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Foreign Language Curriculum Frameworks

Appendix I. Technology

While language teachers have always successfully taught and students have always successfully learned foreign languages, their tasks can be facilitated by recent impressive advances in technology. Neither a solution for all problems, nor a threat to the role of the teacher, technology can help in both teaching and learning and can provide easy access to authentic audiovisual and text documents, previously either non-existent or difficult to obtain. The advantages of today's powerful computers, used alone or linked to the Internet and the World Wide Web (www), can apply to all of the Strands of the Foreign Languages Curriculum Framework.

Regardless of the type of computer chosen, teachers can find materials for language learning on:

  • local hard disk, that is, the hard disk of the computer being used;
  • local servers, large capacity storage devices linked to a group of computers, such as in a language or computer lab;
  • CD-ROM, which looks like an audio CD but holds digitized data, such as text, audio or video files, or computer programs (in the near future CD-ROMs will probably be replaced by DVD, digital video/versatile disc, a medium that has a much greater storage capacity and can hold a full length film on a single disc);
  • the internet, an international network of fiber-optic cables that transmits digitized information at high speeds, allowing users to exchange digitized data files, including e-mail;
  • the World Wide Web, a network of servers that uses the Internet to allow individuals to access materials on web pages and websites as if they were working on a local computer, enabling them to view and download audio and video material and to link to other pages and sites instantaneously.

Each of these modes of delivery has a role to play in language teaching and learning. Although the Internet and the web may seem the most impressive technologically, since they can link the user in real time to a target language country, they are not necessarily always the best tools for attaining specific language learning goals.

Materials available for students can be grouped into three categories:

  1. didactic,
  2. communicative, and
  3. informational.

These categories can be found in all the formats listed above and can apply to all the Strands of the Framework. A computer activity that involves communication can, at the same time, be a cultural experience, relate to another discipline, offer an opportunity to compare the native and target cultures, and establish contacts with native speakers of the target language. In the didactic category are programs created specifically for instructional purposes, such as the self-correcting electronic workbooks originally associated with computer-assisted language learning (CALL). The good ones (those that accept more than one correct answer, highlight errors, and allow more than one try) offer students necessary practice with immediate feedback and, equally important, decrease the time teachers need to spend on corrections. More recent versions often include multimedia in the form of digitized image, sound, or video files that make previously routine practice exercises more interesting and effective, since their appeal to multiple learning modalities fosters recall and retention. Another form of purely instructional software is the tutorial, which consists of an explanation of a specific topic, usually followed by verification exercises. These instructional programs are available on diskette, CD-ROM, or the web.

The conventional tutorial activities mentioned above usually concentrate on learning vocabulary and grammar. The advantage of the new technologies is that they allow students to work independently on listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing. Some programs, often presented on CD-ROM, allow students to verify their comprehension of audio or video material with much more control and precision than is possible using analog audio tape or videotape and guarantee active rather than passive viewing and listening. The increased sound capabilities of the computer make it possible for students to practice speech production by recording their voices, repeating utterances by native speakers, and then comparing the two speech samples, a process more effective on the computer because the frustration of searching for a specific spot on an audio tape, as when working with a tape recorder in the language lab, is eliminated. While not yet capable of natural speech, the computer does allow for simulated conversations in which the student uses the computer microphone to record answers to questions asked by the computer and then can listen to the sequence of rejoinders. Although, at this point, the computer cannot verify the accuracy of the student's production, it can be saved to a hard disk, diskette, or server for later review by the teacher.

Few teachers would suggest that students read long texts on the computer, and all would probably agree that we read more enjoyably and more efficiently when able to look at the pages of a book while sitting in a comfortable position. On the other hand, studies have shown that elementary and intermediate learners of another language retain more, especially with regard to vocabulary, when reading a hypertext document than when looking at a paper page with glosses. That is, the computer can present an unglossed text but allow students to access written definitions, illustrations, and sound references to increase their understanding. The act of accessing needed information combined with the multimedia format accounts for the better results from this type of reading.

Most programs for writing are ordinary text processors or writing aids, such as on-line dictionaries, spell checkers, and grammar checkers, which are usually available for the major foreign languages taught in Massachusetts schools. Teachers have to decide if having a program correct student errors helps them to learn, or if it is a crutch that allows them to be lazy. According to some researchers, students who use computers write more and better and engage in more revision, because of the ease with which the computer allows them to write recursively, as better writers do, experimenting with different wording and placement of ideas without having to retype an entire draft. There does not seem to be a consensus, however, that student writing is improved by use of the computer.16

In the category of didactic software, we can include CD-ROMs dedicated to a specific topic or serving as an efficient delivery medium for information. While not apparently created for instruction, their purpose seems to be to promote education, rather than simply offering general information to the public at large. Often created for the local educational market in the target language country, these CD-ROMs, such as Le Petit Prince or Versailles, simultaneously present target culture and target language in a multimedia environment, engaging students in game-like activities that include texts and audiovisual documents on history and literature. 17

When discussing activities in the communicative category, it is important to point out that, while computer-mediated oral communication facilitated by the network and video hardware and software is possible, it is not yet easy to implement in a typical school situation. Using the facilities of the Internet, people in two locations can see and speak with each other in real time, but both locations have to use the same hardware and software, and arrangements must be made in advance to have both parties at their computers at the exact same time, a difficult arrangement when dealing with a target language country that is in a very different time zone. In addition, in a classroom situation, where there might be only one computer, only one student could speak at a time, providing an experience which would not be extremely interactive for the great majority of the class.

In fact, most communication that occurs on the Internet or the web is written, in the form of electronic mail, or e-mail, which can take place via the Internet or local area networks (LANs). E-mail can be used to set up pen-pal correspondence that can be more spontaneous and frequent than an exchange of letters by regular mail. As e-mail becomes more popular and is used by the general public, it can be used for communication with a local target-language community, eliminating the scheduling difficulties often involved in organizing actual physical meetings between local informants and students.

Communication can also take place using listservers, which group those having a common interest and where anyone is free to broach a topic that others can respond to or not, as they choose. Discussion groups can also be launched from a web page, that is, messages from participants appear on the page, which is set up so that readers can add their opinions also. This can be done on a class web page, restricted to members of the class, or students can access a web page in a target language country and contribute to the discussion, either individually or as a group.

One of the most frequent uses of communication using the computer is neither on the Internet nor on the World Wide Web but on LANs, or local area networks, using programs that allow for synchronous conferencing.18 Rather than having an oral discussion, the class meets in a computer classroom to write responses to discussion questions about a specific reading or audio or visual document. Their writing is immediately transmitted to the entire class, that is, everyone connected to the network, who in turn will write their reactions to the texts that have appeared on their screens. In general, this type of communication seems to improve students' oral and written expression and is appreciated because of the low-stress environment in which it takes place.

The most technologically sophisticated aspect of the computer is its ability to use the World Wide Web which provides easy access to an infinite quantity of information. Of the various ways in which the computer can deliver materials to the students, the web can add the most to their learning experience but presents the greatest challenge to the teacher. From anywhere in the world, it is now possible to access another country and make contact with native speakers, read current newspapers, visit museums and see the buildings in a specific street in a specific city. (By going to, for example, the computer user can "visit" Paris.) It is even possible to listen, on-line, to radio stations from all over the world or to download stored clips. This is true of a more limited number of television channels, as well. Through the web, students can get as close to the target language culture as possible without actually being in the country. The infinite variety of sites makes it possible to use the target language to connect to other disciplines and to come in contact with diverse communities.

While it is exciting to surf the web to read a newspaper in Rome, listen to a radio station in Mexico, participate in debates about various topics in Spanish, or visit the Louvre, students do not necessarily learn from the experience if their attention is not focused on a specific goal. The task of the teacher is to guide the students so that they avoid aimless wandering and concentrate on those aspects of the material relevant to their class activity. Regardless of the specific tasks that students are asked to accomplish, they should always be given specific instructions concerning the websites that they are supposed to visit and the information they are to obtain. Luckily, there are a lot of prepared web activities that teachers can use, created by other teachers who have made them available to any user. In addition, a number of textbooks now have websites with activities corresponding to each chapter, usually focusing on exposing students to authentic language while broadening their understanding of culture.

Another increasingly popular use of the web in a language class is to have students develop a class web page or individual web pages. This is a perfect example of task-based learning, but it will not be pedagogically efficient if students spend more time learning and executing the mechanics of web page composition than in using the target language.

Most discussions of computers and foreign language instruction center on materials and activities for students, but the internet, the web and CD-ROMs are invaluable resources that teachers can use either for class preparation or for their own edification. There are numerous authentic documents, both text and audiovisual, that teachers can download from the web and use as is or adapt for class activities. There are websites that teachers can access and discussion groups to which they can subscribe in order to obtain information or exchange ideas on any aspect of language teaching. In addition, the web offers teachers a way to keep up-to-date with regard to both language and culture; while not the same as that trip to a target language country that we would all love to take, the authentic documents that abound on the web provide a convenient way to improve or maintain the skills and knowledge necessary for confident and competent teaching.

What individual teachers can do with computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web will depend on the facilities available at their individual schools as well as on their personal initiative. On the other hand, teachers interested in technology can serve as catalysts for improving the level of technological sophistication at their own schools. Those interested in learning more can attend workshops at annual meetings and conferences of professional associations such as MaFLA, AATF, AATSP, AATI, AATG, CAM, CANE, PVCA, and the Northeast Conference (See the Selected Resources Section for listings of these organizations.)

Finally, while low-tech equipment (overhead projector, audio tape, videotape) will certainly continue to be useful, the ability of the computer to control the flow of information and to access current authentic materials make computer mediated technology more advantageous for more aspects of language learning. Although research in this area has just begun, there are nonetheless a number of studies that indicate that it does work. In addition, just as television in the 1950s and 60s and VCRs in the 70s and 80s became ubiquitous, in the 1990s computers and the Internet are part of everyday life. By harnessing computer power to promote language learning, teachers can provide both psychological motivation and intellectual stimulation.19

Last Updated: January 1, 1999
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