Volume III - 1995-1996

Getting Imaginative in the Language Laboratory
By Darci L. Strother

      Dr. Darci L. Strother is Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages (Spanish) at California State University San Marcos. She has presented papers at numerous conferences throughout the United States, and has published articles in scholarly journals such as Romance Notes, Cervantes, and the Bulletin of the Comediantes. In addition to her experience teaching Spanish, Dr. Strother has taught ESL in Spain, New York City, and at Harvard University.

        One of the legacies left behind by the Audio-Lingual Method of language teaching is the notion that a language laboratory is a place where human beings sit in tiny, partitioned cubicles, and endlessly repeat nonsequiturs until their pronunciation of the language studied reaches perfection. Although language professionals in the 80's and 90's have done much to bring the sparkle of creativity into the language classroom thanks to the wave of new communicative methodologies, the language laboratory is still too often viewed as a place to send students for repetitious, "drill-and-kill"-type activities. However, a number of recent events signal that a revolution for users of language laboratories (both students and instructors) is underway. Across the country, schools, colleges, and universities are renaming their facilities to reflect their new role in language education. Signs on doors that used to read "Language Laboratory" now boast names such as "Humanities Instructional Resource Center" (University of California, Irvine), "Multimedia Foreign Language Center" (Millersville University), and "Language Technology Center" (University of Colorado). Once those doors are opened, the changes which are taking place are apparent inside the lab, as well. Increasingly, computers, video cassette and laser disk players, and other forms of new technology are finding their way into labs and curricula.1 Language instructors, in their mission to inspire and challenge students preparing to interact with others in the 21st century, are taking advantage of the expanded possibilities offered by the emerging technologies, while at the same time rethinking the role of more traditional classroom technology, such as the tape recorder and the overhead projector.

Old Technology, New Ways

        The emphasis on technology in language learning/teaching can often place at an unfortunate disadvantage those whose educational institutions do not enjoy the generous funding necessary to purchase such technology. It is important to keep in mind, however, that many effective and creative activities can be developed by thinking about old technology in new ways. The activity which will be described in the following pages is one that can be carried out in a minimally-equipped laboratory, for it requires only that the students have access to the "record" and "playback" functions of an audio cassette player.

        Several years ago, while teaching an intermediate-level college Spanish class, I asked my students to research a Spanish-speaking country, and to prepare their reports on audio tapes which their classmates would listen to in the language laboratory. Although I thought the activity was creative and full of potential, on lab day I was disheartened to see that most of the students' projects were reminiscent of the report I wrote on the state of Nevada in the 4th grade. They all told about the geography, the population, the colors of the flag, and the capitol of the country they had chosen; but the language they used had not been internalized, for it was not their own, and it was not relevant to their interests. In fact, on examination of the written version of their reports, I discovered that one young lady had written her report entirely in flawless Portuguese, which she must have assumed was Spanish when she grabbed an encyclopedia off the library shelf to copy from!

        There was, however, one particular report that stood out from all the others, and inspired me to recycle this activity. After extensive study of the Central-American country he had chosen, the student in question wrote an imaginary field-interview between the television commentator Geraldo Rivera and some rebel guerrillas, in which subjects such as the country's topography, political system, and day-to-day life were included. The student had sought out the help of his fraternity brothers, who made background sounds of jungle animals, gunfire, and helicopters, while he recorded his report. The result was magnificent!

The Role of Imagination

        It became immediately apparent to me that the missing ingredient in this activity had been imagination. While I might have preferred that my students think creatively in doing their reports, the fact that university students are so rarely asked to allow their imaginations free preign makes it necessary to give them explicit instructions that it is OK to do so 2. In subsequent semesters, I have introduced this activity by playing the model tape of the above-mentioned student, then brainstorming with the class to generate possible topics. At this point, there is normally an opening of a positive "Pandora's box" as students begin to see that they are not limited to the traditional"academic" method of reporting information, but rather can let their imaginations guide them. Once students get away from talking about the country from the 3rd-person stance, and imagine that they are actually a member of the society they chose to study, their reports increase in significance, quality, and interest.

        In recent semesters, my students have produced audio tapes in which they adopted roles such as a sportscaster at a Dominican baseball game, a chef at an exclusive restaurant in Buenos Aires, a DJ for a Puerto Rican radio station, the wife of a Spanish bullfighter complaining about her husband's dangerous profession, and a tour guide on a journey to the Galapagos Islands. Not only do students gain valuable language skills by combining factual information with imaginative narration, but they are also treated to a virtual trip around the Spanish-speaking world, as they move from station to station in the language laboratory, "meeting" the people who represent these countries, and hearing their stories. This assignment, which used to cause students to rely mainly on encyclopedias, now has my students scurrying to interview native speakers, hounding local travel agents for information and color brochures, combing libraries and music stores for sound effects, and pestering friends and relatives to loan them souvenirs land other articles to place on display at their station 3. Motivation is increased, learning is enhanced, and the language is internalized.

        The following are suggestions for those wishing to try out this activity:

Preparation

        Decide on the geographical areas to be covered (Different countries in which the target language is spoken? The states, provinces, or cities of one particular country?)

-Present the idea to the class using a model tape (if available); brainstorm possible topics with class.
- Allow students to choose (or assign for them) the particular area they will research.
- Distribute blank "loaner" tapes (or ask that students provide their own) at least one week before the scheduled lab day, so students can do their recording prior to lab day.
- Have students hand in a written draft or drafts several class periods before lab day, to allow for suggestions/modifications.

On Lab Day

- Allow students several minutes to set up their stations (arrange maps, pictures, articles on desktop, check and cue tape, etc.).
- Set a goal. Students might be asked to answer written or recorded questions at each station, identify on a blank map the countries/states/cities they "visit," or draw a picture depicting what they hear at each station. Students may be provided with a mock passport which the instructor stamps each time they successfully complete a "visit" to a station, etc.
- Instruct students to move from station to station during the class period, to listen to and gather as much information as possible. Encourage students to decide for themselves whether they wish to listen extensively or intensively, and to move around at their own pace.
- Collect and comment on any tasks assigned to students.

Follow-Up

- Provide some type of feedback at the conclusion of this activity or in the following class period. Students might vote on categories such as "most creative," "best sound effects," "country I'd most like to visit," etc.
- For instructors wishing to grade this activity, a holistic grading system provides a good measure of student learning/achievement. This might take into account the student's written draft, oral production on tape, creativity and preparation, and completion of the designated tasks set out on lab day.

Benefits of Activity

        This type of activity is ideal for students enrolled in a general skills language class, because it reinforces listening, speaking, writing and reading in the target language. From a practical standpoint, the facilities of the language laboratory make it possible to have much more information presented during a single class period than would be the case if students were to do individual oral reports. This model also breaks away from the concept of "instructor as knower, learner as recipient of knowledge" and makes students directly responsible for what will be learned. But more importantly, students are exposed to a wide variety of cultural information which is motivating, engaging, and creative. Many scholars have discussed the close link between language and culture (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992, pp. 183-185). Yet Omaggio (1993) has noted that, despite the importance of cultural competency to a student's ability to use a language proficiently, "many language courses today still do not include the systematic study of culture" (p. 357). This activity addresses the critical need to provide students with such study. By harnessing the endless powers of students' imaginations, the study of culture can be incorporated into the language classroom in an innovative manner, paving the way for successful learning.

Footnotes

1         Additional evidence of the new role of language laboratories can be found in abundance by perusing any recent issue of The IALL Journal of Language Learning Technologies. Other publications put out by the International Association for Learning Laboratories which also serve as excellent sources for pedagogical ideas include Stone (1988) and Stone (1993).

2         As Moskowitz (1994) discusses, the barrenness of the walls of most university classrooms tends to reinforce this perception.

3         Students with access to the Internet and a World Wide Web browser can also gather an amazing variety of information about cities and countries, many times in the language of that country. A good place to start is at the following web site: http://www.city.net Also see Backer (1994) for additional sources for electronically-accessed information pertaining to foreign languages and cultures.

References

Backer, Jane. (1994, Fall). "Network Update." The IALL Journal of Language Learning Technologies. v.27, no. 3, 99-111.

Moskowitz, Gertrude. (1994). "Humanistic Imagination: Soul Food for the Language Class." The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning. v.2, 8-17.

Omaggio Hadley, Alice. (1993). Teaching Language in Context. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Scarcella, Robin C. and Rebecca L. Oxford. (1992). The Tapestry of Language Learning: The Individual in the Communicative Classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Stone, LeeAnn, editor. (1988). Task-Based Activities: A Communicative Approach to Language Laboratory Use. International Association for Learning Laboratories.

-----. (1993). Task-Based II: More Communicative Activities for the Language Lab. International Association for Learning Laboratories.

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