May 12, 2020

Online Language Classes Bring Cultural Immersion Home

At a time when remote class and work environments have made the outside world feel very distant for most, Georgetown’s online language classes have brought global experiences back into students’ daily lives. 

McNeill in Turkey during the summer of 2019.
McNeill in Turkey during the summer of 2019.

The intimacy of small classes coupled with regular meetings has given students an outlet to connect with peers and professors while focusing on future goals and travels. For Christine McNeill (SFS’20), a recent recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching Award, her Turkish class is a reminder of all that lays ahead. 

“Language, though, reminds me that the world will return to normal. One day, I will be back in Turkey speaking Turkish, [and] not trying to over Zoom. Additionally, language gives me something to look forward to. I plan to move to Turkey as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant this coming year, and it motivates me to continue studying the language and to remain engaged,” McNeill shared. 

Peter Remsen (SFS’20) has also drawn inspiration from his Persian class, which he said has felt surprisingly similar to in-person instruction, thanks to the class’s small size and discussion-based style. 

“I'm in a few seminar classes, and it's nice to chat with my peers — even if it's in broken Persian and revolves around hypothetical basic directions in Tehran. The cultural aspect of the course, reviewing foreign cities and foods, has also given me some inspiration to cook more adventurous (i.e. Persian) meals during quarantine,” Remsen said. 

While students and professors alike have lamented the distinct challenges of online classes—like poor audio quality and awkward pauses in discussion—Russian professor Elena Boudovskaia has found ways to use the online platform to her advantage. In previous courses Boudovskaia has often invited guest speakers from Moscow to engage with her upper-level Russian students; however, this semester she was able to hold two joint virtual language sessions between her class and students from Moscow's Higher School of Economics. The sessions allowed Georgetown students studying Russian to engage with native speakers of the language, with each group exchanging questions and learning about the other. According to Boudovskaia, both groups of students valued the opportunity to participate in such a meaningful cultural exchange.

Remsen in his Persian class via Zoom.
Remsen in his Persian class via Zoom.

“Both Russian and American students hoped such exchanges could become a regular part of the learning process, and I am thinking of how to incorporate such joined sessions on a regular basis into next semester's plan for RUSS 397, whether it happens in the classroom or online,” Boudovskaia shared.

Remsen agreed that the challenges of online language learning can often be mitigated through creativity and effort.

“Conversations are a little harder, but with the class as small as it is, it's manageable. I think there's a real future in online language learning, so long as professors devote equivalent amounts of time to course design and office hours as they would for in-person classes,” he added.

A strong sense of community—perhaps the most valued aspect of Georgetown’s language instruction—has remained intact. According to McNeill, the unique relationship she shares with her classmates and instructors has been instrumental to her success in learning Turkish. 

“The Turkish department is really small - almost half of the people in my class have been in the same class since I was a sophomore. It is hard not to feel connected to them, and to our professors,” McNeill added. “Shoutout to Sylvia hanim, Candan hanim, and Zeynep hanim, for being strong, independent female professors. I could not have grown such an affection for the language without their constant encouragement, patience, and dedication.”