Second Year Spanish II, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne
In this project, TalkAbroad will be a key tool in improving the quality and function of language lab activities in a fourth-semester basic language Spanish course. In the current curriculum, students must complete two hours each week engaging in activities that will expose them to the cultures and language of the Spanish-speaking world. This has traditionally relied on watching films, listening to music and reading newspapers or other short texts. In other words, while students are focused on reading, writing and listening, the language lab activities have difficulty engaging practice in speaking. TalkAbroad can integrate that fourth language skill into the cultural curriculum by enabling students to engage in conversation about cultural topics, such as the world of commerce, work life, the environment and health. This, in turn, can help students prepare for three oral exams that will take place during the semester, while also improving listening skills. Moreover, by having first-hand contact with native speakers, students can use their conversation partners as resources for tailoring research for lab reports to their interests. In other words, TalkAbroad has the potential to improve cultural competency while keeping the goal of helping students reach ACTFL’s Intermediate-Mid range in Interpersonal Communication.
Second Year Spanish II (PAN S204) is the fourth semester of a four-semester sequence of basic language. Vocabulary topics include shopping and commerce, professions and the business world, art and entertainment, the environment and health and the human body. Students improve their abilities in narrating in the past, giving recommendations in the present and developing new abilities in giving recommendations in the past, talking about uncertainty in particular situations and talking about hypothetical situations with expected and unexpected outcomes. As stated on the syllabus, the two hours of weekly assigned language lab time is crucial to the learning outcomes of the course: “The ultimate goal [of this class] is familiarity and facility with the language that should enable students to enjoyably and profitably pursue any and all aspects of Hispanic culture that might interest them. To accomplish these goals, it is imperative that students attend every class and complete their two (2) Language Lab hours per week. The language lab provides students with an opportunity to pursue topics of interest to them in an intercultural context, making use of the communicative grammar and vocabulary as a jumping-off point for exploring the varied cultural realities of the Spanish-speaking world.” However, the activities that are often assigned to complete these lab hours are focused on watching films, listening to music and reading newspapers or other short readings. In other words, while students engage the interconnections of language and culture through reading, listening and writing, they have less opportunity to do so in speaking. Opportunities to engage in speaking often require excursions or may present obstacles that lead some students to disengage from the learning opportunities. Moreover, the opportunities to engage in speaking are often limited. For this reason, conversational abilities are often less developed than abilities in the other language skills despite the fact that many students are most interested in gaining increased ability in speaking Spanish. Most speaking practice in these courses is between second-language learners at similar levels and with the professor teaching the course. The curriculum could be enhanced by integrating more speaking practice with native speakers into the course.
By adding a conversational component to language lab time, the biggest advantage is adding speaking practice with native speakers into the engagement with culture through visual and textual works. This interpersonal interaction can provide a concrete starting point for student reading and exploration of topics. For example, our textbook has an image of the way products are purchased in the Spanish-speaking world: a fish monger (pescadería), a butcher shop (carnicería), a fruit market (frutería), a stationery store (papelería), etc. While it is advantageous to engage in conversation in class about how students acquire daily items (e.g. at stores like Wal-Mart or Target or Sam’s and Costco) in contrast with the images in the book, it is not always immediately clear that some of those same retailers (e.g. Wal-Mart and Costco) are major players in places like Mexico. While students can read newspaper and other articles about these phenomena, it would be far richer to engage in conversation with a native speaker to compare and contrast the way they purchase items on a daily basis. The same is the case for learning about professions, talking about the environment and talking about health and diet. Students can enhance their reading by adding speaking and listening practice to their reading and writing practice.
We plan to add up to four conversations to the curriculum, which would significantly enhance the language engagement in these cultural activities while also increasing contact with target cultures. While the quality of the language lab activities would improve, it would also provide students the opportunity to increase speaking proficiency in preparation for three oral exams they will take throughout the semester.
I used TalkAbroad to fulfill part of our curriculum that requires students to complete two hours of language lab time each week. I adapted the conversations around a set of preparation activities and focused them on using targeted grammar structures, as well as a series of narrative topics for the students to discuss. These included environmental problems, vocabulary sections on purchasing and buying things, etc. Students were often shocked to find out that Walmart, for example, is a major retailer in Mexico and that is adapts their retail strategies to cater to the needs in Mexico. While I could have designed that kind of activity previously, it was more impactful using TalkAbroad because it makes it more concrete and the students are using spoken Spanish, in addition to reading and writing. TalkAbroad enabled me to more easily incorporate the speaking aspect into my class and it enriched the class in cultural content as well.
I have continued to use TalkAbroad for two additional semesters, including in a 300-level course. This course is focused around films and so I developed a conversations plan around the country the film is from. The students explored the topics in the films and had a conversation with their partner to discuss that.
Student feedback has been positive, as students have said TalkAbroad is helpful and beneficial to the class and what we’re learning. Students commented that TalkAbroad fits well with the class, made them feel more comfortable with the language and challenged them to speak. I conducted evaluations at the beginning and end of the semester and the students’ scores improved over the semester. When rating their comfort using spoken Spanish with a native speaker on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being not comfortable at all and 10 being extremely comfortable, the average score before their first conversation via TalkAbroad was 4 and the average after their first conversation was 5.4. At the end of the semester, after four TalkAbroad conversations, students rated their perception of their comfort speaking Spanish with a native speaker at the beginning of the semester with an average score of 3.14 and their comfort after four TalkAbroad conversations with an average score of 6.42. This says to me that, in regard to the nervousness in engaging and using Spanish (especially with native speakers), TalkAbroad was particularly beneficial to the students.
We experienced small occasional technical problems or issues where there was confusion regarding time zones and TalkAbroad was generally good about working it out with the student. We had two small issues where the chat function on the website was utilized and those issues were resolved almost immediately.
We haven’t expanded TalkAbroad to other classrooms across campus yet, but as we begin the process of redesigning our curriculum soon, it’ll be something we discuss very seriously. I’ve been very pleased to be able to use TalkAbroad in my classrooms and several other professors are interested in it as well. TalkAbroad has been a very positive addition to my classes.
Stephen M. Buttes, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne