No matter their reasons for signing up to learn a foreign language, people have more time this year to check this item off their bucket list of skills to acquire.
“Maybe they’ve always wanted to learn and they can’t do anything else right now,” said Erin White, program director of Keene Community Education’s adult enrichment classes. She’s referring to the pandemic that has left people with more time at home. It has led to her offering (for the first time) virtual language programs, which have had steady enrollment this year despite classes not being in-person. The Italian class offered this fall filled and another will be offered next session, which begins Jan. 20.
Not only has it created a safe and comfortable environment for students who are happy to not have to travel, the online setting has opened up opportunities for more teachers to sign on. Classes are 10 weeks long (about 20 to 25 hours) and consist of about 15 students, which is the maximum visible on a Zoom call. Zoom also has a feature that allows “breakout rooms” where students can be paired with each other to practice, in addition to working with the instructor and the entire class.
Along with Italian in the winter and spring sessions, Keene Continuing Ed offers beginner-level Spanish and intermediate Spanish and French.
For the first time, people who aren’t from the local area have been signing up for language classes. Because students are adult learners, they have ideas of what they’d like to accomplish in class.
“We adapt [teaching] to where each student is at and what they want to learn,” she said. “It’s based more on feedback.”
Before the pandemic, White saw a decrease in the number of students signing up for language classes.
“People were less willing to give up their time at home and they were so busy,” she said. “We still have a vital program, it’s just not what it was 15 to 20 years ago because people’s schedules are so demanding.”
Typically, enrollment has been focused on travel — people who are taking trips in the coming year wanting to learn the native language.
“That’s not the case right now,” White said, because of the pandemic. “Now it’s just about conversation.”
Elissa McLean is the founder of Brattleboro-based Express Fluency, which offers classes in Spanish, French, Latin, Mandarin and a new offering: Russian.
Like Keene Continuing Ed, Express Fluency went all-virtual with its classes this year as a result of the pandemic.
“Our demographics changed,” McLean said. “We used to have students only from surrounding areas. Now they are from all over the U.S. and even from other countries. It opened up a whole different world.”
Like White, McLean has hired more teachers — this fall’s Russian class instructor lives in Alaska and a new French teacher in Portugal.
Another aspect of virtual class that is particularly beneficial when learning a foreign language, she added, is that students can do so without having to wear a mask, so instructors can see their pronunciation.
According to McLean, in non-pandemic years, her students have taken her classes because they have a family member or co-worker who speaks a foreign language and they’d like to be able to communicate with them, or maybe they need to learn a language for work.
Express Fluency classes are 10 weeks, and range from 10 to 20 students with beginner, advanced-beginner and intermediate levels. Sessions run from mid-January through early-April; mid-April through mid-June; and in the summer, McLean runs a teacher training program. She’ll be adding an additional virtual French class in January so there will be two beginner sections: one will be a day class and one at night.
McLean describes Express Fluency on her website as “a new kind of language class” because the preferred teaching (and learning) method is not by memorization.
“To provide enough repetition so it sticks, it has to be really interesting,” she said. “We do this through stories. Students help create stories in class through language. It’s an engaging way to make the language take hold. It’s acquiring as opposed to learning. Acquiring is when you open your mouth and not have to think about it. It happens in a more organic way.”
There is one more benefit for McLean leading virtual classes: she gets to see students in their homes.
“It’s so interactive — I even get to meet their pets,” she said. “The goal is to create a relaxed environment so students will understand everything before they start to speak.”
For more information about Keene Community Education’s adult enrichment language classes, visit Keenecommunityed.org; and for more information about Express Fluency’s foreign language classes, visit expressfluency.com. Express Fluency is offering a free online Spanish class session Jan. 4; to sign up, visit eventbrite.com/e/free-online-spanish-class-tickets-132995088891.