The Pennsylvania State University ©1997
Language Center Benefits From $400,000 Grant

While still only in its first year of operation, Penn State's Center for Language Acquisition, part of the College of the Liberal Arts, has received a grant in excess of $400,000 to support the "Penn State Foreign Language Telecollaboration Project." Awarded by U.S. Department of Education's International Research and Studies Program, the grant will provide up to three years of support for the project.

Co-investigator James Lantolf, professor of linguistics and Spanish and director of the Center for Language Acquisition, says the project will bring together "learners of foreign languages with native users of the language via telecommunication in order to create contexts for interactive communication."

Within those contexts, a team of faculty and graduate students at Penn State will evaluate the effectiveness of different technologies in helping students acquire a second language, as well as how such collaboration develops cultural understanding. Along with Lantolf, the other co-principal investigators for the project are Jeannette Bragger, professor and head of the Department of French, and Steven Thorne, senior lecturer in language acquisition, and associate director of the Center for Language Acquisition. The other members of the project are Celeste Kinginger, associate professor of French; Julie Belz, assistant professor of German; Julia Kushner, lecturer in psychology and a member of the staff in the Center for Language Acquisition; Antonio Jimenez, Eduardo Negueruela, and Gabriela Zapata, graduate students in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese; Lara Lomicka, graduate student in the Department of French; and Ana Koenig, graduate student in the Department of German and Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Over the next three years, the project will involve approximately 150 students each semester who are taking advanced courses in French, German, and Spanish. They will keep in contact with native speakers of the respective languages, and will talk with one another through e-mail, in chat rooms, and on video. They will collaborate on projects ranging from comparing treatment of current events in the press of their respective nations to critiquing elements of popular culture common to both languages. They will discuss their perceptions of one another's culture, discuss books they are reading, and react to one another's perceptions. They will be immersed in language and culture through the aid of technology. Finally, a control group of Penn State language students will complete the same projects and activities as their peers, but without telecollaborating with native speakers.

"We expect the study to confirm two things," Lantolf says. "First, because students will be learning a language with the benefit of contact with native speakers, they will become more culturally sensitive. Second, since students will be speaking with authentic users-rather than using textbook examples of standard language-their language will show it. Students will be speaking using the metaphors of the language they are learning. Metaphor use indicates a high level of understanding a language."

For instance, non-native speakers of English who have learned standard, more formal English, might not understand colloquialisms such as "hands off," or "keep an eye on this," or more metaphorical statements like, "Work was a bear today." Interacting with native users whose language style vacillates from formal to casual, Lantolf contends, will clarify different levels of meaning for someone just acquiring the language. Knowledge of varying speech styles is also an indication of sophisticated language understanding.

Another wrinkle in the study comes from the technology itself. Many electronic users are already familiar with the e-shorthand used in chat rooms, such as IMOKNU, short for "I'm okay, and you?" The group hopes to see how similar phenomena in other languages will affect language learning.

"It will be interesting to see if students learning the language will pick up pieces of the electronic hybrid, in addition to speaking in vernacular and metaphor," Lantolf says.

Such issues are part of the final question the project will examine, and arguably the most important one. "We want to know which techniques that utilize telecommunications technology are the most effective for aiding language acquisition," Lantolf says. "Higher education is racing to keep up with language demand while academics are asking how to evaluate the effectiveness of new techniques and software for language instruction. This study will begin to help answer many of those questions."

Penn State's Center for Language Acquisition is the only place in the country conducting a study of such scope. Further, Penn State and the College of the Liberal Arts recently developed a state-of-the-art Language Learning Center, a place where students and faculty have access to mass media broadcasts from other countries, real-time video conferencing, international e-mail and telephone connections, and more. With the telecollaboration project underway and with the technological equipment in place, Penn State is well-suited to assume a leadership role in evaluating the newest high-tech language teaching methods.

Thirty Penn State faculty are affiliated with the Center for Language Acquisition. They come from diverse departments ranging from traditional language units to the Department of Psychology; from the Department of Speech Communication to the Departments of Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum and Instruction in Penn State's College of Education to the Department of Speech Disorders in the College of Health and Human Development. Along with the many alumni and friends of the College of the Liberal Arts who made the Center possible, the faculty are part of an initiative that will wield considerable influence in the way languages are taught not only at Penn State, but at other universities.

Future Center initiatives include an summer institute in applied linguistics to happen in 2002, and a pending program that will develop after-school language enrichment programs for community public schools.

Gabe Welsch, Liberal Arts, 814-863-1827