Program Promotes Linguistic Exchange

By Veronica Bosley '06

What if you could learn how to fish without setting foot on a boat, or learn how to box without stepping into the ring?

This is the type of opportunity that language students at Mount Holyoke are getting through innovative programs that allow students to have direct contact with the culture of their target language without having to travel abroad.

The Italian and Japanese language programs at MHC are beginning to use the Internet as a tool for direct linguistic exchange. Students meet and have sessions with other students studying English in the country of their target language. First-semester Italian language students are paired with students from the Istituto Linguistico Scalcerle, a linguistics high school in Padova, and second- and third-year Japanese language students are paired with students at the Tokyo Women Christian University (TWCU).

These language projects use the Internet and programs like Skype, which allows students to make free calls online, and Festoon, which works with Skype to allow visual contact. I-sound is also used to record the sessions. In order for the language exchange to work properly, classrooms need to have a high-speed Internet connection, a Web camera, and headsets. According to Japanese language instructor Yuko Kawahara, "Skype is very easy to use and is a good tool for language exchange. The sessions are very fun and helpful for students, especially because they don't have the chance to use Japanese outside of class."

The Italian students, taught by visiting lecturer Latifah Troncelliti, have Internet sessions once a week for one hour and discuss subjects of common interest, as well as other topics proposed by the instructors. Preparation work before meetings consists of studying vocabulary pertinent to the subjects being discussed. After the meetings, written assignments and discussions reinforce the language structures and vocabulary used during the conversation. The instructors also use a blog for posting the students' work. 

"There are always so many variables involved with making the Skype sessions run smoothly," Troncelliti said. "For example, there are many holidays in Italy that we do not have here, and one day there was a strike so we couldn't talk on Skype, but the fun of it was that it gave us a chance to learn and talk about what is going on in Italy. Because of occasional setbacks due to technological errors or other outside variables, I like to establish a rigid program around the preparation for the sessions, so that even if the Skype sessions don't run as planned the students are still learning."

The Italian language portion of the program was awarded first prize by the Istituto Nazionale di Documentazione per Innovazione e la Ricerca Educativa for the best project in Italy. Troncelliti's work has garnered significant interest from the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education. She will be presenting her project this spring to the faculty at Middlebury College.

The Japanese language students are taught by Kawahara and her teaching assistant Fumiko Brown, and have sessions five times a semester for 40 minutes. They discuss topics given by the instructor that usually relate to what was learned in class. In addition to the students, usually at least one professor and one technical staff member from TWCU also logs in to help the conversations run well. The instructors record the conversations and then give feedback, addressing common mistakes.

"We had some problems, such as a bad connection or the time difference with Japan. But, overall, the project went very well," Kawahara said. "Some of our students have not been to Japan, and for them, it was a good chance to learn about the universities or college life there." In both cases, half of the session is conducted in English and the other half in either Japanese or Italian, and students are expected to exclusively use the target language during those times.

"The sessions were fun for the most part, though sometimes we'd be nervous beforehand because we weren't sure if they could understand us and vice versa," said Audrey Ooi '08, a Japanese language student. "I think that I got to experience what it was like conversing with a native speaker and I was exposed to the nuances and tones, new vocabulary, and sometimes slang."

These projects envision students' participation and exchange through email, online written and voice messages, and videoconferencing with the appropriate software. The goals of these programs are to improve communications skills and cross-cultural knowledge and to stimulate the students' interest and participation in the study of foreign languages.

"I have found the Skype sessions to be very useful and enjoyable," said Italian language student Katrina Richards '08. "It's so nice to speak with students close to our own age on the other side of the world. It really shows what a small world we live in when we discover and discuss common interests."