Middlebury Interactive Languages Goes Online


Middlebury Interactive Languages and K12 Inc. are collaborating to make it easier and more efficient for K-12 students to learn a foreign language through immersive online and traditional learning that combines cultural and language learning.

The Middlebury approach is currently provided for courses in Spanish, Chinese and French, which are largely video-based featuring authentic discourse of the language spoken by natives. Classes are task-based and revolved around real-life activities and exercises. Emphasis is also given on having age-appropriate materials for students to ensure a seamless and enjoyable learning experience.

To avoid rote memorization for grammar, the courses are developed and structured in enjoyable ways to make them more appealing to students. When speaking practice is not facilitated through blended learning in the classroom, students can record personal audio clips they later send to their teachers for evaluation and feedback.

Aline Germain-Rutherford, Chief Academic Officer of Middlebury Interactive Languages, says of the Middlebury philosophy:

“We present the language first, and then help the student to develop learning strategies and reading and listening skills to identify key words and make sense of it. . . .  “We activate the normal skills that anybody has in a new situation. We really try to use everything we know in context to make sense [of the language].”

Rather than advising students to avoid making comparisons between their native and second languages, the immersive Middlebury approach encourages students to identify these resemblances and use them to make sense of the target language. Even if a student doesn’t know all the words in a video, they still are presented with contextual hints that help them make meaning out of it, Katrina Schwartz of KQED says.

Middlebury is a strong advocate of extensive and exploratory immersion in authentic discourse so that the learner can become a proficient user of the language. According to Middlebury, the immersive approach supports students in their efforts to acquire a solid understanding of the language and take advantage of it to further promote their language learning.

The program, which is heavily task-based, rests on the idea that experiential immersion in a language makes it is easier for the learner to comprehend and internalize new knowledge.

Students who take the school-based online courses or participate in the summer academies are learning through hands-on engagement with the language. As Katrina Schwartz mentions in her piece, in a task-based activity students might be asked to create a monthlong itinerary at the target language’s country and so the student will have to complete the research in the target language.

The program has been piloted in brick-and-mortar schools. Baltimore County Public Schools teachers say of their experience with the course:

“Middlebury did the best job at providing opportunities for students to speak,” Brian Schiffer, director of social studies, fine arts and world languages fo Baltimore says. “Teachers can go in and hear them as they’re recording words.”

Despite being intended for stand-alone use, schools can pair the course with class-based blended learning environments to accelerate language acquisition.

The courses are not without their critics. Jason Noble, a high school Spanish teacher that has been using the course for more than three years, talks of a glitch that makes students’ assignments disappear as opposed to autograding them. Noble says the problem was persisting and support from Middlebury has been poor.

“You don’t know that something didn’t get submitted until a student emails you and says it’s not showing up in the gradebook — if the student is conscientious enough to do that,” Noble says.

Other schools discontinued use of the course due to an inability to align the school’s learning system with the Middlebury program.