Language Courses Adapt to Connect Students Across Screens and Across Cultures


As Harvard students and faculty settle into virtual classrooms this fall, language instructors across several departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been developing new methods of engaging students virtually.

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations senior preceptor in Arabic, Nevenka Korica-Sullivan, said while the initial transition to online classes during the spring presented sudden challenges, the start of a new semester allowed for more careful adaptation of courses for remote learning.

“I think the core issue in any language class is how we can have a meaningful conversation and meaningful communication in class, because this is how we learn language,” Korica-Sullivan said. “Now, how I deliver material can be a little bit different, because I think online teaching has to be much more intentional.”

“There is less room for being spontaneous, and that's one thing that we are all missing,” she added.


But Korica-Sullivan also said she believes languages classes are more personal than other classes, which has allowed for her to retain a closer connection with her students even in a virtual classroom.

“Trust is something that we build from day one in class, and believe it or not, after a month, a lot of it is already built, conversations become personal,” Korica-Sullivan said.

María L. Parra-Velasco, a Romance Languages and Literatures senior preceptor in Spanish, said language students meet with faculty four to five days a week, which helps students maintain constant communication with each other and the teaching staff.

Parra-Velasco said she misses seeing her students in person and picking up on the emotional cues which help her navigate classroom dialogue.

“Emotion, surprise, doubt, questions — all that information is lost in Zoom when you can’t see them all together at the same time,” Parra-Velasco said.

Korica-Sullivan noted the challenge of picking up body language from students has increased the difficulty in distinguishing students’ pronunciation of Arabic words.

“There are sounds that are in the abstract very difficult to discern and discriminate, but in context it works,” Korica-Sullivan said. “Like I think it's this mismatch, sometimes between, you know, the body language that you can get on the screen, and what the student is saying that sometimes is very, very confusing.”

For the beginner American Sign Language classes, Linguistics preceptor in ASL Andrew R. Bottoms said adapting a “3D language for a 2D world” when signing online presented a particular challenge.

“If I'm showing examples to my students, often there's difficulty with them understanding and then copying,” Bottoms said, through an interpreter. “So I have to often turn myself to the side, and I will then sometimes move all the way around, so that students can see the 3D perspective that they're not getting on a camera.”

However, Bottoms also said "being online actually does bring some benefits.”

“When I'm in person, I have to ensure that all of my students are not using any subvocalization or whispering to ensure equal access to all people in class,” Bottoms said. “Within Zoom, students are all muted, because this is not a spoken language class, so everyone can truly immerse themselves into American Sign Language.”

Bottoms said he is using the fall semester as an opportunity to share with students how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the deaf community. He said he appreciates how his students have continued to engage with deaf culture outside the classroom through other online programming such as the Deaf Awareness Club — a student-run program hosted by the Phillips Brooks House Association.

Parra-Velasco also underscored the importance of public engagement within her course “Spanish 59: Spanish and the Community,” despite its virtual setting. For the course, each student is volunteering with an organization based in their home community or in the Boston-area, providing services such as language translation or mentoring in Spanish.

“I think that we have worked very hard to make sure that our courses are engaging, but the students are also working very hard to take advantage of what is offered and making a big effort to engage with the materials and with their classmates,” Parra-Velasco said.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at