the Talk; Walking the Walk
by Carol Ganzel
lack of a requirement, many students are tackling the study
of several foreign languages simultaneously. Why
the extra work?
and cassette tapes are still around, but learning
a language these days is more high-tech.
THE CULTURE, GEOGRAPHY, AND PEOPLE OF A NATION HAS ALWAYS
GONE HAND-IN-HAND AT OBERLIN when
teaching students to read and speak a foreign language.
Yet, the emphasis 25 years ago for those who finished
two years of a language was the ability to read the literature--communication
was secondary. With new tools and broader goals, students
today speak better and have a larger vocabulary adapted
to their own interests.
a language's literature is still part of the attraction
for many, but others, like Hannah Wheeler, a first-year
student in professor Nelson de Jesus' introductory French
course, are learning a foreign language "because so many
people in the world don't speak English." Senior Spanish
major Amanda Ovington spent a semester in Spain, yet has
French, Italian, and Russian. "I want
to have a connection between all these languages to
some extent," she says.
Another multi-language student,
Robert White '00, lives in French House and spent a
semester in the Strasbourg Program.
"I just think it's important to be diverse. I'm taking
French, Spanish, and Russian. There are a lot of international
students at Oberlin, and with that mix of people, having
a level of fluency is very important."
has a wealth of talented language professors
and the high-tech International Learning Laboratory,
a gift of Paul and Edith Cooper, provides an abundance
of communication technology. Recently, the laboratory
obtained a two-way video camera that allows live,
virtually face-to-face conversations with people abroad.
This "CU See Me" technology
is widespread in Japan and particularly useful to
students of Japanese, says lab director Barbara Sawhill.
Students also send and receive email in Roman-alphabet
and non-Romance languages. Those studying Chinese,
for example, simply type the Roman phonetic equivalent
of the character they want, and a transliteration
program displays the character or a choice of characters
matching the sound. Students of Russian use keyboards
for typing the Cyrillic alphabet.
Associate professor Arlene Forman
helped create two CD-ROMs that include clips from
conversations with native Russians and people in Ohio
who speak the language. Following her lead, visiting
assistant professor James Morgan videotaped answers
to certain questions ("Do you like music?" or "What
is the future of Russia?") while leading a Winter
Term project in Moscow. The set of CDs, a work in
progress, is the first of its kind for teaching the
language. Forman is leading its development under
the auspices of the Ohio 5 Foreign Language Technology
Project funded by the Mellon Foundation and directed
by de Jesus. Faculties at the College of Wooster,
Ohio Wesleyan University, Kenyon College, Denison
University, and Oberlin are all collaborating in the
For some languages, such aids
are available commercially. Japanese, Spanish, and
French are taught with multimedia textbooks, some
of which are packaged with CD-ROMs, audio CDs, or
videos. From these media, French students learn about
the residents of Besançon, who talk about their
families, their lives, and their town.
The Web, of course,
plays its own role in modern language learning. A link
to a gateway site on the Maya appears on the Web syllabus
of a Latin-American course
taught in Spanish by Sebastian Faber.
Web sites for researching Greek and Latin texts
and cultures are also helpful, as there is no interaction
with authentic speakers in the classical-languages.
But Web sites, CD-ROMs, and
the latest computer programs have not displaced
what Sawhill calls "the bread and butter" of the
language laboratory: cassette tapes that students
use to hear and imitate authentic speech. This technique
isn't new news at Oberlin, where Spanish students
used Edison wax cylinder "records" in the 1920s.
in linguistics and language patterns, and I find the
tape recorders very helpful," says sophomore Dominique
Archison, who has studied French and Chinese.
To learn Chinese
tones, first-year students in Qiusha Ma's class listen
to tapes for three hours a week outside of class then
record their own speech to turn in for correction.
Most of their other work is without benefit of technology:
they practice writing Chinese characters in paper
workbooks and converse in class. For second-year students
Ma is working on an Ohio 5 videotape project on Chinese
life that depicts, among other scenes, the exterior
and interior of a typical Chinese post office, different
from any in the U.S., and conversations between a
post-office worker and customer.
number of Oberlin students studying language is
holding steady, says Robert
Geitz, associate dean of the College. About 980
students were enrolled in language courses in fall
1998 and 820 in spring 1999. Conservatory voice
majors take one semester of each of three different
Since the language laboratory
opened in 1996, its use has expanded five to seven
times beyond expectation. Its 12 Apple Macintosh
7200 computers were used 7,193 times in 1997-98
and 10,396 times in 1998-99.
Aisha Galt-Theis '00, one
of the 15 student assistants working in the lab,
says that almost all students are computer literate,
although a new program may frustrate them before
they "find out where to
Faculty members, especially those
too old to have used these tools in graduate school, still
find them exciting (or alarming), but "our students take
technology for granted," says French professor Janice
Zinser. "It's part of their 'neural system.'"
students learn a language without technology? "Conversations
with real people are what matter in language study--not
technology," says Kurosawa. "However, technology allows
something close to real conversations with many more people."
Carol Ganzel is
the former editor of "The Oberlin Observer."