Internet phone programs and webcams give students daily practice with native speakers.
Maurice Acker, a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee, practices Spanish with natives from Spain every Friday morning at the school's language lab. They talk about sports, cultural differences – the usual stuff of student conversations – but there's a twist: Mr. Acker has never met any of his conversational partners in person.
That's because Marquette's Spanish and Italian curriculums use Skype, a free Internet phone service, to connect students with "language partners" all over the world.
Typically, students practice Spanish for 25 minutes and then switch to English for 25 minutes (it's an exchange: Their partners want to practice speaking English). All the students need is an Internet connection, a webcam, a microphone, and headphones.
"I feel more comfortable speaking in class than I did before," says Acker, who adds that his conversations over Skype have helped his Spanish improve much faster than drills in class.
Observers have criticized college language curriculums in the United States for incorporating little – if any – of the conversation time so crucial to learning.
"On average in any class of 20-plus students, a student will get two minutes of contact with that language," says Barbara Sawhill, director of the Cooper International Learning Center and lecturer in the Hispanic Studies department at Oberlin College in Ohio.
But now, some colleges are making broader use of the Web to engage students in global language practice sessions. Instructors tout the technology as a "limitless" teaching tool that fast-tracks foreign language competency. "This is revolutionizing our language teaching," says Colleen Coffey, a Spanish instructor at Marquette. She plans to keep the Skype sessions that she added to her syllabus last spring. "I don't think [using Skype is] just something that's going to pass," she says.