Technology no obstacle to language education

MIDDLEBURY — Lillian Stroebe, who founded the Middlebury College Language Schools in 1914, said Middlebury was an ideal location for an immersive language program because of the degree of isolation it offered.
“Middlebury was actually chosen because at the time, it was in the middle of nowhere and students would come here and there wouldn’t be a lot of distractions and you could create the kind of isolation that would allow them to do that full immersion,” said Stephen Snyder, current dean of the Language Schools.
Now, that isolation is challenged by students’ near-constant proximity to social media, news, music and phone conversations afforded by smartphones.
“We’ve realized for a number of years that students — everybody — are much more connected to their family, their environment, and to their devices,” Snyder said.
The summer 2018 Language School sessions, which begin this Friday, will implement an array of new instructional approaches that have been developed over the past several years in consideration of the role that technology has come to play in the program’s immersive experience.
The Language Schools’ educational mission is based on a “total-immersion” philosophy: Students take a pledge to speak only their language of study for the duration of their program, and failure to comply with this pledge can lead to expulsion. In order to achieve success, this approach relies on a significant degree of isolation from English-speaking relatives and media — which has become increasingly difficult to achieve in the smartphone era.
But rather than ban smartphones and other technology, the Language Schools are working within the new technology-laden environment.
“What we’ve been trying to do is instead of prohibiting those devices, which isn’t practical and obviously has no long-term possibility, we’ve been trying to use those devices to enhance learning,” Snyder said.
Scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat in English can present a brief but nonetheless profound disruption to the full-immersion experience the program seeks to provide.
“At convocation, I tell students that they really should switch their operating system to their language of study, and if possible, to switch as much of their social media stream to sites that are in the language of study,” Snyder said.
At the same time, instructors have used devices to which students have near-constant access to present fun, engaging learning tools.
For example, this summer the Japanese school will post around campus Quick Response (QR) codes — those little white boxes with black vertical lines or little squares that you often find on product packaging — to provide students with opportunities to engage in quick language-study “interactive moments,” as Snyder calls them. Students can scan a barcode with their smartphone and enjoy mini-lessons and interactive exercises in their language of study while exploring campus.
Over the past three years, new technology has also provided Language School administrators the chance to innovate “pre-immersion” study opportunities. In one instance, students who will be studying languages that rely on alternative writing systems, such as Korean, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Hebrew, have the opportunity to learn or brush-up on the writing systems required for their language of study prior to their arrival.
According to Snyder, the Russian school recently implemented online pre-immersion resources through collaboration with the college’s Digital Learning Office that include virtual tours of campus and interactive lessons with professors.
“We engage one of the instructors to meet with the beginning students so that they feel a little less of the immersion anxiety, and they teach basic greetings and everyday management techniques,” Snyder said.
Middlebury College student Evan Mercer, who studied Arabic last summer at the Language School’s program at Mills College, felt that most students in his program were conscientious of the role that technology played in their respective immersive experiences.
“I felt that people were very aware about how technology has changed the idea of an immersive language experience,” Mercer said. “Through switching my phone to Arabic, and restricting ourselves to our pre-downloaded Arabic music, everyone brought the outside world into the program. Staying immersed became a very individualized task.”
Amelia Pollard, a college student who will attend French Language School in Middlebury beginning on June 29, hopes to use social media to the benefit of her immersive experience.
“I think with discipline, technology and social media will be positive contributions to my summer,” she said. “The two can be wielded to fit the needs of an immersive language student in a way that increases exposure to the given language. I’m hoping to download apps for French news media sites, and am even looking forward to watching the World Cup through French broadcasting networks online.”
Although technology can be use to students’ advantage, at the end of the day the foundation of the Language Schools’ immersive curriculum is human communication.
“It is important to acknowledge that the Language Schools’ success rests on a place-based, face-to-face pedagogy,” said Per Urlaub, associate dean of the Language Schools. “Therefore, we are always looking for technological innovations that have the potential to support our model. We are not interested in the development or implementation of technologies that disrupt or replace our successful pedagogy.”
Language programs begin between June 22 and July 3 and last between six and eight weeks, depending on language of study. Shorter three-week programs begin in late July. Programs are offered at the college in Spanish, French, Korean, Chinese, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian and Japanese. Immersive Arabic programs are offered through a program at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

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