Skype as a language-learning tool

Most GW professors would rather hear nails scraped across a blackboard than allow their students to talk on the phone or connect to the Internet during class, but professor Richard M. Robin lets his students do just that.

Starting this week, students in Robin’s Intensive Basic Russian, course will be making some long distance phone calls from the classroom using Skype, the free Internet phone service, to talk to Russian students on the other side of the world.

“In a classroom setting, a lot of the Russian that students hear will be from teacher-talk or student-to-student conversation, which is basically fake,” said Robin, who began using Skype as a classroom tool almost two years ago. “This enables (students) to make their Russian communications and conversational skills better.”

As the Russian Language Director at GW and the author of the best selling first- and second-year Russian textbook in the U.S., “Golosa,” Robin takes Russian language education to a whole new level by using the free Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) during the spring semester of the academic year-long course.

“This only starts halfway through the year because only then they will be able to carry on a conversation beyond ‘Hi, how are you?'” said Robin, who has been teaching at GW since 1981.

Robin said the free price tag of VoIP programs like Skype and ICQ Audio/Video is what makes all these real-time international conversations possible during class time. With a microphone, Web cam and Internet connection, Robin’s students are practicing Russian with native speakers. Robin said he believes new technologies like Skype will play a key role in the future of foreign-language programs.

“Right now Skype is a very hot commodity, almost exotic, so a lot of (professors) don’t use it. Twenty years from now when I retire, it won’t be so exotic, so I’m sure it will be in use like this in many more classrooms,” Robin said. “Foreign distance education will be a much more common thing.”

This week, Robin’s students will get to speak with a former Russian exchange student from the Plekhanov Institute of Economics in Moscow, who lived with Robin’s family two years ago.

Senior Alexandre DeAguiar, who took Robin’s intensive Russian course last year, said using free Internet phone programs to speak Russian with native speakers made learning the language a more realistic experience.

“When we’re in a classroom environment, we’re locked into grammar learning and things like that,” he said. “But once we get to talk to someone, it becomes spontaneous and we get to hear and say things that we have never before.”

“I feel that it actually makes our thinking and language skills much better,” he added. “I remember how not-ready to talk I was, we all were, and after later conversations I was able to detect improvement in my ability to produce language.”

Although Robin acknowledged that speaking to people in Russia won’t give his students a “linguistic breakthrough” by itself, he calls the program “motivational.”

“The kids like it way better than communicating (just) with each other,” he said. “I find that they are more enthusiastic, and the conversation is just better.”

In the past, Robin has set up international conversational exchanges using his contacts with Russian students, families and professionals.

“How I choose the people who will be talking to my students is that they are mostly personal connections, like friends I have in Russia or their families,” he said. “I plan on keeping it at my own personal connections. There are also lots of little bureaucratic issues to deal with if I wanted to expand it, but what I’m doing now is effective.”

Robin said that despite the program’s advantages, the eight-hour time difference between D.C. and Russia “makes finding people in Russia willing to do this very difficult.”

Broadband connectivity there is also an issue, he explained.

“There, the economic situation is reverse. Here (in America), students go to school and expect to get and receive awesome Internet connections through campus and in their dorms,” he said. “There, it’s the opposite. Russian schools want students to have the better connections at home.”

DeAguiar said he appreciated the experimental nature of Robin’s class, and recommends its usefulness to all foreign language students.

“Every other language should get involved in something like this,” he said. “Professor Robin’s class helped me more than anything else when I studied abroad last semester in St. Petersburg, Russia. He really likes what he’s doing and is serious about it.”

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