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Learn a foreign language – over the Web

Internet phone programs and webcams give students daily practice with native speakers.

By Matthew RuslingCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2007



Maurice Acker, a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee, practices Spanish with natives from Spain every Friday morning at the school's language lab. They talk about sports, cultural differences – the usual stuff of student conversations – but there's a twist: Mr. Acker has never met any of his conversational partners in person.

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That's because Marquette's Spanish and Italian curriculums use Skype, a free Internet phone service, to connect students with "language partners" all over the world.

Typically, students practice Spanish for 25 minutes and then switch to English for 25 minutes (it's an exchange: Their partners want to practice speaking English). All the students need is an Internet connection, a webcam, a microphone, and headphones.

"I feel more comfortable speaking in class than I did before," says Acker, who adds that his conversations over Skype have helped his Spanish improve much faster than drills in class.

Observers have criticized college language curriculums in the United States for incorporating little – if any – of the conversation time so crucial to learning.

"On average in any class of 20-plus students, a student will get two minutes of contact with that language," says Barbara Sawhill, director of the Cooper International Learning Center and lecturer in the Hispanic Studies department at Oberlin College in Ohio.

But now, some colleges are making broader use of the Web to engage students in global language practice sessions. Instructors tout the technology as a "limitless" teaching tool that fast-tracks foreign language competency. "This is revolutionizing our language teaching," says Colleen Coffey, a Spanish instructor at Marquette. She plans to keep the Skype sessions that she added to her syllabus last spring. "I don't think [using Skype is] just something that's going to pass," she says.

Making international calls via the Internet has yet to catch on with the 70 percent of Americans who use the Internet. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in December 2005 that only 13 percent of Internet users in the US have had an online phone conversation. But as more college campuses see the advantages of using Skype as an inexpensive teaching tool, that percentage is likely to go up. (Skype-user-to-Skype-user calls are free.)

"Common sense suggests that those numbers would surely rise more as the quality of the calls improves, as the services expand, and if the costs remain very low," says Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at the Pew Internet project in Washington.

Although observers say the technology's potential has been stifled by its image as a program for techies, it is catching on with language teachers in pockets across the nation. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., plans to add a Skype component to its Japanese, German, and Spanish classes this fall. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is using it now for French and German classes but plans to expand its use "as instructors hear about how easy it is," says Douglas Canfield, coordinator at the school's language-resource center.

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