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A Virtual World of Languages

A Virtual World of Languages

By Katherine Yungmee Kim, with additional reporting by Eva Emerson
January 2005

It’s noontime at The Language Center during Finals Week. Andrew Pick, a USC College junior majoring in East Asian Languages and Culture, is typing a paper in Pinyin—a system for Romanizing Chinese ideographs—at one of the Center’s 55 computer workstations. He has been visiting the Center for a few years—first, to do his Spanish homework online and now, for the use of the Chinese language software.

The center, housed on the third floor of the Mark Taper Hall of Humanities, offers facilities such as small group conversation rooms and interactive multimedia resources.  One large room holds circular carrels of computers, with walls declaring “Hello” in several different languages. Above the computers, a plasma TV is showing a Korean soap opera, facing another flatscreen broadcasting CNN in Spanish. Outside in the hallway, two women wait on a couch to take their orals in French III, lazily watching a talk show on TV5, a global French-language television network.

There are currently eight languages in the College that can be taken as majors and minors—Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, German, Russian and Korean (in order of popularity). There are also courses available in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese. Due to student demand, USC College offered its twelfth language—Hindi—through the linguistics department this fall.
Language training fosters not only breadth, but also learning to learn in unfamiliar terrain. Explains Sarah Pratt, dean of academic programs and professor of Slavic Languages and Literature:

"A new language, especially language taught within the context of culture the way we do it here in the College, lets a person see that things we take for granted are not necessarily universal."
Learning a new language broadens “the flexibility of mind to understand how and why other people might not see things the same way we do,” Pratt adds.
The Language Center, which opened in 1997, is dedicated to helping USC students learn languages and understand cultures from all areas of the world, in line with the university’s vision to be a global institution with international visibility and reach.
“Why do we learn foreign languages?” Dan Bayer, executive director of the Language Center asks rhetorically. “It’s not just about memorizing a system, or flash cards, or fill-in-the-blanks. It’s about your ability as a student to communicate in a different language that gives a sense of the other as opposed to self.”

Tech Support

Foreign language classes in the College are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. “Today, we not only have an array of formats in which to present our courses,” says Danielle Mihram, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET) at USC and a French lecturer in the College, “but also a variety of learning environments—both real and virtual—in which to teach.”
She attributes the change in the in-classroom experience to the enormous advances that have taken place in media, technology and the understanding of how people learn.
Problem-solving environments based on real-world problems are made possible through visualization and modeling software in computer simulations. Electronic communications systems connect students to a vast array of information as well to communities of practitioners worldwide.
“Interactive technologies provide students and teachers with opportunities for effective and timely feedback, reflection and revision,” Mihram explains. “Gone are the days of the 3 by 5 card.”

Setting the Online Precedent

In Spanish 240, students discern between ser and estar—the two forms of the verb “to be”—while examining photographs of Mexican immigrants being detained at the U.S. border. And they compare the sentiments of female characters in the post-Spanish Civil War novel Nada with those of the women in Picasso’s portraits.

This class—also known as Spanish 4, the most advanced level of Spanish in the Basic Language Program at the College—is a writing and reading intensive course that introduces students to themes in Hispanic cultures, such as feminism, the Mexican Revolution and immigration. A major component of the class also involves reviewing grammar skills.

Soon, students taking this course will be able to view all of their materials and complete all of their workbook exercises through an online, audio-visual, multimedia reader.

Sofia Ruiz-Alfaro and Claudia Soria, both full-time lecturers in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who are also doctoral graduates of the program, were awarded a 2004-5 grant from the Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching through CET for their reader project.

Currently, the class uses a traditional text and workbook, Avanzando, for core reading and grammar. But the two teachers found that the vocabulary and the exercises in the workbook did not reflect the thematic areas that they wanted to teach.
So they incorporated comics, murals, films and songs into their lesson plan, “motivating the students to think not only of the written word,” says Ruiz-Alfaro, “but also making them more creative, to express what they see and to make possibilities.”

The online reader, which will contain images, songs and digitized film—all related to the cultural components in the classroom—will be ready in the fall of 2005.

Spanish as a Model

In the late ’90s, Gayle Fiedler-Vierma, director of the Spanish language program, put all information related to the Spanish language program—e.g. syllabi, make-up and academic integrity policies—online.

In 1999, the online workbook was introduced to Spanish 1, 2 and 3, paving the way for advanced Spanish language classes, like those of Ruiz-Alfaro and Soria, to move online.

“More than half of the language students at the College are enrolled in Spanish,” explains Bayer. “Programmatically, we worked hard to make Spanish excellent. Now, it’s the model for other languages.”

Faculty in the Spanish department are well-versed technologically. Lecturer Galina Bakhtiarova created a virtual museum so that her students can view images relating to their readings. David Zarazua has his students write, direct, shoot and edit movies in Spanish about Hispanic themes. And Assistant Professor Bruce Burningham has set up a listserv so that student discussions can continue outside of the classroom.

Now, all of the Spanish classes have complete programmatic information and are graded through Blackboard, a university-wide electronic course management system. On Blackboard, students can see their grades, view their classroom materials and complete their homework assignments. The teachers can keep track of students who are logging on, tally how many times they have attempted workbook exercises and figure out grading percentages.

“It used to be that the business and journalism schools had all the technology while we were whipping out our overhead projectors,” says Fiedler-Vierma. “It’s nice to see language instruction on a par with other disciplines and it makes use of the skills and capacities that our students already possess.”

Although some of the technological advances seem obvious now, at the time they were seen as radical. “It was really a leap of faith,” says Bayer of the Language Center. “If Dr. Vierma had not taken the jump, languages would not be as technologically capacitated as they are today.”

Other departments are following suit. The Italian program is cooperating the College Language Center to develop an online, multi-user computer game to guide students through their first year of classes called “Virtual Italian Experience.” The game begins in a virtual USC classroom environment (based on a room in the vonKleinsmid Center). As learners progress, they travel virtually to Italy to broaden their learning environment.

In separate projects, East Asian Languages and Cultures has developed a first-level multimedia workbook and is developing a second-year multimedia textbook to help students master the Chinese language. Students will track the journeys of animated characters traveling and practicing their language skills in China.

“Lively animation and richer audio-visual stimulation can make the learning more fun, less stressful and more contextualized,” says Audrey Li, director of the Chinese language program, professor of EALC and an integral force behind the multimedia project. Or as Bayer simply states, using technology to teach languages today “makes the online experience more interesting for our students and helps motivate them to succeed.”