How do you aim a virtual spitball?
First you make the spitball. Then you make a global network of connected computers. Then you use the latest video conferencing technology to get a student in the U.S. to sit down with a student in Argentina for a face-to-face conversation. Then, finally, they decide whether it’s the teacher in L.A. or the teacher in Buenos Aires who’s about to receive an unexpected tap on the back.
And while they’re colluding on their sneak attack, the two students in question are giving each other a first-hand lesson in how to really communicate in another language. It’s Spanish class in the 21st century, with the aid of video conferencing.
Video Conferencing Means Learning Language from Experience
The mantra from one of the United Nation’s teacher’s handbooks dictates that children learn best from experience. While watching from afar and reading about a subject are important in establishing the terms of the task, they pale when compared to actually getting a little trial-and-error time of your own.
That’s why international language schools have long taught that the chance to interact directly with native speakers gives students a significant advantage. Parroting phrasing, pronunciation, and tone is actually how children learn their first language from their parents–no grammar worksheets or flashcards necessary. Many language classes currently take trips to foreign countries for the chance to immerse students in the day-to-day workings of another language. However, the proliferation of computer technology in today’s schools could let students gain that experience first-hand every time they enter the classroom.
Teachers may be able to connect with a sister school in a country that speaks the language they’re teaching their kids via any of the free video chat services online today, and a student will be able to speak with someone their own age who might be simultaneously learning the caller’s own native tongue–after 20 minutes of English the class might switch to Spanish.
One World, One Classroom
Video conferencing is already having an impact in the classroom. Students from the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska last year used a video link up with students in Nazareth, Israel to share ideas on the sources of major conflicts.
In other areas of the world, teachers are using video conferencing to bring the far-flung authors of their students’ favourite books into the classroom for a personal chat. In each case video conferencing is introducing a new experience into the learning process, while maintaining the structure and function of the classroom.
In the case of a language exchange across the Americas, a single teacher could monitor the exchanges of dozens of students using a multi-service platform. Today’s integrated video services that allow for screen sharing and document exchange could let students play games, share music and film, complete math and reading assignments, and even, through the use of touch screens, share a canvas and create works of art together.
Researchers at MIT are already working on technology that will allow multiple users to collaborate simultaneously on 3D projects through video chat. And they’ve developed a method of transforming digital data into physical shapes and materials, letting users literally sculpt information into cyberspace.
Advances like these could become interdisciplinary, allowing students to work together on a project teaching them about math, computer science, and physics while forcing them to improve their foreign language comprehension. Such a project would require careful collaboration while engaging all the senses, like building giant sand castles within a sandbox that stretches from L.A. to Buenos Aires. And all the while they’d be immersed in each other’s native language.
Research suggests this kind of multi-sensory learning better reflects the way the human brain naturally develops, and may help students gain a quicker grasp of complex new tasks, such as learning a second language.
Translation on the Go Makes Immersion Easier
Further pushing the boundaries of what is possible in shared language lessons is the announcement that both Google and Microsoft are in the process of refining real-time spoken translation products.
While still in development, the Skype- and Android-based services can detect foreign languages and pass on a written translation to the listener’s screen within seconds.
This convergence of video and translation services substantially lowers the bar of fluency needed to let students engage with each other across the language barrier. Students need only be able to read and they can begin to hear how foreign words sound coming out of the mouths of native speakers their own age, and match simple phrases with their meanings.
With the help of a video platform, and a like-minded teacher on the other side willing to also make the leap, language students of any classroom the globe over could have access to a world of new peers and mentors–even if they’ll still get up to the same mischief students will forever enjoy in the classroom.