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Language Instruction gets a 21st Century Makeover
Language Instruction gets a 21st Century Makeover


In the last 20 years, computers and the internet have made it possible to connect with and experience other languages and cultures with greater ease than has ever been possible before. Across the globe, nearly 3 billion people have access to the web. Everyday a growing number of people are logging on to social media sites, online gaming platforms and other web-based forums; they’re connecting for business, personal and political purposes, for entertainment, education, curiosity. At Portland State University, Dr. Steve Thorne is asking, can this technology improve language learning and cultural literacy in and out of the classroom?

Dr. Thorne is an Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition in the Department of World Languages & Literatures and recipient of PSU’s 2014 Research Excellence Award for Junior Faculty. Dr. Thorne’s research interests include the use of new media such as online gaming and augmented reality for language instruction in and out of the classroom, communication across cultures and second language acquisition, the revitalization of endangered indigenous languages, and applications of sociocultural/cultural-historical theory to language development. His approaches to language acquisition are innovative and the projects he takes on are often prosocial.

“Most of the work I do as an applied linguist,” Dr. Thorne said, “looks at processes of second language acquisition that let us know something about language, its function and structure, all of which helps us understand something about the human condition, about humans as social and cultural creatures.”

Working with a multi-national team of researchers and educators, Dr. Thorne is a developer on the European Commission Life Long Learning Programme-funded UNICollaboration. UNICollaboration is a platform on which university educators can organize and run online intercultural exchanges where students from universities in different countries can collaborate on projects while learning new languages and cultures. Dr. Thorne and his fellow INTENT (Integrating Telecollaborative Networks into Foreign Language Higher Education) team members are developing and testing the efficacy of online communication tools used to carry out UNICollaboration tasks meant to provide language and cultural instruction. According to Thorne, one of the objectives of the online intercultural exchanges is to facilitate the practical use of language in social contexts.

“In many classrooms,” Dr. Thorne said, “language is an object of study; it isn’t a lived experience or a use-value oriented tool for relating to other people in a substantive way. My question is, ‘what if relating to people was the primary goal of learning another language?’ So the idea is, and this goes back to pen pal exchanges in classroom contexts, to look at language not as an object, but as a resource for establishing and maintaining social relationships of significance. I think it’s a revolutionary way to learn language.”

Back stateside, Dr. Thorne is collaborating with Dr. Sabine Siekmann of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and members of the Yup’ik community in southwestern Alaska to protect and promote Yup’ik language and culture. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Piciryaramta Elicungcallra (“Teaching our way of life through our language”) was designed to overcome challenges in Yup’ik language instruction for the benefit of indigenous Yup’ik language teachers and youth leaders.

The “Teaching our way of life through our language” program is a partnership with Yup’ik community members and the Lower Kuskokwim and Lower Yukon School Districts focused on creating language education materials, training personnel and developing infrastructure to support community led Yup’ik language instruction.

“In this project, we’re looking at teacher development and the possibilities of rooting Yup’ik language revitalization in public schools,” Dr. Thorne said. “Participants in the program are designing and developing the curriculum through which the language will be taught and engaged in by the students in the community. They’ll play traditional games, learn ritual dances, create and use technologies of cultural-historical importance all while learning their native language. Where the Yup’ik live in southwest Alaska is such a vast area; there are few roads outside these towns, but they have internet connections; so this is the perfect place to think about connectivity and language education in different ways.”

A second and recently funded project focuses on supporting indigenous language educators and those who work with English language learners in rural areas of Alaska. Participants will receive graduate degrees so that they in turn may assume leadership roles in their communities in order to support current and future generations of Native Alaskan learners.

As Dr. Thorne describes, “my role in this project is to examine language learning and development, to mentor students and teach graduate level courses, and work with the students on uses of new media for instructional purposes.”

As it turns out, Portland is a pretty good place to explore language education and development from a new media angle as well. Here at PSU, Dr. Thorne is working with a team of student software developers as well as with language instructors and researchers in the Departments of World Languages & Literatures, Applied Linguistics, and the Intensive English Language Program, on a project funded by the Provost’s Challenge. In this project, Dr. Thorne and his colleagues are using augmented reality (AR) place-based technologies and smartphones to move learning opportunities out of the context of the classroom and into the built environment of PSU and beyond.

AR is the combination of computer-generated sensory input with a live view of the physical, real world environment. Used as a learning tool, this approach to language instruction roots students in relevant and socially important contexts as they practice the language they are learning.

“We have developed a game for English as a second language students, students of French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, and we’re working on a few other languages,” Dr. Thorne said. “It’s based on oral narration tasks. But instead of an abstract task focusing on the aboutness of language and its perceived systematicity, grammaticality, and appropriate lexical choices, the students are using the language in situated and relevant contexts. The idea is to keep the task language relevant and language focused, but integrated with communicative activity out in the real world where it makes sense.”

Students play the game using smartphones at locations around Portland State University. In the game, the students, in groups of three, play the role of visitors from a future earth in which global climate change has irreparably damaged the environment. These ‘visitors’ have traveled back in time to investigate the dawn and dusk (as Dr. Thorne puts it) of green technologies no longer available in their dystopian future. As the students navigate PSU’s campus, their objective is to think about, observe and discuss the sustainable technologies they encounter in the foreign language they’re studying in the classroom.

Researchers like Dr. Steve Thorne are in the process of recasting the mold of language instruction by taking advantage of 21st century communications technologies and situating language learning in social activities where it lives in the moment at which it is practiced and is integrated with the cultural contexts of native speakers. In this new era of language instruction, learners can collaborate with native speakers online while developing communicative skills and establishing meaningful relationships; the practitioners of indigenous languages can preserve and adapt their cultural heritage for future generations by developing teaching materials easily disseminated to the wider community via the internet; and smartphones, the devices people take everywhere, can help students learn to communicate across languages and cultures while they also learn about important issues facing society.


Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted August 18, 2014