Connecting Students with Language and Culture

Elisabetta D’Amanda

Lecturer and Italian Program Coordinator
College of Liberal Arts
Beginning Italian I, II, III, Intermediate Italian I, II, III
Technology-enabled classroom

Conversation with native speakers is one of the principal ways to teach and assess students’ fluency in a foreign language. But it’s not always possible to arrange native speakers to visit classes and converse with language students on different topics.

That’s why Elisabetta D’Amanda thought about using the Teaching and Learning Technology (TLT) Studio as a place where her students could talk with native speakers in Italy, as well as interact with each other in synchronous and asynchronous chats to become more fluent in the language, and had an opportunity to learn more about Italian culture and society.

Also, Elisabetta and Kathy Darroch, Senior Interpreter, Department of Access Services, National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at RIT looked at ways to use this technology to provide a more interactive and immersive learning environment for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the class.

Teaching and Learning

As students learn to speak a language, it’s just as important for them to learn how to hear and listen to the language. Because the teacher has her own way of speaking, to achieve a conversational fluency, students need to hear a range of different accents, pronunciations, and cadences. Elisabetta saw the ease of teleconferencing through Skype as a way to give her students the opportunity to talk with several of her own friends and acquaintances in Italy

"In looking for ways to improve conversational fluency, you want to expose students to different accents, sounds, and cadences. The best teacher is only one person, one voice. But could there be other ways to expand the “world’ of speakers that students experience?"

Talking with Italy via Skype in TLT Studio

Elisabetta used technology to enable students to engage in a number of audial, visual, and text-based activities to create a more immersive learning environment. In addition, she found that these technologies, with support from an interpreter who was fluent in both Lingua Italiana dei Segni (LIS; Italian Sign Language) and American Sign Language (ASL), provided a more supportive and interactive environment for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Teaching Strategies and Tools

Elisabetta’s students use Skype to conduct conversations and interviews with different people and varying topics, such as film and media review or discussions of Italian culture and society. The students conduct online synchronous or asynchronous chat conversations on a given topic. Students can then make inferences between Italian and American culture and society, as well as any other student country of origin.

Elisabetta also uses online discussions to pair more competent students with those who need more help in syntax and spelling to “scaffold” peer-to-peer learning.

The technology also provided ways to better serve deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the class, so they could communicate with classmates and their guest speakers Kathy Darroch, a Senior Interpreter in the Department of Access Services at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) worked closely with Elisabetta in the class. The integration of Lingua Italiana dei Segni (LIS—Italian Sign Language) and ASL cued signing during all audial, visual, and text-based activities

"We are experiencing an increasing number of deaf students in our foreign language courses, and it is great. Some of them are also studying abroad, and they adjust well—even more so than the hearing students—if they have been prepared for an 'immersion style' of living in another culture, a cross cultural shock that is doubled for students that have two cultures to begin with, as in the case of deaf students. Being in a high tech environment has allowed them to improve their participation also interaction with all other students."

More of their findings on using this method with deaf and hard-of-hearing students can be found here.

Technology used in the class includes:

  • Skype, for video/audio conversations between RIT classroom and remote speakers
  • GoogleTalk, for group-based and paired instant messaging during class
  • Teaching & Learning Technology Studio (TLT Studio) to provide multi-screen projection to simultaneously display media and other relevant resources
  • C-Print, for real-time captioning

Experiences and Results

Elisabetta finds that student interaction with native speakers of Italian provides ‘a real-world’ application of learning and improves spoken, written, and signed language skills. Students also increase their contextual understanding of language as they compare and contrast the socio-cultural differences of their country/language of origin and Italy/Italian.

"The students feel a great sense of accomplishment and it makes their focus very strongly related to real life rather than learning discreet grammar components without understanding the ultimate goal. The grammar components are informally tested without putting a strong focus on them and in reality, making that important learning component more holistic and effective."

The student collaboration, particularly through text-chat, fosters a supportive learning environment where students that are more competent help correct peers’ Italian syntax and spelling. Moreover, the computer-mediated modality allows for better language learning, since students feel less self-conscious, and a relaxed environment is most conducive in Modern Languages and Cultures.

"In fact, we are a group that rarely sits still for more than 10 minutes as we need to talk, exchange, and present to others to really make the language a reality."