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Language, Culture & Technology

Language, Culture & Technology

Foreign language faculty adjust their curricula to ensure that today’s college students know how to use technology tools to communicate

Dr. Kevin M. Gaugler had an epiphany in his Spanish class when a student asked how to affix an accent mark over the letter “a” on a computer. The question was simple, but Gaugler’s answer was quite long. The button sequence to accomplish the task is different for desktop computers and laptops, as well as for Macintosh and PC operating systems.

That incident marked the birth of a new class Gaugler has introduced at Marist College, where he has taught since 2000. Appropriately enough, it’s called “Spanish and Technology.”

“Since I dedicated an entire day of class to accent marks,” says Gaugler, an associate professor, “I knew there was an entire course in here, somewhere, about communications technology and Spanish.”

Nationally, foreign language faculty have been adjusting their curricula to ensure that today’s college students know how to use technology to communicate effectively in languages other than their native tongue. Once upon a time, students were considered fluent if they could read, write, speak and aurally comprehend a foreign language. But that isn’t enough anymore, educators say. In an age of corporate mergers, downsizing and cost-effective global communication, there is less of an emphasis on overseas business travel, and less travel means less face-to-face interaction. These days, graduates who tout foreign language skills on their job applications are expected to be able to use those skills in a variety of ways. Their tasks could include anything from producing a company memo, negotiating a business deal by phone, writing a grammatically correct e-mail or composing a culturally relevant podcast.

Higher education’s response to such technical expectations has varied from campus to campus. In some cases, free-standing courses like Gaugler’s have sprung up. In others, faculty merely field student questions as they arise. Language experts are unaware of any statistics tracking classes such as Gaugler’s. But they say the matter of technological bilingualism is perhaps most common among students taking Spanish, the most popular of the more than 140 foreign languages taught in this country.

According to the Modern Language Association, 746,000 students were enrolled nationwide in Spanish classes in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The second-most popular foreign language, French, had less than one-third as many enrolled students.

A Grass Roots Movement
Like Gaugler, many technology-focused courses have emerged more from the efforts of individual, technologically nimble faculty than from department chairs, says Dr. Nina Garrett, director of Yale University’s Center for Language Study. The reasons for this are as complex as the languages, say Garrett and others. The technological savvy of faculty varies with each individual. And, to ensure that introductory-level students learn the basics well enough to move on to intermediate and advanced classes, faculty in popular languages like Spanish, French and German often must conform to a common syllabus. That leaves little time in lower-division classes for “extras” like podcasting. While there is sometimes room in upper-division offerings for a specialty course like technology, faculty typically prefer teaching in their own specialties, such as Latin American film or 18th-century Spanish civilization. It’s even more of a task cobbling together technology-based programs for non-Romance languages like Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

Gaugler has taught “Spanish and Technology” since 2001. An elective course, it consists of a series of projects that rely heavily on online resources. As new technologies creep into daily life Gaugler has added projects to his students’ list. One of the most recent additions was a podcasting project, where students syndicate a radio talk show in Spanish. The discussions during the podcast can range from Hispanic demographic numbers to a debate about the best pizza parlors in town.
“I don’t expect them to be experts in technology,” Gaugler says. “But I want them to become conversant in different technologies, if they aren’t already.”

In other projects, his students assemble Spanish PowerPoint presentations and reproduce a nonprofit agency’s drug and alcohol awareness brochures by translating them into Spanish. Gaugler also teaches his class some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet. For example, although the reference site is extremely popular, he points out that its content can be edited by anyone, and so it isn’t the most reliable source.

Sometimes, faculty have used technology to reinforce other language and cultural lessons. Alicia M. van Altena, a senior lector in Spanish at Yale University, often reminds her students that just as they should conjugate verbs differently for casual and formal conversations, they must also do the same in e-mail.

“This is especially important if they e-mail people in Venezuela, Argentina and other Spanish-speaking countries because the e-mail might be the only impression the recipient has of the sender,” van Altena says. “Generally, in e-mail in English, young people tend to get casual and lax. They can’t do it in Spanish. It gives the recipient a bad impression of them.”

Bilingual and Bi-platform
Some language faculty have taken notice of the growing number of companies hosting their own blogs, where officials can have an ongoing dialogue with the public about the company’s products and services. Because it’s becoming increasingly likely that graduates will be asked to post blog entries for their employer, more and more faculty are getting students prepared now. When the University of Miami’s Dr. Rachida Primov asked her third-semester French students to participate in a class blog for extra credit points, she was unsure how receptive they would be. After all, it was one thing for them to religiously maintain their own personal blogs. Would they care about a blog dealing with French culture and stereotypes?

As it turned out, Primov’s blog attracted so many entries, she wound up with practically another full-time job maintaining the site. “They were so excited [about it] that the blog took on a life of its own,” she says. “It gave them a chance to freely express themselves without the usual worry about grammar and syntax, like in the formal compositions they were required to write for class.”

Dr. Robert J. Blake, director of the Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching for the 10-campus University of California system, applauds language educators who have proactively embraced technology. “Technology-based assignments harness more of the students’ free time,” says Blake, a UC-Davis professor of Spanish who has taught college students since 1974.

“They tap into something they like to do anyway.”

Foreign language faculty have been using the Internet as a teaching tool ever since its inception. For years, students have used the Internet to access overseas newspapers and magazines or to track down native speakers of a language who could become conversation partners.

In fact, the technology may be the easiest part for students, says Derek Roff, former board member of the Computer-Aided Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO), a professional organization of educators. With so many young people text messaging as effortlessly as they breathe, some faculty have channeled that into language learning, Roff says. For instance, some faculty have used text messaging and e-mails to connect students with conversation partners overseas. The correspondence occurs in both English and Spanish, for instance, so both students can practice their respective foreign languages.

The lessons in navigating technology bilingually aren’t limited to foreign language faculty. At the University of Texas-El Paso, education majors are required to take a technology class that introduces them to the instructional applications of computers.

Lecturer Ricardo Armendáriz estimates that nearly half the students in his technology class will later teach in a bilingual setting. With that in mind, Armendáriz draws from 32 years’ of experience as a public school principal when he issues assignments. For instance, his students produce newsletters in English and Spanish, that they as future teachers, would send home to their students’ parents. And for many assignments, Armendáriz requires students to do versions on a Macintosh as well as a PC. “My students need to be not only bilingual, but also bi-platform,” he says.

Education majors at New Mexico State University must pass a comparable technology class as a graduation requirement. About one-third of those students will eventually teach in bilingual programs, says Dr. Karin M. Wiburg, associate dean for the College of Education. Wiburg says the course exposes students to a wide range of burgeoning technologies.

“If they didn’t know what podcasting was before they took this class, they’ll get a good idea here,” she says.

While the emergence of these types of technology courses seems gradual, their existence is imperative, say their supporters.

“With so much media that makes communication non-face-to-face, we faculty aren’t teaching students what they need to know if we don’t teach them how to use the technology,” Gaugler says.

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