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Video pen-pals: new way to learn foreign languages

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When students at Wissahickon High School want to know how to cook sukiyaki, or the difference between Sumo and Greco-Roman style wrestling, they don't have to go to the home economics teacher or the wrestling coach.

Instead, they can ask their peers in Japan via television cassette.

The Ambler, Pa., school district is the first in the country to set up an organized video exchange with foreign countries. International Videoexchange, as it is called, allows US schools to videotape their students and then exchange the videocassettes with schoolchildren in foreign coutries.

The concept is hailed not only as a better way to teach language, it may well serve to expand student's cultural horizons.

"International Videoexchange has a simple premise," says Dr. Alan Soffin, the originator of the idea. "Give students an opportunity for international communication at the outset of their language studies, rather than teaching a foreign language as 'practice' for later use, and the interest and motivation become real life and natural."

For the letters exchanged by pen pals, substitute videocassettes, suggests Dr. Manfred Heid of New York's Goethe Language Institute. "I am convinced it will be very useful in cultural exchange between schools." The videocassettes may one day replace language textbooks in advanced classes, he adds.

West Germany and the United States already have 160 school partnerships where schools from each country are paired and student-exchanged visits result. With a video exchange, "students and teachers [would] be able to prepare their meetings to each other's country ahead of the actual visit, and they can continue their friendship long after in a way that letters or sound cassettes never could," Dr. Heid says.

Michel Domaine at the French Embassy in New York remarks that video exchange is just beginning in France.

"the expenses must be worked out yet," he says. The concept of students talking directly to other students will allow a "much broader spectrum" of middle- and working-class students to obtain a more sophisticated intercultural experience, whether or not a visit to the US occurs.

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