Yuki Togawa Gergotz, Case Western Reserve University / Lecturer of Japanese
TalkAbroad (https://talkabroad.com) is a website that provides a well-trained conversation partner for conversation practice in eight different languages (Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Arabic, and Japanese) for over 100 universities, colleges, and high schools. Real-time conversations are 30 minutes in length and take place directly on the website with state-of-the-art videoconferencing tools. While there is a per-conversation cost for students, TalkAbroad is free for instructors who wish to polish their language skills in their spare time. The use of TalkAbroad is limitless for both students and instructors.
TalkAbroad can be a great resource to add authentic interactions with a native speaker into regular class curriculum, either as a stand-alone assignment or as a complement to an already existing activity for three reasons: 1) All of the conversation partners are highly qualified and well trained, and their support team would be able to assist right away if the students experience any technological problems during the conversation. 2) It can provide a recording of the conversation with great quality. 3) An instructor can create an assignment and instructions for both students and partners to have more structural conversations if desired.
At Case Western Reserve University, Spanish/Portuguese, French, Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese classes are adding TalkAbroad into their curriculum in several courses at different levels of proficiency, starting the Fall 2017 semester. Arabic is considering TalkAbroad for the Spring 2018 semester.
The Japanese 301 class (5th semester) incorporated the TalkAbroad assignment to replace the midterm oral examination. Students had a one-on-one, 30-minute conversation with their conversation partner, discussing various topics related to social/cultural differences between Japan and their home countries, then completed a self-assessment sheet. Although they were nervous at the beginning, as some of them have never had an interaction in Japanese other than with their instructors and peers on campus before, students enjoyed fun and interesting conversations with native speakers around their ages, and wished to use the program more often for the following semester. Spanish 101 also used TalkAbroad to replace their final oral exam where students completed two sessions and submitted their best one for grading.
The Spanish 102 class used five sessions for each student. The first three out of five sessions were not graded; however, they were mandatory assignments for students to practice and get comfortable using the program. The final two conversations had identical props (a combination of the most important topics and most of the vocabulary of the whole semester), and the students had to choose the best five minutes of each of the final two conversations to submit as their final oral exam (ten minutes total), which were to be graded. Letting students choose the best five minutes of their sessions forced them to self-evaluate their sessions.
TalkAbroad can be also used for a group conversation session. Our Italian class had a group session with one TalkAbroad partner with a polycom microphone in the classroom. The students came prepared with questions and references from an article that they had read together before the session. While the instructor stayed off to the side, only coaching students if necessary, students enjoyed the 30 minute session with the support provided in a group. Peer exchange seemed to help them overcome the nervousness compared to when engaging with native speakers in a one-on-one setting.
Although there are still only a few partners for Mandarin and Japanese since they were recently added to the program, there are a variety of TalkAbroad conversation partners residing across the globe with various backgrounds. In the preparation for the Business French course in the spring, TalkAbroad had found a potential partner who had business experience (both through professional experience and through being a professional actuary) and who could be scheduled in the spring to interact with the students, using appropriate vocabulary and offering mock interviews.
As instructors using TalkAbroad for our language courses, it was important for us to monitor the reactions of our students with the program. Thus, we had a number of e-mail exchanges as well as a few meetings throughout the Fall 2017 semester to share our experiences, suggestions, and ideas in order to increase success and satisfaction. Some of us collected some form of a survey from students and reported to the rest of the instructors who use the program.
So far, we have had many positive experiences with TalkAbroad. Here are some highlights of our success:
•Student virtual face-to-face contact with a native speaker other than their instructor. Since students were provided with a conversation structure assigned by their individual instructors, it pushed them to shift beyond their comfort zone; Should this be a period? (At the end of each bullet point)
•Instructor flexibility to assign, assess, etc., based on their own criteria for the conversation sessions scheduled;
•Mostly high-quality, patient, and effective conversation partners located in the places where the language is in use, who are willing to abide by the guidelines put forth by instructors;
•Opportunity for both instructors and students to revisit sessions, since they have been recorded. Recordings can be downloaded and stored or edited, so transcription work can be assigned, if desired;
•At instructor discretion, students’ choices of how segments of conversations can be used to meet required assignments, exam or quiz components, etc. is entirely possible.
Through surveys, we learned that most of our students had positive experiences with TalkAbroad for the Fall 2017 semester. The students commented that using TalkAbroad helped them to become more confident and comfortable speaking in their second language through one-on-one conversations with their conversation partners and through the partners giving helpful, prompt feedback. It also allowed the students to learn more about new people and the countries their partners were from. Exposure to a variety of different cultures was a great addition to the use of TalkAbroad, as students were able to practice what they learned in class through conversations with native speakers.
Some students commented that scheduling the 30 minute conversation sessions outside of class time was difficult to fit into their busy schedule with other classes and commitments, especially because one has to be in a quiet and private environment for recording purposes. This was particularly the case for the students who needed to schedule a total of five sessions during the semester.
We also had a few problems with TalkAbroad, such as technical issues (loss of connection, audio/video recording quality, etc.), and with a few conversation partners not following the instructors’ guidelines or not allowing students adequate time for speech production. For technical issues, TalkAbroad provided excellent customer service to resolve most of the issues right away. Their chat feature for any questions or technical support is always available to the instructors and students. Also, TalkAbroad has feedback forms to encourage any feedback regarding conversation partners or sessions. Through this option, we were able to make suggestions and send applause and constructive criticisms directly to them.
In conclusion, through the use of TalkAbroad, students were able to further immerse themselves in their language learning outside of normal classroom studies. The best way to learn a second language is through practice, and one of the best ways is to engage in regular, everyday conversations in their second language. TalkAbroad was able to allow students to engage with native speakers who were well-trained in interacting with students, thus helping improve their confidence in their second language. Students appreciate different ways of learning, and TalkAbroad definitely brings a new way of language learning.