Lisa Parkes' lifelong interest in sound began with music and led to the study of French and German.
Parkes has been the Language Program Director in UCLA's Department of German Languages and Literature since 2003, after earning her PhD at UCLA in German Literature. In 2003 she directed the UC Travel Study Abroad program, which made stops in European cities including Berlin and Vienna. On that trip, she noticed that students who had studied German, instead of seeking out interaction with native speakers, often shied away from unstructured encounters and preferred the sheltered environment of the classroom.
Parkes realized that although want very much to develop their language skills and acquire fluency, they lack the pragmatic skills (an ability to produce speech appropriate to the situation) needed to speak spontaneously to strangers. Those skills are best acquired through the use of materials featuring authentic interaction. At the same time, authentic materials without appropriate support are often inaccessible to students.
The Virtual Study Abroad Project is based on authentic communication, captured on video, of unscripted everyday encounters during study abroad trips in German-speaking countries. The project shows students and instructors attending to everyday needs such as buying train tickets and shopping for cheese. Other segments include interviews with native speakers about their lives and interests. Materials from GoogleEarth are embedded in every video.
Videos are accompanied by online exercises focusing on vocabulary, listening, and conversation development. Video/exercise combinations are common, but they generally focus more on comprehension than acquisition. An essential component of the exercises is audio recordings of "chunks" – useful phrases and expressions from the videos – spoken at a slower pace than in normal speech. The chunks give students a chance to listen, repeat, return to the video clips, and internalize the speech as it occurs in a natural context.
Parkes sees that online materials, and increasing interactivity on portals such as YouTube, give students the chance to use the language as engaged seekers of information and active conversants. She thinks of her own project as a bridge to student autonomy: "if we can encourage them to take a few more risks, and expose them more to authentic language, then we're helping them a lot more."