Learn a foreign language – over the Web
Internet phone programs and webcams give students daily practice with native speakers.
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Wide-eyed at the notion of real-time contact with people from other time zones, some students continue these conversations on their own. Acker says he is getting on Skype more frequently now – not for a grade, but "just to practice my Spanish," he says. Students periodically switch their overseas language partners, letting them hear a variety of accents and speaking styles.Skip to next paragraph
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"Students are having these conversations all hours of the day and night outside of class," says Professor Sawhill. Her students have spoken in Arabic to their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and in Spanish with students in Mexico. (Webcams are optional at Oberlin.)
Instructors say the conversations often spark students' interest in international issues, which they see as important at a time when Americans are accused of not being interested in the rest of the world.
Ms. Coffey at Marquette says that a language partner from, say, Argentina, may bring up a topic that could motivate an American student to read about the issue before their next conversation.
While a few universities have banned Skype out of security and bandwidth concerns, San Jose State University, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, lifted a short-lived ban last year.
"We didn't feel the bandwidth issue was as serious as the university made it out to be," says Steve Sloan, an IT consultant and journalism and mass communications lecturer at San Jose State who protested the ban. "It's not a huge load on a network" he says. "It takes so little bandwidth that you can use it over dial-up."
Language experts say weekly 25-minute conversations won't transform a beginner into a multilingual wunderkind overnight, but regular contact with a native speaker is a giant step up from slogging through the cassette-based listen-and-repeat methods often used in college language labs.
Suzanne Flynn, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., agrees that Skype is beneficial, but she says it has its limitations.
"You want speaking," she says, but in-person experiences are better because people derive meaning in a multitude of ways, such as the subconscious reading of body language and gestures. Pauses could also be misunderstood if there are momentary lags caused by a weak Internet connection.
And because some higher-pitched sounds cannot be heard clearly over the phone, it is far from ideal for tonal languages like Chinese. Still, she says, there are benefits: "Building up some confidence and lexicon is important."
Instructors like Coffey say language exchanges via Skype have the potential to fling wide OPEN the doors of cross-cultural communication.
"What's happening now is that people are just getting their feet wet," she says. "As time goes on, just like e-mail, this will be at the forefront of all of our methodologies."