July 1997 // Online Learning
Caught in the Net:
Technology and Teaching Language Courses
by Andree Grandjean-Levy
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Andree Grandjean-Levy "Caught in the Net:
Technology and Teaching Language Courses" The Technology Source, July 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

What language teacher has not tried to encourage students to practice use of the foreign language he or she teaches? What language teacher has not at some point tried to have students correspond with native speakers of the target language? Typically, the class writes a nice little letter under the instructor's supervision, and a month or so later, with luck, the class receives a nice little letter written under the same conditions--an exercise mildly motivating, but alas too infrequent to be of much pedagogical value. Behold instead a letter written by a student at 10:00 AM and an answer to that letter delivered on his/her screen at 10:15AM--no longer a class project, but an individual correspondence, an authentic exchange of information! Colleagues who favor form over content may cringe at the idea of some not-quite-perfect foreign language floating around the Internet. Not to worry; e-mail drives the writer to strive for perfection.

As a French teacher, I find that my students too often have taken it for granted that correcting their mistakes must be my sole raison d'?ɬ™tre. They assume that, grammatically speaking, I must have seen it all, and so they tend to be slipshod: she'll correct it for us. But when their e-mail French correspondents automatically reply with corrections, suggestions, examples, and rules of grammar--and they rarely fail to do so--that gives American students pause. Instinctively they pay more attention to form, even going so far as to check with me about some finer grammar points before writing their answers.

The List. Practice makes perfect: the old adage holds particularly true in language-learning, and e-mail offers effortless practice, in addition to regular class assignments. Indeed, the purpose of any technology I offer in my courses is primarily to expand the students' use of the language. In order to encourage my students to participate, if not actively, at least passively in reading messages exchanged by the active writers and their correspondents, I took one further step and became a list-owner. The next hurdle was to decipher and digest 25 pages of how-to in Computero-English before I could assume my owner's functions. I now have the doubtful honor of receiving a request from the Cornell List Manager for permission to use some of my numerous questions for the next how-to edition published by Cornell Information Technology.

I use the list mostly for my advanced-level SCOLA course. The students who are not active e-mailers but are nevertheless subscribed receive all messages and participate during class in the discussion of their contents. This is a serious list, reserved for messages that bring up, discuss, and further explore current events. The students have learned a great deal from it simply by getting immediate reactions from their French or Quebecois counterparts. Hot items last semester were, among others, Le Qu?ɬ©bec Libre, and President Chirac's decision to resume nuclear tests. I also use the list to share quickly with students messages on the same current topics that I receive from other lists, and excerpts of French press-reviews that I also receive through e-mail daily. All in one day, students may view a segment of Scola, read an article, and have native speakers' comments on one and the same topic. Style and register vary, vocabulary overlaps, and points of view differ, all affording a linguistically and culturally rich source of information that often prompts members of the class to send another comment or question to our list.

The servers I subscribe to have turned out to be fairly painless means of getting extremely valuable information (current events, references, URLs, among others). Between 90 and 150 messages a day may not seem all that painless, but the filter-function of my e-mail program makes them a lot easier to deal with; besides, one's scanning ability improves rapidly, as well as index-finger dexterity on the delete button!

Beyond content, and the manifest cultural singularities that strike the students and are then discussed in class, e-mail also reveals interesting style points to the class. Just as in English, French e-mail language has its specific register, in which the formal "vous" has disappeared even in messages to an unknown correspondent, and in which all the formulas mandatory in traditional letters are replaced by "bonjour" and "au revoir," "salut" and "Ciao." E-mail displays familiar language much closer to spoken language, almost closing the gap between the written and the spoken. Still, the vernacular, reserved to exchanges between natives, is clearly different from the language used when the same natives write foreigners. To elaborate: one of our correspondents last semester was also a member of the French list to which I belong, and would send similar messages to both lists. The difference in his vocabulary, tone, and register, however, was most striking! As a quick example: In a message he sent to us when France resumed nuclear testing, he wrote: " I am ashamed and not proud indeed of President Chirac," whereas 15 minutes earlier, in a message to the French list, he had written, "I am more and more disgusted with our pal Chi-Chi and his what-the-hell attitude!" We study these differences in a linguistic perspective and also draw some interesting cultural inferences from them.

E-mail also provides me with all the samples I need for when I discuss "the other language" in my third-semester class (i.e., what's going on in the language beyond the standard French of the textbooks) or when I discuss what Americans call the arrogance of the French (their general attitude about their country, about themselves, and about the superiority of their language). It is also a wonderfully quick way to retrieve information in a hurry. Just the other day, for example, my students were discussing the Louvre Pyramid and were extremely skeptical when I told them tongue-in-cheek that Pei had had the nerve to build a similar structure for some museum in this country. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the details. I therefore sent a query to the French list, and the very same evening I had not only the answer, but also the Web address of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, complete with photographs, which I projected on the screen the following day!

Listservs also came in handy last semester when I was faced with a blatant case of plagiarism. I circulated an excerpt of the suspicious text (obviously a magazine article and therefore not easy to locate) that was immediately read by over a thousand people. Plagiarists beware!

The Information Superhighway

My trial run along the information superhighway consisted in dabbling with Gopher. It was rather drab, and some of the information I accessed on France, though interesting, was often outdated. Before I could get used to Mosaic, in came the new, beautiful, colorful amazing web browsers. The first Netscape discovery I brought to class was a color print of the now oldest-known paleolithic cave-paintings that had been discovered in Ardeche a mere month before. The idea that one could see on a monitor something that had been hidden for thousands of years, and still remains off-limits to visitors, filled me with awe; I wanted all my students to run to the Lab and read about it! However, in this case I had leaped too hard and overshot; most students were reluctant to use the Internet for enrichment purposes. One practical browser problem is that of time-consumption. One can spend hours clicking from link to link, become sidetracked and lost, and end up with useless information. Nonetheless, whenever I found something that the students could use with profit, I made a "bookmark," then printed lists of URLs that I distributed in class, exhorting my students to "go look at this!"

The Web. When my students still did not jump at that opportunity, I came up with another solution--Web pages, to bring onto one page links that would allow any student of French to access information rapidly. Learning Web skills did not come easily to me. It was in fact an extremely laborious and time-consuming task, perhaps because I had come late to technology. But I did create the page. Now, highly sophisticated and ever-improving programs for the purpose--HTML editors--are available to greatly simplify the job.

Henceforth, I thought, all my students had to do was start with my Web page, and they would have a world of information on France--and in French for the most part. But it seems that few were willing to spend time for enrichment alone, beyond what the class required.

I now realized that unless I wanted to make the Web a requirement or the core of a course (my next project), my students would have to be led by the hand. I therefore created for my third-semester course a simple worksheet (at the bottom of this page) to launch them in the Net and acquaint them with what was available to them. This worked! And it was gratifying at one point, as I went around the computer lab, to note that the students were all poring over different things-weather maps of France, articles on Gauguin, lists of discotheques in Paris, grammar exercises, and poetry; one student commented that he found a poem he had read only in English and was extremely pleased to find out how well he could understand it in the original version. They worked in pairs and were full of questions and comments, turning to me only when their partners did not have the answers. Two groups even wrote letters spontaneously to the authors of the Web pages they were investigating. Next semester, I will therefore plan specific assignments to be done both in and out of class at that level. They will include not only questions about information to be found but also about specific vocabulary to be used in the context of that information, and will call for personal reflections.

In similar assignments this semester in my class "Le Fran?ɬßaisde l'H?ɬ¥tellerie et du Tourisme" (intermediate-level),when we studied the touristic geography of France, I asked the students to report and reflect on additional Web information on French regions. Some of their reflections particularly interested and alerted me as their teacher; they revealed a somewhat na?ɬØve and unsophisticated attitude towards otherness not immediately apparent in class. I imagine that when making discoveries on their own through the Web, they were less inhibited about expressing their true feelings.

When we reach the unit on French gastronomy, I will send them (without warning) to a splendid link that lists some 50 of the 400 or so cheeses produced by France, including all the specific vocabulary necessary to distinguish one type of cheese from another. And before the lesson on wine, to give another example, I will ask them to take a pre-test offered on the Web, that will tell them how much they know or do not know about French wines and wine-making.


An important key to teaching and learning lies not in material but in activities. Without a model, I kept in mind what I wanted to achieve and proceeded by trial and error. My intuitions led me to be conservative and to preserve the traditional features of my courses before giving technology too much priority. Still finding my way, but definitely on the right track, I will next start (extreme budget constraints allowing) a pilot course completely based on e-mail and the Web, at the intermediate level or above, when students can be fairly independent. In the audio component of the Web it unfortunately takes a very long time to load sound, but it should certainly be included to some degree. The Net is being rewired, and we are told loading will eventually occur at the speed of light.

Discussions with my classes have confirmed for me that the new technology brings students closer to the reality of another language and another culture. Presented in the right way, it can be extremely motivating because it allows Students the independence necessary to all true learning. Motivation in turn brings about more willingness to search, to discover--to learn.

I will end with an anecdote to make my point. One day when my third-semester class was working on the Web, a student, who was always reminding me that he is taking the class only because he has to fulfill the language requirement, chose to sit alone at the computer and sullenly asked me when he opened the Paris page. "You say I can study anything I want to about France," he said. "How about the Paris nightclubs?" "Be my guest," I answered. I kept an eye on him as he struggled the whole hour on that link. I must quote a short sample so that you can understand my sense of achievement: Des caves vout?ɬ©es datant du Moyen-Ageet se succ?ɬ©dant sur plusieurs niveaux, tel est le d?ɬ©cordu Pluriel Club. Il y r?ɬ®gne de ce fait, une ambiance desplus intimes qui fait de nombreux adeptes. R?ɬ©serv?ɬ©aux couples en soir?ɬ©e sauf certains jours, ce club estouvert aux personnes seules l'apr?ɬ®s-midi comme beaucoup d'autres. . . . This text is much more complex than what we usually read in third-semester French! But at the end of the hour, as he got up to leave, he casually said to me, "Cool!"--which, by the way, no longer needs translation into French.

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