By Jeffrey Nelson
Learning a language online is a relatively new concept. In the last 10 to 15 years, the internet and the online community have exploded. With current technology, it's possible to talk to someone in Singapore from the comfort of your home in Kansas. Due to technology like Skype, distance is no longer a factor in language learning.
When I was growing up, local language schools, tutors, and your regular language classes at school were probably the most effective language resources. There were, of course, books and home study courses but they still lacked one of the most important aspects of getting a language to fluency: human interaction. With Skype and other similar programs nowadays, you can get that one-on-one personal interaction via the internet anytime you want it. Through sites like Italki, Shared Talk, and other websites designed to connect language learners with language teachers (or other language learners) communication can flow as easily as if the person were seated next to you.
This new competition for traditional classroom or tutor setting begs the question: Is it easier to learn languages online or in person? There are a few pros and cons to each method which I will highlight below.
When looking to learn a new language, always think about what makes the most sense. The easiest language to learn may be Spanish if you live in California due to the high Hispanic population. It may be Japanese if you live in the Northwest United States. Either way, it's a good idea to have some exposure to the language outside of the official classes; whether online or offline.
When you learn a language online, you can converse with people all over the world. You may be able to speak German to someone living in Munich, or Japanese to a teacher in Tokyo. This opens up a lot of opportunity for varied conversations. It is easier to get exposure to several different types of speakers and accents as opposed to only your language teacher or tutor. This diversity greatly assists in overall comprehension.
Additionally, due to the currency exchange rates and cost of living, an American can pay relatively little if learning a language like Thai. American currency is worth a lot more than that of Thailand, so for as little as $5/hr you can get stellar language instruction whereas the same level in the United States may cost $20/hr. This works both ways; if learning German, you may be paying the higher rates as the Euro is worth slightly more than the dollar. However, it is possible to find a German speaker living in a country with a lower cost of living.
There is something about being there with a live person and learning that way. While it does have some drawbacks, the interaction in person is unmatched by technology. There is no lag, static, delays, interruptions, or problems with the picture. The sound is perfectly clear and you can learn from more body language, non-verbal clues, and many other things that just cannot be conveyed as well through the computer. You also have the additional benefit of forming a relationship with a single person over an extended period of time. Perhaps you could go to a movie, go on a bike ride, or do other interesting things while learning the language. Skype is fairly limiting in it's mobility, and in that respect, in-person language training with a tutor wins hands down.
Both in-person and online language training have their benefits and drawbacks. The best possible scenario is probably a mix of both plus some standardized language classes and self-study. Exposure is your friend in language learning. The more quality exposure you get, regardless of how you get it, the better off you will be in the long run.
Whatever you use as your bilingual definition, don't let anything stop you from getting there! Get online, find a personal tutor, set aside some money to pay them or do language exchanges to practice. Either way, the point is to do something.