Last week my Spanish teacher was out on leave, so we had a substitute. A wonderfully experienced substitute, but a substitute who let’s just say tried to retire about 30 years ago, yet it never stuck. When we suggested during a lull in conversation looking up a bit of news on the SMARTboard — the interactive, Internet connected whiteboard with which all Foreign Service classrooms are equipped — she unapologetically reminded us that it didn’t work unless she operated it, and she didn’t care to operate it, so it wasn’t very smart after all, now was it? Instead, she got out the same grammar book she’s been loyally carrying around since her first teaching gig many moons ago.
It wasn’t until this week without the SMARTboard that I realized just how reliant on it FSI language classes have recently become. It’s only been a little over three years since I studied French here, and yet the change is remarkable. Back then, our classes were fairly formulaic: talk about the news, read and discuss an article, learn or review some grammatical point, do exercises in the book to practice said grammatical point, repeat.
But now no day of language learning is quite the same. Each teacher employs technology differently, but in my experience thus far it’s integral to every one’s instruction, recent substitute excluded of course. When we were studying the weather, we watched Youtube clips of actual weather segments on Latin American news stations. We listen to popular music and try to transcribe the lyrics. When we’re starting to feel overly confident about our skills our professor pulls up some rapid speaking newscaster to show us how much we have left to learn.
It’s not just the SMARTboard. Technology has worked its way into our class in other ways too. Once when we were learning to formulate questions we tried them out on Siri. (Sadly at that point our Spanish accents were still too awful for her to understand us.) When a teacher is struggling to come up with the best translation, a student can usually track it down on the Google translate app on his iPhone before the teacher thinks of the word.
Outside of class, too, technology comes in remarkably handy. The flashcards our teachers create online sync with my phone; I can access them anywhere whenever I have a few minutes. I listen to daily news podcasts during my commute and while at the gym. I have a handy verb conjugator on my phone that helps me out substantially more quickly than a book could. When I don’t want to do anything too rigorous I can play Duolingo, an online Spanish learning game, tracking my progress against friends and classmates.
Are there downsides to technology? Absolutely. Just like in real life, it can be a distraction. We’ve certainly wasted valuable class time searching in vain for some particular video we probably didn’t really even need to watch anyway. Was I able to learn as much that week without the SMARTboard? Sure. And I probably talked more than usual since speaking was kind of the only thing we had to fill all that time.
But all and all I think the addition of technology is positive for language learning, at least in the Foreign Service Institute context. Six months of full-time study of a foreign tongue is grueling. Anything you can do to keep things interesting is a welcome addition in my book — or should I say, on my touchscreen? In any case, I have to think that maybe even my Luddite leaning substitute sees some benefit to all this new technology, even if she’s not interested in taking it on herself. Once, searching for a complicated translation, she started to get up to get the giant dictionary on a side table, and then stopped short. “Ask that phone of yours, why don’t you,” she instructed my classmate. And a few seconds later, before she would have even gotten the dictionary back to her seat, we had our answer.
P.S. Here are a sampling of some of my favorite online resources…
- Best dictionary: Word Reference
- Best verb tool: Conjuguemos
- Best grammar reference: Bowdoin
- Best news source: BBC Mundo
- Best cheesy video series: Extra en Espanol
- Best flashcard app: Quizlet
- Best educational game: Duolingo
- Best place to practice level appropriate reading: DOD’s GLOSS site
- Best place for elementary level news podcasts: News in Slow Spanish
- Best place for intermediate level news podcasts: Voice of America Noticias