Last fall, the ACM announced a language sharing project called Sharing the Bounty was awarded $42,448 from the Enhancing the Midwest Knowledge Ecosystem (EMKE). The EMKE is a Mellon-funded partnership between the ACM and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is an academic consortium of the universities in the Big Ten Conference and the University of Chicago focused on exploring potential collaborations amongst those schools.
Sharing the Bounty is a collaboration between professors at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College and the University of Michigan to develop an online language course for Hindi. As with other Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL), Hindi is not often taught due to lower enrollments and the lack of high quality language materials. So the team is planning to develop a new online textbook for this program. From what I’ve read, it sounds like they will be following a more content-based approach that will focus equally on cultural fluency as well as linguistic competence.
The field of foreign language education has often been targeted for these kinds of distance education programs, but as any language educator knows this is a difficult proposition. There is a natural fit for online grammar and vocabulary exercises, or viewing audio and video recordings of the language and culture in action. Foreign language educators have always been on the forefront of technology use even in face-to-face classes, bring records, cassette tapes, laser disks, computers and streaming video into the classroom in abundance.
But these are only part of the language teaching and learning puzzle. A critical component of language learning is language production. The students must have not just ample, but plentiful opportunities to speak and interact in the target language. They must be interacting with peers and their instructor in the language on a very regular basis, daily is ideal. Even with this component, it’s very difficult for many students to get through a typical first stage of language acquisition, known as the silent period , to the point where they are even mildly comfortable speaking in the target language. And so instructors must encourage and cajole, creating a comfortable and safe atmosphere for students so that they lower their affective filter  enough to start participating frequently.
The art of creating this atmosphere in a language classroom is difficult in a face-to-face setting, but seems overwhelming and nigh impossible when you take these interactions online. Anyone who has attended an online meeting or webinar can attest to how the different medium, though synchronous, creates an entirely different set of social interaction challenges. There is a slight time lag to synchronous interactions such that participants must tolerate unnatural pauses and frequent requests for repetition as everyone inadvertently talks over one another. And that’s even when the technology is working flawlessly!
And yet the opportunity to offer Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) to those who are motivated to learn them no matter their proximity is very enticing. LCTL educators are often seeking higher enrollments both to maintain the program offerings and to create a better balance of interactions in the classroom. If we can overcome the interaction challenges in the synchronous online classroom, we could have students from different areas and more varied backgrounds in the same classroom. This fact alone gives students even more reason to speak to one another, promoting more authentic target language interactions in the classroom. It could be really great!
The Sharing the Bounty project will be one for language educators to watch closely. It could also be a model for how Carleton College and our LACOL partners approache our collaborations in all disciplines. I know I’ll be interested to see how they handle some of the issues specific to teaching language, particularly in their choices of technologies. But it’ll be exciting to watch!