Video pen-pals: new way to learn foreign languages

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When students at Wissahickon High School want to know how to cook sukiyaki, or the difference between Sumo and Greco-Roman style wrestling, they don't have to go to the home economics teacher or the wrestling coach.

Instead, they can ask their peers in Japan via television cassette.

The Ambler, Pa., school district is the first in the country to set up an organized video exchange with foreign countries. International Videoexchange, as it is called, allows US schools to videotape their students and then exchange the videocassettes with schoolchildren in foreign coutries.

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The concept is hailed not only as a better way to teach language, it may well serve to expand student's cultural horizons.

"International Videoexchange has a simple premise," says Dr. Alan Soffin, the originator of the idea. "Give students an opportunity for international communication at the outset of their language studies, rather than teaching a foreign language as 'practice' for later use, and the interest and motivation become real life and natural."

For the letters exchanged by pen pals, substitute videocassettes, suggests Dr. Manfred Heid of New York's Goethe Language Institute. "I am convinced it will be very useful in cultural exchange between schools." The videocassettes may one day replace language textbooks in advanced classes, he adds.

West Germany and the United States already have 160 school partnerships where schools from each country are paired and student-exchanged visits result. With a video exchange, "students and teachers [would] be able to prepare their meetings to each other's country ahead of the actual visit, and they can continue their friendship long after in a way that letters or sound cassettes never could," Dr. Heid says.

Michel Domaine at the French Embassy in New York remarks that video exchange is just beginning in France.

"the expenses must be worked out yet," he says. The concept of students talking directly to other students will allow a "much broader spectrum" of middle- and working-class students to obtain a more sophisticated intercultural experience, whether or not a visit to the US occurs.

A stumbling block to schools adopting a video-exchange program, says Dr. Heid , is technical implementation, not the pedagogical concept. "The different norms for the audio-video signal in Europe and the US result in schools not having the same equipment on both sides."

A district or school would have to buy a playback machine that would accept the different cassettes. Only a couple of German schools have the conversion equipment so far.

Mr. Soffin estimates that "for less than $10,000, a school district in the US can acquire the equipment to make student videocassettes." After the outlay for the physical hardware, (if not already owned as part of a school's media center) the only other costs would be blank cassettes and postage.

The tapes run between 20 and 30 minutes, with the first half in the sender's language and the latter half in the recipient's.

Then the learning, and the fun, begins.

Beth Hamilton, a junior at Wissahickon, enthusiastically touts video exchange. When her German class filmed a football pep rally, she says, "They don't have pep rallies in German high schools, and when we had to explain what was going on, in German of course, it really motivated us."

Beth and her friends said they couldn't wait to see (and they literally will) the reaction of their German peers.

Albert Lord, a Wissahickon 10th grader who went on a foreign exchange program , used the vidoecassettes beforehand to introduce himself to his French host family. "By still sending videotapes I also keep our relationship going a lot better now that I am back in the States," he says.

But the "videoletter" pen-pal analogy "is limited," says Mr. Soffin. "It's like thinking of the light switch and the transistor as essentially the same since both are either 'on' or 'off.' The light's switch is a convenience. [But in language education,] the videocassette, like the transistor, is the basis of a revolution."

For more information, Mr. Soffin can be contacted at Wissahickon High School, Houston Road, Ambler, Pa. 19002.

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