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IPods, iBook laptops help students learn critical languages

by Cindy Weiss - April 17, 2006

Michael Crutchfield, a senior majoring in political science and sociology, decided this year to add Mandarin Chinese to his course load so he can teach English in China after graduation.

His tools include a textbook, web-based resources, and an iPod.

Maxwell Gigle, a sophomore majoring in political science and international relations, uses a podcast and a computer learning program as part of his study of the Arabic language.
Maxwell Gigle, a sophomore majoring in political science and international relations, uses a podcast and a computer learning program as part of his study of the Arabic language.
Photo by Jordan Bender

When you’re trying to learn a language, “you need as many resources as you can get,” says Crutchfield. “The iPod makes it easier.”

Starting this semester, students studying Chinese and Arabic have been issued iPods – those ubiquitous portable players – to allow them more frequent exposure to the language they are trying to learn.

The iPods are loaded with language files that reinforce and expand what the students learn in weekly instruction with a native-speaking conversation partner.

“It frees them up physically to listen more often,” says Barbara Lindsey, director of the Multimedia Language Center in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.

Arabic and Chinese are considered “level 4” languages: they take a native English speaker three to four times longer to learn than, say, French or Spanish.

Besides listening, the students use iTalk, an iPod plug-in voice recorder.

They record conversations with other Arabic or Chinese language students at Tufts or the University of Pittsburgh – schools that have language learning partnerships with UConn – and later with native speakers around UConn.

“We want them to realize that Arabic is spoken in many parts of the world, including the United States,” says Lindsey.

The students’ self-instruction is bolstered by resources that include two Apple computer labs in the Arjona Building, wireless iBook laptops, digital cameras, web-based language programs, and iChat instant messaging.

They must also record and publish their own podcast – an Internet-based digital broadcast – to demonstrate their language proficiency.

The goal is to get up to speed quickly in languages that traditionally have not been part of a college curriculum.

The technological trappings have been made possible by a $475,000 grant from DARPA, the research and development arm of the Department of Defense, which is trying to promote learning the languages of areas where the U.S. has strategic interests.

Maxwell Gigle, a sophomore majoring in political science and international relations, is in his second semester of Arabic.

DVDs and a laptop computer issued during the course allow him to see the facial expressions of Arabic-speakers and to pick up their hand movements, which are part of the Arabic communication culture, he says. The iPod provides audio practice, allowing him to focus on distinctions in pronunciation.

“In Arabic, the emphasis is on where in the throat you pronounce the words,” he says.

Manuela Wagner, director of the Critical Languages Program, says “critical languages” are those that have not been taught as full-blown, academic programs in which a student can major.

Students currently can take Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, or Russian, but instruction is available only for four semesters.

Contact hours with a teacher – called a conversation partner – are limited, so self-instruction is essential.

When at least four students request a particular language, it can be added to the program, says Wagner.

In the past, the choices have included French Creole, Gaelic, Vietnamese, and Wolof, an African language.

So far, the semester-long loans of iPods and laptops are only for students of Arabic and Chinese, the DARPA-promoted languages.

More traditional language courses such as Spanish are using podcasts, which can be accessed via computer or downloaded to an MP3 player or an iPod.

The use of technology in critical languages may be increasing class retention rates, says Lindsey. Arabic and Chinese are often dropped after the first semester, but this year, 12 students out of 15 who began Arabic in the fall continued for the second semester. Those who did not continue had scheduling conflicts or illness.

Before the new technology was introduced in the critical languages program, the curriculum was revised, with input from student surveys and interviews with instructors and outside examiners.

The high-tech approach that resulted will allow instructors to hear students’ progress with the language more easily and remediate problems during the semester, Lindsey says.

“Our main focus was to make students autonomous,” she adds, “but also lifelong learners.”

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