Technology on Language Learning

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Intermediate students of Polish at Stanford University in California correspond by e-mail with counterparts in Cracow, Poland to plan a bilingual Web site they will be jointly producing on the World Wide Web. The students work in international teams to plan, design, and edit the Web site, which consists of written and audio-visual information about their two universities (Barson & Debski, 1996). Students in an advanced business French class at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio watch French television news via satellite TV. They then peruse French online news groups to follow how French students are discussing a proposed minimum wage cutback. This helps them learn background cultural information about current events and attitudes in France, as well as the precise methods used by native French speakers for argumentation, persuasion, and negotiation (Scinicariello, 1995).

Intermediate ESL writing students at the University of Hawai'i use real-time computer-assisted discussion to gain additional writing practice in class. The written interaction fosters greater student participation and collaboration. In addition, the students join e-mail discussion groups in their own fields and also learn how to conduct research on the Web (Warschauer, 1999).

The above examples are not atypical of what is occurring in language classrooms across the United States. With the advent of networked multimedia computing and the Internet, language teachers throughout the country have been warming up to using computers in the language classroom. This is particularly true in higher education where students and teachers have greater access to computer laboratories and Internet accounts than in K-12 schools. However, the recent enthusiasm for technology in language teaching?witnessed, for example, by the large numbers of presentations at national conferences on this topic?brings a sense of deja vu. Three decades ago, language programs were also enchanted by promises of magic through technology. That technology?the audio-based language laboratory?brought disappointing results (and, indeed, it is the audio-based labs which are often being replaced by computer labs today). Thus, before looking at the use of technology in language teaching today, it is worthwhile to take a brief historical look at technology in the language classroom.

A Brief History of Technology and Language Learning

Virtually every type of language teaching has had its own technologies to support it. Language teachers who followed the grammar-translation method (in which the teacher explained grammatical rules and students performed translations) relied on one of the most ubiquitous technologies in U.S. education, the blackboard?a perfect vehicle for the one-way transmission of information that method implied. The blackboard was later supplemented by the overhead projector, another excellent medium for the teacher-dominated classroom, as well as by early computer software programs which provided what were known as "drill-and-practice" (or, more pejoratively, "drill-and-kill") grammatical exercises. In contrast, the audio-tape was the perfect medium for the audiolingual method (which emphasized learning through oral repetition). University language classes in the 1970s and '80s usually included obligatory sessions at the audio lab where students would perform the dreaded repetition drills.

By the late 1970s, the audiolingual method fell into disrepute, at least in part due to poor results achieved from expensive language laboratories. Whether in the lab or in the classroom, repetitive drills which focused only on language form and ignored communicative meaning achieved poor results.

The 1980s and 1990s have seen a shift toward communicative language teaching, which emphasizes student engagement in authentic, meaningful interaction. Within this general communicative trend, we can note two distinct perspectives, both of which have their implications in terms of how...
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