Guten tag, sprechen sie Skype?

New project combines technology and culture for an interactive experience in English and German

Queen’s Professor Jennifer Ruth Hosek speaks to Professor Marjorie Willey from the University of Halle during a program demonstration at the E2Quate Adventures in Teaching Conference last December.
Queen’s Professor Jennifer Ruth Hosek speaks to Professor Marjorie Willey from the University of Halle during a program demonstration at the E2Quate Adventures in Teaching Conference last December.

A new language program has Queen’s students interacting with German classmates—and there’s no border crossing involved.

Colin Gilmour, ArtSci ’10, spent one hour per week practicing German with Nina Straka as a part of his GRMN201 class last term. Their time is divided between small talk, discussing German culture, and more serious conversational endeavours like the recent 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Straka lives in Halle, Germany where she is a student at Universität Halle. The pair spent another hour each week practicing English.

Gilmour is one of 40 Queen’s students involved in a burgeoning language acquisition project headed by Jennifer Ruth Hosek, an assistant professor with Queen’s German department. The peer-to-peer project started in September, with students from Queen’s practicing each others’ languages together over Skype in lieu of the tutorial hour that traditionally accompanies language courses at Queen’s.

Gilmour said he was unaware he would be testing a new learning model when he enrolled in the class, but was nonetheless intrigued by the opportunity.

“It was a complete surprise. I was really excited about it,” he said. “I thought it was a great idea. It was really cool to be able to improve my German with an actual resident of the country, and to get to help them improve their English... it was a great trade off.”

Although language tutorials are designed to provide speaking practice to students, Gilmour said this is an entirely new type of practice.

“You have someone who is your own age, who’s also a student, and they know what you need to learn and how to learn it,” he said. “It was nice to be able to learn about student life in Germany, what’s expected from students there, that kind of thing,” he said, adding that in general the German students were better at speaking English than the Canadian students were at speaking German.

“The greatest impact on my German abilities was learning how to speak like an actual German. My grammar improved too, sure, but it was more about using the right words at the right times, how to say things and what to say. It’s a way to get past ‘textbook German’ and into German you could actually use if you went there,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour and Straka exchanged messages over the break outside of the class, and intend to continue their language practice now that the course has ended.

“We probably won’t talk as frequently, now that it’s not required for class,” he joked.

Hosek said the program is the first of its kind in Canada or elsewhere.

“I’m just blown away by the project, I can’t tell you how excited I am. It can’t replace the classroom, but should be seen as an augmentation of it. We’re thinking about making this bigger. We’d like to see it take off.”

The test project was given funding through E2Quate, a body dedicated to encouraging “active teaching and learning at Queen’s.” Hosek used the funds to hire a student facilitator in Halle to pair up students and sort out logistical problems. Despite the facilitator, Hosek said it’s much more work to run the Skype program than a regular tutorial.

“Both my collaborator in Halle and I had more work to do,” she said. “I also tweaked my pedagogical style to facilitate the tutorial dialogues. I teach German culture from the first word the students learn, but in this case, I was particularly attuned to providing our students here with potential avenues for conversation in every class. I made it a point to pack the course with topical and contested issues that I knew would have relevance to the students living in Halle.”

Hosek, who presented the project at E2Quate’s Adventures in Teaching Conference with Marjorie Willey in December 2009, said getting students to log the extra hours outside of class wasn’t difficult.

“The excitement was contagious, connecting people across national boundaries with people their own age and similar walks of life. The program takes full advantage of the differences between working with a mentor and with peers.”

Hosek said much contemporary second language acquisition methodology emphasizes the benefits of creating opportunities for “authentic communication,” but that it is sometimes difficult for students to experience this in classroom situations. The Skype program allows students learn by having one-on-one and one-of-a-kind conversations in the target language, and brings German and Canadian culture into the realm of the personal for students who, over 6,000 kilometers away, might understandably feel distanced from it.

“One of the beauties of [the program] is the notion of ‘text in context.’ It’s about being able to communicate in the target language so there’s not as much of a barrier between you and that other space—you’re in that language and that culture from the beginning. And because you’re talking with someone who is your peer, your ally and colleague, your affective level is low, so your ability to learn is high.”

Hosek stressed the program’s importance as a cultural exchange as much as an exercise in learning German or English.

“I hesitate to make a distinction between language and culture because they’re basically the same,” she said. “But I think, for my students, it really made the German culture—in German—come alive.”

Hosek added that the Canadian participants were surprised at the level of English—and other languages—spoken by the German students.

“It was a big wake up call to the Queen’s students that people who live in other countries, normal students, are so excellent at second and third languages. Some of the students here felt pretty humbled by that,” she said, adding, “The difference in the language abilities didn’t negatively impact the learning of either party.”

Andrew Sartori, ArtSci ’09, is interested in crafting a business model based on the program and partnered with Hosek in planning the project.

“Initially I was interested in different ways of teaching or learning a language that hadn’t been exercised up until now,” he said. “You hear about people learning things online, by correspondence and so on, but why not use the Internet with languages—there’s a whole country of people who speak the language you want to learn, why not get in contact with them?”

Although he isn’t a student in GRMN201, Sartori speaks with a student at Halle on a weekly basis. He said the environment is much more laid back than a traditional classroom setting.

“It’s a mutual exchange and that’s the greatest thing. Another thing students say is that it’s far less stressful than being in a classroom, which was one of the main objectives of the program,” he said. “You put people in touch with each other online—they’re in their living rooms alone, there’s no pressure. You make a mistake? It’s okay. There’s only one other person there and they’re learning too.”

Sartori said student feedback regarding the program has been positive, adding that some students are planning on meeting their language exchange partners in Europe this summer, or have made plans to go on exchange to Halle.

“There is a genuine interest in pursuing this kind of learning avenue. It’s different because the native speaker of a language can give you a depth of understanding you could never get elsewhere, and people seem to really appreciate that. People want to keep using this. It’s very reassuring.”

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