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Students polish language skills face-to-face with peers around the world

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VCU student Lorenzo Rose speaks with a student in Mexico - half in Spanish, half in English - via VCU's Teletandem program, part of the World Studies Media Center in Hibbs Hall.

Via Skype videoconferencing technology, senior Virginia Commonwealth University electrical engineering and physics major Nicolas Andrade is chatting with Estefanía, an engineering student in Mexico, about robotics, studying statistics and what life is like at each other’s school.

“She told me that the countryside there is pretty, but that it is far from the beach — and for her vacations she has to drive almost seven hours to get to the beach,” said Andrade, a student in the School of Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences. “She asked me about my vacations and I told her about my trips with my girlfriend to Belize, Europe, Stanford and Berkeley.”

Andrade was one of a number of VCU students taking a course in Spanish who were holding Skype conversations — half in Spanish, half in English — with Mexican students taking an English class at the Universidad Tecnológica del Norte de Aguascalientes in Mexico.

The conversations moved from movies (“Have you seen ‘Deadpool?’”) to politics (“Is the U.S. going to elect Donald Trump?”) to reality television (“Do you guys have ‘The Bachelor’ in Mexico?”), to weather, sports, travel, school and much more.

Noelle Mallory, a sophomore psychology major, talked about reality TV programs and many other topics with a student in Mexico as part of a Teletandem session in the School of World Studies' World Studies Media Center.
Noelle Mallory, a sophomore psychology major, talked about reality TV programs and many other topics with a student in Mexico as part of a Teletandem session in the School of World Studies' World Studies Media Center.

The VCU students were holding their end of the conversations in the World Studies Media Center in Hibbs Hall as part of a foreign language experiential learning program called Teletandem, in which VCU students studying Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French and Italian communicate face-to-face with native speakers.

It’s an exchange of languages, ideas and cultures.

“It’s a mutually beneficial exchange,” said Anton Brinckwirth, Ph.D., director of the World Studies Media Center. “It’s an exchange of languages, ideas and cultures. And it’s a great opportunity to provide our students with authentic immersion experiences.”

The VCU students are speaking with native speakers, and because those natives are college students with a knowledge of English that is comparable to the VCU students’ understanding of their languages, the students tend to be less shy about speaking in the target language than they might be in a traditional classroom setting.

Both the VCU students and the students in the foreign countries tend to be more relaxed and less concerned about making mistakes, Brinckwirth said.

“Often when speaking with a native speaker, language learners can feel pressured to perform. They’re worried that they’re going to make a mistake, or that they’re going to sound silly,” he said. “With Teletandem, both sides are in an identical situation.”

The Teletandem program at VCU grew out of Brinckwirth’s dissertation project on online interactions between students in different countries. He realized that foreign language classes often lack opportunities to interact with native speakers, and that videoconferencing technology might be able to fix that.

“In foreign language classes, there’s plenty of grammar, plenty of instruction, and practice with non-natives in the classroom,” he said. “But to make a connection with someone who lives abroad and speaks the target language every day, that’s always been missing. And so when Skype became a common thing on the Internet, we explored it and found that there were some schools in Latin America that were trying to do the same thing with American schools.”

Olivia Beech, a freshman international relations major, speaks with a student at the Universidad Tecnológica del Norte de Aguascalientes in Mexico.
Olivia Beech, a freshman international relations major, speaks with a student at the Universidad Tecnológica del Norte de Aguascalientes in Mexico.

Brinckwirth’s dissertation chair, Jon Becker, Ph.D., director of online academic programs and learning innovation in VCU’s Academic Learning Transformation Lab, encouraged him to go beyond just researching the idea, and to actually integrate Teletandem into the World Studies Media Center. Brinckwirth reached out to João Telles, Ph.D., associate professor of foreign language teaching at Universidade Estadual Paulista in Assis, Brazil. Telles is a scholar on immersive online collaboration and learning and is the founder of Teletandem Brasil, one of the world’s pioneer projects in online tandem language learning. He helped Brinckwirth coordinate the first Teletandem sessions at VCU.

“We started doing it just with VCU language instructors who were interested,” he said. “And the idea very quickly caught on. More and more teachers wanted to get involved and said, ‘I’d like to have my students have that opportunity too.’ We’re up to over 15 language classes that are using Teletandem routinely now.”

Social media has also played a role in the program’s success, Brinckwirth said.

Without even suggesting it, the next thing we know they’re friends on Facebook and following each other on Instagram. 

“It’s pretty amazing to see the students connect,” he said. “Without even suggesting it, the next thing we know they’re friends on Facebook and following each other on Instagram. With social media, this whole concept has flourished because they can maintain their contact outside of class.”

As the project grew in popularity among VCU language classes, Brinckwirth began to think about how the Teletandem conversations might be even more valuable if the VCU students were paired with Mexican students studying the same thing.

“We thought, ‘Wait a second. What if we got, say, nursing students to talk with nursing students [in a foreign country]?’” Brinckwirth said. “They would have a much more meaningful exchange because they have the same interests.”

Last summer, Brinckwirth received a Virtual Classroom grant from the Global Education Office to explore the possibility of linking students who study the same topic, starting with nursing students in the fall. This semester, the project has expanded to include nursing, pharmacy and pre-med students.

Anita Nadal, assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies and co-investigator on the grant, teaches a Spanish language course for the participating students that is specifically geared toward health care providers.

“The students were very, very eager,” she said. “They love to learn and understand the other cultures — and that works both ways. Not only did our VCU students want to learn how health care is approached in Spain and Mexico, those students wanted to know about health care in the United States.”

The course was designed to fit within the nursing and pre-med students’ busy schedules, Brinckwirth said

“Their curriculum is so rigorous, they just don’t really have the time to come and take a 101 Spanish class. So we wanted to create a program that gave them the ability to study the language at the nursing school and then come over here for the immersion side,” he said. “It’s not like the traditional language courses. It’s really focused much more on speaking the language, not as much about grammar and literature. They’re learning language that’s pertinent to nursing and pertinent to health care.”

Allison Gregory, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Nursing in the School of Nursing and a co-investigator on the grant, was tasked with helping to develop the course and ensure that its content would be applicable to health professional students’ needs.

“I believe it is valuable for VCU nursing students (and other health professional students) to learn Spanish because of the rapid growth of Spanish-speaking immigrant communities in the U.S.,” she said. “Even if students never speak at a proficient level, I think it is important for them to be comfortable with enough basic phrases to establish rapport with Spanish-speaking patients and their families. I always stress that for critical information, it is important to use a trained interpreter to avoid miscommunications.”

The Teletandem program, she said, has provided the students with a chance to connect with peers at Mexican universities and to learn different perspectives on health care.

Annabel Jones, a junior English major, speaks face-to-face with a Mexican student as part of her Spanish 201 course.
Annabel Jones, a junior English major, speaks face-to-face with a Mexican student as part of her Spanish 201 course.

“In a way, it’s a chance for them to ‘see’ the world without leaving home,” she said. “The idea is that by having a context for what life is like and what health care is like in another country, they will be better able to provide culturally competent care to their patients here.”

Over spring break, several of the project’s researchers, including Nadal, Gregory and Teletandem coordinator Maria Lourdes De Panbehchi and Teletandem facilitator J. Greg Hellman, traveled to Mexico to visit several of the participating universities: Universidad Autónoma de MéxicoUniversidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo and Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla.

“The major goal of our trip was to visit three partner universities there to strengthen our collaboration and to specifically expand our connection with nursing and health-science departments at these universities,” Hellman said.

For VCU engineering and physics student Andrade, Teletandem has given him a chance to interact and find common ground with engineering students like Estefanía in Mexico.

“It’s interesting to meet somebody who I’d never spoken with before, but by the end of the conversation we’ve built a good rapport,” Andrade said. “It was great to get a chance to develop a relationship with somebody from a different culture and background.”

Teletandem’s goal, Brinckwirth said, is for many more of those connections to be made in the future.

“What we’re really doing is making language learning real at VCU,” he said. “We’re trying to be in line with the [VCU strategic plan] Quest for Distinction university-level initiatives, enhance the quality of instruction at VCU, and create opportunities for experiential learning and global engagement in VCU classrooms.”