Language, Culture & Technology: Foreign Language Faculty Adjust Their Curricula to Ensure That Today's College Students Know How to Use Technology Tools to Communicate

Article excerpt

Dr. Kevin M. Gaugler had an epiphany in his Spanish class when a student asked how to affix an accent mark over the letter "a" on a computer. The question was simple, but Gaugler's answer was quite long. The button sequence to accomplish the task is different for desktop computers and laptops, as well as for Macintosh and PC operating systems.

That incident marked the birth of a new class Gaugler has introduced at Marist College, where he has taught since 2000. Appropriately enough, it's called "Spanish and Technology."

"Since I dedicated an entire day of class to accent marks," says Gaugler, an associate professor, "I knew there was an entire course in here, somewhere, about communications technology and Spanish."

Nationally, foreign language faculty have been adjusting their curricula to ensure that today's college students know how to use technology to communicate effectively in languages other than their native tongue. Once upon a time, students were considered fluent if they could read, write, speak and aurally comprehend a foreign language. But that isn't enough anymore, educators say. In an age of corporate mergers, downsizing and cost-effective global communication, there is less of an emphasis on overseas business travel, and less travel means less face-to-face interaction. These days, graduates who tout foreign language skills on their job applications are expected to be able to use those skills in a variety of ways. Their tasks could include anything from producing a company memo, negotiating a business deal by phone, writing a grammatically correct e-mail or composing a culturally relevant podcast.

Higher education's response to such technical expectations has varied from campus to campus. In some cases, free-standing courses like Gaugler's have sprung up. In others, faculty merely field student questions as they arise. Language experts are unaware of any statistics tracking classes such as Gaugler's. But they say the matter of technological bilingualism is perhaps most common among students taking Spanish, the most popular of the more than 140 foreign languages taught in this country.

According to the Modern Language Association, 746,000 students were enrolled nationwide in Spanish classes in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The second-most popular foreign language, French, had less than one-third as many enrolled students.

A Grass Roots Movement

Like Gaugler, many technology-focused courses have emerged more from the efforts of individual, technologically nimble faculty than from department chairs, says Dr. Nina Garrett, director of Yale University's Center for Language Study. The reasons for this are as complex as the languages, say Garrett and others. The technological savvy of faculty varies with each individual. And, to ensure that introductory-level students learn the basics well enough to move on to intermediate and advanced classes, faculty in popular languages like Spanish, French and German often must conform to a common syllabus. That leaves little time in lower-division classes for "extras" like podcasting. While there is sometimes room in upper-division offerings for a specialty course like technology, faculty typically prefer teaching in their own specialties, such as Latin American film or 18th-century Spanish civilization. It's even more of a task cobbling together technology-based programs for non-Romance languages like Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

Gaugler has taught "Spanish and Technology" since 2001. An elective course, it consists of a series of projects that rely heavily on online resources. As new technologies creep into daily life Gaugler has added projects to his students' list. One of the most recent additions was a podcasting project, where students syndicate a radio talk show in Spanish. The discussions during the podcast can range from Hispanic demographic numbers to a debate about the best pizza parlors in town. …