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Learning a language – online or in person? Interview with Dieter Wiggert

Hi Dieter, after 30 years running a Spanish school offering face-to-face classes in Salamanca (ISLA), you are now the director of an online school (Inti Online Languages). So we would like to know your view on these two ways of learning a language.

I’m sure you have been asked this question many times: Which is better, face-to-face or online learning?

I’ll answer your question with two others: Is it better to watch the Lion King on Broadway, or on Youtube, or is it better to watch the Wimbledon or Champions League final live, or on TV?

The ideal way to learn a language is total linguistic immersion: travel to the country where the language you are learning or perfecting is spoken, live with native people, immerse yourself in the culture of the place, make new friends with locals and forget your own language.

The vast majority decide to attend a Spanish language school and this can have certain disadvantages. Being in class every day with classmates who have the same challenge as you and often even live together in an apartment or in a family may seem, at first, something positive: you go out with your “new friends” from school, you go on trips together… The problem arises when they do not speak Spanish among themselves, as perhaps their level of Spanish is low, or even if they speak Spanish they fossilize mistakes of the others (for example, if one person says “esta comida es bien”, all the others will repeat it, because no one corrects them). Traveling to a country to spend the whole time with foreigners who are not fluent in the language is not the ideal scenario. If you don’t know how to say something in Spanish, you say it in English or another language. However, if you are with people who don’t speak English you are forced to get by and jump in without a net. This would be the ideal environment for optimal learning: to be forced to take the bull by the horns and even to have a hard time in certain situations in order to make progress.

So what do you propose?

Firstly attending classes with other foreigners (obviously there will be no Spaniards or Latin Americans learning Spanish), but then just immersing yourself in the local culture and being in contact with the natives all the time.

Instead of meeting the other students from your school or university, it would be better to go to local bars or events, eat what they eat, drink what they drink, try to communicate with them, appreciate what they appreciate… In short: try to lose your ‘foreignness’ (I try not to use “guiri”, a word that has always bothered me…); dare to dare; don’t let the fear of making a fool of yourself inhibit you.

And another tip: in conversations with local people, don’t start every sentence with “But in my country…”.  Stop permanently comparing your home country or culture with that of your new destination. I would advise getting used to listening to what they tell you about their country, the problems and concerns they may have.

So there is nothing comparable to total linguistic immersion?

Not for me. You can watch TV in Spanish in your country, you can read newspapers online, you can do an exchange with a native online, but it is not comparable.

So in contrast, what problems do you face online?

Our motto at Inti Online is ‘whenever you want, wherever you want’. So the biggest complication is the time slots, as sometimes the time a student wants and the working hours of a teacher in Spain are not compatible.

The best solution is to find teachers who live more or less in the same time zone as the student, albeit with the complications that this entails.

How has the pandemic influenced online classes?

A lot of people, both teachers and students, have taken a dislike to online teaching.

Overnight, both teachers and students were forced to cope with teaching that neither group was prepared for. Suddenly they had to deal with a situation where only the image of the person speaking (student or teacher) is shown on the screen, where they had to work out the advantages and disadvantages of the different videoconferencing systems (Zoom, Skype, Teams etc.), how chatrooms work, and how on earth does one share a screen? Many of them were even affected by legal problems (can students be forced to turn on their camera?).

I think one of our main tasks is to convince both teachers and students that online teaching can be useful and has many advantages. Besides, not everyone has the time to travel to a Spanish-speaking country and pay for a language stay.

What is the profile of an online customer like?

There are people from all countries and all ages, although I would say that there are two clear profiles: younger people, generally students, who need help for an official exam; and more adult people who are particularly interested in culture and oral interaction.

The online customer generally enrolls for fewer teaching hours compared to those taking face-to-face courses. If the average online student does 1.5 hours per week, in classroom courses it varies between 20 and 30 hours per week. This is logical because many online learners have their own work or study routine and can only dedicate part of their free time to learning or improving the new language.

What type of online teaching do you offer at Inti?

We offer three types of teaching, because not all students have the same needs.

For self-learners we have a self-study course with many videos in which a teacher explains the different topics. This course is mostly for people with a lot of self-discipline.

Then we have a hybrid course in which the student spends half of the time with the teacher and the other half is dedicated to self-learning.

And the last option is for people who want to be with a teacher all the time. 

As many of our clients aren’t sure which is the best option, we offer them the option to try the self-study method or to have thirty minutes with a teacher.

What has been your most negative experience with online learning?

The biggest nightmare is when students refuse to activate the camera. Having the camera off is an obstacle to creating links between the teacher and the students. It saddens me to think that you can be teaching a person virtually and then meet in a supermarket without knowing that we are student and teacher.

Are there any tricks to make online teaching more similar to face-to-face?

Yes, there are many. I’ll explain a very simple one:

When there is a break in an online group, normally everyone disconnects until the class resumes again. In a real classroom, during their break students chat, play or even discuss their classes or the teacher. So in our online classes, we make the teacher leave the group during this break and the students can talk about their own things. It’s very good for group dynamics.

Any more tips to make online teaching more fun?

I love to encourage the creativity of the students – why can’t the students in an online group call themselves Nairobi, Helsinki, Berlin (I’m sure that sounds familiar from a TV series) or Wonderwoman, Captain America, Spiderman, Catwoman or come up with a name themselves? You can also create a fun background (so that you don’t see the shelf with the usual books).

You could even have the student design a T-shirt with an image or an interesting slogan; they can dress up, wear make-up, represent a character, put up a poster or a banner with a message with which they identify… everything can be made more personal and motivating so that the student is at ease. And you can give a prize to the one with the most creative ideas.

What influence can Artificial Intelligence have on both virtual and face-to-face teaching?

Well, I think this is very complex and could be the subject of another interview.  But as a small advance I would suggest the following: Very few chess players are better than the best chess engines. Many translators translate worse than the automatic translator DeepL.

So the question is: What will we do if a virtual teacher created by artificial intelligence teaches better than a real teacher?

This teacher knows everything, answers you instantly, speaks perfect Spanish, or if you want, with an Andalusian or Argentine accent. They speak 100 languages, they draw great pictures, they can do corrections in record time, they know if the students’ homework has been done by an app, they don’t forget anything, don’t need a salary, don’t get sick, don’t need vacations, never get tired and they can work 24 hours a day. Apart from being a teacher, they are a translator, an interpreter, a writer, a reader, an eminent terminologist: they have excellent knowledge in all fields. And to top it all off, students can choose the gender, age and character of their teacher.

Not to make it sound too scary!

Amanda y Dieter


Saludos desde Salamanca (España) y bienvenidos a nuestro BLOG.

Llevamos más de 30 años viviendo en España y estamos deseando compartir ideas y experiencias sobre nuestro querido hogar adoptivo.

Desde aquí os contaremos vivencias, destacando los aspectos que más nos gustan y que seguro que también encontraréis interesantes. Se incluirán lugares para comer y alojarse, rutas para conducir y perderse, atardeceres… Algunos bien conocidos y otros secretos. Vino, cocina, deporte y delicias españolas también tendrán su espacio en nuestro BLOG.

Amanda Wiggert McCarthy

"Te llamo para decirte que vas a ir a Salamanca el año que viene con una beca de la UE llamada Erasmus. Olvidé elegir a alguien el último trimestre. Voy a seleccionar a los tres primeros que encuentre y que hablen español. ¿Tú hablas español, no?"

Y así aterricé en Salamanca y comenzó todo...

Dieter Wiggert

Tenía 19 años cuando viajando en tren por el sur de Alemania vi que alguien había dejado en su asiento un folleto con el título “Aprender Español en España” con una lista de cursos de español en muchísimos destinos.

Cuando vi el nombre de Salamanca me quedé impresionado. Me parecía tan bonito y al pronunciarlo sonaba tan bien que la decisión estaba tomada.

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