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Advanced Spanish Conversation, University of Florida

15 Jul 2016

Overview

Students pursuing Spanish degrees with an eye for enhancing their prospects in professional capacities – such as medical, legal, or educational – need to master a variety of aspects of language, ranging from cultural understanding to specific terminology and, crucially, proficiency in conversational Spanish. The Advanced Spanish Conversation class at the University of Florida aims to provide learners with the opportunities and contexts to develop these conversational skills through a variety of tasks, ranging from oral presentations and listening activities, to readings and conversations with other learners. In recent semesters we have attempted to engage learners in more authentic language use by having students go into our community to engage with Spanish speakers or by developing exchanges with other learners. These techniques can be effective, but the former is less accessible than many realize, and the latter, while good for building community among learners, doesn’t offer the students the authentic interactions with “real” Spanish speakers that they crave (and need). The proposed curricular innovation will pair each student with a native Spanish-speaker for a series of 30-minute conversations over the course of the semester in order to talk about cultural issues and develop their listening and speaking skills.

Course Description

We would like to incorporate the TalkAbroad program into our SPN3414: Advanced Spanish Conversation course. This 3-credit course is designed for Spanish majors and minors who have completed a minimum of six college semesters of language (although many have completed more by the time they take the course). Although the topics of the class vary by textbook and student interest, the class is required for students pursuing our Spanish for the Professions Certificate.

The course is currently very popular and always fills. We have adopted a portfolio approach to the class, making students responsible for their own learning and encouraging them to be aware of their goals, how they can achieve them and the progress they make. Additionally, the students react positively to the textbook in use, which is based around a real Spanish sitcom and they learn a great deal of slang and colloquialisms from Spain. In many ways, the class is effective as it is, although we believe we could offer students a much richer experience through the incorporation of conversations with real native speakers. Although we encourage students to seek out these connections on their own, it is difficult for them to do. There are indeed many Spanish speakers in Florida, but those around the university area either prefer to speak in English or tend to stay in relatively isolated communities that it is hard for Anglo learners to break in to. Furthermore, the students are often shy and reluctant to engage in Spanish conversations on their own. The course is offered every semester.

TalkAbroad Implementation

Language classrooms provide the ideal testing ground for the intersection of linguistic theories and pedagogical approaches. Effective second language acquisition depends on a number of factors, and although some of these factors fall outside the scope of what the classroom instructor can control (e.g., aptitude, motivation and other individual variables), others are indeed manipulable within a classroom context. To promote successful language acquisition and use, for example, we must provide opportunities for learners to receive and intake comprehensible input (i.e., Krashen 1977), a platform for learners to produce comprehensible output (i.e., Swain & Lapkin 1995) and we need to encourage them to negotiate meaning (i.e., Long 1996; Swain 1995).

With these core principles in mind, we would like to modify the curriculum of our current Conversation class. We propose replacing the student-student exchange from the previous course syllabus with TalkAbroad interactions. Students will engage in six bi-weekly conversations with the native speakers provided through TalkAbroad. We likely will modify some of the conversation topics to take advantage of the native speakers and to explore cultures other than the Madrid-centric culture that is the primary focus of the text currently.

For the Fall 2016 semester, the conversations will be graded according to the rubric used in the past exchange, with minor modifications based on the interlocutors being native speakers and not students in another class. We will also ask students to assess their experience qualitatively in terms of enjoyment, perceived benefits and disadvantages, if any. With this pilot semester, we plan to evaluate the students’ reactions to gauge their thoughts on incorporating them as a permanent component moving forward.

From a linguistic perspective, we would also like to assess student proficiency at the beginning and end of the semester via a pre- and post-semester administration of the Versant proficiency test. Without a control group, we would unfortunately not be able to make any conclusive claims, but we could assess the effectiveness of the class design. Further, should this semester prove to be successful, we will develop a future study with a more solid pedagogical design (pre/post, control group, etc.) in order to attempt to quantify the advantages of these exchanges.

Conversation topics will be:

Results

I incorporated TalkAbroad into a 3000-level advanced communication course as a way for students to get intensive practice conversing with native speakers of Spanish about topics meaningful to them. I added course goals that had to do with cultural competence in the nuances of conversation, which include how to determine if a formal or informal register is more appropriate, the way conversations start and end, warm-up topics, active listening and paying attention to what the speaker says and then developing the conversation in that direction. I phased out a cumbersome and not entirely successful learning portfolio and replaced it with TalkAbroad sessions, which required students to do a lot of preliminary research on the topics so that they could have an intelligent conversation on interesting topics in Spanish.

The impact of TalkAbroad on student outcomes is that students learned the fine points of conversation in their second language, skills I sometimes wonder if they have in their first language. They learned that conversation styles vary based on the country of origin and other categories of difference such as age, gender and social class. They acquired a phenomenal amount of vocabulary and learned how people really talk, thus integrating authentic phrasing and idiomatic expressions. They learned a lot about the countries their conversation partners were from, thus pushing beyond stereotypes and headlines for a more nuanced understanding of Latin American cultures.

There were no obstacles implementing TalkAbroad and it fit perfectly into the syllabus. The support through TA for tech issues is the most responsive and effective of any program I have ever worked with.

Integrating TalkAbroad was a huge success. It is what students say they like best and from which they learn the most in the whole course. It’s scary to them the first time, but their confidence builds with each conversation, as does their linguistic and cultural competence. The conversations are, in most cases, the longest conversations they have ever had in Spanish, and at the end of the semester they say they are ready for more and that they realize they can finally really communicate in Spanish.

Because of students’ success and enthusiasm for TalkAbroad in this course, we have already implemented it in our intermediate Spanish conversation course as well, although they only have three instead of six conversations. I have also recommended it to colleagues in other universities.

Project Leads

Dr. Gillian Lord, University of Florida Kathryn Dwyer Navajas, University of Florida