One of the biggest challenges for foreign language teachers is to expose their students to authentic speech by native speakers. Another is to immerse them in the culture of the language they're studying when that culture may be half a world away. But in our expanding digital age, it's increasingly easy to connect live with overseas students, find related videos and audio clips, and discover examples of living language online -- all free.
"The Internet has made accessing authentic materials and interacting with native speakers an everyday occurrence in many schools across the country," reports Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). "It has really brought the world into our classrooms."
Keeping It Fresh
To keep their classes fresh and current, teachers can incorporate material from foreign Web sites. From overseas weather reports to department store sites that reinforce lessons on clothing terms, Janet Glass, the ACTFL's 2008 National Language Teacher of the Year, says she can always find something online to bring her Spanish lessons to life. The key, she points out, is to limit activities sufficiently so that students can accomplish tasks appropriate to their level of fluency.
Before the rapid expansion of the Internet, teachers hoarded ticket stubs, receipts, advertising flyers, and other tidbits from their own trips abroad with the goal of importing a language's culture to the classroom. "It's all on the Web now," says Glass, who teaches at Dwight-Englewood School, in Englewood, New Jersey. "All you have to do is search for theater sites from a country on a search engine to see what's playing that day. It's so immediate and so current."
No Passport Needed
Besides giving students a doorway to contemporary culture in the target language, many sites offer something that used to be even harder to come by in the classroom: videos and audio clips, including podcasts, that range from real news items to fictional entertainment and multimedia language lessons.
"It's very important for the kids to hear authentic, natural speech," says Glass, who uses a beginner-appropriate BBC site with man-on-the-street video interviews filmed in Spain. "You can turn on subtitles, so you can see what they're saying."
At the Cincinnati Public Schools's Academy of World Languages, teachers of Mandarin Chinese are incorporating podcasts into their lessons. Students start listening in the classroom, then take the recordings home on CDs or MP3 players to practice.
"Reading a language is much different than hearing a language," notes the school's technologist in residence, Dawn Miklavcic. "Understanding a language spoken at its true speed is hard for some of these kids, so hearing it over and over is important."
Global Group Learning
With today's more interactive Web, it's possible for students to collaborate online with peers around the world. "Web. 2.0 technologies are just starting to creep onto language teachers' radar screens," declares Lori Langer de Ramirez, creator of the language-teaching resource MisCositas.com. "Things such as blogs, wikis, VoiceThreads -- essentially multimedia blogs that allow voice and even video comments -- provide students with a level of control and interactivity that lends itself to a constructivist approach to language teaching."
Curtis Bonk, a professor in Indiana University at Bloomington's Instructional Systems Technology Department, also cites the many possibilities for students to engage in collaborative language projects online. "I could imagine students creating wiki books to practice their language skills, maybe with students from other places," he says.
The French (and More) Connection
The foundation for this kind of interchange is already in place. "The most effective use of the Internet is computer-mediated communication -- chat, email, video, audio -- a way for students to get in contact with students in other countries," explains Robert Fischer, executive director of the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium and chair of the modern-languages department at Texas State University at San Marcos.
Having e-pen pals is the easiest way to develop relationships with foreign students, and a variety of sites, such as ePals, provide help in finding contacts. "When I started teaching, you'd wait and wait and wait to get something in writing, and it was always old news," recalls Glass.
Even more immediate, if a bit trickier to arrange, is simultaneous communication with students overseas via text chat using an instant-messaging program or through free international Internet-based audio and video calling, offered by Skype. "We're moving away from writing our pen pals and going towards Skyping them," observes Bonk. "To me, that is the next stage of language learning."
Challenges remain, of course. It can seem daunting to find appropriate contacts among the legion of anonymous strangers roaming the Web. Fischer recommends eTandem to find partners for safe conversational exchange in more than a dozen languages. For live chatting or talking, time differences can also pose a problem. Still, the opportunity for students to interact live with native speakers without the time and expense of travel abroad can be well worth the effort.
Former Dwight-Englewood School student Nick Schwartz used Skype to study Chinese as part of a senior project. He wrote in a journal about his experience, "I have communicated with a Chinese student my age on the other side of the world for a month. It has cost me absolutely nothing, and I have learned about his life, his friends, and family. People just don't get how revolutionary it is that this exists now. People never understand how different it is when you can hear (and if you have a webcam, see) the person you are talking to."
Laila Weir is a contributing editor and writer for Edutopia. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and online publications around the world.