Online vs. in-person language learning: Which works better?

Posted on January 8, 2024

I’ve been an English (and French) language teacher at various levels for about 15 years, and I have to admit that I used to think online learning wasn’t the real deal. Before the pandemic, I would have never entertained the notion that learning a language virtually could even compare to being in a real classroom. Nonetheless, COVID-19 forced most teachers to drastically change their way of delivering lessons in 2020. As a result, more and more digital tools came into the spotlight, and online education suddenly became a more viable option.

While 2020 was generally not considered the best year for online learning (or teaching), many people have since adjusted their mindset. They’ve realized that it’s a much more feasible and accessible option than they once thought and now refuse to go back to the way things were. There’s certainly a difference between being forced to take a class online because of a global pandemic and being given the choice to pick what suits you. Naturally, there are pros and cons to each method, so if you’re on the fence about which would work best for you, read on.

Learning in a classroom

There’s nothing quite like being in a room full of people determined to learn the same language as you. Live interaction with peers and teachers provides more opportunities for speaking, listening, and immediate feedback. Immediate feedback is most beneficial for improving one’s pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. In addition, having a structured, guided curriculum forces individuals to learn at a steady pace and improve gradually. Attending in-person classes regularly also creates a natural form of accountability that’s generally favourable to those who need the extra motivation to stay focused on their language targets.

Learning online

Conversely, some people are shy or uncomfortable being around a large group of people, especially after the onset of the pandemic. Introverts and those with social anxiety may prefer taking a language course online and learning from the comfort of their homes. Additionally, it isn’t always easy finding an in-person language class that fits one’s schedule. Night classes are a possibility for some but not the majority. Other reasons some people may not enjoy in-person classes include potentially high tuition costs, extensive commuting, and bad weather.

The most obvious perk of learning or strengthening a new language virtually is convenience and flexibility. Asynchronous lessons, which are often much more affordable than in-person ones, allow a person to study at their own pace and do not interfere with someone having a steady, full-time job. This also becomes a more suitable option for someone who may live far from an adequate school or somebody without access to a car or convenient public transportation. Since 2020, there has been a sharp rise in the number of quality digital platforms and tools. Moreover, many online courses lean on a global community, which potentially allows learners to communicate with native speakers around the world.

On the other hand, it’s easy to sign up for a free or low-cost online language course and never attend. Learning online typically requires more discipline than attending in person, as there’s likely nobody who takes attendance or even potentially knows what you look like. This is why having an accountability buddy often works to aid in continual participation. Furthermore, studies suggest that learning from home can be more difficult for some people, as the urge to eat, nap, or perform household chores are ever present.

In the end, the choice between learning a new language in person or online remains a very personal one. There are obviously many factors to consider, such as flexibility, convenience, and price. What’s more, hybrid methods of learning are emerging as the best of both worlds. What it comes down to is what you’re most comfortable doing consistently and which method will allow you to thrive. In my opinion, it would be wise to try each one at least once, in order to discover which works better for you!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal is an English teacher at LaSalle College in Montreal. She has a B.A. from Concordia University in Creative Writing and Spanish Literature, as well as a B.Ed. and M.Ed. from the University of Ottawa. She has worked as an English teacher in South Korea, England, and Canada. She recommends the Language Portal to all her students for its various grammar quizzes, as well as its clear explanations of the answers.




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Submitted by Desmond Fisher on January 8, 2024, at 16:51

Thanks for this well-balanced post on language learning. It's an important debate. Even before the pandemic, online tools and apps were available to learn a lot, but not everything. And feedback from a teacher or even just a listener is always critical.
Another comment I would make is that shyness or anxiety is not necessarily mitigated through remote classes. Learners need to break out of their comfort zone regardless of the setting.
Perhaps most importantly, learners need to find a way to maintain their skills once they have acquired them; almost everything we learn evaporates from our brains without regular use.

Submitted by Nadia Helal on January 23, 2024, at 11:39

Thanks for your comment Desmond! I agree with all your feedback. Shyness to speak is certainly a consideration when learning or perfecting a new language regardless of the setting. The more one finds opportunities to integrate with people speaking that language, the greater the chances that they will maintain their new skills.