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The shifting trends of language learning

In 2013, Johnson Hall reopened after a year-long renovation of the building’s interior. The renovation involved the decommissioning of the Keck Language and Culture Studio, a space that many language professors referred to as the language lab. In the four years since the hall’s reopening, language technology has adapted to the times. Associate Director of the Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA) Christopher Gilman and, more recently, CDLA Language Education Specialist Yovanna Cifuentes-Goodbody have been exploring new technologies for the language departments, including virtual and augmented reality.

While the language lab was not dedicated solely to language learning, it did include computers with software such as Rosetta Stone and served as a community space for language students and faculty, according to Hanan Elsayed, a professor in the French and Arabic departments. Elsayed and Walter Richmond, a professor in the Russian department, said they expected the studio to still be operating when Johnson Hall reopened.

“Language faculty were not informed beforehand about the decision to get rid of the language lab altogether. When we moved back to Johnson after the renovation, we were surprised to see that the language lab was gone,” Elsayed said.

According to Elsayed, the computers with Rosetta Stone are now in the music library in Booth Hall. Elsayed said students often complain that the Music Library closes at 6 p.m. and that there are no language tutors present to answer questions.

Associate Dean of the College for Curriculum and Academic Support Susan Gratch, a professor in the theater department, said that at the time of the renovation, Occidental was already making the shift to more advanced technology for language learning.

“More and more, people are moving away from the language lab model,” Gratch said.

Gilman said the language lab was technologically obsolete and that many peer institutions were removing their language labs around the same time. According to Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, research shows that traditional language tools are being replaced with more effective methods that rely on interactions and storytelling.

According to Associate Dean of Middlebury Language Schools Elizabeth Karnes Keefe, Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont — which offers one of the greatest breadths of foreign language courses in the country — replaced its language lab in 2007 with individual language offices. Karnes Keefe said that advances in technology eliminated the need for a language lab.

“When students started to be able to download class assignments and language samples onto their iPods, we were able to start loaning those out, just as we do books put on reserve, instead of using a traditional language lab,” Karnes Keefe said.

According to Pitzer College’s website, language labs are still active at the institution but are used as a place for interactive language and cultural events. The Fletcher Jones Language and Culture Laboratory at Pitzer College is open throughout the week. Its staff holds peer tutoring in Spanish Mondays through Fridays and screens a Spanish film series at night.

There is a similar plan for the first floor of Johnson Hall, according to Gilman. He said the loss of the language software is not the faculty’s main concern.

“Whether the Keck language lab was outdated or not is a completely different topic,” Elsayed said. “The primary concern here is the loss of a space dedicated to language students.”

Gilman said that the CDLA worked in conjunction with Gratch’s predecessor, former Associate Dean of the College for Curriculum and Academic Support Amy Lyford, to bring the Peer Language Advising program from the Music Library to the Global Forum in Johnson Hall. Although the computers with Rosetta Stone are still in the Booth Hall music library, the Peer Language Advising hours are now held in the forum. Gilman and Cifuentes-Goodbody also started Language Happy Hour, an hour every Tuesday afternoon when language students can gather in the Global Forum area in Johnson Hall to study, get help on homework and eat complimentary snacks, according to Gilman.

“They’re in each other’s company and there’s kind of a lively presence,” Gilman said. “It’s multilingual.”

Individual language departments and the CDLA have also created language and cultural events such as International Karaoke Night and the screening of French and Spanish language movies in Johnson Hall.

Gilman said that in addition to providing a new common space, the CDLA and President’s Office have sought to update Occidental’s language learning technology. According to Gilman, part of this effort involved hiring a language education specialist to oversee the peer learning program, provide professional development for language faculty and incorporate new technology into language education. In February 2017, Gilman, Damian Stocking, chair of the Comparitive Studies in Literature and Culture department, and language professors Mike Shelton and Sarah Chen hired Cifuentes-Goodbody as the CDLA’s Language Education Specialist. Cifuentes-Goodbody, previously a Spanish instructor at Yale University, said she is exploring the possible applications of technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality in language classes.

“Yovi is exploring different technologies and different methods that are more appropriate to 21st-century learners engaging with authentic language material,” Gilman said.

Cifuentes-Goodbody said that since she started working in February, Occidental has funded her trips to three conferences: the 2017 American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference, the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium and the Bilingualism Matters Conference. Cifuentes-Goodbody said she was able to share her findings with language faculty through a series of workshops called the Active Language Teaching Series.

Cifuentes-Goodbody said these workshops focused on content-based learning or learning a language as a byproduct of studying a specific topic in that language, rather than focusing strictly on the mechanics.

“It’s important to make the connection between meaning and form,” Cifuentes-Goodbody said.

According to Cifuentes-Goodbody, professors can effectively apply new technologies such as augmented reality in this approach to teaching. She was able to learn about how augmented reality and interactive fiction can be used to teach languages at the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium. Cifuentes-Goodbody said that professors could use an augmented reality program called ARIS to create Pokémon-Go-style scavenger hunts in which students can see marked locations in an app on their phones or create a guided in-language tour of an area that is relevant to the history of their respective language.

Cifuentes-Goodbody said students could also use a virtual reality program called Tilt Brush to practice writing the characters of a foreign alphabet. According to Cifuentes-Goodbody, the program allows the user to draw in the air in front of them with the controller that accompanies the Oculus headset.

“I was thinking, maybe we can use this for students to practice the new alphabet in a very different way,” Cifuentes-Goodbody said.

According to Cifuentes-Goodbody, the most common example of interactive fiction is choose-your-own-adventure novels, but the idea could easily be applied to language learning. For example, in order to learn about gendered nouns in Spanish, students could choose either a male or a female protagonist in a short story. All the adjectives to describe that protagonist would change according to the student’s choice. Using interactive fiction is another example of content-based learning that can teach students grammar without having grammar as the text’s central focus, according to Cifuentes-Goodbody.

“Hidden in there is the learning of the structures,” Cifuentes-Goodbody said.

Although Occidental language professors are not currently using augmented reality, virtual reality or interactive fiction programs, Cifuentes-Goodbody said that her dream is to incorporate them all into language learning. She said she has already been able to help implement a program called iSpraak that gives students immediate feedback on their pronunciation in an Arabic class. Cifuentes-Goodbody said she is optimistic that she will be able to do the same with other programs and that the administration has been open to all of her ideas.

“I haven’t received any rejections. I always feel like the idea is: if language faculty wants to implement this, let’s do it,” Cifuentes-Goodbody said.

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