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.
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.
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.
"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."