The Role of the Computer in Foreign Language Learning

I taught my first FL class—Spanish 1—at UCLA, Fall 1972. Of course there was no such thing as a personal computer at that time. I got my first IBM PC with 64K RAM and two floppy disk drives in 1983 because I had been typing text materials on a typewriter and had had it with changing text with liquid white-out and those rolls of narrow strips of white paper with sticky on the back that you could type on to replace a whole line. I also used my first PC to write my dissertation on. Obviously, computers revolutionized word processing early on. I didn’t get a computer with a modem until 1995. So I learned to teach way before computers with online capabilities became popular. At that time, all of classroom language teaching/learning was human to human, textbook to human. Homework was handwritten. And the eager students learned easily and well. And the not-so-interested students passed the course and seemed satisfied. Fast forward to the early 2000’s. I’m still teaching without recourse to the computer but starting to feel insecure about it. In one class I had an amazing computer geek (I use the term lovingly). One day I asked him after class if I was way behind the times and should be using the computer in class and requiring that the students use the computer outside of class. His answer went something like this: “What we do in class is great. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re on the computer so much that a course like this is refreshing. If you want to incorporate computer use I would suggest only that you put practice exams online so we can see the types of things we need to know for the unit exams.” I recently taught Italian 1 using the textbook Sentieri, which requires extensive use of the computer and the publisher’s website. I myself did some of the computer activities that I had assigned to the students, mainly fill-ins and matching as I recall. My impression was that the students really needed to compose sentences, both oral and written, as soon and as often as possible. The sorts of things the site was having them do was kind of like teaching a person to do crossword puzzles instead of write essays. Fun (maybe?), but definitely not necessary. Also, I know from having done private tutoring that students can have a more advanced student or a native speaker (or their tutor!) do their online homework for them so they can get all the answers right and get the maximum number of “points.” In the class in which I used Sentieri students would complain that they couldn’t do their homework because the site was down or wouldn’t respond to their clicks. I myself was having trouble finding out if they’d done their homework or had even paid the fee to use the publisher’s site. Once I asked several students why they had not done the online assignment. They replied that they had indeed done it. I later found out that the site had put most of my students on one list but that little group on another list that I didn’t know existed. The whole experience was intensely frustrating for me and the students. And in the end it’s all about points, points, points. Points mean nothing to me. The question is “Did they learn more of the language, something useful for communicating real-life thoughts and feelings?” I’m not sure a machine can make that happen. End of rant! What are your thoughts? Is this sort of use of the computer superior to interaction between instructor and students and between student and student? Is extensive use of computers dehumanizing? Do students appreciate a “rest” from computer use? Should computer and video be used during classroom presentations? How about Power Point (what is Power Point?)? Constantly or occasionally? What do you think of using cyber-sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube for enriching and enjoyable online input? I think they’re awesome (Even though I resisted for a long while, I have finally included the word “awesome” in my personal vocabulary). My students can see beautiful travelogues of Italy and watch videos of Italian songs and sing along. The students can be assigned to do a report on any facet of Italian culture that interests them: motorcycles, the Renaissance, fashion, architecture…anything Italian! You want to inspire a student to study Italian? Let them investigate what they’re passionate about! Now that’s the best use of the computer for our purposes I can think of. What do you guys think?

Online and Hybrid Foreign Language Classes

I’ve never taught online. What goes on? I’ve heard a few things, for example that it works OK for Classical Latin, a language that you don’t have to learn to speak or understand when spoken. But I don’t see online classes being appropriate for living, spoken languages. Don’t the students need immediate feedback from the instructor? How can the instructor teach or correct pronunciation? What about using the language for communication with other students? Via chat rooms? Via Skype? A few students have said that they appreciate online classes because it’s difficult or impossible for them to get to a campus. Please tell us what you know about online classes and what you think of them.

What is the best way to spend class time?

Here’s my take on it. All my classes meet for at least two hours two days a week. I find this arrangement better than one hour five days a week because the students have time to play with the material right after the presentation. Class time is precious. After I call roll I do what I call “loading the students” by giving a presentation using the marker board and the textbook which includes the grammar (say the present tense of the verb “to go”) and vocabulary of the day (go where, with whom, when, to do what, why?) and a useful context in which to play with these elements. All this time the students are actively taking notes. They can break into my presentation at any time to ask a question. They are constantly participating. During the presentation I ask them to do short oral translations (English to Italian) using the material. In other words, my presentations are interactive. I’m preparing them to take over, form dyads (with classmates of their choice) and interview each other using the grammar and vocabulary of the day and anything else they have learned from previous lessons. The questions they are getting ready to ask each other are in the book and are mostly open-ended thus encouraging rejoinders. For example: Where do you go on weekends? With whom? What do you do there? Why? All these little questions give them the opportunity to use the new material and dredge up things they’ve learned in previous lessons. They can answer truthfully or be fanciful. While they are doing this activity I silently walk around and make myself available for questions they may have during the interview. To change things up sometimes I prepare them to work quietly alone matching columns, or better, composing paragraphs on the topic of the day to read to their classmates, etc. For homework they usually write their own personal answers to the questions they asked their partner in class. Sometimes they also copy sentences containing blanks, filling in the blanks with conjugated forms, etc. Copying is very important in a first-year language class. I personally correct and make comments on all the homework thereby creating a personal relationship with each student. Basically I try to create a friendly community of language learners with me as the facilitator. Most of them say they love learning in a free and easy atmosphere by playing creatively with the language like this. What’s your take on how to best spend class time?

Flipping the classroom? Student-centered learning?

Is flipping the classroom or student-centered learning a good idea or even possible in a community college foreign language class, especially an elementary class? I’m pretty sure flipping means that the students learn on their own before class and apply what they’ve learned during class time by forming dyads or small groups and creating something or solving something. Am I right? In a flipped classroom the instructor doesn’t instruct but rather serves as a consultant, if I’m not mistaken. What is your idea of a flipped foreign language classroom? Is flipping a fad? Have you flipped? It’s said to work well for many subjects in K-12 classrooms. I think they are currently trying versions of it at universities (UCLA is currently using Pearson’s Unidades, 2nd edition). But, given the heterogeneity of community college classes, is flipping a help or a hindrance in “getting the job done?” And what exactly is student-centered learning? Does it necessarily involve flipping? Does it work in an elementary FL classroom? And what happens when students are assigned group work in class? First of all, it is hard to create dyads for many reasons: Student A doesn’t want or like to work with Student B. Student A is much brighter than Student B and both wind up being frustrated. Student A is bright but has Aspergers and can only work alone, etc. Also, when students form groups of three or four or more, Student A often winds up doing all or most of the work and twenty minutes or so of class time is wasted for Students B, C, and D for any number of reasons. It’s not that I’m a pessimist; I almost always see these problems arise whenever I assign group work. But back to flipping. To begin with, I’m not sure most community college students would want or be able to prepare beforehand for a language class, work unassisted during class time and then do homework after class. They would complain: “This is not the only course I’m taking.” “ I have a life, you know.” “Why don’t you teach us instead of just sitting on your…chair? Preparing for class at home by reading or watching a video can be hard for an elementary foreign language student. In history or psych I can see it working. But this involves a foreign language. Let’s say I’m an English-speaker and I have to learn brand new material online to use unassisted with other neophytes in my Chinese 1 class the next day. Think about it.

Culture or Language: What is it we’re trying to accomplish in elementary classes?

Are our goals a) to facilitate the students’ learning to understand, speak, read and write the language and also read and discuss interesting facts about the culture, or b) to present the culture and then teach some stock phrases, some basic vocab and some grammar as a secondary goal? And is there possibly a goal c)? Up until a few years ago the answer was definitely a). I don’t find b) desirable or even in the realm of possibility. It would be frustrating (to put it mildly) to most students to have a language course taught with so little emphasis on the language itself. Such a course should be labeled Whateverlanguage Culture 101. And many students say they find culture to be of only passing interest. Can anyone explain who came up with this (to my mind) bizarre idea, how it works, and why the publishing houses jumped on the band wagon? If someone can convince me that b) is preferable to a), I will gladly reorient my teaching strategies. I suspect some were saying something like “Look, despite our best efforts most students walk away from a year of college Spanish with only a few phrases they learned at the beginning of the course like ¡Hola! ¿Qué tal? ¿Cómo estás? Maybe we should just give up on the language thing and teach them culture and a little Spanish so they can say the course was worth the time, effort and money.” Am I wrong? At UCLA back in the day elementary courses were grammar driven, moderately vocabulary-rich, and contained cultural readings. There were also two independent culture-only courses you could take in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese: Sp/Ptg 42 Peninsular Culture, and Sp/Ptg 44 Latin American Culture. They were required for majors but given in English so the entire university community could benefit from them. We have similar courses at our LACCD campuses. However, if we want or have to teach a lot of culture in our elementary language classes these days, what should the ratio of culture to language be? And what does the rather vague term “culture” include? Should the culture presentations/readings be in English or in the language? Also, I hear some instructors have been successful at teaching grammar and vocabulary via culture. If you are one of them, please tell us what your experience has been. Everybody, what’s your take on all (or some) of the above?

What do adults have to do to acquire a foreign language?

Every semester some students seem so confused about how a language is learned in an artificial, i.e., classroom setting, I suspect, because of their experiences in high school and the claims of the commercial DVD and CD products that are constantly being advertised on the media. I had one student ask “Why don’t you just talk to us in Italian instead of teaching us grammar?” Another said “This is too hard. I’m gonna go buy Rosetta Stone.” And I was kind of pleasantly shocked when one young woman told me “This class focuses too much on vocabulary. I’m here to learn Italian grammar.” In an attempt to clear up the confusion, I have written a non-technical, easy-to-understand series of statements about language acquisition and include them in my syllabi for elementary-level classes. Each student takes a turn reading a statement out loud as we go over the syllabus on the second or third day of class. In fact, I have the students read the entire syllabus to one another. They like to read out loud and hear each others’ voices. If I were to read the syllabus to them many would just tune me out, and God forbid they should read it alone on their own time. The idea of telling them how language is learned by college students originated the last time we discussed language acquisition in my intro to linguistics class. I basically tell the students that language is acquired in two ways. Before puberty children develop the language(s) they are exposed to naturally and effortlessly. Around puberty this ability shuts off. In a classroom situation, adults have to learn a language cognitively (I explain what “cognitively” means) and that takes effort. If anyone is interested in reading scholarly research on the subject, I recommend Language Acquisition After Puberty by Judith Strozer. I have appended the relevant portion of my Italian 1 syllabus to the end of this article. Please see below. But wait! What if there’s a better way for us to teach and our students to learn? If you’re onto something, please enlighten us. Also, what information about how language is learned in a classroom situation do you include in your syllabi?

This is what the students take turns reading to one another sometime during the first week of class:

Welcome to the study of the Italian language and Italian culture!

Italian 1 is designed for adults who are just beginning their study of Italian. It is important to know that a language is acquired in two different ways.

Because the brain is hardwired for language acquisition, children develop the language or languages they are exposed to naturally and without any instruction.

During puberty, this ability to develop a language by just “absorbing it from the environment like a child does” disappears.

That means that adults (from teenagers to the elderly) can no longer develop a language naturally but instead have to learn a new language by studying its structures and vocabulary in an orderly way and by practicing them, usually by communicating with others.

Linguists say that adults have to learn a new language cognitively, which means they have to consciously use mental processes such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment and their experience with their native language for learning to occur.

All modern language classes are “performance classes.” That means that everyone has to read aloud to the class from time to time and also converse with classmates during in-class activities, and do it all in Italian.

Don’t worry; if you pay attention, it’s pretty easy. And the instructor is always glad to help you.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes while speaking. Everybody makes at least an occasional mistake in a beginning language class. Please accept correction gracefully and learn from your mistakes. And never criticize others, not even in jest.

After the first week or so, during which time we will have fun greeting each other, introducing ourselves, learning to count, asking one another personal information questions, saying good-bye, etc., we will begin to focus on grammar (basically, how to form words and sentences) and vocabulary (words we need to know in order to talk about daily life, etc.) in a step-by-step fashion.

Grammar is usually easy and can be fun, like playing a game or solving a puzzle. It feels really good when you “get it.”

Vocabulary is fascinating, too. Many Italian words are immediately recognizable since Italian and English share thousands of words that come from Latin and the Romance languages. Most Italian words have interesting linguistic histories that make them easier to learn.

Please remember, Roma non fu costruita in un giorno! (Rome wasn’t built in a day!)

It takes time to “build” the language step by step, so in class please be patient, pay close attention, take notes with pencil and paper, ask questions till you understand, and then practice by conversing with a classmate.

Please trust the instructor, who has had many years of experience teaching foreign languages, to order the material in such a way that each day’s lesson builds on previous lessons. That way your knowledge of Italian will continue to grow in a useful way.

From the first day on, try to speak in simple sentences rather than just words.

Every semester, some beginning students are under the impression that learning a foreign language means just memorizing useful phrases. Nothing could be further from the truth The only way adults can become Italian-speakers is to study Italian grammar and vocabulary so they can gradually begin to create their own original sentences.

A great idea is to find classmates who are really serious about learning to speak Italian so you can use your Italian to communicate with one another outside of class. Everyone on campus will think you’re so cool because you can actually speak Italian to one another!

If there are additional words or expressions you and your friends want to use with each other, just ask the instructor after class.

According to linguistic research, a high school graduate knows approximately 60,000 words of his or her native language and has mastery of almost all of its structures.

It takes many years to learn all that in a second language, so at first you have to be content to limit yourself to what you can say in Italian and say whatever else is necessary in English. Please be patient and focus your energies on what we’re currently studying.

By coming to class and participating regularly and doing the homework, your ability to communicate in Italian will grow steadily.

Also, it is a good idea to reread the material we have gone over in class several times before the next class and even memorize a lot of it if you can. And definitely reread it before beginning to do your homework.

Before an exam always reread the entire unit, at least to make sure you know what all the words mean.

Take your book with you when you go to a place where you’ll have time on your hands, like some place where you have to wait in line for a long time to buy concert tickets.

Coming prepared to every class, participating actively in class activities, faithfully turning in your homework when it is due, and studying hard outside of class so you the material inside out is the only way to learn Italian and get a good grade in the class. If this hasn’t been your pattern in school, it’s time to make a change. You can do it! Everyone can learn new habits!

Sorry to say, it is disastrous to wait until the last few weeks of class to “get with the program.” You risk learning little if anything, and you will probably get a D or an F on all your exams and, therefore, as your final course mark.

Also, there is nothing you can do in the final weeks to make up for procrastination. There is no “last moment extra credit” because the goal of the course is to learn Italian, and it takes time for a language to slowly “brew” in your brain.

Exam scores are objective and are the best indication available of how much you’ve learned. That’s why final course marks are based mostly on the average of your exam scores. However, students who do not attend class regularly can not receive an A or a B in the course no matter what the average of their test scores is. In fact, it is departmental policy that students who miss six classes for any reason must be dropped.

In the final analysis, each student has to take charge of his or her learning. The instructor can show you the language, explain it to you, play with it with you, use it to communicate with you, but he cannot learn it for you. That’s not his job, that’s your job. Remember, Italian will not eventually come to you; if you really want it you have to reach out and grab it and make it yours!

Take some time and thought to figure out your own personal learning strategies and add to them as the semester progresses.

Although the focus of the course is learning the Italian language, Italian culture can be interesting, and knowing about it is important.

Culture includes history, geography, the history of the Italian language, art, music, sport, famous Italians throughout history, the regions and cities of Italy, politics, youth culture, current trends, scenic spots, Italian cuisine, holidays, the Vatican, religion in Italy, attitudes towards minorities, housing, Italian cars, the story of the Italian-Americans, and much more. Wikipedia and YouTube are excellent sources for Italian culture!

The instructor needs your cooperation in order to use class time in the best way possible.

Accordingly, please come to class promptly every time it meets, put your homework on the instructor’s table, find a seat, take out your textbook and open it to where we left off (it’s wise to use some sort of book marker). Open your notebook, too, and prepare to take notes by hand (no laptops, please).

When the instructor steps to the lectern and greets the class, please be silent immediately because that means it’s time to take roll and get to work!

Please do not ask questions that are “off topic” in class. The instructor will be glad to talk to you after class or at some other time you and he agree on.

However, during class time feel free to ask questions about the current lesson.

Learning a language is a human-centered activity, so please turn off your smartphones and/or any other electronic devices, put them in you backpack, purse or pocket and forget about them for the duration of the class. They are of no use in a language class, and many students have a hard time resisting the temptation to go online, text, etc.

Why not make a rule for yourself something like this one: “This is the time for focusing on Italian; I hereby free myself from slavery to my smartphone for the next hour and fifty minutes.”

However, if you you know you might receive an emergency call during class, please tell the instructor as soon as you arrive. If you have to answer an emergency call, please go out into the hallway to continue your conversation.

Also, please don’t waste your time by drawing during class time. You really have to rivet your attention on what’s going on in class to learn Italian.

If you find the class uninteresting you might want to consider dropping this semester and taking it some other time when you feel you can really concentrate. Or perhaps you might choose to study something else if you decide language learning is not your “thing.”