Language Teaching, Meet Innovation

Language Teaching, Meet Innovation

What is included in a typical Turkish breakfast? BOLCA has answers.

This spring, two centers under the UCLA International Institute went live with standalone, online courses on Azeri and the Iraqi dialect of Arabic and with a custom application that allows instructors to share web-based lessons. Meanwhile, the New Language Classroom has added videos for instructors, and the Language Materials Project launched a portal for K-12 schoolteachers on "less commonly taught" languages.

We will have a lot of interest in Iraq-cultural interest, archaeological, historical. This is a good step in the right direction.

At the UCLA International Institute in 2009, the use of instructional technologies for languages is hitting a mature phase. Created by experienced language teachers who work closely with programmers and web designers within the Institute, new media resources are helping students in two main ways: by giving listening comprehension and speech equal time with reading and writing, and by bringing more students together with teachers of languages that are "less commonly taught" in the United States.

In some cases the boon is as great for instructors. The New Language Classroom, for example, a site for instructors launched a year ago by the Center for World Languages (CWL), invites outstanding UCLA language teachers to discuss their use of classroom technologies in video presentations regularly added to the site.

One web application just launched by the Center for World Languages (CWL) lets language instructors borrow teaching materials and strategies from their colleagues. Known as the Business Online Language and Culture Application, or BOLCA (Turkish for "aplenty"), the application for the first time uses web-based content management to create and share memory aids and annotated videos used in language courses.

"It finally gives the language instructor the ability to construct their own exercises without the need of a technical person," explains Jessica Mentesoglu, an instructional technology specialist with the UCLA Library who has led the development of BOLCA and its pilot Turkish lessons. The talking e-flashcards and other tools that she invented for BOLCA, with help from her husband Kaya Mentesoglu's information technology group at the Institute, can be recycled, mutatis mutandis, for students of any language. (Russian is next on the list.) Initial funding for this CWL project came from the UCLA Anderson School's Center for International Business Education & Research (CIBER).

Iraqi Tutor arrives at a moment of rising enrollments in college Arabic classes.

Iraqi Tutor arrives at a moment of rising enrollments in college Arabic classes.

In April, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) went live with web-based instructional programs in Azeri (also known as Azerbaijani) and the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. Developed with a total of $417,931 in grants from the International Research and Studies (IRS) program of the U.S. Department of Education, Azeri Tutor, Iraqi Tutor and the first-of-its-kind Turkish Tutor (2004) function as course supplements and as free, self-paced, standalone college courses.

Meanwhile, CWL's Language Materials Project has set up an Internet portal or "gateway" where K-12 teachers can find lesson plans and course materials on languages that are "less commonly taught" (LCT) in this country. Major world languages including Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Russian fall under the LCT rubric. The K-12 gateway leads to a complete set of lesson plans for a first-year course which can used for any target language, created by Florence Martin of California State University Long Beach, a teacher with experience at many primary and secondary school levels. The publication of the lesson plans coincides with a significant expansion of LMP's bibliographical descriptions of materials intended for younger audiences.

Iraq's Chevy Chase

The creators of Azeri Tutor and Iraqi Tutor, both textbook authors who have lectured at UCLA, modeled their projects after Turkish Tutor, dubbed "a benchmark for other language learning sites" in a review published after its 2004 launch. The web-based program uses video clips from the long-running sitcom "Bizimkiler," set in an Istanbul apartment building, to create an engaging learning environment. Similarly, the Azeri and Iraqi Arabic products bring the languages to life by using the native pop cultures.

"For me the hard part was to find good material," says Kurtulus Oztopcu, who led the development of Azeri Tutor. Azerbaijan did not produce many films when it was part of the Soviet Union or since then, he says. Oztopcu and multimedia designer Rahul Bhushan settled on a mix of television shows and older movies for the eight-lesson program. As with Turkish Tutor, text and audio recordings accompany each video clip, so that students can slow down and parse the phrases.

Azeri Tutor introduces the Russian-influenced dialect used in the Republic of Azerbaijan, not the Persian-influenced Azeri spoken by millions of Iranians and many Iranian immigrants to the United States. Although the resource is available to anyone with an Internet connection, "the purpose of preparing this material is to address the American student" not previously exposed to Azeri, Oztopcu says.

Iraqi Tutor arrives at a time of high enrollments in U.S. college Arabic classes, up 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006, according to the Modern Language Association. At the same time, Arabic instructors are placing more emphasis on spoken dialects of the language, which vary substantially from one another and the modern written standard. The program also arrives during a war in which the Pentagon and State Department are able to field only handfuls of translators, not including private contractors in Iraq.

For Yasin al-Khalesi, the language expert for Iraqi Tutor, the value of teaching Iraqi Arabic to American citizens is something to be measured over decades.

"We will have a lot of interest in that country—cultural interest, archaeological, historical," he says. "This is a good step in the right direction."

As in Turkish Tutor, all of the Iraqi Arabic video clips come from a single sitcom. This time it's "Vacation Days" (Ayyaam Al-Ijaaza), a "beloved" 1980s comedy that is in reruns in Iraq. Khalesi says the show took cues from the 1983 farce "Vacation" starring Chevy Chase.

To the Turkish Tutor model, Khalesi added an introduction to grammar and syntax and more comprehensive glossaries of 50 to 60 words for each of eight lessons. In each lesson, video clips illustrate a generic situation such as hiring a taxi or making a telephone call. The program offers opportunity for students to observe the differences between Iraqi Arabic and other dialects, differences that are most notable in common expressions and certain consonant shifts.

The Larry Show

Of course, the integration of new media and language instruction is an ongoing story at the Institute. Following up on an initiative begun six years ago by Scandinavian Section Chair Timothy Tangherlini, CWL organizes, on UCLA's end, distance-learning courses between language departments at multiple UC campuses.

Under the distance learning program, UCLA "sends" Czech and Russian to UC Santa Barbara, Hungarian to UC San Diego, Indonesian to UC Santa Cruz, and Old Norse to UC Berkeley; and it "receives" Danish, Filipino, Khmer and Zulu from Berkeley, on a customized academic calendar that reconciles the quarter system with Berkeley's semester system. In each case, one instructor teaches on two campuses, using videoconferencing. The arrangement maximizes resources and permits UC students to do even advanced coursework in languages that a given campus does not offer.

Last fall, I dropped in on an advanced Czech class taught by UCLA's Susan Kresin and shared with UCSB. In this, the smallest of seven distance learning courses that quarter, the videoconferencing equipment was serving a solitary, amiable UCSB student called Larry. Sometimes the scene looked like a class, sometimes like six people watching MSNBC. "I feel like a head in a jar," Larry said in English after the connection was briefly lost, an "unusual" glitch.

When Kresin got up to write on the white board, one of the UCLA students and then Larry focused the camera on her writing, using remote controls at either end of the video link. He appeared to miss nothing as a result of the distance, asking just once for a sentence to be repeated.

"It helps to have smart students," said Kresin, acknowledging the woman who restored the lost connection.

Published: Wednesday, June 17, 2009