Emory Report
June 26, 2006
Volume 58, Number 33


Emory Report homepage  

June 26 , 2006
Windows on the world: Technology and the teaching of foreign language

Alan Cattier is director of academic technology services.

To many, thinking back on the experience of learning a foreign language is to summon up memories of dusty cramped cubicles outfitted with cassette players and recently worn headphones. Voices intone into a microphone and occasionally a voice crackles back through the ether, reviewing pronunciation or vocabulary—a very unusual pedagogical experience for those who have experienced it.

Leap forward to today’s language instruction and one arrives at a totally different destination. Gone are the cubicles and the cassettes and even the sweaty headphones. In their place are web resources and online grammar exercises and streamed audio files, all accessible to students any time, anyplace they have appropriate network access. Those studying without a wired connection browse wirelessly, and to those totally untethered, they listen to audio files on their iPod. It’s not only about learning a different language and culture after all; it’s about stepping into a new culture to learn the foreign language.

The place where this transformation has been hosted at the University is in the Emory College Language Center. Since planning began for the facility more than five years ago, Academic and Administrative Information Technology (AAIT) has been working side by side with participating faculty navigating this digital crossroads.

Director of the Language Center and Professor of French Carol Herron speaks about the vision behind the founding of the effort: “From the outset, the center was seen as a gathering place for language faculty to share their experiences and strategies in ways that would cross traditional departmental boundaries. Initially, technology, and the challenges that it posed, was a unifier that allowed us to talk about how our teaching practice was changing. Over time, our focus has shifted from considering change as a challenge to viewing it as an opportunity.”

The center has two staff members that support the technology outreach to language faculty, and a staff member, Juana Clem McGhee, who handles program development and coordination. Technology Director José Rodriguez supports teaching in the center’s three classrooms and plans the infrastructure and the training required to step into new approaches to instruction. Multimedia Programmer Johnny Waggoner provides his skill on the web, authoring many of the center’s key programs and coordinating the center’s online presence.

During the past three years, one of many projects for the center has been the Italian Virtual Class. Working with Senior Lecturer Judy Raggi Moore and Lecturer Christine Ristaino, Rodriguez and Waggoner have assisted in developing a multimedia, culture-based curriculum. As leader of the foreign study program to Italy, Raggi-Moore uses the travel abroad to have her students interview and film native speakers to create an online curriculum that immerses students in native language and culture.

Rodriguez looks at this strategy of cultural immersion and reflects, “What’s so fascinating about my work is that providing this experience of the culture, which is so critical to the method of the center, depends on technology as part of the culture. They are inseparable for so many of our languages.”

Herron, whose own focus is the impact of using multimedia resources on learning outcomes, has been leading a three-year study of the effect of technologically enhanced language learning materials (TELL) on student language skills. Preliminary results for studies conducted in French and Italian suggest that there is a statistically significant improvement in the grammar skills of students who learn new structures using the center’s technologically-enhanced, problem-solving approach as opposed to those who have used the more traditional textbook approach with its bundled exercises.

For instruction in Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Hindi, many of the online resources that Rodriguez and Waggoner help faculty to create represent the core resource for that language’s instruction. Up to this time, few publishers have either invested the time or talent to develop quality approaches or material that can be delivered online.

The language center, affiliated with the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) as well as with AAIT, is located on the fourth floor of the Woodruff Library and supports the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Tibetan and Yiddish. The center can be visited online at languagecenter.emory.edu.