Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows that one of the hardest parts is becoming more proficient at speaking. Practice is hard to come by, whether you're at the early stages of putting together simple sentences, or more experienced and unable to find an opportunity for immersion in deeper conversation.
Language students might be surprised to know that they're not alone in their frustration with this issue. Language teachers face the same question—how can they best help students gain fundamental speaking skills in the classroom? Atsushi Fukada, associate professor of Japanese and linguistics, has developed one way to solve this problem: his Speak Everywhere technology allows students to practice speaking anywhere they have a computer, microphone, and internet connection.
The web-based program allows language teachers to create a series of speaking exercises for students using text, video, or audio prompts. Students log in, respond to the prompts by recording their answers, and submit the answers for feedback from their teachers.
The technology is available online for a small fee, and anyone can use it for any language, explains Fukada. Purdue Research Foundation's Office of Technology Commercialization helped him license the technology and establish a company to sell the software. Other universities currently using the program include Princeton University, Middlebury University, Ball State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Calvin College, and the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
"I've always worked with computers and technology and have thought about how I might apply the available technologies to language teaching and language learning," says Fukada. He says students really seem to appreciate the fact that they can work on speaking individually; if they can't understand something in the exercise, they can play it as many times as they want, or rerecord their answers if they need to. "Online speaking assignments, given daily, really encourage them to speak. And they come to class maybe more confident, and will speak up more readily," he says.
Speak Everywhere also helps faculty members bring their teaching in line with pedagogy in the field, which emphasizes frequent oral assessments that are difficult to find time for during a traditional class period. "My ultimate goal is to make a new generation of foreign language textbook, which integrates practice in speaking and all other skills. This is a new kind of interactive, online textbook that incorporates Speak Everywhere and these other aspects of language practice."
Building on this technology could also improve delivery of distance learning in languages, says Fukada. That would ultimately benefit both students and institutions, allowing schools to teach more languages for which there is a smaller demand on campus by enrolling students from across the world.
I have not tried Speak Everywhere yet but it sounds like a great opportunity. When at Purdue, I was a language major, focusing on German and Spanish, in that order. The best option I had was the conversation (360) classes in each language. I was able to spend one summer in Germany working in the Hotel Intercontinental Hannover thanks to Purdue, who found the job. Being in country is naturally the best overall cultural immersion experience but, surprisingly, it may not be the best way to learn a language. My job was working the evening kitchen cleanup shift, from 10:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. six days a week. The people I was with were Hungarian and Romanian immigrants who did not have the language skills I wanted to emulate. On the days I had to myself, I discovered that the best way to communicate was to stop looking up everyhing I wanted to say in a dictionary and just talk, using words that were not perfect but which could get the idea across. This procedure was good for developing the ability to communicate but did not teach classroom-quality grammar. It did, however, create an experience that was good for developing enthusiasm for improving my language ability. At the age of 64, I still consider myself "conversant" in German and Spanish.
Don Babcock Hu' 71