the global market.
However, this doesn’t come without its own challenges—namely the quality of instruction. Many online tutors lack qualifications and interesting learning materials, and self-learning options such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) fail to offer the direct feedback that is available in learning face to face (through a screen) in real time. Because my professors are native speakers from southern Vietnam—the region I am going to visit—they were able to offer unique local perspective and insight, as they are integrated into the culture that the language they teach belongs to. This helps avoid inaccuracies, biases, and missed nuances during instruction. The classes are also similar to in-person immersion classes I have previously taken, in that students are required to speak and interact with the professor and learning materials during the class. While challenging, this method of learning is much more effective than sitting silently and listening as instructors review materials. It also opened the classes up to questions and improvised learning.
Learning a target language before travel can provide lessons on the history and origins of the language and culture and help foster cultural sensitivity, global insight, and an inclusive community wherein students are more sensitive toward differences—and similarities—between themselves and the people they will be interacting with abroad. Flexi Classes provided language basics, skills and tools for comprehension, and an understanding of culture and history that will lay the foundation before my travel—and further language-learning journey—in Vietnam.
Leanna Robinson, Language Magazine’s creative director, will be working from Vietnam for the next few months. She will be keeping readers up to date with her progress on her vlog on our Instagram @langmag.