The Web of Babel

Online-only language courses might be controversial, but some have found Web 2.0 to be a boon for language instruction.
January 11, 2011

In late fall of 2009, Briana Leaman, a student at the University of South Carolina, uttered what is probably a rare sentence in the history of the French language:

Je vais aller à Clemson aujourd'hui avec le fanfare pour le match! Allez les Gamecocks!

In English (“I'm going to Clemson today with the band for the game! Go Gamecocks!”), the sentence is normal enough. But American college students rarely have cause to make such casual exclamations in a foreign tongue. Except, of course, if forced to do so in class or when studying abroad.

That was what Lara Lomicka, a professor of French at the university, had in mind three semesters ago when she set up a hash tag on Twitter with an English class at a university outside of Paris, then required the students in her intermediate French class to post on the popular micro-blogging site at least three times a week — once in English, and twice in French.

“I thought this would be a fun way for students to talk about what’s going on in their lives in the moment, and share that with the other class,” says Lomicka, who has continued using Twitter in her classes.

Updating one’s Twitter account in French several times weekly is hardly equivalent to living in a foreign country, she says, but it does give students a chance to exercise their skills in reference to the casual, day-to-day happenings of their lives outside of essays and classroom conversations.

“I don’t think technology will ever replace immersion, but it certainly can help to move us further in that direction without actually having to travel and be there,” she says.

Some adventurous professors have used Twitter as a teaching tool for at least a few years. At a presentation at Educause in 2009, W. Gardner Campbell, director of the academy of teaching and learning at Baylor University, extolled the virtues of allowing students to pose questions to the professor and each other — an important part of the thinking and learning process — without having to raise their hands to do so immediately and aloud. And in November, a group of professors published a scientific paper suggesting that bringing Twitter into the learning process might boost student engagement and performance.

The relationship between online learning and language instruction has a more contentious history than most. In fall 2009, just about the time when Lomicka was beginning to use Twitter to help teach French, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced it was moving all its introductory Spanish courses online, sparking a debate about where the line should be as far as using the Web to teach language. And Middlebury College raised some eyebrows last spring when it announced it was building an online-only spin-off of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, its highly touted summer language immersion program. While language has a history of being on the front end of the tech wave, with tapes and CD-ROMs in the classroom before the Internet was a factor, some language educators have balked at the idea of following the rest of academe toward online learning, arguing that students cannot learn a foreign tongue sans the practice that goes on in the classroom.

But while Lomicka and her tech-forward peers are not advocating that every college go the way of Chapel Hill, they are finding out that some relatively novel teaching technologies that are used by academics of all stripes, such as Twitter and iTunes U, are particularly useful for teaching languages.

A.V. Files for Xenophiles

At Emory University, language instructional content is far and away the biggest export of its public repository on iTunes U, where visitors from around the world have downloaded more than 10 million files since Emory opened the site in 2007. Since Apple last year announced its 300 millionth download from the university-based spin-off of its popular iTunes Music Store, Emory officials calculate that content published by the Emory College Language Center accounts for about 2 percent of all iTunes U downloads nationally.

Language content makes up about 95 percent of the downloads from the Emory iTunes U site. A podcast called “Chinese Beyond Emory” gets downloaded thousands of times per week. Ditto instructional videos on Arabic and Kanji Japanese penmanship. Even lessons in Cherokee, a language whose speaking population might not exceed the number of students enrolled at Emory, are downloaded at a rate of several hundred per week, Emory officials say.

Moreover, the most popular content is audio and video files that were originally developed not for a general audience, but by professors as supplements to college-level coursework, says José Rodriguez, the manager of information technology there. The material's complexity suggests that those who download the files (whoever they are — Apple limits institutions’ ability to track iTunes U downloads) are probably not doing so on a lark, but because of a serious interest in learning what they have to teach, Rodriguez says.

Because language demonstrations often require audio and sometimes video components (e.g., tutorials on how to write in a character-based alphabet), and students often like to practice while on the move, iTunes is in many ways an ideal vehicle for language-based instructional content. Likewise, the technology benefits from the presence of language-based materials: without such content in its inventory, the Emory iTunes U site would be moribund.

“I’m not going to argue for a minute that what we have on iTunes U is meant to be a replacement for what we do in the classroom,” says Alan Cattier, the director of academic computing at Emory. “But what we do offer is an online supplement that enhances what happens both in the classroom and in foreign study in the culture — and it is always there as a resource for our students, because it’s online.”

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