Enhancing Language and Culture Education Through Technology

I’ve long been interested in how technology can enhance education, particularly second language acquisition and cultural studies. As an undergraduate, I worked in Scripps College’s Language Lab, which had a variety of language-learning software designed to enhance students’ aural comprehension, use of accents, spelling, sentence structure, and pronunciation in addition to films that served to expose students to authentic speech and culture. Now, as a teacher, I’m constantly looking for ways in which the technology that govern students’ everyday lives can be used to help them learn about other languages and cultures in ways that will be useful both to them and to our global community.

Dr. Orlando Kelm of the University of Austin, Texas, has done extensive research on the benefits of incorporating web technology such as video and audio recordings, websites, blogs, and apps into the second language classroom. First, technology can increase students’ time on task. Though students spend a limited number of hours in class interacting with someone who has a near-native or native knowledge of the target language, video and audio available on the web allows them to can increase their exposure to spoken language. They can also listen to a variety of dialects and accents to which they might not have access during class time. Using web resources gives them the opportunity to listen to, take notes on, and make observations about and analyses of regional speech. Another solution would be to have students pair up with students in a country where the target language is spoken so that they can speak over a webcam. This tool is best used by advanced learners who feel comfortable receiving input as well as generating output.

Video and audio can simultaneously increase students’ exposure to authentic cultural products: they can listen to radio broadcasts and podcasts or watch commercials, political campaign advertisements, television shows, and films from target cultures made for native speakers. In a similar fashion, technology and multimedia can provide cultural context to facilitate retention of vocabulary, grammatical points, and idiomatic phrases. Audiovisual technology also helps students to learn chunks and scripts used by native speakers. The language, syntax, and sequencing used in different daily contexts, such as checking out at a store or supermarket, buying food in a marketplace, ordering a meal at a fast-food versus a fancy restaurant, etc., is often not taught as part of a traditional language course. Using technology that prepares students for how to react in such situations is a good way to incorporate culture with a lower-case c – customs, beliefs, habits, and daily rituals – into language learning.

The wealth of resources available on the internet is both a benefit and a drawback: so much information can sometimes overwhelm. On the other hand, technology can also allow students and instructors to filter the input by choosing resources carefully, allowing students to focus on particular aspects of language and culture. Having students post notes, observations, and questions on a course blog or website allows the professor to get a better idea of what the students have absorbed from class activities or lectures in addition to allowing students to share information with each other. Using class websites in this way also enables both professors and students to take a more active role in language teaching and learning rather than relying solely on a textbook to provide structure.

Technology can also enhance literature and cultural studies. Students reading a story or novel in which setting plays a major role might use Google Earth or Google Maps to get a better understanding of the cultural, political, and spatial environment in which the story takes place. I’m thinking particularly of works such as Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Luces de bohemia (1920) or Luis Martín-Santos’ Tiempo de Silencio (1960), in which the urban setting of Madrid is integral to the rhythm and message of the pieces. Historical maps that can illuminate works written in centuries past have become even more accessible thanks to web technology. Reading Mariano José de Larra’s articles can be enhanced by viewing a 1831 map of Madrid, overlaid onto Google Earth’s satellite images of the present-day city to show how the urban landscape has changed in the two intervening centuries. Many more such historical maps are available here.

I’ll be fortunate enough to attend a two-day workshop at Framingham State University on August 19 and 20, and I’m hoping to get some fresh ideas about how to incorporate technology into my courses in a productive way. The theme of the workshop is meeting the needs of the students of today and tomorrow, a theme about which I am wholeheartedly enthusiastic. I believe the best way to get students excited about other languages and cultures is to use the tools that shape their everyday lives, and there is no tool more ubiquitous than technology in all its many forms.

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